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A Guide to Beginning Weight Training: Part 4

Having examined the basic loading parameters for beginners routines in Part 4 I want to look at a few example programs that incorporate everything I’ve talked about.    Please consider these only as sample routines and nothing more.

My Beginner Machine Program

I might as well get the “simplest” beginner program out of the way which is a basic machine circuit.  This is actually the routine that I used with the majority of my beginner clients.  Do realize that I was typically working with mid-30’s or older individuals without a training or movements background.

They were intimidated enough without my giving them exercises they couldn’t do well from the get go.  So I would start with simpler machines and then worry about teaching more complex things later down the road.  In many cases, I only had them for 3 sessions to begin with.

For that reason, I had to choose exercises that they could do safely and competently after only 3 teaching sessions.  A squat or barbell bench press do not fit that requirement.  A leg press and machine chest press do.

In any case, here is what the workout looked like:

Beginner Machine Program

The number in parentheses next to each exercise indicates which workout I introduced it.  So in workout 1 I would have the trainee do leg press, chest press, row and crunch all on machines.  You might recall my comment that with proper exercise selection you can work nearly the entire body in 4 exercises and that explains the choice.  In the first workout they would do 1 set of each exercise for 8-12 repetitions.

At workout 2 they would add a calf raise, shoulder press and pulldown in the order shown.  So the workout would now be leg press, calf raise, chest press, row, shoulder press, lat pulldown, crunch.  And they would still do only 1 set of each exercise.

At workout 3 they would add a leg curl, biceps and triceps exercise and some type of back extension and they would go in the order shown above.  Again 1 set of each exercise was done.  I would always pick a very light weight so they could focus on movement speed, the muscles being worked, breathing, etc.  If they got to 12 easily I’d add a little bit of weight.  My goal was to break them in without breaking them.

The + next to the 1 means that eventually they would or might add additional sets of each exercise.  This always came later as they started to get used to the training.  As I mentioned, for some trainees, one set was plenty and by week 8 they’d be working hard enough to make that sufficient.

After perhaps 6-8 weeks of the above, I’d usually introduce some new movements, often ones that were a bit more complex.  So I might bring in a incline dumbbell bench or flye, or some other free weight exercise.    Generally I’d just find some substitution for each muscle group.

Assuming they were doing 3 workouts/week these would be added on Wednesday while they kept the normal exercises on Monday and Friday.     So they could keep working hard on those days while they learned the new movements.

And I think you sort of see how this works.  Where they went from there was goal dependent.  For those that wanted to get more serious, I would probably eventually bring in something like a barbell squat or bench press.  It really just depended.

Like I said, my general beginner clientele was mainly 30+ women and men with little to no training background.  And usually their goals were basic health/fitness or just losing weight/improving body composition.  I kept it simply because I could and that’s all they needed.

In a different context, for someone who came to me with goals of powerlifting or whatever, I’d use something a little more barbell oriented (or at least containing a mixture).  Which brings me to another commonly used beginner program.

5X5 Based Barbell Programs

There are a number of programs that seem to be based off of the original 5X5 program suggested by Bill Starr in The Strongest Shall Survive.  His program, developed for football originally was geared around three weekly workouts and three primary exercises in each workout.

At least initially this was the squat (lower body), bench press (upper body push) and power clean (a pulling movement sort of).  At the beginner level this was done for 5 progressively heavier sets with the goal being to add weight to the bar fairly consistently.  Later iterations of his program included far more program variety and more of a Heavy/Light/Medium approach.  Additional work was also allowed after the main movements.

Perhaps 15 years ago, these programs came back into vogue due Mark Rippetoe and his Starting Strength program.     The basic program was centered around the squat, press/bench and deadlit with press and bench being alternated at each workout.  Later in training, other movements were allowed as well.

Other variants rapidly appeared such as the Stronglifts program consisting of two different workouts which were squat/bench/row and squat/overhead press/deadlift, again alternated on each of three training days.  There was also the Madcow 5X5 and I’m sure many other derivatives.

In all cases, the general goal is to add weight to the bar, often at each workout.  Beginners can usually do this although we might question if they should.

Certainly these types of programs do fit into the loading parameters of beginner training described in Part 4, meeting the frequency, intensity and volume guidelines I gave.   The focus on low repetitions and multiple sets allow for progress and starting light and building up over time helps to build work capacity, focus, etc.

But they do have problems in my opinion.

First and foremost, being structured around the most complex barbell movements, there is the issue of coaching and learning the movements properly.   I can always tell when someone in the gym has read Starting Strength or comes from the background.  And what I see is not generally pretty.

Mind you the same can be said for any untaught barbell training program so I don’t want to sound like I’m singling this approach out.   There is also the general issue that any barbell program (including the one I’m presenting next) assumes that the trainee is built for those movements.  And many simply are not.

But without coaching on the movement, it’s very possible for people to pick up awful habits.  This is compounded by the Starting Strength/etc. program’s reliance on lower repetitions which, as I mentioned last time, can lead people to go too heavy too quickly and get themselves into trouble.

Adding to this is that some variants of the programs alternate movements to one degree or another at each workout.  I don’t think this is ideal from a learning/practice point of view and would rather see someone do the same exercises at every workout in the early stages of training.  Variety comes later.

They also tend to be a little bit imbalanced due to the reliance on so few exercises.  To be honest, this is a bit of my own personal bias but I like to see a larger variety of movements early in the training.  Certainly other movements such as pulldowns, arm work, etc. can be added to these types of training programs.  At which point they more or less look like the next approach I want to describe.

My Mentor’s Basic Barbell Program

Next up I want to present my mentor’s basic barbell program reproduced below. When more than one exercise is shown it means to pick one, not do all three.

Basic Barbell Training Program

He came from a fairly traditional and Hardgainer style of background (and no you don’t know him, he went to another school in Canada) and it shows.  The program as written is quite simple, 2-3 medium repetition sets of basic exercises hitting the full body which was meant to be done three times per week at the start.  The asterisk on deadlift/shrugs means that once the weight starts to get heavy, the trainee should alternate deadlifts and shrugs at each workout.

The weights would be started light and generally increased over each set along with being increased gradually as the beginner’s technique improved and became more stable.

In some ways, this program is basically the barbell equivalent of my machine program.  At the same time, it has a couple of problems.  One is the same one inherent to all barbell programs: without coaching, trainees can pick up a lot of bad technique.  The moderate repetitions do at least help to prevent the trainee from going insanely heavy too soon.  He was usually coaching people hands-on with this program, generally for extended periods.

I’m also not particularly fond of the exercise selection or order. I’ve never liked putting overhead press before bench in a workout because bench suffers due to triceps and shoulder fatigue.   Let’s face it, guys like to bench and putting it second doesn’t fulfill their need.  The lack of arm work is also a deal breaker for the average male trainee.    Finally, higher repetitions on deadlifts can be a real losing proposition and few train them that way anymore.  I also, and this is really just one of my little obsessions, like to see more balance or symmetry.

So let’s change it up a little bit.

My Modified Basic Barbell Routine

So here’s a way I might modify the above to fix what I perceive as problems and fulfill my own neurotic needs regarding how programs should look on paper.

Modified Basic Barbell Program

You should be able to see the changes.  It starts with squats and I’d consider an RDL an optional movement.  Deadlifts are worked next but for multiple sets of lower repetitions.

The rest of it is just an alternation of pushing and pulling movements (bench, row, overhead press, pulldown, etc.) followed by both crunches and back extensions.  Just as with  the original program, weights would generally be increased each set along with being progressed over time so long as the trainee’s technique were stable.

Depending on who I was training, I might put them through the entire workout off the bat or bring things in gradually a younger male, I’d probably just have them do the whole thing.  If I were training someone older and decided to use something like this, I’d introduce the exercises more gradually, probably start with a single set and build up from there.

Beginning Powerlifting Training

To a first approximation my modified barbell program could probably work pretty well for someone with the explicit goal to pursue powerlifting.  It has the three big movements done for multiple sets of multiple repetitions.  It would allow the trainee to start developing technique as they build general strength and muscle size in preparation for moving to an intermediate program.

However, I might make some slight modifications for that specific goal, essentially mashing together the 5X5 Based Programs with the machine/basic barbell routines.  So it might look something like this.

Beginning Powerlifting Program

Again this seems fairly self-explanatory.  The main change is that I moved the big movements down to sets of 5.  This is just for technical reasons, to maintain a higher quality of training during the initial teaching process. I’d do each workout in a progressive fashion starting light and adding weight each set so long as technique stayed stable.

Any time the lifter made it all the way through 5 sets increasing weight each time, I’d start them 5 lbs heavier at the next workout.  If it started to degrade on set 4, I’d keep the weight the same.  This way they’d get gradually progressively heavier training on technique.

Early in the training it shouldn’t take terribly long to get through each exercise.  Most of that would be coaching and cueing.

That would be followed by a full body general strength/size program.    You’ll notice that I don’t list squats again as a leg movement but rather the leg press.  The point of this is to keep the main movements lower reps for quality.  I know a lot of people think you need to squat to build the leg muscles for squatting but this is nonsense.  You just need a hypertrophy stimulus.

And it’s all super general.  There are no specific assistance movements or anything like that.  Remember the goal of beginner training which is to build a general base.  Specificity and any sort of specialization in the training comes later.

Beginning Bodybuilding/Physique Training

Since folks will invariably ask, I should probably jot down some thoughts on how someone with the explicit goal of physique training (competitive or not) would approach things.  Honestly, I wouldn’t do much if anything specific.  As I’ve mentioned throughout the series, almost regardless of goal beginner training will look more or less the same.

Certainly I might be more likely to choose one of the barbell programs over a machine oriented one but even then, maybe not.    Despite the hardon the Internet has for the big barbell movements, they are honestly often inferior from the standpoint of pure muscle growth.  As I stated, I would probably like to see most having competence in them but I could probably build someone a better physique faster with properly chosen machines.

Certainly if I were coaching someone in person, I’d make some generalizations based on what I saw in their body type of what exercises I might choose. Long femurs, squats are going to suck.  I wouldn’t teach them.  Long arms and lots of compound chest work is going to be a dead-end.

As I’ve noted, perhaps the biggest difference for physique oriented folks would be really determining what are good exercises for them to use for individual muscles.  But this simply means bringing in new exercises at reasonable intervals to test them out.  Again the goal here is to start building a base, develop general training tolerance, etc.

If there is a singularly more important factor for someone pursuing this it is developing that ever esoteric mind-muscle link that the bodybuilders talk about.  This is the idea of using extreme mental focus and concentration to really learn to utilize the muscle during specific exercises.  It sounds like hoo-doo an I am well aware of the research on it.

But the simple fact is that just moving the weight without effectively using the target muscle is not the purpose of hypertrophy training.  The focus is to expose the target muscle to progressive tension overload and that means knowing how to use it effectively.  And that means developing that ability sooner rather than later.

And that’s where I’ll wrap this up.  Next, I’ll look at a grab bag of other issues such as warm-ups, cardio, when to progress, etc.

Read A Guide to Beginning Weight Training: Part 5.

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