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.

IMBALANCES I LOEV YOU.png

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.


References

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

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