Know Your Workout: Getting Started


June 26, 2012 by Darlene McC

There’s a common mistake that almost every person who is new to fitness (or just been away from it for awhile) makes.  I made it.  Most of my friends and colleagues did it to.  Chances are, if you’re at the beginning of your health journey, you’re making it to.  It’s not having a clear goal in mind and a plan to reach that goal.

“Yeah, but Darlene, that makes it sound like work!”  Well, sometimes it can be a lot like work.  But if you put in the work up front you get greater results; which means you have less work to do later.  Much like loafing around your house instead of cleaning wont do anything for your dust bunnies, loafing around the gym wont do much for your ass.  Read on for strategies to help keep you from repeating my (and many other’s) mistakes.

Do A Little Homework

No, not solely on rep schemes and technique. On yourself.

A very common misconception is that if you just show up and move around that’ll be enough; and sure, you’ll see some results.  Sometimes.  But think about any project you’ve ever worked on: if everyone on the project has a clear goal in mind they’re more likely to only do work toward that clear goal and not waste time on extraneous efforts, right?  The more focused you are the more focused your workouts will be.  Read up on setting strong goals here.

Then do some homework in yourself: what kind of workout do you think you’ll like?  We don’t need research scientists to tell us that you’re more likely to stick with something you like.  If you’re not sure then look at the classes your gym offers or try spinning.  Many gyms offer a free personal training session so ask the trainer for ideas.  Can’t afford a gym?  Rent some workout DVDs or ask a buff friend to show you what they do.

Start With Assessment

“You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”  Yeah, there are some days that really looking at yourself in the mirror is hard.  This might be one of them.  If you’ve read Why I Hate BMI then you know that I feel strongly that pounds and BMI are not a good measure of fitness, wellness, or results… but you know what is?  Girth Measurements.  In the post linked above I talk about what Girth Measurements are and how useful they can be.  Take a circumference measurement of your waist, hips, right thigh, right biceps (upper arm), and neck.  Then, write yourself a letter (or journal entry).  Write about what size pants you’re wearing and how they feel on your body.  Write about how it feels to walk up a few flights of stairs.  Include in the letter what your measurements came to and then tuck it away somewhere.  We’ll come back to that later…

Make  a Plan

Based on your goals and self assessment it’s time to figure out how to get there.  For a n00b to the workout world I suggest starting at the gym with 2 – 4 times a week.  Ask yourself this honest question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, what is the likelihood that you’ll go to the gym 4 times next week?”  If the answer is less than 9, ask yourself about going 3 times.  Is the answer still less than a 9?  Then what about 2?

[A touch of hard-love reality: If the answer is less than 2 times, then losing weight is not a high enough priority and you aren’t committed.  That’s all there is to it.  You may lose weight because of dietary changes, but you’re not committed to being legitimately healthy at only once a week.]

Whatever number of times is 9 or 10, then you have a 90% to 100% chance of showing up, good job.  Now go to your calendar and actually schedule that time in: block out an hour or 90 minutes for your workouts.  If you can’t give an hour then find time for 2 – 30 minute sessions in it’s place.  Ideally you’ll want to strength/resistance train every other day during the week, like planning to resistance train on Monday and Wednesday.  You’ll want to fill in your cardio around that, so in this example it would be Tuesday and Thursday.  This is due to something called Supercompensation that wikipedia does a great job of explaining.  If you’re getting in less than 4 days a week then plan to do strength and cardio on the same day, every other day.

What’s In A Workout

Now we come to the big money: what do you actually do!? There are plenty of options out there, and 99.99% of them are built on the same science.  Here are the broad details:

  • Work your full body every time you lift – the “old school” weight trainers will tell you that certain days are for chest, back, legs, etc.  This is the body builder model of lifting!!!!! Let me drive that home a little bit: that is what body builders do.  If your goal is general wellness then you want to train for general wellness.  If someone has told you to do chest/biceps day one day, back and triceps day another, and then shoulders and legs you should probably not train with them much longer.
  • Start with a Dynamic Warmup– think about what you did at the start of gym class in elementary school.  Windmills, jumping jacks, active stretching (not to be confused with “press and hold” static stretching. That comes at the end).  Try this if you can’t think of anything:
    • Jogging butt kicks for 15 seconds
    • Hug your knees to your chest (not chest to your knees) alternating legs for 10 times each leg
    • Windmills (opposite toe touches, alternating arms – don’t worry if you can’t reach your toes)
    • Forward shoulder rolls for 10 seconds
    • Forward arm rolls for 10 seconds
    • Backward shoulder rolls for 10 seconds
    • Backward shoulder rolls for 10 seconds
  • Be Sure You’re Lifting Heavy Enough:  Our bodies are designed to adapt to the world around us and the demands of that world.  When you try to lose weight you’re trying to cause an adaption: shedding fat.  If you aren’t putting a new stress on the body then no change will occur: meaning if you aren’t lifting heavy enough for it to be difficult on the last few reps then you’re only spinning your tires.  Make sure the last 2 or 3 are the last ones in your tank.
  • Vary reps and loads.  When you come in to lift, don’t lift the same thing every time.  Even if you’re doing the same workout you want to mix up the amount of weight you’re lifting and the number of times you’re lifting it.  Try 8 reps one day, 10 reps the second day, and 15 the third day.
  • Progress regularly.  As mentioned above: the body is great at getting used to things.  Once it’s used to something it gets more and more efficient, thereby burning less calories doing the same exercise over time.  If you want to keep from plateauing either add more weight, a combo move, or try something new entirely.

Reassess Regularly

Remember that letter/journal entry you wrote yourself?  Dig it out and update it regularly.  I’m a big fan of monthly, but if you’re kinda anal-retentive (you know who you are!) and need to do it more frequently then do it up!  Regularly reviewing your reasons for getting on this stinking band wagon will help keep you on the darn thing – and charting regular progress will help you know what to expect of yourself.

Those are the basics.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be continuing this series with how to structure workouts for weight loss, tone, building muscle, and how to progress and exercise.   For now just get started, damn you!


If you have health and wellness questions and would like them answered in a future post I’m looking for some!  Email me at


3 thoughts on “Know Your Workout: Getting Started

  1. silver price says:

    Know that it will take 30 days to build the exercise habit. During the first 30 days you’ll need to push yourself to the gym. After 30 days it will become easier: the habits starts to take over, pushing you the gym.

  2. […] can’t answer that question simply (a sentence or two), take a look at the first few steps of Know Your Workout: Getting Started and try the writing exercise.  {Don’t worry, I’ll […]

  3. […] probably know by now: it starts with the goals.  If you’re not “a runner” start slow – maybe your goal is to just finish […]

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