How to Get in Shape for Beginners – Diet, Muscle & More
The value of getting and staying in shape is well documented, from improving mental health to enhancing life longevity, yet at Recovering Man it’s all about the discipline, life lessons and stability a solid gym commitment brings.
Going to the gym for me is nothing to do with shooting roids, building muscles like water balloons and spraypainting yourself orange.
It is about honest hard work that trains the body and mind to be strong and reactive, while simultaneously providing an outlet for stress and strain that doesn’t involve laziness, intoxicants and unproductive, damaging behaviour.
Surprisingly enough, fats don’t really cause fat, it’s carbohydrates that do the damage when eaten en masse.
One of the best things about the gym is that it has a big influence on your life outside of it.
You don’t want to eat fast food and sweets after a strong workout, you want to replenish your body with what it really needs – refreshing water, healthy fats, muscle-constructing proteins and energy-producing carbs.
The Starting Point
Now, in compiling this list on how to get in shape, we have to consider how every individual’s body is different.
Some people are skinny, some people are fat, some people are even ‘skinny fat’, yet whatever your starting point, this piece is going to work from a place we can all get to before we start really building a strong, athletic body.
These body types are broken down into three key areas, bear in mind you can sit at the cross over between two, but it’s good to have a rough idea of which you are:
- Ectomorph: Tall and skinny build, find it hard to add muscle and fat
- Mesomorph: Naturally athletic build, can build muscle easily, good metabolism
- Endomorph: Naturally stocky build, easily puts on fat
Now while we can’t devise a strategy for each of the above, there is a solution.
In 2018 an artist called Nickolay Lamm did an experiment that ended up showing the average build for many major Western nations.
This piece is going to take the average build of the average US man – let’s call him Gary.
Gary is about 30, he stands at 5’10’ (178cm), his body mass index is 29 (meaning he’s chubby, although not quite fat) and his waist is 39 inches (we want to aim for around 34).
Now, obviously you reading this may be skinnier than Gary or way larger, so bear in mind that the following advice applies to men in and around Gary’s build.
Henceforth, if you’re way larger than Gary and carrying lots of fat, you must seek to shed some of that weight first by running, cycling and walking as much as possible while eating a healthy diet at a calorie deficit that allows your body to burn the fat.
You can use a calorie calculator to discover what you should be eating for an accurate assessment.
On the other hand, if you’re very skinny, you need to cut out cardio and start eating at a calorie surplus in order to build some mass we can turn into muscle.
How to Get in Shape: Diet
Let’s start with the very basics.
While there’s endless conjecture and counter-arguments in the world of nutrition, with someone always ready to make a strong case to any established science, the basic ‘macros’ are as follows:
- Carbohydrates (carbs) fuel your body, they are made up of things like pasta, rice, potatoes and the like. They are ideally eaten in moderate amounts before exercise. Too many carbs in your diet is what builds fat (your body is storing the energy like a squirrel pre-hibernation)
- Proteins build muscle. Protein-rich sources include meat and fish, nuts, legumes and tofu. Protein is the building block of growth, and is usually best imbibed after exercise in large amounts.
- Fats are essential for cells, energy and body temperature. Good fat sources include nuts, avocado, fish, olive oil and (very) dark chocolate.
As implied above, carbs give the energy for the workout, while proteins rebuild muscle, and fats improve general health, as well as restore energy.
Surprisingly enough, fats don’t really cause fat, it’s carbohydrates that do the damage when eaten en masse.
Henceforth, runners famously eat a lot of carbs to fuel long multi-hour running sessions, while bodybuilders utilize carbs for empowering workouts, but look to protein as their core ingredient in building muscle.
So, if you’re looking to lose weight, cut out carbs all but completely, especially after lunch – you simply don’t need pasta, rice and the like in your diet.
Similarly, if you’re looking to put on weight and find it hard to build muscle (being the aforementioned ectomorph body type) you will need to up your carb intake.
One final note on diet is that while we have the bare bones in terms of macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fats), whatever your body type, you must eat a balanced diet with a solid intake of leafy greens.
Leafy greens such as kale, broccoli, spinach and so forth are exceptionally good for your body and mind, offering excellent recovery, detox and general wellbeing capacities.
Fruits are also important, but go easy as fruits are full of sugar, so 2-3 pieces a day will suffice.
How to Get in Shape: Exercise
Whether you’re skinny, fat or in shape, we all need to have a baseline level of fitness before we can make serious gym gains and be able to handle the stress and strains of lifting weights.
Quite how much cardio you should do depends on how much weight you have to lose – remember, cardio (like running, cycling, etc) burns fat, but it doesn’t build anything – especially not muscle – except endurance.
So, if you’re a big lad you’re going to want to be doing lots of cardio to shred fat and to build up your endurance and heart health.
However, if your skinny you should also be looking to be capable of running for a prolonged period of time to ensure you have the capacity to handle to effect on your nervous system when you hit the weights.
A solid foundation to get to is to be able to run 4 miles (that’s about 6 kilometres) in 35-40 minutes, once you have this down you’re ready to start making gains.
Don’t worry about anything too advanced here, you can discover all the complexities of cardio in time, for starters the main thing is crafting that baseline ability to run at length.
As a final note, I know it’s a horrible experience when you first start running, but this is where we must be strong, courageous and brave, as it is here that the foundation is laid out for a lifetime of health.
We must be open to failure, looking stupid and getting up time and again after knocks and aches (on that note, remember your pre and post-run stretches).
When I first started after years of smoking and excessive drinking I could only make it about a quarter of a mile before having to stop and cough up phlegm.
