Beginning Weight Training – Part 1

For the most part, articles about beginner’s training aren’t terribly popular. This is because, with literally no exception I have ever run into in nearly 20 years of doing this, everybody thinks that they are more advanced than they are. It’s simply human nature, nobody wants to think of themselves as a beginner or noob. In the world of training and dieting the consequence of this is that folks tend to jump into advanced training or diet interpretations long before they are either needed or useful or they have developed the necessary fundamentals.Not only is this not terribly productive, it can actually be detrimental to long-term progress. Even if the person doesn’t get injured or burned out by doing too much too soon, they run into another big problem: by using advanced methods early on, trainees are limited when they do manage to reach a more advanced stage. That is, if someone jumps into high volumes or advanced training methods right out of the gate, they run into problems later on when they actually need to increase something. If volume is already high, increasing it further is difficult if not impossible. And if advanced methods are being used too early, there’s nothing left to break plateaus when they occur later on.

Put a little bit differently, one goal of all training should always be to get the most adaptations/gains in performance with the least amount of training. That way, when gains slow down, there is actually room to increase things. Start too high to begin with and you’ve got nowhere to go when you actually need to do it.

Put a bit differently, if you can get the same gains out of 3 hours/week of training vs. 6 hours/week of training, you’re better off training 3 hours/week. That way, when 3 hours/week stops working, you have room to increase to 4 hours/week then 5 hours/week then 6 hours/week. If you start at 6 hours/week and stop progressing, you’ve got nowhere left to go.

An additional factor contributing to this problem is this: a lot of beginners (and this holds for non-weight room activities as well, runners and cyclists do the same thing) tend to fall into a trap of thinking “If I want to be as good/big/fast/whatever as [insert name of currently top level individual here], I should do what they do in training.”

But what’s forgotten is that what said top level individual is doing now, 10-15 (or more) years into their career is absolutely not reflective of what they did when they started. Rather, assuming they were coached in some fashion or another, they started with a very beginner approach to training and have only built up to their current level of training (in terms of volume, intensity and frequency) over years and years of training. But since folks rarely see or hear about what those folks did when they started, and only see what they are currently doing, they tend to assume that that is the proper way to train.

Of some relevance to this article is the fact that top level athletes in almost all activities often have periods where they ‘return to the basics’. So they might spend some amount of their year or season training in at least a similar fashion as they did as rank beginners. That’s on top of the fact that, almost without exception, top level individuals in all sports are always working on the fundamentals to one degree or another (a topic I’ve discussed variously on the site).

In fact, I might go so far as to argue that, in most activities, a big part of what separates the top level guys from the wannabes is the willingness to always work on the basics. That is, wannabes tend to want to only do the sexy and fun stuff; it’s the guys who reach the top who consistently and constantly hammer away at the fundamentals. If you don’t believe me, find a place where athletes of different levels train. One difference will be that the higher level guys always do the basics: they warm-up properly, do their drills with attention and focus, pay constant attention in training, cool-down correctly, etc. The guys skipping all of the stuff that isn’t fun are the ones who not only don’t make progress but usually waste their careers looking for Training Secrets.

And while we might argue that many activities done in the weight room (with the exception of the Olympic lifts) aren’t nearly as technique heavy as many sporting movements, the fact is that proper performance in the weight room does impact results. The folks flailing about with the weights are not only putting themselves at a higher risk of injury but probably aren’t training the target muscle effectively in the first place.

You can contrast that to successful bodybuilders who often have some of the most beautiful technique you’ll ever see (I should mention that it’s not uncommon to see really big guys with totally awful technique). If you ever get a chance to watch a good powerlifter train, you’ll see what I’m talking about: laser focus and absolutely dialed in technique (that they continue to try to improve throughout their career). And if you know anything about Olympic lifting technique, you’ll know when one is training in your gym; he’ll be the one squatting and pulling with form more impressive than you’ve ever seen. And while I’m not saying that you have to spend eons figuring out how to do the ‘perfect rep’, developing good technique in the early stages of weight training pays massive dividends later on (ask anybody who’s had to fix technique after years of doing it wrong).

