In Beginning Weight Training Part 1, I looked at some basic concepts related to beginning weight training programs along with defining who was a beginner. In Beginning Weight Training Part 2, I took a rather detailed look at some of the primary goals of beginner weight training which included neural adaptations, learning proper technique, conditioning connective tissues, improving work capacity, etc. since those goals guide how to best set up a beginning weight training program. Note: Please read Part 1 of this article if you have not already.
I’d mention again that, fairly regardless of ultimate goal (e.g. physique sports, strength/power performance, athletic performance or general health), beginning programs shouldn’t and won’t vary too much. I will note places where they might vary to some degree below.
I’d make the point again that one huge assumption that is going into what I’m going to write is that the individual has no underlying issues (such as muscular imbalances or injury) that are oh so common in the modern world. In those specific cases, an ‘imbalanced’ program may be required to fix things. But since I can’t cover that in any detail, I’m going to draw up what is basically a ‘balanced’ beginner routine.
Today, I want to look at some issues related to loading parameters for beginners including intensity, volume, frequency and exercise selection. Quite a bit of research has actually looked at these topics in beginners (I’m unaware of much on exercise selection) and that goes a long way towards guiding the development of proper beginner programs.
Since I ran a bit long (as usual) today, on Friday, I’ll finally put all of this together and present some fairly ‘standard’ beginner routines along with suggestions on how to start, progress, when to change things up, etc.
As I discussed in What is Training Intensity? there are a number of different definitions of intensity that are often used in the weight training world; for the purposes of this article, I’m going to be using the definition of intensity as percentage of 1 repetition maximum (1RM). Now, 1RM refers to the absolute maximum weight that you can lift for one repetition. You can think of it as 100% of capacity. Training loads have often been set relative to that in terms of the percentage 1RM used.
And in the context of beginning training, research has routinely found that beginners will make the same strength gains whether they work at 60% 1RM or 90% 1RM. That is, heavy or light doesn’t matter, it all generates the same strength gains. And this fact ties into several of the comments I made in the earlier parts of this article series.
First and foremost, recall from Beginning Weight Training Part 2 that most of the initial gains in the weight room are strength gains due to neural adaptations with the real growth coming later. Second, it’s usually easier to learn technique with lighter weights (I’d note that often a weight that is too light can be more difficult because lifters can’t feel what’s happening). Third, lighter weights are safer for joints and connective tissues which have to adapt to handle heavier loads (a slow process that occurs primarily through consistent gradually progressive training).
Basically, there are a lot of advantages to working at lighter weights (but increasing them over time) in the initial stages of training and, as it turns out, beginners will get the same strength gains regardless of what they do. 60% of 1 repetition is very light (most could do 20+ repetitions with it if they had to) but, as noted, will generate the same strength gains as working with 90% of maximum (which most might get 3 repetitions with). In that vein, being able to do more repetitions with a given weight (a topic I’ll come back to in a second) is a good way to get in a lot of practice and that’s a huge part of the motor learning that goes on with new skills.
I would note that, over the first weeks and months of training, weight will need to be added to the bar as the trainee gains strength and conditioning. Depending on how progression is performed, the percentage of 1 repetition maximum the trainee is actually using will tend to gradually go up over time. Still, there is likely to be no real benefit for folks in the beginner stages to be working much over 80% of 1 repetition maximum (a weight most could do 8 reps to failure with). Essentially, start light and add weight gradually as long as technique stays solid.
Volume: Number of Sets and Reps/Set
In the same way that training intensity can have multiple definitions, people use volume to refer to different things. For some it refers to the number of sets, others count reps, others count tonnage (sets * reps * weight on the bar). Here I want to first discuss the number of sets and then look at the issue of repetitions per set.
And, in general, research in beginners has found that a single set of an exercise will provide the same basic strength gains as multiple sets of an exercise. I’d note that not all studies find this and some still support the idea that multiple sets provide better gains than a single set even in the initial stages (I’m not going to touch the issue of number of sets for non-beginning trainees in this article).
Now, both a single set and multiple sets of an exercise can have benefits for total beginners. Single sets are time efficient (a full body workout may only take 20-30 minutes) and an easy way to break into training without getting broken for those with a low fitness background. At the same time, multiple sets provide more times to practice the movement which tends to facilitate motor learning (assuming the trainee can do all sets without becoming too fatigued).
Multiple sets of an exercise also go towards building up work capacity (i.e. the ability to handle higher volumes of training). A practical compromise on this issue might be to start with a single set at the first workout (this is what I always did with beginning personal training clients) and then add sets over the first few weeks of training. I’ll come back to this a bit more on Friday.
Moving on to sets per repetition, a general tendency for beginning weight training routines was to use highish repetitions; with beginners, I generally used a rather standard 8-12 reps per set with beginners but some advocate even higher. The basic idea is that this keeps the weight on the bar low and allows the trainee to get more reps (e.g. 3 sets of 20 gets 60 repetitions per exercise).
The problem, as I discussed in What’s the Best Way to Teach/Learn a New Exercise – Q&A, is that high reps, even with very light weights can cause a lot of fatigue and form breaks down. Some advocate using multiple sets of lower repetitions (e.g. Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength approach uses sets of 5 with anywhere from 1 to 5 work sets depending on the movement) to avoid this problem. As I noted in the linked article, the danger with that approach (especially for un-coached macho trainees) is going too heavy too quickly.
