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. 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.
Not only is this not terribly productive, it can actually be detrimental to 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. And 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.
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Put a bit differently, if you can get the same gains out of 3 hours/week of training vs. 6 hours/week of training, you’re better off training 3 hours/week. That way, when 3 hours/week stops working, you have room to increase to 4 hours/week then 5 hours/week then 6 hours/week. If you start at 6 hours/week and stop progressing, you’ve got nowhere left to go.
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.”
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 article 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. 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 (a topic I’ve discussed variously on the site).
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.
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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).
If you ever get a chance to watch a good powerlifter train, you’ll see what I’m talking about: laser focus and absolutely dialed in technique (that they continue to try to improve throughout their career).
And if you know anything about Olympic lifting technique, you’ll know when one is training in your gym; he’ll 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 (ask anybody who’s had to fix technique after years of doing it wrong).
But I’m getting off topic.
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.
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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. Since this will get long, I’m going to divide the article into three parts.
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. Body Composition vs. Strength vs. Performance vs. Fitness/Health
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 (probably not a lot of the latter and I won’t make many comments about that).
Some may be doing it only for general health and I imagine some do it because they feel that they are ‘supposed to’.
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 (for more commentary on that, please read Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1 and Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 2).
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Those who eventually want to compete in the physique sports have to worry about other things such as symmetry, balance, etc. 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 and 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 (even if some ‘optimality’ in terms of gains are sacrificed) to take into account the goals.
And clearly each of those goals will ultimately require a different approach. However, for the most part, I’d argue that most of those differences are completely academic at the beginning stage of training. Most beginners needs the same basic things out of training initially (which I’ll discuss on Friday) and the routines will, by and large, look more or less identical. Although I won’t say much more about it, beginning Olympic lifting routines would tend to be the most divergent from what I’m going to describe but your coach should be handling that.
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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. 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.
Goal 1: Develop a General Balanced Whole-Body Base of Strength/Muscle Mass
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; females are more commonly in the ‘I don’t want to bulk up’ camp (and often engage in endlessly pointless training in an attempt to avoid something that isn’t going to happen anyhow).
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 whether it’s 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 note, and I’ll come back to this in more detail in Part 3 of this series on Tuesday that the desire to lift as much weight as quickly as possible gets a lot of beginners into a lot of problems.
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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 and 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).
I would note that developing any muscularity/strength in a reasonably balanced fashion across the body might be considered a sub-goal here. Put differently: just training the pecs and guns (guys know what I’m talking about) or whatever isn’t what I’m talking about. Rather, developing some muscle mass and strength throughout the body in some sort of roughly ‘balanced’ fashion should be one goal of beginning training.
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.
However, addressing all of them in any detail in this article would be impossible; in Part 3 I’m going to make the (probably incorrect assumption) that no corrective work need be done. But that is a consideration and something that usually needs to be addressed to at least some degree in the beginning stages of training. Unfortunately, it’s a consideration that is hard for people to deal with without some form of competent coaching or training. I would suggest folks read Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson’s excellent Neanderthal No More series for a rather thorough look at the topic.
But ignoring that last bit, that’s the first primary goal of beginning weight training; regardless of your ultimate goal down the road, developing a good base of all-around whole-body strength/muscle mass to provide a ‘base’ upon which to lay more specific training down the road (whether it be jakkedness, hottiness, strengthiness, general healthiness or what have you).
Goal 2: Improve Neural Mechanisms of Strength Production/Learn to Lift Weights
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 could write:
Strength Output = Muscle Mass * Neural Factors
Where muscle mass is the size of the muscle (technically the cross sectional area) 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; I’d 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).
Now, early studies repeatedly found the following phenomenon: when people started lifting weights, they would increase their strength without significant/any increases in muscle mass. This was taken to mean that the body first made improvements in neural mechanisms with gains in muscle mass coming 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, and by week 8 there were always measurable changes in something (usually an increase in muscle mass with some fat loss).
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 (and there are relatively better and worse ways of getting them to occur as quickly as possible which I’ll talk about in Part 3).
I’d mention that weight training tends to cause increased carbohydrate storage in muscles and this also causes water to be stored; and this probably explains why some people do feel as if they are ‘bulking up rapidly’ when they start training. Women especially tend to feel like they are ‘getting huge’ when they start lifting (and freak out because of it) from this mechanism but it always goes away by about week 3 as the body gets back into water balance.
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, as I noted in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, while much of what’s done in the weight room isn’t as technical as many sports, the point is that proper technique is still generally superior to improper technique when you’re looking at making long-term progress.
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).
To make a massive 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. In essence, they try to make the exercise as inefficient as possible, to put the maximal stress on the muscle they want to grow.
In contrast, pure strength athletes tend be more about lessening muscular stress in the sense that the less work the muscle does, the more weight you can move for the same amount of effort. In essence they are looking for ways to maximize efficiency as this allows them to lift the most weight with the least effort. So specific techniques or what have you are often made in the strength/power sports to lessen muscular work. Somewhere in the middle, athletes who are lifting for performance reasons often use lifting techniques somewhere between the two extremes used by bodybuilders or pure strength athletes.
As an example of the differences, I would point you to my article on Bench Pressing Variations where I contrast a ‘bodybuilder’ bench press to a generic power bench (what most performance type athletes would do) to a pure shirted (sort-of) powerlifting 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 the technique of Benching 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.