In Beginning Weight Training Part 1 I examined some of what defines a beginner in terms of entering the weight room along with examining some of the different reasons (e.g. appearance, performance, health/fitness) that people choose to start lifting weights.
In Beginning Weight Training 2, I examined in some detail what some of the primary goals of beginner weight training are including developing an overall base of strength (and/or muscularity), developing work capacity, learning how to perform the lifts, etc.
Finally, in Beginning Weight Training Part 3, I looked at some of the research (and experience) dealing with the loading parameters that are appropriate for beginners. I’ve summarized them below as a launching off part for today’s final article where I’ll lay out three different basic weight training programs and talk about things like progression, when to change things, etc.
- Intensity (percentage of 1 rep. maximum): 60% or a weight that could be done for ~20 repetitions to failure
- Volume (# of sets): 1-3 sets per exercise/muscle group.
- Reps/Set: Variable depending on the circumstances and both high and low reps can be appropriate here
- Frequency: 2-3X/week
- Workout design: Generally a full body routine
- Exercise Selection: Highly variable depending on the circumstances
And with that I want to jump straight into examples of three different beginner programs. The first is the Starting Strength program as developed by Mark Rippetoe (and reproduced here in full with his permission). The second is a beginner program as outlined by my mentor, it would represent another standard approach to a barbell based routine based around the big compound movements. Finally, and primarily to offend the barbell purists, I’m going to reproduce the basic machine-based program that I used with the majority of my beginners.
For each routine, I’ve indicated the overall routine (in the case of Rip’s Starting Strength, there are two workouts alternated each day) and the sets and reps used. I’ll make some comments below the chart before getting into other topics relevant to beginners.
|Starting Strength Program||Basic Barbell Routine||Basic machine Program|
|Workout A||Squats||3X10-12||Leg Press (1)||1+X8-12|
|Squat||3X5||Overhead Press||3X8-10||Calf Raise (2)||1+X8-12|
|Bench Press||3X5||Deadlift/Shrugs*||3X8-10||Leg Curl (3)||1+X8-12|
|Deadlift||1X5||Chin-ups, Pulldowns or Rowing||3X8-10||Chest Press (1)||1+X8-12|
|Dips, Barbell Bench or DB Bench||2X8-10||Row (1)||1+X8-12|
|Workout B||Crunches||2X8-10||Shoulder Press (2)||1+X8-12|
|Press||3X5||Tricep Pushdown (3)||1+X8-12|
|Power Clean||3X5||Bicep Curl (3)||1+X8-12|
|Back Extension (3)||1+X8-12|
Notes on the Above
Sets and reps in the Starting Strength Program only include work sets, warm-up sets (ranging from 1-3 sets) are not included. I’d strongly suggest that anyone interested in that program purchase Mark’s excellent book Starting Strength 2nd Edition.
For the basic barbell program, generally only one movement would be picked from each place there is a list. Note that, initially, deadlifts would be performed at each workout, as the weights got heavier over time, deadlift would be alternated workout to workout with shrug. One could easily set up a more ‘balanced’ routine with more movements as well (e.g. squat, deadlift/shrug, flat bench, rowing, overhead press, chin up/pulldown, abs).
The numbers next to the exercises in the machine routine are the workout at which I taught them. So in workout 1, they’d do leg press, chest press, row and crunch (which I’d note pretty much hits everything). 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). In workout 3, they’d add the final movements of leg curl, arm work and low back. At that point, what happened depended on whether or not I was still working with them but building it up in this fashion allowed me to get them performing the full set of movements by the end of a single week of training without feeling like they were being completely overloaded with information or exercise.
Before you leave me nasty comments below, please remember this routine was being used typically with older folks with no previous (or bad experience) with exercise and my goal was to break them in without breaking them. So I used a very gradual and easy progression to ensure that they didn’t feel overwhelmed and weren’t wrecked with soreness. As well, in many cases, I never moved them past a single work set. This allowed them to complete the entire routine in roughly 30 minutes leaving time for cardio/etc. without requiring endless time in the gym. For those individuals with those goals, this was an appropriate approach.