But I’m getting off topic.

My point with this introduction is that, whether folks get into the weight room for general health/fitness purposes or to pursue bodybuilding or strength training (e.g. powerlifting) or are simply using the weight room to improve their performance in some other sport, the same dynamics tend to hold for rank beginners. Folks want to be more advanced than they are and jump into advanced routines far before they have developed the fundamentals of training.

So, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to talk about all forms of beginning strength training as sort of a generalized whole, whether the ultimate goal is bodybuilding (or physique changes more generally), general health/fitness or some strength sport. I’ll make comments about differences in each activity as necessary since there are some. Since this will get long, I’m going to divide the article into three parts.

Today I’m going to focus on some of the basic ideas about why people get into the weight room in the first place in terms of goals along with what defines a beginner. On Friday, I’ll look at the major adaptations that beginner routines are trying to achieve. And finally on Tuesday of next week, I’ll look at how to set up a good basic beginner routine and how to progress it until someone is ready to move to the intermediate stage.

Body Composition vs. Strength vs. Performance vs. Fitness/Health

People lift weights for a variety of reasons. I imagine the majority reading this site do it to improve body composition, usually to look better naked. Some of course eventually want to compete in one of the physique sports, whether it be bodybuilding or fitness/figure. Some may want to get into something like power or Olympic lifting (probably not a lot of the latter and I won’t make many comments about that). Some may be doing it only for general health and I imagine some do it because they feel that they are ‘supposed to’.

Now, there are certainly differences in training for each of those goals and I want to make a few comments about them before moving on (I’ll make more comments as needed throughout the article series as well).

Clearly the goal in physique/body composition oriented activities is primarily geared towards increasing muscle mass and/or losing fat (for more commentary on that, please read Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 1 and Weight Training for Fat Loss Part 2). Those who eventually want to compete in the physique sports have to worry about other things such as symmetry, balance, etc. Getting their diet in order is clearly a big key. Of course, fitness competitors have to worry about the fitness routine itself but that’s far outside of the scope of this article.

Those who eventually want to pursue something like powerlifting have as their goal lifting the most weight for a single repetition in the competitive lifts (squat, bench, deadlift or bench/deadlift if they go that route); at some point the gear/raw question comes up as well. Folks eventually targeting something like strongman also need a base of strength although they will eventually need focus on the implements (and the huge strength/endurance component) that are required in competition. Olympic lifters are in a similar position with learning the competition movements along with building base strength also required.

Weight training for athletes gets more complicated as what’s needed depends on the requirements of the sport, the individual, weight classes, etc. For the general health/fitness lifter, the goals are typically much more modest, developing a basic level of strength fitness along with developing bone health, staving off negatives associated with aging are typical goals and I’d only note that weight training for general fitness/health tends to be the least intensive/extensive of all weight training programs. They are often kept short and focused (even if some ‘optimality’ in terms of gains are sacrificed) to take into account the goals.

And clearly each of those goals will ultimately require a different approach. However, for the most part, I’d argue that most of those differences are completely academic at the beginning stage of training. Most beginners needs the same basic things out of training initially (which I’ll discuss on Friday) and the routines will, by and large, look more or less identical. Although I won’t say much more about it, beginning Olympic lifting routines would tend to be the most divergent from what I’m going to describe but your coach should be handling that.

Rather, the differences will start to become more relevant/prevalent once trainees get out of the pure beginner stage of training and start moving into more involved and focused training as an intermediate level trainee. Essentially, all trainees, regardless of ultimate goals need to develop a base of training while achieving a number of adaptations that I’m going to discuss below. That base will provide a launching off point for more specialization down the road.

So, for the most part I’m going to treat beginner training for all of the above more or less identically. Slight differences will tend to be that (slight) and I’m sure I’ll be addressing questions about it in the comments section.

What Defines a Beginner?

Perhaps the first question to cover is what actually defines a beginning trainee. Clearly anyone just starting out in the weight room is a beginner and what I’m going to write would apply there; in that situation, beginner training might be done for 3-6 months before anything more advanced was either appropriate or needed.

I’d also suggest that, as I discussed in Returning to Training After a Layoff – Q&A, anyone who has had a large break from training (perhaps 3-4 more weeks or more) should start back to training with a beginner type routine. The biggest difference in the second situation is that the time spent performing beginner training would be much shorter. Perhaps 2-4 weeks of complete beginner training might be necessary before that person (assuming that was their goal) moved into something more advanced.

Individuals who were once trained but have taken a very extended period of time off (say a year or more) should consider themselves rank beginners again. They may not need the full 3-6 months of beginner training but they should expect to take proportionally longer on that type of training before moving into anything more advanced.

I’d also offer and I know that people reading this won’t like it, that most trainees out there are not nearly as advanced as they thought. Even someone who has been ‘lifting weights like a bodybuilder’ for 2 years may still be, strictly speaking, a beginner in that their form sucks, they’ve made little to no gains in actual muscle mass, their overall training structure sucks, etc. This is more common than you think and I’ve seen it for years in the weight room and the forums. Despite the apparent training age, those folks have to train like beginners for a while before being allowed to do anything more advanced.

To give specific examples, one client of mine, who had literally 20 years of weight training under his belt, had atrocious form on everything he did. Quite literally none of it was correct and it was limiting his ability to make progress. So despite the 2 decades in the weight room, he was essentially a beginner in many ways. And I trained him as such in many ways, forcing him to fix his technique and form (at least on key exercises) before going heavy again.

Another trainee, despite having lifted for 2-3 years by herself was in a similar situation: except for RDL’s, her form on everything was horrible (she made the mistake of mirroring the form she saw in her own weight room, which was all fundamentally awful). So, in addition to fixing some injury stuff, she trained basically as a beginner until it was fixed.

I’d finish by noting that, even if it seems like you’re taking a step backwards, even ‘really advanced’ folks often benefit from returning to the fundamentals for a while. As I noted above, many athletes do this in other sports and reinforcing the basics for a bit never hurts. So all of you super advanced Internet trainees, the ones who keep looking for harder and more intense and more advanced, at least consider a short phase of training on the basics. You might learn some useful stuff.

A follow up question to “What defines a beginner?” would be “When do I know when I’ve moved to the intermediate stage?” This latter question is a bit harder to answer. Generally speaking, I’d expect a beginner to show proper form in the major weight training exercises and be capable of handling a full workout (which would typically last from 60-90 minutes) without getting murdered with fatigue.

Some muscle mass would clearly have been gained at this point but, as discussed in What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?, a beginner might still be gaining at a fairly nice rate of 2 lbs muscle/month (females might get half that). When that slows (and a beginning male has gained perhaps 10-12 pounds of muscle (again, females cut that in half) over a 6 month period), the person should probably start considering an intermediate routine.

This would tend to assume that bodybuilding or one of the performance oriented goals of weight training was being pursued. A general health/fitness trainees might be happy with a few pounds of the good stuff at appropriate places on their body and not want to make much more in the way of muscular gains.

Perhaps most simply, the time to move to an intermediate program is when beginning training is no longer stimulating progress or gains. Basically, milk the beginner gains for all they’re worth; it’s one of the few times when you get to make progress without having to work depressingly hard. When those gains dry up, it’s time for something more intense. But, in my opinion, there’s no real hurry. As I mentioned above, the goal should be to get the maximal gains out of the least training (this holds for all training mind you). Increase training volume, intensity, etc. when you need to do it, not simply because you want to (or read some really cool routine in a magazine or online).

I looked at some basic issues relating to beginning weight training including some commentary about different goals of weight training (and why a trainee’s ultimate goal sort of doesn’t matter in the very beginning stages) as well as looking at what defines a beginner trainee.

I want to continue by looking at what the specific goals of beginner training are, that is what specific adaptations and things are trying to be accomplished when setting up a beginning routine in the weight room. As I’ll come back to when I finish up next Tuesday in Part 3, those goals desired, along with some science I’m going to bore you with go a long way towards helping to design a good basic beginning weight training program.

