Yokley said that to get the best out of your workout, you should feel your best — and that involves dressing in a way that makes you feel confident.

On East Campus paralleling Interstate 81 is the four-story University Recreation Center (UREC). It’s pretty hard to miss. But the sheer size can be intimidating to incoming freshmen. 

Inside, the complex balloons into a rock-climbing tower, fitness center and two swimming pools, to name a few amenities. For those on the fence about working out or interested in taking advantage of one of JMU’s largest student resources, here’s a guide to help you feel more comfortable inside the fitness center’s confines. 

Full-body or muscle-specific workouts?

Lifting weights isn’t exclusive to athletes or those trying to maintain a certain physique: A 2014 study found that there’s a positive association between whole brain volume and white matter — the myelin and nerve fibers in your brain — and muscle size. Brain matter decreases as we get older, but JMU exercise physiology professor Chris Womack said the decrease in those with lower muscle mass is usually higher because routine weightlifters are able to retain more muscle.

Within making weightlifting a routine for a college student, sustainability of the workouts can be the difference of lifting four days a week versus two, NASM-certified personal trainer Keeley Yokley (’20) said. As a personal trainer, she said she usually divides up her clients’ workouts by push, pull, hamstring- and quadricep-focused days to allow for a full recovery between the workout sessions. 

Tran Truong (’20), a former assistant worker at UREC, said beginner lifters shouldn’t start with full-body workouts because there’s a lot more movements to keep track of during the session, and working selected muscle groups each day is more manageable. Once you gain more experience, Truong said, you can pick and choose a few select muscle groups and add them to a full-body day instead of going “10% [at] a million things” on day one. 

Workouts can also be divided into upper- and lower-body days, which is what Andy Allen (’20) said he does often with his beginner clients because it’s easier to program. Allen, who hold a Masters of Science in kinesiology from JMU and is an ACSM-certified personal trainer who coaches for Future and Burn Boot Camp, said this allows his clients to lift more often than if they were doing full-body exercises because the upper body is resting on the lower-body day and vice versa. 

The backbone of an upper-body day can be a dumbbell or barbell bench press, followed by a combination of auxiliary movements like dumbbell flys, bicep curls and tricep extensions. Lower-body days typically include either a heel-elevated or barbell squat complemented with a Romanian deadlift, Bulgarian split squat and calf raises

To stay consistent with muscle-specific workout days, Yokley said it’s imperative to specify the days and specific times you plan to head to UREC rather than saying, ‘I’m working out two times this week.’ Truong said putting the gym in “bold red letters” into an hour-long block in your calendar makes staying on top of the practice more manageable. 

Whether it’s a full-body or selected muscle lifting session, two muscle groups that Yokley and Truong said are commonly neglected are the back and core. Yokley said training her back “changed her physique entirely” and that her posture has improved. Rowing or pulling movements like a dumbbell row or lat pulldown — machines located just behind the treadmills in UREC’s fitness center — can be used to strengthen the back. 

Truong said the core is the “key to everything” because it’s engaged during most movements and that a weak core can be the culprit of nagging lower-back pain. A core circuit at the end of a full-body or muscle-specific workout can be used to keep it up to par — Yokley said she likes figure-four crunches and in-and-out crunches for her core fix. Molly Huddle, professional endurance runner and two-time Team USA Olympian, said she does a lot of side planks to help with core and hip stability at the July 15 Gatorade Sports Science Institute’s “Go the Distance” Summer Symposium. 

To the right of the UREC fitness center’s entrance lies the perfect space to perform core workouts, equipped with mats, kettlebells and other tools. 

Lifting light: repetitions and sets for a novice workout

For a beginner, Truong said it’s important to test things out for size first, and go for the weight that causes you to feel tension between 10 and 12 reps into the exercise. Maintaining this rep range for three to four sets, he said, applies for both compound lifts — a big-muscle movement like a bench press or barbell squat — and an accessory lift, a smaller-muscle movement lift like a bicep curl.

Allen said he makes sure his clients have the movement patterns down before he moves them along in their weightlifting progressions. This means starting them with light weight — even just their own body weight — and doing 10-15 reps per exercise. Doing the movements for a high volume of reps at low weight helps create muscle memory and prevents injury from moving the muscles in an incorrect way, Allen said. 

While the movement itself can become muscle memory, it can also be advantageous to keep your muscles guessing as to what rep and set ranges are deployed in a workout, Truong said. Two methods for changing the intervals up are doing as many rounds as possible — AMRAP in shorthand — and ascending-pyramid sets, where you start with your normal 10-12 reps, then go down in reps but increase the weight in each subsequent set. 

A “safe bet,” Yokley said, is to do three sets of five to six exercises during a given workout. Echoing Allen, she said proper form throughout the duration of the sets is paramount. 

“I think it’s really important for beginners to humbly enter the process and not feel like they have to prove themselves,” Yokley said. “I thought I had to prove myself, and I was using heavier weights and I was breaking my form. At that point, you’re wasting your time. If you’re not doing an exercise properly, even with the heavier weight, you’re not going to see results.”

Within lifting a lighter weight as a beginner, it’s important not to let ego get in the way or lose your sense of self compared to more seasoned lifters that are likely pushing heavier weight, Truong said. He added that remembering your purpose and “why” are techniques to block out the noise and lock in on yourself. 

“This is your own journey,” Truong said. “There’s no comparison in that regard … just grounding yourself in knowing that [lifting in the gym] is your moment of the day to seize and celebrate and appreciate.”

Yokley said doing everything in your power to exude confidence and feel good in the gym helps with blocking out external pressures — even regarding quirks that seem irrelevant to performance, like the clothes you’re wearing. Yokley said the wrong fit or playlist can take her out of her element. 

“Dress for success,” Yokley said. “If you’re going in and you don’t feel great about yourself, you’re probably not going to have a great workout, point blank.” 

Disregarding the mirrors that line the edges of UREC, Allen said, can help a beginner focus on their craft. He said playing music through headphones that pumps you up is an “amazing” outlet  to zone out and focus on yourself when among more experienced lifters. Moreover, Allen said to keep in mind that as much as it can seem like other lifters are looking at you like you’re in a “fishbowl,” most people are focused on themselves at UREC and other gyms. 

Length of workout and rest periods

Knowing how long to work out and rest during muscle-specific workouts can be just as crucial as the movements, sets and reps for beginners. Truong said rest time for a compound lift will take more time to recover from than an accessory lift. The rest times vary depending on the weight, how many reps were performed and the workout’s intensity.

Yokley said with her newer clients, she recommends rest times of 60-90 seconds for accessory lifts and 90 seconds to two minutes for compound lifts when they’re performing 10-12 reps in three-set intervals. However, if you wish to increase the intensity of a workout, Truong said rest time between sets should decrease. 

A mistake that many people exercising make is letting their heart-rate drop too drastically between sets, which can lead to lightheadedness and fainting, according to the National Emergency Medicine Association. During her rest time, Yokley said she likes to stay standing and off her phone so her heart rate doesn’t fluctuate too rapidly during the totality of her workout. 

“I’ve found that someone will leave the gym and they’re like, ‘I don’t feel like I sweated at all,’” Yokley said. “Look at your rest times. Are you just sitting around?” 

As far as the duration of a beginner’s whole workout, Allen said that the “goldilocks amount of time” is 30 minutes to align with the exercise recommendation guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. At UREC, squat racks are often full, so to ensure a 30-minute workout, a dumbbell circuit of some kind might be preferable. 

“I think the dumbbell workouts are really great for beginners just specifically because I think with the machines and barbells ... it’s really intimidating,” Yokley said. “You can do really any range with dumbbells. You can pick up big ones if you feel confident, but still go small and still go through the motions.”

Going too long in a workout results in an increased amount of rest time being used as your muscles fatigue, Yokley said. She said she used to think two-hour workouts were needed to build muscle, but now, 45-minute sessions give her plenty of time to get an “awesome workout in.” Moreover, she said a good workout doesn't mean you should be breathless or make you nauseous. 

“It’s less about how long you’re [at the gym] and more about what you’re doing with your time,” Yokley said.

Combining proper rest time with workout duration is emphasized more if you’re a student with other obligations, Truong said. Getting in and out of UREC in an hour after a 30- to 45-minute workout is the “sweet spot,” he said, and that while a heavier lifting day can go over an hour, being in the gym for over an hour-and-a-half is “just absurd.” 

Behind genetics, Womack said the next highest predictor of weight room success isn’t the exercises being performed, but how long someone’s working out. Staying within a reasonable bound of time helps prevent injury risk, and you won’t “suffer as much,” he said.  

“Whatever our goals are, even if [you’ve] got some performance goals, start treating your workouts as a bit of self-care,” Womack said. “I think it’s a good rule of thumb to approach today’s workout so that tomorrow’s self would be thankful to you.” 

Staying motivated and making UREC visits a habit

Okay, beginner — maybe you’ve started to work out now, but the results aren’t coming in at the rate you expected. Where can you turn? 

Inside UREC lies the answers. 

Truong said UREC has “amazing” coaches that can help you with workouts to perform, as well as the necessary nutrition needed to meet your goals. He said the “friendly” and “eager-to-help” front desk can give you information on the available coaches and will point you in the right direction, but only if you take the time out to ask. 

“Closed mouths don’t get fed,” Truong said. “You have to raise your hand if you need assistance and need help and need a mentor and need a coach.”

Sometimes, the grind of working out can catch up to you, Yokley said. When this happens, the solution can be as straightforward as taking a burnout-avoiding mental break — Yokley said when she was on vacation for a week this summer and couldn’t work out as often, she began “itching” to return to the gym when she realized how different she felt, in a negative way, when not working out. 

Even something as simple as changing your music playlist can get you out of a workout rut, Yokley said. Getting inspiration from a social media workout video or doing a workout class at UREC, she said, can give you a second wind or newfound appreciation for working out.

Allen said tracking the intensities and progress of your workouts can be the spark needed to continue positive results that might go unnoticed otherwise. He said he had a client who recently doubled his squat max in the span of four months — results that wouldn’t be visible if progress wasn’t tracked. 

Above all, Womack said, progress takes time. For example, losing one pound of fat each month might not seem impressive on the surface, but over the span of a year, losing 12 pounds is an amazing output, he said. 

“I am a big believer that really good, solid incremental gains — whatever it is, whether you’re running or cycling or lifting or swimming … you’ll look back in a year and be blown away by where you’re at,” Womack said. “It’s just not exciting in the immediate term.”

What makes UREC different? 

Truong said the culture at UREC is what sets it apart from other gyms he’s been to. Since it’s student-run, he said, it creates an inviting feeling because employees are close in age to the facility’s occupants. That culture was exemplified for Yokley when she didn’t know how to get to the upstairs portion of the fitness center — something she said made her feel dumb, but the workers didn’t bat an eye and kindly showed her the way. 

“You never feel like you’re the odd ball out,” Truong said. “If it’s your first day or second month into the gym or even years after, there’s always a space and a spot for you, and you’re always welcome regardless of your experience.”

Yokley also led a few of many fitness classes offered at UREC — high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and bosu classes — which she said are great ways to get exposed to other kinds of training, especially if you’re not a fan of the fitness center’s weight-lifting and treadmill backbone. She added that it’s a good idea to take advantage of the classes while your tuition pays for your UREC privileges because after college, classes aren’t free. 

Taking ownership for yourself inside UREC, Allen said, should be done with pride since it’s included in your tuition. He said it’s important to “realize your weight” and to “be big” because of it. 

“Take up that space — own it,” Allen said. “It’s all yours. Literally, you’re paying for that right.” 

Despite being a colossal building, this gym doesn’t bite. The doors are open, and it’s available to all JMU students and faculty alike.  

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every other Thursday, and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.