PART I: OPENING Q&A AND GENERAL MYTH-BUSTING - Integrated
PART II: MINDSET - Integrated
PART III: DIET
A lot of talk is made about carbs vs fats . (liam can you add this reference as two halves of the word with the other)
Vitamins & minerals
Micronutrients are things your body needs in small quantities, like vitamins and minerals. In general, most people do not need to heavily supplement these, provided that their diet is optimal. However, few people have an optimal diet. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence that, in some cases, supplementation can provide concrete health benefits. Most supplements are useless. Especially most that do not consist of a single ingredient are. What oftentimes does make sense is supplementing your diet with things that you lack. Remember, always put diet, training and rest before supplementation. This goes for spending money as well. Always spend money on the gym bill and food before buying supplements.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is a reasonable baseline for most vitamins and minerals, but keep in mind that it is a minimum value for preventing nutrient deficiency, not the optimal amount for the best possible health or performance, and does not take into account the most up-to-date research. As a result, taking a multivitamin supplement that gives you a flat 100% RDA dose is not necessarily the best way to go, but it is a reasonable and conservative way to cover any deficiencies in your diet.
Keep in mind that men will want a multivitamin without iron, while women will want one with iron. In fact, 11% of women between the ages of 20 to 49 have an iron deficiency. A multivitamin/mineral supplement isn't as important as people believe it to be. The dosages of the ingredients are of negligible effect. Although it never hurts to supplement a cheap multi as a backup, don't spend a large amount of money buying "special formulations". Get your nutrients through your food.
Since writing this guide, several people have asked me about sodium. Sodium is generally something that most don't need to be concerned about. Your body needs a small amount of sodium to function. However, an excess of sodium can cause major heart problems down the line if your kidney can't filter it fast enough. Stick to the dietary guideline of no more than 2300mg a day of sodium (see this article for more information).
There are a few supplements worth mentioning that you might want to consider. One supplement that is extremely beneficial and backed up by a ton of scientific evidence is Omega-3 fatty acids, most commonly supplemented through fish oil. If there is one supplement that everyone should take, this is it. Don't focus on total mg of fish oil; instead, take enough fish oil to get a total of approximately 720mg of EPA and 480mg of DHA a day.
Another is Vitamin D.  We usually get this from sunlight. If you are not tanned, chances are you’re deficient in this. Most people are. Get your blood levels measured, or take your chances and just get some. Vitamin D is involved in pretty much everything. If you’re deficient in it, supplementing it helps your bones, prevents cancers, raises testosterone levels  and … everything. There is, again, some granny scare about Vitamin D being poison, but it's actually quite hard to poison yourself on vitamin D as you would need to take more than 10000 IU/day . Make sure you buy it in Vitamin D3 form (Cholecalceferol). Taking one 5000IU capsule a day is sufficient. Take it with meals or with your fish oil. Oh, and it's super cheap.
Protein powder is another. If you don’t easily get enough from food, get some cheap whey, casein, or milk protein. Which type you get doesn't matter . These are quite convenient, and almost as nutrient rich as regular food. You don’t need them, despite for what supplement sellers tell you, whole food sources of protein are equivalent or better compared to whey or BCAAs/Amino Acids; but some convenient powder ain’t bad either. They only serve as one purpose, and that's a meal replacement.
And lastly, Creatine is a supplement which will help a bit with strength and it's safe . Get it in monohydrate form only - it is just as effective (or more) as the other forms, and a lot cheaper . Just take 5g (1tsp) every day, at any time. No need to load or cycle .
But what if you want to go beyond that and try to get closer to "optimum" nutrition through supplements? Going deep into this subject is beyond the scope of this guide, but there are a few basic things you should keep in mind:
- The tolerable upper level (UL) is a reasonable place to start when trying to determine the maximum amount of a vitamin you should take. That doesn't mean that you should take the UL value of every vitamin, just that if you stay below the UL, you aren't in risky territory in terms of overdose. Note that the UL is often much higher than the RDA.
- Put some thought into what you're taking, and why you're taking it. Look for scientific studies supporting the value of taking more than the RDA of a given vitamin or mineral. And don't just fixate on one study; look for a consensus among credible sources. A great site for this is examine.
- Remember, they're called supplements for a reason. Researching and buying supplements is not something for beginners to concentrate on. Focus on getting your diet in order first. You’ll most likely gain more out of working out a bit harder and eating a bit better than by even thinking about a certain supplement.
Keep in mind that I'm not saying you need to do any of this to be healthy or get into shape, though an Omega-3 supplement is highly recommended unless you eat fish 24/7. Other supplements are worth looking into, but are not essential by any stretch of the imagination.
Finally, if you see a supplement being promoted that you're not sure about, use the Snake Oil chart for reference. It charts popular supplements by the amount of scientific evidence backing them. The stuff you should be taking is at the very top.
Specific kinds of things you should eat
Note that the list below does not account for condiments and toppings; it just lists good food items. For instance, turkey breast is very good for you. Turkey breast covered in heavy cream sauce or deep fried in lard is not. Use your brain here.
Your dietary staples should include:
- Lean animal protein sources (or fatty, if trying to put on weight), including but not limited to:
- Most turkey and chicken in general, especially if it is skinless. Turkey and chicken breasts especially, or thighs if bulking.
- Ground turkey, chicken, beef (ground and steaks) or pork
- Virtually all forms of fish, even the fattier fishes are very good for you. Tuna, while also good, should be eaten sparingly if you're concerned about mercury consumption.
- More exotic-type meats, if you can find them: buffalo, ostrich, lamb, elk, venison, alligator, etc.
- Whole eggs. The unhealthiness of whole eggs is a myth; contrary to past assumptions, they have no impact on heart disease at all. The main reason for this is that cholesterol in food does not impact the actual cholesterol level in your blood; almost all your cholesterol is made in you liver, based mainly on your saturated fat and trans fat consumption.
- Whole grains, including but not limited to:
- Whole wheat bread, bagels, rolls, etc.