Now, as I mentioned people have varying and myriad goals for why they get into the weight room. And while the specifics of training certainly need to reflect that at some point, at the beginner stage, I believe that their training programs will look more alike than not. Whether the ultimate goals are the physique sports (bodybuilding, fitness, figure), powerlifting or some other strength related sport, lifting for sports performance or general health, beginner routines will all look basically the same. The big exception, as I also mentioned before, would be Olympic lifting training but setting that up is between you and your coach.

But hopefully the point is made and that point is this: in a conceptual sense, the goal of all beginner weight room training is to develop a base upon which to perform more specialized training. But now you’re wondering what exactly I mean by ‘developing a base’ upon which to perform more specialized training which is, of course, the topic of today’s article. I’ve summarized the primary adaptations that are important to beginners below:

1. Develop a general balanced whole-body base of strength and/or muscle mass to allow for specialization later on
2. Improving neural mechanisms of strength production/Learning to lift weights
3. Determine optimal exercise selection for targeting individual muscle groups
4. Condition connective tissues to handle heavy training
5. Improve work capacity/recovery
6. Behavioral stuff: pain tolerance, determination, consistency, etc.

I suppose I should also mention diet here since that is, as much as anything, a key aspect of many weight room goals (whether physique or athletically oriented). Starting to develop good basic nutrition skills can and should be done during the beginner stage, it’s all part of developing fundamental habits for later down the road. I won’t say much about this in this series; instead I’d point readers to The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 1 and The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 2 for a look at setting up a basic athletic type of diet.

And with that out of the way, I want to look at each of the 6 topics above in some detail.

Goal 1: Develop a General Balanced Whole-Body Base of Strength/Muscle Mass

While developing monster muscles isn’t the goal of everyone entering the weight room, I’d certainly say that increasing muscle mass to some degree (whether it’s for health, vanity or performance purposes) is generally at least one goal of going into the weight room. Sure, some folks fall into the ‘I don’t want to get bulky’ mentality but, truth be told, given the slow rate of muscle mass gains, waking up huge is not a rational fear that anyone should have.

Mind you, if there’s anybody who wants to get huge fast it’s generally (young) males; females are more commonly in the ‘I don’t want to bulk up’ camp (and often engage in endlessly pointless training in an attempt to avoid something that isn’t going to happen anyhow). The simple fact is that, with few exceptions (usually underweight teenage males put on a program of squats and milk), rapid gains in true muscle mass don’t happen in the first place and certainly not for beginners (and certainly certainly not for women).

In a similar vein, increasing strength to some degree is also a common goal of going into the weight room whether it’s for performance/sport reasons or just a desire to lift minimum macho poundages and impress one’s buddies (again, this is usually common among younger males). I’d note, and I’ll come back to this in more detail in Part 3 of this series on Tuesday that the desire to lift as much weight as quickly as possible gets a lot of beginners into a lot of problems.

But again, the point is sort of made: at least a primary goal of beginner training (whether by desire or simply end result) is to have some increase in both muscle mass and strength levels. Both are clearly key for anyone interested in performance or physique competition and even for general health carrying a bit more muscle (or at least limiting the common age-related loss of muscle) and having more strength tend to improve overall health and wellness (e.g. you can pick up the bag of groceries/take out the big garbage can that was once too heavy).

I would note that developing any muscularity/strength in a reasonably balanced fashion across the body might be considered a sub-goal here. Put differently: just training the pecs and guns (guys know what I’m talking about) or whatever isn’t what I’m talking about. Rather, developing some muscle mass and strength throughout the body in some sort of roughly ‘balanced’ fashion should be one goal of beginning training.

In a related vein and this is something that will be far outside the scope of this article is the fact that, as often as not, beginning strength training needs to address the massive imbalances that are often caused by our modern life. Folks who sit all day at a computer/in a cubicle or do various and sundry jobs often enter the weight room with strength and/or flexibility imbalances that need to be corrected. Pelvic tilt issues, shoulder rounding issues, neck issues and others are common as a function of what most of us do all day long and early training is a good place to address these.

