Here's where the rubber hits the road. You've got the motivation, now what do you do?
Well, there are some choices you have at your disposal. First, you must assess your goals. For type I (fat) nerdy guys, the goal will probably be to lose weight and gain muscle. For type II (skinny) nerdy guys, the goal will probably be to gain weight (ideally in pure muscle). For pretty much every girl that I've ever met, the goal is to lose weight (even if they are already tiny).
Type I Nerds
Let's start with the camp that wants to lose weight. For most people, this means hitting the treadmill or bike or elliptical. While cardio is an effective way to burn calories, if you really want to lose weight you will need to do other stuff too. Chances are, you've packed on some unwanted pounds through a stagnant lifestyle. When you sit around all the time, you lose muscle. This is a natural evolutionary tendency, so let's dive into it a bit further.
Imagine that you are a caveman (or cavewoman). Your average day consists of two basic things: find food, and try not to become food. Finding food involves quite a bit of effort. You either have to track down an animal, kill it, clean it, take it back to your home, cook it, and eat it, or find some nuts or berries or something like that. Both will involve a lot of walking, running, crouching, lifting, and so on. All these things consume a lot of energy, so it could very well be that the food you gain from all these activities will barely be enough to replace the energy you consumed getting it. That's not very good if you are trying to survive. So your body, over years of evolution, has become more efficient. If you don't have food, it tries not to burn energy as fast, and if you do have food, it tries to keep it around for as long as it can. Since people might not have a meal but once every few days, your are designed to be able to eat as much food as you can in one sitting, and then go several days without it.
Now, fast forward to today. Your body still has more or less the same wiring, but the situation is different. If you live in a first world country, food is probably plentiful. Acquiring it involves not much more than getting in a car and driving to the nearest fast food chain. The energy burn is minimal, and the energy gain is tremendous. Your body still craves things with a high fat content, because fat gives the most energy bang for the buck. Ancient man was pretty stoked when he killed a fatty beast because that meant he would get a lot of energy from it. Fast forward to today, and this is why you love cheeseburgers and fries. We now have a plethora of high calorie meal choices and need to spend minimal calories in order to obtain them. Our ancestors would be jealous. For us, however, the result is being overweight or even obese.
So knowing this, the answer is pretty simple if you want to lose weight: eat less, move around more. Figure out how many calories you eat in order to maintain your body weight, and try to eat a few hundred less per day. If you aren't morbidly obese, then you don't have to follow a strict diet that involves cutting out all the foods you love. You can still eat them, just don't eat as much. Combine this with a fitness routine that involves some cardio and some weight training, and you're set. You'll lose weight slowly, and this is a good thing. If you try to lose weight really quickly by starving yourself, then remember that your body thinks you are dying because it's a bad hunting season, and will dramatically reduce your metabolism to conserve energy. You will lose weight, but it will be in the form of lost muscle, so when you eventually cave and start eating again, you will just gain the weight back really quickly, and have less muscle than you did before. No bueno.
Instead, you want to build muscle so that you can increase your metabolism (because muscle is inefficient and needs a lot of energy to maintain). This means lifting weights, big ones. Don't spend all your time walking or lightly jogging on the treadmill. Cardio is good, but it's not all you should do. Interval training has been shown to be most effective at burning fat, so it's best to combine that with weight lifting. Slowly but surely, you'll see results.
Any girls who read this thinking it applies only to guys: not so fast. If you are a girl, you should still work weight training into your workout routine. Maybe do less weight and more reps for the toned muscle look, but still do something.
Type II Nerds
So now for all you skinny guys out there (myself included). We have a problem that most people are extremely jealous of: we have a hard time gaining weight. For some reason, our metabolism is either really high or we just don't get as hungry as other people. You're probably tired of people telling you to "put some meat on your bones" or girls telling you they are jealous of your body.
So on one hand, we are lucky that we don't have the issues with being overweight that the rest of the nation seems to have, but it's not exactly like we have it easier, either. The massive downside is that one day our metabolisms might come to a screeching halt (I've heard it happens around 40), and we will be left with narrow shoulders, skinny arms, and a flabby gut. I call this phenomenon "skinny fat," and it is pretty much a worse case scenario. See, even guys who are fat and "big boned" have a sort of presence that commands a sense of respect amongst other men and some women, but being "skinny fat" still comes with the disrespect of being skinny AND the disrespect of being fat. It's not good, not good at all.
