Push-Up Training: Regressed to Advanced

For some, doing a regular push-up can be extremely easy, but for others, it can be impossible. In either case, how should push-up training be adjusted? For strength training to be effective, you must find the appropriate stress level. Too much stress, and you elicit overtraining and an increased risk of injury. Not enough stress, and the body won’t make any positive adaptations (e.g. increases in muscle mass and strength). This article takes a look at how to find the appropriate stress level with the push-up, according to your individual status.

Benefits of the Push-Up

First, it is important to describe the benefits of the push-up. Unfortunately, the push-up often gets sequestered to the world of calisthenics and general fitness. In the world of strength training, the push-up often gets swept under the rug while its free weight counterpart, the bench press, gets all the glory. For one reason or another, the bench press finds itself as the most salient upper body exercise. However, the push-up has unique merits that are under-appreciated.

Benefits of the Push-Up:

  1. Safety: The push-up has a very low risk of injury. Unlike the bench press, there is no risk of dropping a weight on yourself, or getting stuck underneath a barbell. In addition, the push-up is more forgiving on the shoulders and wrists.
  2. Core Control: The push-up requires that you actively stabilize your spine throughout the entirety of the exercise. In the bench press, you lie on a bench that provides a great deal of external stabilization, as opposed to the internal stabilization that must be muscularly generated in the push-up.
  3. Assessment: When it comes to identifying muscular imbalances and joint instability, a push-up is more telling than a bench press, because the push-up requires a greater deal of total body control.
  4. Natural Movement Pattern: It can be argued that pushing one’s self away from the ground while in a prone position is a movement pattern that humans have been doing since their inception. However, pressing a barbell away from your body while you lie on a narrow bench, with your legs hanging off either side, is likely not a movement pattern that humans have found themselves doing since time immemorial. This may be one reason why it’s easier to coach the push-up than the bench press.

Considering all these benefits, why is it that the push-up is not commonly utilized in strength training?

How to do a Push-Up

The Starting Position

The Descent

The Bottom Position

The Ascent

Regressing the Push-Up

If you find that you cannot perform a single push-up, you must regress the push-up. Let’s define what an exercise regression is. Any time than an individual is incapable of performing a specific exercise due to a lack of strength, mobility, or stability, they must choose a less challenging version of the exercise (i.e. a regressed version). Once the individual has demonstrated competency in the regressed version of the exercise, they “earn the right” to graduate to the regular exercise. In this process, you “regress to progress”.

For someone who cannot perform a single push-up, training to be able to do one by attempting push-ups is not effective. It’s like a person completely new to weightlifting who wants to squat 300 lbs, and in their attempts to do that, they just try squatting 300 lbs. In both cases, way too big of a jump is being made. The body needs to gradually progress over time in order to develop the strength to do a push-up.

In the case of the individual who cannot perform a single push-up, the best regression to use is the incline push-up with a step-up platform and risers. This modification of the push-up gradually introduces more and more challenging positions that allow the body to gradually develop the strength to perform a regular push-up on flat ground.

The Incline Push-Up

Here is the basic concept behind the incline push-up: the more vertical your torso position is, the lesser percentage of your own bodyweight you lift, and the more horizontal your torso position is, the greater percentage of your own bodyweight you lift. By removing risers from underneath the step-up platform, you gradually shift your torso position more horizontally, so that you gradually lift a greater percentage of your own bodyweight. Over time, your body adapts to more challenging positions and develops the strength to be able to perform a regular push-up on flat ground. Removing 1 riser-level per week in the incline push-up is the equivalent of adding 5-10 lbs per week in the bench press (which is a typical increase in intensity).

Safety Precaution with the Incline Push-Up

Alternative Forms of the Incline Push-Up

If you don’t have a step-up platform with risers available, here are some alternative forms of the incline push-up:

  • Power Rack Incline Push-Ups

    • Adjust the level of incline with the safety bar in the power rack. To increase or decrease the incline, simply increase or decrease the height of the safety bar, respectively. Once the appropriate height is set, grab onto the safety bar and do incline push-ups.
Unmodified image located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Power_Rack.JPG.

Unmodified image located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Power_Rack.JPG.

  • Smith Machine Incline Push-Ups

    • Adjust the level of incline with the smith machine bar. To increase or decrease the incline, simply increase or decrease the height of the bar, respectively. Once the appropriate height is set, grab onto the bar and do incline push-ups.

While these are both effective alternatives, the increments of incline won’t be as gradual as they are with a step-up platform with risers, which may make them less effective as a tool to progress to a flat ground push-up).

Regressed Push-Up Program

  1. Start with a platform height that allows you to perform 5 sets of 8 reps, with at least a few reps left in the tank after each set. Rest for about 2 minutes between sets (more or less, depending on how you feel). The initial platform height should be EASY. Things will become more challenging as the weeks progress.
  2. Each week you will remove a riser-level from the platform set-up, but you will continue to perform 5x8. Each week your goal is to perform 40 total reps with good form.
  3. When you train 5x8, that is your primary push-up day, but you will also have a secondary push-up day in which you will use the same platform height and perform 3 sets of max reps UP TO 12 reps. That is, you will do as many reps as you can for 3 sets, but you are not to exceed 12 reps per set. The secondary push-up day is performed weekly as well, and should be at least 2 days apart from your primary push-up day.    
  4. As the weeks progress, you may find that you cannot perform 5 sets of 8 reps. If this is the case, perform more sets with fewer reps per set, while still achieving the total 40 reps. For example, instead of 5 sets of 8, you could do 8 sets of 5, or 10 sets of 4. Or, you could do [2 sets of 8] + [4 sets of 5] + [1 set of 4]. However, stick to 5x8 for as long as you can. When you change your [sets] x [reps], keep them as close to 5x8 as you can. For example, don’t do 10 sets of 4 if you are capable of 8 sets of 5.
  5. If you get to the point where you can’t perform sets of 3 reps or more, go back to the initial platform height that you used on week 1 and restart the progression, but this time performing 4 sets of 10 reps. Use the same progression described in step 2 – decrease the platform height by 1 riser-level per week, while performing 4x10 for as long as you can (increasing sets while reducing reps per set as necessary). All that being said, the gradual progression of removing 1 riser-level per week should make step 4 unnecessary for most people.
  6. Follow steps 1 through 4 (or 5 if necessary) until you are able to perform a regular push-up!
  7. This push-up progression can be included in your current program, just make sure to prioritize it by:
    1. Performing the push-ups as your first exercise if you use an upper/lower program.
    2. Performing the push-ups as your first upper body exercise if you use a total body program.

Summary of Program:

  • Decrease the platform set-up height by 1 riser-level per week.
  • On your primary push-up day, complete 40 total reps each week.
  • On your secondary push-up day, perform 3 sets of max reps (up to 12 reps per set) each week.
  • Stick to 5 sets of 8 reps for as many weeks as you can.
  • Increase sets and decrease reps as needed as the weeks progress.
  • When you change [sets] x [reps], keep them as close to 5x8 as you can.
  • Don’t allow sets of less than 3 reps (unless you have just one odd set left to finish your total of 40 reps). If you get to the point where you’d need to perform more than half of your sets of less than 3 reps to achieve your total 40 reps, go back to your initial platform height from week 1 and start again with the same progression, but doing 4 sets of 10 reps.
  • Always use good form and full range of motion! Don’t count the reps otherwise.

Key Components of Program:

Consistency  ► For this program to work, you must follow the progression every week.

Patience ► It’s hard to know how long it will take you to develop the strength to perform a regular push-up. It all depends on your individual status (i.e. age, bodyweight, training history, strength level). Keep in mind that heavier individuals will have a harder time performing a regular push-up, as the push-up is an exercise that uses your own bodyweight. For example, a push-up for a 250 lb person is much harder than a push-up for a 150 lb person, as the former has to lift 100 lbs more!

Why “From the Knees” is not an Ideal Regression

I am not a fan of the “from-the-knees” push-up modification (more commonly known by its politically incorrect term, the “girl push-up”).

There are two reasons why I dislike the “from-the-knees” (FTK) push-up as a tool to progress to a regular push-up:

1.) It’s a binary progression. There is nothing bridging the large gap between the FTK push-up and the regular push-up. The FTK push-up is significantly less challenging than the regular push-up, making it an ineffective tool to progress to the regular push-up.

1a.) It’s like training to be able to bench press 200 lbs by only benching 100 lbs. To effectively progress from a 100 lbs bench press to 200 lbs, you would typically increase the weight by 5-10 lbs per week for several months. You would not train with 100 lbs for 3 months and then suddenly attempt 200 lbs.

2.) The overall mechanics of the FTK push-up differ greatly from that of the regular push-up, rendering it ineffective as a tool to progress to the regular push-up.

2a.) It’s like trying to get better at the bench press by doing the standing overhead press. There is a low degree of movement specificity, so there is little carryover in strength from one exercise to another.

Comparison of FTK Position and Regular Position

Advanced Push-Up Training

Now to address the other side of the coin – how should you approach push-up training if you can easily perform several high-rep sets? Simply doing more reps is going to get you nowhere fast in terms of absolute strength, as you are just training strength endurance. One big reason why push-ups are often left out of strength training is because they are difficult to load, making them a problematic exercise when it comes to increasing absolute strength.  However, there are several ways to increase the intensity (or load) of the push-up.

