What’s the best weight training programme for a complete beginner? For all those of you who want to take your first steps down the path to strength, fitness (and that great physique!) but don’t know how to cut through the bullshit, this is the article to read.
Question – With so many training programmes out there, how are we to know where to begin?
Even the well-established training systems, ones that have decades of use and thousands of testimonials to their efficiency may not be best for all trainees universally. In fact, for the untrained novice with little to no experience in strength training it would be ill advised to launch blindly into a training regime, whether it is Rippetoe’s Starting Strength or one that your gym-going bro gave you.
These programmes assume a base level of strength and proficiency that not all beginners will have, yet they rarely explain exactly how to take the first steps in building this foundation. What exactly can you do before you can even Squat the bar with perfect form.
Proper supportive work before beginning a specific training program is crucial, especially for the absolute untrained beginner. Seasoned strength athletes commonly use a preparative ‘accumulation phase’ dedicated to developing work capacity, building the musculature and perfecting the lifts through higher volume and lower intensity. So introductory lifting phases are not to be looked down upon!
We have developed this program in order to bring untrained athletes up to a solid foundation upon which to build technique in the core lifts and enable them to begin increasing the weights week on week.
It is relevant to point out that this beginner training method is applicable equally to both Male and Female trainees, as indeed are all strength training protocols!
So onto the basic layout…
Workout A – UPPER BODY
- Mobility work and Static Stretching
- Press Up 3 x 15 – near failure
- Dumbbell Incline Press – 3 x 15-20
- Overhead Press – 3 x 15
- Lat Pull Down – 3 x 15-20
- Dumbbell Row – 3 x 15
- Side Delt Raise – 3 x 20
Workout B – LOWER BODY
- Mobility work and Squat technique practice
- Goblet Squat – 3 x 15
- Box Squat – 3 x15
- Romanian Deadlift – 3 x 10
- Leg Press / Hamstring Curl superset – 3 x 15 each
- Plank hold – 3 x Failure.
This can be performed 3 or 4 days a week depending on your preference so long as they are alternated. Around this, we can work on learning correct technique in the Squat, Deadlift, Bench press, Overhead press, and Row. These movements aren’t heavily loaded or central to the workout precisely because we are priming the body for the task of learning them and beginning to add more and more weight to the bar.
So now that the programme is set out, we should explore exactly why this is more favourable for the beginner than other programmes out there.
The preliminary goal of the programme is to establish the basic capacity to train for strength and muscularity. In order to optimally train the body we must first be capable of performing core movements to their fullest extent. As such, there will be dedicated work toward ensuring all key lifts can be completed to their fullest range of motion without compromising stability. We’re talking Squats at least to parallel, ability for full thoracic extension, nicely neutral spine in the Deadlift, and full range of shoulder flexion in overhead work.
Technique and Motor Pattern Development
As we all know, correct lifting form will allow you to lift with maximal strength as well as keep you safe and injury free. We like to hammer home good technique from Day 1, even before any actual loading takes place. Without a coach, this will involve some work on your part, researching, learning and perfecting the technique.
Since the core lifts are still in the development stage, there are dedicated exercises to help overcome troublesome elements and strengthen common weaknesses (see below for elaboration). The rep ranges we use also allow us to practice good motor pattern, since you get more exposure to performing the particular lifts in the higher repetition sets.
Muscle fibre Recruitment and Neural pathway development
Getting stronger is largely about developing the efficiency of your body to perform certain tasks. Rarely is it the case that musculature holds back strength progress. Instead the capacity for the Central Nervous System to quickly and effectively recruit as many muscle fibres as possible is what ultimately determines strength. In order to train the CNS to powerfully fire on all cylinders, recruiting as much of the muscle as possible, we take higher repetition sets close to failure. The more and more taxing the reps become through a set, the more fibres are being recruited to move the weight.
Cardiovascular and Work Capacity development
Initially these workouts wont be too taxing as the weights will be light, it is therefore a good idea to speed up the development of cardiovascular endurance by including post lifting HIIT or steady cardio work of your choice.
