A First-Hand, Beginner's Guide to Getting In Shape

No gimmicks. No shortcuts. Just honest, practical building blocks for getting fit – from a guy who's struggling through them.

One day last summer, I ate most of a large pepperoni pizza. Later, taking a shower, I looked down at my swollen, spherical belly and thought, “If I was a pregnant woman, people would say I was beautiful.”

I think about that moment at least once a week, usually after going to the gym.

I am not a success story. Not yet. I don’t have an after picture because I’m in the thick (ha) of my first ever gym experience. But I have been going fairly regularly for several months, so I’ve learned a few things I feel I can impart to you if you’re summoning the will to start – or considering quitting.

Don’t Obsess Over the Mirror

Because let's be honest: if you're trying to make a change, that means you probably don't look so great as-is. If you did, you wouldn’t have read this far.

Most guys probably want to look like a chiseled, six-pack-having, muscular-but-not-too-muscular movie star, so that's their point of comparison for being in shape. The problem is, when movie stars want to metamorphosize from a dadbod into a beautifully sculpted butterfly of lean muscle, they get paid incredible sums of money to work out with professional trainers and eat delicious, balanced meals prepared by professional chefs.

You and I don’t have lives like that. We get paid lesser sums of money to sit on our ever-expanding bottoms all day, getting up briefly to eat a burrito the size of our forearm before returning to work. Which means it’s going to take time to really notice any kind of change in your body. And it takes years and years of hard work on top of that to have an action hero physique.

So take it easy on the mirror-gazing early on. Cut yourself some slack. Above all, remember that before you started working out you were doing nothing, and therefore, losing ground every day. Now that you’ve reversed that trend, you’re moving in the right direction.

Take Pictures, Instead

It’s hard to see tiny, incremental changes day to day, which is why staring at the mirror is so frustrating – you can't notice any difference, so it feels like all your hard work is for naught.

What you should do instead is take some pictures to record your progress. Snap a few "before" shots at the very beginning of your fitness efforts, and every few weeks from then on. Looking at those back-to-back will more clearly show your results, and give you a burst of motivation to keep going.

That said, “looking better” isn’t really a goal. And you need goals. Which brings us to...

Make Realistic, Concrete Goals – or Just Quit

If your goal is to “get in shape,” or “get toned,” well, you may as well spend your $200 gym membership on boneless Buffalo wings. You’ll be happier and the results will be about the same.

Goals need to be specific and measurable. Mine is to fit comfortably into an expensive pair of jeans I bought, since right now, me putting them on looks something like what happens at a sausage packing plant. Getting down to a size where I can wear them prevents me from losing both my money and my pride.

And be sure to pick a goal that's right for you, not for everyone else. According to “charts,” my ideal weight for my height is 185 pounds. I felt like a trash monster for a long time because I hovered around 210. Then I had my BMI measured, and it turns out I have more muscle than the average guy. So 185 isn’t gonna happen, but 195-200 could look real good. That made me feel like I could actually accomplish something.

So, take heart. Ten pounds may not sound like a lot, but it’s probably the difference for those jeans.

Tailor Your Workout To Your Goals

I do a lot more cardio (because, I don’t know if I mentioned, but I have more than average muscle mass. You got that, right?) so I can burn fat. Then, I follow up with some time on weights. This strategy is 90 percent because it matches my goals – I'm more interested in slimming down than bulking up – and 10 percent because weights are terrifying.

If you just want to get rid of a gut, hit the treadmill and ignore the weightlifting alpha males who insist that no gym session is complete without a set of deadlifts. You're working out for yourself, not other people.

Do Your Homework

Any exercise that you do vigorously and consistently will get you results, but it's best to do a little research before you walk into the gym and start thrashing around on some machines.

First and foremost, figure out your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). That's how many calories you need on a given day to maintain your current body. There are plenty of calculators online, and while none will be 100% accurate, they're close enough to give you a roadmap. From there, you've got two options:

  • If you want to lose fat, you've got to eat under your TDEE, or do enough cardio to create a difference. 500 fewer calories per day is the standard suggestion, which puts most people on track to lose about a pound per week.

