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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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25 thoughts on “A Guide to Beginning Weight Training: Part 4

  1. Hi Lyle

    Fantastic series as usual. Just a couple of questions. Why do both Mark’s program and your barbell program use less deadlift? If the deadlift is the most taxing should it not be used more rather than less? Secondly, do you think the HST program is also appropriate for beginners?


  2. Workout B is not 3 sets of 5 reps but 5 sets of 3 reps for the Power Clean

  3. Great series Lyle. I’ve really learned a lot from many of your articles. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    “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…”

    I look forward to your article where you expand on this point.


  4. Great articles, thanks!

    Is there any possibility you could copy all of the 4 “Beginning Weight Training” into one *.pdf file and offer it for download as a complete package? I think that would be a great help for all the beginners out there..

    If you want I could assemble a *.pdf and send it to you; this way you’d have less work to do…

  5. This series couldn’t have come at a better time for me, as I’m putting together some beginner level templates to use for first time clients. My mindset has been geared towards getting new trainees (excepting seniors, etc.) to use barbells and free weights ASAP, so I appreciate the case you made for possibly starting out with machines instead. In fact, I will be utilizing this approach tomorrow.

  6. Lyle

    I only read the first couple paragraphs, but it’s enough for me to form a complete opinion of you and your training knowledge. One set of machine exercise is simply not enough for bodybuilders looking to get hyooge, and your constant recommendation of such a program is pathetic. . .


    Just kidding.

    As always, your article is top notch. I always learn something from your site. There is so much crap info out there to confuse and confound. You honest, research based articles are worth their weight in gold.

    Although I have to say that you disappoint your readers by missing the boat on the newest secret weapon in the quest to build muscle . . . lift crazy weight 14 sessions a day using the “perfect rep” followed by multiple servings of high priced “super special” powdered milk. It’s quite a protocol. . .

    Keep up the great work Lyle. There are a lot of us out here in internet land that appreciate your efforts!

  7. Lyle,
    My question is about time between sets. Do you rest for enough time to be able to get all of the reps in? My work recovery is not great and I have a steep drop off in the number of reps I can do with shorter rest times, seemingly regardless of the starting weight.


  8. Jeroen: You are correct and the table has been changed, I misread when I was looking at the book. Thank you for the catch.

    Omar: Yeah, it’s on the long list of ‘stuff to write’ in the future.

    Flo: Feel free to put the articles into a PDF and send them my way. Thanks.

    Benpaul: Yup.

    Joe: You encapsulated the basic tenor of the flame war 10 years ago. People couldn’t understand that I was merely presenting a basic exercise program for the general trainee, assumed I meant it for everyone, and concluded that i knew nothing about training for bodybuilding or anything else.

    Hunter: Yes, use as much rest as you need to maintain rep count and form. If that’s 1 minute, take a minute. If it’s 3 minutes, take 3 minutes.

  9. I have been doing my conservative beginner routines for the last 8 months, but am definitely still getting gains so will stick to them. Well…in some ways (split routine, 2 sets of ten) it’s never really been beginner. In other ways (I do 2 weeks perfect before going up, go up the minimum, lots of machines, etc.) it has been beginner. I think I amjust going to stick with what I am doing for the next year. Am hoping to gain about 50% strength (seems wacky, but even if it’s only 30% would be awesome…especially for a fat, old, broken-jointed guy….and I really feel the changes good at least this month.

  10. Adding that on top of the previous 40%, would be over a 100% gain for the campaign (nuymbers don’t add exactly because of compounding). I know bench will be slow from my bad shoulder. And also leg extension. but even here by going slow, I’m getting some development while not getting hurt. And others like curls and glutes and hammies are right on track.

  11. ive just started again after a 6 month sabbatical. Needless to say i have a few pounds to shift first but im gently easing back into the weights side of things. Im loading the bars very slowly just to get my muscle groups going again, then after a couple of weeks ill start plotting my rapid progress back up to the heavier end of the scale… training diaries are a must though!

  12. First, thank you for another great article series!

    At the risk of appearing dense, however, I’m still uncertain as to what qualifies as a beginner. Yesterday was my first time back in the weight room in seven months (inspired by age, injury and your endurance series to lighten my body), but I spent all that time doing other sorts of exercise (cardio, BJJ) — and, for example, in our BJJ warmup we regularly do squats with an equal-weight partner on our shoulders (220 lbs in my case) in the sort of 60% range you’re talking about (20 to 30 reps), though the correctness of the form varies significantly from person to person.

    I read your series after coming back from the gym, not before, so most of my workout was simply trying different weights to see how much strength I’d lost. It depended on the exercise, but it wasn’t much, at least not on an initial 5RM. I used to do mostly 5x5s, and I could tell I’d have had a harder time doing the full five sets after my seven-month layoff. (My pullups actually improved, partially because I’m so light now!)

    Would you have someone is my situation (off weights but not off exercise for a period of months) do anything specific to gauge where they are, how much they lost, etc. Or would you just tell them to assume they’re a beginner, with potentially faster progressions?

  13. The latter.

    At the end of the day it’s a cost:benefit analysis:

    What do you have to gain by starting too heavy too fast?
    What do you have to lose?

    What do you have to lose by starting slowly and progressing quickly from a low starting point?
    What do you have to gain?

    Answer those questions objectively and you’ll understand the approach I’d take in your situation.

