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A Guide to Beginning Weight Training

While it’s always fun to focus on advanced training techniques and the minutiae of training the simple fact is that the basics are equally important.  Every day more people enter the weight room and that makes the topic of beginning weight training critically important.  Because how someone gets started in the weight room can have a huge impact on both their short-term and long-term lifting.

Beginning Weight Training Isn’t Sexy

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.   And they always want to do more rather than less.

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.

There is also the issue that, mentally, it makes logical sense that more will generate better results than less.  And of course, this idea tends to be propagated by those in the industry.   More must be better, that’s what more means.   New trainees figure that the more they do, the faster they will progress.  Not only is that usually not true, but sometimes it’s the opposite of true.

On top of being potentially injurious, starting with too much can be detrimental to someone’s 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.  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 more concretely, if a trainee can get the same gains training 3 hours/week versus 6 hours/week, they are better off training 3 hours/week. That way, when 3 hours/week stops generating the best progress, they have room to move to say 4 hours/week.  Then 5 hours/week, then 6 hours/week.  If that person starts at 6 hours/week, where do they go when they plateau?

Beginners are Not Elite

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.”  If a male wants to be a bodybuilder, he’ll look at what the top guys are doing and just emulate that.

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 series 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, albeit with more volume.  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.

Fundamentals, Fundamentals, Fundamentals

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 but enough steroids can make up for truly appalling training).

If you ever get a chance to watch a good powerlifter train, you’ll see what I’m talking about.  On every rep of every set of every workout, you will see laser focus and dialed in technique.  And even if they have been training for 20 years, they are always still trying to improve that technique.

And if you know anything about Olympic lifting technique, you’ll know when one is training in your gym.  They will 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.  If you don’t believe me, ask anybody who’s ever had to change their technique later in their career.

But I’m getting off topic.

Getting Back to the Point

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.  And this is a mistake.

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.

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.

The Goals of Weight Training

.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 (I doubt many of the latter read my site but I could be wrong).  Some may be doing it only for general health and I imagine some do it because they feel that they are “supposed to”.  As folks get older it’s often about maintaining function and independence or to avoid age-related muscle loss (called sarcopenia) or a loss of bone-mineral density.  The latter is especially critical for women.

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.  Those who eventually want to compete in the physique sports have to worry about other things such as symmetry, balance, etc. although that comes later in the game.  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

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 to take into account the goals even if some supposed “optimality” of training is sacrificed. Simply, for the average person seeking basic health,  the amount of extra time it would take to truly maximize size or strength gains is rarely worth the return.

Beginners are Beginners are Beginners

To some degree, each of the above listed goals will require a different approach to training, at least eventually.  However, those differences tend to be minimal and of little importance in the beginner stages. Most beginners needs the same basic things out of training initially and the routines will, by and large, look more or less identical.   OL’ing routines would tend to be the most divergent from what I’m going to describe but honestly you should have a coach helping you with 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.

Beating that dead horse, 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 to them.  Since the question comes up, I’d consider them a beginner for at least 3 and possibly 6 months of training before anything even remotely more advanced was appropriate or needed.

Anyone coming back from an extended layoff of 3-4 weeks or more should also consider themselves a beginner when they return to lifting.  The biggest difference here will be that the time spent doing pure beginner training will be much shorter.  Within 2-4 weeks, that person may be ready to move back towards their previous training volumes and intensities, assuming that was their goal.

Similarly,  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.

The biggest mistake these folks tend to make is trying to “pick up” where they left off.  This is especially prevalent for men who start lifting again in their 30’s and figure they should start benching 315 like when they were in high school.

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.  I mean that in terms of their form still sucking, them having no ability to generate intensity in the weight room, having made little to no gains in actual muscle mass or their overall training structure just being stupid.

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.  It is entirely possible to have “lifted weights” for 20 years and still have poor fundamentals and lifting technique.  Fixing that requires going back to the basics, at least for a little while.

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.

When Do You Stop Being a Beginner?

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.

They should have gained some amount of actual muscle mass at this point as well. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, a beginner male might be gaining 1.5-2 lbs of muscle per month (females about half that) for the first 6 or even 12 months of training.  When that rate starts to slow, they should be considered an intermediate and should start considering an intermediate trainee.    Generally speaking, I’d put this point at 6-12 months of PROPER training.

Mind you, the above is assuming that bodybuilding or one of the performance oriented goals of weight training is being pursued to begin with.  A general health/fitness trainee might be completely happy gaining a few pounds of muscle while losing some fat, getting stronger and then want no more progress than that out of their training.  That’s fine.

But assuming someone wants to keep progressing in terms of muscle or strength, eventually they should move to more intermediate types of training.  And in that vein perhaps the simplest definition of “no longer a beginner” is when beginner training isn’t stimulating gains any more.

Basically I recommend milking your beginner gains for as long as you can.  You never get them that easily or at that rate again so you might as well make the best of it.  When those gains dry up, it’s time for something more advanced.  And until that time, there’s little to be gained.

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).

Read Beginning Weight Training Part 2

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