Just a few days ago, Bret Conteras wrote a post on his site titled, “10 Things All Beginner Lifters Should Know.” It was not only an excellent piece, but I also thought it was a topic that doesn’t get discussed enough nowadays.
While many of us are busy debating the nuances of training programs – which exercises will yield the best glutes, what’s the optimal rep range for hypertrophy – the fact of the matter is, we regular lifters are in the gross minority.
It’s not just that lifting weights is more the exception than the norm. Rather, exercising in general – and on a consistent basis at that – seems to be a rarity.
I want that to change.
I’ve got friends who are curious about the weight room but are reluctant to venture close to the dumbbells. They’re not familiar with all the equipment, they don’t know many exercises, and they don’t even know where to begin.
That’s completely okay, because guess what? We have all been there at some point.
It’s our responsibility to help turn the tide. We have to make that transition into the weight room less intimidating.
I’ve made a list of all the things that I wish someone would have told me when I first started lifting weights. These are practical guidelines for every beginner trainee in the weight room.
Don’t worry about what other people might think of you.
Do you want to know the truth? They’re not watching you. In fact, they may not even notice that you’re there.
Don’t take it as an insult. Just realize that most people are so focused on themselves at the gym – whether that be actually concentrating on their workout, snapping shameless selfies in the mirror, or not-so-subtly pulling up their shirts to sneak a peek at their own abs – that you are the last thing on their minds.
They’re not watching you and they’re not judging you. They’re watching themselves.
Go do your thing and you do you.
Set a behavior goal.
“I want to look fantastic at the beach this summer” is a legitimate goal and all, but let’s also set a behavior-oriented goal that you can work toward in the gym.
Bang out one strict unassisted pullup.
Master a bodyweight deadlift.
Do ten proper pushups off the floor.
Achieving these milestones will help to keep you motivated in the gym and can make things exponentially more fun.
Because let’s be honest: on some days, the thought of straining and exerting yourself for an hour to look the way you want to three months from now is not enough to get you up and going.
You won’t necessarily look different from one workout to the next. But from week to week, provided that you are consistent, I can guarantee that you’ll make progress in the gym.
Start off with just two or three days of full body sessions a week.
I understand the urge to go balls-out is hard to resist. When I first started training, I dove headfirst into the dumbbells and found myself in the weight room six days a week. Needless to say, I burned out pretty quickly.
But you just came from doing nothing. At least, nothing in the way of proper resistance training.
So you want to go from nothing to all of a sudden doing everything, right?
Behavior change is surprisingly difficult. In fact, the more drastic the behavior change you’re trying to make, the less likely you are to keep it up over the long-term.
It makes sense, then, that you should make a number of small, consistent changes over time if you’re serious about your health.
Think about it. Do you want to train five days a week? Fair enough. After years of training zero days a week, though, how long do you think you’ll be able to keep up your new regimen for? Two weeks? Four, maybe?
What if, instead, you were to go to the gym just two days a week to start out with for just 45-minute sessions at a time? That’s not too much of a time commitment for you, is it? That seems very reasonable and sustainable to me.
Now why do I recommend full body sessions? Because as a beginner, your body is not only unfamiliar to strength training movements, but you also want to be making the most of your time there. In general, the fewer times you train per week, the more bodyparts you should be hitting per session. This will give you more opportunities to re-program your nervous system as your body learns the new movements.
I mean, let’s face it: learning the deadlift is no easy task. During the first few weeks, you’ll spend much of your energies focusing on nailing down proper technique and form for each of the movements, and the strength gains you experience will be related to your neural response rather than true strength gains.
So the more chances you give yourself to practice, the more you’ll improve.
Prioritize compound movements.
This applies to both beginner and advanced trainees alike, but beginners should especially take note.
I have to be honest with you: getting to the gym and doing nothing but bicep curls for an hour is not going to quite give you the training effect you’re going for. Not even close.
A compound movement is essentially an exercise that involves more than one major muscle group. Think squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and pull-up variations.