So what’s best? I’d say if you have poor impulse control, staying with a lower number of higher rep sets (e.g. 1-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions) may keep you from doing something stupid like going too heavy too fast. If you have decent self-control or a competent coach (to keep you from doing something stupid), more sets of lower repetitions can clearly be very effective and may be the way to go.
Training frequency refers, rather simply, to how many days per week a given type of training is performed. As you might guess, this impacts on a number of different things relevant to beginners. Research on the topic suggests that, contrary to more advanced individuals (who seem to get the best strength gains with an average training frequency of 2X/week per muscle group), beginners get better strength gains with a frequency of three times per week.
Research has also found that lifting twice per week for beginners will provide approximately 80% of the strength gains of lifting three times per week (I’d note very tangentially that cardiovascular training needs to be done three times per week to generate adaptations). I can’t recall seeing anything to suggest that lifting more often than 3X/week is better for beginners in terms of gains in strength.
From the standpoint of motor learning, a higher frequency is probably better; the more often a trainee can practice something, the faster that they’re going to learn it (again, assuming that practice is occurring under non-fatigued conditions). I’d mention here that the most common approach to training beginners is to use the same full body workout (e.g. the entire body is trained at once) at each of the three weekly workouts.
Of course there are exceptions (Mark Rippetoes Starting Strength alternates two basic full-body workouts so that each workout gets done 3 times every 2 weeks) and, again from a learning standpoint, I think there is much merit to this approach. Performing the same basic set of exercises at each workout gives beginning trainees the most practice on them, this is key to proper motor learning.
For the most part, I don’t like split routines (where the body is split into various parts) for beginners for a number of reasons although they can be appropriate under the right conditions.. A basic upper/lower split type of routine can be made to work but trainees have to keep the volume and intensity well under control in the beginning stages or they will get themselves into problems. As well, split routines do reduce the opportunity to learn the movements with frequent practice. This may be outweighed by other potential benefits.
I would never use a typical bodybuilding split (where only one or two muscle groups is hit at each workout) with a beginner. NEVER. Of course, I’d almost never use them with anybody but for beginners they accomplish nothing relevant to beginner goals. They allow volume to be far higher than necessary and they don’t give the trainee sufficient practice since each exercise is being done perhaps once every 7 days.
Drawbacks to training three times per week are scheduling, especially when a full body routine is being used. That generally necessitates training on alternate days per week (e.g. Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday) and for some trainees that causes problems. Moving to twice per week avoids this as more training flexibility is allowed. A basic split routine can also avoid these problems since they tend to allow a little more flexibility in terms of what days can and cannot be trained on.
I’d also note that training frequency is probably a place where differences may be seen depending on the ultimate goals of the weight room. Someone only looking for general strength health/fitness may be more than served by only lifting weights twice/week with no need nor desire to move past that. Other days are then freed up for cardiovascular conditioning or other types of exercise. The gains obtained by adding that third day of weight training may be more than outweighed by the time requirement/scheduling or what have you.
Athletes using the weight room to improve performance may also be well suited by only lifting twice/week although this depends massively on the demands of their sport and what else they have to do each week. If nothing else, they may simply lack the time to get into the weight room more often than that, even in the beginning stages. Once again, this depends on what else is being done in training.
For those aspiring to either the physique sports or powerlifting/strongman or what have you down the road, getting into the weight room three times per week is probably mandatory. Since lifting makes up the primary training in those types of activities, developing good technique/work capacity/etc. in the weight room is going to be relatively more important. And unless trainees get used to training three times per week in the early stages, they’ll have trouble adding a fourth or fifth day later down the road.
And finally we come to exercise selection. I made a few comments about this in Beginning Weight Training Part 2 and, again, don’t want to do a hugely detailed look at the topic in this article. For now, I’m simply going to repeat my comments from Part 2 in that exercise selection for beginning trainees is a bit more complex than ‘compound is better’ or ‘isolation is better’ or ‘free weights are better’ or ‘machines are better’. Honestly, I’m not aware of much research on this topic and rather want to look at some of the pros and cons for beginning trainees.
Certainly, compound free weight exercises (e.g. squat, bench press, deadlift, etc.) have most commonly been used for beginning weight training programs. The Starting Strength program, for example, is a rather classic example of this and is based around squat, bench press, deadlift, power clean, and overhead press. And for anyone who’s been involved with weight training for as long as I have, it’s hard to see problems with those exercise selections. Other programs (and the ones I typically use) often include more movements such as rowing or chinning/pulldowns; mind you, (male) trainees always want to know where the direct arm work is.
Make no mistake, I’m a huge fan of squats, bench press, deadlifts, overhead press, RDL, etc. These are movements that I think most should have at least some competency with and the beginning stages of training are a good time to get that competency. How much of a given training program they will make up down the road, of course, depends but at least learning how to do those movements is important. If for no other reason than to learn that they aren’t a good fit for a given trainee (you won’t know until you try).
Yet, for many trainees, trying to do so may be an exercise in either futility or pointlessness. And, as noted in Part 2, unless someone is competing in powerlifting (where squat, bench and deadlift must be done) or Olympic lifting (where clean and jerk, snatch must be done), there is no single exercise that anyone must do for either general strength or hypertrophy. Rather, the optimal exercise for a given trainee for a given goal simply depends on so many factors that I’m not going to get into much detail here.