  • If you want to gain muscle, you've got to eat slightly above your TDEE while lifting weights. The most effective way to do that for beginners is with full-body barbell lifts, so you’re not wasting time using those complicated weight machines that only work out one specific part of one specific muscle.

If you're a beginner, you can do both at the same time by lifting weights while eating under your TDEE. Muscle-building will eventually stall without a caloric surplus, supposedly, but I can cross that bridge once I get there.

The Weight Room is Like a Prison Yard. Act Accordingly

In my gym, there's a man shaped like a mushroom cloud. The upper half of his body is pretty much always exposed and bright red. His head looks like an angry pot roast, and his mouth is perpetually contorted into a rottweiler snarl. He is the biggest guy I’ve ever seen. I imagine him looking over at me, lifting what little weight I can manage, and thinking the way a T-Rex might regard a little finch. “It’s not even worth eating him. I’ll just be hungry again in ten minutes.”

These kinds of guys live and breathe weightlifting. They know what they’re doing, and are in much better shape than you. To avoid getting eaten, follow simple protocol:

  • Don't worm into a weight set someone else is using. If you’re unsure, make eye contact and motion to the weights (because everyone has earbuds in) to ask.

  • Wipe off benches once you’re done with them. You don’t want to be the guy who leaves butt sweat.

  • Don’t bogart the equipment, especially by sitting and looking at your phone gratuitously. You’ll have plenty of time for browsing Instagram when you’re lying on your bathroom floor trying not to die after your workout.

Most importantly, don't stress too much. Yeah, the other guys might be bigger than you, but everyone has to start somewhere. Give it a few weeks and you’ll get to a point where you know what you’re doing, feel more confident, and have your own place in the yard.

Quit Making Excuses

If you're anything like me, you're lazy. You need to accept that and be ready for it. Sooner or later (let’s be honest, it’s going to be sooner) you’ll want to skip the gym. You will astound yourself with your own creativity coming up with reasons to do this. The other day, I almost didn’t go because I ate a burger and fries for lunch. I mean, that doesn’t even make sense.

If there is any question of whether you should go, that means you could go, but your laziness is bubbling up to the surface. And I’ll bet laziness has some really good suggestions for dinner, too.

Aim three consistent workouts a week – every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example – and stick to them as if your life depended on it. Consistency is really what’s going to drive any changes you see, much more so than how much you lift or how fast you run. If you put in the work week in and week out, you’ll get there.

Oh, and you have to eat right, which brings us to...

Just Say No To Trash Food

I live in Rochester, where some genius in the 1920s invented something called the Garbage Plate: cheeseburgers, macaroni salad, home fries, onions, and spicy meat sauce, all heaped together. It contains more than 3,000 calories, and it is delicious.

If you do everything right at the gym, but eat those with a few beers on the regular (like I used to in college), you’re not going to see results.

It’s sad but true that things like butter, salt, oil, fatty meat, cheese, and booze are both the most delicious things in the world and the most dangerous to your fitness goals. So if you want to get serious, you have to be mindful of what you're eating, pretty much all the time.

I'm not saying you have to swear off good food forever – no physique is worth that – but you do have to understand the nutritional breakdown of the unhealthy stuff and avoid it if you can't spare the calories that day. Getting educated about just how many calories are in junk food will help you resist stupid things like a giant Panera cookie, which, if you’re wondering, takes about 40 minutes of hard running to work off. Most times, that's not worth it.

If you were hoping to get specifics on sets and reps, you’re probably pretty disappointed by now. The good thing is the Internet is full of advice on things like that. But none of it will matter if you get burned out or discouraged within the first two months.

So keep your chin up, since you’re making a really great choice by taking your body’s fate into your own hands and getting healthier. You’ll feel better before you look better – but that'll come in time, too. And who knows... stick with it long enough, and you could be the dog-faced mushroom cloud guy of your gym in a few years. Sometimes, dreams come true.

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