Continuing from Part 2, I want to start looking at some specifics in terms of what are called loading parameters of training. This includes issues such as intensity (how hard), volume (how much), frequency (how often) and I’ll touch on exercise selection again. 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.
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.
Loading Parameter 1: Training Intensity
In the world of weight training, there are multiple definitions of intensity and this can lead to some confusion. 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.
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. Study after study finds this to be true. Almost irrespective of the training intensity, the improvements are about the same.
And this observation ties into a number of the comments I’ve made previously in this series.
First and foremost, recall from Part 2 that most of the initial gains from weight training are neurological with the real growth coming anywhere from 4-8+ weeks later. This is actually part of why intensity matters so little. The strength gains are mainly from learning to lift the weight and little else.
Similarly and second, it’s generally easier to learn proper technique with lighter weights than heavier. I would mention that a weight that is too light can be difficult in the sense that the trainee can’t really “feel” what they are doing. There is a happy medium here.
Third, relatively lighter weights are safer for joints and connective tissues which have to adapt to handle heavier loads. Again this is a very slow process that occurs over weeks and months.
Advantages of Starting Lighter
Basically, there are a lot of advantages to starting with relatively lighter weights in the early stages of training. Yes, those weights need to be increased over time but that’s just on top of the starting point. As i said, as little as 60% of maximum is sufficient to stimulate strength gains in beginners.
Now, for most people a weight that is 60% of their maximum could be lifted 20 or more times if the person went all out. And as I said, that will generate the same strength gains as lifting 90% which might allow only 3 repetitions. From a practice standpoint, being able to do more repetitions per workout will help with the neurological adaptations and motor learning that occurs during this time period.
Now, I’m not saying that a beginner should do 20+ reps with the lighter weight. Rather they might do 3 sets of 10, accumulating 30 proper repetitions per workout. These sets should be fairly easy since they represent maybe 50% of the trainee’s maximum capacity. In contrast, it would take 10 very heavy sets of 3 at 90% of maximum to achieve the same.
I would mention that even if someone starts very light, which they should, the weight being lifted will need to be increased as the trainee gains strength and conditioning. Basically, as their strength starts to go up, so will the 60% of their maximum value. To keep making progress, along with generating all of the other adaptation means lifting heavier weights over time. But this is more about progression from the starting point than the initial loading per se.
I still wouldn’t have the average beginner using a weight any heavier than 80% of their maximum, a weight that they could only lift for 8 repetitions to their near limits. Certainly not in the first month or two. Start light, add weight slowly as technique improves and the body adapts, I think you get the idea.
Loading Parameter 2: Training Volume
.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). For the purposes of this guide, I’m only going to focus on sets and the number of repetitions per set.
First some definitions.
- Repetition (rep): A repetition is generally considered the combination of lifting and lowering the weight. There are exceptions: Olympic lifters will often lift the weight and then drop it without lowering uner control.
- Set: A series of relatively continuous repetitions.
If someone performs 10 repetitions in a row and then stops, that is 1 set of 10 repetitions. If they rest and then perform 10 more repetitions and then stop, they have performed 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
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. This is not universally true and some do find slightly better gains from performing multiple sets even for beginners. This is likely due to just getting more practice with the movement and certainly there is some benefit to this.
At the same point, those benefits have to be weighed against the potential doubling or tripling of workout time that is required. For the general public especially, one of the most commonly reported hindrances to exercise is the time commitment. If one set gives most of the gains that three sets done in 1/3rd the time, that may be superior. 8-10 exercises to hit all major muscle groups can readily be completed in as little as 20 to 30 minutes.
As mentioned, performing more sets can generate slightly better strength gains and the extra practice helps the lifter to learn the exercises somewhat more rapidly. Mind you, this assumes that the trainee can perform those multiple sets without becoming excessively fatigued, at which point technique will deteriorate. Multiple sets of an exercise also go towards building up work capacity, a goal I mentioned in Part 2 of this guide.
How Many Sets: A Practical Compromise
As always, let me mention that a given trainee’s goals feed very heavily into the question of how many sets to do. For basic strength fitness, one set is usually more than sufficient, especially if it leads to better adherence in the long-term.
For those individuals with longer term physique or performance goals, one set will not be sufficient except in the earliest stages of training. A practical compromise here would be to perform only a single set of a given exercise at the first workout and then increase this to perhaps 3 sets per exercise over the first few weeks of training.
