Continuing from Beginning Weight Training Part 1, I want to now look at what the specific goals of beginning weight training are (or should be). That is, the specific adaptations that are being sought during this beginner phase to ensure not only optimal results at this stage but prepare the lifter for more advanced training down the road.
The Overall Goal of Beginning Weight Training
As I stated in Part 1, I believe that, to a first approximation, beginner weight training routines will look more similar than not. And that this will be the case almost irrespective of the individual’s long-term goals. Whether it’s physique/bodybuilding or just body composition changes, powerlifting/strength sports or just general health, most beginners will train similarly. Again, the big exception to this is Olympic lifter who will always be doing a lot of work specific to the OL’s.
In the most general conceptual sense, then, the overarching goal of beginning weight room training is to build a proper “base” or “foundation” upon which to perform more specialized training down the road. I’ve summarized the 6 primary adaptations that I feel are important to beginners below.
But hopefully the point is made and that point is this: in a conceptual sense, the goal of all beginner weight room training is to develop a base upon which to perform more specialized training. But now you’re wondering what exactly I mean by ‘developing a base’ upon which to perform more specialized training which is, of course, the topic of today’s article. I’ve summarized the primary adaptations that are important to beginners below:
- Develop a general balanced whole-body base of strength and/or muscle mass to allow for specialization later on
- Improving neural mechanisms of strength production/Learning to lift weights
- Determine optimal exercise selection for targeting individual muscle groups
- Condition connective tissues to handle heavy training
- Improve work capacity/recovery
- Behavioral stuff: pain tolerance, determination, consistency, etc.
Although not weight room related per se, I should mention diet here. As much as anything done in training, a key aspect of many long-term weight room goals is going to be proper nutrition. Along with a proper beginning weight training program, trainees can begin to develop fundamentally good nutrition habits for later down the road. I won’t discuss that in this series and I would point readers to The Baseline Diet for more information on setting up a basic athletic diet.
Goal 1: Develop a General Balanced Base of Muscle and Strength
While developing monster muscles isn’t the goal of everyone entering the weight room, I’d certainly say that increasing muscle mass to some degree (whether it’s for health, vanity or performance purposes) is generally at least one goal of going into the weight room. Sure, some folks fall into the “I don’t want to get bulky” mentality but, truth be told, given the slow rate of muscle mass gains, waking up huge is not a rational fear that anyone should have.
Mind you, if there’s anybody who wants to get huge fast it’s generally (young) males. It’s far more common to find women in the “don’t want to get bulky” camp. This leads them to engage in (often recommended) pointless approaches to weight training in an attempt to avoid something that won’t happen to begin with. In studies, a good rate of muscle gain for women is perhaps 3-4 pounds of muscle over 6 months.
The simple fact is that, with few exceptions (usually underweight teenage males put on a program of squats and milk), rapid gains in true muscle mass don’t happen in the first place and certainly not for beginners (and certainly certainly not for women).
In a similar vein, increasing strength to some degree is also a common goal of going into the weight room. This can be for performance/sport reasons or just a desire to lift minimum macho poundages and impress one’s buddies (again, this is usually common among younger males). I’d mention that, in the modern era, more and more women are getting into weight room activities with the goal of lifting the world. This is a good thing.
However, trying to gain strength as rapidly as possible gets people into trouble. They don’t learn proper technique and/or they get injured. Even when this is the goal, beginning weight training is about building the base first. The greatness comes later.
But again, the point is sort of made: at least a primary goal of beginner training (whether by desire or simply end result) is to have some increase in both muscle mass and strength levels. Both are clearly key for anyone interested in performance or physique competition.
Even for general health carrying a bit more muscle (or at least limiting the common age-related loss of muscle) and having more strength tend to improve overall health and wellness (e.g. you can pick up the bag of groceries/take out the big garbage can that was once too heavy).