However, addressing all of them in any detail in this article would be impossible; in Part 3 I’m going to make the (probably incorrect assumption) that no corrective work need be done. But that is a consideration and something that usually needs to be addressed to at least some degree in the beginning stages of training. Unfortunately, it’s a consideration that is hard for people to deal with without some form of competent coaching or training. I would suggest folks read Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson’s excellent Neanderthal No More series for a rather thorough look at the topic.

But ignoring that last bit, that’s the first primary goal of beginning weight training; regardless of your ultimate goal down the road, developing a good base of all-around whole-body strength/muscle mass to provide a ‘base’ upon which to lay more specific training down the road (whether it be jakkedness, hottiness, strengthiness, general healthiness or what have you).

Goal 2: Improve Neural Mechanisms of Strength Production/Learn to Lift Weights

To address Goal 2, I have to bore you with a bit of physiology about how the body adapts in the very initial stages of a weight training program. For context, simply realize that how much weight you can lift in a given exercise is determined both by muscular size and a variety of neural factors. Of course, levers and such affect this but you can’t change those for the most part so I’m going to focus on the neural and muscular factors here.

Simplistically, we could write:

Strength Output = Muscle Mass * Neural Factors

Where muscle mass is the size of the muscle (technically the cross sectional area) and neural factors refers to a host of adaptations that I’m not going to detail (if you’re really interested, I discuss them in my first book The Ketogenic Diet; I’d note that a lot of additional research on this topic has been done since that book was written so some of the information is probably a touch out of date).

Now, early studies repeatedly found the following phenomenon: when people started lifting weights, they would increase their strength without significant/any increases in muscle mass. This was taken to mean that the body first made improvements in neural mechanisms with gains in muscle mass coming later; this was eventually almost extended to the idea that the only initial adaptations to training were neural and that actual gains in muscle mass happened later. However, there’s a problem with this interpretation which is that studies also show that, even in total beginners, training clearly turns on protein synthesis (one of the key aspects of gaining muscle). What’s going on?

Various explanations for this phenomenon have been thrown around ranging from the idea that beginners also ramp up protein breakdown in the initial stages to the simple fact that most methods of measurement are not accurate enough to pick up changes in muscle mass in the early stages. I tend to go with the latter interpretation, I think muscle mass gains are begin stimulated in the beginning stages of training, they are simply too slow and small to show up with the methods we have to measure them. In that vein, in my experience with beginners was that gains were simply too slow for anything to show up on body composition measurements until about week 4, and by week 8 there were always measurable changes in something (usually an increase in muscle mass with some fat loss).

Regardless, the point is made that many of the early adaptations to weight training are neural in nature. Simply, when you start lifting weights, you get stronger initially without necessarily getting bigger. Which is great if your goal is to get stronger without increasing muscle mass but not so great if your goal is to get jakked as quickly as possible. But ultimately you sort of don’t have a choice in the matter, you have to go through the neural adaptations one way or another before the real gains muscle mass start to occur/show up (and there are relatively better and worse ways of getting them to occur as quickly as possible which I’ll talk about in Part 3).

I’d mention that weight training tends to cause increased carbohydrate storage in muscles and this also causes water to be stored; and this probably explains why some people do feel as if they are ‘bulking up rapidly’ when they start training. Women especially tend to feel like they are ‘getting huge’ when they start lifting (and freak out because of it) from this mechanism but it always goes away by about week 3 as the body gets back into water balance.

At least part of these ‘neural adaptations’ is that you’re basically learning proper technique for the different exercises. That is, without going into all of the details, a lot of initial training is ‘learning to do the movement properly’ and a majority of this is neurologically based. And, as I noted in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, while much of what’s done in the weight room isn’t as technical as many sports, the point is that proper technique is still generally superior to improper technique when you’re looking at making long-term progress.

I would mention here that lifting technique is actually one place that pure bodybuilding/physique training and pure strength training can potentially differ (and often athletes training for improved performance may be doing something a bit different from either of those two groups). To make a massive generality, bodybuilders have often attempted to perform exercises in a way that maximally stresses the muscle, based on the idea that it is that stress that causes growth. Exercise form is often subtly different in bodybuilding and attempting to beat the hell out of the muscle is a big part of how bodybuilders train. In essence, they try to make the exercise as inefficient as possible, to put the maximal stress on the muscle they want to grow.