- Whole wheat pasta
- Brown rice
- Whole grain breakfast cereals and muesli
- Virtually all fruits and vegetables, including beans and dry-roasted nuts.
- Healthy fats like olive oil (for sauces, dressings & low-temperature cooking) and canola oil (for high-temperature cooking), and Omega-3 rich fish oil.
- Dairy products like plain yogurt, cottage cheese, some cheeses, and milk (milk is great). Get low-fat/fatfree if trying to lose weight.
The government recommends you to eat 5 servings of vegetables per day, and I’d say that’s a good start. This is why you want to eat more vegetables: Like protein, for its low calories, it fills you up so you’re less hungry  , It protects you against pretty much every disease you can think of , They are rich in almost every essential micronutrient you are not already getting from your protein food, and they'll prevent you from hating having to go to the toilet after we’ve just put you on this high protein diet .
Notes for vegetarians
Not eating meat or animal products does not guarantee that you are eating a good diet. Aside from omitting animal products, the same basic advice applies to you as to everyone else: eat a variety of foods, eat whole grains, limit your saturated fat and trans fat intake and stick to healthy oils. However, vegetarians have some other issues to consider.
Vitamin B12. This is a nutrient that vegetarian diets can be deficient in, because it is a bacterial product that is not very prevalent in vegetable matter. You will probably want to take a supplement containing B12 or soy milk fortified in B12. Lack of B12 can cause a form of anemia.
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. These are essential fatty acids that you have to make a point to get into your diet. Soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil are good sources of other essential fatty acids, but not DHA. Your best bet is probably to take a vegetarian Omega-3 supplement that specifically includes DHA as a primary ingredient. Non-vegetarians normally get a passable (though sub-optimal) amount of essential fatty acids from eggs, fish and shellfish.
Calcium. It can be more difficult to obtain enough calcium if you do not consume dairy products. Leafy green vegetables (not lame iceberg lettuce, I mean the dark green stuff), soy, almonds, oats, most beans and sesame seeds can be good alternate sources of calcium. You may want to consider a supplement containing calcium. Non-vegetarians usually get enough calcium; it is just from dairy sources high in saturated fat.
Iron. Iron is available in many plant products like whole grains, nuts and green leafy vegetables. However, iron is often not as easily absorbed from these sources as it is from sources like red meat. The good news is that adequate consumption of vitamin C, which vegetarians can easily get plenty of, greatly aids in the absorption of iron. Non-vegetarians usually get enough iron from meat, but it is usually from meats high in saturated fat.
A good mix of foods and a vegetarian multivitamin can essentially negate most of the presumed negatives of even the strictest vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism doesn't relegate you to being a scrawny noodle; there are even vegan bodybuilders. You have some additional things to consider nutritionally, but you will also tend to avoid pitfalls of non-vegetarian diets, most notably dangerously high saturated fat consumption. Note that almost all supplements are now available in vegetarian versions.
Your main problems are protein, and to a lesser extent, some minerals and meat. If you just don’t eat meat, you can do fine getting lots of dairy/protein powder, eggs, and some tofu. If you’re a vegan, I frankly can’t help you. Read up on pea, hemp, lentil and soy protein and see what your chances are; the evidence is fairly clear that milk proteins are just better for our goals than these   . I'd say vegan protein sources aren't ever gonna be as good as animal sources, but good luck either way.
More information on vegetarian diet needs can be found at the Vegetarian Resource Group.
Healthier cooking methods
The methods below are, barring any other dumb additions, generally healthy ways of cooking because they add little or no unhealthy fats.
- If it is a vegetable, eating it raw
- Steaming (especially) or boiling
- Baking, broiling, roasting without added fat
- Smoking and grilling
- Stir frying with vegetable oil
The best advice I can give is to learn how to cook so you can control your diet better. It is actually very easy to do, and is guaranteed to impress potential mates. Any number of beginner-oriented cook books can get you started. It is hard to not improve your diet just by cooking your own food; restaurant food is generally not much better than fast food, and they give you way too much of it. Here and here are some good image recipes.
Focus your meals on traditionally cooked food, meaning try to consume the least amount of processed junk you can and try to only eat whole, naturally occuring foods which appear in nature. You can eat a slice of pizza just fine, and a cup of soda won’t kill you; but if all you eat is pizza and soda and pringles and whathaveyou, you will look like somebody who eats nothing but pizza and soda and pringles, and you’ll die like such a person, too . Eating traditionally cooked food, again keeps you more full than highly processed stuff , and for less calories . This usually is the best method to make the nutrients in the food (minerals, vitamins and some other stuff) available to the body. Both raw food , and overprocessed food , are nutrient poor; raw eggs for example have half the bioavailable protein of cooked ones  - it’s actually cheaper in the long run. It also avoids most of the controversial things argued about in health circles, like trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, refined starches, and just plain old fat, sugar or starch bombs.
There is a bunch of discussion about certain pieces of food being bad, and others good. As a rule of thumb, if it was part of a traditional diet, if you could make it by hand, it is good (eggs, butter, olive oil, oatmeal, fruit, …), if not, not (margarine, soda, pizza, gummi bears …).
Diet really boils down to eating the right amount of calories and getting your protein intake. Eat MORE of everything else if you want to gain muscle , and Eat LESS of everything else if you want to lose fat . No, you can’t do both at the same time - at least not unless you’re a total beginner (for a short while), or on certain drugs, or willing to wait a decade to see significant changes. The body just does not do that. All you can do is try to make the best lean to fat mass ratio of the changes you’re inducing. How? As shown above - first of all, by eating a lot of protein. Secondly by exercising, which you will see in the next chapter.
To gain muscle (aka bulk), go for 16-18*[current bodyweight in pounds) of calories per day, every day, for many weeks and months (i.e. If you're 150lbs, eat 16-18*150, so 2400-2700 Cals per day) You want to gain about 4lbs per month, any more and you're just getting extra fat, any less and you're not building muscle fast enough; so adjust calories accordingly, upwards to ensure growth, or downwards to prevent excessive fat gains. Yes, you’re gonna build some fat; that’s the way things are. Yes, you will probably have to eat way more than you are comfortable with. The people that say "I eat a lot and I'm still skinny!" aren't eating enough or counting their calories.