General Comments on the Above Programs
If you look at the above three programs, you can see that they all share some basic generalities. They hit the entire body in some form or fashion and use a variety of movements. Certainly the number of movements varies a bit from routine to routine. Starting Strength uses the fewest movements, the generic barbell routine more and my machine approach the most (since I’m a bit obsessive about balancing out pushes and pulls and people always bitch if you don’t give them direct arm work).
Perhaps the biggest visible difference is the choice of sets and repetitions per set: Rip’s Starting Strength using multiple sets of low repetitions, the barbell and my machine program use fewer sets of higher repetitions. I discussed the relative merits of each approach in What’s the Best Way to Teach/Learn a New Exercise – Q&A and, as always, there are pros and cons to each.
In terms of overall volume (total sets), the Starting Strength and general barbell program are closer than they look; the first uses more sets of lower reps (and again warm-up sets aren’t indicated above) on fewer movements and the second uses fewer sets of higher reps on more movements. This is especially true by the time you factor in warm-up sets for the Starting Strength approach. As well, and as discussed in the highly recommended Starting Strength 2nd Edition, there are other movements (Romanian deadlift, rowing of some sort etc.) that can be added to the basic Starting Strength program later on to make it a bit more ‘well rounded’.
As noted above, my machine based program was aimed at total beginners seeking, usually, general health/fitness. They were generally older, had no previous experience in the weight room and had limited time to exercise. So I needed something that was time efficient, got the job done and that I could get them to a basic level of competency on quickly without overwhelming them. Again, in different contexts, either with individuals with different goals or who had had previous lifting experience, or what have you, a different approach was used.
And if you’re wondering why I’m beating this particular dead horse, it’s because I predict with 99% certainty that someone will read this article series and state that “Lyle McDonald only advocates a single set of machines for everybody.” And that’s simply not the case. Rather, it’s simply that I take into account the Importance of Context when it comes to training. And the context of a 35 year old female with no training experience and limited time to exercise is different than a 19 year old male who eventually wants to compete in powerlifting. And what I’d do in that each situation would be completely different.
Finally I’d note again that all of the above assumes an injury free individual with no major imbalances coming into the gym, an assumption that is often incorrect. In specific cases, very different approaches (with more remedial work on stretching or almost rehab type movements) might be indicated or necessary but that is far beyond the scope of this article.
Warming Up: General
One thing I briefly mentioned above and want to touch on again is the topic of warming up. Now, I did a rather detailed look at warming up for the weight room in Warming Up for the Weight Room Part 1 and Warming Up for the Weight Room Part 2 but want to touch on it again here. Generally speaking, some type of general warm-up (cardio, body weight movements) would be done to generally warm-up the body.
With beginning clients, I often had them go ahead and get their cardio out of the way at the front of the workout. Yes, this is usually thought of as taboo, certainly generating excessive fatigue with cardio prior to lifting isn’t usually a good idea. But it was a way to ensure that they did it, gave me time to talk to them about various topics relevant to training (e.g. explaining fundamental concepts to them), etc. As well, many couldn’t do a full 20 minutes at the outset anyhow, by doing 10 minutes of cardio up front and another 10 minutes at the end of the workout, they were able to accumulate 20 minutes at that first workout without feeling overwhelmed. Over time, they would work up to a full 20 minutes continuously.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t have them do cardio on alternate or off-days, the simple fact is that I learned that most wouldn’t do it. Sure, they’d tell me that they would but it would somehow never get done. So I’d make them do it while I was there. Yes, it’s a waste of their training time to pay me to watch them on the treadmill but that’s better than it not getting done at all.
Now, at the time, the major types of flexibility imbalances that many see these days didn’t seem as prevalent (or I wasn’t smart enough to recognize them) and I never actually did any sort of mobility or stretching work with clients. To a degree, at least, full range weight training acts a stretching stimulus but, in the modern world, given the situations many deal with, this would be the place for any type of dynamic warm-up or whatever to come.
Warming Up: Warm-Up Sets
Which brings us to warm-up sets for the exercises themselves. As I discussed in the warming up articles linked above, warm-up sets serve a number of purposes not the least of which is technical practice. However, for rank beginners, effectively the warm-up sets are the work sets. That is, the weights are and should be so light to begin with that there is really no major difference between warming up and work weights.