In contrast, pure strength athletes tend be more about lessening muscular stress in the sense that the less work the muscle does, the more weight you can move for the same amount of effort. In essence they are looking for ways to maximize efficiency as this allows them to lift the most weight with the least effort. So specific techniques or what have you are often made in the strength/power sports to lessen muscular work. Somewhere in the middle, athletes who are lifting for performance reasons often use lifting techniques somewhere between the two extremes used by bodybuilders or pure strength athletes.

As an example of the differences, I would point you to my article on Bench Pressing Variations where I contrast a ‘bodybuilder’ bench press to a generic power bench (what most performance type athletes would do) to a pure shirted (sort-of) powerlifting bench press. You can see that you’re moving from one extreme to another with the generic power bench being right in the middle.

Now, as I have mentioned several times already, I feel that this type of specialization or difference is fairly academic in the beginner stages: whether someone is an aspiring physique athlete, aspiring strength athlete, general athlete or simply in the general public, I tend to stick with the middle of the road exercises with a focus on learning how to actually train the target muscles.

That is, whether or not a powerlifter will eventually use a shirt, I think they should learn the technique of Benching with the Pecs. And even if a bodybuilder type eventually moves to an elbows flared ‘pec-tacular’ bench press, I still would start them with a generic power bench in the beginner stages. Athletes, with few exceptions will be doing the middle of the road variations as a matter of course (there are always some exceptions). Of course, anyone lifting for general health/fitness or what have you is going to get the middle of the road variations.

Goal 3: Determine Optimal Exercise Selection for Targeting Individual Muscle Groups

In addition to the basic goal of ‘learning to lift weights’, there are other important goals of this phase of training. Related to the idea of learning to lift weights in general, I’d suggest that folks interested in physique based activities start figuring out what exercises are best for their individual mechanics and such. This can also be relevant for those who eventually want to pursue strength or performance related activities, figuring out exercises (usually assistance stuff) that best targets a given muscle group or muscle groups (or improves the primary lifts) is important.

Now, I’m not going to get into a big discussion of exercise selection for hypertrophy here as that will be the topic of a future article, sufficed to say that any exercise that generates sufficient tension overload can make you get bigger and/or make the muscle you’re training stronger. And Internet flame wars to the contrary, exercise selection for hypertrophy or strength is not as simple as “Compound is better” or “Isolation is better”. As discussed in the highly contentious Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs – Q&A article, differences in mechanics and weak points make it more complicated than that and what usually happens is that people project what’s best for them onto the entirety of the training universe.

And, similar to what I wrote above regarding what exercises to first learn, exercise selection tends to be where pure physique sports and pure strength sports often diverge the most. With athletes it gets even more complicated depending on your overall philosophy (e.g specific vs. general) in the weight room but I’m not going to cover that here.

It should be fairly obvious that anyone who wants to powerlift has to learn to squat, bench and deadlift (or just bench/deadlift if they go into that type of federation). Obviously Olympic lifters have to do the competition movements (and most would argue some form of squatting) although philosophies can differ drastically beyond that. Due to the demands of something like strongman competition, squats, deadlifts, overhead pressing of some sort and possibly the Olympic lifts will generally be an important part of training. While they may not be strictly required, good luck getting very far without them.

But what about folks with physique aspirations (whether competition or just looking better naked)? As much as many will disagree with me here, there is no exercise that someone with physique aspirations is required to do in their training since it’s simply not part of their performance package. How much you squat, bench or deadlift doesn’t matter on stage for a bodybuilder or fitness competitor (or for someone just trying to ‘tone up’ or whatever), it’s simply not what you’re judged on. Rather, muscularity, symmetry, balance, leanness (mainly a function of diet) are what matter. And as noted above, any exercise that provides sufficient tension and overload can contribute to those things.