  • Weighted Push-Up

    • By adding weight to the push-up, you can progress it like traditional barbell lifts (i.e. adding 5-10 lbs per week).
  • Decline Push-Up*

    • It’s the same concept as the incline push-up progression, but taking things further past flat ground. The more vertical you invert your torso position, the greater percentage of your own bodyweight you lift. Again, as a safety precaution, be sure to place the entire platform set-up flush against a wall.
  • Weighted Decline Push-Up*

    • In this exercise, you combine the weighted push-up and the decline push-up to create one of the most challenging push-up modifications.

The order of these advanced modifications is not haphazard; it actually represents increasing difficulty. If you want to advance your push-up strength beyond regular push-ups, start with the weighted push-up for a time, and then progress to the decline push-up. After developing strength in both the weighted and decline variations, finally progress to the weighted decline push-up.

* If the angle of the decline becomes too steep, you start doing more of a modified bodyweight overhead press instead of a modified push-up. While in the start position of the push-up, be sure to not have the contact point of your toes higher than your ears. vod

By utilizing these more challenging modifications, you can increase your absolute strength in the push-up, which is beneficial for both strength development and muscle growth of the upper body pushing muscles.

The Main Problem with the Push-Up (and how to solve it)

While the push-up is a fantastic exercise with unique merits, there is a practical difficulty associated with it. They are hard to load! With the bench press, you can simply add plates to the barbell, but loading the push-up is not that simple. There are ways to load the push-up, but it depends on the equipment you have available.

Here are some solutions:

  • Weight Plates with a Partner

    • If you have a training partner, you can have them hold a weight plate steady on your back while you do push-ups. However, if you don’t have a training partner, or someone you are comfortable asking for help, this will not work.
  • Weighted Vest

    • You can use a weighted vest. However, most gyms don’t have weighted vests, and if they do, they rarely have several with incrementally different weights.
  • Weighted Backpack

    • You can use a cheap (but sturdy) backpack to put the weight plates in. This is the best option, but it will have you getting strange looks in the gym. Be sure to check with the front desk before doing this. This option is ideal for those with a home gym.
backpack edit.jpg
  • Band Resisted Push-Up

    • You can do band resisted push-ups by placing a resistance band across your back and anchoring either end with your hands.

Common Technique Errors (and how to correct them)

There are two errors I commonly see in the execution of the push-up.

  • Error #1: Excessive Arching of the Lower Back

    • This technique error occurs when the abdominal muscles fail to stabilize the spine, allowing the lower back to excessively arch.
    • This hyperextended position of the spine puts excess compression on the posterior components of the vertebrae, which increases the risk of injury.
    • This unstable spinal position also decreases the efficiency of force transmission in the push-up. If the spine and pelvis are allowed to wobble around due to a lack of core-engagement, force is “leaked” from the push-up movement, resulting in a weaker push-up.
  • How to Correct Excessive Arching of the Lower Back

    • Cue #1: Pull your navel away from the floor and brace your abdominals. Imagine you are creating and maintaining a tense flat surface that extends from your lower ribs to the upper crest of your pelvis.
    • Cue #2: While in the starting position, actively press your shoulder blades and hands into the floor, as if you are trying to push it away. This will help activate your abdominals.
    • Cue #3: Actively squeeze your glutes. This will tuck your pelvis in a stable position, and help maintain that flat surface from your lower ribs to the crest of your upper pelvis.
  • Error #2: Elbows Flaring Out

    • This technique error occurs due to shoulder instability. Unstable (or “unpacked”) shoulders allow the elbows to flare out away from the body during the push-up descent.
    • Shoulder instability in the push-up allows the “ball” of the ball-and-socket shoulder joint to shift around excessively, which increases the risk of joint injury, as well as impingement issues. Shoulder instability decreases the body’s ability to transmit force effectively through the arms and into the floor, leading to a weaker push-up.
    • The flared elbow position decreases the contribution of the large pectoral muscles, also leading to a weaker push-up.
  • How to Correct Elbows Flaring Out
    • Cue #1: In the starting position of the push-up, extend/tighten your upper back (think “tall chest”) and rotate your upper arms externally while pulling them against your ribs, as if you are trying to hold an object in the back of your arm pits. This “packing” of the shoulder creates joint stability and helps the elbow track closer to the torso during the descent of the push-up.
    • Cue #2: Simply guide your elbows backwards, instead of out away from your torso
      • In the following video, you can see how a rounded upper back and an “unpacked” shoulder lead to the elbows flaring out. You can also see how to pack your shoulders into a stable position so that your elbows will track closer to your torso.

Summary of Push-Up Training: Regressed to Advanced

To effectively progress your strength in the push-up, you must:

1. Assess your current status in the push-up.

1a. How weak or strong is your push-up?

2. According to your current status, choose the appropriate stress level for push-up training.

2a. Incline push-ups? Regular push-ups? Weighted/decline push-ups?

3. Increase the intensity of push-ups gradually and consistently.

3a. Progress to more challenging push-up modifications over time.

4. Have an understanding of excellent push-up technique, and utilize that technique.

4a. Be aware of your tendencies for poor movement, and correct them.

Push-Up Progression: Regressed to Advanced


Introduction to Foam Rolling

What is a Foam Roller?

A foam roller is a self-applied massage tool; it’s a long cylindrical piece of foam, often reinforced in the center with a denser material, such as PVC pipe. The greater the density of the foam roller, the more pressure you can apply to muscle tissue. The foam rolling market has significantly expanded in the past 5 years, so there are all kinds of shapes and sizes of foam rollers these days.

What is Foam Rolling?

Foam rolling is often described as “self myofascial release”.

Self ► “Self” refers to the self-service nature of foam rolling. Unlike traditional massage therapy, you don’t need anyone but yourself to foam roll.

Myofascial ►  “Fascia” (pronounced “fash-uh”) is a thin lattice-like connective tissue that runs throughout the body in several layers, directions, and planes. Fascia is multifunctional and pervasive. The term “myofascial” refers specifically to the fascia that blends seamlessly in and out of muscle tissue. Fascia plays an important role in controlling movement. During movement, fascia continuously updates the central nervous system (CNS) with information about joint positions, and this communication helps the CNS fine-tune whatever movement is being attempted. Fascia also contributes to the maintenance of posture and stability by helping create necessary amounts of tension around joints. 

Release ► “Release” refers to the reduction of fascial tension that occurs as a result of foam rolling. Since myofascial tissue blends seamlessly into and out of muscles, reducing fascial tension reduces muscle tension.

Why Foam Roll?

Foam rolling improves the extensibility (the lengthening ability) of muscle tissue and elicits favorable changes in the body’s sensory-motor system. In layman’s terms, foam rolling can improve joint range-of-motion and reduce muscle discomfort.

Chronic postural stress, sedentary lifestyles, and repetitive movements all have physiological consequences on muscle tissue. These 3 factors can lead to tense, tender, and overactive muscles. The best application of foam rolling is the reversal of these dysfunctional qualities. Once the quality of muscle tissue is normalized, the body is then capable of more functional movement patterns (i.e. movement patterns that are safe, efficient, and effective). 

When to Foam Roll

There are several instances where the use of foam rolling is beneficial. Generally speaking, foam rolling is best done just prior to a training session. When restriction and discomfort are alleviated in tense muscles before training, the body can then move with more natural mechanics during training. However, the effects of foam rolling don’t last long. Ideally, the time between foam rolling and training should be as short as possible. In strength training, foam rolling can be utilized between sets if you experience notable tension & discomfort with a particular movement.

For example, tight hamstrings limit hip-hinging* in the deadlift, and this can force the lower back to round when bending over to lift the barbell.  Due to this mobility compensation, risk of injury to the lumbar intervertebral discs is increased.

By foam rolling tight hamstrings prior to deadlifting, you will be able to properly hip-hinge and lift the weight with functional mechanics, increasing performance and reducing risk of injury.

*Hip-hinging is a bending movement defined by:

  1. Moving primarily at the hips
  2. Bending slightly at the knees
  3. Maintaining a neutral position of the spine (no rounding of the lower back)

How to Foam Roll

There are eight important concepts to remember when foam rolling.

  1. The foam roller is best utilized by placing it on the ground and lying on it, positioning yourself as necessary depending on what muscle group you wish to work on.
  2. Let gravity do the work. The foam roller “works” on the body via the weight of the body pressing into the foam roller. To increase or reduce pressure, change your body position so that more or less of your bodyweight is supported by the foam roller, respectively.
  3. Apply pressure gradually. Don’t apply pressure too deeply, causing intense painful sensations which can counter-productively increase tension and discomfort in muscles. More is not necessarily better. On a discomfort scale of 1-10, stay between 3-5. When rolling exceptionally tender areas, 6-7 is okay, but do not maintain that level of discomfort for more than 10 seconds at a time.  
  4. Breathe. Deep, slow, and controlled breathing (i.e. diaphragmatic breathing) can reduce muscle tension. Conversely, pain can increase muscle tension (as described in the previous point). Diaphragmatic breathing not only reduces muscle tension, but it also helps pace your rolling. For example, a 5-second exhalation is a good amount of time to roll down the length of the hamstrings.
  5. In tandem with the previous point, foam rolling should be performed slowly. If foam rolling is performed too quickly, the roller won’t settle into the muscle tissue, and the deeper layers of muscle won’t be affected. Foam roll slowly to ensure effectiveness of the soft-tissue work.
  6. Roll up and down the entire length of the muscle, but do not roll across joints (e.g. never roll over the knee cap). The foam roller should be oriented perpendicularly to the long-axis of the muscle.
  7. Foam roll where necessary. That is, foam roll areas of restriction and discomfort, and nowhere else. Foam rolling facilitates optimal exercise, but it is not exercise itself. For the sake of time-efficiency and energy-efficiency, foam rolling shouldn’t be used excessively.
  8. Roll the necessary muscle groups between 30 seconds and a couple minutes, depending on how much tension or discomfort you feel.