Of course, over time, as trainees grow stronger, this will change. Put differently, looking at the general barbell routine above the three sets of 8-12 or what have you are all the sets that are being done. In the initial stages,all three sets are effectively warm-ups; this is especially true in the first few weeks of training where the focus should be on proper performance of the movements rather than weight increases. After a month or so (may be more, may be less), one of the three sets may become a true warm-up set prior to two heavier work sets.
The same basic concept held for my beginner machine routine. Even in the case where I didn’t add a second set (and I often didn’t for total beginners simply seeking general health and fitness), when things started to get heavier a month in, I’d add a single warm-up set to the main movements (leg press/chest press/rowing).
For more about warm-ups for the Starting Strength program, I’d suggest you get Rip’s book since the topic is discussed in some detail there.
Where to Start?
As I discussed in Beginning Weight Training Part 3, beginners not only should start with light weights and a relatively low volume but will make rather significant strength gains from doing only that. Which brings up a question about starting weights and what to begin with. While I have seen various systems that gave specific suggestions for starting weights (e.g. squat with 1/2 body weight or whatever), I don’t think they are a good idea for total beginners. Because even if they represent some reasonable average of where to start, they can’t possibly represent everyone.
And, since I tend to be rather conservative in a lot of things, I always believe in erring on the side of too little than too much. You have little to lose and everything to gain and it generally doesn’t work in the opposite direction. Basically, if you start too light, you can always add weight over the first couple of workouts (or even first couple of sets of that first workout if more than one are being done). Start too heavy and things go wrong fast; the person might get injured, or they get so sore that they never come back to the gym or they simply have their form go down the toilet which is demoralizing (which also might drive them out of the gym).
So where to start? Even that depends and what I’d start with for a young male would be very different than for an older female. In the first case, starting with a 45 lb bar for a bench press might be appropriate. For a female a 45 lb bar might be far beyond what she has any chance of lifting and I often started beginner females with 5 lbs per hand on DB bench press or on the lowest setting for the chest press. But, again, this is very context dependent. Age, gender and whether or not the person has a competent coach all feed into this.
I’d note that in some cases, going too light can be detrimental to proper technique. I’ve found that some trainees simply have trouble ‘feeling’ what’s going on when things are too light (e.g. a young male might find that squatting with just the bar is harder than squatting with some weight). In that case, adding weight until they can feel what is happening is necessary but the weight may not be increased very much beyond that initially.
Finally, there is one major exception to starting weights that I should mention and that is the barbell deadlift (a similar comment could apply to the powerclean from the floor). For proper performance of either movement, it is critical that the bar start at the appropriate level; starting too low (as a function of using small plates) simply won’t allow the trainee to use proper form. If training plates (either wooden plates or light plates with the same diameter as 20 kg/45 pound plates) aren’t available, then the trainee either has to find a way to start the bar at the right place (e.g. off of blocks or pins in the power rack) or start with 135. What won’t work is starting with 85 lbs with a 45 pound bar and 10’s on the end; the bar will be too low to do the movement correctly.
When in doubt, in the beginner stage, I would suggest starting lighter and building up as appropriate. The weight needs to be heavy enough that the trainee can feel what’s going on but not so heavy that they can’t handle it in good form for the entirety of the sets.
What to Add and When to Add It?
The name of the game in improving all aspects of fitness is progression. Essentially the stimulus that made you fitter the last workout (or week, or month, or year) may no longer be sufficient now. Something has to increase at some point in time; that doesn’t mean every workout necessarily but if nothing ever progresses, fitness will never improve.
Now, how often and what to increase would be the topic of another series of articles since there are many options that are relatively more or less relevant depending on the situation. With regards to strength training specifically, I’d highly recommend Mark Rippetoe, Lon Kilgore and Glen Pendlay’s excellent Practical Programming for Strength Training as one of the better written and more easily accessible looks at progression in the weight room.
But specific to beginner training, I’m going to focus primarily on increasing volume and/intensity while ignoring other possibilities (frequency or density mainly). Now, whether or not you progress the number of sets really depends on where you start. In the case of Starting Strength and the general barbell program described above, increases in volume would be inappropriate since they both start at a volume that is more than sufficient for beginners. That is, since the trainee is starting with roughly 3 work sets for each exercise, there would be little point in increasing that, especially in the first weeks or months of training.
