Getting around the gym for the first time is hard enough without having to navigate an entirely new set of terminology. We’ve laid out some of the most common terms in the gym to help you start getting big.
Basic free weight equipment includes any weight that can be picked up independently to perform a variety of movements, resistance bands, and classic high/low pulley stations.
A barbell is a long, straight bar that is used to perform most bilateral lifts (both sides of the body work to move the weight). Most barbells in commercial gyms are Olympic barbells, which weigh 45lbs (20kg) and have 2” diameter sleeves on either end that rotate freely relative to the bar. A well-stocked gym might also have lighter barbells (15kg). Standard barbells are more common in home gyms. These have a 1” diameter with no rotating sleeves, and come in a variety of weights. Athletes load weight plates onto the bar to add resistance. These are most commonly found in 2.5 lb, 5 lb, 10 lb, 25 lb, 35 lb, 45 lb, and sometimes even 100 lb increments.
Dumbbells are usually used to perform unilateral lifts (a weight moved on one side of the body). They can also be used for independent bilateral lifts (separate weights moved on both sides of the body). In commercial gyms, dumbbells are usually rubber or steel and come in pairs from 5 lbs to upwards of 100 lbs, in 5 lb increments. Typically, in the home gym dumbbell handles are used, which are loaded with weight plates in the same manner as barbells.
Kettlebells can be used in place of dumbbells for almost any lift, and are also utilized in bilateral movements such as the kettlebell swing. Their bottom-heavy shape makes kettlebells a great choice for building functional fitness, because outside of the gym, weights are unlikely to be evenly distributed.
Although pulley stations are sometimes lumped in with machines, the simple high/low pulley is a staple across free weight and strength gyms that’s often incorporated into strength programming. Pulleys are used generally to isolate the muscles of the chest, arms, or back through flies, push downs, curls, and pull-downs. A weight is selected from the rack and a pin is pushed through so that only those plates will be lifted when you use the pulley. Most gyms will have plates that increase in 10 lb increments, and a well-stocked gym will have fractional plates that you can add onto the stack so that you can jump up in smaller increments as well.
Resistance bands are useful because they have variable resistance (less when loose, more when pulled taut) and are great for working on mobility. They can be used in place of pulley stations by looping them around any other pole, rack, or pull-up bar. Bands can also provide assistance for performing bodyweight movements, such as pull-ups and dips, by lessening the effective weight the muscles must move. Resistance bands have so many possibilities for both training and active recovery that they should be in every strength enthusiast’s home or gym.
Programming can be broken down into repetitions (reps) and sets. A rep refers to one full execution of a lift. One rep in a deadlift is one time picking the bar up, locking out, and returning it to the ground starting position. A group of reps performed with little to no time in between them is referred to as a set. Most programs indicate the number of sets and reps to perform with the shorthand “set x rep,” e.g., 3x5 indicates three sets of five reps. Sometimes programs will be specific about how much time should be spent resting in between sets. Otherwise, a good general guideline is to spend 1-4 minutes resting between sets if you’re lifting heavy with low reps, and 30-60 seconds resting if you are performing more moderate weight, high rep sets.
Sometimes you will see a percentage given for a certain lift in a program, and this percentage refers to the percentage of weight relative to your 1 rep max, or 1RM, on that lift. For example, your program may call for 4×8 squats @70%, which might be slightly difficult but possible. To calculate this, you would simply multiply the maximum weight that you can lift for one repetition by 70%, so if your squat 1RM is 200lbs you would perform four sets of eight reps at 140lbs.
The basic terminology for muscle groups is simple, but can take awhile to learn. Many gym-goers use shorthand to refer to muscles.
The muscles in your chest under your breasts are your pectoralis major, or pecs. The most common movements that stress these muscles are the push up, bench press, flies, and dips.
Biceps brachii (bis) are the muscles on the top/front of your upper arm that allow you to pull things towards your body, and as the name implies, there are two of them. Although bicep curls are a staple of any bodybuilder, many powerlifters and olympic lifters forgo them because the bicep gets plenty of work in deadlifts, rows, and chin ups – which are more bang-for-your-buck compound lifts than a traditional curl.
Your triceps bracii (tris) are the muscle antagonistic to your biceps located on the posterior side of your upper arm, so-called because the muscle has three “heads.” The triceps are a smaller muscle group but are very important to a well developed physique and good functional fitness. Bench press recruits the most tricep out of the compound lifts, but many lifters will also add direct isolation work such as close grip bench press, dips, or tricep extensions.
Your trapezius muscles (traps) are found in your upper back between your shoulder blades extending from the base of the neck to the mid-back. You can shrug barbells day after day and not see an increase in your trap size, but as soon as you start pulling heavy deadlifts they’ll pop like you can’t imagine.
The three heads of your shoulder muscles are collectively known as your deltoids, or delts. Building strong shoulders is indispensable to achieving the squared off, bulky look associated with the classic V-taper and is best accomplished by heavy overhead press variations finished off with lateral and front raises.
Your “wings” or latissimus dorsi (lats) are the broad muscles across your mid- and lower-back that attach directly to your spine and give the appearance of being very wide when flared out. Pull-ups are the preferred and mosteasily accessible way to grow your lats, but a variety of pull-downs, pull-overs, and rows should be included in your program for maximal wing span growth.
One of the largest and strongest muscle groups in your body is your gluteal muscles (glutes), or booty. Your thighs are another of the strongest muscles in your body, and they’re known anatomically as the quadriceps femoris or quads. Your glutes are responsible for driving you up out of the hole in the bottom of your squat and the initial break off the ground when you deadlift, in close conjunction with the quads. These groups are almost impossible to train separately, and are both activated in every basic lower body lift such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, and even carries.
The group of muscles found on the posterior of the upper leg are known as the hamstrings, although hamstring technically refers to the tendons that connect these muscles to your bones. They are regularly referred to in the gym as “hammies.” The hamstrings are also important for lower body lifts, and are mostly responsible for initiating the hip drive associated with standing up out of a deadlift or squat.
The majority of muscles in your core make up your abdominals, or abs, including the oblique abdominal muscles along the side of the torso. A strong core is absolutely essential to functional fitness, and all lifts should be performed with the core braced tightly. Planks, push ups, and roll outs are ideal ways to directly target the abdominals, although the majority of compound lifts recruit them to some extent.