Beginner’s guide to getting fit during quarantine

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Photo by Mauricio Maroto

This student is demonstrating the correct bottom position of the low bar back squat. Compound movements, performed with good form, such as the squat, should always be the focus of any beginner strength training program as they build the most strength and muscle mass.

Mauricio Maroto, Staff Writer

The recent virus seems to have taught many of us one major thing: it is beneficial to stay as healthy as you can reasonably manage. Regardless of whatever YouTube-ad supplement peddlers would tell you, there is no shortcut to doing this.  Aside from whatever “body positivity advocates” would tell you, it is good for you, in every way imaginable, to be fit. People seem to recognize this, as sales for fitness equipment have recently spiked.

Peloton, a brand that is synonymous with at home exercise bikes, saw their sales jump 172 percent from the quarter before the pandemic.  This could equate to around $3.5 billion to $3.65 billion for 2021. The bikes, which have internet capability so that users can connect to live classes, run around $2245.   Overall, fitness equipment sales increased 130 percent last March from the same time last year.  According to the market research company, NPD, “sales of exercise bikes were up 170 percent, free weights up 181 percent, and benches up 259 percent” since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I’ve been exercising more since I have more time at home and to myself,” noted junior Maddox Fornataro. “It’s really nice!” 

Mindset

It is important to have the correct mindset. Patience is not only a virtue but also integral to the achievement of any long-term fitness goals. Building muscle, increasing cardiovascular endurance, and losing body fat are all lengthy processes. These processes yield big long-term results, granted that a person is willing to work at them for long enough. You could have world-class trainers, nutritionists, and equipment at your disposal, but it would not mean anything if you are not willing to stick to your goals.

It also helps not to compare yourself to others.  Comparing yourself, an individual with completely different genetics and experience in the gym, to a Gymshark “athlete,” with countless amounts of lifting, performance-enhancing drugs, and dieting is an exercise in futility and one that should be avoided at all costs.  Opt instead for an alternative that would spare both your self-worth and your mental health. Compare yourself to who you were, not to who you want to be. Keeping track of how your body composition has changed over time is an excellent idea. It is quite motivating to see that you now have 10 fewer pounds of body fat than you did six months ago. 

“I wanted to feel better about myself so I started working out consistently and monitoring what I ate,” said senior Skylar Finkel. “I’m so happy that I made this change and developed this new lifestyle.”

Common misconceptions

Misinformation is also a large part of why many people choose to live less healthy lives. There are a number of myths concerning exercise and teens.

Myth: If you lift weights, your muscles will get too big!

Truth: Lifting weights or hitting an exercise bike will not make you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. As previously mentioned, gaining muscle is a very lengthy process. Simply touching a barbell will not turn you into a bodybuilder regardless of your sex. As well as this, everyone has a limit to the amount of muscle they can put on without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. 

Myth:  Lifting weights will stunt your growth!

Truth: No scientific study has ever concluded that lifting weights stunts growth. Lifting is good for your bones, as many studies have shown that lifting heavy weights leads to increased bone density and a decreased chance of osteoporosis. Any exercise must be executed with proper form, to avoid injury.

Myth: You don’t have time to exercise!  

TruthA lot of people who say they do not have the time to exercise or cook their meals also miraculously find the time to browse Tik Tok for hours, play a few games of Valorant, and binge the newest season of Umbrella Academy, all in the same day. If you consider your diet and exercise routine part of your daily schedule, as you would consider homework or going to work, you magically find a way to make time for it. In most cases, if there’s a will there’s a way. Quit making excuses and focus on the important things. 

Myth:  All I have to do to get a six-pack is do sit-ups!

Truth: What is commonly known as “spot reduction” is the false claim that is possible to reduce body fat in a specific area of the body. No sweat suit, electric ab belt, or ab workout program will ever get you the six-pack you want. The only way to lose body fat is by losing it all over your body. This is commonly done through long-term meal planning, frequent cardio, and a resistance training program.

Nutrition

Most experts will agree, nutrition is the single most important thing when it comes to achieving a specific body composition. Health experts often discuss an individual’s “caloric surplus.”  Simply put, a caloric surplus “is when the amount of calories we consume is higher than the amount of calories we burn.”  For example, if you consume 2500 calories in a day and you burn 2000 calories throughout the day, you would be in a surplus of 500 calories.  A caloric surplus is a goal when trying to gain muscle, and the inverse, a caloric deficit, is a goal when trying to lose body fat.

The best way to consistently eat healthy, year-round, is by creating a meal plan. A meal plan is different from a diet, as it does not exclude or include specific foods or macronutrients, such as the general exclusion of carbs in the keto diet, or the exclusion of animal products in a vegan diet.

A meal plan typically consists of 3-5 meals spaced out throughout the day. Many people opt to eat 5 or more meals a day, as eating frequently keeps you full and reduces the chance that you will snack. 

A meal plan should be tailored to the individual’s body and specific fitness goals. Before creating a meal plan, an individual should find their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which can be done fairly accurately online with a BMR calculator such as the one provided at the end of the article. BMR is essentially how many calories your body burns in a day while resting. A meal plan should also incorporate plenty of vegetables, fruits, and leafy greens.

According to a study done by the National Center for Biotechnology, if an individual seeks to lose body fat, they should create a meal plan that puts them at a maximum of a 15 percent caloric deficit. If an individual seeks to gain muscle mass, they should create a meal plan that puts them at a maximum of a 15 percent caloric surplus.  It should be noted that for those trying to gain strength, it is easier to do so while on a meal plan that puts them on a caloric surplus.  For example, a meal plan for a person who burns 2000 calories a day should consist of 1700 calories if they are trying to lose weight, and 2300 calories if they are trying to gain weight.

Think of a water balloon with a small hole poked into the side. If too much water flows into the balloon, while not enough is flowing out, the balloon will get bigger. If the amount of water flowing out of the balloon is greater than the amount flowing in, then the balloon gets smaller. If the amount of water flowing into the balloon is equal to the amount flowing out, then the balloon will stay the same.

The balloon in this analogy is the human body, the water flowing in is the calories you take in through food, and the water flowing out is the calories you burn throughout the day.

The amount of calories you consume and burn in a given day is the number one thing that determines whether you lose weight. However, the quality of the food you eat determines where that weight comes from.

Staying in a caloric deficit will make you lose weight, however, if you eat low-quality food, do not get enough protein, and do not do any resistance training, then much of the weight you will lose will be muscle. 

The same goes for gaining weight. If you stay in a caloric surplus, you will gain weight, but if you do not eat healthily, and do not do any resistance training, then much of that will be fat instead of muscle.

Eating cleaner and better takes planning.  Using a meal plan is a great way to keep you on track, but there are a few things to consider when creating a meal plan.

Cooking: After creating a meal plan, it is generally good advice to cook all your food in batches. Freeze what you don’t eat for a few days, and refrigerate what you will eat tomorrow. That way instead of cooking your chicken breast, broccoli, and brown rice every day, you can do it once a week and seal your meals in Tupperware containers. When it’s time to eat, take your food out of the fridge or freezer, and it’s ready to eat in less than five minutes.  It also helps to get good at cooking. You would be surprised at the plethora of ways in which a chicken breast can be cooked and served. Having baked chicken one day, and chicken stir fry the next helps keep the boredom of eating the same food every day at bay. Variety helps you stick to a meal plan so always make sure you consider it.

“Get a variety of vitamins and minerals in your diet by eating different color fruits and vegetables,” noted AICE PE teacher and track coach Ms. Etches. “Bananas have potassium, kiwis have Vitamin C, blueberries have antioxidants.”

Macronutrients are the three essential types of nutrients your body needs to function: Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

Protein:  According to Craig Ballantyne, a certified trainer and health writer, you should try to eat at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This applies to both weight gain and weight loss. A person who weighs 100 pounds should eat at least 100 grams of protein per day. Protein should be taken from animal sources, as they are most easily absorbed and used by the body. Egg whites, Chicken breast, whole eggs, and salmon are excellent sources of protein. Plant proteins from sources like peas, seeds, lentils with white rice, broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower are also viable for those who do not consume animal products. 

Carbs: Not all carbs are evil. They are important for maintaining energy levels throughout the day. Stick to foods such as brown rice, homemade whole wheat bread, fruits, vegetables, and oatmeal for carbs. Try to get most of your carbs from fibrous fruits and vegetables, as they will make you feel full for longer, and aid digestion.

Fats: Not all fats are evil. Fats are helpful for not only making a meal tastier but also for regulating the hormones of a human body. Eat fats from good sources such as coconut oil, avocados, nuts, cheese, and salmon.

The macro-ratio for proteins, carbs, and fats are not particularly important for beginners. Just prioritize getting one gram of protein per body weight, and fill in the rest of the calories with carbs and fats.

Sugars: try to stay away from sugary foods in general. Sugary foods are very calorically dense and usually lack nutrition. Fruits and milk being the main exceptions. It may be difficult to stay away from sweets for long periods of time, so it helps to indulge in a small treat every now and then. Including a serving of frozen yogurt into your meal plan once a week is far more preferable to binge eating a tub of ice cream.

Misinformation and minutia saturate the world of fitness advice. Because of this, it is important to stick to the basics, especially as a beginner. 

There are many sins one can commit in the gym. Not re-racking dumbbells, not wearing a mask, not cleaning the bench you just used; all are terrible offenses committed by inconsiderate people. The worst offense however is the one that ironically enough isn’t all that inconsiderate to others: Ego lifting.

Ego lifting has no scientific definition, but can generally be defined as “lifting the most amount of weight, almost always with poor form, for the sole purpose of impressing others.” This is problematic for numerous reasons.

Ego lifting is both ridiculous and ridiculously dangerous. Regardless of what exercise you are performing, if executed with poor form, the chances of injury go up significantly. An injury in the gym could prevent someone from exercising for a very long time, and therefore could stop them from progressing for a very long time. 

Aside from increasing chances of injury, ego lifting also makes the exercise essentially ineffective. For example: treating a horizontal barbell row like you would a deadlift is not an effective way to train the upper back. See the link at the bottom of the article to see how drastic the difference is. 

For the sake of your health and progress, do not ego lift.

Exercise

It has been established that form is important, now knowing this, one may begin to choose exercises to perform. Instead of selecting exercises from the start, it helps to instead opt for a program as a beginner. A program is simply a predetermined selection of exercises that generally includes the weight used, repetitions, sets, and how many times to exercise per-week. 

“I was working with a trainer, and we had to wear masks and gloves,” said junior Reine Victerone. “I lost 25 pounds during quarantine actually!”

It is also important to pick a program that contains the exercises you enjoy. A program could have perfect exercise selection for your body type, however, if you hate it and do not stick to it consistently, it won’t be nearly as effective as a program you enjoy. 

Before one starts resistance training, they should first prioritize developing cardiovascular endurance. In plain English, exercise the most important muscle in your body first, your heart. Doing around 30 minutes of steady-state cardio a day, five times a week increases circulation throughout the body and reduces your risk of heart attack, type two diabetes, and several other health problems.

Overuse injuries from running are all too common among beginners, especially those who are overweight. Because of this, an individual should do low-impact cardio like swimming or should take a rest day between running sessions to let their body recover. Those who are extremely overweight should avoid jogging or running in general, as the added weight from their body puts a dangerous amount of stress on their joints. Low-impact cardio such as biking and swimming are not only fun but much safer alternatives.

Running programs also exist such as the one provided at the end of the article.

For those with access to a barbell, a half-rack, and some plates, barbell lifting programs are the best option. Barbell compound movements are the most effective way for a beginner to develop strength. Programs like Stronglifts 5×5 teach a beginner the basic compound barbell movements: the squat, the bench press, the deadlift, the overhead press, and the barbell row. Stronglifts 5×5 has a free mobile app that makes tracking progress and exercising easy. It should be noted that beginner programs often leave out exercises that target smaller muscle groups such as the biceps and calves. It would generally be in the best interest of the lifter to include exercises such as curls and calf-raises in their program to target those muscle groups.

“Full-body, bodyweight exercises, as well as High-Intensity Interval Training are good options for people who don’t have equipment,” said Etches.

Although not optimal, calisthenics programs can also be used for those who do not have access to gym equipment. Calisthenics are bodyweight exercises that can be performed with little to no equipment, usually with the exception of a pull-up bar. Two calisthenics workouts are provided at the end of the article. bodyweight exercises should also be used in the case that an individual cannot properly perform an exercise with the empty bar. Building up lower body strength first with bodyweight squats would be a good idea for someone who can not reach 

“I would highly recommend pushups, squats, sit-ups, dips, lunges, and planks for beginners,” said senior and varsity football player, Paul Saget.

Progression

Progressive overload is the training principle of gradually increasing the stress placed on the body. To put it simply: working harder over time. Squatting 45 pounds one week, and gradually increasing the weight being squatted by five pounds at a time would be considered progressive overload. Without progressive overload, you will not grow, and you will not get stronger.

The same applies to cardio, however, it is safer not to do cardio with weights, as they harmfully increase the stress on the joints when running.

Progressive overload generally comes in the form of either intensity or volume. Increasing intensity would mean lifting heavier weight. Increasing volume would mean increasing the number of repetitions.

Over time an individual will eventually plateau, at which point they should switch to an intermediate program.

Getting an adequate amount of sleep is crucial to progress for two main reasons: safety and recovery. Exercising puts stress on the body, and without eight hours of quality sleep per night, the body starts to suffer. Being sleep-deprived makes you less alert, weaker, more likely to get sick, and more likely to injure yourself in the gym. Your body also needs time to recover, as muscle growth and repair is severely hindered by a lack of sleep. On top of all of that, it is simply no fun to exercise when you can barely stay awake after finishing a set. Avoid exercising each muscle group more than once within a 48 hour period. If you did squats on Monday, rest on Tuesday, and squat again on Wednesday.

Congratulations, you now have the tools you need to begin your fitness journey. Stay motivated, stay patient, but most of all, stay consistent.

To calculate your BMR  http://www.bmrcalculator.org/

To find healthy meal plans from the US Department of Agriculture  https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/WhatIsMyPlate

To see the entire study by the National Center for Biotechnology  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23679146/

Stronglifts 5×5 app  https://apps.apple.com/us/app/stronglifts-5×5-weight-lifting/id488580022