Certainly it is more than possible for beginners to perform more than a single set of an exercise from their first workout. But they must be kept light with a focus on quality and working on technique more than the trainee going in and destroying themselves (note: it’s usually younger males who take this approach to their first workout).
What About Repetitions?
Next let me talk about repetitions. Certainly, in beginning weight training workouts, the tendency is to use higher/highish repetitions. With my beginners, I generally used a rather “generic” 8-12 repetitions per set although some will advocate even higher repetitions. The basic gist is that using higher reps forces the trainee to keep the absolute weight on the bar lower and lets them get more repetitions (i.e. 3 sets of 20 is 60 repetitions of an exercise).
The problem with extremely high repetitions is that, even with light weights, fatigue will start to accumulate and technique will start to break down. As well, for complete beginners, high repetition sets tend to generate a lot of painful waste products and I don’t think this is good from an adherence point of view. Outside of those hardheads who equate pain with progress, making beginners suffer too much too early on tends to chase them out of the gym.
I’d note that others recommend relatively lower repetitions with repeated sets of 5 being done for anywhere from 1 to 5 total sets. Certainly this does keep the risk of fatigue during any given set lower so that technique can be maintained. The set simply isn’t long enough to generate much fatigue. The problem here is that macho un-coached trainees (i.e. young males) tend to go too heavy too quickly and get themselves into trouble.
So what’s the best approach? For most trainees, especially if they have poor impulse control, I think a relatively low volume of moderate repetition sets (i.e. 1-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions per set) is probably the best approach. This keeps the weight on the bar from getting too heavy too fast and still gets in a lot of practice on the movements.
For trainees with decent self-control or a competent coach (who will keep them from doing something stupid), doing more sets of lower repetitions (i.e. 3-5 sets of 5 repetitions) can also work. Just make sure and keep in in your pants and add weight gradually as your technique gets better.
Loading Parameter 3: Training Frequency
In the most general sense training frequency refers to how many times per week a given type of training is performed. However, things can get more complicated in the weight room due to the fact that it is possible to train different muscles on different days. So a trainee might lift weights a total of 4 times per week but only train their upper body muscles two times per week.
Honestly, that distinction really only applies at the intermediate or advanced levels where something called a split routine is usually implemented. For beginners, it’s usually best to train the entire body at every workout to one degree or another. So practically the total number of sessions per week will match the number of times a given muscle is trained.
In general, research on beginners find that the optimal training frequency for beginners in terms of strength gains is three times per week (this is in contrast to more advanced lifters who do best training a given exercise or muscle twice per week).
That said, research also regularly finds that training twice/week gives roughly 80% of the gains seen training three times per week (I’d mention that aerobic training needs to be performed three times per week for best results). I certainly don’t recall research and can’t think of any good reason for a beginning weight trainer to lift more than that.
Certainly from the standpoint of motor learning and practice, the higher training frequency will be better. The more often a trainee can practice an exercise, the faster that they can learn it. Once again, this assumes that the practice is being done under non-fatigued conditions. In this vein, perhaps the oldest approach to beginner training programs is to do the same full-body workout three times per week.
Certainly there are exceptions, some programs will set up two different full-body workouts which are alternated each time the person trains. This can also be effective although my preference is still to practice all of the initial movements being done three times per week to get the most practice.
I’d note that just like the issue of 1 vs. 3 sets, the trainee seeking general strength and fitness may not find the additional time requirement of training three times per week worth the relatively smaller gains. That is, training an additional to get “only” 20% more strength gains may not be worth it. Certainly short full-body workouts done twice per week can accomplish a lot in this population.
Split Routines for Beginners
The term split routines refers to a workout where the body is “split” into different parts or different exercises. So bodybuilders might train their chest and triceps one day and back and biceps on another whereas a powerlifter has one day for squats, one day for bench and one day for deadlifts.
This type of routine allows more focus to be put on that specific muscle or exercise and is usually done to allow for more total work to be done. The bodybuilder doing chest and triceps might do 8-10 heavy sets for each muscle group. Powerlifters will typically do a far amount of work for the main movement of the day followed by exercises meant to improve that exercise or bring up weak points.
And with very very few exceptions, I think they are a mistake for beginners. One problem is that they reduce the amount of practice the lifter will get on each exercise since each workout is done less frequently. It also tends to allow/encourage beginners to do too much work too soon. Since the workouts start out shorter, lifters end up doing too many exercises and too many sets. This is not only not necessary for beginners, it’s counterproductive as I talked about in Part 1.
One very limited possibility would be a basic upper/lower body split routine where either the entire upper or lower body is trained in any given workout. But only if the volume and intensity of each workout is kept strictly controlled. And in my experience, most don’t have the self-control to do that. Because rather than doing only 3 sets for each lower body muscle, they’ll do double that because they want to justify going to the gym at all.
I would absolutely never use a typical bodybuilding split with a beginner. These are typically set up to hit only one or two muscle groups per workout for a lot of sets. Frequently a given muscle is only trained once per week. And this accomplishes nothing relevant to the beginner goals I discussed in Part 2. 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.
The Sweet Spot: Training Two to Three Times Per Week
So overall, I recommend that beginning weight training programs be set up as full body workouts done two or three times per week.
I’d note that training full body three times per week can have its own set of problems in terms of scheduling. Generally speaking the workouts should be done every other day which locks people into training Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. Depending on someone’s work, life or family schedule that may be problematic. If a workout is missed, getting back on schedule may be a problem.
In that case training only twice weekly may be better since it allows much more flexibility. A trainee might train Monday/Thursday, Monday/Friday, Tuesday/Friday, etc. If the goal is to train Monday/Thursday and Thursday has to be skipped, that workout can be done on Friday. I think you get the idea.
This is one place where a basic split routine such as the upper/lower routine can be beneficial by allowing more flexibility during the week. Workouts can be done two day in a row and that may help with long terms consistency. Again I wouldn’t use any split more complex than an upper/lower for a beginner ever.
Training Frequency and Goals
Training frequency is a place where the trainee’s ultimate goals can play a rather large role. As I mentioned above, for the person seeking no more than basic strength and fitness, twice per week is usually more than sufficient from the start. That trainee may never desire to move past that either. Other days are then free up for cardiovascular conditioning or other types of exercise. Simply, adding that third day of weight training may not be worth the relatively small increase in results.
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. A runner will spend most of their time running and lifting weights is a much lower priority for them. The same holds for many sports where practicing or training the actual sport will take up most of the training time. Two short workouts per week is usually plenty.
For those individuals who aspire to physique (competitive or not) or something like powerlifting or Olympic lifting, getting into the gym three times per week will be more or less mandatory. Since lifting IS the sport, it’s critical to get a lot of practice on the competition movements to develop technique, improve work capacity, condition connective tissues, etc. As well, if the trainee hasn’t adapted to three days per week in the gym during their beginner phase, they won’t be ready to add a fourth day down the road. .
Loading Parameter 4: Exercise Selection
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 exercises is better” or “isolation exercises are better” or “free weights are better” or “machines are better”. Now, there’s honestly not much research on this, or not much that I’ve ever seen.
- Free weight exercises are done with barbells or fixed dumbbells along with some other types of weighted implements.
- Machine exercises are done on speciality machines, many of which only allow for a single exercise to be done. Some machine mimic compound free weight exercises while others mimic free weight isolation exercises.
- Compound exercises are those that involve multiple joints and muscles at once. This includes things like squats, deadlifts, the bench press and rows. It can also include the leg press and many machines that mimick free weight exercises.
- Isolation exercises generally only involve one joint and put the focus on one primary muscle. Leg extensions are an isolation exercise for the quadriceps (front thigh), flyes or pec deck for the chest, etc
Please note that there can be compound machine and free weight exercises as well as isolation machine and free weight exercises.
And so far as I’m concerned, each can only be looked at via their pros and cons for a given context.
Free Weights vs. Machines
Let me look briefly at the issue of free weights vs. machines as each has their pros and cons.
Some of the potential advantages of free weights, at least to some, is that free weight exercises tend to challenge things like balance and proprioception. Their inherent nature forces the body to train functions that machines may not. At the same time, this can also be a negative. Free weight exercises often take longer to learn due to the balance and technique issue involved. This isn’t inherently a deal breaker but depending on the goals, the time spent learning a complex free weight exercise may not be worth it. For individuals with explicit balance problems, free weights may be a complete non-starter and machines may be the superior choice.
In that vein, barbells and dumbbells allow more flexibility in the movement path. By that I mean that individual mechanics will dictate how the weight moves exactly. In contrast, machines tend to lock people into a singular movement pattern. If it’s not right for their body, this might lead to injury down the road (note: newer machines tend to be a little more forgiving in this regard).
Another advantage of free weights is that they tend to have more overall uses. For home gyms, for example, nothing more than a barbell, some weight plates and maybe a bench and squat rack can allow someone to perform dozens and dozens of exercise. In contrast, most machines, cable pulleys excepted, allow you to do one movement. To accomplish what could be done with a single barbell might take 12 different machines. Of course, people who belong to commercial gyms usually have access to all of those machines and more.
One issue that doesn’t get talked about much is for people who travel or don’t always train at the same location. In that case, free weights have the advantage of being identical. A barbell plus two 45 lb (20 kg) plates weighs the same no matter where you are. In contrast, all machines differ based on how they are built. For someone trying to track their progress who travels a lot, machines can make it impossible to be consistent in terms of the weights being lifted.
Looking first at compound exercises, one potential benefit is time efficiency as a single exercise hits multiple muscles at once. With proper exercise selection it’s actually possible to hit most of the muscles in the body with only 4 exercises. A compound lower body, pushing, pulling exercise plus some core gets most of it done.
There are programs that are more or less structured that way where any given workout may be nothing more than a lower body, push and pull exercise. Others, myself included, tend to prefer more exercises to be a little bit more “well rounded”. You’ll see this in the example workouts in Part 4.
For someone under extreme time pressure, this can be useful as an absolutely minimal workout can get done within abut 10 minutes of gym time. Those same movements are often beneficial in terms of “function” as they may somewhat mimic activities of daily living. They also tend to load bones in a way to improve bone mineral density.
However, many of those movements, especially the barbell compound movement have a number of problems. One is that they tend to be fairly technical and can require a lot of coaching to do well. People can disagree with me all they want but all anybody has to do is go into almost any gym and see the absolute travesty that the average person has turned those movements into. Certainly it’s better in the era of social media and I’d say that, on average, more people are doing things well. But by that I mean maybe 10-15% of trainees are doing it right rather than 5%. Most still butcher those movements.
The only exception is if you train at a hardcore powerlifting or Olympic lifting gym, or with those athletes. They always do the movements well since they have to. They are also usually willing to help beginners with their technique. In that most people train at the generic commercial gym, they will not be around that group of individuals.
There is also the issue I mentioned previously which is that not everybody has the levers to do those exercises particularly effectively. Individuals with very long upper legs may find squatting a losing proposition with their low back giving out long before their legs are effectively trained. People with very long arms may not get anywhere with bench pressing or overhead pressing.
Certainly some of that can be minimized with compound machine exercises. For many a well designed leg press is far superior for lower body training than a squat or deadlift will ever be since the lower back is taken out of the movement. A machine chest press eliminates the control and technique of the barbell bench press and may simply work more effectively.
Certainly some compound exercises should probably be part of every beginning weight training program. However, the overarching focus for the “big 3” compound exercises (squat, bench, deadlift) is more a leftover macho attitude than anything real. For some the movements are excellent. For many they are not. In that case, finding substitutes, often machine equivalents may be vastly superior.
Opposing compound exercises are isolation exercises which tend to put the focus on a singular muscle. One big disadvantage here is that of time efficiency. Whereas a single compound lower body exercise might train quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and core all at once, a leg extension only trains the quadriceps. If only isolation movements are used, it might take 4 more exercises to train all of the muscles involved in the squat or leg press.
But that can be balanced by the fact that, for many, isolation movements may allow for much better targeting of a specific muscle group. That is, someone for whom squatting or even leg pressing is not a good stimulus to their quadriceps might find that leg extensions is better (they also might find that a different compound movement such as a quad dominant split squat is effective).
For some muscles, such as the biceps, there really isn’t such a thing as a compound exercise. Yes, many pulling exercises work the biceps but direct biceps work is always some variation on a curl.
Practical Exercise Selection
Outside of some macho hardhead approaches to training, the reality is that most will probably find that a combination of compound and isolation movements along with free weight and machine movements is optimal. And, just as with everything else, the choice will depend on the goals.
General Strength and Health
For the person seeking basic strength and health, a basic machine circuit may be more than sufficient. A mixture of compound and isolation movements will allow the target muscles to be trained effectively without the need to learn complex technique. Machines generally allow for faster workouts as well since you simply have to set the seat correctly and put the pin where it needs to be. No plate loading is necessary. Machines often don’t require as much warm-up either since the movements aren’t as complex.
Once again, I realize that hardheads reading this will disagree, feeling that “You have to squat, you have to deadlift, bro.” Gyms such as Planet Fitness that outright ban those movements get a lot of flack from the same hardheads with the same logic. First and foremost, no you do not have to do those movements. Second, for many those movements such. Third, and most importantly, have you ever watched most people do those movements? I have for over two decades and most of what I’ve seen is a tragedy. And you know I’m right.
Yes, someone will argue that people use appalling form on machines as well. Well, true. Usually the same macho hardheads who try to lift too much weight badly in their other exercises. And the simple fact is that you can teach someone a simpler machine movement in 1 or 2 workouts. Learning to squat, bench or deadlift well enough to train it hard can take weeks or months. And in that time, they could be working much more effectively on the simpler movement.
Certainly in an ideal world, I think most should have some competency with those movements but it really is predicated on being able to get some kind of decent instruction. And that simply in’t always or even usually the case. Most people in any gym do the movements wrong and couldn’t teach them if they had to. Yes, fine if you have a good coach or trainer who you will be working with for extended periods and want to learn those movements, great. If not, just pick simpler stuff that gets the job done.
For sports such as powerlifting or strongman/strongwoman it will be more or less mandatory to include the big compound barbell movements in a beginning program. For the powerlifter, they are part of the competition package. For the strongman competitor they build general strength in movement patterns required by the sport.
This isn’t to say that’s all that would be done. A well rounded basic program to develop strength and muscle in an all-around fashion along with meeting the other goals will be key and that can include machine and/or isolation movements as needed. But the big compounds will have to be part of the picture.
Once again, OL’ing is its own sport but exists in in a similar place. Learning the competition movements is part and parcel of success in the sport and there are various coaching approaches that are used that are far beyond the scope of this article. In addition to those, it’s typical to do some basic strength and/or growth work for balance and conditioning.
Squats, RDL’s and pulls are common for lower body and various pressing and pulling will be used for the upper body. Traditionally Ol’ers haven’t done much machine work although this was mostly a reflection that their gyms were a bunch of barbells, squat racks and platforms. Certainly it could be included if the equipment is available to do general muscle strengthening or hypertrophy work.
For the performance athlete, most of what I have written already holds. A general well-rounded program of some sort should be put in place and the specifics of what is done will depend partially on the sport and partially on the coaches philosophy. Some are very specific and others are more general. I’d simply offer that any movements that might be important later in the athlete’s career should probably be introduced earlier rather than later.
Finally are trainees looking at physique goals. This could be trainees simply wanting to improve body composition or those who eventually have aspirations of competing. Basically everything I’ve said already applies here and I’d reiterate from Part 2 that the only requirements for triggering muscle growth is that progressive tension overload can be applied over time. No exercises are required.
And I would further argue that, in many cases, relatively more machines and isolation work will be superior here. This goes back to the balance issue inherent in many of the “big” compound barbell movements. While that might be useful for some applications it can serve to decrease tension on the target muscles. That is, in a barbell or even DB bench, some energy goes into balance and coordination and this means that the pecs might not receive as strong of a stimulus as from a well designed chest press machine or even pec deck.
That said, I would still recommend at least learning some of the “traditional movements” if for no other reason than to find out if someone isn’t built well for them. As above, I think most would benefit from having basic competency with those movements. If they work well, great. If not, they should be abandoned.
I’d mention again that simpler movements seem to generate growth sooner to begin with. For those individuals who need more immediate gratification and results, picking at least some simpler movements as part of the beginning training program will be beneficial. They needn’t be the entirety of the workout but some should be included.
I’d mention again that, over time, individuals seeking long-term physique changes should do some experimentation with different movements to see what is best for them as an individual. At the same time, it’s crucial to spend enough time learning new movements to determine if they are a good fit. So at least in terms of the absolute beginning workout program, I’d suggest a workout similar to what others would be doing: a mixture of compound possibly free weight movements with some isolation movements done with either free weights or machines.
The key will be introducing new movements after those have been learned to test them out to see if they are better or worse. This might mean realistically sticking with a given set of exercises for 6-8 weeks, especially the first 6-8 weeks before bringing in other movements to try. But this is part of the longer term training process more than the introductory weight training program. For everyone that should be a basic well-rounded, balanced program to achieve the goals I described in Part 2.
To wrap-up let me summarize the loading parameters for a beginning weight training program.
- Volume: 1-3 sets per muscle group per workout
- Intensity: 60% of maximum to start, increasing over time
- Frequency: 2-3 times per week
- Exercises: Goal dependent but overall a well-rounded balanced program to achieve the goals from Part 2.
- A Guide to Beginning Weight Training: Part 4
- A Guide to Beginning Weight Training: Part 6
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 5
- How to Exercise for General Health and Fitness
- Lifting Six Days a Week