Lifting weights should be simple. You go to a place with a bunch of metal and pick it up and put it down until you look like The Incredible Hulk. But weightlifting—like any other worthwhile pursuit—requires study, planning, and care to succeed at, which sucks.
Weightlifting is also no fitness panacea. There are few things you can do at the gym that you can't undo at the Taco Bell on the way home, and no amount of deadlifts is going to prepare you for a marathon. That said, it's fun and exercise is good, so let me Sherpa your climb up the mountain of strength, past the filthy Ganges of Internet Broscience.
Let's start with stuff. Lifting equipment falls into three categories, the stuff you'll need, the stuff you'll probably want, and the stuff you might eventually want.
YOU'LL NEED very little, actually; you were born with most of the equipment. I'd recommend athletic shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of Converse All-Stars. Chucks are great (and popular) because their flat, hard rubber sole provides a solid platform for full body lifts. Running shoes look athletic, but their cushy soles and high arches provide an unstable base that can slow your progression. Some people even lift in socks, but my feet sweat and I'm terrified I would slip and die.
YOU'LL PROBABLY WANT a water bottle, a towel, some pre-workout energy and a pair of sporty headphones. Working out requires energy, so a 5-hour-style shot or powder, along with headphones and a horrifyingly loud playlist of POWER MUSIC helps to get you going.
YOU MIGHT EVENTUALLY WANT a lifting belt, pre and post workout supplements, gloves, chalk, a home gym, a personal trainer, testosterone shots, a BALCO account.
I have … none of these things, but you should do your own research. I don't use a lifting belt because I don't want to mask bad form (I might for a one-rep max). I took creatine for a while but quit because it made me bloated and sore. A lot of people add whey protein to their diet; I prefer a quantity of beef and pilsner that would make an Argentine ex-Nazi experience shame for the first time. If you really want to get on the clear or T or other stuff I don't even know about, well, at least wait until you know how to do all the exercises.
For a gym, much has been said about why Planet Fitness type establishments are terrible, and it's all true. Most won't have even the basics: a barbell, iron plates, a squat cage and a bench. If your gym has those things, it is a Good Gym.
My gym is two rooms in a basement it shares with a barbershop, but it has weights and racks, is near my house, and costs $30 a month. Don't up-sell yourself; you barely know what to do with the things it does have.
Gyms are a shared space, and people generally are terrible. You can make your gym a less terrible place by doing a few simple things: Wipe everything down and put away your weights when you're done, and don't hog equipment unless you're using it.
If you're new at a gym you're likely to be a little nervous; being surrounded by burly he-men and not knowing what you're doing is scary. Don't worry about it. Everyone is there to get better. If this Steven Wright-looking motherfucker can share space with Lou Ferrigno, you can do anything.
So you have weightlifting things, and a weightlifting place, now you need a weightlifting plan. The secret to weightlifting success is to have a program, and the best program is the one you'll follow.
Two of the most popular programs for beginners are Stronglifts 5x5 (SL) and Rippetoe's Starting Strength (SS). They're similar, though I prefer Stronglifts because it's simpler and has an app. Pick a program that you'll do all the way through, and regularly.
Both of those plans center around the big three lifts: the squat, the deadlift and the bench press. Thousands of column inches have been devoted to the performance of these three exercises, and they hardly need my help. This is as good a place as any to get started. Go do your own homework.
"Hey, that page told me to start with just the bar," you're probably saying. "I played varsity tee-ball until I was 19, there's no reason I can't start squatting 375lbs and work my way up from there." But, yes there is! Your body not only is unaccustomed to the weights, it's unaccustomed to the motions. By the time squatting out 25 reps feels as natural as scratching your ass, your brain and body will have adapted and you'll already be at a decent working weight. Start with terrible form and you'll achieve terrible results, and probably quit.
Congratulations, seriously. Nine-tenths of success is just getting to the gym and getting your lifts in. After a few months, several things will happen. First, you'll notice your progression starting to slow down; this is normal. Bro-science explanations explanations for this differ, but it's basically a physical learning curve: Adding five pounds to nothing is easy; adding five pounds to the most you've ever lifted is hard.
Second, you'll probably become dissatisfied with your workout plan. Stronglifts and Starting Strength are the Driver's Ed of weight training. Maybe you'll keep pushing your max weights on the big three and become a powerlifter, maybe you'll start counting calories and become a bodybuilder, maybe you'll mix in a bunch of cardio and drink the Crossfit Kool-Aid.
Third, you'll start independently researching exercises, form, nutrition and all the other peripheral things that make up weightlifting. This will pull you into the Ganges of Broscience, a river rich in lore and knowledge that is also choked with horrors and the beasts that eat them. Here are legit fitness heroes and people that don't know the number of days in a week, sometimes in one body. The only real way to learn anything about sports science is to read peer-reviewed published articles, and you're not going to do that.
To wit, if you like a cold beer in a hot shower after you lift, Google will tell you that it is good (carbs, some electrolytes, alcohol as a painkiller) and that it is bad (alcohol halts protein synthesis, dehydrates, destroys gains). I don't really know which is true, but reward is a powerful motivator, and beer is tasty, so I do it.
If you might like a cold beer after you lift, or want to know whether to do high- or low-bar squats, or if you should switch to Ice Cream Fitness, follow this simple plan: Do your homework, use common sense, stop if it hurts, and keep the bar moving.
Samuel Wadhams grew up hard in Vermont and now grows soft in New York. He is not an expert on anything. Occasionally, he tweets here.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.