I don’t even remember when I first ran this article but I’ve probably run it annually since then. And since it IS that time of the year again (and I wanted something a bit lighter than my last piece), it seemed appropriate to talk about beginning weight training. It’s 4 parts which I’ll run two per week (so it doesn’t take forever to get to the point) and if you know anybody just getting started out, share it with them.
For the most part, articles about beginner’s training aren’t terribly popular. This is because, with literally no exception I have ever run into in nearly 20 years of doing this, everybody thinks that they are more advanced than they are. It’s simply human nature, nobody wants to think of themselves as a beginner or noob. In the world of training and dieting the consequence of this is that folks tend to jump into advanced training or diet interpretations long before they are either needed or useful or they have developed the necessary fundamentals.
Not only is this not terribly productive, it can actually be detrimental to long-term progress. Even if the person doesn’t get injured or burned out by doing too much too soon, they run into another big problem: by using advanced methods early on, trainees are limited when they do manage to reach a more advanced stage. That is, if someone jumps into high volumes or advanced training methods right out of the gate, they run into problems later on when they actually need to increase something. If volume is already high, increasing it further is difficult if not impossible. And if advanced methods are being used too early, there’s nothing left to break plateaus when they occur later on.
Put a little bit differently, one goal of all training should always be to get the most adaptations/gains in performance with the least amount of training. That way, when gains slow down, there is actually room to increase things. Start too high to begin with and you’ve got nowhere to go when you actually need to do it.
Put a bit differently, if you can get the same gains out of 3 hours/week of training vs. 6 hours/week of training, you’re better off training 3 hours/week. That way, when 3 hours/week stops working, you have room to increase to 4 hours/week then 5 hours/week then 6 hours/week. If you start at 6 hours/week and stop progressing, you’ve got nowhere left to go.
An additional factor contributing to this problem is this: a lot of beginners (and this holds for non-weight room activities as well, runners and cyclists do the same thing) tend to fall into a trap of thinking “If I want to be as good/big/fast/whatever as [insert name of currently top level individual here], I should do what they do in training.”
But what’s forgotten is that what said top level individual is doing now, 10-15 (or more) years into their career is absolutely not reflective of what they did when they started. Rather, assuming they were coached in some fashion or another, they started with a very beginner approach to training and have only built up to their current level of training (in terms of volume, intensity and frequency) over years and years of training. But since folks rarely see or hear about what those folks did when they started, and only see what they are currently doing, they tend to assume that that is the proper way to train.
Of some relevance to this article is the fact that top level athletes in almost all activities often have periods where they “return to the basics”. So they might spend some amount of their year or season training in at least a similar fashion as they did as rank beginners. That’s on top of the fact that, almost without exception, top level individuals in all sports are always working on the fundamentals to one degree or another (a topic I’ve discussed variously on the site).
In fact, I might go so far as to argue that, in most activities, a big part of what separates the top level guys from the wannabes is the willingness to always work on the basics. That is, wannabes tend to want to only do the sexy and fun stuff; it’s the guys who reach the top who consistently and constantly hammer away at the fundamentals.
If you don’t believe me, find a place where athletes of different levels train. One difference will be that the higher level guys always do the basics: they warm-up properly, do their drills with attention and focus, pay constant attention in training, cool-down correctly, etc. The guys skipping all of the stuff that isn’t fun are the ones who not only don’t make progress but usually waste their careers looking for Training Secrets.
And while we might argue that many activities done in the weight room (with the exception of the Olympic lifts) aren’t nearly as technique heavy as many sporting movements, the fact is that proper performance in the weight room does impact results. The folks flailing about with the weights are not only putting themselves at a higher risk of injury but probably aren’t training the target muscle effectively in the first place.
You can contrast that to successful bodybuilders who often have some of the most beautiful technique you’ll ever see (I should mention that it’s not uncommon to see really big guys with totally awful technique). If you ever get a chance to watch a good powerlifter train, you’ll see what I’m talking about: laser focus and absolutely dialed in technique (that they continue to try to improve throughout their career).