To lose fat (aka cut), go for 10-12*[current bodyweight in pounds] of calories per day, every day, for many weeks and months (e.g. If you're 200lbs, eat 2000-2400 Cals/day). Make sure to keep protein high to spare lean body mass, and reduce your carbs and fats. Yes, you're going to lose some muscle; that's the way things are. Yes, you will still need to lift weights 3x per week whilst cutting. Yes, you will probably have to eat way less than you are comfortable with.
Many people use a calorie calculator for this. Some good ones are Fitday, Cronometer and The Daily Plate. A very useful website that allows you to get the nutrition of foods is WolframAlpha (i.e. if you wanted to find the nutritional content of 1cup of cottage cheese, just type "1cup cottage cheese" and it will generate your results).
If you don't understand how to read the nutrition label, read this.
If you are not gaining/losing/maintaining weight on these calories, you are most likely counting wrong. Alternatively, you might be one of the very few rare exceptions. Either way, simply adjust the number like the next step.
Cutting OR bulking, weigh yourself each fortnight to adjust your calories to your new bodyweight. You should be shooting for around 1lb weight loss/gain per week. Much more than that and you're putting on too much fat, much less and you're losing too much muscle.
Some important pointers:
Almost everyone over-estimates the calories they burn. Your early workouts feel really hard, but you probably aren't actually exerting yourself that much; your body is just over-reacting to your sudden desire to not be a lazy slug. Also, if you don't time yourself, 10 minutes can easily feel like 30 for your first few workouts. Use a watch to time your workouts, or if you have a smartphone, there are a variety of applications available. I've heard good things about RunKeeper.
Almost everyone under-estimates the calories they eat. This is because the actual servings people eat do not correspond to the generic serving sizes on nutrition labels or calorie counting sites. For instance, you might eat an 8oz steak, but the standard serving size is typically something like 3 oz. This goes for almost everything, so try to get a handle on the real quantities you are consuming.
If you follow the numbers exactly, there's no way to fail. That's the beauty of thermodynamics!
How often/when should I eat?
It doesn't matter. Although many will claim that you can speed up your metabolism by eating more meals a day, a review of pertinent studies reveals that this is not true (Source: 1, 2). Common sense dictates that three meals a day should be fine. Although there is no advantage or disadvantage to eating ten times per day versus eating once per day, eating every 2-3 hours or only eating once at the end of the day, eating a big breakfast and not eating a breakfast. At the other end of the scale, if you are trying to force yourself to eat more so you can gain weight (e.g. for bodybuilding), you will probably need to eat more big meals per day just to get enough calories into your body. The only exception is hunger and physical energy. As long as you get all your foods in by the end of the day, you're okay. It all comes down to personal preference. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Similar with meals before bed; if you eat a bigass serving of pasta, you might have problems falling asleep, but that's about it. The idea that eating after X pm was worse than eating before is a myth .
Around workout nutrition gets a lot of attention, mostly from people trying to make a living out of selling post workout supplements. Guess what? They’re biased. Basically, have some protein and carbs 1-3 hours before, and some protein and carbs 0-1.5 hours after . It doesn't need to be IMMEDIATE . In fact, you don't even NEED protein post workout assuming you're not lifting in a fasted state . You can follow this protocol if you need exact numbers. Regular food is just fine , if not superior to supplements . If you can’t stomach anything around workouts, get a whey shake and some carb source like banana. Even while dieting to lose fat, you want to eat protein and carbs around workouts, ESPECIALLY protein, but also some, albeit possibly less, carbs ; eating some before will allow you to train harder, and you want to eat some afterwards because working out induces both protein synthesis as well as breakdown, and to inhibit this, some carbs and a good serving of protein are sufficient.
Starvation is bad, OK?
Weight loss is largely a matter of reducing calories and increasing activity. So if 500 fewer calories a day than you need to maintain is good, 2000 less is better, right? Not really. Because below a certain threshold, your body thinks you are one of those starving refugees on TV, and does a bunch of things that hurt your long-term weight loss.
Read that again: starving is a bad way to lose weight.
Why this is so:
- Your metabolism slows down. Your body will burn fewer calories to maintain itself, and you will feel awful. This is bad for weight loss because as soon as you quit starving yourself, you'll gain weight fast because your metabolism has bottomed out.
- You will tend to lose muscle more than fat. Your body will naturally try to conserve fat and cannibalize muscle if it thinks it is outright starving. This is bad because your real goal is FAT loss, not weight loss. This is how you have people who lose 100 pounds and reach their "ideal" weight, but still look amazingly flabby. Also, losing muscle slows your metabolism down even further, amplifying the giant horrible rebound effect once you quit starving yourself.
- Your life will be a living hell. You'll eventually feel horrible, the diet will fail, and you'll binge eat and regain everything you lost, plus interest.
You want to run a clear-cut, but tolerable calorie deficit to sustain weight loss over the long term. Very obese people may be put on very low calorie diets by their doctor, but these are medically supervised and designed for people who need to lose weight now or suffer severe health problems. Be safe and stick to 500 fewer calories a day than you burn, which is the equivalent of one pound lost per week.
More info on bad dieting:
Women's nutrition is about 99% the same as men's. Some exceptions to note:
- It goes without saying that you need fewer calories than the typical man of your height.
- Make sure you are getting enough iron. Iron deficiency anemia is very common in young women. Be aware that a woman's RDA for iron is 50% higher than that for men (15mg vs 10mg), and USRDA numbers should generally be considered bare-minimums to prevent malnutrition, not ideal targets for optimum performance.
- It is generally accepted that women need more calcium and vitamin D, because they are more prone to osteoporosis.
- Folic acid is a highly recommended supplement for pregnant women.
PART IV: EXERCISE
Introduction to exercise
After all that talk about the importance of diet, why exercise? Because, while it isn't as important as diet, it is still pretty hugely important to your overall health and fitness.
