Rookie Mistakes: 10 Common Training Questions Answered

Dumbbells, barbells, exotic machines. People sweating, grunting, pushing and pulling, then resting a moment before doing it all over again. For someone unfamiliar with the ritual of weight training, the first trip to a gym can be a lot like stepping into a strange alternate reality.

But while confusion is natural, the experience doesn't have to be overwhelming. Enter with the answers to the most common queries about training, and soon you'll be slinging iron like a pro.

The 10 questions we'll address in this article include:
01 As a beginner, is it better to use free weights or machines?
02 What's the optimal number of repetitions per set to make mass gains?
03 How slow should each repetition be?
04 How do I know if I'm working the intended muscle group?
05 How many days per week should I train?
06 Now that I'm training, can I eat anything I want?
07 If I do weights and cardio in the same workout, does it matter which I start with?
08 I really just want big biceps, a thicker chest and six-pack abs. Is there really any need to work the rest of my body?
09 Should I be following the pro bodybuilder workouts I see in the magazines?
10 I worry about hurting my knees — should I be squatting?

Without further ado, here is the scouting report to help you quickly progress from bodybuilding rookie to seasoned veteran.

1) As a beginner, is it better to use free weights or machines?
Opinions are divided among experts on this topic, with interesting arguments on both sides of the aisle. Machine proponents tout the fact that, because machines are inherently safer and locked into a fixed plane of motion, they are great for newbies as a place to first expose their muscles to exercise without needing to understand the exact biomechanics of each movement. In other words, because your range of motion is preset, it gives you less chance to screw up your form.

In free weight's favor, however, is the idea that machines are one-size-fits-all while people have wide-ranging heights, shapes and limb lengths, meaning you may be forming that all-important mind-muscle connection on an apparatus not necessarily built to your specifications. Also, perhaps most notably, barbell and dumbbell moves are the best tools available for training, so why wouldn't you want to learn those types of exercises right off the bat? If you start off with light weight in the 15-20 rep range per set, and perhaps have a certified professional showing you the ropes to ensure your form is spot-on, free weights provide a great place to begin.

While the debate ranges, the best answer for beginners seems to be a mix of barbell, dumbbell and machine-based exercises. Here's a list of basic exercises for each muscle group that you can consider for your initial workouts:
Bodypart Barbell* Dumbbell Machine
Chest Bench Press Incline Press Pec-Deck Fly
Shoulders Military Press Lateral Raise Seated Press
Back Bent-Over Row One-Arm Row Lat Pulldown
Legs Squat Lunge Extension, Curl
Triceps Close-Grip Bench Kickback Dip
Biceps Standing Curl Concentration Curl Preacher Curl
* For these six exercises especially, it's best to have someone on hand who is well-versed in technique and form; at this stage, they are not something you want to try on your own without assistance.
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2) What's the optimal number of repetitions per set to make mass gains?
Powerlifters usually train with sets of six reps or less. Bodybuilders generally follow protocols of 8-12 reps per set. And endurance athletes pretty much stick to around 15 reps (or more) per set. Those parameters aren't guesses, they have become accepted practice among the elite in each group because scientific research and in-the-trenches results have borne out the fact that they are effective for the particular goals of each type of athlete.

For strength, your working sets should usually fall in the 2-6 range; if your goal is to build muscle, most of your working sets should fall between 8-12 challenging reps. And if muscular endurance is a key attribute for you (whether for sports or another purpose), you'll want to keep your repetitions at 12-15 or above.

That is, however, after your beginner stage, when it will serve you well to work in the 12-to-20 rep range. This helps you learn exercise technique through practice with lighter weights, forming the mind-muscle links that will be crucial to your gains and injury prevention when you move on to the next level.
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3) How slow should each repetition be?
As you become more advanced, there are manipulations you might use to elicit different benefits, such as explosive repetitions or super-slow reps. But as a beginner the ideal cadence is a two-count --one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two -- as you move the weight through the concentric portion of the exercise (i.e. the "lifting" of a weight, such as the upward motion on a bench press or barbell curl), a one-count pause to squeeze your muscle at the top of a rep, followed by a 2-4 count on the negative, or lowering, phase.

Keep in mind, the negative is just as important as the concentric lift. Never get into a habit of letting the weight return to the starting position in an uncontrolled freefall -- maintain tension on your muscles as you lower under strict control on each and every rep.
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4) How do I know if I'm working the intended muscle group?
So many aspiring bodybuilders fall short on this important concept, aimlessly repping through workout after workout without maximally engaging the muscles they're trying to target. The very start of your weight training endeavors is the best time to address this critical objective and form a strong mind-muscle connection. Here's how you do it: On every single repetition, visualize and focus on the muscle contracting and extending. For example, on a biceps curl, in your mind's eye picture your biceps clenching and tightening to bend your arm and lift the weight. Continually do this every time you go to the gym, and over time you'll find you can more easily enter this "training zone" -- soon, it will come automatically every time you hit the weights.
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5) How many days per week should I train?
Start with three days a week, training your whole body in one session. At the outset, one exercise per bodypart of 15-20 reps is enough (see the program provided in the answer to question #8 for an example). After a month or so, you can divide your body into upper- and lower-focused workouts, hitting chest, back, shoulders and arms on one day and legs and abdominals on the other -- at that point, you could start training four times a week, and doing 2-3 sets per exercise.