I didn’t even have running gear, just some old tatty shoes, a vest and some cargo shorts, and to make matters worse, local people I knew would see me and ‘banter’.
Now I know that such mockery is actually good, it’s usually because you’re making someone else look at themselves as you try to make positive change and that is all the more fuel to use in your mission.
Yet in the beginning it can be hurtful, especially if you’re sensitive like I was, but that is why we’re doing this – to get stronger physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
However, as time goes on you really do start to improve quickly, so long as you make the correct lifestyle change and commit to it for the long-term.
In fact, running can even become something fun and an activity you find peace, rhythm and contentment in doing.
How to Get in Shape: Building Muscle
Now, presuming you started this routine looking something like Gary, if you’ve sorted out your diet and built up 6kms worth of endurance, you should be looking a bit better already.
From here on out cardio must stay in your weekly routine.
A good routine to get (and stay) in shape should have 3 days in the gym lifting weights (for about 45 minutes a session) and 1 day on cardio (30-60 mins).
Obviously, if you have a lot of fat to lose you up the days spent on cardio and limit the days spent on weights until your body fat is getting below 20%.
Another great way to improve health and shred fat is fasting, a day or two is all you need, and you can check out my video below for more information on that:
Now we get to the good stuff – how to build muscle – which is what most guys want to do right away.
Building muscle is the process of stressing, and even ripping muscle tissue, in order to get the body to rebuild the muscle in a much larger and stronger manner.
In the gym, we do a variety of challenging lifts in order to break that muscle tissue down before going home and replenishing it with a high-protein diet and lots of rest.
Bear in mind that intoxicants can be very harmful to this process, smoking, partying and staying up late will affect your gains big time, so it’s important you maintain a healthy lifestyle and if you do drink, you drink in moderation.
The most famous exercise is probably the bicep curl in which you pull a dumbbell up with your upper-arm, yet for beginners, this won’t do much, what you need is to embrace the big ‘compound’ exercises that will grow your core and allow the smaller muscles (such as biceps) to grow.
Compound lifts are so-called as they affect many different areas at once and the big four are:
- Squats (builds upper legs and abs)
- Benchpress (builds chest, triceps and shoulders)
- Deadlift (builds legs, buttocks, biceps, abs and lower back)
- Shoulder press (builds shoulders and triceps)
As you can see, each of these exercises focuses on a key domain of the body, and this is how you should ideally workout, with one day focusing on legs/abs, another on your chest/triceps, and another on your shoulders.
Ideally, each of these sessions will have a rest day in between, this allows your muscles time to regroup, as well as giving your central nervous system time to unwind so you don’t end-up fatigued and weak.
Henceforth, an average gym routine would look something like this:
- Monday: Rest
- Tuesday: Squats (Legs/Abs)
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Benchpress (Chest/Tris)
- Friday: Rest
- Saturday: Deadlift (Legs/Abs/Biceps)
- Sunday: Shoulder Press and Cardio
Now, before you start researching these and doing them in the gym BE CAREFUL, as you can seriously injure yourself lifting heavy weights if you don’t know what you’re doing.
I recommend booking a few sessions with a personal trainer to learn the correct form – this is so important and will set you up for life in good stead – they may try to make you commit to a long-term programme, but let them know all you want is to learn correct lifting form and they’ll show you.
Despite the corny name, Buff Dudes is a good channel for teaching you the correct form if you need a refresher.
Once you get going, start light and work your way up, bearing in mind it takes time to build meaningful muscle mass.
A great way to start is the 5×5 ‘stronglifts’ programme, which has been shown to be highly effective for beginners.
In essence, you’re lifting a weight for 5 repetitions, 5 separate times – this is known as ‘5 reps for 5 sets’ and is highly effective in setting off serious ‘newbie gains’.
If you’ve been working on your compound lifts for 2-3 months and are seeing some results, it’s now time to introduce some isolation lifts, so-called because these exercises ‘isolate’ a single muscle.
This is where the famous bicep curls come in to build your upper arms, yet here are a few more you can add in:
- Front raises (Shoulders)
- Lateral raise (Shoulders/Lats)
- Lat pulldown (Lats)
- Crunches (Abs)
- Skullcrusher (Tris)
- Dips (Chest)
- Pull-ups (Biceps/Lats)
Now the list above goes on and on, so I’ll leave you to do your own research and find what you like as you learn and grow, just ensure that you implement the isolation exercises on a date that matches when you do your big compound lift.
For example, do you bicep curls on the same day as your deadlifts, that way you’re working the same muscle group and are thus saving the other muscles for the next time you’re in the gym.
Bulking & Cutting
One final note is on the famous bulking and cutting routine.
Providing you’ve followed the aforementioned steps, you will be finding some shape in your body within a few months and this is when we can begin sculpting the body for the look we want.
In essence, when we’re looking to gain muscle, we must ‘bulk’, which is when we eat at a calories surplus with a macronutrient split that suits our body type.
When bulking, we must accept we’re going to lose high-definition abs as we will be gaining extra fat in the muscle-building process.
However, once we’ve put that weight on, we then begin to ‘cut’ to reveal the gains we have made.
When cutting, we slash carbs and up the levels of cardio in an effort to maintain muscle mass and shred fat.
After doing this for a month or so, we end up with the famous ‘chiselled’ abs.
Now, it is of course up to you which look you like and to work your diet and exercise regimen around that – I myself prefer an athletic, broad shoulders look and am not too fussed about ab definition, preferring an outline rather than the chiselled look.
However, the choice is yours to make as you begin to reach a more intermediate stage of getting in shape.
If you enjoyed this piece, why not consider downloading the free ‘Recovery Hacks’ e-book from Recovering Man, which contains 6 transformational lessons: