When it comes to building strength for beginners, I have a lot of experience. I’ve trained over 100 beginner athletes in the last five years. In that time, I’ve seen a ton of “strength training advice” from supposed “experts”.
A lot of times, it flies straight in the face of what I and many others have found to work in practice.
Just because it looks good on paper, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in real life.
When I start training new clients with no real experience, I have a couple of main goals I want them to achieve to get them started off correctly.
The first goal is getting them strong and structurally sound at a couple of basic movement patterns.
These movement patterns are as follows:
- Squat/Single Leg Movement Ex: Bodyweight Squats, Lunges
- Lower Back/Hamstring Movement Ex: Back Extensions, Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- Upper Body Push (Horizontal) Ex: Pushups, Dumbbell Bench
- Upper Body Push (Vertical) Ex: Dumbbell Press, Plate Raises
- Upper Body Pull (Horizontal) Ex: Dumbbell Rows, Inverted Rows
- Upper Body Pull (Vertical) Ex: Pullups, Pulldowns
- Abdominal Strength & Stability Ex:
Ab Wheel, Hanging Leg Raises
These are simple movements that everybody should be training in general. But the purposes for Beginners is even more apparent. Once you spend time training them, you notice how weak their legs, back and overall core strength is.
This is the basic framework I use when training beginners that works amazingly. There is a balance between the anterior and posterior sections of the body as well as the upper and lower body. The best part is, you can plug in any basic movements for these 7 movement patterns and you’ll still get similar results.
The coolest thing about starting out as a beginner with this template is how easy it is to set up. As explained above, you can plug in basic movements to improve these major movement patterns in the body.
Here is how I do this for new clients and you can do for yourself as a beginner strength athlete.
|Workout A||Workout B|
Bodyweight/Goblet Squat 3 Sets
Lunges 3 Sets Per Leg
|Pushups/Dips 3 Sets||Dumbbell Press 3 Sets|
Inverted Rows 3 Sets
Pullups/Pulldowns 3 Sets
|Hanging Leg Raises 3 Sets||Back Extensions 3 Sets|
This is a very basic training program that trains all the major muscle groups over the entire body with 8 movements. These exercises promote muscle, strength, flexibility, and stability. This is the main setup I use with clients to build strength until they are strong and stable enough to do basic barbell movements.
Here are a couple of guidelines to consider:
- Once you master the bodyweight squat, we move onto the Goblet Squat and try to push the reps. In general, we want to push the lower body exercises in the 8-15 rep range. I find going any higher and beginners start to lose their tightness without much benefit.
- For the upper body, we can push for sets of 8-20 reps. Things like Dumbbell Press, Pushups, Dips, Dumbbell Bench Press, Inverted Rows, Pullups, Pulldowns, etc.
- We want to push for 3 sets per exercise. Starting out, we want to stay as far away from failure as possible. As a beginner without a coach, you don’t want your form to break down and get injured. Take your time and do it right.
- As always, increase your total sets by 1 every week. Week 2 you would do 4 sets per exercise and Week 3 you do 5 sets per exercise. In Week 4 we back off to 3 sets and work back up to 5 over the following two weeks.
- For the bodyweight movements, push the sets hard and try to get over sets of 20 for all of your sets.
- For the dumbbell movements and pulldowns, push the reps until you’re hitting sets of 20, then increase the weight slowly. This will allow you to keep your form tight and improve your muscular strength and endurance all at once. For the Goblet Squat, keep it to sets of 15 before you add weight.
Luckily, training as a beginner without heavy weights, there’s no reason to incorporate deload weeks, yet.
After beginners build up to doing 45 lb Goblet Squats for over 15 reps, we’re ready to move onto the Barbell Squat. This is where the training changes and things progress at a faster rate.
Barbell Compound Movements Are King
Before starting the major barbell movements, I recommend watching the following videos to learn how to perform them correctly before loading them up. These are some of the strongest, and most technical lifters in the world so definitely take some notes.
- Squat: How to Skwaat, with Ed Coan
- Bench: How to Bench Press, with Eric Spoto (722 lb ALL-TIME Raw World Record Holder)
- Deadlift: How to Conventional Deadlift, with Ed Coan
- Overhead Press: Overhead Pressing with World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw
As I stated before, we want to transition from basic bodyweight and dumbbell movements to Barbell movements.
The basic Barbell movements I’ve found that work best for beginners are:
- Trap Bar Deadlifts
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
The main reasons we pick the Trap Bar and SSB Squat over a standard barbell is simply due to technique limitations. Most times I start new trainees out on a Conventional Deadlift, their form breaks down quickly. It’s almost as if they completely forgot how to lift at all.
