For folks like me, cookies are cannibalistic: we choose to eat just one, but that first cookie chooses to eat untold hordes of other innocent cookies. Luckily, this snowball effect can work in our favor, too. Weight training, especially for the novice, works in much the same way as the cookie phenomenon: you decide to do the first rep, that first rep practically does the rest. Cookie begets cookie; bench press begets bench press.
Why a bench press? Why not start with something simpler, like a curl? Good question. When it comes to strength training, especially in the beginning, it’s best to think BIG 1. Big movements that employ big muscles yield big benefits. Women’s-magazine-friendly exercises, like bicep curls using soup cans or single-muscle-targeting exercise machines, won’t help you feel and see most of the myriad benefits of strength training. Big lifts like the bench press, when practiced regularly, make us noticeably stronger in practical, useful ways, and enable deeper relaxation when we’re not working out. The bench press – and other big lifts, like squats and deadlifts – significantly increase muscle mass, which is the only way to increase your resting metabolism rate long term. Building muscle is also the one and only way to get the body more toned. 2 Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is a filthy, dirty liar.
I’ll admit that pushing out that first press often takes more preparation than eating that first cookie. But if you can carve out one hour to bring the variables together, you can go from never having once lifted a weight to happily resting on the other side of 2 or 3 solid sets of bench presses.
What you’ll need:
- Comfy, gym-appropriate clothes, including sneakers 3
- Your smartphone
- Some scratch 4
- A vehicle (optional)
- Head-phone-able music (optional)
Step 1: Google “gym.”
Step 2: Call the nearest gym on speakerphone. Dress in your gym duds while you chat with the front desk person about starting a trial membership today. Ask if there will be a trainer available who can teach you proper form on a bench press. 5
Step 3: Walk, bike, or drive to the gym.
Step 4: Sign the paperwork & pay the fee for a trial membership.
Step 5: Introduce yourself to the trainer as a novice who’d like, in addition to the walk-through, a lesson on proper bench press form. 6
Step 6: Pay attention. 7
Step 7: Press. Start with lower weight than you think you should and, if appropriate, work up. 8 Aim for three sets. A set ends when you can no longer maintain proper form with a reasonable degree of confidence.
Once you’re on the bench and you’ve done that first rep, the drive to do more is likely to follow. Sure, the reps are difficult – they’re supposed to be – and in the beginning they’re almost certain to feel awkward. Push. Breathe. Watch the bar. Do your best. When you finish a set, re-rack the bar, relax, and enjoy the electric feeling across your chest and shoulders. Bask for a few minutes in the glow of having done something that was both challenging and incredibly good for you.
I was 25 the first time I ever set foot in a real gym. I felt ridiculous and completely out of my league. I had no idea How to lift, how much weight i should use or how many reps was enough. That day I asked a female trainer for guidance. Now, just under 10 years later, I’m a personal trainer, a daily weight lifter, and I walk like I own every gym I set foot in.
Hitting the gym for the first time isn’t as hard or as awkward as you might fear, especially if you’re open to asking for whatever help or guidance you need. Whether you’re a former weight lifter on an accidentally long hiatus 9 or a 65 year old woman who’s never touched a dumbbell, you can do it.
A body at rest tends to remain at rest. A body in motion tends to keep moving. Once you’ve pushed out that first press, don’t be surprised to find yourself naturally motivated to keep going.
Remember: That feeling of weakness is the birth of new strength. 10
- I’m assuming you have a brain in your head and that you will take this and all other exercise-related advice that you ever get with a grain of salt. Obviously, if you’re elderly, have an injury or any health concern, are notoriously clumsy or have been tossed out of Dick’s Sporting Goods or Disney World because a security guard thought you looked like a walking liability, you should get your doctor, priest, shaman, acupuncturist, midwife, shrink and significant other to give you their blessing before even getting out of bed in the morning, never mind beginning any kind of an exercise program. Use your head before you use your body – then use your body. ↩
- Shy of plastic surgery. Expensive, painful, sometimes risky plastic surgery. Mind you, I had a tummy tuck in 2007. Like so many things, that’s another post for another time. ↩
- You do not have to match. You do not need to look cute. Your sneakers do not have to be neon or leopard print or any particular brand. Even if finding a mate is up there on your priorities list, please let this first trip to the gym be as simple as possible. ↩
- How much a trial membership costs and what’s included (classes, sauna, locker, massages, tarot readings, colon hydrotherapy, etc) varies widely. By no means should you sign up for a membership to the first gym you visit. Before committing to a membership I’d hit every gym within a reasonable distance of my house, do a trial run at each, and see which was the best fit. It might also be helpful to do some research on Yelp. For the purpose of this exercise, though, just get to one. ↩
- Most intro/trial memberships include a walk-through and some basic instruction from a trainer. If it doesn’t, call the next gym. ↩
- If you have a choice and you’re at all inclined, go with a female trainer. Gal trainers tend to be better teachers, and they err on the side of “Let’s do this right” as opposed to “Let’s DO THIS! YEAH!!!” ↩
- Watch where the trainer’s eyes are relative to the bar. Where does she hold the bar? How quickly does she bring the bar down and how far? Notice her breathing, the angle of her elbows, her foot placement, her speed. How does she unrack the bar, how does she re-rack it when she’s done? Ask questions. Trainers LOVE questions. Don’t get on the bench until you know what you’re going to do there. ↩
- A naked bar is always a good choice for the first set, if for no other reason than to get the trainer’s feedback on your form before you press any additional weight. If a naked bar feels too heavy, start with a dowel rod. ↩
- Shit happens when you get married / get divorced / have kids / get rich / declare bankruptcy / start a business / find buried treasure / go to grad school / write a play / spend years eating crap and treating yourself poorly because you’re stressed. You’re not alone, and you won’t be the first to bounce back, smarter and capable of greater depths of gratitude for having had the experience ↩
- Push, Baby. Push. ↩