Strength training for beginners is often waved off as a free pass. You will hear veterans of the iron game say things like “ beginners can do anything and still get results.” Although this may be true it still doesn’t mean that this is the best approach for training as a “beginner.” If you are an athlete who is still finding his/her way around the weight room, this post will put you in the right place. If you are a coach, or trainer, who is trying to figure out the optimal way to get your clients stronger, this blog will be worth the read.
What Defines A “Beginner”?
A beginner is sometimes called a novice. We often associate these kinds of lifters with being a complete beginner to strength training. While this may be true in some cases it is not always true in all cases. Let me explain.
A beginner can be labeled as any of the following:
- Complete Newbie
- An experienced lifter who hasn’t lifted for a while (~2 months)
- Somebody who still needs major technique work
- Anybody who cannot Squat 2X BW, Deadlift 2.5X BW and Bench 1.5X BW
- Somebody whose total training time is less than 1 year
As you can see many people fall under this umbrella of beginner. Most of the time however you can classify a beginner by his strength. In order to hit big numbers one has to have very solid technique. Technique is, by and large, the biggest culprit for sabotaging a beginners gains. It is not their “genetic limit.”
What Is Strength?
Strength is defined as the maximum amount of force that a muscle, or muscle group, can produce. Strength is the product of exerting force against an external load to stimulate an adaptation. The adaptation desired is to get stronger.
This adaptation usually comes in two ways: Neural adaptations and hypertrophy.
Neural adaptations are usually the first adaptations that take place in the body. These adaptations consist of recruitment of higher threshold motor units, resistance to fatigue and increased synchronization of firing.
In a nutshell, this means that when you are strength training as a beginner your body literally is trying to teach itself how to lift the load that is being placed upon it. A simple exercise to demonstrate this is a 1 legged deadlift. The first week you perform this exercise your muscles are firing like crazy to try and stabilize you. The next week the exercise seems easier and your muscles are not firing like crazy any more, they seem more coordinated. This sums up neural adaptations in the simplest way possible.
Have you ever noticed that during squats when you add 50 lb. to the bar how it actually feels like a different exercise. To your body, it actually is a different exercise. Your nervous system is trying to fire and coordinate the muscles in the most optimal way to lift the barbell.
Typically after neural adaptations, the next step is hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the increase in the size of the muscle(s) being trained. The sliding filament theory states that actin and myosin slide over each other during muscle contractions in order to generate force. During hypertrophy the number of actin and myosin cross bridges increases and the overall diameter of the muscle increases.
Types Of Strength Training
Regardless of what magazines are trying to sell you, there are only 3 methods for getting stronger. According to Vladimir Zatsiorsky and William Kraemer in their book Science and Practice of Strength Training, these three methods are:
- Max Effort Method
- Repeated Effort Method
- Dynamic Effort Method
Max Effort Method
Max effort method is lifting maximum weights (above 90%) for multiple sets of 1-3 repetitions. This in effect trains the nervous system to better recruit and fire motor units to lift heavy ass weights in a more efficient manner. When the goal is to get as strong as possible then lifting maximal weight should be included into the training program. Not only is the body trained in this process, but so is the mind. It takes serious balls to walk fearlessly under huge weights over and over again.
Repeated Effort Method
The repeated effort method is where sub-maximal weights are lifted for multiple repetitions and multiple sets. This is your typical 5X5 routine. The key to these programs is the overall volume. Volume is the key to success in any and all sports. It helps to increase motor control of the movement, but it also works to increase muscle hypertrophy. Thus this is an excellent training method to use to gain muscle size.
Dynamic Effort Method
The dynamic effort method is a means of using sub-maximal weights similar to those in the repeated effort method, except this time they are done for fewer (1-3) reps and they are done at max velocity. If we examine the relationship between force and velocity, we find that when muscular force is highest when velocity is highest. This is referred to as the explosive strength deficit (ESD). The ESD is by some standards to be the closest way to measure the maximum strength of an individual. The reason that light weights are used is because heavy weights exert too much force on the muscles which cause the muscles to respond slowly. To train the muscles to respond quickly we need maximum muscular force and peak velocity. That is why lighter weights are used.
Strength Training For Beginners
So here lies the moment of truth. After all of the information presented to you, what exactly would be a great way to implement strength training for beginners? Well if we look at a beginner’s profile we notice that commonly a beginner hasn’t been training for very long and they have low levels of strength. So we can already assume that a beginner needs to work on technique and perform lots of repetitions to make sure they master the big compound lifts.
With that said, the best way to implement strength training for beginners is to use the repeated effort method mentioned above. With the repeated effort method, sub-maximal weights are lifted for large amounts of repetitions. Starting with the lightest weights possible perform as many repetitions as you can in a training session with perfect form. This will drill the motor pattern into you nervous system so it will become a mere reflex with time.
Now when you hear most lifters talk about strength training for beginners they will say that you can do anything you want because you will make “newbie gains.” Although it is true that a beginner can literally do anything and still make gains, this does not mean that it is right. In fact this train of thought is setting you up for failure and increasing the risk of using PED’s to make gains. Remember all a person amounts to in their life is the summation of their habits, good things come from good habits and bad things from bad habits. Applying good habits to strength training for beginners will serve the beginner lifter well in the long run. Whenever you can choose good habits.