And if you know anything about Olympic lifting technique, you’ll know when one is training in your gym; he’ll be the one squatting and pulling with form more impressive than you’ve ever seen. And while I’m not saying that you have to spend eons figuring out how to do the ‘perfect rep’, developing good technique in the early stages of weight training pays massive dividends later on (ask anybody who’s had to fix technique after years of doing it wrong).
But I’m getting off topic.
My point with this introduction is that, whether folks get into the weight room for general health/fitness purposes or to pursue bodybuilding or strength training (e.g. powerlifting) or are simply using the weight room to improve their performance in some other sport, the same dynamics tend to hold for rank beginners. Folks want to be more advanced than they are and jump into advanced routines far before they have developed the fundamentals of training.
So, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to talk about all forms of beginning strength training as sort of a generalized whole, whether the ultimate goal is bodybuilding (or physique changes more generally), general health/fitness or some strength sport. I’ll make comments about differences in each activity as necessary since there are some. Since this will get long, I’m going to divide the article into three parts.
Today I’m going to focus on some of the basic ideas about why people get into the weight room in the first place in terms of goals along with what defines a beginner. On Friday, I’ll look at the major adaptations that beginner routines are trying to achieve. And finally on Tuesday of next week, I’ll look at how to set up a good basic beginner routine and how to progress it until someone is ready to move to the intermediate stage.
Body Composition vs. Strength vs. Performance vs. Fitness/Health
People lift weights for a variety of reasons. I imagine the majority reading this site do it to improve body composition, usually to look better naked. Some of course eventually want to compete in one of the physique sports, whether it be bodybuilding or fitness/figure. Some may want to get into something like power or Olympic lifting (probably not a lot of the latter and I won’t make many comments about that). Some may be doing it only for general health and I imagine some do it because they feel that they are ‘supposed to’.
Now, there are certainly differences in training for each of those goals and I want to make a few comments about them before moving on (I’ll make more comments as needed throughout the article series as well).
Clearly the goal in physique/body composition oriented activities is primarily geared towards increasing muscle mass and/or losing fat (for more commentary on that, please read Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1 and Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 2). Those who eventually want to compete in the physique sports have to worry about other things such as symmetry, balance, etc. Getting their diet in order is clearly a big key. Of course, fitness competitors have to worry about the fitness routine itself but that’s far outside of the scope of this article.
Those who eventually want to pursue something like powerlifting have as their goal lifting the most weight for a single repetition in the competitive lifts (squat, bench, deadlift or bench/deadlift if they go that route); at some point the gear/raw question comes up as well. Folks eventually targeting something like strongman also need a base of strength although they will eventually need focus on the implements (and the huge strength/endurance component) that are required in competition. Olympic lifters are in a similar position with learning the competition movements along with building base strength also required.
Weight training for athletes gets more complicated as what’s needed depends on the requirements of the sport, the individual, weight classes, etc. For the general health/fitness lifter, the goals are typically much more modest, developing a basic level of strength fitness along with developing bone health, staving off negatives associated with aging are typical goals and I’d only note that weight training for general fitness/health tends to be the least intensive/extensive of all weight training programs. They are often kept short and focused (even if some ‘optimality’ in terms of gains are sacrificed) to take into account the goals.
And clearly each of those goals will ultimately require a different approach. However, for the most part, I’d argue that most of those differences are completely academic at the beginning stage of training. Most beginners needs the same basic things out of training initially (which I’ll discuss on Friday) and the routines will, by and large, look more or less identical. Although I won’t say much more about it, beginning Olympic lifting routines would tend to be the most divergent from what I’m going to describe but your coach should be handling that.
Rather, the differences will start to become more relevant/prevalent once trainees get out of the pure beginner stage of training and start moving into more involved and focused training as an intermediate level trainee. Essentially, all trainees, regardless of ultimate goals need to develop a base of training while achieving a number of adaptations that I’m going to discuss below. That base will provide a launching off point for more specialization down the road.
