What I’ve Learned From Being in the Gym – Sonny Bailey

Being in the gym over the past 8 months has definitely taught me a lot about the fitness industry and fitness world. I’ve spent ages on YouTube, and looking at online forums and free content on the Internet. I’ve also had a personal trainer, and I’ve also had a weight training class. I’ve seen differences of fitness views in both the UK and the US, and how there are different views on YouTube between top fitness channels. Honestly, for the beginner, the world of fitness is one of the most complicated things, and it’s complicated because of the Internet and because, like other things, fitness levels differ between different humans and every body responds differently.

What I have also discovered from this experience is that there is a lot of information on the Internet that is not necessarily true, or that are based only on studies on rats/mice, than humans. Or perhaps a fitness person claims to want to help you but there’s a different intention behind his motif. The key to getting in shape isn’t so much to follow the information on a variety of Internet sources, but to actually consult fitness officers in your local gym. Joining a gym is one of the first steps to getting in shape, because rather than searching for ages on a computer screen, you’re talking to actual qualified officers who know the ins and outs about gym life.

That being said, once you have got into the basics and into the swing of things, there’s no harm in looking online for content that you may actually benefit from. Because information IS out there. It’s just knowing where to find it. And because everyone has personal experiences from their time in the gym, their thoughts and feelings will be different. That being said, this article is based on information and research I have discovered as I’ve gotten fitter, stronger and in shape.

The Beginner

The term beginner in the fitness world probably refers to somebody who has 1) just started out in the gym, and 2) has been in the gym for the first 6 months of consistent training. This is important, because it first shows us one important factor of every workout, no matter what your goal is:

Consistency is key!

That’s right, you’re only a beginner for the first 6 months if you are consistent with the work you put in. If you are out of the gym for one week or two, then after 6 months, you’re still considered a beginner because you’ve not made the most of the benefits that you can get when building muscle. So it’s best to find a program that works for you, and stick to it for your first six months of training. Which brings me to my next point.

What training program best suits a beginner?

The best training program will depend on your goals, whether you want to build muscle or lose weight. But every single goal should include some resistance training. It is for that reason that every beginner workout should be a strength resistance training workout that uses compound lifts as the foundation for strength and stability. I’m talking lifts like:

  • The back squat
  • The deadlift
  • The bench press
  • The bent over row
  • The overhead press

In fact, really, those are all you need. Now you might ask me: Sonny, what about bodyweight exercises? Like dips, and pull ups? Well I’ve got news for you

The beginner should work on mastering their compound lifts first

I don’t have anything against bodyweight exercises, but you would get much more value out of mastering the big lifts than by struggling on bodyweight exercises for the first few months because you don’t have the strength and stability to perform them yet. In fact, don’t focus on them at all. Leave them until your strength starts to increase. Dips and pull ups are definitely not easy exercises to perform, with perfect form.

I can’t stress this enough. Every single compound lift you do will provide strength gains that will help you with other exercises down the line, but also compound lifts are important since a beginner can gain the most amount of muscle than an intermediate or advanced lifter can. So it is better to utilise strength and work on becoming stronger and building muscle mass. So don’t try and think about the other exercises just yet. You’ll see people doing them, but here’s what else I’ve also noticed. They haven’t mastered their form.

Form is essential

Having perfect form prevents any chance of injuries, and helps ensure you can make that mind muscle connection in all of your exercises, to ensure you hit the right muscles, and cause the most protein breakdown. Many lifters in the gym do not always have perfect form on their exercises. So it’s important that you focus on form first before you even add any weight to the exercises. Every beginner will start with the bar, or the lightest dumbbell, or the lightest setting on a cable machine. I highly advise not skipping this step, because you will run into injuries down the line if you pack on too much weight with bad form.

The next important thing that leads on from form is the fact that you must drop the weight as a beginner. Do not move straight to the heavy weights like you see other lifters doing. Your body simply isn’t adapted and doesn’t have the strength to perform with heavy weights. Every compound exercise starts off from the beginning, in order to get to where intermediate lifters are. Keep it easy, keep it simple and that means:

  • Avoid dropsets
  • Avoid supersets
  • Avoid numerous sets

This is important. Dropsets and supersets are accessories of intensity. Sets are accessories of volume. Volume is best being low with compound lifts, while best being high with accessory exercises. This is because you can’t lift as much weight on isolation exercises. Dropsets and supersets come later, once you have had some good intense workouts. As a beginner, you absolutely must focus on mastering these lifts first, because having a foundation in strength and stability will benefit you on every other thing you do in the gym.

