After all that talk about the importance of diet, why exercise? Because, while it isn’t as important as diet, it is still pretty hugely important to your overall health and fitness.
Exercise determines HOW you gain or lose weight, and your body composition generally. You can diet down to, say, 120 pounds. But do you want to be 120 pounds of sleek, sexy muscle, or 120 pounds of gross, flabby loser? Exercise largely dictates the outcome.
Exercise burns calories, which makes it easier to lose weight in conjunction with diet.
Exercise promotes strength, endurance, and resistance to injury and illness, all of which are pretty great in and of themselves.
So exercise makes it easier to lose weight, and plays a big role in the composition of your body. There are two main kinds of exercise, cardiovascular (aka cardio, aerobic, etc.) and weight lifting (aka weights, lifting, resistance training, etc.)
Cardio: Any type of exercise that sustains an elevated heart rate consistently for a long period of time, such as running, cycling, or elliptical machine
Weight lifting: Pretty self explanatory, you push around heavy weights.
For most people, meeting their fitness goals requires that they do some of both, not one or the other.
I’m going to start with the case for weight lifting, because it seems to have the most misconceptions associated with it.
Are you trying to lose weight? Lift weights. Lifting burns tons of calories, and lifting weights while dieting will cause you to retain more muscle and lose more fat than just diet and/or cardio. Because the name of the game when it comes to not looking awful is FAT LOSS, not weight loss. Do you want to be that guy who loses lots of weight and still looks flabby and useless? Of course not.
Are you just trying to “tone up”? Lift weights. ”Toning” is kind of a nonsense term, because you don’t actually “tone” anything. You can only lose fat and gain muscle, and lifting weights helps you do both, by burning calories and promoting muscle growth. Like I said before, you get huge by eating huge, not lifting weights; lifting just determines how much of your weight is muscle vs. fat.
Are you a woman? Lift weights, because I already explained why lifting won’t turn you into a man, and all the other benefits still apply to you. And if you are a 1 in 1,000,000 woman who can pack on muscle mass like a man, just stop working out as hard and it will go away.
Lifting weights also makes you stronger, less injury prone and promotes stronger bones and looking better naked. It speeds up your metabolism a bit and makes you healthier in general.
But what about cardio? For one thing, it burns lots of calories. But cardio is also good for everyone because it improves your overall endurance and ability to exert yourself over an extended period. It promotes cardiovascular health and contributes to increased bone density. Basically, your ability to perform pretty much any kind of physical activity is helped by being in good cardiovascular health, and it makes it less likely that you will eventually die from your heart exploding.
My suggestion is to alternate weights and cardio, for instance doing 3 days of weights, 2 days of cardio, and taking the other 2 days off. Doing both on the same day tends to cause one or the other to suffer from reduced effort, and generally burns people out.
Pick one. Seriously, it really doesn’t matter, as long as you stick to it. Work up to 30 minutes of it at a time, and do it fast enough that you’re breathing hard and working up a sweat. From there, constantly try to increase the intensity of your workout. This can be done in a number of ways:
For running and biking, increase the distance covered
For treadmills, increase the duration or speed
For exercise bikes and elliptical machines, increase the duration or resistance setting
Always start with a warm-up where you spend a few minutes working out at low intensity, and then gradually work up to full speed and/or resistance. This will make you feel better during the workout, and reduce the chance of injury.
An example of an excellent starting cardio plan is the "Couch to 5k" plan, which starts from couch potato level and will transform you into being able to run a 5K without stopping in just two months.
If you have bad joints, look at swimming or an elliptical machine, or biking (real or stationary). These will let you get a serious workout without pounding your joints to bits.
There are many good weightlifting workout programs out there. Later on, I’m going to list several examples of them. It really does not matter which ones you pick, provided that you do them properly. You will notice that the good ones all have several things in common.
First, they are based almost entirely on compound movements. Compound movements are simply lifts that involve the movement of 2 or more different joints. For instance, a bicep curl only involves one joint (the elbow). A bench press involves two kinds of joints (elbows and shoulders). Compound is much better than isolation (1 joint), especially for beginners, for several reasons.
They do a much better job of stimulating overall muscle growth and development than isolation movements.
They allow you to work out more efficiently. You can hit every major muscle group with a small number of exercises.
They more closely resemble ways you will exert your body in real life. They are better at producing practical, useful strength.
Examples of compound movements include:
Isolation movements aren’t evil or worthless, but they are a poor choice for beginners interested in overall muscular development.
