Weight Training and the Beginner
by Mike Arnold
Getting started in BB’ing can be an overwhelming experience, especially if the individual has minimal education in the areas of training & nutrition. Without proper guidance, the beginner is sure to make numerous progress-halting mistakes. Many aspiring BB’rs waste years of effort on ineffective training programs and unless a concerted attempt is made to educate oneself, most individuals will continue to engage in inferior routines to their own detriment.
While BB’ing may be a rather simple pursuit in comparison to becoming proficient in something like neurosurgery, acquiring the education necessary to reap maximum results from one’s efforts is no small undertaking. In fact, the amount of knowledge applicable to all the different aspects of the bodybuilding experience could not be learned in a lifetime. This makes getting started difficult, as the BB’r must first navigate through vast amounts of information, in order to find and learn the basic principles central to gaining muscle mass and/or strength, before moving onto more advanced material. The learning process is made even more difficult by the large amount of conflicting information which presents itself on almost every subject, making the initial sifting process even more laborious.
In light of the challenges facing the beginning BB’r, having wise counsel available for guidance and direction can prove invaluable. In this article, we will specifically address the training process and how to go about constructing a program which applies the necessary principles for making consistent gains in size & strength.
Almost everyone who starts training will make progress in the beginning stages of their bodybuilding program. The body has never before been exposed to the stresses of weight training and will respond with an almost immediate increase in strength & size. Program set-up matters little during this phase of one’s BB’ing journey, but after a short time, a more well thought out program will be required if one wants to ensure continued progress. It is at this juncture that many BB’rs start to spin their wheels, noticing little return for their efforts. Typically, the BB’r corrects the problem and continues moving forward at an acceptable rate, or he doesn’t and gains come at a snail’s pace, leading to eventual dissatisfaction and loss of motivation to continue training. A small percentage of steadfast individuals will keep on grinding it out under these less than fortunate circumstances, but they are the rarity.
Generally, the first step in putting together a bodybuilding program is deciding on which training split to follow. While there are many different training splits which can be used with success, the novice should stick with those which have been proven effective in helping the largest percentage of beginning lifters. One’s training split will be determined by what days the BB’r chooses to train each body part. See an the example of a 3-Day Training Split below:
3-Day Traditional Split
Monday: Chest, Biceps, Triceps
Friday: Back, Delts
The 3-Day training split seen above is one of the more effective programs a beginner can utilize for gaining significant amounts of muscle and strength. The program is characterized by lower volume, ample recovery time, and reliance on the basic mass-building exercises. We are getting a little ahead of ourselves here, so let’s slow down and focus on why this spilt is so effective. While this 3 day routine may be considered too streamlined by some standards, most individuals with extensive experience will testify to the effectiveness of this training spilt.
With this split, each body part is trained only once per week and since we are relying primarily on the basic mass-builders, it allows the BB’r to train all his body parts over a 3 day period. By following these guidelines, the body’s ability to recover & grow is optimized. The basic mass-builders are titled as such for a reason…because they typically produce the largest gains in mass & strength in the shortest amount of time. When many other exercises are added into the BB’rs routine, his recovery ability is spread thin and instead of the body spending most of its resources growing, it ends up spending a larger portion of its resources recovering. Every exercise has its place and all can be useful at the right time, but as a beginner, the primary goal is the acquisition of muscle size & strength. Later on down the road, when weak points are being addressed, these other exercises can be of value, but for now the goal is to add as much overall mass as possible.
By sticking with the basics and being able to train all of our body parts over a 3-Day period, we are provided with plenty of days off from the gym. Since growth takes place when resting and not when we are working out, these off days of provide us with the opportunity to experience complete recovery and supercompensation (growth) week after week. BB’rs who make the mistake of thinking more is better and begin training 5-6 days per week, while employing every exercise in the book, will inevitably burn-out and fail to keep pace with their full growth potential.
We have been talking a lot about the “basic mass-building” exercises, but what are they? Below is a list of what are considered most of the “basics”. While not everyone will respond equally to each exercise, due to differences in physical structure, these are the exercises which have proven the most reliable for the largest percentage of trainers. Since the beginning BB’r will have difficulty feeling the mind-muscle connection (which we will get to later) he would do well to stick with only these basics for at least the first 6-8 months of training. By this point the individual should have established a significant mind-muscle connection with these exercises and therefore, he will be better able to use personal experience in order to determine which of these basics, if any, aren’t suitable for him. In the meantime, since the beginner lacks this ability, the following basics should form the core of his routine. * Note: While the BB’r will find greater value in isolation exercises and their variations as training progresses and weak points are addressed, the basics will always form the core of one’s program. They will remain responsible for the retention and continual build-up of additional muscle mass, making them an integral part of a BBr’s program forever.