Some of this is simply one of levers. As I discused in Squat vs. Leg Press for Big Legs – Q&A, some trainees have horrible levers for squatting and get very little leg stimulus out of it for either leg strength or size. In that case, another movement or *gasp* a properly performed leg press can be superior. There are plenty of other examples and I’m sure I will lose much credibility by admitting that, when I was personal training, I almost always started beginners with machines.
Now, before you jump down my throat in the comments section, I want folks to honestly consider something as I go off on a bit of tangential rant: in all the time you’ve been in the weight room, how many people have you ever seen with good squat, deadlift or bench press form (I’m assuming here that you know what good form is yourself)? How about power cleans? Ever seen much of anything in most commercial gyms that didn’t make you cringe?
Because unless you train in a serious powerlifting gym or with Olympic lifters, the odds are that you’ve seen very few people performing those movements anywhere close to correctly. But honestly take the time to count them up in your head, the ones who were doing it even close to correctly. How many have you seen. 10, maybe 20? If that. And that’s out of how many hundreds of people you’ve seen training.
Hell, I’ve been training since I was 15 and coaching since my early 20’s in one form or another; I can’t imagine the thousands of people I’ve seen attempt those movements. And the number using proper form…let’s say that most of them I coached myself and the exceptions are just that. But let’s be generous and say that 1% of people squatting, benching or deadlifting are using anything approximating decent form.
I’m probably being very generous here since I can remember most of the exceptions I’ve seen explicitly (I always go talk to the person to find out where they learned how to do the movement so well); that’s how few of them I’ve seen. With one or two exceptions of people who managed to self-teach themselves proper form, invariably every one of them had had a competent coach in their past making them learn proper form. Or I was training them.
The sad reality, and if you step back from dogma that ‘squats and deadlifts rool’ for a second, is this: most wouldn’t know proper form on a squat or deadlift if it bit them on the ass. Personal trainers sure don’t know how to teach them as a matter of course; the reality is that most personal trainers don’t even have good technique themselves. Hell, go look at Youtube, there are plenty of ‘strength coaches’ that couldn’t teach a competent powerclean if their jobs depended on it (which, if you sort of think about it, should, but I digress).
And while there is an enormous amount of information on how to learn those movements out there, the fact is that teaching yourself anything is very difficult. Can it be done? Sure. Can it be done by most? Well…..
Of course, you can use terrible form on machines as well and the real fact is that the form seen by ~99% of trainees on ~99% of movements in ~99% of commercial gyms is usually crap. But, assuming that the person is going to be using crappy form at least machines will keep them from getting crushed under a bar or (probably) blowing out their low back like a poorly performed deadlift will.
Which brings me back to my point about exercise selection and why I typically used machines with beginners. Some of this was, mostly, practical. I often had only three sessions with trainees before they were going off on their own. And you can’t get someone to level of safety and competence in complex movements like a powerclean, squat, bench or deadlift in that time frame. But I could do it with leg press, chest press and row machines or whatever. And since most of those trainees had general fitness/health as a goal, I wasn’t terribly concerned; that they got into the gym was arguably more important than what they did.
When I knew I had longer to work with someone (e.g. the powerlifters I trained in Austin or one of my current trainees who can’t decide whether she wants to Olympic lift, powerlift or just be buff), or someone had loftier goals, mind you I would take the time to teach the big movements. But only because I knew I’d have the time to get technique to where I wanted it with those people.
This is actually a point I’ll come back to in Part 4 in terms of deciding how to set up a beginning weight training program: are you being coached (competently) or not. Because someone who is being coached hands-on for their first 3-6 months of training will likely be doing something very different than someone who is going it on their own from Day 1. And I’d make different suggestions/recommendations for those different situations.
As well, many beginners, especially folks who are older (and especially if they are overweight) are intimidated enough going into the weight room in the first place. Giving them activities that they could ‘get’ quickly was part of providing the positive reinforcement that they needed to keep them coming back. Put differently, if at the first workout you give a brand newbie trainee something that does nothing but make them feel like an uncoordinated spaz, odds are they won’t come back. So you have to give them tasks simple enough to do well right off the bat.
Mind you this gets into a whole separate discussion of psychology and personality. My experience is that those who aspire to bodybuilding or performance sports are often a bit more driven and, in that situation, even starting with more complicated things may not be so offputting. Given their ultimate goals, I’d be a lot more adamant about teaching them the big movements first (and, again, starting to determine optimal assistance movements down the road).
Basically, the point I’m trying to get at regarding exercise selection for beginners is that it depends. And you will probably see the most variance here depending on the ultimate goal. Do I think learning the big compounds are useful for most trainees? Yes, of course. However, that doesn’t mean that they are always appropriate in the beginner stages. Issues of technique, coaching, psychology go into that and what I’d suggest for someone would depend very much on the specific circumstances.
And that wraps up Part 3 where I looked at loading parameters for beginner training routines. Since there is no benefit to be gained by going heavier compared to lighter (and many benefits in terms of going lighter), that’s the best approach: start light and gradually add weight as technique and strength improve.
In terms of volume, anywhere from 1 to 3 sets can be effectively used and both low and higher volume training have benefits in terms of time requirements, motor learning, work capacity, etc. A reasonable compromise is to start with a low volume of training and build it up (if that is required by the ultimate end goal of training).
In terms of sets/repetition, both higher and lower repetitions can be used depending on the specifics. higher repetitions keep the weight on the bar lower and may allow for more practice; this is offset by the potential for fatigue to make technique go badly. Lower repetitions avoid issues of fatigue but people who have poor impulse control or who aren’t being coached tend to add weight too quickly and get themselves into trouble.