Balance, Balance, Balance
I would note that developing any muscularity/strength in a reasonably balanced fashion across the body might be considered a sub-goal here. Men invariably put too much focus on pecs and arms. Women tend to over fixate on their lower body and/or glutes specifically. This isn’t inherently wrong but it’s important to have some semblance of balance across the body.
In a related vein and this is something that will be far outside the scope of this article is the fact that, as often as not, beginning strength training needs to address the massive imbalances that are often caused by our modern life.
Folks who sit all day at a computer/in a cubicle or do various and sundry jobs often enter the weight room with strength and/or flexibility imbalances that need to be corrected. Pelvic tilt issues, shoulder rounding issues, neck issues and others are common as a function of what most of us do all day long and early training is a good place to address these.
Addressing these in any detail would be impossible although properly performed weight training tends to fix them of its own accord. For simplicities sake, I’m going to assume (probably wrongly) going forwards that no major corrective work needs to be done. But this is a consideration and something that can be addressed in the early stages of training.
So that’s the first goal: to develop a relatively balanced base of strength and muscle mass that can be built on later down the line. And this holds regardless of one’s ultimate goal.
Goal 2: Improve Neural Mechanisms/Learn to Lift Properly
To address Goal 2, I have to bore you with a bit of physiology about how the body adapts in the very initial stages of a weight training program. For context, simply realize that how much weight you can lift in a given exercise is determined both by muscular size and a variety of neural factors. Of course, levers and such affect this but you can’t change those for the most part so I’m going to focus on the neural and muscular factors here.
Simplistically, we can write
Strength Output = Muscle Mass * Neural Factors
Where muscle mass is the size of the muscle (technically the cross sectional area or XSA) and neural factors refers to a host of adaptations that I’m not going to detail. If you’re really interested, I discuss them in my first book The Ketogenic Diet. Please note that a lot of additional research on this topic has been done since that book was written so some of the information is probably a touch out of date.
Beginners and Muscle Gain
Early studies repeatedly find that beginners make rapid strength gains, often without much of an increase in muscle mass.This was taken to mean that the body first made improvements in neural mechanisms with gains in muscle mass coming some weeks later.
This was eventually almost extended to the idea that the only initial adaptations to training were neural and that actual gains in muscle mass happened later. However, there’s a problem with this interpretation which is that studies also show that, even in total beginners, training clearly turns on protein synthesis (one of the key aspects of gaining muscle). What’s going on?
Various explanations for this phenomenon have been thrown around ranging from the idea that beginners also ramp up protein breakdown in the initial stages to the simple fact that most methods of measurement are not accurate enough to pick up changes in muscle mass in the early stages.
I tend to go with the latter interpretation, I think muscle mass gains are begin stimulated in the beginning stages of training, they are simply too slow and small to show up with the methods we have to measure them. In that vein, in my experience with beginners was that gains were simply too slow for anything to show up on body composition measurements until about week 4. By week 8 there were always measurable changes in something (usually an increase in muscle mass with some fat loss).
Early Adaptations are Predominantly Neural
Regardless, the point is made that many of the early adaptations to weight training are neural in nature. Simply, when you start lifting weights, you get stronger initially without necessarily getting bigger. Which is great if your goal is to get stronger without increasing muscle mass but not so great if your goal is to get jakked as quickly as possible.
But ultimately you sort of don’t have a choice in the matter. You have to go through the neural adaptations one way or another before the real gains muscle mass start to occur/show up. As I’ll discuss later in the series, there are relatively better and worse ways to most rapidly get through this phase of neural training so that muscle gains can occur.
I would note that some of the above has to do with exercise choice. More complex exercises take longer to learn so the neurological adaptations tend to take longer. In contrast, simpler exercises do not and seem to increase muscle mass earlier in the training.
I should mention that many people “feel” bigger when they initially start weight training. This is due to increased storage of carbohydrate in the muscle which attracts water and makes it feel fuller. Women seem to associate this feeling with “getting bulky” but it is purely short-term. Within a few weeks it will go away.
