Whether you're new to the gym or a long-time fitness lover looking for a refresher course, one thing can't be denied: Mastering the basics is essential. While there are hundreds of different techniques you can use to train, some principles remain constant. Arm yourself with these tools and find confidence in your training.
1 / Do Prep Work
Whether it is chest day, back day, or leg day, your workout should always start with a warm-up. Static stretches alone won't help reduce your risk of injury. Start with 5 to 10 minutes of light cardio1: a brisk walk, some time on the elliptical, or a short stint on the treadmill.
Next, target the specific muscles you intend to work that day. Dynamic warm-ups like mountain climbers, bodyweight squats, and walking lunges help increase blood flow and heart rate while warming up muscles. Save stretching for a post-exercise release. According to a recent study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, stretching before lifting weights can leave you feeling weak and unstable2.
Another pre-workout must: making sure you're properly fueled going into the session. According to the American Council on Exercise, 60 minutes of exercise can cause you to lose more than a quart of water. Drink the recommended two 8-ounce bottles of water a few hours before exercising, another glass half an hour before exercise, and 7-10 ounces every 20 minutes while working out3.
You should ingest a combination of carbs and fast-absorbing protein before your workout to maximize results. Carbs are the body's preferred fuel source, and research has shown that taking whey protein prior to training will yield better results and increase resting energy expenditure by an average of 6-6.5 percent for up to 48 hours4,5.
2 / Tune In, Tune Out
Upon entering the gym, focus on getting into your "zone." It's extremely important that you're able to tune out all other distractions and focus on what needs to be done. For many people, this means listening to their favorite music, which helps them stay focused and motivated to work their hardest.
If music isn't your thing, find out what works to keep you dialed in on the workout at hand. Go in with a plan for what you want to tackle that day, set realistic goals, and track your progress for added inspiration.
3 / Take Your Time
Don't attempt to squeeze in a full workout session in half the time. Crammed workouts increase your chance of injury, and stop you from lifting as heavy as you should (the shortened rest periods hinder full recovery). If you don't have 45 minutes to devote to legs, cut back on isolation exercises and the total number of sets and reps performed. Make sure to give your scaled-back workout 100 percent effort. You can still get in an effective, time-pressed workout.
4 / Focus on Form
It's imperative that you sustain good form to ensure you target the correct muscles and decrease the amount of unnecessary stress placed on muscles and joints. Proper form dramatically decreases your chance of injury. As your weights increase, make sure the increase never comes at the expense of good form. Maintain steady, consistent breathing throughout the exercise—inhale on the eccentric portion (where you're not producing force); exhale on the concentric portion (where you produce force; the hard part)6.
5 / Seek Out a Spotter
Consider having a workout partner spot you on the heavier lifts you perform, such as bench press, shoulder press, and squat. Knowing that a person is there to help assist with the weight if you start to falter instills confidence and helps push you to hit new PRs. As you get stronger and aim to push the barriers on success, this becomes increasingly important.
Having a spotter can also let you go to complete failure with your lifts. While you shouldn't do this every session—it can easily lead to overtraining—doing it on occasion can evoke greater training gains.
6 / Switch Things Up
One of the biggest results-killing mistakes many people make is doing the same workout over and over again without any change whatsoever. You must change your workout every so often. Not only will it prevent boredom, but variety will also prevent you from reaching a plateau. Remember, if nothing changes once your body adapts to a workout, you won't change either. Don't fret: this doesn't mean you have to completely scrap your current program. Change can come in many forms—more weight lifted, more sets completed, a different exercise selection, or even a different grip can work to change your routine.
7 / Raise The Bar
It's rare that you'll make significant progress lifting light weights. In almost all programs, adding more weight to the bar is going to take priority. Only when you can't add more weight without sacrificing form should you look into progressing with alternate techniques such as more sets, more reps, and shorter rests.
Make sure you challenge yourself with weight in the first place. Some people, especially women who are scared of getting 'bulky,' go easy on themselves in the weight category. Go easy on yourself and you'll see slow-producing results, if any at all. Not sure which weight to start with? Choose a weight with which you can comfortably perform 12 to 15 reps6.
8 / Concentrate on Compound Movements
Compound movements, which involve more than one muscle group at a time, give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of results for time invested. These lifts should always form the foundation of your program.
Most compound movements work your lower and upper body simultaneously. Instead of just targeting your triceps with kickbacks, get your shoulders involved with an overhead press. Instead of training your quads with the leg press machine, squat and work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Only when you get to more advanced levels and much more intricate training routines will isolation exercises take a greater focus in your program plan set-up.
9 / Plan for Rest
Don't underestimate the importance of rest days—they're necessary for your body to recuperate. People who don't rest sufficiently won't make any progress, and may even find themselves growing weaker. For optimal results, aim for 60-90 seconds of rest between sets. That's enough to recover about 90% of your muscle's capacity to do work7. If you aren't recovered when you enter the gym, you will regress.