Written by Chad Wesley Smith
As an advanced lifter it is often easy to lose track of how you started off in training. I have been writing my own programming for the better part of my entire training career, 15 going on 16 years and in that time I have done some great things and I have done some dumb things. Mind you in Summer 2000 when I started lifting weights for high school football and track, information on technique and programming wasn’t readily available and things like YouTube and Facebook where people now have easy access to top lifters and coaches, were merely a glimmer in some soon-to-be rich guys’ eyes. I had to scrounge different websites for information and experiment on myself and those experiments included squatting in the smith machine, benching by bringing the bar only halfway down to my chest because I was afraid of hurting my shoulders, countless cable crossovers, entire machine based circuits, HIT Training and many more regrettable decisions. Fortunately I also did a lot of good things during my early training career, mostly in the form of sprinting, jumping, throwing, cleaning, squatting and benching with great energy for success.
Hopefully my decade and a half of training can shed some light on important things for you to start off on a path to success.
One thing that I did, or at least tried to do, in my first year of lifting was train like a bodybuilder, or at least what I thought that meant. The thing that beginners (less than 3 years training experience) lack most compared to their intermediate and advanced counterparts, is muscle. You have to build muscle if you ever hope to be strong and there is a best way to do that.
Proper hypertrophy training will focus on:
That order is important because it orders the movements from the most to least damaging to the muscle. You may take pause at the idea of damaging the muscle, but the more muscle damage you can create in a training session, the more adaptation your body will go through.
Basing the majority of your training (50% of the year) on training in the 6-12 rep range at 60-75% intensity in the barbell movements and complimenting that with an assortment of exercises following the hierarchy above and eating a hypercaloric diet with attention to sufficient protein intake throughout the day (0.8-1g/lb of bodyweight) as well as ample carbs before, during and immediately after your training will get you off to a great start on muscle building.
Learn more about the most important diet aspect in Dr. Mike Israetel’s video, Calories: Your #1 Priority:
Perfect Your Technique
One advantage you have as a beginner is that you hopefully don’t yet have any bad habits, you are a fresh piece of clay, waiting to be molded. The sooner you can get yourself in front of experienced eyes, whether that be a coach, seminar, online community or just the strongest people at your gym, the better off you will be. At the very beginning of your lifting career the most important thing you can do is train with high frequency as every day you don’t perform the lifts is a day you are forgetting how to do them. For example, if you started training for the first time in your lift today and trained 3x/week for the next 4 weeks you would have done 12 training sessions and had 16 rest days, over half of your training career has been spent not training. Beginners can and should train with high frequency because they don’t yet posses the ability to create significant stimulus in a single training session, so the more frequently they can do high quality work like 60-75% for sets of 6-10 PERFECT reps, the more quickly they’ll learn and ingrain good technique.
Often times beginners are intimidated to seek out advice or attend events because they are embarrassed or feel unqualified, please put that insecurity aside and realize that everybody who is now an expert was once in the same place as you and assuming they aren’t a jerk is going to be excited to help you get off on the right foot. The sooner you have found a solid base of technique, the sooner you can start adding volume and intensity to your training, growing bigger and stronger and adapting your technique within the framework you’ve created.
Think Long Term
Strength is a long game, not one that is conquered in a matter of weeks or months. The sooner that you can understand how to create a program for long term success and do the things that come along with that, such as proper nutrition, movement prep, and passive recovery, the more successful you will be.
One of the most perplexing ideas to be that I see propagated by brilliant social media commenters is the idea of beginner vs advanced programs. That isn’t a thing. There are beginner and advanced athletes but programming principles don’t differ between these differently qualified athletes, they are simply applied differently.
Stimulus Recovery Adaptation
Those are the priorities, in order, for creating successful and sustainable programming whether you are an athlete entering the gym for the first time or a World Record holder with 20 years of experience. The program they create though may look different due to how the application of these ideas will vary based on Size, Strength, Gender, Proximity to Career Peak and Fiber Type of the Lifter but the principles remain. A good coach understands this and understands how to manipulate these principles for athletes of different experience and ability levels, seek out a coach like this and get on a system of training that will allow you to manipulate the above priorities as your abilities evolve.
Learn more about these ideas in my YouTube video, Adjusting Training from Beginner to Advanced:
To give you a practical example of what I’m talking about with the above programming ideas, I’ll lay out a sample week of training for a beginner lifter.
Note that we are applying the Scientific Principles of Strength Training and are at the lower end of the overload parameters for hypertrophy (60-75% intensity for sets of 6-12 reps for 15-30 overloading sets/week directed at developing each lift), though using percentages may not be the most practical for beginners as they wont have an established max to work from and even if they did, it will be changing very quickly, so we will work at Reps In Reserve meaning they will perform the reps until it seems they’d only be able to do 3 more quality reps.
Hi Bar Squat 3×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Bench Press 3×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Deadlift from 3” Blocks 3×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Chest Supported Rows 4×10-15 Reps
Walking Lunges 2×12 Steps
Pushups 2×10-15 Reps (Weighted If Necessary)
Back Raises 2×10-15 Reps
Front Squat Squat 4×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Widegrip Bench Press 4×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Cable Rows 4×10-15 Reps
Leg Press 2×10-15 Reps
DB Incline Bench 2×10-15 Reps
Good Morning 2×10-15 Reps
Bench Press 4×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
RDLS 4×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Lat Pulldowns 4×10-15 Reps
DB Step Ups 2×6 Each Leg
DB Military Press 2×10-15 Reps
Back Raises 2×10-15 Reps
Box Squat 4×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
Closegrip Bench 4×8-12 Reps at 3 RIR
One Arm DB Rows 4×10-15 Reps
Goblet Squats 2×10-15 Reps
Incline Pushups 2×10-15 Reps (Weighted if Necessary)
Good Mornings 2×10-15 Reps
As the athlete progresses from week to week in an effort to perfect technique and build muscle it is important that they increase the total volume of training and that could be accomplished by increasing intensity (weight on the bar), moving to 2 or 1 RIR and/or by doing more total sets of work.
This simple program utilizes high frequency training (3 Squat Sessions, 4 Bench Sessions, 2 Deadlift Sessions per week) to allow for technical development while also taking advantage of the short SRA curves that beginners lifters will produce, specificity is high to the competitive lifts while keeping variation low enough to not interrupt with motor learning.
The start of a lifter’s career is an exciting but confusing time, hopefully these simple tips will help you get yourself or your athletes off to a more successful path.