If there’s one thing that’s most made a difference to my training and body composition over the last 2 years, it was learning to start using that scary squat rack and the free weights at the gym.
I’d belonged to gyms in the past, but never actually picked up a dumbell heavier than about 4kg, and I don’t think I’d ever used a barbell at all. I thought of them as just for very “serious” body builders, and most programs aimed at women I read featured high reps of very low weights, bodyweight exercises or use of machines designed to work individual muscle groups. I certainly wasn’t going to randomly venture into that scary domain filled with big musclely men all on my own and start weight lifting.
I was finally introduced to the big scary weight rack by Paul Fawcett, a personal trainer who worked with my Roller Derby league as our Strength and Conditioning coach. It completely changed my approach to training and when Paul left us (for a Womens Rugby team, the betrayal!) I finally braved the weights section at my local gym on my own.
Not going to lie, I was terrified, but a year later I stride in there like I own the place. Well, sort of. Possibly like I’m a regular visitor but it’s not actually my house.
I’m far from an expert, but today I thought I’d share some of my tips I’ve learned in my last year braving the weights room alone that might help if you want to start weight lifting but don’t know how to begin.
1. Book a session with a personal trainer
No amount of You Tube videos will to help you as much as the personal attention of a trainer. Book a one to one session with a personal trainer at your gym. One session shouldn’t set you back a huge amount and many gyms offer sessions for free when you sign up. Be clear that you want to use the free weights, ask them to talk you through how to set the equipment up and watch your form for the basic lifts. Knowing the basics will give you more confidence for the first time you go alone.
2. Go When the Gym is Quiet and Be Brave
The gym I joined originally had one squat rack. The first time I went there was someone on it. Too scared to ask how long they would be or if I could work in I lurked around pretending to do stretches and sit ups for about 20 minutes before I could finally snaffle it.
If someone is using a rack you can ask to “work in” this means taking turns to use the rack. If you’re new to lifting weights this can be a bit intimidating, especially if the person using the rack is a lot taller and lifting a lot heavier weights than you (which is often the case seeing as I am a 5’4″ woman and the weights section seems to be inhabited by a special breed of 7 foot tall men with huge arms).
Eventually I settled on the tactic of approaching whoever was using the racks and simply asking “Is anyone waiting for this after you?”, as long as I picked a quiet time the answer was normally no, and I could just ask them to let me know when they were done, gesture at the mats, and then slink off and do some warm up exercises while keeping an eye on the rack.
3. Own Your Space
Once you get hold of that rack, don’t let anyone intimidate you off of it. As long as you’re not being an equipment hog and spending 20 minutes checking Facebook you have as much right to use it as anyone else. If it’s a busy time and someone else approaches you then you can offer to work in with them, or simply tell them how many sets you have left.
Leave your water bottle and towel on the rack if you have to go off to hunt down plates and equipment. It’s the gym equivalent of a KEEP OFF sign.
4. Start Slow
If everyone else in the gym is lifting 200kg and making terrifying grunting noises, it can be tempting to start too heavy and you’ll ache for days. No one is going to laugh at you for starting light, and if they do, lets just remember who’s the idiot in that situation.
I started using the Stronglifts 5×5 program. It has a great iPhone app that you can use to track your workouts, including a timer to time rest between sets and it tells you how much weight to add each time. Start with the empty bar, don’t be tempted to add a lot of weight too fast. The empty bar weighs 20kg. If you find that too heavy to start with then most gyms have lighter barbells you can use to build up strength or use the dumbells.
5. Don’t be Afraid to Fail (But don’t push your luck!)
My first fail was on the bench press at 45kg when on the last rep of my fifth set I realised there was no way I could get that thing back on the rack.
I slowly lowered it to my hips and let it rest on the safety rails. Then I wriggled backwards, sat up, and rolled it down my legs until I was free.
Then I looked around nonchalantly to make sure no one had seen and wandered off to the changing rooms.
Ideally you would have someone to spot you as the weights get heavy. If you’re brave you can always ask someone to spot you. If that’s just too much to ask then make sure the safety rails are set at a height where you can safely drop the weight to them if you need to. Personally I have started to recognise the point at which I am NO WAY getting that last rep, and I don’t try. It’s a fine line between pushing yourself and wussing out early. If you are following the 5×5 I program I find the worst/most embarassing lifts to fail on are the bench press, which can lead to embarrassing wriggling under a heavy bar and the squat, which can lead to very loud clanging noises if you have to roll a bar off your back and let it drop onto the rack, or you sitting on the floor and pretending you meant to do it.
6. Be Consistent
One thing I learnt very early on is that if you are serious about wanting to build strength you can’t just take a week off and then leap back in at the same weight you were lifting the week before. If you go on holiday, or are ill, then drop your weights back by 10%. The Stronglifts 5×5 app will tell you when you should deload because you have missed a week of workouts. Schedule your workouts like an appointment that you have to make 2 or 3 times a week. The Stronglifts program recommends 3 times a week, but I found twice a week enough to maintain strength if I needed a bit of a lighter week, or wanted to fit in other workouts, or you know, life.
7. Enjoy it!
Set yourself goals and track your progress so on those occasions when you feel like you’re getting nowhere you can look back at how far you’ve come. Take shameless gym selfies and use the hashtag #flexfriday. Really focus on getting strong, not how you look. Eat to sustain your workouts and relish those times you can carry that heavy bag of gravel from the the DIY store with one hand.