Put more directly: the best exercise for hypertrophy of a given muscle group is the one that targets that muscle for a given individual and provides sufficient tension overload to trigger a growth response. There are other requirements (mainly revolving around safety and the ability to progressively load them) but beyond providing tension overload, no one exercise is mandatory or inherently superior for all people. Certainly, for some people heavy compounds fit the bill well in this respect; however, for others they are drastically inferior. Differences in levers and mechanics along with neurology all contribute to this. Again, this is something I’ll address in more detail in a future article.

But again, no single exercise is mandatory when gains in muscularity are the goal. Certainly no single exercise will possibly be the best under all situations for all trainees. At best, a given exercise might be best for an individual trainee under a given situation. But even that can change depending on the specifics of the routine and the goals. For example, what if you want to train chest without training triceps for some reason (maybe your triceps are overdeveloped relative to your pecs and you want to bring pecs up without further triceps growth)? A pec isolation movement would be superior to compound chest in that specific context.

As a more specific example, one of my trainees gets absolutely nothing out of rows for mid-back. She’s very lat dominant and ends up substituting out when she does cable rowing: her mid-back isn’t targeted optimally regardless of it being ‘the best compound movement for back’. Rather, a more isolated reverse pec deck with scapular retraction is a far superior movement for her. It takes her lats out of the movement and it takes her arms out of the equation as well. And it trains her mid-back better (which is all that matters). Of course for someone else, the exact opposite might hold true: the reverse pec deck w/scapular retraction is the inferior movement to a compound cable row.

In any case, one thing that can start to be done during the beginner stage is to determine what exercise might or might not be best for you as an individual trainee. Of course, this brings up the question of how to tell what’s better or worse. Often you simply go by feel; many have used soreness as an indicator and even acute fatigue or a pump during training would be at least a rough indicator of the muscle being worked (note: this isn’t perfect). If you have a training partner (or a competent coach) partner, they can check for muscular activation during the exercise. Various types of touch training can be used to not only help the trainee focus their attention on the target muscle but also to check for activation and such.

In any case, on top of the overall goal of ‘learning to lift weights’ in terms of overall technique, starting to determine what exercises are going to be important is something that can start to be done during the beginner stage. Note that this is a process that will be continuing for much longer than the beginner stage as well.

Goal 4: Condition Connective Tissues

While it’s cliche these days to throw out that “[Insert buzzword of the week] is the forgotten part of weight training” I’d suggest that one factor that goes almost completely ignored in the weight room is the status of connective tissues. Tendons, ligaments and such can all adapt to heavy training; quite in fact they need to do so to be able to handle heavier loading down the road. But, unlike muscles which often show rapid gains in strength (especially initially), connective tissues adapt very slowly. Trainees who jump into training that is too heavy or too frequent often come up with joint injuries.

And once injured, connective tissues tend to re-injure fairly easy. Develop elbow problems early on and they may annoy you for most of your career. In fact, you can see people in any commercial gym with knees and elbows wrapped simply to get through training with minimal pain. That’s a sign that their connective tissues are beaten up, either because they didn’t give things time to adapt early on or are training too heavily too often for too long in their current routine.

But this is something that is critical to long-term success (many old time strength athletes talked about the need to ‘strengthen the ligaments’ for maximal strength performance) and avoiding injury. Just realize that it’s a slow process that takes time (months). Go too hard too fast and you’re likely to pay a hard price.

Goal 5: Develop Overall Work Capacity

In Beginning Weight Training Part 1 I mentioned that one criterion for having moved past the rank beginner stage would be the ability to handle a full 60-90 minute workout without the trainee being absolutely crushed by fatigue and that brings us to Goal 5: improving overall work capacity and training tolerance. In essence, when starting out in almost any activity, trainees have to get into shape to be able to train. Yes, this seems like a contradiction but bear with me.

Intense training is a stress to the body. And requires that certain base fitness quality be developed. This is usually referred to as work capacity, others simply call it the ‘training base’. You can think of it as having worked up to the point that a given workout, while stressful, doesn’t overwhelm you completely. As well, recovery capacities can be improved over time and this means not only better recovery during a workout (between sets for example) but between workouts.

