Learning the intricacies of proper and efficient weight training can be an extraordinarily daunting task.
With inconsistent and often contradictory information coming from every direction within our media-based society, it’s all too easy to get lost, overwhelmed, and confused in the process of learning to become a competent trainee.
Having made numerous mistakes myself, I understand many of the common misconceptions and rationalizations exhibited by various beginner trainees upon entering the world of fitness.
As I now have the ability to look back and analyze the errors I’ve made along the way, I am excited to use this opportunity as a chance to provide my readers with the information I wish I had at the onset of my career.
As such, I have created the following guide in an attempt to outfit beginner trainees with the basic knowledge and concepts needed to kick-start a life-time of success in the weight room.
Specifically, this guide will outline the basics of strength training and exercise selection to help beginner trainees become more confident and knowledgeable prior to entering the gym.
Consistently and appropriately apply the principles outlined below and odds are you’ll go far above and beyond your wildest dreams.
The Beginners Guide to Weight Training
What is a Beginner?
First and foremost, we must answer a rather difficult question:
Question: What classifies an individual as a beginner trainee?
Answer: Generally speaking, the vast majority of trainees can be categorized as rank beginners.
As a direct consequence of being misinformed in regard to what constitutes optimal training, a greater part of the general population has not progressed to the point of being classified as intermediate or advanced.
It’s important to make the distinction, however, that beginner does not imply stupid, ignorant, or lazy. Rather, being classified as a beginner trainee has more to do with neuromuscular efficiency, total body strength, and time spent training properly.
In any case, this article is not meant to convince anyone of what their current training status may or may not be. If your training revolves around P90X or Zumba and you consider yourself advanced…congratulations, you’re an idiot.
If, however, you are willing to drop your ego and take advantage of your beginner status, adhering to the principles outlined below may be of extraordinary benefit.
As a quick reference, if you fall into one or more of the 10 categories below, you are in fact a beginner trainee
You have never trained [properly] and understand that you are a beginner
You do not regularly perform full-body compound movements with proper technique. Examples include but are not limited to: Squat and variations, Deadlift and variations, Bench Press and variations, Chin ups and variations
You have been training compound movements [properly] for less than 6 months
You perform the exact same routine each time you go to the gym
Your training routine solely consists of: Chests/Tri’s & Back/Bi’s
You consider running a sufficient [lower-body] workout
You don’t lift heavy for fear of getting “too big”
Realistically speaking, you have not made a significant amount of progress in relation to total time invested.
Good enough – let’s talk weight training
The Principles of Weight Training
1) Stick to the Basics
In regard to weight training, a large portion of the general population has a tendency to equate “complex” with “effective.”
For example, individuals often assume an effective program must include an excessive variety of exercises, numerous weighted movements atop unstable surfaces, cause an inexplicable amount of pain, and/or induce dry heaving.
While it’s easy to see why this illusion of complexity is intriguing to the general public, it’s necessary to understand that these methods are not only uncalled for, but most likely detrimental to your overall success.
When all is said and done, the basics will almost always yield the greatest results.
The basics have worked and will continue to work for years to come. They are the foundation of our training and must be treated as such.
While at times the basics may appear to be boring and perhaps too basic, their importance cannot be overstated.
The rest of this article will detail exactly what I consider to be the basic necessities of a beginner training program. When in doubt, refer to these guidelines as the groundwork for your continued success in training.
2) Movements Before Muscle Groups
Perhaps the most common error made among beginner trainees is the tendency to isolate specific muscle groups rather than utilize whole-body compound movements.
While exercises designed to isolate individual muscle groups (i.e. bicep curls, leg extensions, calf raises, etc) certainly have their place in a well designed training routine, rarely should they ever make up the preponderance of one’s program, especially during the initial stages of training.
Unknown to many, bodybuilding icons such as Arnold Schwarzennegar and Ronnie Coleman train[ed] extensively through the use of compound movements and displayed extraordinary feats of strength, Deadlifting over 700lbs and Bench Pressing nearly 500lbs.
While there are a total of seven patterns throughout which the body can move, this article will only cover two – Push and Pull.
To illustrate the Push and Pull movement patterns for the upper-body and lower-body respectively, I’ve provided the table below including several sample exercises which fall into each category.
Upper Body Push
Upper Body Pull
Lower Body Push
Lower Body Pull
Glute Ham Raise
Lat Pull Downs
45 Degree Back Extension
As you can see, in contrast to isolation exercises which focus on one distinct muscle group, each of the above movements requires the involvement of numerous muscle groups simultaneously.
Through proper and consistent training of these multi-joint compound movements, beginner trainees can make incredible gains in an extremely short period of time. As such, placing an emphasis on these movement patterns, notably during the early phases of one’s training career, will set the groundwork for achieving substantial and long-term progress.
