People worry about what others think in two places: the gym and the middle school lunchroom. No one wants to look like a weight-training beginner—even beginners. Having spent much time in the gym the sad truth is most people have no idea what they’re doing—even if they’ve been lifting for years.
Learning proper technique and maximizing your efficiency in the gym is tough these days. Inconsistent, contradictory information from all sources of media has created an environment ripe with confusion. No wonder so many people struggle to build a strong, shredded and athletic body.
As a beginner, I was there too.
I struggled in the gym and became overwhelmed by empty promises of results from supplements, workout programs, and ludicrous articles with one-size fits all approaches.
Luckily, I learned from (and continue to work with) some of the world’s best coaches. I have great network of brilliant professionals and work with athletes of all ages and ability levels. And now I want to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained with you.
What Beginners Say (And Do)
We’ve all seen it. The group of dudes in cut-off t-shirts with bright red pre-workout drinks bench pressing and blasting biceps curls three days per week, yet with no discernible improvements.
Or the young athlete wavering under a 45 bar with a bewildered expression.
Or the residential cardio queen who refuses to do anything besides cardio and endless sets triceps kickbacks to “tone” the muscles.
Despite potentially large efforts and time commitments these are still beginners. This isn’t a result of poor efforts; rather, misinformation and a lack of guidance. Rather than saying, “I told you so,” I’ll share the principles, knowledge, and facts to make sure you’re prioritizing correctly in the gym.
Principles for the Ultimate Beginners Guide for Weightlifting
1. Train Movements, Not Muscles
The most crippling problem for beginners is isolating each muscle group rather than training compound, multi-joint movements. This is majoring in the minors and a sure-fire way to be small, weak, and injury prone.
Strength training with basic movement patterns is the best way to develop a strong strength base. As such you have limited time and energy to dedicate to training and picking the right exercises is key to getting results in the gym. Biceps curls, lateral shoulder raises, and hamstring curls aren’t bad, but they shouldn’t make up the majority of your program. Isolation exercises only focus on a small part of the body and won’t provide the necessary stimulus to transform your body. Even bodybuilders, known for their insane isolation exercises and high volume, place focus on big movements like squats as the backbone of their programs.
There are seven human movements patterns, but for the scope of this article I will cover five: squat, hinge, lunge, push, and pull. The list below has each movement pattern and corresponding exercises to form the base for good programming.
Hinge: deadlift (all variations), good morning, kettlebell swings
Lunge: lunge, split squat, step back lunge, bulgarian split squat
Push: bench press, push-up, overhead press, jerk, one arm presses
Pull: pull-up, bent-over row, seated row, one arm row
Squat: Front squat, goblet squat, zercher squat, back squat
These exercises require major muscles working at multiple joints to perform movement, just like most movements in sport and life. These major movements must be emphasized early in a training career to build impressive results.
Eric’s Recommendation: Focus on three movement patterns per workout, aiming to add weight to the bar during each workout. Plan all movements patterns equally for balanced training.
2. Stick to the basics
You know those dudes standing in the corner of the gym doing curls on that half-ball bosu thing? Don’t do that. When it comes down to it the basics have withstood the test of time and should make up the majority of training. Prevalent in the fitness industry is the idea that complicated means effective. Non-sense. Programs consisting of 43 different exercises, pain-inducing timed sets, complex training, chains, and bands are not necessary for beginners. All of those are advanced methods and must be carefully programmed. There is a reason barbell and dumbbell exercises have been around for 100+ years—they work. Squats, deadlifts, cleans, push ups, and lunges etc. should be the primary exercises used in your programs. You’re not a special butterfly, the same exercises that worked 100 years ago will provide the best results today.
Eric’s Recommendation: Don’t follow fad programs or look for the latest exercise trend in the fitness industry. Instead, seek out tenured coaches that preach the basic tenants of training. I recommend Jason Ferruggia and Jim Wendler.
3. Quality over Quantity
It’s important track weights, beat personal records, and add weight to the bar, but it’s more important to improve the quality of each rep. Focus on perfecting technique and mastering mechanics of the major movements. This means achieving depth on your squat, staying tight on your deadlift, and performing full chin-ups when you hit the gym. Proper technique on exercises will yield better gains, fewer injuries, and a longer training career—That’s more important than beating your buddy in a bench-off.
Eric’s Recommendation: Take videos of your training. Is your technique up-to-par? Consider hiring a coach to ensure proper technique and optimal quality.