Closing Note

Foam rolling is not the same as seeing a massage therapist (e.g. a foam roller can’t assess the quality of muscle tissue through palpation and theoretical insight). However, the foam roller is an exceptionally cost-effective tool. As world renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle says, “Foam rollers are the poor man’s massage therapist, soft tissue work for the masses.”

Deadlifts: Dead-Stop vs. Touch-and-Go

The Debate

There is a fair amount of controversy about which style of deadlifting is best: Dead-Stop or Touch-and-Go.


1.) Dead-Stop Deadlift (2 variations)
1a.) A style of deadlifting in which you let the bar come to a complete rest on the floor after every rep.
      Dead-Stop Variation 1: Reset Tension
            You reset your body tension & starting position after every rep.
      Dead-Stop Variation 2: Maintain Tension
            You maintain your body tension & starting position after every rep.

2.) Touch-and-Go Deadlift
2a.) A style of deadlifting in which you don’t let the bar completely come to a rest on the floor after every rep. Instead, the weight taps   the floor for a short moment between reps. 

Here is a video that demonstrates the 2 styles of deadlifting: Dead-Stop and Touch-and-Go. The video also demonstrates the 2 variations within the dead-stop style: Reset Tension and Maintain Tension.

The Role of Specificity

When people claim that there is a best style of deadlifting, my question is, “best for what?” In this article I assert that there is no “best” style of deadlifting, but rather there are styles of deadlifting that are better suited for developing specific kinds of strength. In the long-term perspective of strength programming, I believe that both styles of the deadlift should be utilized. When deciding on what style to use, you have to examine what aspects of the deadlift you are specifically challenging by using one style or another.

Advantage(s) and Disadvantage(s) of the Different Styles

Advantages & Disadvantage of the Dead-Stop Reset Tension

  • Advantage: Trains set-up technique better, because you have to reset your starting position and generate tension in your body before every rep.
  • Advantage: Trains speed off the floor better, because the weight completely settles on the floor after every rep.
  • Disadvantage: The most fatiguing style of the deadlift. When you reset after every rep, you completely lose any aid from muscle elasticity* and the stretch reflex**.

Advantages & Disadvantage of the Dead-Stop Maintain Tension

  • Advantages: Same as Reset Tension, but to a lesser degree. Since you maintain your starting position and body tension after every rep, there is less emphasis on set-up technique. However, your set-up technique is still significantly trained because you are focusing on holding your body tightly in the proper start position between every rep while the weight settles completely on the floor. Speed off the floor is also significantly challenged, but to a lesser degree because you get a little aid from muscle elasticity due to maintained body tension between reps.
  • Disadvantage: Same as Reset Tension, but to a lesser degree. Not quite as fatiguing. You get a little aid from muscle elasticity* and because you maintain your starting position and body tension.

Advantages & Disadvantages of the Touch-and-Go

  • Advantage: Trains bar path or “groove” better, because you are continuously moving up and down, constantly feeling the bar path. It’s easier to notice deviations in the bar path.
  • Advantage: Increases ability to perform more reps with heavy weight, because muscle elasticity* and the stretch reflex** aid the bottom portion of the lift.
  • Advantage: Increases time under tension, as the muscles of the posterior chain are under a high degree of load for the entirety of the set.
  • Advantage: Trains grip better, because you are always supporting the weight in your hands.
  • Disadvantage: Does not train speed off the floor well.
  • Disadvantage: Does not train starting position well.

While it looks like the touch-and-go style has a lot of advantages, they aren’t necessarily all major advantages. And while it looks like the dead-stop style doesn’t have many advantages, the advantages that is does have are very important. Breaking the weight off the floor, while holding yourself in a good starting position, is one of the most important aspects of deadlifting – if you don’t start the lift well, you can’t end the lift well.

*Muscle elasticity is the natural elastic-response that occurs in muscles after they are stretched; it’s like pulling a bowstring tightly back and letting it go. Muscle elasticity is a passive mechanism, which means it doesn’t require any extra energy on your part (free energy!). In the deadlift, muscle elasticity takes effect after you lower the weight and if you don’t let the weight come to a dead-stop; it helps you rebound from the bottom.

** The stretch reflex is an automatic muscle contraction that occurs when your muscles are stretched quickly. The stretch reflex is essentially your nervous system giving you a well-timed boost to your force production. In the deadlift, the stretch reflex takes effect after you lower the weight and if you don’t let the weight come to a dead-stop; it helps you rebound from the bottom.

How to Decide what Style to Use

When deciding on what style of deadlift to use, you must ask the question “What are the weakest parts of my deadlift?” Once you have the answer to that question, look at how it matches with the advantages and disadvantages of each style. In other words, train the style of deadlifting that specifically challenges your weaknesses.

A few examples:

  • If you are really slow in breaking the weight off the floor, train the dead-stop style, where it is harder to break the weight off the floor.
  • If you have trouble locking into the proper groove, train the touch-and-go style, where it is easier to feel deviations in the bar path.
  • If you want to stimulate hypertrophy in your posterior chain while limiting CNS fatigue, use the touch-and-go style, where you increase time under tension and can perform more reps while limiting CNS fatigue.

To get stronger, you have to first identify your weaknesses, and then challenge them specifically.

Some Things to Consider

Many people think that the touch-and-go style is just a way to cheat more reps and look stronger than you are (and I’m sure some people utilize it for that reason). However, why do many people assume that the deadlift must contain a pause between every rep as the norm? In what other exercises do people expect this? Pausing and letting the weight completely settle between every rep is definitely not expected in the squat, bench press, overhead press, chin up, or row. Why must the deadlift be trained in a fundamentally different way from most other exercises?

Yes, the deadlift has the word “dead” in its very name (implying the lifting of a dead weight). And yes, the deadlift is unique in that it begins by lifting a dead weight from the floor, at least for the 1st rep. But these reasons aren’t good enough to completely dismiss the benefits of the touch-and-go deadlift, which is a style of deadlifting that more closely resembles the way we train most other exercises (i.e. utilizing muscle elasticity and the stretch reflex). If you get hung up on the moniker of the deadlift, you are limiting potential training benefits. Each style of deadlifting clearly has unique things to offer.

In my own training, I’ve set PR’s in the dead-stop deadlift after using the touch-and-go style exclusively for 6+ months. That’s right, I did absolutely no dead-stop deadlifting, but my dead-stop deadlift increased. Why? It’s likely because the touch-and-go deadlift allowed me to train the deadlift heavy and frequently without inducing excessive CNS fatigue (this played a big factor in my overall program, not just the deadlift training). Touch-and-go deadlifting also offered a novel training stimulus, which my body responded well to. But of course, nothing works forever, and eventually my exclusive use of the touch-and-go deadlift lead me to a point where I had a big disparity between my strength off the floor and strength locking-out, as can be seen in the following video:

Now, I exclusively train the dead-stop style to work on my starting position and speed off the floor. For the record, it isn’t necessary to train just one style at any given time. For example, you could train heavy deadlifts using touch-and-go, and then include moderate weight dead-stop deficit deadlifts to make sure you are training your starting position and speed off the floor.

Bottom line: Each style of deadlifting has unique benefits. Let your specific weaknesses and overall program structure guide your decision on what style of deadlift to use.

Strength Programming for Beginners

Why Follow a Program?

Getting consistent and appreciable results requires a training program, no matter your goal. Whether you want to get stronger, increase your endurance, gain muscle, or lose fat, you must follow a program to effectively and efficiently achieve your goals. Programs remove guess work and give you a concrete plan to follow. A good program will simplify what you need to do. For a beginner interested in getting stronger, the best thing you can do is to follow a simple training program that is based on the fundamentals of human movement and strength development.

This article describes the core concepts behind a safe and effective strength program, and it offers two sample programs. Think of this article as a primer for understanding and implementing a strength training program.

Fundamental Movements

A beginner’s strength program should include the following fundamental movements:

1.) Push
      1a. Vertical push
            ► For example, a barbell overhead press

      1b. Horizontal push
            ► For example, a barbell bench press

2.) Pull
      2a. Vertical pull
            ► For example, a chin-up

      2b. Horizontal pull
            ► For example, a dumb bell row

3.) Squat
            ► For example, a barbell front squat

4.) Hip-hinge
            ► For example, a sumo-stance barbell deadlift

5.) Lunge
            ► For example, a dumb bell Bulgarian squat

6.) Spinal stability*
            ► For example, a side plank

*Technically, spinal stability is not a movement, but rather the absence or limitation of movement in the spine. However, spinal stability is necessary for the proper execution of the fundamental movements. According to the research of Stuart McGill, a world renowned spinal biomechanist, in order for the hips and shoulders to generate and transmit optimal forces, the spine must remain relatively stiff in a neutral position [1]. In layman’s terms, keeping a straight back allows for the arms and legs to perform at their full potential. Spinal stability also helps prevent back injuries, such as disc herniations [1].

By incorporating all the aforementioned fundamental movements, all major muscle groups of the body will be challenged and developed.

