In the time since I wrote my original Simple Starter Workout post, over a thousand people have read it and it’s still the most popular post on this site. (In fact, it’s so popular I’m going to be doing something special with it, just in time for your New Year’s resolution.)
I still believe machines are the best way for a complete beginner can get up to speed in a workout program without getting injured or requiring a personal trainer. However, there comes a time when you’ll stop seeing benefits from machines, and to gain lean muscle faster as well as shed more fat you have to graduate to free weights.
Benefits of free weights over machines
Just to be clear, our definition of “free weights” includes cable exercises like lat pulldowns and no-weight exercises like pull-ups. In this starter workout we’ll only cover exercises you can do with minimal equipment – if you have access to dumbbells, a bench and a pull-up bar, you can do this entire workout.
The advantages you enjoy with free weight exercises include:
- You’ll work more muscles with each exercise.
- You’ll employ additional muscles for stabilization.
- Your balance and coordination will improve.
- Greater concentration means higher intensity.
- You can inexpensively equip your own home gym.
Form is more important than weight
While machines “lock” you into a specific motion, free weights can move in just about any direction you make them move — including a few directions that could hurt you. In addition, poor form will impact the benefit you get from the exercise.
For that reason, make sure you’re performing each exercise correctly with light weights first. In fact, before each set it’s a good idea to do a warmup set with low or no weight.
The basic workout plan
This plan follows the same format as the original Simple Starter Workout: you’ll warm up and get your heart rate going with five minutes of whatever kind of cardio you prefer. Treadmill, stairs, elliptical, jumping rope or a light run outside. The goal is to warm up, not kill yourself.
Then move directly to the dumbbells and start your Day 1 exercises:
The exercises here that you may need to seek form advice on are the dumbbell flyes and bent-over rows. YouTube is again your friend, and I’ve included links to form videos above. If you can’t squeeze out more than one or two pull-ups with full range of motion, and you’re at a gym, you can use the Gravitron or similar assisted pull-up device.
You’re going to do one set of each exercise, at a weight where you can do around 10 reps, give or take one or two, before your muscles “fail.” Start with light weights, and move smoothly through the full range of motion.
After you finish your set of chest presses, move immediately to the pull-up bar and start your set there. Drink some water while you’re on the move. Then do the same with the dips and rows, until you’ve finished one set of each exercise. Then head directly back to do three minutes of cardio, then repeat the sequence of weights. After you’ve completed three sets of everything, you’re done.
As in the original workout, Day 2 substitutes arm exercises for the chest and back exercises:
Right now I’ve broken the exercises out so that you do the chest/back and arms on separate days, but as you get comfortable, you’ll find that moves like dips and pull-ups work both the torso and arms, so you can combine them.
Day 3 is still legs and core:
- Squats with dumbbells or barbell (form is critical — read my previous post about squats)
- Walking lunges
- Back extensions
On the fourth day, rest, then go back to the chest/back exercises and continue through the cycle. As you get more accustomed to this, you can substitute new exercises, while still ensuring you work opposing muscle groups each day, and different body parts on successive days.
You may note that I didn’t include deadlifts in this program. I love deadlifts, but your form has to be super solid. Once you can squat with perfect form and reasonable weight, you may consider working deadlifts into your legs/core day.
Don’t forget to prepare and recover
The Starter Workout Part 2 article still applies here: warm up and cool down properly for maximum benefit. And keep a diary of your workouts, so that you remember your starting weights and stay on track.
With commitment and intensity, you can shape your body to look your best, and you’ll feel great too. If you have any questions, leave a comment or send me an e-mail.