Frequency of training for beginners should be between 2-3 workouts/week generally of the full-body type. There are exceptions to this but I’m going to stick with generalities here.
Finally there is exercise selection which, Internet dogma be damned, is more complex than ‘do squats, deadlifts and bench presses’. I addressed some specific issues relating to exercise selection here and this will hopefully all make more sense on Friday when I truly wrap it up with some specific workout examples along with guidelines on how to progress things over the beginning stages of training.
In Beginning Weight Training Part 1 I examined some of what defines a beginner in terms of entering the weight room along with examining some of the different reasons (e.g. appearance, performance, health/fitness) that people choose to start lifting weights.
In Beginning Weight Training Part 1, I examined in some detail what some of the primary goals of beginner weight training are including developing an overall base of strength (and/or muscularity), developing work capacity, learning how to perform the lifts, etc.
Finally, in Beginning Weight Training Part 3, I looked at some of the research (and experience) dealing with the loading parameters that are appropriate for beginners. I’ve summarized them below as a launching off part for today’s final article where I’ll lay out three different basic weight training programs and talk about things like progression, when to change things, etc.
1. Intensity (percentage of 1 rep. maximum): 60% or a weight that could be done for ~20 repetitions to failure
2. Volume (# of sets): 1-3 sets per exercise/muscle group.
3. Reps/Set: Variable depending on the circumstances and both high and low reps can be appropriate here
4. Frequency: 2-3X/week
5. Workout design: Generally a full body routine
6. Exercise Selection: Highly variable depending on the circumstances
And with that I want to jump straight into examples of three different beginner programs. The first is the Starting Strength program as developed by Mark Rippetoe (and reproduced here in full with his permission). The second is a beginner program as outlined by my mentor, it would represent another standard approach to a barbell based routine based around the big compound movements. Finally, and primarily to offend the barbell purists, I’m going to reproduce the basic machine-based program that I used with the majority of my beginners.
For each routine, I’ve indicated the overall routine (in the case of Rip’s Starting Strength, there are two workouts alternated each day) and the sets and reps used. I’ll make some comments below the chart before getting into other topics relevant to beginners.
|Starting Strength Program||Basic Barbell Routine||Basic machine Program|
|Workout A||Squats||3X10-12||Leg Press (1)||1+X8-12|
|Squat||3X5||Overhead Press||3X8-10||Calf Raise (2)||1+X8-12|
|Bench Press||3X5||Deadlift/Shrugs*||3X8-10||Leg Curl (3)||1+X8-12|
|Deadlift||1X5||Chin-ups, Pulldowns or Rowing||3X8-10||Chest Press (1)||1+X8-12|
|Dips, Barbell Bench or DB Bench||2X8-10||Row (1)||1+X8-12|
|Workout B||Crunches||2X8-10||Shoulder Press (2)||1+X8-12|
|Press||3X5||Tricep Pushdown (3)||1+X8-12|
|Power Clean||3X5||Bicep Curl (3)||1+X8-12|
|Back Extension (3)||1+X8-12|
Notes on the Above:
Sets and reps in the Starting Strength Program only include work sets, warm-up sets (ranging from 1-3 sets) are not included. I’d strongly suggest that anyone interested in that program purchase Mark’s excellent book Starting Strength 2nd Edition.
For the basic barbell program, generally only one movement would be picked from each place there is a list. Note that, initially, deadlifts would be performed at each workout, as the weights got heavier over time, deadlift would be alternated workout to workout with shrug. One could easily set up a more ‘balanced’ routine with more movements as well (e.g. squat, deadlift/shrug, flat bench, rowing, overhead press, chin up/pulldown, abs).
The numbers next to the exercises in the machine routine are the workout at which I taught them. So in workout 1, they’d do leg press, chest press, row and crunch (which I’d note pretty much hits everything). In workout 2, they’d perform the first 4 movements and add the movements with the number 2 after them (calf raise/shoulder press/lat pulldown). In workout 3, they’d add the final movements of leg curl, arm work and low back. At that point, what happened depended on whether or not I was still working with them but building it up in this fashion allowed me to get them performing the full set of movements by the end of a single week of training without feeling like they were being completely overloaded with information or exercise.
Before you leave me nasty comments below, please remember this routine was being used typically with older folks with no previous (or bad experience) with exercise and my goal was to break them in without breaking them. So I used a very gradual and easy progression to ensure that they didn’t feel overwhelmed and weren’t wrecked with soreness. As well, in many cases, I never moved them past a single work set. This allowed them to complete the entire routine in roughly 30 minutes leaving time for cardio/etc. without requiring endless time in the gym. For those individuals with those goals, this was an appropriate approach.
General Comments on the Above Programs
If you look at the above three programs, you can see that they all share some basic generalities. They hit the entire body in some form or fashion and use a variety of movements. Certainly the number of movements varies a bit from routine to routine. Starting Strength uses the fewest movements, the generic barbell routine more and my machine approach the most (since I’m a bit obsessive about balancing out pushes and pulls and people always ***** if you don’t give them direct arm work).
Perhaps the biggest visible difference is the choice of sets and repetitions per set: Rip’s Starting Strength using multiple sets of low repetitions, the barbell and my machine program use fewer sets of higher repetitions. I discussed the relative merits of each approach in What’s the Best Way to Teach/Learn a New Exercise – Q&A and, as always, there are pros and cons to each.