A dedicated session to cardio can be added but need not take place in the gym, a long walk at a pace that keeps you slightly out of breath for about 40mins to 1hr is a great way of adding in cardiovascular work.
Explaining the Exercise Selection
Upper Body Day:
We begin with stretching to mobilise the joints and develop capacity to perform the movements to their fullest range. Emphasis should be placed on the Thoracic spine and the shoulder (for an example of how, check out Eric Cressey’s shoulder mobility test)
Moving on to Press-ups, we establish basic pushing strength along with good technique upon which we can build towards a true Bench Press. Elbows should be kept slightly tucked in with shoulder blades pulled together in order to minimise risk of injury to the rotator cuff.
We then move onto Dumbbell Incline Press, which allows a fuller range of motion, with both a greater stretch and harder contraction than barbell equivalents. This allows us to recruit as much muscle mass as possible in the motion. The use of dumbbells here also allow us to diagnose and begin to reduce strength discrepancies between right and left sides, something commonly seen in beginners.
Overhead Press, with a focus on perfect technique is up next. Abdominals and Glutes are kept tight, pulling ribcage down and keeping a neutral spine. We drive powerfully off the Chest by pushing elbows forwards, contracting the Delts and Chest and making sure to squeeze the Traps by driving your head through the gap in-between the arms.
For our pulling exercises, we include both Horizontal and Vertical planes of motion. These pulls are both to be performed under control, with a good stretch and a tight contraction on each rep. Speed and power is not crucial here, so no yanking the dumbbell up and down!
Lower Body Day:
Once again we start with Mobility work, which is even more crucial for the lower body. Stretching should focus on Hip, Knee and Ankle mobility, with the aim of developing good Squat depth whilst maintaining neutral spine and correctly aligned knees. This is accompanied by Squat technique training since it is such a technical and important lift. Beginners should usually be coached with bodyweight alone or perhaps with a wooden dowel rod so as to simulate Squat bar positioning.
To further build the perfect Squat, we then move to Goblet Squats which, like Front Squats, demand a greater level of Thoracic extension and core strength. This will help develop the upright torso position we look for especially in higher bar Squats.
In order to get our beginners used to the bottom position of the Squat, we include Box Squats with the box set at parallel or just below. We want a tight contraction of the Low Back, Glutes and Quads at the bottom position since we are merely using the box as a metric by which to consistently hit correct depth. Pausing whilst contracted at box level should remove the elastic response of the Hamstrings therefore allowing the forceful Hip Drive to be the prime mover.
To prepare for Deadlift coaching, we teach our beginners the basic Hip Hinge in the form of a Romanian Deadlift. This movement is performed from the top down with minimal knee flexion. This allows us to focus on maintaining a tight upper back with a neutral spine, and also allows tension to be placed mainly on the posterior chain. Essentially this begins to teach good Deadlift technique without being too difficult or technical.
The Leg Press/ Leg Curl superset is designed to begin developing the musculature of the leg whilst maintaining balance around the Hip and Knee joints. The Leg Press should be from below parallel in Squat stance so as to maximise Glute activation from the lowest position.
Finally the Plank Hold will begin to establish good core strength for when we finally begin to load up those heavy Squats and Deads!
We keep the rep and set relationship in the higher volume, lower intensity area of 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps. This is specifically to allow the trainee to perform as many useful repetitions as possible thereby quickly developing motor patterns and solid technique. This is not the period of training in which to go very heavy or to failure. We are not trying to overload the CNS or the muscle here. Instead we shoot for quality reps under control and with perfect form.
How long do I do this for?
This program is not restricted to a particular progression of any kind since its focus is not to continually overload and progress, rather to perfect and prepare before moving onto other training protocols. The Beginner Program will have run its course once all movements can be performed with good technique, safely and with an appreciable weight. It can be anywhere from 1 to 4 months to achieve this depending on the trainee.
And there you have our introductory routine for any weight-training beginner! Any trainee, regardless of experience, will be able to launch straight into this training system without worry or intimidation. You will be able to build a strong foundation of strength and good technique setting you up nicely for all your future gains!