Quick story: I was walking with my wife back to our apartment from a store. I was carrying a bag in one hand, but I needed to hold the bag aloft a bit so that it wouldn’t scrape the ground. After a few blocks, I began to feel the weight of it and found myself switching hands to relieve the effort. The contents of the bag? Pillows. Two, to be precise.

Two pillows.

So, yeah, it was around then that I decided I really needed to get a little stronger. Which, to me, meant getting serious about regularly doing some strength training.

The benefits of strength training, of course, go beyond simply being able to carry pillows with ease (although I greatly look forward to the day I can wow the ladies with my prowess in that department). As someone in his 40s, I have to start thinking about warding off afflictions common among older folks.

Jamie Hale, an author of several books on exercise and nutrition, told me via
e-mail, “Exercise professionals often mention how exercise benefits the heart, lungs, muscle, bones, etc. But they often fail to mention that exercise offers an array of brain benefits. In fact, exercise reduces the likelihood of a number of age-related brain disorders.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tout strength training as providing improved balance, stronger bones, better sleep and relief from arthritis and depression, among other benefits, to those of a certain age.

Right away, I like the idea of warding off depression, because contemplating my senior years already has me a little bummed out. The other stuff doesn’t sound half-bad, either. But how does a total beginner whose average workout consists of, say, taking out the trash or mowing the lawn walk into a gym for the first time and get something out of the experience?

It’s usually a good idea to consult an expert before embarking on any major project, so I headed over to the Planet Fitness gym in Silver Spring to get some strength-training advice. Planet Fitness prides itself on fostering a “judgment-free” atmosphere, and it actively discourages the kinds of noisy behavior and macho posturing that can alienate newcomers. So it seemed like just the spot for a relative weakling (and not even the skinny kind) to begin pumping iron. Well, that and it’s located not far from my home.

There, trainer Dominique Jackson told me that among the first things he asks people joining his gym about is their medical history. “Anything as far as any pains, injuries or surgeries that would affect your workout,” Jackson said. “It’s really important to know somebody’s medical history before we actually start.”

That sort of consultation is very helpful for a newcomer to a gym, who may look around and be baffled at where to start, what to do and how to do it (or just as important, how not to do it). You don’t have to hire a trainer to guide your every move, but just getting pointed in the right direction can make a huge difference in your initial comfort level. Prior to this step, folks interested in joining a gym should take tours of at least a couple of them, and try to make an informed decision about which environment feels right for them.

Strength training can be performed using various kinds of specialized equipment, such as exercise machines or dumbbells, or, as in the case of bodyweight training, almost no equipment at all.

Hale’s advice for beginners is to “start slow, and try to find a program that they will adhere to on a consistent basis. There are many paths that lead to the same place. That is, different programs can lead one to reaching fitness goals. . . . The best program is a program one will follow and that allows progressive increase in difficulty.”

Jackson said he recommends that newbies start off “with the machines, and then we’ll eventually work on the dumbbell training and the cable training. . . . With things like dumbbells, you have to know the proper form to actually do the exercises.”

Proper form is important when using free weights because the lack thereof could lead to poor returns on your hard work, or it could even lead to serious injury. By contrast, as Sara Wolz, Planet Fitness Silver Spring’s general manager, pointed out, a machine will have instructions and a diagram that shows what body part it’s for.

It sounded fairly idiot-proof (although I’m always up for that challenge), so I was ready to take a spin on some of the gym’s machines. But first, Jackson had me warm up on a treadmill, then do some stretching. He stressed the importance of “walking, then stretching, because you never want to stretch cold muscles. So you first want to get warmed up, then go to your stretches.”

So I spent five minutes walking, and if I may be allowed to brag a little, I think I knocked it out of the park. But then came the stretching. Jackson had me stand normally, then with my legs spread apart and then crossed, all while touching my toes or the floor. Not to say I didn’t do so well at that, but I left enough room between my fingers and the floor to fit, oh, a couple of pillows.

After those and a few other stretches, it was over to the machines.

Jackson pointed me to a circuit set up for a 30-minute routine, including cardio elements, that the gym recommends for beginners. There were 10 machines, chosen to work out major muscle groups: quadriceps, hamstring, chest, shoulder, back, arm and abdominal.

The gym’s programmed routine calls for a minute on each element, but, of course, exercisers can use machines on their own time. In that case, Jackson recommends beginners do three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions, with short breaks in between. It’s not necessary for a beginner to pick the lightest weight on every machine; ideally, he or she should go with something that becomes difficult, but not impossible, to manage by the end of the third set.

As for how often I should train, Jackson advised starting off with three days a week to avoid overwhelming myself. In fact, he said, for all levels of strength training, it is important to give a muscle group at least a day’s rest between workouts. So if . . . er, I mean when I decide I’m ready to train, say, five times a week, I’ll work on just a couple of specific groups on any given day. Jackson gave an example of Monday being a “leg day,” then Tuesday could be for back and shoulders, and Wednesday, “that’s your arm day, so you’re working biceps, triceps, forearms.” This way, by the time I return to leg workouts, those muscles have rested, repaired themselves and (hopefully) gotten a little bigger.

But for now, I’ll have several off days, and the trainer recommended that I continue to stretch on those days and, if possible, “get outside, do some cardio.” Exercises you probably remember from high school P.E. class, such as sit-ups, squats and push-ups, can also improve fitness on non-gym days. Personally, I look forward to doing more of all this stuff, and getting less pillowy soft.

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