In terms of overall volume (total sets), the Starting Strength and general barbell program are closer than they look; the first uses more sets of lower reps (and again warm-up sets aren’t indicated above) on fewer movements and the second uses fewer sets of higher reps on more movements. This is especially true by the time you factor in warm-up sets for the Starting Strength approach. As well, and as discussed in the highly recommended Starting Strength 2nd Edition, there are other movements (Romanian deadlift, rowing of some sort etc.) that can be added to the basic Starting Strength program later on to make it a bit more ‘well rounded’.
As noted above, my machine based program was aimed at total beginners seeking, usually, general health/fitness. They were generally older, had no previous experience in the weight room and had limited time to exercise. So I needed something that was time efficient, got the job done and that I could get them to a basic level of competency on quickly without overwhelming them. Again, in different contexts, either with individuals with different goals or who had had previous lifting experience, or what have you, a different approach was used.
And if you’re wondering why I’m beating this particular dead horse, it’s because I predict with 99% certainty that someone will read this article series and state that “Lyle McDonald only advocates a single set of machines for everybody.” And that’s simply not the case. Rather, it’s simply that I take into account the Importance of Context when it comes to training. And the context of a 35 year old female with no training experience and limited time to exercise is different than a 19 year old male who eventually wants to compete in powerlifting. And what I’d do in that each situation would be completely different.
Finally I’d note again that all of the above assumes an injury free individual with no major imbalances coming into the gym, an assumption that is often incorrect. In specific cases, very different approaches (with more remedial work on stretching or almost rehab type movements) might be indicated or necessary but that is far beyond the scope of this article.
Warming Up: General
One thing I briefly mentioned above and want to touch on again is the topic of warming up. Now, I did a rather detailed look at warming up for the weight room in Warming Up for the Weight Room Part 1 and Warming Up for the Weight Room Part 2 but want to touch on it again here. Generally speaking, some type of general warm-up (cardio, body weight movements) would be done to generally warm-up the body.
With beginning clients, I often had them go ahead and get their cardio out of the way at the front of the workout. Yes, this is usually thought of as taboo, certainly generating excessive fatigue with cardio prior to lifting isn’t usually a good idea. But it was a way to ensure that they did it, gave me time to talk to them about various topics relevant to training (e.g. explaining fundamental concepts to them), etc. As well, many couldn’t do a full 20 minutes at the outset anyhow, by doing 10 minutes of cardio up front and another 10 minutes at the end of the workout, they were able to accumulate 20 minutes at that first workout without feeling overwhelmed. Over time, they would work up to a full 20 minutes continuously.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t have them do cardio on alternate or off-days, the simple fact is that I learned that most wouldn’t do it. Sure, they’d tell me that they would but it would somehow never get done. So I’d make them do it while I was there. Yes, it’s a waste of their training time to pay me to watch them on the treadmill but that’s better than it not getting done at all.
Now, at the time, the major types of flexibility imbalances that many see these days didn’t seem as prevalent (or I wasn’t smart enough to recognize them) and I never actually did any sort of mobility or stretching work with clients. To a degree, at least, full range weight training acts a stretching stimulus but, in the modern world, given the situations many deal with, this would be the place for any type of dynamic warm-up or whatever to come.
Warming Up: Warm-Up Sets
Which brings us to warm-up sets for the exercises themselves. As I discussed in the warming up articles linked above, warm-up sets serve a number of purposes not the least of which is technical practice. However, for rank beginners, effectively the warm-up sets are the work sets. That is, the weights are and should be so light to begin with that there is really no major difference between warming up and work weights.
Of course, over time, as trainees grow stronger, this will change. Put differently, looking at the general barbell routine above the three sets of 8-12 or what have you are all the sets that are being done. In the initial stages,all three sets are effectively warm-ups; this is especially true in the first few weeks of training where the focus should be on proper performance of the movements rather than weight increases. After a month or so (may be more, may be less), one of the three sets may become a true warm-up set prior to two heavier work sets.
The same basic concept held for my beginner machine routine. Even in the case where I didn’t add a second set (and I often didn’t for total beginners simply seeking general health and fitness), when things started to get heavier a month in, I’d add a single warm-up set to the main movements (leg press/chest press/rowing).
For more about warm-ups for the Starting Strength program, I’d suggest you get Rip’s book since the topic is discussed in some detail there.
Where to Start?
As I discussed in Beginning Weight Training Part 3, beginners not only should start with light weights and a relatively low volume but will make rather significant strength gains from doing only that. Which brings up a question about starting weights and what to begin with. While I have seen various systems that gave specific suggestions for starting weights (e.g. squat with 1/2 body weight or whatever), I don’t think they are a good idea for total beginners. Because even if they represent some reasonable average of where to start, they can’t possibly represent everyone.
And, since I tend to be rather conservative in a lot of things, I always believe in erring on the side of too little than too much. You have little to lose and everything to gain and it generally doesn’t work in the opposite direction. Basically, if you start too light, you can always add weight over the first couple of workouts (or even first couple of sets of that first workout if more than one are being done). Start too heavy and things go wrong fast; the person might get injured, or they get so sore that they never come back to the gym or they simply have their form go down the toilet which is demoralizing (which also might drive them out of the gym).
So where to start? Even that depends and what I’d start with for a young male would be very different than for an older female. In the first case, starting with a 45 lb bar for a bench press might be appropriate. For a female a 45 lb bar might be far beyond what she has any chance of lifting and I often started beginner females with 5 lbs per hand on DB bench press or on the lowest setting for the chest press. But, again, this is very context dependent. Age, gender and whether or not the person has a competent coach all feed into this.