On the other hand, a bicep curl is what’s classified as an isolation exercise because it only works just that one muscle group. Leg extensions, leg curls, and tricep extensions also fall into this category.
Now, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess which of the two categories is going to give you the most bang for your training buck.
I would actually recommend training exclusively with compound movements for the time being. I promise you your biceps will not wither away.
Stick to medium-high reps for the first six to eight weeks.
This is my general recommendation for all beginner trainees simply because, related to the post above, more reps affords more opportunities to train the nervous system.
I like 8 to 12 reps as a sweet spot, though you could certainly venture higher up to 15 or even 20 reps on some sets.
It doesn’t make sense as a complete beginner to try and max out your bench press. I get that maybe you’re feeling the pressure to prove your worth in the gym and you want to pile on plate after plate, but again, your first sessions in the gym should not be about getting stronger.
Until your movements can progress from choppy and uncoordinated to smooth, beautiful reps, you’re not ready for heavy work.
Think of it as devoting this time to laying down a solid foundation for all your future training endeavors. The more diligent you are about getting your reps in and learning the movements, the bigger the payoff will be later down the road.
And since your reps are on the higher end, you won’t need to rest as much either. Anywhere between 30 seconds to a minute in between sets and you’ll be just fine.
Keep a training log.
This is crucial because you’ll want to document your progress.
Whether you keep a hand-written journal or a pretty little print-out template, log the weights, sets, and reps of every exercise you do. You should also write down notes and comments about how you were feeling that day, how the set went, and any other factors that may affect your training session (eg. “toooootally hungover”).
This often gets overlooked because a lot of people think they’ll be able to easily remember what they did the week before. But memory is not quite that reliable, and you’ll want to be able to glance at your previous numbers every once in a while to see how far you’ve come.
Remember, you want progressive overload to occur. You can accomplish this by increasing the weight you’re using or squeezing out another quality rep in the prescribed rep range. Alternatively, it can also mean moving from one variation of a movement to a more advanced variation. There are more many ways to go about achieving progressive overload, but for beginners, the above should suffice.
Recruit a training partner.
If you think you’ll have trouble getting to the gym consistently – due to your erratic schedule, or perhaps because you’d still rather stay on your couch and watch Game of Thrones re-runs – it may be in your best interest to find a friend to meet you at the gym.
Making a commitment to yourself is one thing, and it may be more than enough for you to follow through on your gym plans. But add in a partner who’s waiting for you at the gym, and you will be much, much less likely to bail. The pain of standing someone up and marring your reputation might be just what you need to make the gym a priority.
Not only that, but working out with a friend can be fun! Never underestimate the importance of your personal enjoyment on whatever journey you’re on, especially when it’s a new one.
Now, if you’re looking for a starting program, look no further. I’ve put together a basic full body program for you.
Make sure you are using appropriate regressions and progressions depending on where you are. If you’re unable to do even 15 proper bodyweight squats, for example, then adding a weight would be ill-advised. If you can’t do a proper pushup off the floor just yet, then do them on an incline until you can build up your strength.
This program is good for a two- or three-days-a-week schedule. The training sessions should be done on non-consecutive days.
If you’re training two days a week, your schedule might look like the following:
Monday: Training 1
Thursday: Training 2
Tuesday: Training 1
Saturday: Training 2
If you’re training three days a week, then it might look more like:
Monday: Training 1
Wednesday: Training 2
Friday: Training 1
And you would simply alternate training sessions each time you’re in the gym.
Again, these training sessions won’t take too long because the goal is not to throw you to the lions. You are simply getting your body accustomed to the movements.
A. Goblet squats 3×8-12
B. Inverted rows 3×12
C. Cable pull-throughs 3×8-12
D. Pushups 3×8-12
E. Barbell hip thrusts 2×20
F. RKC plank 2×20-30 second hold
A. Barbell glute bridges 3×10
B. Kettlebell sumo deadlift 3×8-12
C. Incline dumbbell bench press 3×8-12
D. Dumbbell reverse lunges 3×8-12ea
E. Lat pulldowns 3×12-15
F. Pallof press 3x8ea