Generally speaking (and a bit over-simplified):

Pushing trains the muscles on the front of the torso and back of the upper arms
Pulling trains the muscles on the back of the torso and the front of the upper arms
Squatting trains the muscles on the front of the thighs and back of the hips
Hip-hinging trains the muscles on the back of the hips and thighs
Lunging trains the muscles on the front & back of the hips and thighs
Spinal stability trains the muscles that attach between the upper pelvis and lower ribs.

Fundamental movements are movement patterns that everyone performs by virtue of having a human body; they are essential for effectively moving through, and interacting with, the environment. There are more fundamental movements than what was listed above. However, the list is kept short to include the best movements for strength development in beginners. As a beginner gains strength and experience to become more advanced, he/she can include other more challenging fundamental movements, such as rotational, single-legged, and gait patterns.  Even as an individual becomes more advanced, they will want to base the majority of their strength program on the fundamental movements previously listed, as they are the best movements for overall strength development, regardless of training experience.

Organizing the Movements

For beginners, there are two optimal ways that the fundamental movements can be organized into a program:

1.) Total body
      1a. All fundamental movements are performed in each training session.

2.) Upper/Lower
      2a. Training sessions are dedicated to either upper body movements or lower body movements.

Why Muscle Isolation Programs Don’t Make Sense

You may wonder why there is no mention of the movements being organized into training sessions based on specific body parts, such as an arm day, a shoulder day, or a back day. There are a couple reasons for this. First, a fundamental human movement, by its kinesiological definition, involves many joints and muscle groups. For example, the chin-up pulling movement engages the muscles of the forearms, upper arms, shoulders, upper back, abdominal region, and even the chest to a degree. So, in a program organized by body parts, where would the chin-up go? Back day? Arm day? Shoulder day?

The body functions in movements, not isolated muscles, and it should be trained as such. It just doesn’t make sense to train body parts in isolation, as this method goes against how the body naturally expresses movement. Due to its opposition with natural human motor control, muscle isolation programs limit functional strength (i.e. strength that is applicable to everyday life and athletics). This idea of “training movements rather than isolated muscles” is championed by top strength & performance specialists like Michael Boyle, Gray Cook, Stuart McGill, Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, Charlie Weingroff, and Mel Siff.

Here is an example of why a body part isolation program is not ideal:

Let’s say you train your quadriceps with a leg extension machine, hamstrings with a leg curl machine, and your inner & outer thighs with a hip adductor & abductor machine. Using this body part isolation method, you can stimulate increases in size and strength in the muscles being trained. However, all of those isolated single-joint movements rarely get performed in daily life (if ever).

In contrast, by training the fundamental movement of the squat, you will stimulate all of the aforementioned muscles in a single exercise. As you can see, this is a much more efficient use of your time. In addition to efficiency, you will be strengthening the muscles in a coordinated fashion that will increase your functional strength. Getting stronger in the squat can help you to run faster, jump higher, climb stairs quicker, and lift things better. Doing all of the previously mentioned muscle-isolation exercises will have little to no carryover in functional strength. Think about this: getting a stronger squat will increase your strength in all the muscle-isolation exercises, but the opposite is not true.  

In summary, training movements instead of isolated muscles increases training efficiency and develops functional strength because multiple muscle groups and joints get challenged simultaneously in a fashion that requires balance and coordination. The majority of your strength program should consist of fundamental movements.  

Helpful definitions:

  • Compound movement = a movement that utilizes multiple joints and multiple muscle groups. Fundamental movements are compound movements.
    • A squat is an example of a compound movement because movement is occurring at the hips,  knees, and ankles.
  • Isolation movement = a movement that utilizes a single joint and a single muscle or muscle group.
    • A bicep curl is an example of an isolation movement because movement is only occurring at the elbow.

Isolation Exercises can be Beneficial

Isolation exercises are not completely worthless; they can play an important role in a training program, when used correctly. Isolation exercises can strengthen disproportionately weak muscles. For example, in the bench press, you may have trouble locking out the top 1/3 of the pushing movement, where most of the stress is delegated to the triceps. If you have disproportionately weak triceps, the top 1/3 of the bench press will be notably more difficult than the rest of the movement. In this case, isolation exercises for the triceps should be included in your training program in order to overload the triceps and stimulate an increase in size and strength. But note that the isolation exercise is being used to enhance a fundamental movement. In a training session, isolation exercises should always be trained after fundamental movements.  

Ensure Balance in Movement

When training the fundamental movements, it is important to perform them in equal proportions. For example, you should train pushing just as much as you train pulling.  If you train 5x10 in the bench press, you should train 5x10 in a rowing exercise. Or, if you are notably stronger in pushing movements compared to pulling, you should prioritize pulling movements to establish a balance of strength. Some ways you could prioritize pulling over pushing include performing pulling first when your body is fresher, or performing more overall sets and reps of pulling, while potentially limiting sets and reps of pushing. Once balance is established, train both pushing and pulling equally.

Or, within pressing movements, you might be notably stronger on your right side instead of your left, and in this case you should include exercises that force each side to work independently, like a dumb bell bench press.

What is Wrong with Imbalances?

Imbalances in strength, mobility, and stability can negatively affect the way you move.

1.) Strength (the ability to exert force)
1a.) If one muscle has a deficiency in strength, another muscle is forced to work harder to pick up the slack.
1b.) For example, weak glutes force the hamstrings to work harder when doing a deadlift. Due to this      strength compensation, the risk of injury to the hamstrings is increased.

2.) Mobility (the ability to move a joint smoothly through a full range of motion)
2a.) If one joint has a deficiency in mobility, another joint is forced to move more to accomplish a movement.
2b.) For example, tight hamstrings limit hip-hinging in the deadlift, and this can force the lower back to round when bending over to lift the barbell.  Due to this mobility compensation, risk of injury to the lumbar intervertebral discs is increased.

3.) Stability (the ability to control joint movement in a safe and effective manner)
3a.) If one joint system has a deficiency in stability, another joint system is forced to work harder to create stability
3b.) For example, if the upper back loses stability and rounds significantly in the deadlift, the lower back muscles and joints are forced to work harder to stabilize the spine. Due to this stability compensation, risk of injury to the lower back muscles and lumbar intervertebral discs is increased.

As you can see, compensation occurs when one part of the body fails to perform its normal duties, forcing another part of the body to perform beyond its normal function. Over time, the use of compensatory strategies can lead to acute or chronic injuries (e.g. muscle strain or tendonitis, respectively). Compensation doesn’t always lead to injury, but it does decrease the body’s ability to move efficiency and effectively. Compensations stem from imbalances. Therefore, imbalances need to be addressed as soon as they are recognized.


Free Weights vs. Resistance Machines

To develop true functional strength (i.e. strength that is applicable to everyday life and athletics), your training program should predominantly consist of free weight exercises. The classic argument against this is “free weights are dangerous and will injure you, so just use resistance machines”. Yes, free weight exercises do inherently carry a greater risk of injury compared to resistance machines, but resistance machines do not challenge the body sufficiently to develop functional strength.

Resistance machines involve exerting force into an object that is fixed in a single plane of movement. Let’s examine the leg press as an example. When you use your leg muscles to press into the foot-plate of the leg press, you could have your knees caved inward, your torso awkwardly rotated, and your feet in an asymmetrical position. What will happen to the foot-plate? It will glide nicely along in a perfectly straight line.

But what would happen if you used the same poor mechanics in the squat as you did in the leg press?

a.) The barbell would move erratically
b.) You would move inefficiently
c.) You could fail to perform the movement
d.) You could injure yourself
e.) All of the above

Free weight training gives you feedback; it lets you know when you are using bad technique. Resistance machine training does not give you feedback. As explained in the leg press example, you can throw awful mechanics into the foot-plate, but the movement will look just the same as when you use excellent technique. This brings up the concept of “self-limiting exercises”*, which are essentially exercises that require a sufficient level of technique to perform correctly. In other words, self-limiting exercises are harder to perform incorrectly because they “limit themselves” from bad technique. In relation to the leg press, the squat is self-limiting, because you can’t use bad mechanics to correctly perform the lift (although it’s definitely common to see people use bad mechanics to incorrectly perform the lift). The point here is that a bad squat lets you know it’s a bad squat.

*While the squat is self-limiting in relation to the leg press, “self-limiting exercises” are a specific group of exercises that doesn’t typically include the squat. True self-limiting exercises are ones that are close to impossible to execute without the use of a high level of technique, such as the unilateral Romanian deadlift.

Now I pose the question, what kind of training relates more closely to everyday life and athletics? Clearly free weight training is the answer. You can use machines with awful technique, and you seemingly get the same result as using good technique: the weight moves along a straight line. When you move furniture, pick things up off the ground, or play sports, you must overcome and control forces that exist in multiple planes, and this requires a combination of functional strength, mobility, stability, and coordination, which are all abilities you develop using free weight training. Machine training is like building a skyscraper that only resists wind in one direction, while free weight training is like building a skyscraper that resists wind in all directions.

Free weight training is inherently more challenging and dangerous than machine training. However, by training in a manner bolstered by proper technique and gradual progressions, you can keep the risk of injury very low. By choosing free weight training over machine training, you actually reduce your risk of injury in the long term because you are training your body to be strong and resilient outside of the gym.

Machine Exercises can be Beneficial

Similar to isolation exercises, machine exercises do have a place in a strength training program, as they can offer specific benefits when utilized correctly.

