Top 5 Gym FAQs — Answered

Duration. Sequencing. Reps. Rest. Nutrition.

Last week, I wrote about defining your fitness goals to decide how much of Cardio Vs Weights you should be doing. While this week’s post can be read independently, I urge you to go through that article to get a handle on what your agenda at the gym should be.

Ok, with that said, let’s get into this week’s post with an assumption.

I’m assuming that you’re either new to the gym, or that you’ve been going there for a while but not been getting the results you seek. In other words, you’re either confused about what to do, or have a nagging feeling that what you’ve been doing isn’t right.

Also, you’ll need to know your Max Heart Rate (MHR).

Which is exactly that: heart rate beyond which you red-line your heart. Calculating it is simple. It’s 220 minus your age. So mine is 187.

Cool. Now you know.

Here then, are the Top 5 questions I get asked about working out (also the top things I see most people get wrong. And the ones I wish I knew when I’d started)

How long should I workout?

I’m sure you’ve heard both extremes. About how Stallone trained 5 hours a day, everyday, for Rocky. And how some experts suggest that anything over 45 mins is overkill.

My answer: Bad question.

Because there isn’t one answer and it doesn’t matter. As long as you do these 4 things:

  1. Define your goals (have an exact plan of what exercises and how many reps you’ll do)
  2. Don’t bring your phone
  3. Don’t talk to anyone (except your trainer) in between sets, and
  4. Don’t let your heart rate fall below 50% MHR(which means you can’t rest too long between sets)

Do all these, and then let it take as long as it does to finish the workout.

Ofcourse there are heuristics you can go by. For example, as a beginner to intermediate, there is little chance that you need anything more than 60mins to tire out whichever muscle-set you’re targeting that day (my average workout is 60 mins. And I do atleast 5 different exercises, 4 sets each. Plus 5–10 mins running. Plus abs on a few days)

Problem is, we don’t just gym in the gym, do we?

We chat, check messages, watch the tele, do some exercise, take rest(sometimes a lot), change the music, plead with the trainer, cheat…you get the drift.

If you follow the 4 things I’ve listed above, trust me, you’ll find it hard to make it beyond 60mins. The question will render itself meaningless. Try it.

Should I start or end with Cardio?

Short Answer: End.

Long Answer: Unlike what most trainers would tell you, if losing weight and getting lean are your goals, then you must do cardio after you’ve done weights. Not the other way around.

The reason is simple. If you remember from my post about Muscles, you gain strength when you progressively lift heavier weight. And while it’s the size of your muscles that largely defines how much weight you can pick, it also requires energy. More specifically, it requires easy energy stored in you muscles in the form of glycogen.

When you do cardio first, chances are that you’ll deplete these glycogen stores to some extent.

Which means that when you get to lifting, you won’t be able to give it your best because you’re low on energy. You’ll feel you’re doing your best, because you are, but you’ll lift less than your max and that won’t be enough to rupture those muscle fibers. And your results will be muted.

Basically, lift when you are strongest. And you are strongest at the beginning of your workout. Not after 30 minutes of Cardio-respiratory pounding.

Oh and don’t let anyone fool you with — ‘We do cardio first so that the body get’s sufficiently warmed up for Weights’. Because if your cardio feels like ‘warm-up’, then it’s meaningless in the first place.

Higher Reps Or More Weight?

There is a common misconception that reps give you ‘cuts’ or make you ‘ripped’. While doing heavy weights gives you size and makes you bulky. Nothing, unfortunately, could be farther from the truth. Infact, as I argued here, it’s quite the opposite.

But the question of Reps Vs Weight goes beyond just the visual outcome. The first condition to be satisfied, to get any outcome, is muscle fiber rupture. Which happens only when you load the muscle to a higher degree than last time. If you’re not making your muscles work harder than last time, neither reps nor weight can help you.

But how does one define Load?

Load, very simply, is Volume. And

Volume = Sum (Reps * Weight)

So if during bicep curls, you did 3 sets of 12,10,8 reps each, and the weight you picked was 5, 6 and 8kgs respectively — then your

Training Volume = 12*5 + 10*6 + 8*8 = 184

So to load higher than this, you need to exceed this total. Which sounds simple but can be deceptive.

