Mind & Body

You’ve found the perfect gym --- cheap, cool equipment, clean, the works. Only one problem ... you don’t quite know what to do or where to start. This month we’ll look at some warm-up techniques and upper-body exercises.

Before you plop down on that nifty-looking weight bench and try to prove to your fellow gym rats that you belong in their presence, you may want to make a detour to the warm-up area.

Your body is a tremendously complex and resilient machine, but unless you are also fool enough to gun the Porsche in the driveway like a madman, you need to give yourself a chance to get your blood flowing and muscles warm before you rip into the iron.

Whether you choose the treadmill, running in place or one of those space-age contraptions, you must do some light running or cycling before you stretch those muscles. Stretching without warming up is akin to snapping a rubber-band fresh out of the freezer. Yikes!

After 10-15 minutes of easy movement, when you start to feel a glow and the sweat starts to flow, you are ready for some simple major-muscle stretches. Since we are concentrating on the upper body this month, here’s some of the best static (constant stretch in which the end position is held for 10-30 seconds) stretches for that area: Straighten Arms Behind Your Back; Seated Lean-Back; Behind-Neck Stretch; Cross Arm in Front of Chest; Arms Straight Above Head.

Do NOT use jerky movements, and don’t force your joints to go ways they don’t want to go. Static stretching is safe, effective and quite relaxing when done right. You should spend from 8-12 minutes doing these stretching movements.

After you are good and limber, it’s time to pick your exercises. Your upper body can be divided into three major areas: chest, back and arms. Assuming you are a relative newbie in the gym, here are some exercises that will give you a good overall workout:

  • Bench Press -- This simple exercise can be done with a barbell or two dumbbells. Lie face up on the bench, with your feet flat on the floor. Your body should be as flat as possible on the bench, and your head should be almost aligned with the uprights. Grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip, and move it directly over your chest with elbows fully extended. Lower the bar slowly to lightly touch your chest and then push it back up until your elbows are again fully extended. That is one repetition! Some things to keep in mind -- breathe in on the way down, and exhale as you push the bar up. Three sets of 15 repetitions should do the trick, with 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
  • Lat Pulldowns -- Assume a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip with your hands facing away from you. Lean back slightly. Pull the bar down toward your chest, being careful not to use a jerky motion. After the bar touches your upper chest, slowly let your arms return to a fully-extended position. One rep! Tips -- you can also use a narrow, reverse grip for some variety. Do three sets of 15 reps with, you guessed it, 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
  • Biceps Curl -- Grab that barbell or those dumbbells with an underhand grip, slightly wider than your shoulders. With knees slightly flexed, raise the bar in an arc by flexing your arms. DON’T SWING IT UP! Oops...screaming again. Lazy lifters bring out the worst in me. Control the motion of the bar on the way up and on the way down, and try to get three sets of 10-12 reps with 1-2 minutes rest between sets. If you feel your body start to sway, lighten up the load and pick a lesser weight. That’s why they put thouse five-pounders on the racks, folks.
  • Triceps Extension -- Ladies love this one in the battle against those unsightly "bat-wings" that sneak up on the backs of your arms in middle age. At the tricep pushdown machine, grab the bar with your palms away from you, 4-6 inches apart. Keep your upper body straight and your elbows close to your torso while you push the bar down to full elbow extension. Let the bar come back up slowly until your forearms are parallel to the floor. Way to go -- that’s one! As with the curls, try three sets of 10-12 reps with 1-2 minutes rest.

There are a gazillion more exercises you can do to work your upper body, but these four will give you a very basic and thorough introduction to the iron game. After a few weeks of work, you will be able to add some extra movements and pack some more weight on the bar.

Next time: Get a "leg up" on the competition with some solid lower-body workouts.