What are the Neural Adaptations?
At least part of these ‘neural adaptations’ is that you’re basically learning proper technique for the different exercises. That is, without going into all of the details, a lot of initial training is “learning to do the movement properly” and a majority of this is neurologically based. And even if much of what is done in the weight room is relatively less technical than in other activities, there are still benefits to be had to focusing on technique first and properly learning how to lift.
I would mention here that lifting technique is actually one place that pure bodybuilding/physique training and pure strength training can potentially differ (and often athletes training for improved performance may be doing something a bit different from either of those two groups).
As a generality, bodybuilders have often attempted to perform exercises in a way that maximally stresses the muscle, based on the idea that it is that stress that causes growth. Exercise form is often subtly different in bodybuilding and attempting to beat the hell out of the muscle is a big part of how bodybuilders train. They try to make the exercise as inefficient as possible, to put the maximal stress on the muscle they want to grow while using the lightest load possible.
In contrast, pure strength athletes often choose lifting techniques that allow them to move more weight with less effort. They look to maximize efficiency as this will let them move the most weight for any fixed muscle mass or force output. Performance athletes often pick techniques that are somewhere between those two extremes.
For readers more interested in this, I’d point them to my article on bench press variations where I contrasted a “bodybuilding style” bench press to a generic power bench press to a “powerlifting style” bench press. You can see that you’re moving from one extreme to another with the generic power bench being right in the middle.
Now, as I have mentioned several times already, I feel that this type of specialization or difference is fairly academic in the beginner stages. Whether someone is an aspiring physique athlete, aspiring strength athlete, general athlete or simply in the general public, I tend to stick with the middle of the road exercises with a focus on learning how to actually train the target muscles.
That is, whether or not a powerlifter will eventually use a shirt, I think they should learn how to bench with the pecs. And even if a bodybuilder type eventually moves to an elbows flared “pec-tacular” bench press, I still would start them with a generic power bench in the beginner stages. Athletes, with few exceptions will be doing the middle of the road variations as a matter of course (there are always some exceptions). Of course, anyone lifting for general health/fitness or what have you is going to get the middle of the road variations.
Goal 3: Determine Optimal Exercise Selection for Yourself
Related to the idea of learning to lift weights in general, I’d suggest that folks interested in physique based activities start figuring out what exercises are best for their individual mechanics and such. This can also be relevant for those who eventually want to pursue strength or performance related activities, figuring out exercises (usually assistance stuff) that best targets a given muscle group or muscle groups (or improves the primary lifts) is important.
Now I’m not going to get into a huge discussion of exercise selection here except to make some general comments. First, there is a lot of nonsense written about this topic. People tend to have their own pet exercises or choose movements based on some macho hardheaded belief. Usually it’s the exercises they were taught in their youth or the ones that happen to work well for them.
For muscle growth, all that matters is that the exercise is able to stimulate sufficient muscular tension overload and fatigue. That’s what turns on growth and the muscle doesn’t “know” what exercise you’re doing outside of sensing tension and fatigue. At best certain exercises may allow a given trainee to better or worse generate tension and overload but even that is highly individual.
It’s just not as simple as compound is better or isolation is better or one exercise is inherently better than another. As I discussed when I talked about squats vs. the leg press for big legs, differences in mechanics and weak points make it more complicated than that and what usually happens is that people project what’s best for them onto the entirety of the training universe.
Certainly for other goals there may be relatively more or less required movements. Anyone who wants to powerlift has to learn to squat, bench and deadlift. Olympic lifters have to do the competition movements (and most would argue some form of squatting) although philosophies can differ drastically beyond that in terms of what exercises are or are not done.
Due to the demands of something like strongman competition, squats, deadlifts, overhead pressing of some sort and possibly the Olympic lifts will generally be an important part of training. While they may not be strictly required, most won’t get very far without them.