Enter the Trap Bar Deadlift, you’re still picking a heavy weight off of the ground, but you’re able to be much more upright and technically sound sooner. Ever since switching to Trap Bar Deadlifts I’ve never had an issue with form. This allows beginner lifters to just focus on gaining strength without learning form forever.
Along with the Trap Bar Deadlift, utilizing the Safety Squat Bar allows you to go in and Squat properly without worrying about where beginner trainees place the bar. They always say “it hurts” or they can’t Squat to depth due to the increased tightness in the upper back. Once again, allowing them to focus on getting stronger without the form being a huge concern starting out is great.
The Bench Press and Overhead Press are amazing upper body strength and muscle builders for anybody trying to get better in the weight room. Their inclusion should be obvious but for beginners, you might think excluding the Overhead Press is a good idea. This is definitely not the case and absolutely necessary for balance in the entire body.
Sets Of 5
Using these main movements with beginners, we want to keep all of our sets to 5 reps.
The reasons for this is as follows:
- Sets of 5 are a perfect blend to build muscle and strength. Sets of 3 are too low and sets of 8 are too fatiguing.
- Doing high reps with barbell movements as a beginner can force you to build bad habits. When learning heavy compound basics, learning the form and lifting safe is paramount. If you ingrain bad movement patterns early on, they’re tough to break. Focus on form and only increase weight when your form dictates it.
- It’s really easy to count. Another main reason we stick with sets of 5 is because of how easy it is to count. The number of times I’ve trained new clients that didn’t count their reps properly is exceedingly high. Setting all their heavy, compound movements to 5 fixes this issue, allowing them to focus on working hard and not on counting.
The great thing about being a beginner lifter is that you don’t need any fancy training programs to make progress. Getting as strong as possible is as easy as increasing the weight and keeping everything else consistent.
For your first 3 months of training, increasing that one variable will give you a massive amount of strength and muscle mass without any fancy tricks. Simply adding 5 pounds to the main barbell movements is all you need once you get to this stage of training.
At some point, we’ll be changing up how we progress, but for those first 3 months, focus on sets of 5 and build some strength.
For the absolute best book on beginner strength training, I recommend Starting Strength. After you’re able to do the main lifts, using Starting Strength for your first 3 months of training is one of the best things you can possibly do to get stronger as fast as possible. Check it out here on Amazon, the amount of information available in this resource is something you absolutely need when starting out.
Bodyweight And Dumbbell Assistance Movements Are Queen
As great as the Big 4 Barbell Movements are, we need other movements to “fill in the gaps”. The main movements used above will also be used in the next phase of training which involves barbells, bodyweight and dumbbell assistance movements.
The major movements we need to address to train the body optimally for strength and muscle gain are:
- Inverted Rows/Pullups
- Hanging Leg Raises/Back Extensions
When training as a beginner, one of the basic things you need to develop is relative body strength. If you can Deadlift 400 lbs but can’t do 20 pushups, 10 pullups or run at least a 10-minute mile, how strong are you really?
All of the clients I’ve trained from the ground up are stronger, have more muscle mass and get in better shape faster than any other method I’ve found. Using Supersets along with basic bodyweight and dumbbell movements builds strength, muscle and work capacity very effectively.
Our goal with these movements is to keep the body in balance and build strength throughout the entire body. Your legs, arms, back, chest, shoulders, and core will all get stronger from this style of training.
Making sure to stay in great athletic shape is something you absolutely need to pay attention to as well. As soon as you lose your athletic abilities, it’s very hard to get them back. Work on building muscle and strength, but stay in shape and don’t gain a ton of body fat in the process.
That’s what this training program will build for you if you follow it correctly. Moving on!
Basic Cardio To Build Your Work Capacity
We have the main exercises we’re going to be using for our beginner program squared away. Now what we need to plan out is our basic cardio to build your work capacity and maintain a healthy body fat percentage. If you do the entire program and skip this part I can’t guarantee the results.
The cardio we want to be doing is standard steady-state work. We don’t need to throw in sleds, sprints, or High-Intensity Interval Training.
The 3 main things I would recommend are:
Airdyne. I’ve gone over the Airdynein my “Top 10 Pieces Of Equipment You Need For A Home Gym” article. This piece of equipment is my #1 recommendation for steady-state cardio. It’s easy on the joints, does an amazing job of conditioning your entire body, and helps you recover between workouts. For the price, nothing has worked better for my cardio work.