My General Recommendation: The majority of your training routine should place an emphasis on compound movements. Generally speaking, each training day should consist of 3-5 separate compound lifts.
3) Balancing Push and Pull Movements:
Finding the ideal balance of movement types is highly individual and honestly far beyond the scope of this article.
While some professionals definitively advocate a greater ratio of pulling to pushing movements, the range in variables seen among trainees makes it impossible to prescribe one absolute rule.
Therefore, in order to keep this guide as simple as possible, I encourage beginner trainees to incorporate exercises from all movement patterns in an equal ratio throughout the week.
In doing so, individuals will have the opportunity to practice, understand, and gain strength in each movement pattern. While they may need to make adjustments to their movement ratios somewhere down line, I think learning to follow a training program balanced in Push/Pull movements will be of greater benefit during the beginning stages of training.
My General Recommendations: Train using an equal ratio of all movement patterns. In other words, for every upper-body push there should be an upper-body pull, and for every lower-body push there should be a lower-body pull.
4) Times per Week (Frequency)
In regard to training frequency, many individuals fall into the trap of believing “more is better.” As such, it’s not uncommon to find recreational gym-goers training 6-7 times per week.
While I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with a high training frequency, I do think the majority of individuals would experience the greatest results through training 3-4 days per week at most.
In fact, most of my clients train 3-4 days per week regardless of their training status, goals, injury history, etc.
If you’d like to include cardio, feel free to do so on your rest days but I encourage individuals to keep it short (i.e. 20-45 minutes) and at a relatively low intensity (i.e. a heart rate of 150 or lower).
My General Recommendation: 3-4 sessions of weight training per week is more than sufficient. If you are interested in cardio, light jogging/biking/running/etc can be performed on rest days.
5) Sets, Reps, & Weight (Volume & Intensity)
Regardless of one’s goals, I have found the vast majority of individuals greatly benefit through training with an emphasis on strength.
What constitutes “training for strength” will undoubtedly vary from person to person based on a variety of factors such as initial strength levels, injury history, etc. However, through establishing a general guideline of volume & intensity, trainees can use the appropriate movement patterns and weights for their specific needs.
As a brief sidebar, if you’re male or female and neglecting proper weight training for fear of getting too big, I strongly encourage you to read my Interview with Female Powerlifter, Jean Fry as well as Jc Deen’s fantastic article on the topic, HERE
In any case, to make this process as simple as possible, below I’ve outlined several guidelines to follow in the process of creating your own training routine:
The main move is the 1st exercise performed on each day. Generally speaking, the main move should adhere to the following guidelines:
Movement Type: Compound movement – For example: Squat variation, Deadlift variation, Bench Press variation, Pull-up variation, etc
Sets: 3-4 warm-up sets followed by 3 working sets. Warm-up sets are used as practice whereas working sets are legitimately difficult and should be improved upon as often as possible
Reps: Roughly 5-8 repetitions per working set. Completing 5-8 reps should be challenging
Weight: Consistently aim to improve while maintaining proper form. When all 3 sets of 5-8 repetitions are completed with a certain weight, at the following training session add 5-10lbs for upper body and lower body movements respectively
Accessory movements are the subsequent exercises performed following the main move. Generally speaking, a beginner program should consist of roughly 2-4 accessory movements and adhere to the following guidelines:
Movement Types: Compound Movements – For example: Lunge variations, Deadlift variations, Overhead Press variations, Rowing variations, etc
Sets: 1-2 warm-up sets followed by 3 working sets
Reps: Between 6-8 or 10-12 repetitions. Generally speaking, the repetitions should increase as the workout progresses. Regardless, getting the prescribed number of repetitions should be difficult
Weight: Consistently aim to improve while maintaining proper form. While increasing weight is certainly important, your major focus should be on improving the main moves. Therefore, aim to add weight roughly every 2 weeks for accessory movements.
Sample Programs and Exercise Menu
Finally, before I wrap up, I want to outline 2 sample programs and an Exercise Menu.
As you can see, the programs are based off of 3-day per week and 4-day per week training routines respectively. Feel free to use them exactly as-is or tweak them for your individual needs. I’d suggest following one of these programs for roughly 8 weeks, at the end of which you can use the exercise menu to make appropriate substitutions and continue with your training.
Additionally, the exercise menu details individual exercises under each of the Push/Pull categories. I’ve strategically provided the exercises which I believe will be of the greatest benefit at the beginning of ones training career.
Remember, the routines and movements outlined below are certainly basic, but performed correctly with hard work and a good attitude they can produce incredible results.
*Note: Several of the exercises listed above are directly linked to pages describing that specific exercise. If you are unsure of how to perform a movement, simply click the link.
This guide turned out to be significantly longer than I originally planned, and in truth it could be drastically longer.
Considering there is a great deal information I have yet to cover, I strongly encourage beginner trainees to look into the following sources of information, all of which provide fantastic insight into beginning weight training.