Beginner trainees, unless they are coming from some other sport into the weight room, have to gradually develop their ability to handle training volume. This, like connective tissue, tends to be slower than other adaptations. And it’s not sexy to develop basic fitness which is why nobody wants to take the time to do it. But it’s crucial for long-term progress. Quite in fact, in many more performance oriented sports, phases to improve work capacity are often performed between phases of performance improvement.

Goal 6: Behavioral Issues: Pain Tolerance, Consistency, Focus, etc.

A final goal and one I’m not going to spend a ton of time on today or next Tuesday I’m going to simply group under behavioral stuff. This includes pain tolerance, training consistency, focus, determination, etc. These are all things that trainees often lack when starting out but which can be developed with practice. Because nobody reaches much of a goal when they skip every second workout. And nobody but nobody reaches their goals when they are unwilling to put forth at least some effort in their training.

While I’m not saying that trainees need to kill themselves in training, anyone not willing to work outside of their comfort zone and push themselves a bit isn’t likely to get very far. And this can be trained over time (by gradually pushing yourself a bit harder over time and resetting what you thought of as a previous limit). Discussing all of this would require more space than I have but it is important and can be improved by training progressively in the weight room. It’s also where a good coach or trainer can be valuable as they will know how to push just enough to get the person to the next level without destroying themselves.

For example, beginning (and even some intermediate trainees) often think that they are far more fatigued than they are; a good coach can spot this and have the athlete successfully complete something that the athlete/trainee thought that they were too tired to do. Which has the end result of teaching that athlete that their limits are higher than they thought. And at some point in the future, when they reach what they perceive as another limit the coach will have them do it again, further raising the bar.

Similarly, many beginning trainees tend to give up quickly when things get even the slightest bit uncomfortable. In many ways, this makes sense, pain is a sensation that usually means ‘stop doing that’. But learning how to tolerate the discomfort endemic to productive training is a huge part of long-term progress; without it folks will hit an early wall since they won’t be able to push hard enough to generate further gains.

Again, a good coach can play a role here; when an athlete starts to give up, the coach can get them to go a little bit further. The athlete learns that they didn’t die, that the pain wasn’t really that bad. Ultimately, this teaches them to push a bit harder. And, again, later on the coach can do it again, raising the athlete’s ability to tolerate discomfort a bit higher still.

I think you get the idea. And while the above is certainly easier with a competent coach available, some of it can be trained during the beginner stages by following the guidelines I’m going to give you.

Summing Up

And that’s a look at the primary goals of beginner training. From developing a basic base of muscular strength and size (and possibly dealing with imbalances due to lifestyle) to learning how to lift weights to determining optimal exercise to others, these are all factors that are important to pretty much all trainees regardless of their ultimate goal. Which is why beginning training, by and large, won’t be terribly specific. Since they all have to accomplish the same things during their earliest stages in the weight room, the training will be essentially identical. Specialization will come further down (even as early as the intermediate stage of training).

Note: Continue reading Part 2 of this article.

If you would like further reading by Lyle McDonald please check out all of his ebooks on diet and nutrition at:

Body Recomposition

About the Author Lyle McDonald

Lyle McDonald is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and the Guide to Flexible Dieting. He has been interested in all aspects of human performance physiology since becoming involved in competitive sports as a teenager. Pursuing a degree in Physiological Sciences from UCLA, he has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the science, art and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss and body recomposition. Lyle has been involved, at various levels of success in competitive sports since his teens. Starting with triathlon, he spent altogether too many hours on his bike during college. Becoming involved with inline skating at the same time led him to compete for several years until he burned himself out with chronic overtraining. Many years passed until he decided to return to speed skating and move to the ice. He moved to Salt Lake City Utah to train full time at the Olympic oval, he is currently still there training with his coach Rex Albertson attempting to make the US National team or beyond.Lyle has written for the print magazines (Flex and the now defunct Peak Training Journal), too many online sites to mention (including Cyberpump, Mesomorphosis, MindandMuscle, ReadtheCore) and has published 5 books on various aspects of exercise and diet. Over the years, in addition to working with the general public, Lyle has worked primarily with endurance athletes, a few powerlifters, and some bodybuilders. Through his books, articles and his forum, he has helped thousands lose fat, gain muscle and get stronger or perform better.