For performance athletes, philosophies vary. Some coaches go with specific movements and others use general strength training. In the beginning stages, very little of it matters to begin with.
I’d also note that improving bone mineral density, the bones have to be loaded axially, that is straight up and down. And to improve strength in any given exercise, generally that exercise must be practiced due to the neural/technical/etc. component of strength. But there I’m speaking rather generally.
But realistically I expect that most people reading my site are interested in changing body composition, gaining muscle mass and/or losing bodyfat. Here the focus is not performance but aesthetic base. And in terms of muscle growth, as I said, the only requirement for a given exercise is that it generates sufficient tension and fatigue overload in the target muscle.
Practical Exercise Selection for Hypertrophy
As much as many will disagree with me here, there is no exercise that someone with physique aspirations is required to do in their training since it’s simply not part of their performance package. How much someone can squat, bench or deadlift doesn’t matter on stage for a bodybuilder or fitness competitor.
Nor does it matter for someone trying to “tone up”. It’s not what the athlete is judged on. Rather, muscularity, symmetry, balance, leanness (mainly a function of diet) are what matter. And as noted above, any exercise that provides sufficient tension and overload can contribute to those things.
Put simply, the requirements for an exercise to build muscle are this
- Works the target muscle
- Allows for sufficient tension and fatigue to be generated to turn on growth
- Can be progressed safely over time for a given individual
That’s it. No exercise is inherently superior for all people any more than it is inferior for all people. For people with certain leverages and body types, the big compound movements may be the best choice. For people with other leverages, they may be a terrible choice. Differences in levers and mechanics along with neurology all contribute to this.
But there is no singular mandatory exercise here as no exercise can possibly be the best under all situations for all trainees. At best a given exercise might be best for a given individual in a given context. But even that can change depending on the specifics of the routine and the goals.
So consider a trainee who wants to train their pecs explicitly without training their triceps. An isolation pec movement would be superior to a compound movement here. Some trainees get nothing out of heavy rowing exercises for their midback. Usually it’s poor technique but often it’s just a bad exercise for them. A more isolated movement such as a reverse pec deck might be the better choice for them.
Individual Exercise Selection
So one of the goals during the beginner phase of training, especially if physique changes are the goal is to start determining what the best exercises are for any individual trainee. What’s best for you might not be best for anybody else and this is the time to systematically experiment.
This brings up the question of how to do it and most of this is sort of by feel which can be, admittedly, misleading. One approach would simply be to pay attention to what muscle you “feel working” during the set. Some will go by whether or not the target muscle gets a pump (that transient full feeling). Others will go by soreness the next day. None of these are perfect but they may all be at least indicative.
If you have a coach or training partner, you can have them do what is called touch training. Basically putting their hands over the target muscle while you do an exercise to get a feel for whether it is contracting and/or how hard it is contracting.
NOTE: BEFORE YOU TOUCH ANYBODY IN THE GYM, ALWAYS GET PERMISSION. ALWAYS.
Goal 4: Condition Connective Tissues
While it’s cliche these days to throw out that “[Insert buzzword of the week] is the forgotten part of weight training” I’d suggest that one factor that goes almost completely ignored in the weight room is the status of connective tissues.
Tendons, ligaments and such can all adapt to heavy training. Quite in fact they need to do so to be able to handle heavier loading down the road. But, unlike muscles which often show rapid gains in strength (especially initially), connective tissues adapt very slowly. Trainees who jump into training that is too heavy or too frequent too soon often come up with joint injuries.
And once injured, connective tissues tend to re-injure fairly easy, especially if they don’t heal well. Develop elbow problems early on and they may annoy you for most of your career. In fact, you can see people in any commercial gym with knees and elbows wrapped simply to get through training sessions. That’s a sign that their connective tissues are beaten up, either because they didn’t give things time to adapt early on or are training too heavily too often for too long in their current routine.