Second, related to the first, good programs work out the entire body. You will never get the results you want just doing your arms or chest; it doesn’t work that way.
Third, good workout programs make you move a substantial amount of weight. Doing some girly program where you do a huge number of repetitions with tiny weights won’t do you much good (including if you are, in fact, a girl). To stimulate muscle growth at the expense of just carrying fat around, you have to place a substantial load on the muscle. That means using enough weight that you can only do 5-10 repetitions of a compound lift before needing a rest. The exact number of repetitions or sets you do isn’t important, but you can’t get results without placing a real load on your muscles.
Fourth, good programs have you using barbells and/or dumbbells, not machines. Machine exercises are inferior to using free weights in almost every situation. Any workout program that is based around using machines is almost guaranteed to be stupid and mostly a waste of your time. One exception you might consider is a lat pulldown machine if you aren’t strong enough to do chin-ups and don’t have an assisted chin-up machine available, but even here the real exercise is markedly superior. Further reading: Why weight machines are bad for almost everyone.
Track your progress in writing! I can’t emphasize this enough. Write down how much you lifted & how many times you lifted it every session. You won’t have any sense of concrete progress if you don’t, and you’ll lose track of your lifts and screw things up. Every week, focus on beating your numbers from last week. If you cannot do this, it’s time to analyze your diet and your sleep habits, because something is wrong.
Don’t be afraid of barbells or dumbbells. The key to safely using them is to focus on good technique (form), and to increase the weight you are using gradually. Only do the exercise for as long as you can do the exercise properly and control the weight. If you can’t control the weight, reduce the weight until you can.
Do a good warm-up. A few minutes of light cardio is a good general warm-up. Then before you do each exercise, do 8-12 reps with very light weight. Many weight lifting workouts have a built-in warm-up, where you start with a light weight and then increase the weight gradually with each set.
It is not important what weight you start with, but where you end up. Be conservative at first, but from then on constantly try to add weight or increase the number of repetitions for every exercise from workout to workout. If you do this, you’ll be working very hard soon enough. 2.5% more weight per week is a realistic goal, and at first you may gain more like 5%/week. That sounds small, but it adds up to a huge strength improvement in a year.
You have to push yourself to get results, but don’t be stupid. Soreness and stiffness are normal; genuine pain is not. If you hurt yourself, give yourself plenty of time to 100% recover from an injury before you start again, or you’ll just re-injure yourself.
Most barbell exercises can be substituted with their dumbbell equivalent, or vice versa, and achieve the same training effect. As a beginner, you may find it easier or more comfortable to work with dumbbells, and this is fine. The only exceptions are squats and deadlifts, because it can be difficult to get enough weight on dumbbells without making it very awkward.
You need days off from lifting. Do not try to lift on off-days in a lifting program in an effort to make faster progress; you’ll over-train and start doing worse, not better.
People seem to be put off by the programs I’ve linked to, either because they can be a bit jargon-heavy, or because they seem to be aimed at the hardcore bodybuilder or athlete. They are, but the reasons these programs work them are the same reasons they’ll work for you; they’re fundamentally sound weightlifting programs. Keep in mind that you won’t be dieting or taking supplements like those guys, and you’ll be starting with weights you can handle and working your way up gradually. So there really is no problem with a normal person - male or female - who just wants to look and feel better doing one of these programs.
That said, there seems to be a big demand for a much simpler starter program. So here it is: Sean10mm’s “Stripped” 5x5. This program combines some of the best elements from Starting Strength and 5x5 and presents them in a format easy to understand for beginners.
Repetition (rep)Doing an exercise 1 time properlySetA group of repetitions. If you do 5 repetitions in a row and then stop, that is one set of 5 repetitions.IntensityThe amount of effort you are expending.FormHow correctly you are doing the exercise. Strict form is important to prevent injury & get the most benefit from the exercise.Barbell (BB)A long bar you put weights on, meant for two-handed exercisesDumbbell (DB)A short bar with weights on the ends, meant for one-handed exercises
The same principles apply to both men and women. Seriously. You can follow a “super power lifter man program” as hard as you can for years and never get big, just leaner and stronger and better looking.
If you somehow start to get visible muscles you don’t want, reduce your calorie intake, or reduce the intensity of your weight workouts and make up the difference with more cardio. Without continued heavy lifting, the extra muscles will go away. Remember that gaining muscle is a slow, gradual process.
There is an excellent article on women & weight lifting here: T-Nation - Fun With Women!
Stumptuous is a brilliant dedicated site for women and lifting that closely aligns with the principles covered in this guide.