If there is one Universal Truth in the fitness industry, it is that every untrained person who walks into a gym for whatever reason, be it to lose weight, get more fit and healthy, or to make their butt look better in a bikini, would be best served by gaining some basic muscle and strength before concentrating on anything else. Muscle makes losing fat easier. Muscle and strength not only makes you more fit and healthy, it makes every other training modality used in the pursuit of fitness more effective. And muscle makes your butt look better.
Unfortunately, how to correctly begin down the road to getting stronger and building a bit of muscle has become more complicated than it needs to be. Why? Well, partly because of a large group of idiots (experts?) giving out advice who have no business doing so. Partly because there are many “gurus” who point to their particular proprietary method as the best way or even the ONLY way to be successful. Of course every guru has a different program. But it doesn’t have to be hard or complicated, and, you don’t need to buy in to one particular cookie cutter program. There are, however, a few simple guideposts that every beginner should be familiar with. Guideposts that will allow you to benefit from the experience of thousands upon thousands who have walked the path before you. Just like in hiking, as a novice it is prudent and safe to stay close to the well marked trail. Although the challenge and excitement of blazing your own trail is satisfying to the experienced mountaineer or strength athlete, it isn’t appropriate on your first hike, or your first month in the gym. The following are general recommendations that will serve the beginner well when choosing a strength program, or planning their own.
Training 3 times per week with whole body workouts is a good place to start for a beginner. Staying relatively close to this will serve most people well. Training 2 times per week with whole body workouts has worked for many people, and if you cant do 3 times is a viable option. Maybe not ideal, but viable. While whole body workouts are a proven method, a simple split that still allows big, multi-joint exercises also works. For instance, doing squatting and pressing exercises on Monday and Thursday and doing pulling and rowing exercises on Tuesday and Friday is a schedule that will work. With either a 2 day a week whole body workout, or a 4 day split routing, you might not be waking downs the middle of the trail, but you are close enough to see it, and won’t be getting into any trouble. However, if you decide on a 6 day routine with chest on Monday, biceps and hamstrings on Tuesday, shoulders on Wednesday, etc, you are 20 miles off the trail with no food or water, your compass doesn’t work and you have lost your map. And it’s starting to snow.
Beginners should mostly select exercises that are multi-joint in nature, and work large parts of the body at once. Squats, front squats, bench presses, incline presses, military presses, push presses, deadlifts, power cleans, chinups, pullups, and barbell rows are all great exercises for beginners. Beginners should squat each time they train their legs. One major exercise per muscle group per workout is appropriate if you train the whole body at once, 1 or 2 exercises per muscle group is appropriate if you use a split routine. Where is the wiggle room here? Well, if you must, throwing in a couple of sets of curls for the girls isn’t gonna derail you. Fascinated by all the big plates the bro’s are throwing on that big shiny leg press? Well, if you are training legs Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then leg pressing on Wednesday isn’t gonna kill you as long as you keep squatting on Monday and Friday. But if you find that you are doing more side laterals than presses, or more leg extensions than squats, or your doing 4 exercises for your chest on Monday, then you are trapped at the bottom of a canyon with walls too steep to climb, it’s raining, and that little creek at the bottom is flowing faster and faster. And the water is rising.
Beginners are usually served best using 4-6 reps. A set of 3 or going for a max single isn’t going to kill you, nor will a set of 10. Doing a “drop set” with lighter weights and higher reps after your heavier sets is popular in some circles, and this also will not kill you, but it is also probably not gonna speed up the gains of a true beginner. But if the majority of your work isn’t within a medium rep range then you are heading in the wrong direction. Three work sets (not including warmups) for each exercise is a very good starting point for most people. As few as one set, or as many as 5 or 6 can work initially, but often one will find that a regression to the mean occurs if they start with too few or too many work sets. Start with only one and you may soon find that you have to increase the workload to keep progress going, start with 5 or 6 work sets and you might find that you soon have to decrease the workload to recover properly and keep progress going.
A proven and effective way for a beginner to progress is to start with 3 sets of 5 on an exercise, weight picked to make the last rep on the third set only slightly slower and harder than the first rep of the first set. This is lighter than the weight that COULD be done this first workout, but don’t worry, it is heavy enough to provide stimulation for growth in a rank beginner. From here, simply add 5lbs to the bar each successive time you do the exercise if it is an upper body exercise, 10lbs if it is a lower body exercise. The rate of progress can be lowered for a small female, or could be increased for a large male. But for most people, progressing slower than this means progressing slower than you were capable of, and progressing faster than this means that the initial, easy strength gains that all beginners get will stall prematurely. Wiggle room on this one? Well, you can get fancy and change the reps. One might do 3 sets of 4 with 100lbs one day, do 3 sets of 5 the next day, then 3 sets of 6 the next day. Then add 10lbs and drop back to 3 sets of 4 the next day. Or something like that. Even complicated schemes can work, something like this: Establish a maximum set of 3. Then do 2 workouts of 3 sets of 5 at a certain percentage of that set of 3, then the next workout attempt a new maximum set of 3 with 5 or 10lbs more than your old maximum.
The further you get away from the simple act of adding weight to the bar each workout, the slower the initial gains are likely to be. But the further you get away from that first month or two of training, the more appropriate it is to “complicate” or change and slow down your method of progression. If you want to know if you are at least within line of sight of the trail and heading in the right direction, as yourself two questions. Do I have a plan that includes raising the weight on the bar in each exercise in a logical and stepwise manner? Do I know, before I drive to the gym, what weight I am going to put on the bar in each exercise? If your answer to these two questions is yes, then rest easy. Even if you have gotten a ways off the beaten path, your socks are dry, your compass works, and your canteen is full. Your route might not be the fastest, but you will get to your destination. If your answer to either question is no, then i hope you kept your matches dry, cause you are probably gonna need them.
I hope these guideposts help someone out there. There are several very good and very well explained programs available over the intenet that keep you solidly in the middle of the well traveled path, and are virtually guaranteed to work. But let’s face it, we are not all just alike, physically or mentally. And some of us get almost as much enjoyment in planning our training as actually doing it, or spend almost as much time doing so! And, often planning your own training increases your ownership of what you are doing, increases your enjoyment, and makes it more likely that you will continue to train. So plan away! If you keep the guideposts presented here in sight, you are likely to get to your destination. And never find yourself halfway up a cliff wall in a thunderstorm. With no safety rope.