Beginning a strength training routine is one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself. That being said, it can also be one of the most intimidating tasks you’ll take on.
Walking into the weight room for the first time is scary – all of those guys and gals moving more plates than you can count, looking like extras from 300. The thing is, they once stood where you’re standing now; everyone had to start somewhere.
Strength training can seem like a complicated entity and, by the time some people get done creating a program, it is. But it doesn’t have to be.
The Six Basic Elements
While there is an art to program design, the actual fundamentals of strength training are pretty straight forward.
There are six basic elements you need to take into consideration when embarking into the world of weights:
1. Choose Your Exercises
The first step in beginning a resistance training program is to decide what exercises you want to incorporate. In order to choose the right exercises, you need to have a plan of action as far as what you want to accomplish in the weight room.
There are two main types of exercises: compound exercises and isolation exercises.
Isolation exercises target specific muscles, are easy to learn and give beginners the opportunity to become familiar with movement patterns before moving on to more complex actions.
Personally, I’m a proponent of compound exercises, which involve two or more joints and multiple muscle groups. You get more bang for your buck with compound movements and lower your chances of creating muscle imbalances.
Just to give you an idea of each type of exercise, a leg extension is considered an isolation exercise, while a squat falls into the compound category.
2. Plan Your Workout
Once you’ve decided what exercises you’re going to use, you need to plan the order of your exercises for your workout.
Generally, you’ll want to plan your workout so the most energy-demanding exercises are performed first.
For example, go with the compound exercises first, then shoot for the isolation exercises. The reasoning behind this is you want to ensure you’ve got enough gas in the tank to perform the compound exercises with proper technique.
If you were to start with isolation, you would run the risk of fatiguing that specific muscle group, forcing you to rely on other muscles during the compound movement.
This technique, known as pre-exhaustion, is purposely used by more advanced lifters, but isn’t necessary for beginners. If you’re including power exercises such as cleans or snatches, they should be ranked first in your workout, followed by less explosive compound exercises.
The second consideration in planning your workout is recovery - your muscles require time to recover between sets.
To accomplish this while keeping your workout intensity relatively high, alternate between upper and lower body exercises, or between “push” and “pull” exercises. For example, alternate between the bench press and squat, or bench press and rows.
3. Determine Your Training Frequency
How often do you want to train?
While you can train as often as you want, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends beginners lift two to three times per week, while advanced strength athletes can train upwards to seven times per week.
The biggest issue here is to ensure adequate recovery time between workouts. I tend to urge clients to train three days per week, generally Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
When planning your schedule, just make sure you allow for at least 48 hours between training sessions to give your body time to recover and your muscles time for repair.
4. Establish a Workload
There is an inverse relationship between how much weight you lift and how many times you lift it; the heavier the load, the fewer times you move it.
It will take some self-experimenting to determine how much weight to use for your lifts. You can do this by testing or estimating your one-rep max with each exercise. The weight on the bar and how many times you move it will depend entirely upon your goals.
The NSCA has set forth guidelines for assigning a workload:
- If your mind is set on strength gains, the NSCA recommends working with 85% of your 1RM for up to six repetitions
- If you’re looking to build some mass, go for six to 12 reps using 67-85% of your 1RM
- If you just want to improve your muscular endurance, using less than 67% of your 1RM for more than 12 reps will get you headed in the right direction
5. Figure Your Volume
Now let’s take a look at volume. This is the total amount of weight lifted during a training session and is determined by the number of reps and sets you perform during a workout.
Most untrained individuals can make gains using only one set of each exercise. After the first month or two of your program, it would be wise to up your sets and increase your volume. Higher training volumes are more effective for stimulating gains in strength and hypertrophy.
No matter your fitness goals, you’ll always want to aim for at least two sets of each exercise. The NSCA guidelines suggest if your training goal is strength, you perform two to six sets. Individuals looking for gains in size should shoot for three to six sets, while two to three sets will suffice for those striving for improvements in endurance.
6. Work Out Your Rest Requirements
Just like you need to allow your body rest between exercise sessions, you also need to give it a chance to recover between exercise sets. How much rest you require between sets is determined by a few different factors including your training status, your training goals, how much weight you’re actually lifting, and what exercise you’re doing.
Beginners working with relatively heavy loads will need more time between sets than more advanced strength athletes; it simply takes your body longer to recover between sets than someone whose body is conditioned for this type of work.
If you’re already physically fit, you can assume you’ll recover quicker than someone who just got off the couch for the first time in a few years.
You’re training goals and workload play a big deciding factor in how long your rest period between sets should be:
- Using heavy weights to train for strength will require the longest rest periods, usually 2-5 minutes.
- If your goal is hypertrophy, you’ll want to stay under the 90-second mark between sets.
- An endurance training goal has the smallest rest window with less than 30 seconds; you can’t give your muscles too much time to recover if you want to build stamina.
Lastly, you need to factor in the type of exercise you’re doing when considering an appropriate rest period. Big, compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and bench press, will require significantly more recovery time than, say, biceps curls that only target one muscle group.
Once you get a handle on these concepts, get busy. Avoid making the mistake of getting too complicated.
Remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
As a beginner, as long as you routinely overload your muscles, you’re going to see results both in strength and size. Walk into that weight room with your head held high and the confidence that you know exactly what you’re doing, or at least have a general idea.
National Strength and Conditioning Association. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics. 2008. Print.