4. Exercise Order
Proper exercise order is vital for exercise performance and safety. Due to requirements of the nervous system and muscles it’s important to program certain exercises before others. Contrary to many workouts of the day (WOD’s) it’s stupid and dangerous to run 400 meter sprints followed by 15 power cleans and 50 box jumps. That’s recipe for overtraining and injury, not high performance gains. According to the NSCA Essentials of Strength and Conditioning “Compound power and core exercises require the highest level of skill and concentration of all exercises and are most affected by fatigue. Athletes who become fatigued are prone to using poor technique and consequently are at a higher risk of injury. “(Baechle and Earle 390-391) Sounds pretty damn important to me.
Eric’s Recommendation: I recommend the following order for exercises: 1. Dynamic movements: Jumps, sprints, throws 2.Explosive/Power: Power cleans, snatches 3.Compound Strength: Squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls 4.Compound/higher rep/hypertrophy: Squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls 5. Isolation work: Curls, calf raises, leg extensions 6. Conditioning
5. Free Weights Over Machines
Beginners head straight for machines when they enter the gym. It’s completely understandable. Easy to use instructions, change weight with a small pin, and a place to rest in between sets (I hope not). Despite their convenience most machines are pieces of crap.Why? Machines lock the body into place during movement patterns, which removes real-world carry over. Although you can use more resistance on machines the arms and legs are writing checks the body can’t cash. Your body doesn’t know how to use the strength or muscles in movement because the supporting parts of the body aren’t fit to handle the load. Essentially, you’re placing a jet engine in a go-cart with no steering wheel. At some point the body has to give.
Eric’s Recommendation: Machines won’t kill you, but they will not yield optimal results. There’s nothing that can be accomplished on a machine that can’t be trained more thoroughly with bodyweight, dumbbells, and barbells. Avoid them.
6. Feel Versus Real
stole borrowed this term from Loren Landow. If you don’t feel an exercise it doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Conversely, because an exercise is extremely difficult it doesn’t mean it’s creating any actual change. Pick your battles and train for performance. Pain and soreness may result from a tough workout, but they should not be your primary focus in training.
7. Loading, Reps, Sets, and Volume
Regardless of your goal training for strength and performance yields the best results. Especially with weight training beginners it’s imperative to build a big strength base for better development of all other physical qualities. This is the typical order I use with my clients.
1. Dynamic movements: Jumps, sprints, throws
Proper dynamic warm up, three to five sets of three to five reps for activation. More specifics are needed for sports performance, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
2. Explosive/Power: Power cleans, snatches, jumps
Two warm up sets followed by three to five sets of three to five reps. Keep load moderately heavy, but never to failure.
3. Compound Strength: Squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls
Pick a couple major movements and perform three to six sets of one to six reps. These should be heavy and difficult, but not past failure. If you can’t perform with good form it’s too heavy.
4. Compound/higher rep/hypertrophy
Pick one or two movements and perform two to four sets of eight to fifteen reps. These should be moderately difficult but not failure.
5. Isolation work
Pick one or two movements and perform twelve to twenty reps for two or three sets. Incomplete recovery can be used and near-failure is fine. Don’t go overboard, this is icing on the cake.
Eric’s Recommendation: Per the explanation above there is some variability in exercise selection and loading. Place your focus on the explosive and compound strength exercises, they are responsible for at least 80% of your results. Program hypertrophy and isolation work sparingly to bring up weak points.
Jumping right into a workout without a thorough warm-up is recipe for injury. Take 10 minutes and get it done, no excuses! Warm-ups should incorporates active stretching techniques, sport-specific movements, and neural activation exercises. These modalities are performed to mimic the movement-specific demands of the activity, address movement deficiencies, increase core and ligament temperature, stimulate the nervous system, increase stability, and activate proprioceptors (Yauss and Rotchstein, 2011). In other words, the warm-up should mimic target key movement patterns and muscles that will be trained during your upcoming session.
- Walking knee hug
- Cradle walk
- Forward lunge
- Reverse lunge w/reach
- Sub-Scap Push-Ups
- Body Weight Squats
Your warm-up doesn’t need to be complicated, but it can’t be neglected.
It’s a Wrap
There is a ton of information out there for beginning weightlifters; unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. By giving you the knowledge and principles on how the best bodies are built you’re now armed with the tools to maximize your time in the gym. The basics are best whether you’re a 75 year old grandma hittin’ the gym for the first time or a high school athlete trying to get bigger, faster, and stronger.
Featured image courtesy of Pascal and used under a Creative Commons license.