I’d note that in some cases, going too light can be detrimental to proper technique. I’ve found that some trainees simply have trouble ‘feeling’ what’s going on when things are too light (e.g. a young male might find that squatting with just the bar is harder than squatting with some weight). In that case, adding weight until they can feel what is happening is necessary but the weight may not be increased very much beyond that initially.
Finally, there is one major exception to starting weights that I should mention and that is the barbell deadlift (a similar comment could apply to the powerclean from the floor). For proper performance of either movement, it is critical that the bar start at the appropriate level; starting too low (as a function of using small plates) simply won’t allow the trainee to use proper form. If training plates (either wooden plates or light plates with the same diameter as 20 kg/45 pound plates) aren’t available, then the trainee either has to find a way to start the bar at the right place (e.g. off of blocks or pins in the power rack) or start with 135. What won’t work is starting with 85 lbs with a 45 pound bar and 10’s on the end; the bar will be too low to do the movement correctly.
When in doubt, in the beginner stage, I would suggest starting lighter and building up as appropriate. The weight needs to be heavy enough that the trainee can feel what’s going on but not so heavy that they can’t handle it in good form for the entirety of the sets.
What to Add and When to Add It?
The name of the game in improving all aspects of fitness is progression. Essentially the stimulus that made you fitter the last workout (or week, or month, or year) may no longer be sufficient now. Something has to increase at some point in time; that doesn’t mean every workout necessarily but if nothing ever progresses, fitness will never improve.
Now, how often and what to increase would be the topic of another series of articles since there are many options that are relatively more or less relevant depending on the situation. With regards to strength training specifically, I’d highly recommend Mark Rippetoe, Lon Kilgore and Glen Pendlay’s excellent Practical Programming for Strength Training as one of the better written and more easily accessible looks at progression in the weight room.
But specific to beginner training, I’m going to focus primarily on increasing volume and/intensity while ignoring other possibilities (frequency or density mainly). Now, whether or not you progress the number of sets really depends on where you start. In the case of Starting Strength and the general barbell program described above, increases in volume would be inappropriate since they both start at a volume that is more than sufficient for beginners. That is, since the trainee is starting with roughly 3 work sets for each exercise, there would be little point in increasing that, especially in the first weeks or months of training.
In the case of my machine program, you’ll note that it lists 1+ sets of 8-12 repetitions and I should probably explain that. With that population, a single set was generally more than sufficient given their goals and time demands. But in other situations, increasing volume (to a maximum of 3 sets per movement) would have been appropriate. In that case, my approach would have been to first build them up to the full set of exercises over the first week of training. Then in the second week, I’d have added a second set to the 4 main movements (indicated by the #1) in the fourth workout, then a second set to the #2 movements, etc. Basically, it would take about 3 weeks to build them up from a single set of 4 movements to 3 sets of all of the movements (and I’d probably stop at 2 sets on stuff like arms and crunch/back extension).
An example of that might be an older individual (in their 40’s) with no previous exercise background. Even 3 sets of 6 exercises on the first day might completely destroy them and I do not find that to be a good way to introduce people to the weight room or exercise in general. In contrast, a single set of 4 movements done after a bit of cardio on the other hand is more than tolerable and gets them started on the right foot. It might only be 30 minutes of activity but that’s 30 minutes more than they did the day before, they come out of it without feeling exhausted or miserable and, sometimes, even look forwards to the next workout. And that’s how you get them to keep coming back. Increases to volume can follow later as they adapt to the training.
But outside of that specific situation where you start with a single set and build up to multiple sets over the first few weeks, that is, when you’re starting with multiple sets of a bunch of movements, the main focus will be on increasing the weight on the bar. Which brings up a discussion of how best to do that and when and by how much.
In my mentor’s barbell program, his suggestion was this:
Don’t add weight to any lift until you can complete all of your sets while maintaining good form. It is normal while learning to have some wobbling, and it would not be unreasonable to stick at the same weights for a month (when you first start) before adding weight. You want to be in control. After you have that control, you should be able to add weight at least once per week.
Essentially you would be working with relatively light weights and perfecting form for the first month. After that, you might move to increasing weight once/week (e.g. every Monday) and then keeping it the same for the entirety of that week. Then you’d increase again.
In contrast, Rip’s Starting Strength Program typically focuses on adding some weight to the bar at almost every initial workout. I’d mention that, by and large, it tends to be easier to add weight to lower repetition sets and this explains at least part of the discrepancy between the routines. As well, there is a huge difference here in the coached vs. un-coached lifter. Having a coach watching and cueing you on every set, and knowing that you can safely add weight to the bar is far different than adding weight to the bar yourself when you’re completely out of control technically.
As noted in previous parts of this series, clearly both approaches can be effective depending on the situation. My experience is that most (especially young males) have poor impulse control and always add weight far in excess of what they can handle properly; before they know it, they’re ‘moving’ a lot of weight but in terrible form. They may benefit from only attempting a weight increase weekly and/or using a higher repetition range to protect themselves from themselves. In contrast, people with a good coach and/or with better self-control may be able to make lower repetitions and adding weight more quickly work.
