The worst thing a lifter can do is jump into a program that’s too ambitious for their goals, dedication, or skill level before they’re in a place to handle it.
The inevitable result is injury, or at the very least, a lack of focus and discipline.
Smart trainers and strength coaches do well to keep this in mind, and usually use some kind of screening process to determine what the best course of action should be when designing a workout routine.
They base routines around the lifter’s schedule, strengths, and weaknesses, but here’s where they often run into a snag.
It’s one thing perform tests that determine you or your client’s weaknesses. However, it’s a form of training nirvana when you can realize that meticulous correctives will only solve a fraction of the problems.
It’s very easy to overanalyze things to the point where everything becomes contraindicated, especially in the case of a beginner who’s skinny and weak. All of a sudden, barbell training and focusing on the big lifts takes a backseat to the pursuit of improved performance in Peterson step ups, empty cans, and terminal knee extensions.
Related: Building the Beginner: Foundation for Muscle and Strength
There’s nothing wrong with any of these movements until they start becoming the bulk of a lifter’s program. Plenty of online media sources polarize themselves to one of two extremes.
The “hardcore” families of fitness competition, CrossFit, and even the powerlifting community. Each will make you believe you’re not really “training” until you see spots at the end of a lifting set. They believe you must take yourself to the limit of your anaerobic threshold.
Then you have the analysis paralysis crowd who thinks doing anything close to the above is an injury waiting to happen. Any poor technique, missed reps, or “grinders” will send you to the hospital in a hurry and the body needs to be in perfect balance before any progress can be made.
Related: Warming Up For Dummies: A Lifter's Guide to Injury Prevention
The only way to do this is by building a “conservative” program based around rehab exercises and improved performance in those movements.
Both approaches are missing the point: Training and fitness are both directly related to consistency of effort in a controlled fashion.
Being overzealous compared to your current fitness levels will lead you to injury, but going too far the other way only makes a lifter scared to ever train for fear of not being “ready”. The latter is a curse that beginning lifters need to snap out of.
Maybe You’re Just Weak!
It’s a reality that most people are too prideful to come to terms with. There’s a good chance you don’t have a “weak link” that prevents you from squatting or deadlifting; it’s more likely that you’re a weak person overall from not doing so.
If you’re a 98 pound weakling whose knees cave when you try to support your own bodyweight squat, you can either focus on “strengthening the VMO” through acute knee extensions, or you can acknowledge the fact that you’re probably just a terrible squatter with no experience doing the lift.
With that said, you’re going to get the most benefit from repeated exposure to the lift itself.
In exercise, there’s something called the SAID principle. The acronym stands for specific adaptation to imposed demands. To see results in your performance and physique, you’ll need to continuously and consistently impose the demands of the lift in question on your body.
Then you’ll be left with no choice but to get stronger, bigger, and more conditioned to handle what’s coming the next time around.
Of course, this is all barring previous injury and pain during basic movement. If you’re a generally healthy individual who’s fresh to lifting, don’t let weaknesses at certain joints sidetrack you. Focus on the big stuff and get stronger.
FORCE Good Form!
I’m sure at this point many naysayers are reading this seemingly one-track-minded article and saying that barbell lifting and weak links don’t go hand in hand. And the loaded versions of a lift that’s causing problems while unloaded is a recipe for disaster which will only make those weak links more prominent.
Like I mentioned above, the major way to get stronger in a lift is by practicing it. Moreover, it’s important to disallow the mental aspect of lifting to get the better of you. In my experience, it’s easy to see a first time squatter let his knees cave in or his back round and write it off as “weakness” that needs to be addressed.
But it’s also important to recognize that that first timer has never been cued on how to create proper tension at the right spots in order to correct his form. And even if he has been cued, it’s likely not something that’s going to “take” after only a couple of repetitions.
A lifter has to have his mind focused for 100% of the reps in order to maintain solid form through the set, especially if it’s something he’s not used to doing.
It means he has to force his body into the proper geometry and not allow himself to fall into what’s comfortable. It’s tough to do, but not an impossible task and definitely not one his “weak links” bar him from being able to do.
Related: Complete Database of Beginner Workouts
If you’re a generally healthy beginner, you don’t need to make a fuss if you’re exposed to big lifts right out of the gates. As a guide, it may be a good idea to follow this checklist:
1. Keep the rep ranges low- To ensure you can focus on perfect reps, let muscular fatigue become less of a factor at the start. Earn your right to train for higher reps by developing your foundation.
2. Try to focus on one big lift per workout- You won’t have as much left in the tank to live up to the physical demands of back to back big lifts if you’re looking to get stronger.
3. Keep your muscles in mind while training- Remember that tension throughout the rep is key, but what’s just as important is knowing what muscles are actually firing. Develop a mind/muscle connection early.
4. Be patient- Don’t abandon your form for the sake of a new PR early on. It’ll take many, many repetitions and sets to ingrain the key movements into your muscle memory. So, enjoy and focus on the process first and the results will come.
It’s hogwash to think that a beginner should train in a notably different fashion than someone who’s been lifting a while. He may need different cues and parameters, but the main exercises in his program can be all the same.
It doesn’t take much more than common sense and a discerning eye to keep a new lifter safe and get him strong. And it likely won’t take many “correctives” to get there.