Warm up prior to and stretch frequently during your workout. Before participating in any athletic activity, you should raise your peripheral body temperature. Get your heart beating and increase the blood flow to your extremities by participating in 5 minutes of a low intensity cardiovascular activity. Following your warm up, stretch your muscles gradually to a point of mild discomfort, not outright pain. Never bounce. Instead, hold stretched positions for about 20 seconds. Rather than limiting yourself to a pre-training stretch, continue to stretch during and after your workout to promote circulation. By increasing blood flow to your muscles, waste products like lactic acid are rapidly removed to help prevent soreness. In addition, more blood-borne nutrients are available for energy and growth.
Learn to isolate specific muscles. Steady, controlled movements are the key to learning what it "feels like" to work a specific muscle or muscle group. It takes about three weeks for the novice to maximize the neuromuscular coordination necessary to identify and fully recruit muscle fibers from individual muscle groups. At this stage, you will be able to efficiently target these groups and minimize cheating with sympathetic muscles. This will also enable you to use virtually any unfamiliar piece of gym equipment (and invent your own exercises) simply by duplicating the appropriate "feel" when trying a new exercises for the same body part.
Employ proper form. Movements should be accomplished with strict attention to form in order to achieve maximum benefit with minimum risk of injury. Always remember to avoid sharp, jerky repetitions and using momentum to lift a heavier weight. These cheating tactics will not make you grow faster or become stronger, but they will place harmful stresses on your joints. I suggest holding the full contraction for a short pause to accentuate the pump. Concentrate on both the concentric and eccentric phase of the contraction to maximize every repetition. Be certain to flex and extend fully to avoid muscle shortening and weakness at the extremes of the motion range.
Train to muscular fatigue. Many people approach an exercise with a preconceived notion of the exact number of repetitions they will do for each set. (Ten seems to be a popular choice.) These misguided souls are training inefficiently and will never reach their full potential. When performing an exercise, your goal is not a certain number of repetitions. Do not start your set saying, "I'm going to do X number of reps." Depending on the muscle group and your particular athletic objectives, you will probably want to stay within a certain range of repetitions. However, your goal is to fatigue the muscle by performing each exercise (with good form) until you no longer can.
Use a split system. If you have never trained with weights, or have taken a significant break from weights, I do not recommend training at maximum intensity right away. Training to failure during the first crucial work outs will result in tremendous muscle soreness and you may never return. Start slowly by doing a full-body workout consisting of three or four sets of lighter weights for every major muscle group. After the first couple weeks, you can increase your intensity and move onto a split system. An example of a three-day split might be:
- Monday: Chest, Triceps, Shoulders, Abs
- Wednesday: Legs (including Calves, Quads, Hams, and Glutes)
- Friday: Back, Biceps, Abs
Train each body part once per week. With the exception of abs, directly training a body part with high intensity more than once a week is usually overtraining. If you are striving for maximum strength gains, power, and muscular growth, high intensity translates to low reps and heavy weight. Three to four sets of three to four different exercises per body part is optimal. Large muscle groups like chest, quads, and glutes do well in a rep range as low as 6 or 7. With smaller groups like biceps and triceps, and difficult to isolate groups like shoulders and back, stay within a more conservative rep range of at least 8 to 10 per set.
Design your training regimen to conform to your athletic objectives. Many athletes cycle their training according to their competition schedule. Three to four months out from a fight, a boxer might "train heavy" for strength and power. By eight weeks out, he/she has decreased the weight, increased his reps, and cut back on free weights to emphasize cables and machines. During the last four weeks, he/she eliminates weight-training altogether, concentrating entirely on speed drills and boxing. A powerlifter will employ the opposite strategy. Three months out from a meet, he/she may incorporate many different exercises into his/her routine including machines, cables, and free weights. Two months out, the reps have dropped and so have the number of different exercises. The last weeks before the meet may include sets of only two or three reps of the most basic movements: bench press, squat, and deadlift.
Maximize your body's response with new challenges. Even the most brilliantly designed training program will gradually lose its efficiency. In simple terms, your body is too smart for its own good. As you become more and more adept at performing a particular movement, the results you get from that movement will reach a plateau. It's time to mix things up. Your entire work out should be modified every few weeks for best results. I urge you to constantly try new exercises to add to your repertoire. Look around the gym. Talk to people. Consult magazines. Experiment on your own: change bench angles; alter foot stances; switch the order of your exercises; try supersets; strip sets; etc. Be creative.
Avoid overtraining. Listen to your body. After bad form, overtraining is the most common mistake I see in the gym. If you find you are losing enthusiasm for your work outs, if you are constantly tired, if your progress has slowed or stopped, it's time for a break. If you have been training consistently, I recommend taking a week off every two to three months. You will return to the gym reinvigorated, renewed, and rested. You will not lose strength in one week. Even after a month off, chances are you will surprise yourself by returning to the gym stronger than when you left. Following a break is the ideal time to modify your training program.
Be patient. Rome wasn't built in a day and you won't be either. You will see progress if you are patient and stick with it! No two physiques are exactly the same and you should not measure your progress against others. Many people are frustrated by the difficulty they encounter losing those last few pounds of fat. Lean people are discouraged by how long it takes them to put on weight. Bodybuilders are constantly balancing the task of building muscle mass and, at the same time, achieving maximal definition. You CAN have both if you stick to the basic principles outlined above, train consistently, and give yourself time. Why don't you take some photos now and compare them to a year from now? I guarantee you will be amazed by the progress you've made.