In my machine approach, you might have noticed that I gave a fairly broad repetition range of 8-12 reps per set and this ties into this bit of the discussion. A relatively generic approach to progression in weights is something called a double progression. In that approach, you first add repetitions to the set; when you hit some top end of reps, you then add weight. And that’s what I did with the program: when the trainee got to 12 repetitions:
1. In good form
2. Without massive struggle on the last 2 repetitions
I’d add weight at the next workout. Depending on the movement and the amount of weight added, they might get to 12 again or be dropped back to 8-9 reps (very occasionally lower). Over the next workout or two, I’d have them build that back up to 12 and apply the same rules. Basically, it was sort of auto-regulating, their actual performance on the exercise determined when they went up.
I’d note that #1 above is the key, I always taught my trainees to only perform the number of repetitions that they could do properly; that they should never break form to get the next rep. If that meant that they only got 10, so be it. When they got to 12 with a repetition or two left in the tank, the weight would go up. If they got to 12 but it was clearly still a struggle, I’d usually have them repeat the weight again at the next workout; at that point it would always be much easier indicating time for another increase.
This actually ended up having a number of benefits relative to this article series. First and foremost, it provided for fairly easy progression. With a handful of exceptions (usually overhead press and leg curls), folks would make progress at every workout. Not only would their form improve workout to workout, they’d see that they were getting stronger as weight on the bar built. That provided a massive amount of positive reinforcement which was so key in keeping them coming back.
As well, over the first few weeks of training, I’d start to gradually push them a bit more out of their comfort zone. So while the first two weeks were invariably super easy, at about week 3, I’d start pushing them a bit harder encouraging them to get one more rep where they might have previously stopped. As well, as they learned the movements and got better at pushing themselves a bit harder (and they usually wanted to get to 12 reps to get the next weight jump), they’d start to develop that ability to push. But it would happen so gradually that they never felt overwhelmed or exhausted; this was another aspect of ensuring that they kept coming to the gym long enough for it to become habit. Invariably by the end of 8 weeks, they were working harder than they ever thought possible, but had never really noticed that increase in intensity. It just sort of happened.
Which isn’t me saying that that’s the best way to do it, clearly the approaches discussed above regarding Starting Strength or my mentor’s approach work. And, again much of it depends on the technical complexity of the movement (e.g. squat takes longer to learn than leg press) and whether or not the person has a coach.
A related question is how much weight to add to the bar when you do go up. Again, I recommend conservatism, there is usually little to be lost by adding weight in smaller increments initially (e.g. I’d rather see someone add 5 lbs per workout and do it three times per week than to throw on 15 lbs at one workout and have their form fall apart).
Certainly, younger males tend to be able to add more to the bar than older females (or females in general). As well, the movement being done affects things (primarily as a function of how much weight the person is using). You can add more weight to a 135 lb squat than to an 65 lb overhead press. This ends up being a judgement call; I’d only suggest that, when in doubt, add less rather than more. It may simply mean that you add weight more often but that’s still not a bad thing.
Variety for Beginners
It’s taken as almost an article of faith that ‘variety in training’ is required for optimal performance. This is something I’ll write about at a later date, for now I want to focus on beginners. For the most part, I don’t advocate variety in training for beginners, at least not over the first 2-3 months. The reason, again has to do with motor learning and this is especially true if you’re performing complex exercises like squats, deadlifts, etc.
In the initial stages, nearly constant practice is needed on those movements to learn and start to perfect technique. At the same time, some trainees do start to get bored and I mentioned that one goal of the beginner stage (especially for physique oriented folks) is finding out what movements work best for them.
Now with my general health/fitness trainees, since I didn’t usually teach them complex stuff and their goals were different than other folks, I wasn’t so concerned with keeping them on the same movements forever; let’s face it, you can do a competent leg press in a workout or two. Usually around week 8 or so, after they’d basically mastered the first set of movements I’d showed them and made some nice gains, I’d introduce them to some other movements or variants of the same movement.
So a chest press or dumbbell bench press would get swapped out for an incline dumbbell press or a flye movement. Or if I had started them on machine chest press, I’d teach them the DB equivalent. Shoulder press would get swapped out for lateral raises. I’d show them some other arm movements or abs or low back. Or whatever. Sometimes I’d swap out everything in total, other times I’d swap out one of the workouts and keep the other one the same. In some cases, if they had decided that they wanted more intensive training than general health/fitness now would be the time to start the process of teaching squats and such. It simply depended on the specifics as to how I approached it.
But what about other goals, the aspiring physique competitor or powerlifter or what have you? If after 2-3 months of basic training someone is still progressing/shows affinity on the big movements, my tendency would be to keep them in to at least some degree and some coaches simply stick with those big movements seemingly for eternity with the main variety coming from differences in loading and programming. Technical training is ongoing and keeping practice of the big movements in only continues to reinforce good technique.
However, swapping out one of three weekly workouts for a different set of movements would be appropriate as well. If nothing else, the new movements will have to be programmed lighter and this would make the third day (perhaps Wednesday on Monday/Wednesday/Friday approach) a light day surrounded by two heavier days. This tends to allow a bit more recovery and may help to keep the heavier days progressing better. For folks still oriented towards the major barbell movements, front squats, Romanian deadlift, variations on rowing (bent over barbell row) or what have you could be brought in on the alternate day to provide variety not only in movement choice. In some routines, where the rank beginner might have been doing both squats and deadlifts in all three workouts, they might continue to squat on Monday/Friday and deadlift on Wednesday.