When you get to a stage, after about 3-4 months of training, that you can start giving each body part more focused attention (such as with a split like the one offered below), 4-5 days per week in the gym is ample for recreational trainers. Advanced bodybuilders train six days a week, sometimes twice per day, but that is an intense undertaking reserved for those whose life revolves around training, rest and recovery. Anyone with a full-time job who attempts such an aggressive schedule is almost guaranteed to overtrain, which brings with it a host of side effects, including increased incidence of injury, a weakened immune system, an inability to repair muscle damage after workouts, and in severe cases even mental depression.

Sample Training Split
This is an intermediate level split; you should have at least three months of consistent training before splitting your bodyparts into different training sessions like this:
Monday Back and biceps
Tuesday Chest and triceps
Wednesday Off
Thursday Legs
Friday Shoulders and abs
Saturday Off
Sunday Off (or start over again at Monday's workout)
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6) Now that I'm training, can I eat anything I want?
To some of you, this may seem like an outrageous question — why would you work out but not also fix your diet at the same time? — but if it sounds perfectly logical, we need to talk. The decision to begin a resistance-training program can lead to incredible, often monumental changes in your physique and your well being. But you put yourself at a distinct disadvantage if you don't assess and revamp your diet simultaneously. Nutrition makes a huge impact on how you look and how you feel, more in fact than just training ever could; clean eating combined with consistent workouts is the best, fastest and most surefire way to achieve your goals. You can't build the type of body you aspire to, nor improve your energy levels or overall health, simply by going to the gym a few times a week if at the same time you are adhering to the same poor nutritional habits that led to your current condition in the first place. Make the commitment to training and diet, and embrace fitness as a lifestyle, not just something you only think about for an hour a day. You will reap truly life-altering benefits that aren't possible only focusing on one aspect or the other.
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7) If I do weights and cardio in the same workout, does it matter which I start with?
As a beginner, we would recommend weight training first, then cardio, if you do both in the same session, as you shouldn't be learning proper form and technique on unfamiliar exercises while fatigued from a bout of aerobic activity. Research shows you may want to continue this pattern even when you're a more experienced exerciser, as cardio after weights has been shown to burn more body fat than doing cardio beforehand.

Once you're more advanced, you can also consider separating your training and cardio sessions. Many bodybuilders prefer to do their cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, when muscle glycogen (energy) stores are low, to tap into body fat stores earlier in a session for fuel. If you want to get even more aggressive, you can put a recent study out of the University of Tokyo to use: Research published in the June 2007 Journal of Applied Physiology showed that two 30-minute bouts of cardio with a 20-minute rest in between more effectively burned fat than one continuous 60-minute session.
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8) I really just want big biceps, a thicker chest and six-pack abs. Is there really any need to work the rest of my body?
No, go ahead and just focus on the showcase muscles. That will work out fine — if you don't mind crafting a physique that's hopelessly out of balance and appears cartoonish, that is. The problem with only working certain muscles is it can cause some unintended consequences. For instance, work your chest but not your back, and you'll soon develop a more slouched appearance as your pectorals overpower your shoulders and back. Train your biceps hard while ignoring your triceps and not only will your arm still look small — the triceps muscle makes up two-thirds of your upper-arm mass — but your elbow joint will be compromised because of the strength imbalance. Instead, you should make the commitment to building your whole body, not merely a selection of favorite parts. As a beginner, the following program can give you a good head start in this direction.
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Sample Beginner Full-Body Workout
Back Lat Pulldown 1 15
Chest Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press 1 15
Quadriceps (front of leg) Leg Extension 1 15
Hamstrings (back of leg) Seated Leg Curl 1 15
Shoulders Seated Smith-Machine Press 1 15
Biceps Standing EZ-Bar Curl 1 15
Triceps Dip Machine 1 15
Forearms Dumbbell Wrist Cur 1 20
Calves Standing Calf Raise 1 20
Abs Crunch 1 20
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9) Should I be following the pro bodybuilder workouts I see in the magazines?
Even they would tell you, no. Not yet. Those workouts represent a progression that has occurred over years of their training. Just like a Little League player shouldn't step up to the plate against an MLB pitcher, you shouldn't try to instantly emulate the workout of an athlete who has been training intensely for years and bodybuilds as his career. Once you have six months to a year of experience under your belt, you can start looking to pro workouts for inspiration and ideas, but even then, those workouts shouldn't be followed blindly and to the letter — once you have a firm grasp of the basic exercises for each bodypart, you need to experiment and find just the right mix of movements that work for your muscles and body type. And, since one of the keys to keeping your muscles a little off balance and thus ready to respond through growth is variety, the "right workout" will evolve with you over time.

10) I worry about hurting my knees — should I be squatting?
None other than the prestigious National Strength and Conditioning Association takes a firm stand on this issue. An official Position Statement from the organization states, "Squats, when performed correctly and with appropriate supervision, are not only safe, but may be a significant deterrent to knee injuries." It goes on to say that squatting "is not detrimental to knee joint stability when performed correctly," and "injuries attributed to the squat may result not from the exercise itself, but from improper technique, pre-existing structural abnormalities, other physical activities, fatigue or excessive training." With that, you should squat with confidence. It may indeed be the most productive and effective of any single weight-training exercise you can do, and ought to be a regular part of any serious bodybuilding program.