The prospect of weight training can be intimidating. How much weight should you lift? How often? What muscle groups need to be worked?
To help sort it all out, we called on trainer Mike Alexander, owner of MADfit, a Beverly Hills training studio. Alexander has trained celebrities including Jessica Simpson and Kristin Chenoweth.
He outlined a four-week program that works the body’s major muscle groups, building strength and endurance and improving the cardiovascular system.
Stick with it and pay attention to his basic nutrition tips, and Alexander says your goals are within reach.
Before wrapping your hands around a barbell, he says:
•Examine your diet and tweak it if necessary. Even people who don’t want to lose weight will benefit from more healthful foods.
Incorporate lean meats such as chicken, turkey and fish – women especially need to take in adequate protein. Also eat more whole-grain breads and pasta, brown rice and fruits and vegetables.
Cut down on refined sugar and avoid empty calories in fried foods and white bread.
Instead of going cold turkey, Alexander – who admits to once having a pretty fierce Frappuccino habit until switching to iced coffees – recommends making small changes, getting used to those, then making more changes.
•If losing or gaining weight is a goal, hop on the scale about once a month, not several times a day. Progress can be slow and, possibly, discouraging.
Also, consider measuring body fat with calipers, because the scale doesn’t tell the entire story. Because results can be skewed if the caliper test isn’t done correctly, make sure you’re tested by a certified trainer or health professional.
Of course, how your clothes fit is a good way measure results, too.
•Set appropriate goals, and when you achieve those, set some more. This prevents an on-again, off-again workout schedule that promotes inconsistency.
“I see that a lot with celebrities who have a movie approaching,” Alexander says. “They bust their butt for a month or six weeks and then take six months off. Then when they have to get back in shape again it’s so much harder.”
•Warm up by doing a light set of weights to get muscles used to the activity. Warming up by doing cardio will increase the heart rate, but won’t necessarily get the muscles ready to work.
•Always train at a comfortable pace. If your heart rate is high or you feel dizzy or nauseated, stop the workout.
•Avoid ruts by changing your routine every couple of months.
•Keep a workout log. It will not only track your progress, Alexander says, but also prompt you to alter your regimen.
Work out two to three times a week on nonconsecutive days, to give muscles time to rest and repair. Each workout should take about 35 to 40 minutes.
Use low weights but do high repetitions – about 18 to 25 per set for two to three sets. Control the weights, use proper form and think about the working muscles during the exercise.
To gauge how much weight to lift, muscles should feel fatigued toward the end of a set. If after 25 reps you feel like you could do a few more, increase the weight.
Also, whenever appropriate, do the exercises from a stable position, such as sitting on a chair or bench with a back.
Squats: Keeping the feet hip-width apart or slightly wider, squat (using no extra weight), leaning slightly forward with the torso but keeping the weight on the heels without lifting the toes. Return to a standing position, standing straight and squeezing the buttocks. Works the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Seated chest press: This can be done on a cable or fixed-weight machine. Grasping handles, push the weight forward, keeping arms shoulder height. If machines aren’t available, do push-ups. Works the pectoralis muscles, deltoids and triceps.
Stationary lunge: Begin with feet hip-width apart, and extend one leg forward, the knee coming slightly ahead of the toes and the torso leaning slightly forward. Extend the back leg, keeping it slightly bent, stretching the hip flexor. Do reps on one leg at a time, then switch. Works the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
Seated dumbbell overhead press: Start with arms bent at 90 degrees and lift arms up over the head, upper arms close to the head. Return arms to the 90-degree position. Works the middle and anterior (front) deltoids, trapezoids and triceps.
Leg press: Lying face-up on a leg press machine, push against the platform, straightening the legs, making sure not to completely lock the knees. Works the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Seated cable rows: Begin with arms extended out, holding handles at shoulder height. Bring arms in so that the arm is bent at 90 degrees at the elbow. Works the latissimus dorsi (back) muscles and the biceps.
Incline abdominals: Lie back against a 45-degree incline board with the head higher than the feet. (A large, firm throw pillow or wedge-shaped piece of foam can be used to elevate the torso.) With arms in front of the chest, bring the torso up toward the knees one vertebra at a time, making sure not to strain the neck. Return to beginning position and repeat. Works the rectus abdominis muscles.
