Of the myriad of people who approach me in the gym by and large beginner lifters mainly approach me. These are generally doe eyed beginners who meander around the gym typically with a gym buddy, who’s slightly bigger , from one isolation exercise to the next, doing an exhaustive amount of sets and pounding protein shakes and pre-workouts. Indeed, most of us were this exact person at some point at the beginning of our lifting/fitness careers. Whether it meant following the advice of the biggest gym bro we could muster up the courage to talk to (because being big means you must know what you’re talking about right…?), or religiously following the advice of fitness magazines and gurus, we have all made some mistakes in terms of our training particularly as we start out. With all the information available, it can truly be confusing and intimidating for a new lifter to figure out a program to hop on or a style of training to engage with.
Figuring out how to train, as a beginner lifter can be overwhelming
Well I’m here to tell you that for the majority of healthy injury free beginners, training does not need to be that complicated. First, let us first define what a beginner is. While there are many opinions about what constitutes a beginner, I personally use strength standards as a metric for defining a beginner. While strength standards are a murky generally overly simplified topic, for the sake of brevity I will use the following numbers to describe a beginner trainee:
Bench Press: Less than 1/2 of bodyweight
Squat: Less than 1x their bodyweight
Deadlift: Less than 1.25x their bodyweight
For example, a trainee who is 150lb is 5″10 benches less than 75lb, squats less than 150lb, and Deadlifts less than 185lb would most definitely be a beginner.
There are a multitude of training programs for beginners. Most in my opinion are far to complex. On one end of the spectrum there is the adored beginner program Stronglifts 5×5 from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength . Starting strength incorporates an unnecessary amount of volume, as well an intensity level that can be physically and psychologically crippling to new lifters. *Disclaimer I adore starting strength, in fact I think it is one of the best programs available to build raw strength and size. Additionally, Mark Rippetoe is a brilliant coach and thinker regarding strength training, however, for beginners I believe it is possible to make as much progress using stronglifts 5×5 in a fraction of the time in the gym, and ALOT less stress. On the other end of the spectrum, many beginners jump into a “bodybuilding body-part split” type routine, which is simply sub optimal for a variety of reasons. These programs typically have no progression patterns and are also unnecessarily high in volume and exercise variety. Ultimately, any good beginner program should be maximizing the following principle: PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD. Simply put progressive overload is adding more weight to the bar in a linear fashion. While there are various ways to progress (load, volume, density, tempo) moving more weight should always be your main goal as a beginner lifter. Why? Because the beginner stage is where you will make the fastest progress with the smallest amount of effort and organization. Additionally, your main goal as a beginner lifter should be to build a solid foundation of strength. Whether, you are looking to get really big, really strong (obviously), really fast, or just improve athletic performance, a foundation of strength is something you must build.
There are many ways to organize your training as a beginner. One simple way to organize your training as a beginner looking to gain muscle and strength would be the following:
M- Squat, Work up to Max Set of 8-12 reps @60% of 1rm
W- Deadlift, Work up to Max Set of 5-8 reps @60% of 1rm
F- Bench Press/Military Press, Work up to a Max Set of 8-12 reps @60% of 1rm
Each week add 10lb to your squat and deadlift, and 5lbs to your pushing exercise of choice. Add in some vertical and horizontal pulling, hamstring work, and some direct arm work and your solid.
There are several benefits of using this max effort single set style of training as a beginner. One, you can realistically continue with this progression scheme for several months without any difficulty meaning you could add literally 100 of lbs in total to all your lifts. Two, you’ll be in and out the gym in less than 25 minutes. Three, due to the low volume and frequency, you can use this style of training while in a caloric deficit yet continuously getting stronger. (*Side Note– Using this max effort 1 set approach is an EXCELLENT way to maintain general strength while in a caloric deficit at any level.)
Once you begin to stall using this method you can simply add additional sets AND STILL use progressive overload adding weight each week and trying to maintain a similar amount of reps in each set. However, at this point it would also be ideal to start looking into basic forms of periodization, which I’ll cover in my next post!!