Drop the ego

Like I said, start out light, and realise that everybody else started somewhere. There is no need to feel intimidated amongst bigger, stronger guys in the gym. They’re probably respecting the heck out of you, for choosing to get in the gym in the first place. This is because they know what you’re going through. You’re new, and it’s natural to feel nervous or less confident. Don’t worry about what others think, because anyone that would have the audacity to judge a beginner on their experience in the gym, when they will have gone through similar steps, is wasting their time. You will need to stop thinking about putting on heavy weights and loading up.

What workout best suits a beginner?

Any workout that incorporates compound lifts. Simple as that, really. You don’t really need to worry about isolation exercises so early on, but if you do want to include them, do those at the end, where you’re more fatigued from utilising your strength to begin with. Muscle breakdown can occur via metabolic stress, which is done by high volume such as a higher rep range on a lighter weight. But anyway, start with the total body workout, 3 times a week with rest days in between. Choose 3 compound exercises each day. Ideally this will be a horizontal push, horizontal pull, vertical push, vertical pull, a quad, and a hamstring exercise. So for example a sample workout might look like this:

Monday: Workout A

Back squat — 3 sets of 8–12 reps

Bench press — 3 sets of 8–12 reps

Bent over row — 3 sets of 8–12 reps

Wednesday: Workout B

Deadlift — 3 sets of 5–8 reps

Overhead Press — 3 sets of 5–8 reps

Lat Pull Down — 3 sets of 8–12 reps

You’d alternate between Workout A, B, and then A again

Over the next couple of weeks you’d start to add weights to the workout, and maybe incorporate some isolation exercises for your arms and abs. Examples include:

  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep extensions
  • Ab wheels, or cable crunches
  • Calf raises

Now the reason the leg exercises come first in the workouts is because the leg muscles are naturally larger, and require the most strength to break down, and that strength is best at the beginning of the workout, since you start to fatigue down the line. And most people hate exercising the legs, but it is ideal to include leg exercises as well. I’d also recommend starting with a barbell than a pair of dumbbells since you require less core activation. Stand up and do these exercises and you’ll utilise much more stability.

Rep ranges

A beginner will want to stick to lower rep ranges for large exercises, or light weights. I like to use the 5–8 rep range for strength, the 8–12 rep range for hypertrophy, and anything higher is for endurance, but I tend to not use that one. And I don’t mean half reps, or cheat reps either. I mean full reps and that means:

Full range of motion

That’s right. The people who lift heavy weights in the gym who are rocking or moving their bodies along with their lifts, are probably not lifting in their full range of motion, or they are using a heavy weight that they can’t control. Learn from this and stick to a lighter weight whilst going through the full range of motion, to get that mind muscle connection. But that’s not all either.

Tense the muscles during each set

Many people don’t do this part and as a result, they don’t master their form perfectly nor achieve their mind muscle connection. These things are key to getting a breakdown and kickstarting protein synthesis. I will cover nutrition in another article.

Rest periods

Rest periods for compound exercises should be between 3–5 minutes long, ideally 3 minutes for the beginner, and as you get stronger and more tired, you’ll need to take more rest time to recover enough to complete the next set. With isolation exercises using light weight, rest periods are better between 1–2 minutes.

You need to warm up

Yes, you do. Studies have shown that a warmer set of muscles perform much better as opposed to tense colder and tighter muscles that may lead to more injury. Always warm up for 5 minutes on a cardio machine, and then do some dynamic stretching of the muscles you’re going to train. For example for shoulders you’d do lots of circles with your arms, making sure that the joints feel comfortable with the motion. You can use resistance bands too. Look up dynamic stretches for each of your muscles and start to do these before you start weight training. You may also do some warm up sets before your working sets begin.

Period of time in the gym

Have you ever been told that you should only stay in the gym for 45 minutes to an hour? Guess what, that’s a load of crap. Wanna know why? Because the time you spend in the gym has no bearing on the effort you put in to build your muscle. You need to take those rest periods, and that takes time. You should expect to be in the gym between 60–90 minutes if you adopt this approach.

Now you can actually spend less time in the gym, but you’d do that by lowering rest periods. However, bear in mind that if you increase volume and don’t allow yourself to recover properly, or you overtrain you will get sore. However there is a difference between muscle soreness and:

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

This basically refers to the soreness of muscles usually peaking after 24–48 hours of exercise. DOMS is actually not bad because it is proof that the body is working to recover, which is absolutely essential with weight training, especially for beginners. DOMS isn’t a bad thing and the soreness isn’t as intense as it would be if you overtrained. So don’t worry about it too much, but you will feel sore a day or 2 after an intense workout. Once it goes away, you can exercise again.

