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&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.
Note: Continue reading Part 4 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.