The quality that makes machine exercises a poor choice is what makes them beneficial. This sounds confusing, but let me explain. The single-plane movement of machines significantly removes the involvement of assisting/stabilizing muscles. Since the assisting/stabilizing muscles don’t play much of a role during a machine exercise, most of the weight must be overcome by the primary force-producing muscles. This means that the primary force-producing muscles get more directly worked (overloaded) through machine exercises, offering them a good stimulus for growth.

Examples of free weight exercises, their primary force-producing muscles, and the related machine exercises:

Here’s an example. Let’s say you train the back squat for 5 sets of 8 repetitions. By the end of those sets, your lower back muscles, which play a stabilizing role in the squat, are very fatigued. However, your quads still feel like they have a lot of gas in the tank. At the end of the training session, you use the leg press machine where most of the stress is placed on the quads, and away from the lower back. By using the leg press you continue to train the quads, stressing them enough to cause an optimal muscle growth effect (increases in muscle size play an important role in strength development). As the optimal muscle growth occurs, the added muscle tissue can be trained to produce more force in the fundamental movement of the squat, increasing functional strength. You would still gain quad size and strength from just training the squat, but in this example you can see how using the leg press could supplement the development of quad size and strength.

Machine training, due to its highly specific plane of movement, can help stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth) in a specific muscle or muscle group. The growing muscle can then perform better in the fundamental movements, increasing functional strength. It’s as if machine exercises help create more raw material (i.e. muscle mass), so that the raw material can be honed purposefully (i.e. used to increase functional strength). But it’s very important to note that free weight exercises are best for increasing muscle size and strength! Machine exercises are used as a supplement to further stimulate muscle growth. The majority of your training program should consist of free weight exercises. Similar to isolation exercises, machine exercises should be performed after all free weight exercises.

Exercise Prioritization

The order in which you perform your exercises is important.

What exercises should be performed first?

1.) The ones that are the most physically demanding
2.) The ones that utilize the greatest amount of joints (i.e. compound movements)
3.) The ones that have the highest risk of injury

Typically, the above 3 qualities are one-in-the-same. If an exercise utilizes many joints (and therefore recruits many muscle groups), it requires a high energy output when performed. Since multi-joint exercises are energy-demanding, they induce a greater level of fatigue, and fatigue increases the chance of technique degradation. In addition, multi-joint exercises require the simultaneous stabilization of all the joints being used, which means there’s a greater number of technique breakdowns that can occur.

For example, in a total body training session, a squat should be performed before a bench press. The squat utilizes more joints than the bench press. The squat utilizes the: shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles, while the bench press utilizes the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.  Due to the utilization of more joints, the squat recruits more muscle groups and has a greater opportunity for technique error than the bench press. The squat also requires a greater level of stabilization as it is performed standing, compared to the bench-lying position of the bench press.  It is apparent that the squat is much more physically demanding than the bench press, and therefore carries a greater risk of injury. Using this same line of logic, the bench press should be performed before the bicep curl, and the deadlift should be performed before the leg curl.

The main concept to remember is that you want to be as fresh as possible when performing the big payoff lifts (fundamental movements). By doing this, you optimize overall strength development and decrease the risk of injury.

Ensure Proper Technique

This is the hardest topic to effectively convey through writing. I could extensively describe every technique point of an exercise, but most of those technique points could be encapsulated in just a few simple cues through in-person coaching. For true beginners learning proper technique, articles just don’t cut it.

Learning proper technique is an experiential process that requires mistake-making and internal & external feedback.

► Internal feedback = feedback given to you by your body
      • Examples include:
            ○ Losing balance helps you learn where you need to position yourself to maintain balance
            ○ Feeling fatigue in the right muscles lets you know you are utilizing the muscles you intend to train
            ○ Experiencing pain lets you know you need to stop or change what you are doing

► External feedback = feedback given to you from an outside source
      • Examples include:
            ○ A video you took of yourself to analyze your technique
            ○ Someone coaching you and giving you verbal cues on how to improve your technique   
            ○ Using contact cues, such as doing a push up with a tennis ball on the floor under your chest*

* In this case, you would be looking to contact the tennis ball with your chest each repetition to ensure you are lowering your torso enough

Another reason why it is difficult to teach proper technique through an article is that there are so many exercises to cover. However, I can impart the importance of proper technique.

Firstly and most importantly, bad technique should never be used. Technique can go from excellent-to-acceptable, but never acceptable-to-poor. Why? Because using poor technique dramatically increases your risk of injury, and it reinforces and perpetuates dysfunctional movement patterns. A dysfunctional movement pattern increases the risk of injury, and reduces efficiency & effectiveness.

Poor technique:

•    Enables compensations and imbalances
•    Reinforces and perpetuates dysfunctional movement patterns
•    Reduces efficiency & effectiveness
•    Increases risk of injury
•    Decreases joint and muscle resiliency

Proper technique:

•    Limits compensations and imbalances
•    Reinforces and perpetuates functional movement patterns
•    Increases efficiency and effectiveness
•    Reduces risk of injury
•    Increases joint and muscle resiliency

Strive for perfection, but don’t cut out exercises because you can’t perform them perfectly. There will always be something to be desired in your technique, even if it is at a high level. Learning the best technique is a never-ending process. Technique should never be poor, but there is a range of acceptable technique. If you never trained because you couldn’t use perfect technique, you’d never get anywhere in strength training. Personal trainers (ahem…good ones) are a great resource for learning proper technique.

Fundamentals of Strength Development

  • SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand)
    • Essentially, the SAID principle states that specific bodily changes occur as a result of the specific demands imposed on the body.
      • For example, training the overhead press (the specific demand) increases your strength in the overheadpress (specific bodily change) and stimulates your shoulder muscles to grow (specific bodily change). Bench pressing utilizes the same muscles as the overhead press, and is a similar movement, but it does not necessarily increase your strength in the overhead press because it isn’t specific enough to the overhead press movement. Bottom line: if you want to become stronger in a specific movement or exercise, you must train that specific movement or exercise.
  • Progressive Overload
    • Progressive overload is necessary to gain strength. You must progressively overload your body in order to strengthen it. This means you must gradually and consistently increase the training parameters of an exercise in order to increase your strength in that exercise. In strength development for beginners, intensity is the most important parameter to overload.
      • For example, to increase your strength in the dumb bell row, you could increase the weight of the dumb bell by 5 lbs per week, while maintaining the same sets and reps.
  • Neuromuscular Adaptations
    • Neuromuscular adaptations are changes that occur in the relationship between the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system (that relationship is called the “neuromuscular system”). Strength training causes neuromuscular adaptations to occur, resulting in a nervous system that can more effectively cause muscles to contract and produce force (remember, strength is defined by force production). Neuromuscular adaptations allow an individual to become stronger without putting on any extra muscle mass due to increases in neuromuscular efficiency.
      • For example, as you train the deadlift, your nervous system becomes more effective in telling the appropriate muscles to: contract, contract at the right time, contract quickly, and hold that contraction, leading to a stronger deadlift.
  • Musculoskeletal Adaptations
    • Musculoskeletal adaptations are changes that occur in the muscles themselves. Strength training causes physiological and hypertrophic changes in muscles (on a cellular and morphological scale, respectively). In other words, strength training results in bigger muscles whose cells can generate a greater energy output.
      • For example, training the overhead press stimulates the fibers of the shoulder muscles to grow larger and be able to produce more force.
  • Intensity*
    • Intensity is a percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM), which is the most weight you can lift for a single repetition.
      • For example, if your 1RM in the squat is 200 lbs, squatting 200 lbs is training at 100% intensity, and squatting 150 lbs is training at 75% intensity.
  • Volume*
    • Volume is the multiplied value of (sets) x (reps). Volume can be calculated on different scales (volume per session, per week, per month, etc.)
      • For example, doing more sets and/or reps will increase your training volume.
  • Tempo*
    • Tempo is the pace or rhythm of an exercise. Tempo is typically broken up into 3 components: 1.) lowering the weight, 2.) holding the weight in the lowered position, and 3.) raising the weight.
      • For example, a 3/2/1 tempo in the bench press means that you would take 3 seconds to lower the weight to your chest, pause on your chest for 2 seconds, and then raise the weight up to the start position in 1 second.
  • Density*
    • Density is the volume of your training session divided by the amount of time it takes to complete the session (volume divided by time). You can increase training density by decreasing rest intervals, and/or by increasing the speed at which you perform repetitions.
      • For example, let’s say you perform a training session that consists of 3 sets of 10 reps in: the squat, push up, and kettlebell swing (90 total reps). If you perform that session in 60 minutes, you have a training density of 1.5 reps per minute. If you perform that same session in 30 minutes, you increased your training density to 3 reps per minute.
  • Frequency*
    • Frequency is defined by the number of times that you perform a training session or an exercise. Frequency is usually calculated on a weekly or monthly scale.
      • For example, you can have a training frequency of 4 sessions per week. Or, you can have a squat frequency of 2 times per week.
  • Sets & Repetitions*
    • A set is a discrete period of work, preceded and followed by rest, in a specific exercise that consists of 1 or more repetitions.
      • For example, doing 3 sets of 10 reps in the chin-up means that you perform 10 chin-ups 3 times, resting between every 10 reps
  • Rest Intervals*
    • A rest interval (RI) is a designated period of rest between sets of an exercise.
      • For example, a 3 minute rest interval in the squat means that you will rest 3 minutes between every set of squats.
  • Periodization
    • Periodization refers to the emphasis of specific training parameters, physical qualities, or exercises, for a specific period of time before emphasizing other training parameters, physical qualities, or exercises. A period of training is usually measured in months. Physical qualities commonly periodized include strength, power, and endurance. Training periods are often separated by deloads or training breaks that typically last no longer than a week. Periodization is a programming concept that can be very simple or very complicated.
      • For example, for a 3 month period you focus on increasing your strength endurance (ability to perform higher reps) in barbell lifts (e.g. squat, bench press, deadlift). You then take a week off for recovery, followed by another 3 month period where you focus on increasing your absolute strength (1RM) in the same barbell lifts. In this case, the exercises stay the same, but the training parameters change (intensity, sets & reps, and volume).  
  • Deloads & Training Breaks
    • A deload is a period of reduced training parameters (e.g. intensity, volume, or frequency) to allow the body to recover.
      • For example, you may include a deload after every 4 weeks of training.
    • A training break is a period of no training to allow the body to recover.
      • For example, you may include a training break after every 3 months of training.
  • Overtraining
    • Overtraining is a systemic fatigue that results from training too hard for too long, without the appropriate means for recovery.
      • For example, if you train very hard for 6 months without taking a deload or training break, you are likely to experience overtraining.
  • Rep Max (RM)
    • A rep max is the most amount of weight you can lift for a specified amount of repetitions.
      • For example, if the greatest amount of weight you can lift for 5 reps in the T-bar row is 125 lbs, 125 lbs is your 5RM for the T-bar row. If you can perform no more than 3 reps when using 100 lbs in the overhead press, 100 lbs is your 3RM for the overhead press.
  • Personal Record (PR)
    • PR’s are what it is all about in strength training, as they signify a new level of achieved strength. If your goal is to get stronger, your program should be based around trying to set new PR’s. There are absolute strength PR’s, and repetition strength PR’s.
      • For example, if the most weight you’ve ever lifted for 1 rep in the bench press is 100 lbs, and you lift 105 lbs, you set a 5 lb absolute strength PR. In this case, you increased your bench press 1RM by 5 lbs.
      • For example, if the most reps you’ve ever squatted using 150 lbs is 12, and you perform 15 reps with that weight, you set a repetition strength PR by 3 reps. In this case, 150 lbs was your 12RM, but now it’s your 15RM.
  • Training Plateau
    • A plateau is the point at which strength gains stop occurring.
      • For example, after 6 months of getting stronger using a specific training program, you experience a halt in progress.
  • Training Regression
    • Training regression occurs when you start losing strength.
      • For example, after training too hard for too long without a break, you notice you start losing strength.
  • Bilateral Exercises
    • Bilateral exercises challenge both sides of the body simultaneously.
      • For example, a Romanian deadlift is a bilateral exercise because both sides of the body are trained simultaneously.
  • Unilateral Exercises
    • Unilateral exercises only challenge one side of the body at a time. Unilateral exercises are typically more challenging than bilateral exercises because they involve a higher degree of stabilization.