And one of the critical goals of the beginning weight training period is to let those connective tissue adapt and strengthen. This takes time, months and more of progressive loading. If you go too hard too fast you’re likely to pay a hard price.
Goal 5: Develop Work Capacity
In Part 1 I mentioned that one criterion for having moved past the rank beginner stage would be the ability to handle a full 60-90 minute workout without the trainee being absolutely crushed by fatigue. That brings us to Goal 5 which is to develop work capacity and training tolerance. In essence, when starting out in almost any activity, trainees have to get into shape to be able to train. Yes, this seems like a contradiction but bear with me.
Intense training is a stress to the body. And requires that certain base fitness be developed. This is usually referred to as work capacity, others simply call it the “training base” (this is usually more commonly used in endurance sports).
You can think of it as having worked up to the point that a given workout, while stressful, doesn’t overwhelm you completely. If you’re walking out of every workout exhausted, your work capacity is insufficient for your current training volume and intensity. Recovery ability can be improved over time which means not only better recovery during the workout (i.e. between set) but between workouts.
Beginner trainees, unless they are coming from some other sport into the weight room, have to gradually develop their ability to handle training volume. This, like connective tissue, tends to be slower than other adaptations. And it’s not sexy to develop basic fitness which is why nobody wants to take the time to do it. But it’s crucial for long-term progress. Quite in fact, in many more performance oriented sports, phases to improve work capacity are often performed between phases of performance improvement.
Goal 6: Developing the Behavioral Stuff like Pain Tolerance, Consistency and Focus
The final goal, and one that I’m not going to spend a lot of time on, I’ll just group under behavioral stuff. This could include developing tolerance to the pain/discomfort of hard training, consistency, focus, determination, etc.
Except for individuals coming from another sport, these are things that beginners typically lack. But they can be developed with practice. Nobody makes much progress in the gym if they have no focus or spend every minute on their phone for example. Nobody make much progress skipping every second workout or every other week. And nobody but nobody makes progress if they are unwilling or unable to put form some concerted effort in their training and put up with some discomfort.
While I’m not saying that trainees need to kill themselves in training, anyone not willing to work outside of their comfort zone and push themselves a bit isn’t likely to get very far. And even if it’s not present early on (and it’s usually not), it can be trained over time. This is done by gradually pushing yourself a little bit harder than you thought was possible so that you reset your upper limit. Over months and years, this can take people to level of intensity they never thought possible when they started.
Discussing all of this would require more space than I have but it is important and can be improved by training progressively in the weight room. It’s also where a good coach or trainer can be valuable as they will know how to push just enough to get the person to the next level without destroying themselves. When I coached beginners I would just know when it was time to push them a little bit beyond what they thought they could do. And over time this led them to entirely new levels.
For example, beginning (and even some intermediate trainees) often think that they are far more fatigued than they are. A good coach can spot this and tell when an athlete is truly fatiguing or just giving up. In this situation, the coach can have that athlete successfully complete something they thought they were too tired to do. The end result being that they raise their current limits. And down the road, this is done again. And again. And again.
Similarly, many beginning trainees tend to give up quickly when things get even the slightest bit uncomfortable. In many ways, this makes sense, pain is a sensation that usually means “stop doing that”. But learning how to tolerate the discomfort endemic to productive training is a huge part of long-term progress. Without that ability folks will hit an early wall since they won’t be able to push hard enough to generate further gains.
Again, a good coach can play a role here; when an athlete starts to give up, the coach can get them to go a little bit further. The athlete learns that they didn’t die, that the pain wasn’t really that bad. Ultimately, this teaches them to push a bit harder. And, again, later on the coach can do it again, raising the athlete’s ability to tolerate discomfort a bit higher still.
I think you get the idea. And while the above is certainly easier with a competent coach available, some of it can be trained during the beginner stages by following the guidelines I’m going to give you.