So, for the most part I’m going to treat beginner training for all of the above more or less identically. Slight differences will tend to be that (slight) and I’m sure I’ll be addressing questions about it in the comments section.
.What Defines a Beginner?
Perhaps the first question to cover is what actually defines a beginning trainee. Clearly anyone just starting out in the weight room is a beginner and what I’m going to write would apply there; in that situation, beginner training might be done for 3-6 months before anything more advanced was either appropriate or needed.
I’d also suggest that, as I discussed in Returning to Training After a Layoff – Q&A, anyone who has had a large break from training (perhaps 3-4 more weeks or more) should start back to training with a beginner type routine. The biggest difference in the second situation is that the time spent performing beginner training would be much shorter. Perhaps 2-4 weeks of complete beginner training might be necessary before that person (assuming that was their goal) moved into something more advanced.
Individuals who were once trained but have taken a very extended period of time off (say a year or more) should consider themselves rank beginners again. They may not need the full 3-6 months of beginner training but they should expect to take proportionally longer on that type of training before moving into anything more advanced.
I’d also offer and I know that people reading this won’t like it, that most trainees out there are not nearly as advanced as they thought. Even someone who has been ‘lifting weights like a bodybuilder’ for 2 years may still be, strictly speaking, a beginner in that their form sucks, they’ve made little to no gains in actual muscle mass, their overall training structure sucks, etc. This is more common than you think and I’ve seen it for years in the weight room and the forums. Despite the apparent training age, those folks have to train like beginners for a while before being allowed to do anything more advanced.
To give specific examples, one client of mine, who had literally 20 years of weight training under his belt, had atrocious form on everything he did. Quite literally none of it was correct and it was limiting his ability to make progress. So despite the 2 decades in the weight room, he was essentially a beginner in many ways. And I trained him as such in many ways, forcing him to fix his technique and form (at least on key exercises) before going heavy again.
Another trainee, despite having lifted for 2-3 years by herself was in a similar situation: except for RDL’s, her form on everything was horrible (she made the mistake of mirroring the form she saw in her own weight room, which was all fundamentally awful). So, in addition to fixing some injury stuff, she trained basically as a beginner until it was fixed.
I’d finish by noting that, even if it seems like you’re taking a step backwards, even ‘really advanced’ folks often benefit from returning to the fundamentals for a while. As I noted above, many athletes do this in other sports and reinforcing the basics for a bit never hurts. So all of you super advanced Internet trainees, the ones who keep looking for harder and more intense and more advanced, at least consider a short phase of training on the basics. You might learn some useful stuff.
A follow up question to “What defines a beginner?” would be “When do I know when I’ve moved to the intermediate stage?” This latter question is a bit harder to answer. Generally speaking, I’d expect a beginner to show proper form in the major weight training exercises and be capable of handling a full workout (which would typically last from 60-90 minutes) without getting murdered with fatigue.
Some muscle mass would clearly have been gained at this point but, as discussed in What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?, a beginner might still be gaining at a fairly nice rate of 2 lbs muscle/month (females might get half that). When that slows (and a beginning male has gained perhaps 10-12 pounds of muscle (again, females cut that in half) over a 6 month period), the person should probably start considering an intermediate routine.
This would tend to assume that bodybuilding or one of the performance oriented goals of weight training was being pursued. A general health/fitness trainees might be happy with a few pounds of the good stuff at appropriate places on their body and not want to make much more in the way of muscular gains.
Perhaps most simply, the time to move to an intermediate program is when beginning training is no longer stimulating progress or gains. Basically, milk the beginner gains for all they’re worth; it’s one of the few times when you get to make progress without having to work depressingly hard. When those gains dry up, it’s time for something more intense. But, in my opinion, there’s no real hurry. As I mentioned above, the goal should be to get the maximal gains out of the least training (this holds for all training mind you). Increase training volume, intensity, etc. when you need to do it, not simply because you want to (or read some really cool routine in a magazine or online).
And with that I’ll wrap it for today. I’ll continue next Thursday with Part 2.