*These are all examples of training parameters (specific values that control a training program).

Two Sample Strength Programs for Beginners

I am including two sample programs that utilize all the concepts described in this article.

Program #1: Total Body Training (each session trains the upper body AND lower body)

      ► Frequency: 3x per week
            • Every session (I, II, and III) will be trained once per week
      ► Have at least one recovery day between training sessions
            • For example, you could train MWF or TuThSat

Training sessions will be more challenging than those in Program #2, but you only train 3 times per week, as opposed to 4. This program is better suited for those with a limited time budget [link to time management article] and/or a general interest in strength training.

Today Body Program: Session I

Today Body Program: Session II

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Total Body Program: Session III

Program #2: Upper/Lower Training (each session focuses on either upper body OR lower body)

      ► Frequency: 4x per week
            • Every session (I, II, III, and IV) will be trained once per week

You will have to train 2 consecutive days once per week with this program, but otherwise you will have one recovery day between training sessions. Training sessions will be less challenging than those in Program #1, but you will train more frequently (4 days per week as opposed to 3). This program is better suited for those with a more serious interest in strength training.

Upper/Lower Program: Session I (upper 1)

Upper/Lower Program: Session II (lower 1)

Upper/Lower Program: Session III (upper 2)

Upper/Lower Program: Session IV (lower 2)

* For a beginner, 3x10 in the chin-up may be extremely difficult or impossible. If that is the case, use the band-assisted chin-up or the chin-up assist machine to achieve the sets and reps.
** Choose whatever deadlift variation is most comfortable: conventional, sumo, or trap-bar deadlift
***For a beginner, 3x10 in the push-up may be extremely difficult or impossible. If that is the case, use incline push-ups to achieve the sets and reps.
† When progressing the spinal stability exercises, increase the duration by 5 seconds and the rest interval by 10 seconds, every week. For each 5-week training cycle, you will do exactly what you did in the initial 5-weeks, unlike the rest of the exercises.

BB = barbell
DB = dumb bell
BL = Bilateral
UL = Unilateral

Isolation work is optional.

If you have any confusion on what an exercise is, www.exrx.net/Lists/SearchExercises.html is a great resource [2]. A basic internet search will also get you the clarification you need.

The Method of Progression for the Sample Programs

  1. When choosing an initial resistance for each exercise, pick one that is easy. You should have at least 5 repetitions left in the tank after every set. It is important to start light in order to learn proper technique. Starting light also gives you plenty of room to progress, helping you avoid a plateau in the future.
  2. Both programs progress in the same manner. Every week you will increase the weight in each exercise by the smallest increment possible. Along with the increase in weight, every week you will remove 1 rep per set for every exercise.
  3. This progression will continue for 5 weeks. As the weeks progress, the exercises will slowly become more challenging.
  4. After the completion of the 5th week, there will be a 4 day training break for recovery (no training at all).
  5. At the end of the training break, the progression resumes, but it starts back at 3 sets of 10 reps with the new initial weight being the resistance that was used in week 2 of the initial 5 week cycle.  

Here’s an example:

  1. A man chooses 30 lbs for his initial weight in the goblet squat because he can perform 3 sets of 10 reps with that weight, while being able to perform at least 5 extra reps per set if he needed to.
  2. Since dumb bells typically increase in no less than 5 lb increments, he progressed to a 35 lb DB in week 2, but cut 1 rep off of each set, so that he performed 3 sets of 9 reps.
  3. This progression continues to the point where he performs 3 sets of 6 reps with 50 lbs on week 5.
  4. The man takes a 4 day training break.
  5. After the training break, he restarts the progression, but this time he starts with 35 lbs (instead of 30 lbs) for 3 sets of 10 reps.
  6. The man goes through this 5-week cycle of training four times (roughly 6 months, including recovery breaks), at which point he must re-assess his program to ensure continued results.

This progression can be conceptualized as “5 steps forward, 4 steps back”. You ramp up intensity slowly over time, while slowly reducing volume. You build up your strength to hit PR’s, and you pre-emptively avoid a plateau by introducing a recovery break. Then, you ramp up intensity again, starting from a slightly higher level than you initially did.  

These programs are meant to be a general introduction to strength training; they are meant to help you build a base of strength and garner a general understanding of what a training program entails. After the 6-month period of training is over, it’s best to find or create a program that is more specific to your strength goals and individual factors.

Keep in mind that the two programs I included are samples can be altered depending on:

1.) The individual’s capacity

1a.) For example, some exercises may be outside the ability of the individual due to an existing injury or limitation.

2.) Available equipment

2a.) For example, some gyms may not have bands that can be used for band-assisted chin-ups, or a chin-up assist machine for machine assisted chip-ups.

3.) Individual preference

3a.) For example, an individual may prefer to perform a seated cable row instead of a standing cable row, or a front squat instead of a corner barbell squat.

If changes are made to the program, make sure that you include all the fundamental movements listed at the beginning of this article, while ensuring balance between the movements. As long as the core concepts of strength development are followed (as described in this article), changes to the programs can be made as needed.  

Closing Notes

Keep in mind there isn’t a best way to progress. There are tons of ways that you can change training parameters to elicit strength gains. For beginners in general, increasing intensity is the best parameter change to make. However, you can’t increase all training parameters simultaneously, as that would quickly lead to overtraining and/or injury. As one or more training parameters increases, one or more will have to decrease.

While the programs I included are effective, they will not yield positive results indefinitely. There is a saying about strength programs that goes, “Everything works, but nothing works forever.” This quote is essentially saying that you can’t use a specific program or progression indefinitely while still making strength gains. Eventually, the body will learn to handle the stresses that are consistently imposed on it, and it will have no need to adapt further (this is an example of hitting a training plateau). When a training plateau occurs, you will need to introduce novel stimuli to the body in the form of stressing different training parameters, using different exercises, or by using a different progression.

For beginners performing strength training, strength gains tend to come easy, but the biggest mistake a beginner can make is to progress too quickly (leading to a training plateau and/or injury). To maintain steady progress, you need to find a balance between the proper stress and the proper recovery. Gradual progressions and periodic deloads/training breaks ensure this balance. When considering how to manage your progressions, think in the long-term and progress parameters conservatively. If you do this, you’ll have a very fruitful first few years of strength training.

The 5 Fundamental Components of Strength Development

1.) Training of the fundamental movements.

2.) Increasing training parameters gradually.

3.) Periodically emphasizing certain training parameters, while de-emphasizing others.

4.) A balance between stress and recovery.

5.) Consistency.


