Tag Archives: Strength training

I have never been to the gym before. How do I start a weight training programme?

The first time I stepped inside a gym was when I was 14. I recall examining each piece of equipment like it was a curious artefact. The equipment at that school gym was new, shiny and inviting. The only problem was that I had no idea how each was supposed to be used, leave alone what it was meant for. However, my youthful ignorance lifted any barriers to experimentation and I went ahead and tried my hand (and legs) at the various machines anyway.

For slightly older newbies at a gym, though, I understand that the sense of awe and hesitation could be more pronounced. Hence, most people who join a gym for the first time make straight for the treadmill – no one has to be taught how to walk or run, after all. And, yet, including weight training in your exercise regimen is the best insurance you can get for maintaining and improving your fitness.

As a novice at the gym, there are three goals you should be striving towards.

Those with more gumption typically either look at other gym members around them, decide that they like one of the many actions that are being performed, and proceed to go ahead similarly, or head towards the dumbbell stand and pick up a couple to crank out repetitions (reps) of that all-too-familiar and over-endorsed gym exercise – the bicep curl – with poor form.

Even if you do not always remember the three goals, you MUST remember the three rules!

Getting started on a weight-training programme, however, is a decision that requires a little more planning. As a novice at the gym, there are three goals you should be striving towards and, as a corollary, three rules that you must bear in mind.

The three goals for a newbie are:

  1. To learn how your exercise card is programmed (an exercise card is a quick reference schedule that the Training Programmer at a good commercial gym will prepare for you when you join the gym) – it tells you which body parts are to be trained on which day of the week
  2. To learn which exercise is targeted at which group of muscles
  3. To learn the correct form and technique of each exercise in your schedule


Even if you do not always remember the three goals, you MUST remember the three rules!

The first rule is not to do it without appropriate supervision, i.e. a qualified trainer. Manufacturers of gym equipment use concepts from anatomical, physiological and kinesiological science to design machines and even free-weights. The purpose of this thoughtfully driven process is that there is maximum benefit with minimum risk to any person working with these machines. However, to make exercise effective, one must know the correct form and technique for using them. Without the right knowledge on form and technique, one is setting oneself up for failure on two counts – not being efficient in terms of time and effort, and, far more critically, risking injury due to poor form.

[Secret tip: A good trainer will insist on a warm-up before and a cool-down after your workout. Stay away from anyone who ditches the warm up and directly puts you under a barbell.]

The second rule is not to try everything at once. Gym equipment manufacturers have outdone themselves in designing multiple machines for training each body part. A good trainer will tell you which ones are critical and which are only good-to-use or even non-essential. However, as a beginner, you need more practice to learn the correct form and technique of each exercise. Hence, your exercise card should cater for targeting all the main muscle groups at least twice each week.

[Secret tip: Beware of trainers who put you through a circuit that includes every machine installed at the gym on your first day.]

The third, and most important rule, is to listen to your body. For anyone trying weight training for the first time, soreness, technically known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or simply DOMS, is a given. This is because untrained muscles could suffer inflammation quickly when exercise-driven micro-trauma (micro tearing of muscle fibres that eventually helps build stronger muscles) occurs. The tricky part about beginner soreness is that you feel it only about 24 hours after exercise, typically after you’ve had a full night’s rest. Hence, it is a good idea to take it slow.

Again, beware of trainers who make you do more than 20-25 reps of any exercise in their enthusiasm to get you to perfect your form at your very first session. A good rule of thumb is to do no more than twelve to fifteen sets of all exercises put together, with 15-20 reps each. You will still not be able to avoid soreness but hopefully you will still be functioning well enough not to swear off weight training forever.

[A not-so-secret tip: The best way to deal with DOMS is to continue with your exercise programme despite the dull pain. You will find at each successive session that the soreness decreases as your muscles become familiar with the exercises.]

Feel better about signing up at a gym?



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I am a woman and don’t want to bulk up like a man. Why do I need to train with weights?

I saw the inside of a gymnasium for the first time when I was 14. My school was rather avant garde when it came to sporting facilities and the brand new gym was the latest addition to its repertoire for physical training. A friend and I were so enthused by the various types of equipment, that we would sneak into the gym after the Games session every evening to crank out some reps on the leg press machine or pec dec station (I didn’t know what the equipment were called until many years later).

One day the Sports Teacher saw us doing some lifting and hastened to warn us. I believe he said something to this effect, “That machine is not meant for you. Girls should not use it or they’ll grow disproportionately.” Alas, the teacher was not avant garde enough. So that was the end of my gym exploration. And it remained that way until a scientifically better informed trainer cleared the cobwebs in my head about why ‘girls’ should, in fact, train with weights.

“That machine is not meant for you.”

Today, despite the updated awareness among the trainer community about the benefits of resistance training for women, the lack of awareness among women themselves remains high. Have you seen how the cardio sections of most gyms are packed with women sweating it out on the treadmills or elliptical trainers while the weight rooms are almost devoid of women?

My own perception of weight training changed only when, about a decade ago, an enthusiastic trainer encouraged me to complement my marathon training with some strength training. I did not fully comprehend why he thought it was important for improving my running but I agreed to give it a shot anyway. And that became the turning point in my fitness journey.


It is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones.

Let’s first look at why women are resistant to resistance training (oops, I did it again!) Most women who shy away from weight training think they’ll end up looking grossly muscular, too manly for comfort. In truth, it is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones. The predominant male hormone, testosterone, which makes men looks like men, is what promotes muscle build-up. Women have very low levels of testosterone and could only look like men if they underwent hormonal intervention (read steroids). The female hormone, estrogen, on the other hand, helps fat build-up, among other things. That is also the reason that women have a relatively higher percentage of body fat than men. So that should put to rest any doubts a woman has about looking manly or unfeminine.

But are there any special benefits for women to engage in resistance training apart from those available to men such as fat loss, muscle definition, and increased strength and functionality? Several!

Because weight training enables hypertrophy, i.e. growth, of muscles, it accentuates the natural human form. In the case of women, the improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Training the muscles of the back and core helps to taper the waist, giving the illusion of the hourglass to the entire female form. As a woman, wouldn’t that be something to strive for?

Women tend to be more prone to bone-related troubles than men due to the effects of childbirth and age-related degeneration following menopause. Osteoporosis and osteopenia, thus, affect women a lot more frequently than men. Resistance training, supported by adequate nutrition, is the only form of exercise that can help to strengthen the joints and bones, thus, reducing the risk of these maladies. For the cardio-lovers, weight training complements high-impact cardio activities by improving bone density and preparing the joints for sustaining high-impact work.

The improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. 

For women of childbearing age, weight training can prove to be highly beneficial in all phases of making a baby – during pregnancy, delivery and post-natal recovery (this has been my own experience too). Women who lift weights on a regular basis have fewer pregnancy symptoms and are able to deal with them better than those who don’t – little or no water retention, swollen ankles, backache, nausea. They have a higher chance of delivering a baby naturally, i.e. through a normal vaginal delivery, versus women do not train with weights. They are also much better placed when it comes to post natal recovery, easily regaining their pre-pregnancy weight, and resuming their exercise form. The training also naturally helps with all the lifting that a new mum has to do – a baby, nappies, wipes, bottles, bags, mats, toys and what have you!

So, woman, the next time somebody tries to tell you that you shouldn’t train with weights, do yourself a favour and find a different fitness advisor!