Working Out How to Work Out

Because I wanna be...STRONGER than yesterday!

Howdy! We previously talked about why lifting is good for you, and why compound/multi-joint movements are awesome, but for those of you new to this whole fitness thing, you’re probably still wondering what to DO. So today I’m gonna move a little away from the science-y side of things (full disclosure: I’ve also had a pretty busy week, and…there are a lot of opened-but-unread-sciencey-tabs oops) and dispense some practical workout tips.

First things first. Things you do NOT need in order to strength train include:

  • a personal trainer

  • gym access

  • anything fancy and/or expensive

All of those things can certainly be helpful, but if you’re using your lack of access as an excuse to not start — sorry, but that’s not gonna fly here. Cool? Cool. However, if you have absolutely zero equipment, I would recommend picking up a couple of things, primarily a resistance band (or a set), and a pull-up bar (even if you can’t do an unassisted pull-up right now). With just your bodyweight and those two pieces of kit (and/or a little creativity), you can pretty much hit everything you need to for a full body workout. And if it’s within your budget, I would of course highly recommend either or both of those options, but let’s be real: for many, it simply isn’t.

Basics & Movement Patterns

There are four main movement patterns that I would recommend starting with:

  1. Knee hinge

  2. Hip hinge

  3. Push

  4. Pull

Between these four (well, six if you consider that both ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ should ideally include both the vertical and horizontal axes) main categories, you’ll have pretty much everything covered. You don’t have to hit every single muscle group during every single workout, but if you try for one of each spread over the course of a week, that’s a great place to start. For example, you could do knee hinge and push on one day, and hip hinge and pull on another, for a 2x/weekly full body ‘split’.

Knee Hinge

This is your squat and lunge family. In order of easiest to hardest, these would include exercises such as: assisted bodyweight squats, bodyweight squats, weighted squats (I’d suggest starting with a goblet-loaded dumbbell squat, then progressing towards front-loaded barbell and finally back-loaded barbell squats). Unilateral versions include basic bodyweight lunges (which can go forward, backwards and laterally), split squats, Bulgarian (rear foot elevated) split squats, and pistol (one-legged) squats. Leg presses are also a great machine-based version of this movement pattern.

Hip Hinge

If you’ve ever had the desire to turn a pancake into a peach, this is the section that will be most of interest to you. These would include all forms of deadlifts (conventional, sumo, Romanian, single-legged), hip thrusts, glute bridges, kettlebell swings and cable pull-throughs. For those of you limited to bodyweight movements, using a band around your hips for a hip thrust, playing with tempo or constant tension, and utilising unilateral versions of movements like the Romanian deadlift, hip thrust or glute bridge will also help to increase the difficulty without needing to do reps ad infinitum.

Many of you will also struggle to isolate the standing hip hinge pattern, especially if you’ve never done it before. This post by Sohee Lee shows what a proper (and some improper) hip hinge should look like, and my all time favourite cue is to imagine you’re double-fisting some snacks, and need to shut your door using your butt. Yep, do that.

NB: Many of the hip hinge movements will seem pretty similar to the knee hinges, because, as you’ve probably noticed, a bunch of them involve BOTH the hips and knees hingeing at the same time. The main difference lies between which muscle group is your primary driver, so don’t worry about it if you’ve done a bunch of hip thrusts and also happen to feel it in your quads.

Push

There are two main planes of motion for these exercises, i.e. the vertical (e.g. a barbell overhead shoulder press, or handstand push-up) and horizontal (e.g. a barbell bench press, or push-up) axes. Regressions include pike push-ups, knee push-ups, and hands-elevated push-ups; using dumbbells and working one arm at a time will let you train each side unilaterally, and if you’re a BAMF, archer and one-armed push-ups are pretty kickass bodyweight progressions.

Pull

As with the push work, programming should involve both vertical and horizontal pulling. This is also the one movement pattern which is very hard to target without any equipment at all ‘cos…if you don’t have anything to pull, or pull yourself towards, whatcha gonna do? The most obvious (overhead) pull here would be the pull-up (variations mainly centre around grip positioning, i.e. overhand, parallel or underhand grips, and the underhand grip pull is known as a chin-up). For the horizontal plane, bent over rows, inverted body rows, or even ‘let me ins’ (doorway rows) are a great place to start. In a pinch, a small suitcase or a backpack filled with some heavy books will make a great stand in for a simple weight that you can use for rowing exercises if you can’t get your hands on any resistance bands even.