Exercise determines HOW you gain or lose weight, and your body composition generally. You can diet down to, say, 120 pounds. But do you want to be 120 pounds of sleek, sexy muscle, or 120 pounds of gross, flabby loser? Exercise largely dictates the outcome.
Exercise burns calories, which makes it easier to lose weight in conjunction with diet.
Exercise promotes strength, endurance, and resistance to injury and illness, all of which are pretty great in and of themselves.
So exercise makes it easier to lose weight, and plays a big role in the composition of your body. There are two main kinds of exercise, cardiovascular (aka cardio, aerobic, etc.) and weight lifting (aka weights, lifting, resistance training, etc.)
Cardio: Any type of exercise that sustains an elevated heart rate consistently for a long period of time, such as running, cycling, or elliptical machine
Weight lifting: Pretty self explanatory, you push around heavy weights.
Cardio vs. weights
For most people, meeting their fitness goals requires that they do some of both, not one or the other.
I'm going to start with the case for weight lifting, because it seems to have the most misconceptions associated with it.
Are you trying to lose weight? Lift weights. Lifting burns tons of calories, and lifting weights while dieting will cause you to retain more muscle and lose more fat than just diet and/or cardio. It supports lean mass over flabby mass . Because the name of the game when it comes to not looking awful is FAT LOSS, not weight loss. Do you want to be that guy who loses lots of weight and still looks flabby and useless? Of course not.
Are you just trying to "tone up"? Lift weights. "Toning" is kind of a nonsense term, because you don't actually "tone" anything. You can only lose fat and gain muscle, and lifting weights helps you do both , by burning calories and promoting muscle growth. Like I said before, you get huge by eating huge, not lifting weights; lifting just determines how much of your weight is muscle vs. fat.
Are you a woman? Lift weights, because I already explained why lifting won't turn you into a man, and all the other benefits still apply to you. And if you are a 1 in 1,000,000 woman who can pack on muscle mass like a man, just stop working out as hard and it will go away.
Also, if done correctly, lifting weights makes you stronger and healthier , improves your posture , less injury prone , especially falls and fractures by strengthening your bones , making it important for the elderly, and for women  - it helps prevent the yoyo effect . Additionally, it speeds up your metabolism , even while you rest - more than cardio by itself .
But what about cardio? You should do some cardio both when trying to lose fat, and when trying to build muscle. Cardio is good for everyone because it improves your overall endurance and ability to exert yourself over an extended period. It promotes cardiovascular health and contributes to increased bone density. It pretty much makes everything else function better - cardio helps stabilize hormone levels (increasing testosterone  and increasing insulin sensitivity ), improves working capacity  and recovery , helps the body fuel calories away from the fat cells  and into the muscle , helps with weight maintenance/preventing the yoyo effect , generally keeps you healthy , protecting your brain from the detremential effects of aging, improves sexual health…Burns calories  - not all that many, but a significant amount. If you do a lot of cardio, you can and should compensate by eating a bit more (unless trying to lose weight). For burning fat alone, it doesn’t matter if you do easy stuff for a long time (take a 1.5 hour walk), or hard stuff for a short time (hard runs for 30 minutes) . Like with resistance training, pick whatever is safe and what you can stick to.
Cardio is neither required for burning fat  , nor prohibited when building muscle  - that's just an excuse by lazy people. All in all, resistance training is more important for looking pretty (yes, even for girls and pretty boys), but for general health, cardio is essential. Oh, and doing cardio in a fasted state provides no benefit, contrary to popular belief .
My suggestion is to alternate weights and cardio, for instance doing 3 days of weights, 2 days of cardio, and taking the other 2 days off. Doing both on the same day tends to cause one or the other to suffer from reduced effort, and generally burns people out.
What cardio should I do?
Pick one. Seriously, it really doesn't matter, as long as you stick to it. Dance , martial arts, whatever. Work up to 30 minutes of it at a time, and do it fast enough that you're breathing hard and working up a sweat. Safety and progression is the key, just like weight training. From there, constantly try to increase the intensity of your workout. This can be done in a number of ways:
For running and biking, increase the distance covered
For treadmills, increase the duration or speed
For exercise bikes and elliptical machines, increase the duration or resistance setting
Always start with a warm-up where you spend a few minutes working out at low intensity, and then gradually work up to full speed and/or resistance. This will make you feel better during the workout, and reduce the chance of injury.
Mixing it up is just as effective , but arguably more fun. Alternatively, use some excellent structured starting cardio plans like "Couch to 5k", which starts from couch potato level and will transform you into being able to run a 5K without stopping in just two months, or "fartlek".
If you have bad joints, look at swimming or an elliptical machine, or biking (real or stationary). These will let you get a serious workout without pounding your joints to bits.
Lifting weights - recognizing a good program
There are many good weightlifting workout programs out there. Later on, I'm going to list several examples of them. It really does not matter which ones you pick, provided that you do them properly. You will notice that the good ones all have several things in common.
First, they are based almost entirely on compound movements. Compound movements are simply lifts that involve the movement of 2 or more different joints. For instance, a bicep curl only involves one joint (the elbow). A bench press involves two kinds of joints (elbows and shoulders). Compound is much better than isolation (1 joint), especially for beginners, for several reasons.
They do a much better job of stimulating overall muscle growth and development than isolation movements.
They allow you to work out more efficiently. You can hit every major muscle group with a small number of exercises.
They more closely resemble ways you will exert your body in real life. They are better at producing practical, useful strength.
Examples of compound movements include:
Isolation movements aren't evil or worthless, but they are a poor choice for beginners interested in overall muscular development.
Second, related to the first, good programs work out the entire body. You will never get the results you want just doing your arms or chest; it doesn't work that way.
Third, good workout programs make you move a substantial amount of weight. Doing some girly program where you do a huge number of repetitions with tiny weights won't do you much good (including if you are, in fact, a girl). To stimulate muscle growth at the expense of just carrying fat around, you have to place a substantial load on the muscle. That means using enough weight that you can only do 5-10 repetitions of a compound lift before needing a rest. The exact number of repetitions or sets you do isn't important, but you can't get results without placing a real load on your muscles.