For example, let’s say next week you did 3 sets again and decided to up the weight on each. But your reps came down.

So you did 10,8 and 6 reps of 6, 8 and 10kgs each. Which sounds like a lot, since you increased weights across all sets. But what’s the load?

Volume = 10*6 + 8*8 + 6*10 = 184.

Nothing moved.

So next time you’re caught deciding between reps or weight, just first make sure that you’re increasing Volume. As a thumb rule, the minute you start pulling 15 odd reps on any weight, increase it. And as a beginner, don’t worry too much. Both size and strength will come as they must.

How much rest between sets?

You’ll hear a lot of thumb rules on this one too.

30 secs, 1 min, 2 mins. Some will say make your rest period shorter to get better results. Some will say rest long enough to give the next set your best shot.

I’ll say, apply science, not thumbs.

Question you should really be asking is: Why do we rest between sets?

Not for muscle recovery.

Remember, muscles recover when you sleep. They recover when you’re not training.

We rest to stabilize our CardioRespiratory system. We rest to catch our breath and to bring our heart rate down. Keep exercising at an extremely elevated heart rate and your heart won’t be able to recover. (Ever felt that no matter how much you rest your heart just wont stop pounding?)

The optimal heart rate zone for training is between 45% to 85% of your MHR. For beginners, it’s near the lower end of that range. So if you’re 30 and your MHR is 190, 85–120 is a good heart rate range for you to follow.

Don’t go above 80%, or you’ll overtrain and not recover. Equally, don’t make 5 minute phone calls between sets. Your heart rate will reset to resting levels, and you’ll put yourself out of the exercise zone.

As you get fitter, your heart will become larger and it’ll become more efficient at pumping blood. That’ll make your Resting Heart Rate (RHR) drop (elite marathoners, when they’re not doing anything, have a heart rate of 30–40. For us mortals that number is 60–70), because your heart is so awesome now that it doesn’t need to work too hard anymore. Also, your ability to train closer to your MHR will go up.

Both these will happen by design. All you need to do, for now, is get a heart rate monitor and start your next set as soon as it tells you ‘stop chilling’.

What should I be eating Pre, During and Post a workout?

Before a workout you need Energy. During a workout you need Hydration. After a workout you need Repair.

So eat accordingly.

Before: You need energy before a workout so that you can give it all you got in the gym. Now, you may ask, don’t I need energy during the workout?

You do, but to get it then, you have to eat before. About 2 hours before. Because that’s how long it’ll take for your body to assimilate the food, process it, and convert it to energy.

So have a complex, low GI carb, about 90 mins before your workout. An apple, whole-wheat toast, some oats, sweet potato — all of these will do. Low GI carbs are slow release, so they keep providing a steady stream of energy and keep you ‘lit’ through the workout. Unlike simple carbs that just cause a insulin spike and go kaput.

During: What you lose most during a workout is water. So replenish it. When you reach a slightly advanced stage I’d recommend adding a BCAA to the mix. But for now, small sips of water throughout the workout will do just fine.

Post: This is when the body starts recovering from the workout and begins repairs. This, hence, is when you need protein. And some more carbs if you can afford to.

Also, remember that the night of the workout is when maximum repair on the damaged muscles happens. Unfortunately, if you’ve been on a fat loss diet, I assume you would be eating your last meal 3–4 hours before you sleep. And if you sleep 7 hours, that’s 10+ hours your body is without nutrition. And that can be detrimental to your muscle gains.

So when in muscle-building phase, try and get some protein into your system right before you hit the sack. A small whey shake, a bowl of lentils, some sprouts — anything will do. Give your body some ammunition before it goes to work, and see it work wonders as you snooze.

That’s it.

Were these your Top 5? If not, ask me, and I’ll try and help.

Also, post reading this article, your brain will need even more, agenda-free, honest, fitness content to keep it growing.

Sign-up for my newsletter and it’ll get just that. Every Sunday.

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