This week focuses on supersets, or doing the exercises consecutively, without stopping. This increases the heart rate, building cardiovascular endurance, as well as muscle endurance.
Alexander likes to combine upper and lower body exercises for a full-body workout. Some exercises are done without the support of a bench, so more stabilizer muscles are used.
Because supersets can be tough, especially for beginners, make sure you pace yourself and take adequate breaks between sets to allow the muscles to recover.
Dumbbell chest press and squats: Lying on a bench, begin with arms at 90 degrees, palms facing forward. Bring weights straight up over the chest. Works the pecs, triceps and deltoids. (For squats, see Week 1.)
Cable elbow extension and lateral step-up: Begin with arms by your side, bent at 90 degrees while holding the cable. Bring the hands up toward the shoulders, keeping upper arms and elbows steady, and pull back down to a 90-degree angle. Works the triceps.
For the step-up, stand sideways beside a box or stair that’s a comfortable height. Step up, step down and repeat, then switch legs. Works the adductor (inner thigh) muscle, plus the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.
Bicep curls and reverse lunge: Holding dumbbells, raise them toward the shoulder and lower to 90 degrees. Works the biceps.
For the reverse lunge, start in a standing position and bring one leg back, slightly bent, with the torso angled forward and the front knee coming just slightly over the toes. Works the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.
For a more advanced workout, do the two exercises simultaneously.
Reverse crunch: Lying on a mat on your back, place a small inflatable ball between the calves and the glutes so that the legs are bent at 90 degrees. Squeezing the ball, raise the glutes and lower back off the ground. Using the ball helps lock the hips in place during the exercise. Works the rectus abdominis.
Continue doing supersets, but use higher weights and lower repetitions, about 12 to 16. The goal is to be quite fatigued at the end of a set – about a nine on a scale of 10, says Alexander.
“The key to working out is changing the stimulus,” he says. “Your body adapts … so you begin to burn fewer calories.”
Also, this week add a 30-second cardio interval between sets; run in place, do jumping jacks, or run or walk quickly on a treadmill. This builds cardiovascular endurance.
Exercises done on a stability ball use more stabilizing muscles. Train three times a week.
Dumbbell elbow extensions on a ball: Sit on a stability ball and roll your feet away from the ball slowly until the upper shoulders, neck and head are on the ball. The knees are bent at 90 degrees; the torso is straight. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other and elbows bent with upper arms near the head. Straighten the arms, bringing the weights toward the ceiling, keeping upper arms and elbows still and squeezing the triceps. Lower the weights back down and repeat. Works triceps.
One-armed dumbbell lateral raise with lunge and bridges: From a stationary lunge, hold dumbbell in one hand and raise it to the side as the body comes up and the legs straighten. Lower the weight as the body assumes the forward lunge position, front knee bending forward. Works the lats.
For the bridges, lie on the ball with the shoulders, neck and head supported, feet on the ground and knees at 90 degrees. Lower the pelvis, then raise it to a bridge position. Works glutes and hamstrings.
These exercises combine upper and lower body muscle groups to work the body more and increase the heart rate. Use higher weights and lower reps as in Week 3, but the 30 seconds of cardio between sets is optional.
Plyometrics join the mix – these are explosive, dynamic moves that train fast-twitch muscles used in jumping and sprinting. Train three times a week.
Dumbbell raises with squats: Holding dumbbells at your side, go into a squat while bringing the weights forward, arms straight, palms facing each other. Works glutes, hamstrings, quads, anterior deltoids, biceps.
Cable chest press with forward lunge: Facing away from the cable machine, grip handles and push arms straight out, shoulder height, while doing a forward lunge. Stand and repeat reps, then switch legs.
Plyometrics: From a squat, jump straight up, landing softly on bent knees. Pause to get your balance; repeat. Or, starting in a stationary lunge, jump straight up and switch the position of the legs, again landing softly. Repeat. Do 12 to 16 reps.
After a month, Alexander says, you probably haven’t achieved your major goals and should continue training. You also might consider working with a certified personal trainer.
To keep costs down, train in a group, schedule monthly sessions or take advantage of some gym deals offering free introductory sessions. Sometimes just a couple of workouts are needed to re-set goals and work out any kinks.
“Often people go easy on themselves,” Alexander says, “so sometimes it takes a second party to really challenge them.”