Starting at the Gym: People suck, keep it simple, and screw macros
January is a gym's favourite time of year. Tens of thousands of people, fresh off of gorging themselves for half a month, looking themselves in the mirror and declaring 'New Year, New Me!' before firing up the sign up form and entering their bank details.
Maybe you're one of them, or maybe you're someone who's been in the past but fell off the wagon. You've read one of the dozen articles pushed out by magazines and newspapers, or the encouraging posts on Reddit or other social media. You've signed up to your local gym, but you're still a bit nervous about what to expect and what to do.
Well, here's my take, with some of it being a little counter to others.
First is the people aspect. While it's true that most are focusing on themselves or their friends, a gym is still full of people, and people still suck.
You will be surrounded by teenagers who might laugh at you or just be obnoxious; inconsiderate people who can't be bothered to rack their weights, or 'reserve' more than they need; wannabe influencers more interested in taking photos for Instagram than getting out of your way and letting you workout; and people using the workout bench as a place to sit and read their phone.
But you're not there for them. You're there for you.
The easiest thing to do is buy a cheap pair of headphones and turn the volume up as high as safety allows. For me, I try and workout in front of or in view of a mirror, so my can see myself and focus on that1. If you're desperate, you can rest a small gym towel over your head and workout like you're Tazz walking down to the ring. Whatever it is that gets you hyper focused on you, do it.
You're not there for them. You're there for you.
On the flip side, while people can be terrible, a person can make your day. It might be a guy wanting to give you pointers on your form, or asking if you need a spot. Could be someone offering you a compliment. Just like everywhere else, not everyone is a jerk.
Next, keep it unbelievably short and simple. Like two or three exercises if strength training, with plenty of rest. No more than 45 minutes long, but ideally 30. Or gentle pace on the bike or rowing machine for as long as your can manage. Ideally, try and incorporate a little of both; strength training still helps to lose fat, and cardio training is important for overall heart health. Just keep it as simple as can be.
Everyone has an opinion on what constitutes a great beginners work out, but if you're just starting or getting back on the horse, you need something that you can do and is sustainable and won't leave you begging for mercy from DOMS.
DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, is entirely normal. You're working your muscles out in new and unusual ways for your body, so your body gets sore. It usually lasts a couple of days, but depending on how hard you workout, it can feel a little sore or Oh My God How Am I Meant To Move sore.
That was me a few years back. I went with a friend to a new gym. I hadn't gone in a while, but they were doing leg day, and leg day is my favourite day. Had a solid warm up, managed to hi their weight limits and then some, whilst my form was near perfect. Big day for my ego.
Then DOMS hit and I was wrecked. Both legs, my lower, and my shoulders from holding the bar. I was literally waddling up stairs and it took be a solid minute to get up from my chair at work. I was using as much ibuprofen gel as I could for a week before it calmed down.
DOMS are pretty much inevitable, but there's 'Oh my leg is stiff' and there's that. Don't be stupid. Keep it simple, and keep it light. It's not a competition, there's no prize, and there's nothing to win except the bad kind of pain.
I won't go too deep into programming, but here's a basic routine from the guys at r/fitness. As good a place to start as any, and if you can't do chin-ups, do lat pulldowns instead.
Next, it might suck for a while, but try and enjoy it.
You're working hard to achieve a positive change for yourself. You're lifting weights, you're doing cardio, and hopefully you're stretching before and after. Let the endorphins flow unabated and watch as over a few weeks your body starts to change for the better. The amount of weight you can lift will increase, you'll be able to cycle for longer, and more importantly the day to day physical activities will get easier.
It'll be simple things like walking upstairs will leave you less out of breath, or carrying shopping home will get easier. Maybe that back pain starts to fade now that you're stretching more2. Just a little bit of exercise a few times a week can compound into massive benefits.
For me, it was walking the dog. I built to doing half hour on the exercise bike 5 times a week, and over time my joints hurt less walking the dog, I got less out of breath, and I stopped becoming this giant sweaty mess. My belly going down also helped to spur things on a bit.
Which brings me to the last bit.
No amount of exercise will mean anything if you still eat terribly. There's a ton of nutrition advice out there, but the simplest for weight loss is:
- Track your calories.
- Track your weight daily.
- Average both out for the week, and compare to the week before. If you've gained more than a pound, reduce your daily calories by 100. If you've lost more than two pounds, increase by 100.
Rinse and repeat. For weight gain, do the inverse.
Macros can become important the more seriously you take your training, but overall it's your calories that important, especially starting off. Don't overload yourself with decisions over how many carbs a thing has, or how many grams of protein you should be eating. Just look at your daily allowance and plan accordingly. This way you can still incorporate treats and snacks, and you're still in control. Hell, I lost a pound and a half the day after eating a 12 inch meaty max pizza and six chicken strips from Domino's because it fit within my daily allowance3.
How to find your daily allowance? Again, there's a variety of calculators out there, but the easiest and most reliable is a variation of the above.
- Get your initial weight.
- Track your calories for two weeks.
- Track your weight daily for two weeks.
- Average out your results for the past two weeks. If you've lost up to four pounds, that's your daily allowance. Anything more than that, add 500 pounds4. If you've maintained or gained weight compared to your initial weight, take your average calorie count and take 500 calories off. That's your daily allowance.
It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that. None of it does.
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This is also useful when you want check your form.↩
And if so, seriously consider yoga. Damn near changed my life.↩
Which says a fair bit about how high my daily allowance was.↩
In some circumstances (i.e. you're obese), it can be fine to lose more than two pounds a week, but in most that two pound a week average is the ideal. Too much too fast can be harder to maintain, which then leads to set backs, which then leads to falling off the wagon.↩