Co-written by Andrew Heffernan, co-author of The Exercise Cure (Rodale, 2013)
Big box gyms pride themselves on having lots of equipment -- specifically, vaguely medieval-looking contraptions you strap yourself into and lift stacks of weighted bricks by pushing, pulling, squeezing, extending or flexing various parts of yourself against a platform or a lever arm.
For a newcomer to the gym, though, all that machinery can be awfully confusing. Do I get on the machine where I sit and push the pads outwards with my knees -- or the one where I push them inward? Or both? And then what do I do? A person could waste a lot of time wondering such things.
The machine/free weight debate is something I'll take up in another blog post -- though I will say here that the people who modeled for all the classical statues many consider the standard for physical beauty never met a Butt-Blaster. Here instead I want to boil down strength training into five simple types of exercise you should be doing in the gym.
Here they are: plank, pull, squat, push, lunge. Do those five moves and you can go home knowing you've worked your entire body effectively -- no innie-outie machine required.
Taking those things in the order you should do them in the gym:
• A plank is a ramrod straight top-of-a-pushup position, usually done on your elbows and held for time. Think you're straight enough? Get in front of a mirror and you'll see your hips are too high. Now squeeze your belly and hold it. 30 seconds too easy? Try it with one leg lifted. Still easy? Lift the opposite arm as well. If that's easy, it may not be too late for the 2016 Olympic trials. I'll be rooting for you.
• A pull is a move where you take hold of something and pull it towards your chest or abdomen: a row. A pulldown. A pull-up or chin-up. Often neglected, these moves -- especially row variations -- are a major key to improving posture and keeping your shoulders healthy. Do them.
• A squat is a squat is a squat. Gym class-style, bodyweight only, is fine, just make sure you drop down to a point where the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor. Do it holding two dumbbells. Do it with a jump at the top. Then with a barbell on your shoulders, in front or behind your head. Good form is imperative. Get some coaching on this one from that bored-looking trainer wandering the floor. Seriously, that guy needs something to do.
• A push is anything where you... wait for it... push something away from you. (I hope you're taking notes.) Two dumbbells overhead. One barbell while lying on your back -- aka the ever-ego-boosting bench press. Yourself, off the floor, with your body straight (as in a pushup!). If you're really diesel, try the handstand pushup.
• A lunge is a lot like a squat, only your feet are in a staggered position, one in front of the other. Do them walking, or with your feet planted, or holding light dumbbells, or your grandchild on your shoulders. Don't let you front knee buckle inward. Keep your form tight, like a Renaissance courtier bowing to royalty.
Those five moves will do it for you. Pretty soon you'll be able to stroll confidently past all those machines at the gym knowing that all of them are just variations on those five simple moves you've now mastered. See something that isn't? You probably don't need it. Good luck!