Strength training is a really popular topic in the fitness community. Whenever I got to the gym I watch all kinds of people lift, young, old, athlete, yoga, etc. This makes me happy in one way and concerned in another. Too many of these people are doing too much of the wrong stuff and too little of the right stuff. Why is this the case? Well, most of these people are getting very bad training advice from the media, blogs or fellow gym goers. With this post I hope to end that trend. We are going to start from the roots and explain how strength training for beginners should be done.
Many beginners usually try to imitate some pro bodybuilder, or athlete, that they see in a youtube video. What the inexperienced weight lifter doesn’t realize is that these pro bodybuilders have been training for decades. Their bodies are going to respond to exercise in a much different way than a beginner would.
So in order to understand why, lets take an in depth look at what strength is so my strength training for beginners program will make sense.
What is Strength?
Strength is often though of as the most amount of weight that can be lifted for a single repetition. Although this is correct, this is not exactly true. The true definition of strength is the maximum amount of tension that a muscle can generate. Muscles don’t recognize weight, they only understand tension.
I attribute this to the biggest fault of beginners to weight training. Strength training for beginners is so focused on weight and repetitions, when instead it should be focused on the maximum amount of tension that a muscle can generate.
Now I can already hear you saying, “but Tony who cares if I am generating max tension, I want to lift big weights to impress everybody in the gym.” Look, I get it. The ego has an insatiable appetite for attention. However, if you want to be able to lift big weights with ease, then you had better learn how to lift light weights with the greatest amount of tension possible. This is the key to success in strength training.
What Exercises Should A Beginner Start With?
Since we now know what strength really is, the question now becomes what exercises fit the proper strength training for beginners profile. Well, I know that I am going to get a lot of heat for saying this, but I believe that bodyweight training is the best place for a beginner to start their journey into resistance training.
Why bodyweight? Bodyweight exercises have many important qualities to them that are different form weighted exercises, namely:
- Easily Scalable
- Can Be Done Anywhere
- More Athletic Than Weights
- Provide Excellent Strength-Flexibility
- Easy On The Joints
- Quick To Recover From
- Low Risk Of Injury
- Cost Friendly
Another important quality not mentioned in the above list is how bodyweight training really helps to teach the lifter how to properly stabilize the joints prior to attempting the exercise. This was even mentioned in Supertraining. Drs. Siff and Verkhoshansky explained how the Russians wouldn’t allow Russian lifters to even touch a barbell until they could perform 15 dead hang pull-ups and 20 bodyweight dips in a row. The idea that bodyweight training doesn’t build strength is just another fitness myth.
What About “Traditional” Weight Training
Although I recommend bodyweight training prior to weight training, traditional weight training exercises still have their place in a strength training for beginners program. But a beginner should only perform “big lifts” with light weights in order to get technique down. When I lift and hear complaints from a 17 year old kid about knee pain and back pain, you know something is terribly wrong.
Therefore, I believe that a beginner should focus on single limb exercises. These exercises will draw out any weakness that the inexperienced lifter has and prepare him/her for heavier lifting in the future. I mean seriously, have you ever met someone who does pistols and sucks at sports. Nuff said!
On a more serious note, exercises like single dumbbell and single leg lifts will have other underlying tremendous benefits. Specifically the core will get trained on how to properly stabilize the body when one limb is away form the body and the other is close, a truly valuable skill indeed.
How Strength Training For Beginners Is Different From Advanced Lifters
We know that a beginner must use light weights and single limb movements. What about an advanced lifter? When I am referring to “advanced”, I am also referring to intermediates as well. These lifters need to focus on lifting heavier weight with less repetitions. An intermediate lifter will focus on doing the same repetitive exercises week after week with a slight variation or two every 3-4 weeks. An advanced lifter will vary their training programs from workout to workout, week to week or even bi-weekly.
A very advanced lifter needs constant variation of the big lifts in order to stimulate their adaptational response. It’s quite remarkable how the athletic maturity chart is very similar to that of building a business.
With that said, the most important thing for a beginner to do is to build their base. A solid base of movement and strength will go a long way in preparing for the bigger lifts that will soon come to the beginner if he doesn’t quit.
What About Diet?
How does diet affect strength training for beginners? Well it has a lot to do with strength training for beginners. Beginners who have never lifted before need carbohydrates to start their training program. Since they are not used to a serious strength training program, they are going to need to eat plenty of calories so their bodies have plenty of nutrients to pack on slabs of new muscle.
