If you are a novice lifter or you’re working with beginners, you have a great opportunity.
A new lifter is a blank canvas, so with the correct approach they can quickly establish good training habits, build a base of strength, and add real muscle mass.
That’s why programme design for beginners is critical if you want the best results. Here is how it’s done…
Who Is A Beginner?
A beginner is anyone with less than a year of serious training experience. Don’t gloss over the ‘serious’ part. There are many people who have been going to gyms for years who are in fact still beginners because of their lacklustre approach. If there’s a question of whether or not someone is a beginner, then they are in fact a beginner.
Beginner Programming Pitfalls
Most veteran lifters can look back and realise they made at least a few of these mistakes starting out.
1. An Unbalanced Routine
Beginners often do far too much volume for chest and biceps and neglect the back and legs.
I totally get it. Benching and curling are some of the most enjoyable exercises. But it can’t come at the expense of back and leg work. In the long run, squats, deadlifts and chins are ‘high growth potential’ exercises that will pay long-term dividends in the pursuit of muscle and strength.
2) Prioritising Weak Points
A specialised routine to bring up weak or lagging body parts certainly plays a major role in the training of intermediate and advanced lifters.
But this doesn’t apply to the beginner. A beginner doesn’t have weak points. A beginner’s entire body is weak. Everything needs to get stronger. Save the specialist routines for when they’re needed, further down the road.
3) Following An Advanced Lifter’s Routine
With the training programs of champion bodybuilders and world record powerlifters readily available, it’s easy to think that following what they are doing is a clear path to success.
What we don’t see is the years and sometimes decades of dedication it took them to arrive at their current level of strength and development. What they’re doing now isn’t what they were doing as novice lifters.
4) Programme Hopping
Enthusiasm to get results as quickly as possible is positive. But it can become a detriment if you start to jump from one programme to the next, in the hope of faster results.
It takes time to adapt to a programme. Have patience and stay the course.
5) Total Randomness
Many lifters go to the gym with no plan at all. This is akin to hopping into a rudderless boat and crossing your fingers hoping to arrive at your desired destination.
Now that we know the common mistakes what do we do about it?
Structuring a Training Programme
When designing a programme, there are key areas that are interconnected: frequency, exercise selection, sets and reps, time under tension, and rest periods. Below we’ll examine each area more closely.
A beginner will progress fastest with 3-4 full body training sessions per week. This gives a beginner the frequent exposure needed to learn the new skill of lifting, without overtaxing their recoverability (as long as volume is managed appropriately).
Some quick learners with a knack for lifting may progress to an Upper/Lower split rather quickly, but starting everyone with a full body routine is a safe bet.
Below are eight categories of exercises covering the whole body. Each training session should include one exercise from each category.
The majority of the exercises selected should be compound free-weight exercises. Compound free-weight exercises force lifters to stabilise their body and the resistance, improving coordination while stimulating the most muscle mass. But there are also a few machines that are valuable to have in your toolbox.
The main objective for a novice lifter is to improve intramuscular and intermuscular coordination. Intramuscular coordination means training the fibres of a muscle to contract in an organised manner, rather than randomly.
And intermuscular coordination means getting different muscle groups to work together. If you’ve seen anyone lifting weights that looked unstable, shaky, or wobbly it’s due to poor muscular coordination.
All this really means is that beginners need a lot of practice lifting weights to get better at lifting weights. But, this is so important for a beginner because more advanced methods require stability, clean technique, and confidence with the weights.
Sets and Reps
Between 2-5 sets of 5-15 reps per exercise.
This is a broad range. Most exercises should fall somewhere in the middle, around 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, but more complex exercises should use a higher number of sets and lower reps.
A higher number of sets allows the lifter to get in enough volume without technique breaking down, which tends to happen when beginners attempt high-rep sets of complex exercises.
Iron icons Bill Starr and Reg Park made 5×5 the cornerstone of their respective beginner programmes, as have many other successful coaches. Follow their lead and adopt a similar scheme for the big lifts.
Tempo and Time Under Tension
Other than exercises that are inherently dynamic, such as step-ups and lunges, tempos that promote control and stability are preferred. The eccentric portion of reps should be moderate to slow, and the concentric should be smooth and controlled. Shortened-position pauses can be used to reinforce scapular control on rows and pull-downs.
Because of the high variability in reps per set, don’t lock yourself into a hard range for time under tension per set. But as a general rule, sets should be 20-plus seconds in duration.
Take just enough that reps don’t get sloppy, but not so much that focus is lost. Between 30-90 seconds should suffice if you’re alternating exercises. If alternating exercises isn’t possible due to a crowded gym, rest periods can be extended to two minutes.
Putting it all together, sample workouts might look like this:
If training four times per every seven days your week could look like this:
Monday – Full Body 1
Tuesday – Off
Wednesday – Full Body 2
Thursday – Off
Friday – Full Body 1
Saturday – Full Body 2
Sunday – Off
How Often to Change Programmes
Beginners can progress on the same programme longer than intermediate and advanced lifters. Constant change doesn’t allow a novice enough time to develop coordination. Again, weight training is a new skill for them and they need time to practice.
Beginners can use the same programme for six to eight weeks before changing. It’s not uncommon for a novice to be able to add 5-plus pounds to every exercise at every session for weeks. As long as progress is being made, milk the programme as long as possible. And even then, the changes only need to be subtle. For example, progress from a dumbbell Romanian deadlift to a barbell Romanian deadlift, or from a close parallel grip chin-up to a medium supinated grip chin-up.
Troubleshooting Common Technique Issues
It’s easy for beginners trying to rush progress to develop the bad habit of bouncing reps out of the bottom of their squats and off their chests in the bench press. This can be remedied with a technique typically reserved for advanced lifters: dead stop reps in a power rack.
Advanced lifters use this method to build starting strength by eliminating the use of elastic energy, forcing them to overcome inertia on each rep.
Beginners can utilise dead stop squats and benches also, but to clean up their technique flaw. Just adjust the pins in the power rack so that the bar rests just above the chest when bench pressing, and a few inches above rock bottom for squatting. The bar should come to a complete stop on the pins, resting for 2-3 seconds on each rep. It shouldn’t take but a few weeks of pausing all of their reps on pins to remedy the problem.
Another useful power rack method for beginners is the progressive range of motion system, popularised by one of the strongest men of all time – Paul Anderson.
Say a novice lifter is having a hard time keeping an arched back at the bottom of a deadlift, set the pins in the rack to the point just before technique breaks down. By restricting the range of motion you’ve just eliminated the problem area. The range of motion may be short, but so what? We’re more concerned with long-term progress. As they build strength and confidence, and technique improves, start to progressively lower the pins one inch per workout. One inch is hardly noticeable from one workout to the next, but after several weeks they’ll be pulling from the floor without a problem.
Another possible solution for lifters with poor technique is the use of super slow tempos. This was briefly popular in the 80s and 90s, but it is rare to see today. Take five seconds for the eccentric portion of each rep, and five seconds for the concentric portion as well. A single rep should take 10 seconds to complete.
This is a modified version of the original super slow system, which is credited to Nautilus employee Ken Hutchins.
With focus, a beginner will have control and stability with the resistance, and learn to use the appropriate muscles for the given exercise. When using super slow tempos, limit the reps to eight or less per set.
Wrapping It Up
-Full body routines are best
-Use primarily compound free-weight exercises
-Train three to four times per week
-Progress on the same programme as long as possible
These principles may not be fancy, but they’re proven. A novice who follows them will likely see some of the most rapid gains of their lifting life.