And speaking of recovery, how often should we be training as a beginner?

Training frequency

This is important. The beginner should be in the gym for 2–3 times a week working muscle groups twice. It’s no good training for one day and then skipping the next 6 days. You’ll slow down your progress, and you’ll stop protein synthesis after it peaks at 48 hours post workout. You want to keep that cycle of synthesis consistent, which is why training consistently, and a reasonable amount of times a week is so important.

Now we come into the most important aspect of beginner training. Once you’ve nailed all the above, and you’ve started to feel your muscles working. You need to start to overload your workouts.

Progressive overload

Progressive overload refers to someone in the gym who starts to add weight gradually to their exercises, after they’ve mastered their form. In order to break down the muscles, they need to be overwhelmed by heavy weight in compound exercises. The first way of doing this is to increase the weight on your sets. You’ll find it much harder to reach the higher end of your rep range you’re working in, as you start to add weight, which is good. You also can progressively overload by both adding weight, and lowering your rep range to account for strength. So for example, if you’d been working in a 8–12 rep range with moderate to no weight, you’d now work in a 5–8 rep range with heavier weight. And instead of increasing rep range to make up for your volume, you’d start to increase the number of sets. Bear in mind that the more you do this, the more time you’ll need to spend resting, thus leading to more time spent in the gym. But don’t worry, this is normal.

But we also need to cover the second component of muscle breakdown

Metabolic stress

Muscle breakdown not only happens with overload, but also by stress and tear of the muscle fibres. This is done via high rep ranges, lighter weights, and higher volume. Now every fitness fan on YouTube has probably seen an argument between intensity and volume. But this is down to solidly how they have trained in the past, and their personal experiences. Scientific studies show that intensity and volume are both important. Think of a supply and demand curve that meets in the middle. That’s where you want to be with your workouts. Anyway, metabolic stress will result in muscle fatigue, which is why isolation exercises are best done at the end of a workout, as finishers, to finally finish off the muscle you’re working on.

Don’t be surprised if you see videos on YouTube that say PUMP in the title. This just refers to the fact that someone has undergone a high volume low intensity workout with minimal rest periods, which has provided more blood to the muscle being worked, thus resulting in a pump. Pump is okay, and it shows that the hormones are working, like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine.

Now, let’s talk about the three steps of a repetition:

Concentric phase

The concentric phase refers to the first explosive push or pull movement, or the positive motion of the movement. Concentric phases are the foundation of the repetition, as it is the starting point of working the muscle. So if you hear the term concentric, it just means the first part of the repetition.

Eccentric (negative) phase

Ever been told to “control the negative?” You should absolutely do so. The negative or eccentric phase refers to the downward phase of the movement. It is important to understand that this part of the movement is the one in which the muscle is under the most tension and stress, especially when applied slowly and carefully. This is why you often start to fatigue with the negative phase, which is of course what we want. So don’t skip the eccentric phase of a movement. It’s really important and will make a difference.

Rest phase

The rest phase is the step between the concentric and the eccentric movement. It’s when you’re at the top of the movement. From here, if you want to add intensity you could do a pause rep, which is where you just pause at the top of your concentric, which will place more tension and stress on the muscle.

Whatever is the case, don’t skip this

I don’t like seeing videos of people doing bicep curls in which they only do half reps, or don’t control their negatives, because this is killing any gains they could benefit from in their first months of training. I also don’t like seeing too much momentum in their movements, because there’s no tension on the muscle, and it’s probably a result of using too much weight. When this happens it’s natural to want to swing the weight up using other parts of the body, instead of staying still and just moving the muscle you’re trying to work. So no, it’s not a bicep curl. Or it is, but it’s not a good bicep curl. Or it’s a curl that could be massively improved by incorporating these tips.

And finally, but importantly, for progress:

Switch up your workout every 6–8 weeks

As your body works the muscles you’re training, it becomes adapted to the set exercises you perform them with, and the goal is to shock the body into building more muscle. For this reason, after 6–8 weeks of training with one workout, such as a full body, switch it up and use upper/lower or a push/pull/legs body split to get some more progressive results as you go along. Then after that 6–8 weeks, change it up again, use different exercises and slowly start to become more confident with using different weights, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, cable machines, ab rollers, and your own bodyweight.


This is what I’ve learned during my first 8 months in the gym. I hope this information is useful to you, and to help keep you motivated for getting the body you want. Motivation and consistency is key. You absolutely won’t see results without the willpower required to undergo your training, and change up your nutrition. Essentially, what this is about is making sure you can get started in the most effective way possible, and avoiding common mistakes and myths in the fitness world.

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