In the case of my machine program, you’ll note that it lists 1+ sets of 8-12 repetitions and I should probably explain that. With that population, a single set was generally more than sufficient given their goals and time demands. But in other situations, increasing volume (to a maximum of 3 sets per movement) would have been appropriate. In that case, my approach would have been to first build them up to the full set of exercises over the first week of training. Then in the second week, I’d have added a second set to the 4 main movements (indicated by the #1) in the fourth workout, then a second set to the #2 movements, etc. Basically, it would take about 3 weeks to build them up from a single set of 4 movements to 3 sets of all of the movements (and I’d probably stop at 2 sets on stuff like arms and crunch/back extension).
An example of that might be an older individual (in their 40’s) with no previous exercise background. Even 3 sets of 6 exercises on the first day might completely destroy them and I do not find that to be a good way to introduce people to the weight room or exercise in general. In contrast, a single set of 4 movements done after a bit of cardio on the other hand is more than tolerable and gets them started on the right foot. It might only be 30 minutes of activity but that’s 30 minutes more than they did the day before, they come out of it without feeling exhausted or miserable and, sometimes, even look forwards to the next workout. And that’s how you get them to keep coming back. Increases to volume can follow later as they adapt to the training.
But outside of that specific situation where you start with a single set and build up to multiple sets over the first few weeks, that is, when you’re starting with multiple sets of a bunch of movements, the main focus will be on increasing the weight on the bar. Which brings up a discussion of how best to do that and when and by how much.
In my mentor’s barbell program, his suggestion was this:
Don’t add weight to any lift until you can complete all of your sets while maintaining good form. It is normal while learning to have some wobbling, and it would not be unreasonable to stick at the same weights for a month (when you first start) before adding weight. You want to be in control. After you have that control, you should be able to add weight at least once per week.
Essentially you would be working with relatively light weights and perfecting form for the first month. After that, you might move to increasing weight once/week (e.g. every Monday) and then keeping it the same for the entirety of that week. Then you’d increase again.
In contrast, Rip’s Starting Strength Program typically focuses on adding some weight to the bar at almost every initial workout. I’d mention that, by and large, it tends to be easier to add weight to lower repetition sets and this explains at least part of the discrepancy between the routines. As well, there is a huge difference here in the coached vs. un-coached lifter. Having a coach watching and cueing you on every set, and knowing that you can safely add weight to the bar is far different than adding weight to the bar yourself when you’re completely out of control technically.
As noted in previous parts of this series, clearly both approaches can be effective depending on the situation. My experience is that most (especially young males) have poor impulse control and always add weight far in excess of what they can handle properly; before they know it, they’re ‘moving’ a lot of weight but in terrible form. They may benefit from only attempting a weight increase weekly and/or using a higher repetition range to protect themselves from themselves. In contrast, people with a good coach and/or with better self-control may be able to make lower repetitions and adding weight more quickly work.
In my machine approach, you might have noticed that I gave a fairly broad repetition range of 8-12 reps per set and this ties into this bit of the discussion. A relatively generic approach to progression in weights is something called a double progression. In that approach, you first add repetitions to the set; when you hit some top end of reps, you then add weight. And that’s what I did with the program: when the trainee got to 12 repetitions:
- In good form
- Without massive struggle on the last 2 repetitions
I’d add weight at the next workout. Depending on the movement and the amount of weight added, they might get to 12 again or be dropped back to 8-9 reps (very occasionally lower). Over the next workout or two, I’d have them build that back up to 12 and apply the same rules. Basically, it was sort of auto-regulating, their actual performance on the exercise determined when they went up.
I’d note that #1 above is the key, I always taught my trainees to only perform the number of repetitions that they could do properly; that they should never break form to get the next rep. If that meant that they only got 10, so be it. When they got to 12 with a repetition or two left in the tank, the weight would go up. If they got to 12 but it was clearly still a struggle, I’d usually have them repeat the weight again at the next workout; at that point it would always be much easier indicating time for another increase.
This actually ended up having a number of benefits relative to this article series. First and foremost, it provided for fairly easy progression. With a handful of exceptions (usually overhead press and leg curls), folks would make progress at every workout. Not only would their form improve workout to workout, they’d see that they were getting stronger as weight on the bar built. That provided a massive amount of positive reinforcement which was so key in keeping them coming back.
