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How to train in a conventional Gym

90% of people who train in a conventional gym don’t get results. The traditional approach of ‘half an hour running on the treadmill and half an hour of machines’ is not the best way to get in shape (want to know why?), and the monotony and lack of results makes many people give up.

Personally, I’m more in favour of training in the park or at home than in a traditional gym. And if I go to a gym I try to make it CrossFit!

However, I’m aware that many people don’t have access to a CrossFit gym or a nearby park, and that the fact that they train at home without anyone around doesn’t please them either. In that case, the typical gym may be the only option, and my goal with this post is to give you some recommendations to achieve the best results if you find yourself in this situation.

Training in a conventional gym is similar to shopping in a supermarket. If you look at almost all the healthy and natural products, you will find them on the sides of the supermarket: vegetables, fruits, fresh fish, meat… And in the central aisles you will find all the processed, packaged and long-lasting products (in general if a food is long-lived it is because it is unnatural, and therefore shortens your life).

In the case of the gymnasium, the areas in which you must spend more time are usually also the sides. In the center, occupying a large part of the gym are the machines, which except rare exceptions you must avoid as the devil. Go directly to the free weights area: dumbbells and bars. And if your gym doesn’t have dumbbells and bars, you really should cancel your subscription and train at home, because you’re wasting your money. You can be perfectly fit with body exercises, but you don’t have to pay a monthly fee for that!

The premises

The considerations to keep in mind when you train in a gym are the same ones that I have already explained countless times, but which you should remember, especially when you are surrounded by such modern and ‘tempting’ machines, and other training partners doing pure isolation exercises and telling you how ‘good’ they are:

You’re probably familiar with the 80-20 (or Pareto) principle, which applies to many areas of life and also to the world of training. 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts, or your exercises. And what are these exercises that maximize your results? Compound exercises that work many muscles and replicate functions that simulate real life activities. This should be the basis of any training.

Use isolation exercises only if you have time (to achieve the additional 20% of your results) and want to boost a particular muscle, never as the main element of your routine, which is what you unfortunately see in most people who exercise in the gym.

It’s common to see men doing almost exclusively upper body exercises, with special emphasis on the front (the one you see when you look in the mirror). In contrast, women mainly do lower body exercises (legs and buttocks). If you are a man don’t forget the muscles from the waist down (where the real strength of the body resides), and if you are a woman don’t forget that you also have to work the muscles of the upper body: strengthen your shoulders, your back, your arms… (look at these revolutionary women if you need some inspiration).

Don’t do long sessions of aerobic exercise; if you want to use the tapes or elliptical 5 minutes to warm up, but they should not be the basis of your training. If you work with composite exercises you develop cardiovascular endurance apart from strength, coordination, power… but if you do only aerobic exercises you only work cardiovascular endurance, and too much can have a negative effect on your strength (by losing muscle mass).

Another great obsession of people who go to the gym is ‘lose belly’, and for that they think that the best way is doing exercises to isolate the abdominals. If you want to show your abs you must lower your level of body fat, and for that nothing better than doing compound exercises that use many muscles and burn fat more efficiently (weapons for a flat stomach).

Olympic Bars or Dumbbells

Most gyms have dumbbells, but not all have bars. There are many exercises that can be done with both dumbbells and bar, but there are relevant differences between them, so you need to know when to use each one:

Generally we have more developed muscles in one part of the body than in the other. When using the bar, the muscles on your stronger side tend to compensate, maintaining the imbalance. If you train with dumbbells, both sides must make the same effort, which helps to balance the muscular strength of both sides.

When training with dumbbells, you must balance two independent weights, which also exercises your central nervous system, improving your proprioception, and allowing more natural movements in your joints.

Having to balance two dumbbells simultaneously means your nervous system can’t pay as much attention to boosting strength. So, if you want to work on your strength (and you should), the best way is with the bar. By having a fixed bar that you hold with both hands you can focus your attention and develop more strength than with dumbbells.

If you’re starting to train, I recommend starting with dumbbells to ‘grease’ your proprioceptive system and develop a muscular base before incorporating bar exercises. You can then alternate between a dumbbell week and a bar week, or whichever suits you best.

