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If you’re new to the gym it can be hard to know where to start. It can be daunting enough just stepping into the building, let alone knowing which exercises to work into a beginner’s program.
In this article, we break down everything you need to know to improve your physique and get lean, as well as giving you all of the tools you need to build up your base fitness.
If you’re a complete novice wanting to shape up, tone up and shred body fat then this article is for you.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- The importance of calories for fat loss
- Basic program design – why are you doing what you’re doing?
- Strength training guidelines
- Cardio training guidelines
- Sample beginner workout plan for fat loss
Fat Loss and Energy Balance
Before we start looking at the gym workout in detail we need to look at the most important factor in fat loss – calories.
In order to transform your body, shred your love handles and melt down your abdominal fat you need to start targeting your fat cells. And the only way you’ll do this is by achieving a calorie deficit – you’ll eat less than you burn off.
When you do this your body senses that it’s running low on energy and taps into your fat cells to grab a bit of stored energy. As a result your cells shrink and before you know it you look leaner, thinner and more athletic.
If you don’t achieve a deficit then your brain never feels that it’s necessary to empty out the stored fat. In fact, if you eat more than you burn off – what’s called a calorie surplus – you’ll keep storing more and more fat cells, leading to excess weight and even obesity.
So you don’t really need to go to the gym to shred body fat?
Well not really…. but there’s a big ‘but’.
There are number of ways you can achieve a calorie deficit. You can either eat less and risk becoming deficient in nutrients, or you can eat enough to promote overall health and then burn off the excess in the gym.
This is referred to as ‘eating low and training low’ and ‘eating high and exercising high’.
Even better – finding a balance between the two methods helps you become more effective in your weight loss journey. If you eat loads you’ll have to be in the gym for an endless number of hours just to burn it off.
It’s not an excuse to eat as much as you can because it’s an efficient way of going about fat loss.
The gym isn’t only about fat loss either. Regular workouts help to promote:
Metabolic health – reduced risk of disorders such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Cognitive health – helps to keep your brain and nervous system working well. This will improve memory, motor learning and executive function.
Strength, flexibility and endurance – It’s not just about fat loss, but longevity and wellness. These physical fitness benefits help with functional capacity and performance.
To learn more about how to achieve a calorie deficit and calculate your energy balance check out our calorie calculator at the bottom of this article.
Key Point: Fat loss all comes down to calories, but including regular exercise promotes overall wellness and health.
Beginner Program Design
The problem with most workout programmes is that they are needlessly difficult. They are ‘statement programmes’ that aim to show you a bunch of new exercises or fancy workout techniques rather than sticking to the basics.
They are too complicated and rarely successful.
If you really want to succeed in your beginner fat loss journey you need to keep it simple. That means no sugar-coated strength exercises, no glittery high-intensity cardio workouts, just pure hard work and sticking to what works best.
The advanced stuff can come later, when you’re at an advanced level. The important thing here is that your program is:
- Something you enjoy so you actually want to go to the gym
- It caters to your current fitness levels so it doesn’t destroy your body and your confidence
- The exercises actually work – and above all else are safe and reduce the chances of injury.
Strength Training Guidelines for Fat Loss
Lifting weights is important for fat loss for a number of reasons. Firstly, it improves muscle endurance meaning you can train harder without feeling fatigued. Secondly it helps to improve insulin resistance, confidence and independence.
From a fat loss point of view, strength training boosts your metabolic rate as lean muscle is a metabolically active tissue that requires energy to maintain its structure. More lean muscle equals more calories burned.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggest that as a beginner you focus on completing 2-3 strength training workouts per week. This gives you enough rest times between sessions to rest, recover and get over the inevitable muscle soreness you’ll experience for the first few weeks.
Choose no more than 10 exercises to begin with and aim for compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups. This is because you’ll burn more calories and see quicker progress.
At the bottom of this article we’ve got a sample workout for you to follow if you’re unsure on where to start.
It doesn’t really matter if you use fixed resistance machines or free weights (barbells and dumbbells) so go with whatever’s more comfortable for you. In the sample program below we’ve given you both a machine and free weight alternative so pick what you prefer.
As a beginner you’ll see a lot of progress very quickly so don’t overthink it when it comes to reps, sets and rest times.
Aiming for somewhere around 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps will work well. Use a weight that is challenging but doable.
Rest times are unimportant at this stage so don’t worry about them – 1-2 minutes between sets is a rough starting point though. But if you need longer, have longer.
Key Point: Beginner strength training guidelines
- Lift weights 2-3 times per week
- Choose 8-10 exercises and try to cover as any different muscle groups as you can
- Complete 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps for each exercise
Losing Fat With Cardio Training Guidelines
Over the last few years many people have been under the impression that cardio is in some way bad for you – that it leads to muscle loss and increases stress hormone levels that cause increased belly fat. It doesn’t – and as a beginner to exercise, cardio is one of the best tools you have.
Cardio burns more fat than strength training on a minute-by-minute basis. As a tool for creating a calorie deficit it’s the best one you have other than eating less.
Again, the ACSM have specific guidelines for beginner-level cardio that make it easier to understand.
Much like with the strength training guidelines, they suggest taking part in physical activity that finds a balance between progressing fitness levels and not going to hard, too soon.
Incorporating 150 minutes of physical activity per week at moderate intensity is all that’s needed to support fat loss in a calorie deficit. That means choosing activities that get you feeling slightly breathless and warm.
To begin with you’re aiming for 20 minutes of continuous activity and then building it up from there. You can increase the intensity to be more ‘vigorous’ if you feel ready, but not to the point where you can’t complete the minimum time without having to take a break.
Walking, jogging, swimming, dancing, cycling and aerobics classes are all great examples of cardio you can filter into your beginner fat loss plan.