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The recovering doughnut muncher on hitting the gym

By Leo Valiquette

Pierre and LeoLast week, I gave some general tips about fitness and nutrition. This time I want to cover what I have learned about how to make the most of your time in the gym in a way that is safe, effective and likely to encourage you to adopt a regular and consistent pattern of exercise.

To recap, I am a patient of Dr. Paradis. Today, at 47, I am almost 40 pounds lighter than I was four years ago. I have cut six inches from my waist. I also used to be on blood pressure meds, with high cholesterol to boot. Today, my blood pressure and cholesterol levels are both great without any need for medication.

Now, when it comes to working out in the gym:

1.) Find a place where you are comfortable: If you are new to the gym setting, it can be intimidating. You may not know how to use the machines or how to work out with free weights. Some gyms are dominated by young guys who grunt, groan and throw down their weights a lot. Others are more likely to cater to middle-aged soccer moms and dads. Find your groove. If you find a place where you are comfortable and don’t feel judged you are much more likely to stick with it.

2.) If you don’t know what you are doing, ask: In my previous post, I emphasized the value of working out with a personal trainer, at least for a little while, to help you get your bearings. A good trainer can help you understand how to get the most out of a workout in 30 minutes instead of 90 and what the difference is between, for example, a goblet squat and a back squat and why it matters.

3.) Always warm up: tackling a heavy weight with cold or stiff muscles is a surefire recipe for injury. Get the blood flowing – do jumping jacks, burpees, a few minutes on the rowing machine. Stretch and use the foam roller to work out knots. Do a warmup set or two of your first exercise at a weight that’s half of what you plan to use for your actual “working” set.

4.) You can always lift heavier next time: Even then, the best way to avoid injury is to opt for a lighter weight, for your first working set. Use this as your rule of thumb – if, for example, you want to do 10 repetitions of an exercise and the 10th one is not a struggle to finish, the weight can go up. Your first goal should always be to make sure you are doing that exercise the right way before you worry about how much weight you can move. Which brings us to …

5.) The importance of technique: How you lift, how you squat, how you move relative to each exercise is important for several reasons:

A. It avoids injury: Chest proud, shoulders back, tummy muscles tight, heels flat serves you well in most cases to make sure you don’t pull something in your back or elsewhere. Posture is always important.

B. It makes the exercise more effective: Understanding and practicing the right technique for an exercise ensures you are actually targeting the muscle you intend to with that exercise. For example, with a basic bicep curl, it’s important to keep your elbows back the whole time and extend your arm down all the way at the bottom of the movement.

C. It gives you more power: A key aspect of technique is breathing. An exercise repetition has two phases – the positive and the negative. Let’s take that bicep curl again as an example. The positive is when you are curling the arm up and putting all the strain on the bicep. The negative phase is when you are lowering your arm again. You should always breath out on the positive and breath in on the negative. This gives you more power on the hardest part of the movement. More power means more reps or more weight, for more effect on the target muscle.

6 can attack your muscles in many different ways: You can train in several ways, depending on whether you want to build muscle strength, mass or cardio endurance. The best approach is to change it up with combinations of all three. Because if you do the same thing over and over for weeks or months at a time, your body adapts and the exercise becomes less effective.

The general rule is a heavier weight with fewer repetitions per set, like three to five, is better for building mass and strength. A lower weight with more volume, like 10, 15, or even 20+ repetitions per set, builds lean high-endurance muscle.

7.) Why the focus on weight training? At this point, you may be wondering why I have focused on weight training. I’ve learned, from the trainers with whom I have worked, that weight training (also called resistance training) is more effective than cardio alone.

We all lose muscle mass as we pass our mid-30s. Even if your weight stays the same, fat tissue comes to replace muscle tissue. If you don’t work to maintain or grow your muscles, you are more prone to injury from everyday activities. The more active muscle tissue you have, the more calories you burn. This makes it easier to manage your weight. If you weight train with proper technique and full range of motion on the movement, it’s also good for your joints and builds bone density (good for people at risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures, especially women).

8.) What about cardio then? Cardio still has its place and should be part of a well-rounded workout routine along with weight training. But you don’t have to spend hours on a treadmill, either. And weight training can be good cardio too, if you are doing high volumes with lower weights and shorten your rest times between sets.

9.) Let me introduce the superset: You can also superset your weight training to drive more cardio and keep it varied. Instead of, for example, doing three, four or five sets of the same exercise before moving onto the next exercise, combine several exercises. Do one set of each exercise with little or no rest between, then rest for one to two minutes and repeat. I do one workout where I combine this way the bench press (which works the chest), seated cable pulls (which works the back) and crunches (for the abs).

10.) You’re not likely to get bulky, so don’t be afraid to pump iron: I’m a guy, and even when I started training, my mother said, “you don’t want to get all bulky.” If only I could. I am stronger, for sure, leaner and more cut, but I’ll never be mistaken for Dwayne Johnson. Building bulk requires a very specific and intense form of training, along with the right nutrition. I am only in the gym for about 45 minutes, three times a week – that’s not enough to build that kind of bulky physique.

11.) It’s also a matter of age and biology. At age 40 and after, it’s a battle just to maintain muscle, never mind add a lot. It’s the same for men and women, as our metabolisms change and we produce less testosterone and estrogen. Women especially should consider the overall health benefits of weight training (healthier joints, stronger bones, better weight management, les chance of injury from everyday activities) before they allow misconceptions about getting bulky dissuade them from weight training. My 45-year-old, 112-pound wife has started lifting weights too – in an effort to gain weight.

12.) And don’t overdo it: Avoid overtraining. This can lead to injury, fatigue and burnout that makes you avoid the gym. It can also lead to persistently elevated levels of stress hormones. And when your body is chronically stressed it can impact your sleep and sabotage weight loss efforts – especially that stubborn belly fat. Rule of thumb is no more than 30-45 minutes of intense exercise at a time. A specific muscle group should also get at least 48 hours of rest to recover between workouts.

I hope this is enough to encourage you to try weight training and get you started.

Next week, I’ll talk more about fitness-related nutrition and supplementation.

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