Dumbbell Exercises

Start with a weight that allows you to do 10 repetitions of the exercise, maybe 12, maintaining a good technique (not with a forced posture), but making sure that the last 2-3 repetitions are very hard for you. When you can do more than 12 repetitions it’s time to increase your weight.

There are thousands of exercises you can do with dumbbells, but I suggest the following to get you started:

Chest:

  • Chest Press: as the main exercise for the pectorals, which also works the shoulders and arms. Doing this dumbbell exercise puts the shoulders in a more natural position than using the bar.
  • Chest openings (or flies): as a secondary exercise. I say secondary because it is an exercise of isolation, which works almost exclusively the pectorals and is therefore less efficient, but if you want to enhance your pectorals is a good complement to use from time to time.

Shoulder:

  • Shoulder Press: Very good exercise to develop the shoulders (deltoids); you can do it standing or sitting, but always keeping the abdominals tensioned. It is an exercise that involves many muscles and therefore very efficient.
  • Frontal Lift: You can use it as a complement to the shoulder press, but like the chest openings, it is an exercise of isolation, and therefore useful if you want to define especially the deltoids, if not optional.

Back:

To strengthen the muscles of the back I mainly recommend the dominated ones and the dead weight lifts with bar, but the horizontal rowing with dumbbell is also quite useful and allows you to work the dorsals, and indirectly the deltoids, rhomboids and trapezes.

Trapeze:

Although there’s nothing better than a deadweight lift with a bar to make your trapeze grow, this exercise (vertical rowing) with dumbbells is undoubtedly a good complement.

Arms:

The two basic exercises with dumbbells to develop your arms are:
Curl of Biceps, as a complement to the dominated ones with inverted grip (palms of the hands towards you) or chin-ups, that for me is the best exercise of biceps.
Extensions of elbows with dumbbell, seated or lying down, is a good way to work your triceps.

Leg: Dumbbell transplants are a very complete exercise, not only to work the leg muscles but also the buttocks and abdominals.

Bar Exercises

Training with Olympic bars is another good reason to go to the gym, even if it’s a conventional gym. As I mentioned earlier, the goal of working with bars is primarily to develop your strength, and the main exercises are those I mentioned in ‘Strength, the basis of everything’: dead weight, squats, bench press and power clean. To get started in these movements it is essential that you find a good monitor who has experience and guides you on the correct technique to avoid injuries. If the gym where you train does not have good monitors, it is better not to use bars for the moment.

Body exercises are still the best!

Talking about dumbbell and bar exercises does not mean that you should leave aside pure body exercises (flexions, dominated, dips…) since they are still fundamental in any fitness regime. Don’t abandon them even if you have all the free weights and equipment in the world at your disposal. My Unchained Program can help you.

Other recommendations

  • If your gym is a franchise, it has a much better chance of being bad. Good gyms are generally those that are run by someone passionate about what they do; if it’s a franchise model it’s likely to have bad monitors with low salaries and little knowledge (there’s an exception).
  • Don’t be self-conscious if your physical condition is bad and/or you have a few pounds left over. In general people are respectful to newbies and try to help. Also, with so much mirror, most people won’t even notice you because they’re too busy with their own image. And think that if you train as I say, in a few months it will be you who will be able to look at the rest over your shoulder :).
  • Be careful with the advice you accept, question what they say; listen, investigate on your own, take what you need and discard the rest. Just because a gym instructor tells you so doesn’t mean it’s right.
  • You don’t have to spend 2 hours a day in the gym (what’s the ideal time?). 5 minutes of warm-up, 45 minutes of intense activity and 5 minutes of stretching, 3-4 days a week, is more than enough to be fit.
  • Socializing is fine, but don’t be one of those who spend 5 minutes between exercise and exercise while talking to others, while going for water, while looking at the girls in the yoga room (well, maybe the latter would be the only justifiable distraction 🙂 ).
  • If you’re just starting out, don’t overdo it; try as hard as you can, but if you feel pain beyond the typical ‘muscle resentment’, it’s best to shorten your workout and come back the next day. Nothing will slow your progress more than an injury.
  • Warm up at the beginning of your workout and stretch at the end, not the other way around, especially if you’re working on your strength.
  • Don’t always do the same thing, use some periodification mechanism to program your training (how to design a training program).
  • Measure your progress, record your numbers, your exercises and the weight you use. Nothing will motivate you more than watching your metrics improve!

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