As an aside, for most people, performing a higher volume of pull (as compared to push) exercises is generally a good idea. Many of us spend a large portion of our day seated and hunched over screens and steering wheels, so stretching out your chest muscles and strengthening your back can help with postural imbalances and help prevent back pain.

How to Structure a Workout & Progressive Overload

As far as I’m concerned, most people waaaaay overcomplicate this. For development of strength and in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, all you really need to worry about is the concept of progressive overload. Which is to say, do a little bit more than you used to. The most obvious example of this is to add weight to the bar, but you can also increase work done by:

  • increasing reps done

  • reducing rest time (if you needed 3 minutes to rest between sets last week, aim for resting for 2.5 minutes this week!)

  • increasing time under tension (think: lowering yourself into a squat over 5 seconds, instead of straight down and up)

  • improved form (doing a push-up with a terminal case of saggybuttitis is infinitely easier than while keeping your core super tight and your shoulders to heels in a straight line)

I personally like performing 4-8 exercises per workout, with 2-5 straight sets of each exercise, each in the 3-12 rep range. It makes for simple counting, can usually be completed within about 45 minutes to an hour, and if you stay in the 6-12 rep range, you’re probably gonna be using weights and/or variations that aren’t very close to your maximal capacity, which lowers the likelihood of form breakdown.

There are also many ways to group exercises together into compound or super sets and circuits, which can be fantastic for saving time, and I’m personally a fan of supersets, where you group exercises targeting different or opposing muscle groups together (e.g. squats and push-ups, or bench press and pull-ups), over compound sets, especially for beginners.

Also, depending on your training style, the rough order of types of exercises that your workout should follow is:

  1. Explosive and/or plyometric work

  2. Low rep strength compound moves

  3. Mid-range rep accessory compound moves and supersets

  4. Higher rep circuits, core and/or isolation work

  5. Optional: cardiovascular training (ideally, separate this from your strength workout by as many hours or on a different day, in order to prevent performance from being impacted)

A Note on Rest Times

While a quick browse on the internet will have you believe that timing your rest periods down to the second is crucial for maximal hypertrophy, current science actually says that shorter rest periods do NOT cause more metabolic stress. In fact, shorter rest times (30s vs 120s) resulted in less overall work done in that study, which resulted in less muscle hypertrophy.

My main guidelines are: rest for just as long as you need to in order to complete the next set with good form, and, broadly speaking, your rep range will inversely correlate to your rest times (i.e. fewer reps are probably performed closer to your maximum strength capabilities, and therefore will require more rest to recover from).

Sample Workout

Alright, alright. I know you’re all chomping at the bit, and some of you probably just want me to tell you what to do. It probably bears repeating here that I am not an accredited fitness professional in any way, so follow these workouts at your own risk.

This is a bodyweight workout for not-complete beginners, and the only equipment required is a resistance band. You can weight or assist the exercises, or adjust the rep ranges such that you need a minute or two of rest between sets; for the supersets, don’t rest between between the A and B exercises, but take your usual rest break between sets. I’ve also included links to form videos.

  1. 1.5-rep squats (video shows a goblet squat) 3 x 8/side

  2. Pull-ups (assist as necessary) 4 x 3

  3. A. Single-leg Romanian deadlift (slow and controlled lowering phase) 3 x 10/side

    B. Single-leg bodyweight hip thrust 3 x 10/side

  4. A. Push-ups (elevate hands as necessary) 4 x 8

    B. Banded single-arm rows 4 x 12/side (if you have nothing to affix your band to, you can also do this version)

  5. Deadbugs 3 x 5/side

Inclusive of your warm-up and all rest times, assuming you’re not faffing about and scrambling at the last minute to write a newsletter, it shouldn’t take you more than about 45-60 minutes all in to complete.


One last quick note: I didn’t get into the science of warm-ups and cool-downs and/or static/dynamic stretching this time sinc that would make an already-long issue borderline unreadable, but broadly speaking: get a little movement in (5-8 minutes of low intensity movement and dynamic stretches is plenty) in order to raise the temperature of your body and especially if you work out first thing in the morning or you’re stiff from a day of being seated. Performing a couple of sets of light versions of your ‘work’ sets is much more crucial to a good warm up than any amount of random hip circles or wasting 30 minutes foam rolling every single muscle fibre you can find.
And that’s it for this week! I hope you enjoyed this, and if any of you try out this workout (it’s also a legit option if you’re travelling and won’t have access to a gym, but have the space to pack a couple of bands), I’d love to hear how you found it.
May the gainz be ever in your favour,
— Rachel