Fourth, good programs have you using barbells and/or dumbbells, not machines. Machine exercises are inferior to using free weights in almost every situation. Any workout program that is based around using machines is almost guaranteed to be stupid and mostly a waste of your time. One exception you might consider is a lat pulldown machine if you aren't strong enough to do chin-ups and don't have an assisted chin-up machine available, but even here the real exercise is markedly superior. Further reading: Why weight machines are bad for almost everyone.
Any workout regimen that works the full body 2-3x per week  with low rep , few sets (optimal is 3) of heavy compound movements (listed above) with added weight periodically is generally optimum for beginners. You will gain a load of strength and size which is great for a beginner aiming to look better and stay healthy and in shape.
Once you do not gain anymore on these routines, do something else. As long as you are, keep doing these, because nothing will work any better than this; once you stall, switch to more appropriate routines, with slower, but more manageable progressions. There is no sense in going to an advanced routine now; nothing will give you as many results as a correctly applied beginner routine.
Lifting weights - general guidance for following any program
Track your progress in writing! I can't emphasize this enough. Write down how much you lifted & how many times you lifted it every session. You won't have any sense of concrete progress if you don't, and you'll lose track of your lifts and screw things up. Every week, focus on beating your numbers from last week. If you cannot do this, it's time to analyze your diet and your sleep habits, because something is wrong.
Don't be afraid of barbells or dumbbells. The key to safely using them is to focus on good technique (form), and to increase the weight you are using gradually. Only do the exercise for as long as you can do the exercise properly and control the weight. If you can't control the weight, reduce the weight until you can.
Do a good warm-up. A few minutes of light cardio is a good general warm-up. Then before you do each exercise, do 8-12 reps with very light weight (the bar). Many weight lifting workouts have a built-in warm-up, where you start with a light weight and then increase the weight gradually with each set. Read this for a good article on warming up. Warm up properly for each compound exercise. Warming up is done to warm up the muscles and joints and get your CNS fired up to move some heavy weight.
It is not important what weight you start with, but where you end up. Be conservative at first, but from then on constantly try to add weight or increase the number of repetitions for every exercise from workout to workout. If you do this, you'll be working very hard soon enough. 2.5% more weight per week is a realistic goal, and at first you may gain more like 5%/week. That sounds small, but it adds up to a huge strength improvement in a year.
You have to push yourself to get results, but don't be stupid. Soreness and stiffness are normal; genuine pain is not. If you hurt yourself, give yourself plenty of time to 100% recover from an injury before you start again, or you'll just re-injure yourself.
Most barbell exercises can be substituted with their dumbbell equivalent, or vice versa, and achieve the same training effect. As a beginner, you may find it easier or more comfortable to work with dumbbells, and this is fine. The only exceptions are squats and deadlifts, because it can be difficult to get enough weight on dumbbells without making it very awkward.
You need days off from lifting. Do not try to lift on off-days in a lifting program in an effort to make faster progress; you'll over-train and start doing worse, not better.
Don't time your rests between sets, that's stupid. Every set is unique. You should rest as long as you need for your body to feel ready to complete the next set. This could mean a 1 minute rest, or a 10 minute rest. Shorter rests don't help muscle gains . Although 3-5 minutes are best for strength gains .
Try to do good reps, focusing on good form over exhaustion. Whenever you more or less comfortably hit the upper range of the indicated rep range, add weight the next workout; this is a good sign and shows you are inducing physical adaptions, like muscular hypertrophy (if you are eating a surplus) or at least improved neural efficiency. Stick with this reduced selection for now, focus and persistence are the key words. You may later want to add additional exercises if you realize you need them. Especially consider adding leg curls or Glute-Ham-Raises, arm curls, weighted crunches or planks, and explosive lifts like power cleans. You may also notice that one exercise simply does not work for you, in which case you can switch to a substitute, like DB bench press, front squats, barbell rows, upright rows or push presses, romanian deadlifts or low bar squats, chinups or pullups.
The three key components of weightlifting
- Aim for balance - work the legs, the front, the back, the core, the limbs; push and pull, flex and extend. I don’t think much of excessively focussing on certain bodyparts. A balanced body is a healthy and attractive body. If you only care about getting bigger arms, go read another guide.
- Train progressively   - you have to increase the loading parameters over time or nothing will happen. As a beginner, you want to add weight to your exercises every week at least. If you don’t add weight over time, your body is not going to change. It is an adaption process. You lift heavy, your body adapts to the stress, you the lift heavier and you keep lifting heavier until you can lift the heaviest you can lift. Track your lifts on a notepad every workout.
- Stay safe and injury free- educate yourself on proper form, watch videos, make videos of yourself and show them around. Bad lifting can hurt you, and won’t make you any better. See here for some reference cards. If you want a deeper understanding of the main lifts, I highly recommending reading Starting Strength. Also, if you can't control the weight on the way down, it's too heavy. Don't just drop it.
Generally, you want to take a balanced selection of mostly multi-joint (compound), full-body exercises, and do a few heavy, but secure sets per exercise per week, doing each exercise about twice a week, keep good form, starting with a manageable weight and trying to consistently increase the weight on the main lifts. Later on, you would add some assistance exercises for specific purposes, but the money lies in becoming able to do these compound exercises for about 5-8 reps  with ever increasing weight. Any routine and training scheme that allows you to do this is good, anything that doesn’t most likely bad. A routine like this will allow you to lose fat and therefore look more defined/toned, or build muscle/gain bodymass, depending on your diet.
Lifting weights: example programs
The following are good, proven programs to follow for weight lifting. The key thing to keep in mind is that you don't need a perfect program for you, because one doesn't exist anyway. You just need to follow a program that is fundamentally sound and work hard at it. Some of the programs are more bodybuilder-oriented or athlete-oriented, but in truth they all do the same basic things and work on the same basic principles. For a normal person working hard at them, they'll produce the results a normal person would want: more strength, more muscle and less fat.