“Wait a minute, if I eat too much, won’t I get fat?” Yes you will get fat. But I am not telling you to eat too much, I am telling you to eat plenty of carbs. There is a difference. Carbs should be at least 60% of your diet. I am not telling you to eat everything in site. That is just an excuse to eat poorly and give you peace of mind that you are “healthy”. I am saying that the power of nutrition cannot be forgotten in any level of training from beginner to advanced.
Any extra weight you put on that is not muscle will make you look bad, make you feel bad and slow down your recovery. The truly scary thing is that this is just a very small list. I could write an entire article about this. If you are unsure about your body fat percentage, do yourself a favor and find out what it is. Omron makes a good analyzer for the price.
Can Athletes Train Like BodyBuilders?
The short answer is no! Bodybuilders do not train like athletes, even though they think they do. Bodybuilders train to gain as much muscle mass as possible. Athletes train to fine tune their movement patterns and to develop key qualities for their sport. These goals are nowhere close to matching each other. Athletes should not train like bodybuilders. We are interested in strength training for beginners, not strength training for bodybuilders.
Unfortunately, many youth athletes and weight training beginners fall for this trap all the time. They see the action hero in the movie with his ripped body just slaying his enemies. After seeing this they associate performance with being big and ripped. That is not at all true.
Being big and ripped will not at all make you a better athlete. You will look more intimidating, but when the rubber meets the road you will not be able to stand your ground. Also being big and ripped is not a guarantee that you will get laid. It will get girls to approach you, but if you don’t have the social skills to back it up, women will slip away.
How To Put On More Size
If putting on more size is your goal, then you will want to get the lactate flowing and start doing high reps with heavy weight. For athletes, no more than 5 reps. If you are not an athlete, then aim for 10-20 reps. Performing this many reps will stimulate more muscle growth and give you the size that you so desperately crave.
But here is the catch, this works best if you can lift heavy weight for this amount of repetitions. This is simple but not easy. So here lies the conundrum, how do you lift more weight with such a high amount of repetitions. Well, you have to get stronger. You should undergo a strength regimen first before you try to put on size.
It will save you a lot of frustration and headache. Trying to move up in weight with such a high amount of repetitions would take way too long. Not to mention if you have ever tried to perform 20 reps in a row with heavy weight you will know that it is absolute hell. Be sure to bring a wheelchair.
What About Isolation Exercises?
Here’s my opinion, isolation exercises are only good in two scenarios, sculpting and injury rehab. If you are already lean and strong, then performing isolation exercises will really help to add definition to your already sculpted physique. Likewise, if you are injured, then isolation exercises can help to maintain strength and conditioning of a particular joint without the risk for further injury.
The whole concept of isolation training was developed by a man named Arthur Jones. Jones discovered a clever business idea to make gyms become cash cow businesses. Instead of teaching people how to perform the classical barbell lifts, they could just use a machine. These machines were made by Nautilus. No prior training experience was necessary. So you can see why this is such a success in the fitness industry.
My personal pet peeve with isolation training is that it trains joints in an unbalanced way, which can lead to joint pain. The classic example is the guy who does endless sets of bicep curls. God only knows how often he works his triceps, or even his upper back. Plus, I also see them as kind of a cop out. They make the idea of training too easy for lifters. In reality, training is not easy, it is very hard work.
Why Most Beginners Fail
Whether it is confidence, motivation or self-sabotage, strength training for beginners can skew off course pretty quickly and leave the lifter running in circles. I have done this plenty of times. In fact, for the first few years of my athletic career I did this. If I could speak to my 19 year old self again, I would tell him not to worry. It may feel like you are spinning your wheels and going nowhere, but that is not at all the case. You are merely building your base of skills.
You are figuring out your strengths and your weaknesses. There is no better way to do this than to put your nose to the grindstone and just try new things. Otherwise, you will just be one of those individuals who is well read about a topic but has never gotten their feet wet.
Instead, learn to embrace failure and learn from it instead of dreading it. Failure is the best teacher out there. If you just think about it differently in your mind you will realize that you actually haven’t failed at anything. You just found a bunch of techniques that don’t work.
In conclusion, strength training for beginners doesn’t have to be complicated. It is very simple, you just need to persist and learn to do the work. No matter what area of life you choose to pursue, don’t think for one second that it is going to be easy. Nothing great ever comes easy. If did then everyone would be doing it. Don’t choose whats easy, choose whats right!