As well, over the first few weeks of training, I’d start to gradually push them a bit more out of their comfort zone. So while the first two weeks were invariably super easy, at about week 3, I’d start pushing them a bit harder encouraging them to get one more rep where they might have previously stopped. As well, as they learned the movements and got better at pushing themselves a bit harder (and they usually wanted to get to 12 reps to get the next weight jump), they’d start to develop that ability to push. But it would happen so gradually that they never felt overwhelmed or exhausted; this was another aspect of ensuring that they kept coming to the gym long enough for it to become habit. Invariably by the end of 8 weeks, they were working harder than they ever thought possible, but had never really noticed that increase in intensity. It just sort of happened.
Which isn’t me saying that that’s the best way to do it, clearly the approaches discussed above regarding Starting Strength or my mentor’s approach work. And, again much of it depends on the technical complexity of the movement (e.g. squat takes longer to learn than leg press) and whether or not the person has a coach.
A related question is how much weight to add to the bar when you do go up. Again, I recommend conservatism, there is usually little to be lost by adding weight in smaller increments initially (e.g. I’d rather see someone add 5 lbs per workout and do it three times per week than to throw on 15 lbs at one workout and have their form fall apart).
Certainly, younger males tend to be able to add more to the bar than older females (or females in general). As well, the movement being done affects things (primarily as a function of how much weight the person is using). You can add more weight to a 135 lb squat than to an 65 lb overhead press. This ends up being a judgement call; I’d only suggest that, when in doubt, add less rather than more. It may simply mean that you add weight more often but that’s still not a bad thing.
.Variety for Beginners
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, for now I want to focus on beginners. For the most part, I don’t advocate variety in training for beginners, at least not over the first 2-3 months. The reason, again has to do with motor learning and this is especially true if you’re performing complex exercises like squats, deadlifts, etc.
In the initial stages, nearly constant practice is needed on those movements to learn and start to perfect technique. At the same time, some trainees do start to get bored and I mentioned that one goal of the beginner stage (especially for physique oriented folks) is finding out what movements work best for them.
Now with my general health/fitness trainees, since I didn’t usually teach them complex stuff and their goals were different than other folks, I wasn’t so concerned with keeping them on the same movements forever; let’s face it, you can do a competent leg press in a workout or two. Usually around week 8 or so, after they’d basically mastered the first set of movements I’d showed them and made some nice gains, I’d introduce them to some other movements or variants of the same movement.
So a chest press or dumbbell bench press would get swapped out for an incline dumbbell press or a flye movement. Or if I had started them on machine chest press, I’d teach them the DB equivalent. Shoulder press would get swapped out for lateral raises. I’d show them some other arm movements or abs or low back. Or whatever. Sometimes I’d swap out everything in total, other times I’d swap out one of the workouts and keep the other one the same. In some cases, if they had decided that they wanted more intensive training than general health/fitness now would be the time to start the process of teaching squats and such. It simply depended on the specifics as to how I approached it.
But what about other goals, the aspiring physique competitor or powerlifter or what have you? If after 2-3 months of basic training someone is still progressing/shows affinity on the big movements, my tendency would be to keep them in to at least some degree and some coaches simply stick with those big movements seemingly for eternity with the main variety coming from differences in loading and programming. Technical training is ongoing and keeping practice of the big movements in only continues to reinforce good technique.
However, swapping out one of three weekly workouts for a different set of movements would be appropriate as well. If nothing else, the new movements will have to be programmed lighter and this would make the third day (perhaps Wednesday on Monday/Wednesday/Friday approach) a light day surrounded by two heavier days. This tends to allow a bit more recovery and may help to keep the heavier days progressing better. For folks still oriented towards the major barbell movements, front squats, Romanian deadlift, variations on rowing (bent over barbell row) or what have you could be brought in on the alternate day to provide variety not only in movement choice. In some routines, where the rank beginner might have been doing both squats and deadlifts in all three workouts, they might continue to squat on Monday/Friday and deadlift on Wednesday.