Good beginner routines:
- Starting Strength (Minimalist and a classic. This one has worked countless times already. Also check out the accompanying book. Check the extensive wiki, and here to answer all of your questions.)
- Stronglifts (a variation on the above theme)
- Reg Parks beginners 5x5 (bit high in volume, but well rounded)
- Stripped 5x5 (6 compound exercises with dumbbell alternatives for most exercises. Easy for beginners to learn to perform correctly.)
If you are a beginner or have been training and eating poorly your whole training period, follow a beginner routine. Beginner doesn't mean easy, it means it is appropriate for your body's level of adaption. In fact, you will gain better following a beginner program properly than you will the rest of your life.
Good intermediate routines:
- Bill Starr Linear 5x5 (This is a very good, basic workout from a renowned strength coach. This is aimed at the intermediate lifter and is great to do once gains have stopped on Starting Strength.)
- Jim Wendlers 5/3/1 (3 or 4 days/week) - this is a rather typical powerlifting/athleticism program. You can find the answers to common 5/3/1 questions here.
- Joe DeFrancos Badass (3 days/week) - this is a bodybuilding/athleticism program.
- The Texas Method (read: Practical Programming) - excellent for after SS
These programs are more advanced than beginner and are typically for people that have stagnated their progress on one of the above programs, and reset a few times (meaning dropped the weight a little and built back up).
- Once you get to this level, your knowledge should have transcened beyond the scope of this article. Some advanced techniques to look up are myoreps or rest pause. Again, this is for the advanced.
Lifting weights: A simple beginner program
People seem to be put off by the programs I've linked to, either because they can be a bit jargon-heavy, or because they seem to be aimed at the hardcore bodybuilder or athlete. They are, but the reasons these programs work them are the same reasons they'll work for you; they're fundamentally sound weightlifting programs. Keep in mind that you won't be dieting or taking supplements like those guys, and you'll be starting with weights you can handle and working your way up gradually. So there really is no problem with a normal person - male or female - who just wants to look and feel better doing one of these programs.
That said, there seems to be a big demand for a much simpler starter program. So here it is: Sean10mm's "Stripped" 5x5 (which was already linked). This program combines some of the best elements from Starting Strength and 5x5 and presents them in a format easy to understand for beginners.
Lifting weights - common terminology
|Repetition (rep)||Doing an exercise 1 time properly|
|Set||A group of repetitions. If you do 5 repetitions in a row and then stop, that is one set of 5 repetitions.|
|Intensity||The amount of effort you are expending.|
|Form||How correctly you are doing the exercise. Strict form is important to prevent injury & get the most benefit from the exercise.|
|Barbell (BB)||A long bar you put weights on, meant for two-handed exercises|
|Dumbbell (DB)||A short bar with weights on the ends, meant for one-handed exercises|
Lifting weights - notes for women
The same principles apply to both men and women. Seriously. You can follow a "super power lifter man program" as hard as you can for years and never get big, just leaner and stronger and better looking.
If you somehow start to get visible muscles you don't want, reduce your calorie intake, or reduce the intensity of your weight workouts and make up the difference with more cardio. Without continued heavy lifting, the extra muscles will go away. Remember that gaining muscle is a slow, gradual process.
There is an excellent article on women & weight lifting here: T-Nation - Fun With Women!
Stumptuous is a brilliant dedicated site for women and lifting that closely aligns with the principles covered in this guide.
Posture and Flexibility
Stretching is mainly done to either: correct a posture issue wanting to be corrected, or for general mobility / help weight training / general health / sport. Common postural deficiencies are usually fixed by a combination of stretches, strength work and consciously maintaining proper posture. Good posture keeps you injury free and looks good. I wanted to add a couple quick notes about stretching, because it's a common beginner question and there are a number of myths associated with it. Firstly, static stretching (any stretching done in place, holding for X number of seconds) should never be done before exercise. It can cause muscles to tighten rather than relax, putting the body at a greater risk of injury and limiting the muscle's capacity to perform. Instead, perform active movements simulating the exercise you are about to perform (See here for a warm-up protocol). Before a weightlifting session, perform the lifts you are about to do with increasing weight. Before a run, perform a light jog. Before playing sports, do some quick plyometrics or active warmups. As far as stretching after a workout, this is is the best time to perform static stretches because the muscles are warm. A reader (thanks Jules!) suggested the Runner's World Complete Guide to Stretching. If you would like some mobility work to perform better, check out this amazing site run by a PhD Physical Therapist out in SoCal. He's funny and puts things out in a way that is easy to understand and learn. You should check him out. If you are going to follow the MobilityWOD, I recommend starting right at the beginning and performing each daily workout from there onwards.
PART V: MEASURING PROGRESS
The most important thing about measuring progress - any kind of progress - is to track it in writing. Whether it is weight you are lifting going up, or weight on your body going down, write it down! You can't meet goals if you have no idea what your real progress is. If you prefer to track online, check out Bodyspace, DailyBurn, or Physics Diet for you nerds out there.
Watching your weight
Your body weight isn't everything - composition is more important - but it is certainly good to know. What follows are tips for tracking your weight.
A common pitfall in tracking weight is to weigh yourself at different times of the day. You body weight can easily swing 5 pounds based on how hydrated you are, when the last time you ate or had a bowel movement was, and so on. For most consistent results, weigh yourself first thing in the morning, preferably fully evacuated. Incidentally, this is also a lower weight than any other time of the day.
Don't weigh yourself every day, you'll see too much random variation to know if anything is going on, and the overall change you are looking for is only going to be a few pounds a week. So weigh yourself once a week.
Progress beyond poundage
The thing about your weight is that it doesn't tell you what you're made of, just how much of you there is. The name of the game is losing fat, not muscle, so what happens if fat goes down and weight stays the same or goes up? You made up the difference in lean mass, of course. You shrink in areas that were full of fat, because muscle is more dense than fat. People on good programs often see larger changes in clothing sizes that their weight change would suggest. This is a good thing, because your real progress in terms of appearance is better than the scale is telling you.