1.) McGill, S. (2007). Designing Back Exercise: from Rehabilitation to Enhancing Performance. Guide to training the flexion-intolerant back.

2.) http://www.exrx.net/

Training vs. Working Out

There are two distinct groups of people in the gym, those who train and those who work out.

This article involves semantics. Some people use the terms “training” and “working out” interchangeably, and this is perfectly fine. I describe the terms the way I do based on how I hear them commonly used, and the qualities often implied by their use. The terms aren’t that important, but the concepts behind them are. 


Training = a mode of exercise based on specific parameters that leads you effectively and efficiently towards a specific goal (or goals).

In other words, training involves following a program that dictates:

1.) How many days you go to the gym per week

2.) What exercises/movements you do on each day

3.) How many sets and repetitions of each exercise/movement you do

4.) What stretches and mobility drills you do

5.) Your means of recovery (e.g. days off and periods of lighter work)

► These are all examples of specific parameters. All parameters are determined in relation to your goals  

► For example, a competitive powerlifter would have very different training parameters than a competitive gymnast.

The purpose of training is to direct you as efficiently and effectively as possible towards whatever your goals may be.

Working Out

Working out = a mode of exercise that is not based on any specific parameters or specific goals. In other words, no program is followed and there is no methodology behind the parameters. The training parameters are inconsistent and haphazard. Therefore, the results are inconsistent and haphazard as well. If you have specific goals, but “work out” instead of “train”, you will have a tough time reaching those goals.

The purpose of working out is vague. People who work out typically go to the gym to socialize, sweat, burn calories, or feel better. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things, but they won’t serve your specific goals well (if you have any to start with).

When people start going to a gym, they usually begin by working out; they are uncertain on what to do and just want to get into the gym and explore, which is a great and necessary step. Once you get a sense of the gym environment, you can develop some goals (if you don’t already have any) and start training.

The Purpose and Benefits of Training

Training is utilized to develop the following physical abilities:

1.) Strength (the ability to exert force)

2.) Mobility (the ability to move joints smoothly through a full range of motion)

3.) Stability (the ability to control joint movement in a safe and effective manner)

4.) Movement Patterning (the ability to coordinate different joints and body segments in creating meaningful, efficient, and effective movement)
      4a.) Good movement patterning requires sufficient development of strength, mobility, and stability

5.) Power (the ability to exert force quickly)

6.) Balance (the ability of the body to maintain a desired position)
      6a.) Balance requires sufficient development of strength, mobility, and stability

All of these abilities, when developed, can increase athletic performance, decrease risk of injury, and increase the ability to accomplish physical tasks safely and effectively.

For example, training can help:

  • a young athlete run faster
  • a middle-aged adult move furniture more easily/safely
  • an older adult walk up stairs more easily/safely

Now for some examples of each of the above physical abilities, listed respectively:

Strength → By incorporating resistance training into your exercise program, you can go from picking 100 lbs off the ground five times to picking 150 lbs off the ground five times. In this example, you increased your ability to generate force via muscular contraction, which helped you overcome a greater load.

Mobility → By incorporating mobility training into your exercise program, you can go from not being able to touch your toes, to being able to touch your toes.

Stability → By incorporating stability training into your exercise program, you can go from squatting with your knees buckling in, to squatting while maintaining a safe and effective knee position (knees over feet).

Movement Patterning (aka motor control) → By incorporating movement training into your exercise program, you can teach the body’s segments to work harmoniously in the completion of meaningful movement. Meaningful movements can range from a tennis swing to walking up stairs. Proper motor control requires sufficient levels of strength, mobility, and stability.

Power → By incorporating power training into your exercise program, you can go from pressing 50 lbs overhead in 2 seconds, to pressing 50 lbs overhead in 1 second.

Balance → By incorporating balance training into your exercise program, you can go from not being able to stand single-legged on a soft surface, to being able to stand single-legged on a soft surface for 5 seconds.

Sometimes strength, mobility, stability, and balance can be trained in one movement or exercise. For example, performing a weighted single leg squat trains strength, mobility, stability, and balance simultaneously. (The difference between stability and balance is that stability refers to specific joints, and balance refers to the entire body).

Other times, certain abilities have to be focused on in isolation if there is a notable deficit. For example, if you can’t sufficiently extend your upper back during an overhead press, your body will make unsafe compensations to complete the movement. Therefore, you must focus on increasing upper back mobility before attempting to increase strength in the overhead press.

Mental abilities that are improved through training:

1.) Mental fortitude/cognitive override (the ability to effectively manage fear in order to overcome challenges)

2.) Habituation (the ability to develop consistency in behaviors)

3.) Self-efficacy (the ability to be self-confident in accomplishing a given task)

The body’s physical abilities are improved through progressive overload (i.e. challenges that become gradually more difficult). The abilities of the mind are strengthened in the exact same way. One must start with small challenges, and gradually make the challenges more difficult in an intelligent manner; this idea is at the heart of training.

Now for some examples of each of the above mental abilities, listed respectively.

Mental fortitude/cognitive override → You plan to squat 3 sets of 10 reps. You know you’ll be able to complete the sets with good form, but you also know it will be uncomfortable and require focus. You summon your willpower and push forward, completing all of the sets. Experiences like this strengthen mental fortitude.

Habituation → The more you repeat a behavior, the easier it gets. There will be days when you don’t want to train, but you know you should in order to serve your goals. You decide to go to the gym despite feelings of fatigue, stress, and inconvenience. Experiences like this strengthen your ability to stick to a habit. Habituation is always the hardest to develop in the first few weeks.

Self-efficacy → Self-efficacy is developed when things outside of your comfort zone become comfortable. Many people feel a significant discomfort when joining a gym for the first time. They experience self-doubt, self-judging, and fear. By familiarizing yourself with different exercises, movements, machines, people, and social dynamics in the gym, you learn to no longer worry if you will be able to set out and accomplish what you wish to do in the gym.

In developing physical and mental abilities, you must attempt to accomplish things that you have never done before (i.e. you must overload). To continue to improve, you must consistently push your limits (this is the “progression” implied in “progressive overload”). In order to ensure long-term results, injury prevention, and consistent success, you must go about pushing your limits in a gradual, attainable, and intelligent manner.

Time Management

In training, you have specific goals as well as a specific plan to reach those goals. The plan can be simple. The plan offers a solidified course of action that “working out” does not. The plan manages your time efficiently. If you have a plan to go to the gym three days per week for 45 minutes each session, you have a set objective that you can plan into your week, as opposed to “I’ll just get in a workout when I have the time, or feel like it.” By knowing what you will do ahead of time, you ensure a greater likelihood that you will actually do what you intend to. 

Keeping a Journal

Training requires that you record your training sessions in a simple journal. By recording what you did in the gym and what results it provided, you can learn how your body responds to different training methods. Everyone is a little different in how they respond to certain kinds of training. A training journal helps you realize what works and what does not, which helps you decide what training methods to keep, and what should be thrown out (i.e. a journal helps you maintain an effective program). In working out, your work in the gym is based off of guess work and memory, which is not effective or efficient. A training journal also serves as a motivational tool, as you’ll be able to see all the progress you’ve made over months of training. 


By training, as opposed to working out, you’ll know your efforts are contributing to positive changes in an efficient and effective manner. It’s easier to get motivated to go to the gym when you have a set of goals, an effective plan to reach those goals, and a journal to examine the progress you’ve made. With training, you won’t have to worry about wasting time and energy in the gym. You’ll know that each time you step into the gym, you’ll be making progress towards your goals.

Bottom line: Many people start going to the gym without clearly defined goals. After exploring the gym and familiarizing yourself with the environment, it is best to start developing specific goals, as well as a comprehensive plan to reach those goals. Training removes vagueness, inconsistency, and lack of direction. Training ensures efficiency and effectiveness.  Training is beneficial whether you have simple goals (e.g. general fitness) or advanced goals (e.g. elite powerlifting).


Beginning a Training Program under Time Constraints

“I don’t have enough time” is one of the most common reasons people have for not engaging in healthy lifestyle choices. When the idea of “lack of time” is put under inspection, it rarely holds merit. Changing your behavior is inherently challenging, whether you want to eat better, go to the gym, or take quiet time for yourself. Often the fear of change/challenge elicits a knee-jerk reaction of “I don’t have time!”, and then no further thought is given to the idea.

There are three primary cases of “lack of time”:

  1. A legitimate lack of time
  2. A perceived lack of time, due to preconceived notions of how much time a training program requires
  3. A “lack of time” excuse, due to fear of change/challenge

Whatever the case is, the following information can be beneficial.

For this article, I will focus primarily on how a beginner can stick to an exercise program while under time constraints (or in some cases, perceived time constraints). Beginning (and maintaining) a general fitness program is more attainable and manageable than you may think. When a simple, effective, and time-efficient plan is laid out in front of you, it makes the idea of beginning an exercise program much less daunting. The key is to have a detailed plan, and that is what this article intends to help you with. 

Before I go into specifics, let go of the idea that an exercise program requires that you go to the gym for an hour every day of the week. Training every day is not necessary, and there is such a thing as too much training. If you are new to fitness, it is actually important to limit how much training you do.