- Walking. If you need something less strenuous that you can perform anywhere, even at work, try walking. 3, 10-minute walks is what I recommend to do on top of all my training programs. This is for those that aren’t in the best shape and want to work on it slowly before hopping onto harder cardio exercise. Getting up and going for a 10-minute walk multiple times a day after each meal is very easy and has a ton of benefits.
- Running. Running is one of the best ways to get in and stay in shape quickly. Just like with walking, you can do this anywhere. Start slowly with the running or you will get shin splints and mess your knees/ankles up as well. I recommend Fartlek Running starting out. It’s very simple and anybody can do it.
When incorporating cardio into a strength training program, make sure not to overdo it. As I’ve stated before, you don’t need more than 30 minutes of cardio at any one time. 3-5 days max is the sweet spot as well.
Start with 10 minutes 3 days a week, as you get in better shape and it starts getting easier, move it up to 15, 20, 25, and 30 minutes respectively. Your goal is to maintain at 3 days a week at 30 minutes per session.
Once you’re able to do this, there’s no need to add anymore because the goal of this training program is getting stronger. Maintaining a basic level of conditioning allows you to perform better in the gym, build more muscle, and eat more calories for performance.
You can do the cardio after your workouts or on off days. It really is up to your personal preference and what you can commit to. Remember, the best weight training and cardio plan you can do is the one you can stick to and be consistent with.
Putting The Beginner Training Program Together
Now that we have the 3 main parts of the Beginner Training Program all laid out, we can put it all together and see what the full thing looks like.
- As I stated above, the Barbell movements we’re going to be using are Bench Press, Overhead Press, Trap Bar Deadlift, and
SSBSquats. For the first 3 months of training, we will be doing no more than sets of 5 and adding 5 pounds per session to these movements.
- Also a disclaimer, you can use any similar variations for similar results. Don’t do tricep pushdowns instead of Bench Press and wonder why your strength is plateauing though.
- Close-Grip Bench instead of Bench, Barbell Squat instead of
SSBSquat, and Barbell Deadlift instead of Trap Bar Deadlift. Any of these variations are fine! However, I think that for vertical pressing, nothing comes close to a strict Overhead Press so leave that in.
- For the assistance movements, we’ll be using Pushups, Dips, Dumbbell Rows, Pullups/Pulldowns, Hanging Leg Raises, and Back Extensions.
First 3 Months Of Barbell Training
|Workout A||Workout B|
Trap Bar Deadlift
|Hanging Leg Raises|
As you can see from the training program, we’re using a 2-day rotating schedule. This allows you to train a minimum of 2 days a week up to 4 days a week. In general, I never recommend doing more than 4 days a week. So this training program is perfect for those that don’t have all day to work out in the gym and still make progress.
By using a rotating schedule like this, beginner athletes can train all the major movements in the body more frequently. In my experience, training more often as a beginner is incredibly important.
- The clients that could only train 1 time per week rarely made progress.
- As soon as we moved up to 2 days a week, their results skyrocketed!
- Moving to 3 days a week, which I think is the best for overall strength and conditioning progress, improved their results even more.
The great thing about this training program is how easy it is to incorporate new movements. If you find your pushups are plateauing after a month, switch to Dumbbell Bench Press. If you can’t do pullups, do pulldowns. Find what works for you and incorporate it into the training program I laid out.
The main thing to pay attention to is the main barbell movements. If you’re making progress, adding weight every time and your form is solid, you’re on the right path!
If you’re adding weight when your form is still breaking down, everything feels super heavy and you feel like injuries are bound to happen, you’re doing it wrong. Back off the weight at least 10-20% and work back up.
If you do everything right, start too light at the beginning, and recover properly, your first 3 months of training will be fine without having to back your weight off.
3 Months and Beyond!
Now that you have your first 3 months of Barbell training under your belt, it’s time to move onto a more aggressive form of strength training progression. When you’re just starting out, keeping the reps low (sets of 5), and learning the form is important for developing good habits.
From here, we want to push the sets a little harder every week without killing ourselves. This is when we’ll start incorporating Deload weeks and working off of an RPE (Rate Of Perceived Exertion) scale.
- Every 4-7 weeks, we’ll incorporate a deload based on how we’re feeling at the time. At 4 weeks in, if you feel like you’re not recovering well, doing a deload where you back the sets and reps off will help you with progress over the long term.
- Regardless of how you’re feeling, every 7th week, use the deload to back off fatigue and allow you to train safely and efficiently.
- RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion, is a scale used to determine how difficult a set is. When starting off as a beginner, you need to stay away from failure to ensure your form is safe at all times. As you progress as a lifter, we can start using RPE to push our sets a little closer to failure.
- In general, using an RPE of between 7-9 is where the majority of our sets will be done in. What this means is, you push the set until you’re 1, 2 or 3 reps away from failure. An RPE 10 means you pushed to failure, which is what we DON’T want for building strength.
To learn more about the RPE Scale, check out this awesome video Alan Thrall put together explaining it in great detail.
Now that we have RPE and Deload Weeks out of the way, how does the progression change from the first 3 months?
PR Sets For Maximal Strength
For building maximal strength, I’ve found using PR (Personal Record) sets works better than anything else. The way this works is simple, you work up to a certain weight and push for a personal record. Pretty simple right?
The important thing when doing this is using an RPE scale as I stated above. For strength gains, I’ve found sitting in the RPE 7-9 range to be the most effective.
Here’s how this looks in practice using the Bench Press as an example.
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
Each week, you push 1 rep away from failure. After this workout is complete, you add 5 lbs to it and do the same thing the following week.
Over time, you might notice the weights get very heavy and you get down to 235×5 for instance.
When this happens, we want to back the weight off by 10-15%. This would drop our working set down from 235 to 210. The only difference is, now we’re stronger than we were before. So instead of doing 11 reps at 210, we do 15.
Obviously, we got stronger!
This is normally how you feel when you hit a new PR in the gym. The excitement and a huge pump to keep training hard!
From here, we can add 5 lbs every week and push for PRs. This allows us to go back, see what our previous records were, and try to beat them week after week.
Doing a strength training program where you can see your strength progress consistently makes this style of training incredibly rewarding and motivating.
What About The Assistance Exercises?
You’ve been training for a couple of months now and your barbell lifts are getting stronger. At this point in time, your other assistance movements such as Pushups, DB Rows, Hanging Leg Raises, and Pullups should be getting stronger as well.
However, you can’t use the same exercises forever and expect to make progress. I’m sure you’ve noticed some of your assistance movements haven’t been getting stronger as fast as you would expect.
This is where switching your assistance movements up to other movements comes in handy!
The easiest way I’ve found to do this is by setting up categories for your assistance to make it easy to pick and keeps your training balanced.
These assistance categories are:
- Push: pushups, dips, dumbbell press, dumbbell bench press, dumbbell incline bench, tricep pushdowns, extensions, etc.
- Pull: pullups, pulldowns, band pull aparts, dumbbell rows, barbell rows, t-bar rows, barbell curls, hammer curls, etc.
- Single Leg/Core:
Ab Wheel, situps, decline situps, hanging leg raises, lunges, Bulgarian split squats, etc.
By breaking the assistance movements up like this, it makes it very easy for a beginner lifter to pick some movements and build some muscle. Also, because you break the body up into movement patterns like this, you maintain balance in your physique and strength levels.
Nothing is being overshadowed or overworked. Your back, arms, legs, chest, shoulders, abs, and low back are all being worked weekly.
Plateauing On Assistance Exercises
As long as your main barbell movements are progressing, you’re on the right path. However, sometimes you notice you’re plateauing on your assistance exercises and not getting stronger in general.
This is when you want to try something different to build more muscle and increase strength in a different way. Eventually, pushups aren’t going to get you any stronger so you’re going to have to switch it up.
In general, transitioning from bodyweight movements to dumbbell or barbell movements is the way to go.
I recommend switching your assistance movement up every 8 weeks. If you’re switching it up more than that, it rarely gives you enough time to progress in sets and reps. You want to stick with something long enough to progress in strength and muscle mass.
Not much needs to be said about the cardio portion of the training program. If you’ve been keeping up with 3 days at 30 minutes per session you’re probably in great cardiovascular shape without having to change anything.
Just pick something with low intensity and do it 3 times a week at 30 minutes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
As you can see from this training program, it has multiple layers and progresses how you train over time. Eventually, you’re going to have to switch to a muscle-building program to continue making progress.
When that time comes, higher reps and more sets is going to be what you want to focus on.
Until then, you can stick with this basic setup, changing your exercises up every 8 weeks and following the guidelines I’ve outlined here.
If you’re a beginner lifter and have any questions on this basic training program, definitely feel free to drop a comment below!
I hope you all enjoyed the read and have an awesome week! Get in the gym, and get stronger!
Until next time,