The best way to track your overall progress appearance-wise is by measuring yourself with a tape measure in areas you want to get bigger or smaller, and by taking pictures of yourself at regular intervals. This way you can see how your body composition is changing for the better. Here is a short guide on how to take body measurements.
As I noted earlier, for lifting weights you should always track your progress in writing. Really, you can't effectively implement a good weight program - even a simple one - without doing this.
PART VI: MORE QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
- I read about (insert diet or fitness program here) and it isn't mentioned in this guide. Is it any good?
- A: Maybe. This guide only covers the basics, and fitness and nutrition are big subjects. Please keep in mind that there is a lot of huckster garbage associated with diet and exercise. You really need to be careful.
Signs someone is trying to rip you off:
- Extravagant claims of massive improvement in a short period of time with little or no effort. If it sounds too good to be true, guess what? It is.
- Claims of secret or suppressed knowledge that "the [diet/fitness/medical/exercise] establishment" doesn't want you to know about. Claims that all well-established forms of exercise like running and lifting weights are wrong.
- Claims about spot reduction or converting fat to muscle, both of which are impossible. Losing fat and gaining muscle are possible, but you don't literally turn one into the other.
- Use of meaningless language like "toning" or "sculpting" instead of talking about quantifiable changes to body composition, strength or endurance.
- Magical language. Your personal spirituality is beyond the scope of this guide, but appeals to vaguely defined concepts like "energy fields" that are never actually explained and "internal cleansing" of various "toxins" that always remain nameless are usually strong indicators that someone is trying to con you.
- Overuse of scientific-sounding language that is never actually defined. Real programs may have some jargon in them, but they will explain what the jargon means. At worst, you'll be able to easily find the meaning of their terminology, because they're using real concepts with a real scientific basis. Con artists just tend to throw lots of big words at you in the hope that you just give up and assume that they're smarter than you are, and you can never find out what they actually mean, because they just made it up to sell you something.
- Even though the parameters of successful training routines are more or less well known  - I don't know if this exact routine is good. If it is for beginners - does it look pretty similar to the ones I’ve linked to above? If yes, it’s probably good. If it’s not for beginners - have you ever done a routine similar to the beginner routines I linked to? If yes, you should be able to decide if your routine X is good. If not, just do one of the things I linked to instead.
- I drastically changed my diet for the better, and nothing happened after a week. Or, I suddenly stopped losing weight for a week after weeks of weight loss. What happened?
- A1: Maybe nothing. Sometimes weight loss has minor hiccups for no apparent reason. Maybe you had an extra glass of water the night before, or just retained some extra water for some random reason. If you are sticking a good diet, give it another week or two before you worry about changing things.
- A2: All else being equal, to stay at 280 pounds takes more calories than it does to stay 180 pounds, even if the difference is all fat. So if you lost a lot of weight, this may be a contributing factor.
- I'm really sore from working out/I have DOMS. What do I do?
- A: Soreness doesn't necessarily mean anything, but it can be unpleasant. For a little soreness, just suck it up.
- If it is severe, you may want to take an extra day off, or do a reduced version of your regular workout until it improves. Ibuprofen is the over-the-counter painkiller of choice for muscular pain. I'm not going to tell you to ignore the instructions on the label, but prescriptions of 800 milligrams for minor pain are commonplace (the over-the-counter dose is 2 tablets of 200mg each). You can also remove soreness with a foam roller or any other types of deep tissue massage.
- Delayed onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS) occurs from microscopic tears in your muscle fibers.
- If you have horrible DOMS right now: Eat. Sleep. Eat. A lot. Next workout, go to the gym. Carefully do your warmups. If you can do them in good form, carefully add weight and keep doing your workout as long as proper form is maintained. If you can't, go home and try again ASAP. No crying, no excuses; but also, no being stupid and injuring yourself. Over time, you won't get DOMS anymore if you keep doing the exercise. If you stop doing them, you will get DOMS anew, so keep training, to fight away the DOMS at first, and to keep it away later. Most other stuff doesn't work . If you want DOMS because you think it's important for muscle growth, It's not.
Note: Don't confuse soreness with pain; outright pain is often a sign of an actual injury. If you injure yourself, stop working out the injured area until it is 100% recovered and see here. If the pain doesn't go away or if you experience severe pain and/or loss of range of motion, see a doctor.
- I experience a sharp pain in my side when I'm doing cardio. What's going on?
- A: Probably nothing more than a "side stitch", a fairly common complaint of runners, especially new runners just getting into shape. Curiously, there is no good scientific explanation for this pain, but it will go away on its own. As your fitness improves, you will generally stop experiencing them.
- I experience sharp pain in my shins from running. What's happening?
- A: Probably "shin splints." This is just caused by straining or overworking the muscles to the side of the shins. Taking a break from running until the pain goes away is generally all that is necessary. Normally the muscles adapt over time and you quit getting shin splints. If not, the problem could be caused by flat feet (fallen arches), which can be treated with insoles that help overpronation. A physiotherapist can aid with this part.
- I've been lifting weights for a while, and have suddenly stopped making progress even though I'm trying hard. What happened?
- A1: You may have simply over-trained and need a rest. Take a few days off, and then go back at it again.
- A2: At some point you will need to eat more food to continue making rapid strength gains. Of course, if you don't want to get bigger anymore, at some point you will have to accept some limit on your strength gains.
- Is it safe for kids to train with weights?
- A: Yes, it's safe . No, it doesn't stunt height.
- A: Recovery is about a bunch of factors. Your brain, your mind, your individual muscles and joints, the body as a whole all need recovery from training. Sleep enough, reduce stress, eat enough, choose a sensible routine. That's the main factors. Sleeping is a vital aspect of muscle building. You cannot fully recover without getting enough sleep, along with it filling a plethora of other detrimental needs for your health. Get 8-9 hours per night. Have a set bed time and wake up time - your body responds well to having a regular time to sleep. Your sleep cycle and amounts of REM sleep adjust to however you sleep. If you sleep and wake erratically, you cannot adjust. Also, avoid any more than 11 hours sleep as it provides a negative hormonal environment within the body. Read here for more info.
