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by on Jan 18, 2012 in Guides, Training | 21 comments

The Beginners Guide to Weight Training

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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

Categories

  1. You have never trained [properly] and understand that you are a beginner
  2. 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
  3. You have been training compound movements [properly] for less than 6 months
  4. You perform the exact same routine each time you go to the gym
  5. Your training routine solely consists of: Chests/Tri’s & Back/Bi’s
  6. You consider running a sufficient [lower-body] workout
  7. You don’t lift heavy for fear of getting “too big”
  8. You have an entire day devoted to abs
  9. This Is You
  10. 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
Bench Press Rows Squats Deadlift
Overhead Press Chin-ups Lunges Glute Ham Raise
Pushup Lat Pull Downs Hip Thrusts 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:

Main Move

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

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.

3-Day per Week Beginner Routine

Day 1: Lower Body Squat: 3 x 5-8 Dumbbell Reverse Lunges: 3 x 6/leg 45 Degree Back Extension: 3 x 10-12 Plank: 3 x :30 sec
Day 2: Upper Body Bench Press: 3 x 5-8 Overhead Press: 3 x 6-8 Dumbbell Row: 3 x 8/arm Chin-Up: 3 x 8
Day 3: Full Body Deadlift: 3 x 5-8 Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 6-8 45 Degree Back Extension: 3 x 10-12 Plank: 3 x :30 sec

 

4-Day per Week Beginner Routine

Day 1: Lower Body Squat: 3 x 5-8 Dumbbell Reverse Lunges: 3 x 6/leg 45 Degree Back Extension: 3 x 10-12 Plank: 3 x :30 sec
Day 2: Upper Body Bench Press:  3 x 5-8 Overhead Press: 3 x 6-8 Dumbbell Row: 3 x 8/arm Chin-Up: 3 x 8
Day 3: Lower Body Deadlift: 3 x 5-8 Dumbbell Forward Lunge: 3 x 6/leg 45 Degree Back Extension: 3 x 10-12 Plank: 3 x :30 sec
Day 4: Upper Body Overhead Press: 3 x 5-8 Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 8 Chin-Up: 3 x 8 Chest-Supported Row: 3 x 10

 

Exercise Menu

Upper Push Upper Pull Lower Push Lower Pull
Barbell Bench Press Chinups (weighted) Barbell Squat Barbell Deadlift
Dumbbell Bench Press Lat Pull Downs Goblet Squat Kettlebell Deadlift
Barbell Overhead Press Dumbbell Rows Static Lunge 45 Degree Back Extension
Dumbbell Overhead Press Cable Rows Reverse Lunge Glute Ham Raise
Pushup Forward Lunge

*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.

Wrapping Up

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.

1) Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe

2) Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert

3) Beginning Weight Training Part 1 by Lyle McDonald

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and if you have any questions please do not hesitate to leave them in the comments section below.

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

-J






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Fat Gripz
  • Lover O Spinny-Thing

    Mr. Syatt,
    Tone down the hubris and the patronization. Your typology of beginners is largely useless because any beginner who reads it (in its current form) is sure to hit the “back” button (I’m one of these). Also, if you want to talk Schwarzeneger, how about Phil Heath? He is Mr. Olympia and has an abs-only-day in addition to his daily core work.

    Just say “This is for anyone who is ready to grow in their understanding of PROPER weight training.” A non-beginner should instantly know that the article is not for them anyway, because they should know everything in this article. Not that it matters…

    Great stuff in terms of the training info, however.
    Thanks,
    LOST

    PS: I’m not trying to just get you down, I really enjoy your writing. I just would advise you to tone things down.

    • Jordan

      Thank you, I appreciate the feedback. Will definitely take your comments into consideration

      -J

    • Jay

      PHIL HEATH!!! LOL LOL ! come on!

    • JC Deen

      Dearest Lover O Spinny-Thing,

      When you start churning articles half this good, then we’ll accept your comments here. Until then, please refrain from giving unneeded advice until you have something of value to contribute.

  • http://jameskerrison.com james

    Hey Jordan,

    Nice article man!

    A good reference, and the books you reference are awesome too. This should keep most people progressing for the next few years or so.

    James

    • Jordan

      Thank you, James! Glad you enjoyed it.

      -J

  • http://vonsfitnesstips.com Von @ VonsFitnessTips.com

    Awesome article for beginners, Jordan.

    Too many people out there doing isolation exercises thinking they’ll get stronger and bigger by doing curls, tricep kickbacks, and whatnot. Compound movements FTW!

    • Jordan

      Thanks, Von.

      Totally agree :)

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  • monir

    Dont you think the warm up sets are too much?? (3-4 really??? that’s about 7 sets in total for a muscle group, for a beginner). I mean you should not waste so much energy in the warm ups. You should focus on more effort and intensity in the main sets. 1-2 warm up sets for each exercise is enough

    • Jordan

      No I don’t think it’s too much. I understand your point and I agree that the main sets should be the major focus, but warm-up sets are a great way to grease the groove and work on form/technique which is, needless to say, very important for beginners.

      -J

      • Ben

        I’m going to have to agree with you as this helps them get used to and learn the proper technique faster. More warm up sets = more sets = more practice performing a specific exercise.

        Besides, beginners are probably not throwing around the kind of weight that would make 7 sets difficult.

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  • http://www.theufcfighters.info Rich White

    Some really good info for the beginner to get the right techniques for a proper workout.Thanks for sharing this.

    • Jordan

      Thank, Rich. Glad you enjoyed it!

      -J

  • li chen

    is this a strength emphasis workout routine?

    • Jordan

      Li,

      Yes it is.

      -J

      • li chen

        ive received mixed opinions on dedicated arm exercises, and im curious about your opinion, why do you feel that it is not necessary in the routine?

        • Jordan

          Li,

          Sorry for the late reply!

          In short, beginners don’t need dedicated arm exercises because they’ll experience strength/size gains through performing other/bigger movements (i.e. Row & Chinup variations). They *can* include them if they want but it’s not necessary *especially* for beginners. Once past the beginning stage, however, if arm size is a major concern then including specific movements which systematically isolate various body parts would be a good idea.

          I hope this helps,

          -J

  • 1stepatatime

    What regression would you recommend for someone not able to do a chin-up, and only has a minimal gym that doesn’t have an assisted chin-up. (fellow Fito)

    • http://syattfitness.com/ Jordan Syatt

      I’d recognize that name anywhere :)

      My progression goes like this:

      1) Chin-Grip Lat Pull Down

      2) Negative Chins

      3) Band Assisted Chins

      4) Chins

      5) Weighted Chins

      Also, you might find this vid useful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ljicLmStyg

      • 1stepatatime

        Thanks for this. I do have the equipment for the lat pulldown, so it’s a great place to start!

      • http://bachperformance.com/ Eric Bach

        Great progression