Weight Lifting For Beginners

Although it can be annoying, everybody must start somewhere, and what better way to start off than doing it right.

You always remember your first time as a beginner in something, whether that be the first time you benched 225 pounds, set a new personal best on a squat or you had to buy a new shirt because your chest got too big, the feeling of conquering new challenges is what keeps you pushing forwards and motivated in the gym.

Gains don’t happen by accident, once you get past the beginner stages it can be all too easy to fall behind and stop the gains. So follow the next few steps to keep up the gains and see if weight lifting gains especially become more and more impressive.

1) Find Your Max

A starting point is crucial for setting and achieving goals, do you know your current bench press, deadlift and squat one-rep maxes? if so, then take a note of it and if not then it is time to do a little research. There are two ways to easily test one-rep max:

1. Work up to a heavy set of 3 and approximate

You should be able to lift 90% of your one rep max for 3-4 reps. For example if you can lift 225 pounds for 3 reps then divide 225 by 0.9, your 1 rep-max is about 250 pounds.

2. Test it!

Test out what your one-rep max is by working up to the single heaviest set that you can lift without ruining your form, plan a week ahead with testing and test each lift on a different day.

It doesn’t matter what method you choose, knowing your maxes allows you to set realistic goals and plan training loads.

Getting strong is a by-product of doing the exercise properly.

2) Set Strength Goals

A good strength cycle lasts 12-16 weeks, a 5-10% gain during a cycle is typical for a beginner, so if the best bench press is 225 pounds at present then you’re looking to get the bar to 235-245. Gains don’t continue at this rate permanently. As the years go by every pound added is a small victory. Consider looking to set your goal increases by 5%.

Maxes can also be used to set training loads, get your absolute max and reduce it by 5-10%. This is your training max, it is different from your absolute max so be sure to plan enough quality training volume without overtraining. The goals are for more quality reps without going to failure, better lifting technique and appropriate loads for your body to adapt too.

3) Practice Your Form

When you are new to strength training it is a good idea to practice first. It seems against our basic nature to dial it back and get the basics right first but that is what a lengthy training career requires. Going all out at the beginning will work great at first but then you will find your training grinding to a complete halt, this is because you will not get the necessary skills required in order to progress without damaging your body and it’s ability to adapt to heavier training.

Focus most on learning the lifts – squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and chest presses early on and you will consistently get stronger throughout your career. Don’t focus on your one-rep max too much, it has it’s place, but you don’t have to focus solely on that, try to gain experience in being a good lifter instead.

Once you get a good strength workout routine going you will soon find the gains come thick and fast and you will see the difference in the mirror too.

4) Select A Simple Strength Scheme

There are endless reams of experts on the internet offering a million different schemes you can do, avoid them.

Fancy Smolov squat cycles and Westside is enticing but they are complicated and require a huge training base of fitness and skill, you don’t need them right now, they have their place, these are just two examples of the huge range out there.

The current goal is simply, sets of 5 in the 70-85% range and sets of 3 in the 75-90% range are perfect for the main lifts. Assistance lifts employ sets in the range 5-8 reps, keep a few reps left in the tank at the end of each set, you don’t need to go to failure as this isn’t bodybuilding.

5) Select Your Exercises

Multijoint lifts are done with barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. There is no place for machine training and little room for single-joint training in total strength development, this is wasted training volume.

Focus on:

  1. Deadlifts and their variations: rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts and sumo deadlifts.
  2. Benchpress and variations: incline bench presses, floor presses and dumbbell bench presses.
  3. Squats and their variations: front squats, box squats and goblet squats.
  4. Overhead press and it’s variations: seated military presses,  dumbbell overhead presses and kettlebell overhead presses.

A routine should be pretty easy to get together. Use a full-range deadlift, bench press or squat as your main lift, performing sets of 3-5 and also a variation of each as your assistance exercise (e.g. rack pulls with deadlifts, floor presses with bench presses and front squats with a normal squat etc.).

Never overdo training as this can be counterproductive.

6) Avoid Bodybuilding Goals

Many people new to strength training mistakenly apply their general bodybuilding or fitness habits to their strength regimens meaning too many exercises and too much volume is planned.

Strength development is nervous-system intensive unlike bodybuilding which tackles the musculoskeletal system, meaning less volume must be planned for strength training, trying to match volume with a bodybuilding process then you will damage recovery time and could regress as well.

There is no exact science for determining the right number of exercises but it does lie somewhere in the 3-6 range the variation is there because of several factors, when planning an upper-body, lower-body or full-body session you must consider intensity and 1 rep-max percentage you’re going to train at during a session. Heavier sessions with a higher intensity require less volume.

Lighter sessions and upper body workouts can have a higher volume, nervous system intensity is not as great so recovery time is not as much of an issue. Pack in more volume on upper-body days rather than lower-body ones, choose lower volume if in doubt.

Once you have a routine worked out you will never struggle in the gym again when it comes to getting things right.

7) Getting It All Together

The program below is based on a four-day split but actual training days may be dictated by your schedule, the four-day split works well because it follows an upper-body, lower-body routine.

Remember your goals before lifting. Go for numbers 5% above your current maxes. Once you have organised your goals, work backward from the date of achievement of them. This is roughly 12 weeks from the program start date and progress through sets of 5 and 3, increasing overall intensity, using heavier weights for fewer reps as the weeks go by.

A month’s worth of 5-rep sets on the main lifts is a good place to start, month 2 intensifies with sets of 3 reps, month 3 finishes with sets of 3 on week 1, 5’s on week 2, heavier 3’s on week 3 and then use week 4 as a test week.

Beginning light is never a mistake and improving your technique is the main focus. Choose big lifts, set goals, plan and get to work, you will take a strong step on your lengthy strength journey.

This workout routine example will set you on the right path.

Month 1 Sample Four-Day Workout

Deadlift Day

Main Lift – Deadlift: 4 Sets of 5 reps using 70-855 of 1 rep max.

Assistance Lift – Rack Pull: 3 sets of 5-8 reps using 8-10 rep max, alternative option: Romanian deadlift or sumo deadlift.

Other Exercises, Choose 1-2 More Multi-Jointed Exercises: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using 8-10 rep max.

Bench Day

Main Lift, Bench Press: 4 Sets of 5 using 70-85% of your one-rep max.

Assistance Life, Incline Benchpress: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using a 10-rep max. Alternate option of floor press or dumbbell bench press.

Other Exercises, Choose 2-4 Multijoint Exercises: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using 8-10 rep max.

Squat Day

Main Lift – Squat: 4 Sets of 5 using 75-85% of 1 rep-max.

Assistance Lift – Frotn Squat: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using 10 rep max. Alternative lift: Box squat or goblet squat.

Other Exercises, choose 1-2 more multijointed exercises: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using an 8-10 rep max.

Overhead Press Day

Main Lift, Military Press: 4 Sets of 5 using 70-80% of 1 rep max.

Assistance Lift – Seated Military Press: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using 10 rep max. Alternate lift overhead dumbbell press or overhead kettlebell press.

Other Exercises: Choose 2-4 more multijointed exercises: 3 Sets of 5-8 reps using 8-10 rep max.

So overall we have seen that even as a beginner, weight strength training can still bring you significant gains if you approach it in the correct way without hurting yourself.


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