Stress and Response

The body needs to experience stress in order to have a positive response. Here are some examples of positive stresses, and their responses:

The “Goldilocks” Concept of Stress & Response

► Not enough stress = no response

► Too much stress = significant positive response at first à then stagnation (no response) à then regression (negative response) à then eventual injury (REALLY negative response)

► Appropriate level of stress = A gradual and consistent positive response

► The appropriate level of stress is different for all individuals; it is based on training history, medical history, genetics, lifestyle, and age

► The appropriate stress level is achieved by properly managing training parameters

Here is a graph that illustrates the general concept of how the body responds to different levels of stress:

Achieving the correct level of training-stress is like achieving the best ‘miles per gallon’ efficiency in a car. If you drive too slowly or too quickly, you don’t achieve efficiency. If you travel at just the right speed, you get the best bang for your gas-buck. Training-stress is no different. If you train too intensely, your body will run out of its reserves quickly, leading to regression and/or injury. If your training is too light, you are not making effective use of your body’s reserves (i.e. you aren’t stressing the system enough to elicit a positive response) and you would benefit from training harder.

Tying this back to time-management, you can achieve the appropriate stress level with short training sessions. You do not need to spend an exorbitant amount of time in the gym to achieve great results.

The gym is an environment to challenge your body and build up your physical abilities, not tear you down to a state of chronic fatigue. Train with the mindset of improvement, not depletion; this mindset lends itself to short, efficient, and effective training sessions as opposed to long, draining ones.

If you are getting results (e.g. increased strength, more muscle, fat loss), and training minimally, what is there to worry about? Don’t let the amount of time spent in the gym concern you, let the results (or lack thereof) be your focus.

Some Practical Examples and Realistic Numbers

Here is an outline of an effective beginner’s training program that elicits positive results while efficiently managing time:

► Train 3 sessions per week

► Choose what days are most convenient for you, while breaking up sessions with at least 1 day of recovery in between

► Train for 60 minutes per session

► Choose the most convenient time of day for you to do this

► In each session, the entire body is trained

► Beginners often don’t have the work capacity* to focus entire training sessions in an upper/lower or body-part training scheme

► *work capacity = the amount of work that the body can perform and recover from

Breaking down 60 Minutes

There it is, a general training program outline for a beginner. Start to finish the sessions take 60 minutes each. This leads to a total training time of 3 hours per week, which is the number to be reckoned with. Perhaps a much less daunting number than most people imagine when thinking about beginning a training program. Keep in mind that the program outlined above involves many aspects of fitness (i.e. movement, strength, endurance, and relaxation); it is a stimulating combination of exercise that will have you more mentally engaged than when you are chugging along on an elliptical for an hour.

The real key behind the 3 hours of training per week is consistency. Consistency makes or breaks any program. You need to stick to the program every week for results to occur. It is much better to do a moderate-effort program continually for 1 year than an intense-effort program for 2 months a few times a year. Consistency breeds results.

Here are the three big reasons why condensed training programs are better for beginners:

1.) Beginners typically do not have the physical reserve/work capacity to tolerate much training stress

1a.) Their bodies simply aren’t yet adapted for a high volume of training stress

2.) Beginners, first and foremost, need to learn to build a habit (i.e. consistency)

2a.) The development of a strong habit is much more likely to occur when goals are more attainable (e.g. 3 hours of training per week compared to 6 hours per week)

3.) Beginners must first learn to move effectively, efficiently, and safely before focusing intensely on strength, endurance, or any other physical quality

3a.) In the benefit of longevity and injury prevention, beginners must establish proper movement patterns, and there’s only so much training a beginner can do before this occurs

Specific Time-Management Strategies (beyond Condensed Training)

Choosing the Correct Gym Location

► Don’t take a separate driving trip to go to the gym

► If possible, coordinate your training sessions with a trip that you already planned to take

► For example, before or after work

► In tandem with the last point, choose a gym that is on, or near, the route you normally travel

► If your workplace facility includes a gym, take advantage of it

Do your Cardiovascular Training Separately

► You don’t necessarily have to do your cardio work at the gym

► You can take a 15-30 minute walk during a work break, during down time at home, or whenever you can easily fit it in

► This way (according to the outline I laid out previously) you can spend just 40 minutes per training session in the gym

►Cardiovascular training is very flexible because it is non-specific. As long as you are doing an activity where your body is constantly moving and you are maintaining an elevated heart rate, you are doing cardio.

Break up your Cardiovascular Training

► If you don’t have a continuous 20-30 minute period you can devote to cardio work, you can break it up into intervals

► For example, a 10 minute walk in the morning, a 10 minute walk after lunch, and a 10 minute walk in the evening

► Using this method, you simply accumulate your cardio work

Train at Home

Home-training is one of the best time-management strategies (but it does require some purchasing).

The benefits of home-training in terms of time-management:

  • You never have to deal with traveling to the gym
  • While training, you never have to wait for equipment
  • You don’t need to be concerned with preparing your appearance (or hygiene!)

Other benefits:

► Beginners need to focus on learning fundamental movement patterns and building baseline levels of strength and endurance.

►The beginner’s training is non-specific and does not require much equipment, so the cost of a home-gym will be low.  

► Training at home may increase adherence to a training program, because the training environment is right within your home.

► It’s hard to make excuses to not train when you just have to walk to the next room.

► If you invest in some basic equipment, you save money in the long-run.

► Gym memberships continually require payments, but your own equipment does not.

► Beginners are often fearful of starting a training program in a public setting. Training at home allows beginners to be in a controlled and private setting.

► The privacy of a home-gym allows beginners to feel comfortable when they challenge themselves. Experimenting and failing are necessary components in learning new movements, and in the development of self-confidence. 

Beginners can train effectively with the following equipment:

• A pair of adjustable dumb bells
• A TRX kit
• A few resistance bands of varying tension
• A stretching mat
• A street to walk/jog/run on
      ○ Notice that this equipment doesn’t require much space
      ○This equipment can often be purchased “used” on sites like craigslist.org

Something is Better than Nothing

This strategy is simple enough: if unforeseen time-eating circumstances arise, then abbreviate your training session for the day. If you plan to do 3 sets of each exercise, do only 1 or 2 sets. Perhaps you could cut your cardio work in half. Doing something is better than nothing. Sure, you won’t optimally challenge your body, but you will challenge it sufficiently, and you will build the habit of going to the gym. Having said all of that, most sessions (9 out of 10) will need to be of normal length to ensure results. Remember, consistency is important.

I want to repeat the concept of “building the habit”. Even if you have to dramatically cut down your training session from 60 minutes to 15 minutes, I still suggest going to the gym. You won’t be training your body much, but you will be training your mind and power of will. Showing up to the gym is often the hardest part of exercising, and it is a skill that should be trained in itself.

Use your Weekend/Days off

In relation to the 3 days per week outline that was laid out earlier in this article, it is convenient to include one of your training sessions on a weekend day, as people typically have more free time on Saturday and Sunday. This means that you only need to fit in the remaining two training sessions during the week. Of course, this strategy applies best if you work a traditional job during the weekdays. The main point here is to take advantage of your free time when you have it, so you aren’t straining to fit in your training sessions when time is tight.

Unfortunately, it is best to not train on both Saturday and Sunday, as your body needs at least a day in between sessions to sufficiently recover (especially beginners doing a total body program).

Be Creative

If you can think of an original way to be more efficient with your time so that you can fit in your training session, do it! Only you know your specific life circumstances, so ultimately you will be able to come up with the best possible plan that fits your lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to try new things to see if they work for you. If it works, it works.

If You don’t have a Continuous 60 Minutes to Spare

Some people may have the free time to train, but it isn’t in a continuous 60 minute block. What if instead someone has a couple hours of free time during the day, but they only have it in 35 minute blocks? In this case, an upper/lower split program can be applied. This means that each training session is dedicated to either the upper body or the lower body. The upper/lower style of training is often performed with 4 sessions per week.

In this case, you can train 35 minutes per session (instead of 60), and 4 times per week (instead of 3). Every training component shortens (i.e. warm up/mobility/activation, strength, endurance, and cool-down/stretching/breathing). It is okay to do less overall volume per session because you will be training more frequently every week.

Note that the “three big reasons why condensed training programs are better for beginners” I stated previously in this article are not contradicted by the upper/lower program.

1.) The body’s physical reserve is not depleted because training sessions are shorter and focus on only half of the body per session.

2.) The “building the habit” component is not too intense because while you will visit the gym more often every week, it is for a much shorter period per session (i.e. training 35 minutes per session 4x per week is more psychologically attainable than training 60 minutes per session 4x per week).

3.) Again, the 35 minutes per session nature of this training model integrates necessary speed bumps into the movement-pattern learning process. While you train more often per week, each session is significantly shorter.

Here is the outline for the 35 minutes per session program:

Make the Time, your Health is Important

If time-management strategies simply don’t free up enough time, then make the time. What is more important than your health and longevity? Really, what is? Think about it. This isn’t meant to be a rhetorical question.

1.) Prioritize your health

2.) For a week, focus on becoming aware of your daily habits

3.) During that week, write down your daily habits/behaviors, and then place each into one of three categories
      a.) Healthy          
      b.) Neutral (neither healthy nor unhealthy)
      c.) Unhealthy

4.) Begin limiting or eliminating unhealthy behaviors to make time during your week

5.) Free up enough time so that you can begin and maintain a training program

This “make the time” strategy falls under the “if all else fails” category. It’s blunt, but it works.

Bottom line: Health should be a priority. Lack of time (real or perceived) is one of the biggest challenges people face when starting/maintaining an exercise program. Fortunately, there are several simple time-management strategies that can be used to successfully incorporate exercise into your lifestyle.