So what are we to do? I've been going with the method of lift heavy and eat more than I think I need. Sometimes I feel like my stomach is getting a bit big, but usually that's just a result of a heavy meal. If my waist starts getting so big that I have a problem fitting into my pants, then I'll tone it down a bit on the eating.
In trying to pack on muscle, we are sort of fighting an uphill battle with a negative feedback loop. In lifting heavy, we will build muscle that will increase our already high metabolism, making it even harder to eat enough to pack on the pounds. So, just like with the people that want to lose weight, diet matters just as much to us as it does them, except it is the reverse for us.
We are also going to have to come to grips with the fact that because we are skinny, we probably won't be able to lift as much as our friends, or other people in the gym. Don't let this get to you. Concentrate on yourself, and your own goals. Don't worry about the bro next to you who is lifting ALL the weights while you are lifting the bar with a few 10s. Don't overexert yourself for the sake of ego, concentrate on form and slowly work up. If you go too hard too fast, you could injure yourself, and that's not gonna get you ripped (well, it will, but in the bad way).
In my opinion, the key to any workout routine is flexibility. You can get in a rut if you just do the same stuff over and over again. I prefer to have a variety of different ways to train the same muscle groups, and then alternate as I get tired of them.
The workouts I do focus on two main themes: big muscles first, and don't make it overcomplicated.
-Big Muscles First: In the past, I would do the same full body workouts every time I went to the gym. This, as it turns out, is not good if you want to bulk up (which I do since I am skinny). If you want to lose weight, you may want to look into full body workouts. I would also save the big lifts (bench press, squat, etc.) for the end of the workout. I have been told by personal trainers that this is not what you should do. Instead, I do the following now:
- The Warm Up: Usually in the form of some cardio (I like jumping rope) followed by lifting just the bar or a very light weight for ~15 reps of whatever my first lift is. This helps get the blood flowing, muscles loose, and prevents injury.
- The Big Lift: This will either be something like a squat, bench press, power clean, or deadlift. It is the core lift of the day, and the one that will involve the most weight. At the end of it, you should feel the burn. I've started doing pyramid workouts for these with pretty good results so far (that's where you start off with a weight you do for 10-12 reps, then increase the weight and decrease the reps for the next few sets, then decrease the weight and go back up in reps). It seems to prevent plateauing, since you are hitting the muscle with both high rep sets and high weight sets.
- Riding the Wave: I call it this because you are basically trying to keep going with the adrenaline rush of the first exercise, except the lifts are not as intense. This is where I like to throw in body weight stuff like pull ups, dips, push ups, squat jumps with a medicine ball, etc. The goal is to keep hitting the same muscle group as the first lift, but also work in other auxiliary muscle groups that might not have been hit hard with the core lift.
- The Dessert: By this point, you should be pretty tired. Doing a full pyramid for the first workout is tiring enough, and adding another auxiliary lift afterward will make you beg for mercy. Now, you could call it a day and end the workout, but you could also push yourself just a bit harder and do some smaller muscle groups. This would be where you would do stuff like curls, calf raises, tricep extensions, sit ups, etc. It's the part of the workout where you can really just do whatever you want. The key is that these exercises should not be the focus of the workout, they are the icing on the cake. Guys especially love to do lots of curls as the main focus of their workouts because the ladies love the big guns, but remember that biceps are a pretty minuscule muscle in the grand scheme of things, so you will get more bang for your workout buck by concentrating on the core stuff.
And that's it! You don't have to do a million sets of 14 different exercises in order to get a great workout. Sure, as you get more involved in your training you can feel free to add on to the routine, but when starting off I think it is good to not get overwhelmed by the magnitude of a workout. In my humble opinion, it is better to really concentrate on a few important lifts that will strengthen multiple muscle groups at once than to half-ass a bunch of different exercises that target muscle groups one at a time. You also feel like a beast when you lift the big weights.
Check out the rest of the series: