Okay, apologies in advance for the corny title! Can’t promise that’ll be the last one though…
If you’ve read my “fitness non-negotiables,” you know how important strength training is to achieving your fitness goals. Unfortunately, most people’s approach to lifting is haphazard at best: All you have to do is walk into the average gym and count how many people actually carry a workout log—I’ll save you some time, it’s probably a handful at the most.
A true beginner has incredible potential for improvement when compared to an intermediate or advanced lifter.
This potential for rapid improvement is often referred to as “newbie gains.” When your body is first exposed to weight training, it has almost no choice but to respond in a dramatic fashion. With a proper diet and training routine, it’s not uncommon to see all sorts of witchcraft—simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss occurs, lifts may increase by 30-50lbs in the course of month or two…
In fact, this potential for improvement is so strong that a beginner is likely to see modest gains even with a bad routine/diet.
Herein lies the problem...
Newbie gains are a wonderful thing—you’ll make steady progress both in muscle growth and strength gains—but they also are a pitfall for lifters who are just starting out and are trying to do things on their own. Newbie gains will, to an extent, allow you to make a lot of mistakes and still make progress. This has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing bad habits and bad training ideas on hapless lifters who don’t know any better.
Let’s take your average, untrained skinny guy for example. He decides it’s time to bulk up so naturally he grabs the nearest bodybuilding magazine, finds a picture of a huge guy, and copies his routine (probably some high volume bodybuilding split). Then he heads over to GNC and picks up some protein powder and maybe a few other supplements. Odds are this guy will make some noticeable progress in the first month or so of training. Eventually however, he’s going to hit a wall.
Most never make it over this wall.
Beginners with less than ideal training routines often mistakenly attribute their progress to their training routine. Then, when they stop making progress, their solution is to add more of the same type of training—after all, it was working before wasn’t it? What they don’t realize is that they were making progress in spite of their routine, not because of it.
The truth is, regardless of your goals, good beginner routines are all based around common principles. Whether you want to “get huge,” get strong, gain weight, or lose weight, in the beginning your routine should look pretty much the same.
As it turns out, a “beginner” is actually a pretty broad category. There are various ways to define the word in terms of weight lifting, but here are a few common descriptors:
-someone who is able to make progress workout to workout
-someone who hasn’t learned proper technique on basic lifts
-someone who hasn’t reached a certain threshold of strength relative to their bodyweight
In weight lifting, whether or not you are a “beginner” has less to do with the amount of time you’ve spent in the gym and more to do with what kind of progress you’ve made. Thus, it’s very possible for someone to have been going to the gym for years and still be a true beginner in terms of their potential gains.
In contrast, an intermediate lifter is someone who can perform all of the basic movements with good form, has put on a decent amount of muscle already, and has met at least three out of four of the following strength levels:
Benchmarks of strength for an intermediate trainee (credit to Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com)
So what kind of routine is appropriate for a beginner?
If you spend some time looking at various “tried and true” beginner routines, a pattern will emerge:
-full body workouts
-focus on strength gains through progressive overload
-high frequency, low volume
-importance of proper nutrition and protein intake stressed
The go-to example of a good beginner’s routine is Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. Another good source of information is this infographic by JC Deen and Jordan Syatt.
Here’s a sample routine that I’ve had good success with in the past:
Analysis of Workouts:
In this routine you alternate between two full body workouts three times per week on non-consecutive days (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is a common choice). Remember to alternate back and forth between these two workouts.
So, for week one do A – B – A, and for week two do B – A – B.
The six core lifts are in bold. These are your big compound movements that will be responsible for most of your muscle/strength gains. You should start light on these movements and perfect your form before adding a lot of weight. Once you’ve grooved your form, your job will be to get as strong as possible in these movements.
You will also be alternating between two rep ranges each workout—this is called daily undulating periodization (DUP) and has some strong research showing its effectiveness for strength gains.
Here’s what it will look like (showing just the first core lift from each workout):
A few general notes to guide your training:
Warm-up: This should be kept as brief as possible. All you’re really looking to do is to literally “warm up” your body. Get a light sweat going through some brief, low intensity cardio and then do some dynamic stretching.
Warm-up sets: The sets listed above are working sets. Working sets are sets that feel challenging. The warm-up sets are not listed—they should not be challenging: their only purpose is to loosen you up and prime your nervous system for heavy lifting. You should not feel tired after your warm-up sets. Just as you need to do a general warm-up before lifting, you need to do a specific warm-up for each exercise. So, taking squats for example, let’s say over time you’ve worked your way up to doing 3 sets of 6-8 reps with 225lbs. You don’t simply walk up to the bar, throw two 45lb plates on each side and have at it! You need to work your way up.
You only need to warm up for the first compound movement for each muscle group. After you have performed your compound movements, you do not need to warm up for your accessory work.
Tempo/Cadence: Don’t worry too much about this for now. Just concentrate on exploding the weight up (concentric) and controlling the weight down (eccentric).
Rest: Most of your rest periods between sets should be 2-5 minutes in length. This is important for recovering maximum strength in between sets. If you feel particularly fatigued you may need 5+ minutes to recover (this will become apparent when your squats and deadlifts start getting really heavy). Also, rest days are important. Do not work out more than three days per week and make sure you are getting as much sleep as possible!
Breathing: Yes, please do. You can hold your breath on the concentric portions of the lifts, but do not do this if it makes you light-headed. Otherwise, conventional wisdom is to breathe in on the easy part, exhale on the difficult part.
Exercise Substitution: If, despite your best efforts, you cannot perform one of the above-mentioned exercise with proper form due to injury or poor body mechanics, you can substitute as long as the exercise is still a compound movement that hits the same muscle groups and is loadable (must be able to incrementally add weight each workout, the smaller the increment the better). Examples: leg press in place of squat, rack pulls in place of deadlift, neutral grip dumbbell press in place of bench, etc. Do some research to find a suitable replacement that works for you. You can substitute when absolutely necessary, but don’t add.
Special Note on Chin-ups: I realize that this is a very difficult exercise for many people, but I believe it to be one of the most fundamentally important exercises you can learn. Being able to pull your own body weight could literally save your life one day!
If you can get 4-6 chin-ups in the first set, but can’t in the following sets, work on adding repetitions rather than adding weight. Once you can do three sets of 4-6, start adding weight by holding a dumbbell between your legs or wearing a weight belt. If you really can’t do more than one or two chin-ups, you can start with lat pull-downs instead.
Cardio: I want you to limit cardio as much as possible. I know that cardio has numerous health benefits, but for now your focus needs to be on building strength and muscle. Intense cardio can severely interfere with your body’s ability to recover in between workouts, and recovery is where the growth occurs.
Nutrition: Maintain a moderate caloric surplus, get your bodyweight in protein daily and get plenty of carbs on your workout days (see fitness non-negotiables for more detail here).
Progression for Workouts:
Progression is the manner in which we increase the intensity of the workouts. The concept behind using progression to increase strength is known as “progressive overload,” and it is absolutely vital for continued results.
When gaining strength is your goal, the best way to increase intensity is by adding weight to the bar. As a beginner you should be able add weight each workout. Eventually you’ll only add weight on a weekly basis as you start to reach your initial plateaus.
Here's how to progress:
Note about barbell training:
Some people may tell you that these exercises are too dangerous and should be avoided. You know what else is dangerous though?
Those of you have had to make it through high school in this state may already be painfully aware of this. These exercises, when done with proper form, will actually help prevent injury. There are countless instances in your everyday life where you will be called upon to lift something heavy, whether it’s helping a friend move, or just sweeping your woman up in your arms (hopefully not too heavy...). Lifting free weights teaches you how to do these things without injuring yourself and lets you know exactly how much you can and cannot lift.
That said, you must use proper form. Teaching you proper form for every exercise in this article would take far too long, so I’m leaving it up to you to do your own research. Hire a personal trainer. Watch videos. Start light, master the form, and progress incrementally. If you can’t do one or more of these exercises with proper form, simply don’t do them...
If you can’t squat with good form, substitute with a leg press. If you’ve experienced a shoulder injury and the bench press aggravates it, there’s nothing wrong with changing to some sort of neutral grip chest press. This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook though. Take some time and look into foam rolling (self myofacial release) and mobility drills. Combining these two things can work wonders on your body’s mobility and can even help to alleviate chronic pain in certain instances.
So how long should I stick with this routine?
Honestly, as long as it keeps working, keep doing it. It’s impossible to say exactly how long that will take because it can vary a lot from individual to individual. If you’re feeling good and making progress do not feel like you have to change things up to “confuse your muscles” or some other nonsense.
If you take the principles I’ve outlined in fitness non-negotiables and combine them with this beginner’s routine, you will be well on your way to progressing towards the intermediate level.
Outside of taking drugs, you will be doing virtually everything in your power to gain strength and muscle. You no longer need to worry about what Joe Broseph over there is doing, nor do you need to read the latest fitness magazines to find some mystical muscle-building secret. Instead, relax and let your mind focus on the more important things in life!