- A: Unless you are training for a specific sport and your trainer tells you to, don’t do it , It’s a fad. The hype around HIIT for general fitness stems from a misunderstanding of some preliminary research. I know HIIT is more fun and less sucky than regular cardio; I personally like doing it a lot more than said cardio; but generally, standard cardio is just more effective AND efficient for burning fat  and maintaining muscle, as well as parameters of health and performance/endurance and fat burning capabilities , and will not interfere with your recovery as much .
- Two topics are brought up again and again when it comes to HIIT: EPOC/afterburn, which is negligible with HIIT ; and Vo2max, which most anybody gets wrong . I wish it were so simple, but 4 minutes of pushups and pauses is not going to do much to you. You have to put in a bit more effort .
- I want the quickest way to lose weight that is not completely idiotic!
- A: The quickest legal way is something called PSMF by Lyle McDonald.
- "Clean" food? (Brown vs. White Rice, Sweet Potatos vs. Regular Potatoes, Organic vs. Conventional, “Clean” eating vs. Mixed diets...)
- A: This is mostly down to taste preferences. The nutritional differences between the alternatives are neglible (really; check the labels). I know the internet says otherwise, but the cold hard numbers are what matters. You may eat the pricier option if it gives you a smug sense of superiority, I don’t really care, just don’t act as if it was necessary or optimal unless you can bring specific numbers to the table (say, item X has 120% more of nutrient Y than item Z).
- Generally speaking, if you eat lots of the protein foods mentioned above, and lots of vegetables, and maybe supplement some vitamin D and fish oil, you got your nutrients covered. And if you don’t, you most likely don’t, and how crappy your rice tastes won’t change a thing
- Questions about specific nutrients
- A: Fructose! Saturated Fats! Vegetable Fats!
- Again: anything is bad in excess, and good in moderation. Usually, you will get an excess of certain things if you eat too much overprocessed, modern food; you will get appropriate, healthy amounts of stuff if you eat a traditionally prepared, moderated diet.
- You will not get excess fructose from eating fruit, or excess saturated fat from eating fish and eggs. You will get excess fructose from drinking soda 24/7, and from eating pizza and burgers all day. It is less a question of things with chemical names, and more a question of apples and oranges (or rather, apples and candy).
- General ketogenic diets/Atkins?
- A: First, refer to the general principles of dieting. If your keto diet fits in there, it's gonna work.
- Some people however claim that ketosis is inherently better than a carb based or carb inclusive diet. The evidence however is farily conclusive: while many people consume too many carbs and need to cut back on them, and while some people simply feel better on a low carb or even ketogenic diet, feeling less hunger and less bloat, others do not, with many reporting adverse reactions to keto and low carb, and on average, ketogenic diets do not burn more fat or spare muscle better than non ketogenic diets 143]. Any claimed benefit of ketogenic diets that would work for everyone is mostly mediated by the higher protein content in comparison to regular diets; and obviously, you can also eat a low fat high carb high protein diet, and many people are doing just this and benefiting from it .
- For the wrong idea that low carb is inherently better than moderate or high carb, refer to the paragraph on macronutrient ratios. Again: different things work for different people. You will have to experiment a bit.
- Any question focusing on Insulin! Glycaemic Index!
- A: Forget about it. Insulin is vastly misunderstood  by the usual internet fitness writers. It is one of several key players, not the only culprit; it only mediates what your diet and exercise do anyways; there are alternative pathways that are just as important; if you try to shape your body by controlling insulin, the body will just use another pathway to bring you to where you should be.
- Insulin, or various foods and their effects on insulin, are often blamed for obesity and, at times, every other bad thing. This is in part because on a mixed diet (carbs and fat), insulin is the hormone that mostly regulates bodyfat storage, and insulin resistance is a common and dangerous symptom of obesity. However, on a carb free diet, the body won’t simply waste nutrients either, and other pathways will be used to get fat if you eat enough; and insulin resistance is caused by eating excess fat alternatively to excess carbs, too. Most people that are fat today got fat by eating carbs and fat combined; but that only means that they ate a lot of fat and carbs, not that combining fat and carbs, or eating carbs at all, makes you fat. They would have gotten as fat on a carb free diet, and almost as fat on a fat free diet, assuming the calories stay the same.
- Insulin also causes satiety, prevents muscle catabolism, increases free testosterone levels and, most of all, a healthy, exercising and well-eating individual will be able to control their blood sugar and insulin levels quite well enough anyways.
- High-GI food has been wrongly implicated of being fattening; and low-GI diets have been wrongly thought to be more filling. This is flat out wrong and mainly stems from the fact that researchers used to use highly processed food to represent high-GI food, and less processed food to represent low-GI food. Even the GI - insulin connection is way more complex than carbophobics usually think.
PART VII: THANKS
Hungry for more? This guide is just a start. If you want to read a comprehensive guide to health and fitness, I recommend the book Brain Over Brawnby Clint Cornelius.
October 14 - First draft.
October 15 - Added notes for vegetarians, added starting cardio plan & warm-up information. Fixed assorted minor errors.
October 16 - Added additional Q&A information, minor changes to wording/layout.
October 17 - Added hints for avoiding fraudulent fitness programs. Removed profanity.
January 24 - Updated workout links, added more supplement information.
February 25 - Minor changes, new links to the Starting Strength Wiki and to Stumptuous.
March 6 - Removed information about more meals/day having a positive effect on weight loss in light of recent studies. Large grammar/spelling cleanups. Added a few more useful links, guides, and sources.
May 29 - Robert Kent graciously reformatted this guide to make it easier on the eyes. Thanks, Robert!
June 4 - Fixed formatting, changed saturated fat recommendations based on recent studies.
June 7 - Added more information on shin splints.
January 27 - Complete edit of the guide for grammar, tone, and style. Long overdue!
May 16 - Added section about stretching