Another approach would be to add a single set of an alternative movement after the big movements. So back squats could be followed up by a single set of leg press or front squat, flat bench by an incline pressing movement. Note that this wouldn’t even be considered until maybe 3 months of consistent work on the basics had been performed but would start to represent a bridge towards higher volume intermediate routines. I’d mention that this can lead to really long workouts depending on how many movements are being done.
Alternately, someone who just wasn’t built to squat or hadn’t made much progress on it despite doing everything ‘right’ might consider dumping the big movements (yes, I know blasphemy) and trying something else. This is especially true for physique oriented types who don’t have to do any exercise beyond that which makes them bigger. Anyone interested in PL’ing and to a lesser degree strongman better learn to deal with squats/bench/deadlift or pick another sport.
If you simply suck at squatting and aren’t ever going to not suck at squatting, find something else. Could be leg press, could be one of a million one legged barbell movements (that often corrects for poor back squatting mechanics), could be a lot of stuff. But if you don’t have to squat by dint of your sport choice, and only care about being buff, now is the time to find out if your more suited to other movements.
Even in that case, if someone is at the stage where they have given the big compound an honest effort and simply aren’t cut out for them, I don’t recommend massive variety at this stage. Pick a new set of movements (or at least swap out one workout), start them light to learn them and stick with them for 6-8 weeks to see if they work better (you can gauge by progress in terms of weight on the bar or growth or whatever). Then, if desired, you can consider swapping out again for another 6-8 weeks block.
This also has the benefit of putting in an informal de-loading period since you always have to start the new movements lighter. I don’t generally worry about deloads for rank beginners, at least not in a structured fashion. Rather, they should be allowed to progress (or not) as they get used to training. But swapping out at least some movements at the 8-12 week mark can introduce a brief delaoding period since the weights on the new movements will become very sub-maximal again for at least the first few workouts.
I would note and this is just because I saw the question come up on a forum regarding this series that applying the type of gradual progression I’ve outlined above is really all that is particularly important in terms of the connective tissue adaptations that I mentioned as being important in Beginning Weight Training 2. With continuous progressive stress (that doesn’t exceed the tissue’s capacity), those tissues will adapt. But the key is keeping your ego in your pants and adding weight gradually over time. As mentioned, connective tissues adapt the most slowly and the main criterion in being able to handle heavier loading later on is simply patience and time.
Other Stuff: Cardio and Stretching
A quick word on other stuff relevant to beginning training. Although it depends entirely on goals, the inclusion of moderate amounts of low intensity cardio at this stage can help with overall training tolerance and improve recovery and such. For those eventually seeking size gains (and especially those who have a poor appetite), some cardio can often help to increase appetite (as discussed in Cardio and Mass Gains). As well, for those seeking fat loss, the introduction of cardio not only burns some calories (not nearly as many as you’d hope) but can start to get sluggish fat burning pathways working again.
Stretching can also play a role, as I’ve mentioned in toher parts of this series. Many folks these days have massive inflexibilities or imbalances (e.g. tight hip flexors and tight pecs/anterior delts are common) and fixing these is part of the whole package. That’s on top of often being required to perform certain exercises safely in the first place. Stretching can be performed at various times around workout or on off days (or before bed), and each has it’s pros and cons that are beyond the scope of this article.
Moving to the Next Level
As I noted in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, a true beginner may remain in the beginner stages of training for a solid 3-6 months (with some variance depending on the specifics). In the above, I outlined at least the first 2 blocks of 8-12 weeks (if you count the second block as being a place where you potentially switch out some movement). At that point, 6 months down the road, the trainee would either be a very advanced beginner or ready to move to the intermediate stages of training. For some, the beginner stage might last as long as a year.
Again, this would depend on the specifics of the individual and their goals and all the rest. But, as a generality, if someone were still making solid progress with beignner routines (progress = increases in strength and/or size), I wouldn’t change anything. If gains had slowed or stopped, a variety of things could be tried. One would be a simple deload, backcycle the weights for a few weeks and build back up. That often gets people past early plateaus and making progress again.
If not, moving to a split routine or more volume or slightly heavier loading might be considered (at some point I’ll put up my intermediate bulking routine in article form). I’d only remind people of the comment I made in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, training should always be focused around making the most gains from the least training. Don’t move to an intermedaite level of training simply because you want to. Do it because beginner stuff has stopped working.