One of the first questions to be asked when the BB’r finally gets to the gym is…“What order should my exercises performed in?” Generally, the BB’r should move from large to small. When saying one should move from “large to small”, it simply means that the BB’r should train a muscle by beginning with the heaviest, multi-joint exercises and afterwards move onto the lighter, single joint exercises. When performing the multi-joint exercises, they typically require the recruitment of both larger & smaller muscles at the same time. Since the smaller muscles will fatigue more quickly than the larger muscles when performing the multi-joint exercises, the BB’r should make sure the small muscles have all their strength before doing these multi-joint lifts. If the BB’r performs single-joint exercises first, the smaller muscles will already be tired by the time he gets to the multi-joint exercises. This will cause the smaller muscles to fatigue prematurely when doing the multi-joint exercises, preventing the larger muscles from working as hard as possible. An example of improper exercise order would be training triceps before chest. By training triceps before chest, the triceps will become prematurely fatigued and by the time chest is trained, the triceps will fail long before the chest has been worked adequately.
With this abbreviated 3-Day Split, exercise order is not as much of an issue as it might be with other training programs, as most of the exercises included in this program are multi-joint, compound exercises. Still, no routine can be complete without some isolation (single-joint) exercises, so those single-joint exercises which are included in this program should be performed after one has completed all their multi-joint exercises.
A huge mistake of most beginners is utilizing excess training volume. They believe that their level of exertion directly correlates with their progress. To this end, many lifters will employ set after set of various exercises. Since recovery ability is limited (especially for drug-free trainers, which includes most beginners), more frequently than not, this leads to premature stagnation. While enough sets of each exercise should be performed in order for the lifter to learn proper exercise mechanics, excess volume will hold the lifter back.
For this reason, I generally recommend that the lifter perform 3 working-sets of each exercise, which is preceded by an appropriate warm-up. This level of volume is high enough so that the lifter can learn proper exercise mechanics (the ability to perform the exercise correctly), while also being adequate in terms of muscular stress. A greater amount of sets is unlikely to lead to additional gains in muscle tissue or strength, but will impose greater demands on the body’s recovery ability.
When it comes to what rep-range should be employed, beginners should avoid extremes and stick with what has worked for generations of lifters. For the upper-body, this involves keeping the reps between 6-12, while the lower-body seems to respond best to a rep range of 8-15. Being a beginner at one time myself, I understand the desire to want to test one’s strength with lower reps. This OK, as long as the practice does not become a regular occurrence.
Let’s address the topic of rest between sets. While opinions vary significantly on this subject, it is my opinion that longer rest periods are superior for enhanced mass & strength, especially for the beginner, as they allow the individual to handle greater training weights from set to set and exercise to exercise. When rest-periods are too short, exercise failure will come by way of metabolic fatigue, not muscular exhaustion. Since the primary aim of the BB’r is to stress his muscular system and not the cardiovascular system, longer rest periods are a necessity in accomplishing this objective. Since training too quickly will reduce the poundage the BB’r is capable of training with, the result will be reduced muscular stress leading to less growth potential. When performing basic, multi-joint exercises, a rest period of 3-4 minutes is sufficient, while lighter single-joint exercises will only require about 2 or so minutes before it is time for the next set.
Lastly, but of great importance, is the topic of exercise mechanics and the mind-muscle connection. You could be doing everything else correctly, but if you screw-up these two components of the training process, you will badly cripple your results. While exercise mechanics & the mind-muscle connection are closely related, they are two very different things. Exercise mechanics refers to the manner in which you perform an exercise, also known as exercise “form”. The mind-muscle connection is the ability to feel the target muscles working as you perform an exercise.
In terms of inter-dependence, if your form is horrible, it is going to be difficult to develop a mind-muscle connection during training. On the flip side, if you aren’t able to feel a mind-muscle connection when performing an exercise, you will have trouble adjusting the mechanics of that exercise to best suit your own particular structure. Whenever you perform an exercise, it is absolutely vital that you develop a mind-muscle connection with that movement because if you can’t feel the target muscle working, you will not be able to place optimal amounts of stress on that muscle, reducing the potential for growth. With each rep, you should be able to feel the muscle stretch and contract throughout a full range of motion. BB’ing training is not about heaving a weight from point A to point B with as much weight as possible, while using momentum and calling assisting muscle groups into play. The weights are only a tool to achieve muscle growth; it is not about the weight itself.
Sacrificing exercise form just so the lifter can use additional weight is one of the most common beginner mistakes in the entire gym. The cause of this progress pitfall is the ego. Some BB’rs are simply more concerned with looking strong in front of their gym mates, than they are with building up their muscles. Whenever a BB’r uses so much weight that he can no longer feel his muscles working through a full range of motion and his exercise mechanics begin to suffer, he needs to ask himself what is more important to him. Would he rather use a bit less weight and build bigger muscles, or would he rather cheat up heavier weights and end up with smaller muscles?
If you apply the information you’ve found in this article, you will be well on your way to making your goal of increased muscle growth & strength a reality. Remember, consistency is one of the most important attributes you can have when it come to BB’ing and unfortunately, it’s also one of the most neglected. No program will furnish significant results without consistency of effort. The principles presented here will only work if you use them with regularity. Best of luck to you in your BB’ing journey.