  14. Lyle; about that power clean 3×5 / 5×3 in Rip’s program:

    I doubt you misread anything, just remembered wrong source by same author. You see, in 2nd ed. Starting Strength Rip’s program is written as using 3×5 for power cleans, while in Practical Programming he later recommends using 5×3 instead for keeping better form.

  15. That makes much sense, thanks for taking the time to clarify. And I was reading from SS when I typed up the above so that explains the discrepancy.

  16. I wish I had this article 10 years ago.
    It would have saved me a couple of years of wasted effort doing stupid routines from magazines. And a lot of $$$ wasted on HMB and other crap, too.

    I was one of those people who got “magical” strength/muscle gains from the CKD. In hindsight I think it was Lyle’s lifting recommendations, not the diet, that caused this to happen (i was using the Ketogenic Diet book).

  17. Hey man,

    Thanks a lot for all your articles and books. I like how you question common wisdom, even by health leaders, and do your own objective research.

    This was just to remind you though that you forgot to edit the Starting Strengh power clean from 3×5 to 5×3 😉


  18. Hey Lyle, I started doing your routine about a month and a half ago and I think I went up in weight to fast. At the beginning, I was moving up 10-20 pounds on the big lifts (squat deadlift) and 5-10 on the smaller ones (Bench press, shoulder press). This went on for about 4 weeks straight and then I noticed some bad things. My form was getting really bad. When I first started I was controlling the weight on the way down and exploding up, now I was exploding up, but not controlling the weight on the eccentric. My form also got bad as I used momentum from my other body parts (Ex Shoulder press). At about week 5 I was getting weaker and just took a week off from working out because I felt like I had been overtrained a bit (wasn’t sleeping well, had anxiety and nervousness, felt jittery). I don’t take any caffeine or any supplements other than a multivitamin and fish oil either. After about a week of relaxing,stretching, foam rolling, and a massage I went back into the weight room today, lowered the weights, and still feel weaker. I did drink alcohol this weekend for my first time i two months (I thought I had quit), which Im really upset about. Im planning dropping the weight to where I am getting 12 repitions of good form all sets until I move up.

    I also eat 3 solid meals a day with about 50 grams of protein each eat complex carbohydrates all day except for after a workout, eat an avocado and pb and olive oil for fats (I am 180 lbs but 144lbs of LBM). I know you said to eat healthy but not worry about calories and such until you stop making gains. Is it time for me yet, or should I just keep going and see how things go after this 7 day break? Oh and my lat pulldown strength has not gone up at all since day 1. I have no idea how to get that stronger?

    One more question, for the supplementary exercises should you stick with bench press until you get that stronger, or should you alternate every workout, every week?
    BTW the workout I do is this 3x week.

    High bar Squat -3x 8-12
    Standing overhead shoulder press: 3x 8-12
    DeadLift 3 x 8-12
    Pullups/Lat Pulldowns 3 x 8-12
    Bench Press 3 x 8-12
    Abdominal work 2 x 10-15.

  19. Hello Lyle,
    do you believe one can achieve comparable hypertrophy/get near his potential (for drug free trainees) with just bodyweight if progressed properly? And are there any books on hypertrophy training You would recommend (irrespective of equipment). Thank You very much.

  20. martin (on January 15th, 2010) asked, “Why do both Mark’s program and your barbell program use less deadlift? If the deadlift is the most taxing should it not be used more rather than less?”

    In what I’ve seen in my 40+years of training since age 16, for most people (and definitely after their deadlift poundages substantially increase), deadlifting is such a comprehensive stressor on the body, especially on the lower back (much more so than even proper-form squatting or power cleaning is) that it has to be be carefully “rationed”. It’s so taxing that it easily becomes TOO taxing.

    Deadlifting is so intense on the back that full recovery from one heavy work-set can require at least twice as long as recovery does from multiple sets of squats, power cleans, overhead presses, or bent-over rows (it certainly does for me). It’s surprisingly easy to use too much volume and/or frequency, and consequently hinder recovery, stymie progress, and end up with lower back injury.

  21. Hello Lyle,

    Total newbie here. I’m looking at starting weight lifting. I’ve lost 40 pounds with another 30 to go and all my friends are recommending I start lifting weights. I think I will start with the machines since I am not confident anyone at my local YMCA is going to be able to show me proper form with free weights. And I think I’d feel more comfortable starting with those.

    I’m confused at the chart
    (1) What does 1+X8-12 mean in the Sets X Reps column? I assume X8 is “8 times” but I’m not following how to interpret this. It looks to me like “One + Eight times minus 12”.

    (2) And in the list of machine exercises, when it says to the ones with a (1) after it, then when it says “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)” So that means in workout 2 (2 days later I assume) they are doing all the #1 exercies PLUS the #2 exercises? So twice as many? Then the 3rd workout is all of them?

    So you do 4 different exercises in workout 1, then you’re doing 7 for workout 2 then all 11 for workout 3? I feel like I’m reading this wrong!

    Thanks for your help! Judy

  22. Hey Lyle,
    First I wanna say thanks for great series, I really enjoy reading your articles. I’m a complete beginner in the World of weight training and I would like to know if there are any issues in regards to my age (I’m 51 years old) I need to consider?

  23. You may find that your rate of strength gains/adaptation is slower than if you were younger and you need to be more attentive to small aches and pains that might indicate that you are overloading your connective tissues. Beyond that, no not really.

  24. Deadlifting is intensive IF you are going heavy. beginners are NOT going heavy and need lots of technique practice. BEGINNING weight training is the series. Things change with more advancement.

  25. It’s nearly impossible to progressively overload bodyweight exercises in that fashion so no.

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