Another approach would be to add a single set of an alternative movement after the big movements. So back squats could be followed up by a single set of leg press or front squat, flat bench by an incline pressing movement. Note that this wouldn’t even be considered until maybe 3 months of consistent work on the basics had been performed but would start to represent a bridge towards higher volume intermediate routines. I’d mention that this can lead to really long workouts depending on how many movements are being done.
Alternately, someone who just wasn’t built to squat or hadn’t made much progress on it despite doing everything ‘right’ might consider dumping the big movements (yes, I know blasphemy) and trying something else. This is especially true for physique oriented types who don’t have to do any exercise beyond that which makes them bigger. Anyone interested in PL’ing and to a lesser degree strongman better learn to deal with squats/bench/deadlift or pick another sport.
If you simply suck at squatting and aren’t ever going to not suck at squatting, find something else. Could be leg press, could be one of a million one legged barbell movements (that often corrects for poor back squatting mechanics), could be a lot of stuff. But if you don’t have to squat by dint of your sport choice, and only care about being buff, now is the time to find out if your more suited to other movements.
Even in that case, if someone is at the stage where they have given the big compound an honest effort and simply aren’t cut out for them, I don’t recommend massive variety at this stage. Pick a new set of movements (or at least swap out one workout), start them light to learn them and stick with them for 6-8 weeks to see if they work better (you can gauge by progress in terms of weight on the bar or growth or whatever). Then, if desired, you can consider swapping out again for another 6-8 weeks block.
This also has the benefit of putting in an informal de-loading period since you always have to start the new movements lighter. I don’t generally worry about deloads for rank beginners, at least not in a structured fashion. Rather, they should be allowed to progress (or not) as they get used to training. But swapping out at least some movements at the 8-12 week mark can introduce a brief delaoding period since the weights on the new movements will become very sub-maximal again for at least the first few workouts.
I would note and this is just because I saw the question come up on a forum regarding this series that applying the type of gradual progression I’ve outlined above is really all that is particularly important in terms of the connective tissue adaptations that I mentioned as being important in Beginning Weight Training 2. With continuous progressive stress (that doesn’t exceed the tissue’s capacity), those tissues will adapt. But the key is keeping your ego in your pants and adding weight gradually over time. As mentioned, connective tissues adapt the most slowly and the main criterion in being able to handle heavier loading later on is simply patience and time.
Other Stuff: Cardio and Stretching
A quick word on other stuff relevant to beginning training. Although it depends entirely on goals, the inclusion of moderate amounts of low intensity cardio at this stage can help with overall training tolerance and improve recovery and such. For those eventually seeking size gains (and especially those who have a poor appetite), some cardio can often help to increase appetite (as discussed in Cardio and Mass Gains). As well, for those seeking fat loss, the introduction of cardio not only burns some calories (not nearly as many as you’d hope) but can start to get sluggish fat burning pathways working again.
Stretching can also play a role, as I’ve mentioned in toher parts of this series. Many folks these days have massive inflexibilities or imbalances (e.g. tight hip flexors and tight pecs/anterior delts are common) and fixing these is part of the whole package. That’s on top of often being required to perform certain exercises safely in the first place. Stretching can be performed at various times around workout or on off days (or before bed), and each has it’s pros and cons that are beyond the scope of this article.
Moving to the Next Level
As I noted in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, a true beginner may remain in the beginner stages of training for a solid 3-6 months (with some variance depending on the specifics). In the above, I outlined at least the first 2 blocks of 8-12 weeks (if you count the second block as being a place where you potentially switch out some movement). At that point, 6 months down the road, the trainee would either be a very advanced beginner or ready to move to the intermediate stages of training. For some, the beginner stage might last as long as a year.
Again, this would depend on the specifics of the individual and their goals and all the rest. But, as a generality, if someone were still making solid progress with beignner routines (progress = increases in strength and/or size), I wouldn’t change anything. If gains had slowed or stopped, a variety of things could be tried. One would be a simple deload, backcycle the weights for a few weeks and build back up. That often gets people past early plateaus and making progress again.
If not, moving to a split routine or more volume or slightly heavier loading might be considered (at some point I’ll put up my intermediate bulking routine in article form). I’d only remind people of the comment I made in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, training should always be focused around making the most gains from the least training. Don’t move to an intermedaite level of training simply because you want to. Do it because beginner stuff has stopped working.
Note: Continue reading Part 3 of this article.
About the Author Lyle McDonald
Lyle McDonald is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and the Guide to Flexible Dieting. He has been interested in all aspects of human performance physiology since becoming involved in competitive sports as a teenager. Pursuing a degree in Physiological Sciences from UCLA, he has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the science, art and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss and body recomposition. Lyle has been involved, at various levels of success in competitive sports since his teens. Starting with triathlon, he spent altogether too many hours on his bike during college. Becoming involved with inline skating at the same time led him to compete for several years until he burned himself out with chronic overtraining. Many years passed until he decided to return to speed skating and move to the ice. He moved to Salt Lake City Utah to train full time at the Olympic oval, he is currently still there training with his coach Rex Albertson attempting to make the US National team or beyond.Lyle has written for the print magazines (Flex and the now defunct Peak Training Journal), too many online sites to mention (including Cyberpump, Mesomorphosis, MindandMuscle, ReadtheCore) and has published 5 books on various aspects of exercise and diet. Over the years, in addition to working with the general public, Lyle has worked primarily with endurance athletes, a few powerlifters, and some bodybuilders. Through his books, articles and his forum, he has helped thousands lose fat, gain muscle and get stronger or perform better.