12 Tips From a Beginner (At Heart)


Although I'm better known as someone who works with high-performing athletes, I started out–like most coaches and trainers--by working with "everyday folks", and interestingly enough, after 20+ years in the game, something unusual has happened:

Recently I've developed a renewed interest in working with beginners.

Beginners are refreshing to me because they're essentially tabula rasa, or blank slates, upon which I can write without having to erase years worth of (often faulty) pre-conceived knowledge.

It really makes my job easier, and here's a quick example of what I mean:

Last week, a new client asked me if he should "cut" first and then "bulk," or should he bulk first and then cut? Should he still lift heavy while's he's cutting, and/or should he drop cardio while he's bulking?

Before long my head felt like it was going to explode out of pure empathy for the guy (by the way, Scanners was an excellent movie eh?!?!) So I quickly cut the guy off to explain that cutting and bulking is all the same thing--no need for the confusion.

They're the same because when you gain muscle, now the fat you have is a percentage of a larger whole and suddenly you're leaner, even though you're bigger. Get the picture?

Here then, are my 12 best tips for beginners, relative beginners, and even fairly-experienced trainees who enjoy confirmation of what they already know. I hope they bring you clarity from confusion as you continue on your quest for physical perfection.

1) Make Training Part Of Your Life, Not Your Entire Life.

Let's start with a brief conversation about balance, maturity, and perspective. A lot of guys get hooked–REALLY hooked on the successes they experience in the gym. For some, these successes may be the first real successes they've ever experienced.

Whatever the reason, nearly all veteran lifters have seen, or personally experienced guys who virtually live at the gym. These guys may be getting stronger and bigger, but when you neglect your relationships and responsibilities in life, your foundation eventually crumbles.

Being big and buff doesn't mean a whole lot when you can't pay your bills and your wife wants a divorce. Some of the most impressive physiques in history were built by guys who only trained 3 days a week, and who had successful careers and rich family lives to boot.

2) Feeling Torn Between Two Goals?

A lot of beginners (and even relatively experienced trainees for that matter) often feel conflicted: on the one hand they want to get stronger, and on the other hand they want to really look the part. Can you do both at the same time? Or should you focus on one or the other?

Luckily for you, the conflict is largely in your mind. It turns out that training for one objective will also lead to gains in the other, especially if you train primarily for strength objectives.

This type of training (usually characterized by higher weights performed for relatively few reps per set) "teaches" the motor cortex of your brain how to recruit or activate your fast-twitch muscle fibers more readily and efficiently. When trained, these fibers not only make you stronger, they also have greater overall potential for growth (for more details, check out my explanation of The 3-5 Method in point #7 below).

3) Learn How To Eat Before Investing In Supplements.

Supplements have their place, but not before you get your diet in order. Now you might be thinking, "Okay, fair enough, but with all the conflicting information about nutrition out there, how the hell am I supposed to know what a good diet is?" Well, let's start with an education in the obvious, shall we? Should you eat? Yes. Okay, there's the most important issue solved already.

Next question: what should you eat? My suggestion: food. Now I'm being intentionally silly here, but I'm referring to actual food– meaning non-processed, natural foods such as meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and dairy products, as opposed to Twinkies, Ho Ho's, French fries, soda, and whatever else it is that's created our current obesity epidemic in the Western World.

Okay, now that we know we should eat, and we have at least a rough handle on what to eat, I suppose the next question would be how much to eat. How about monitoring your bodyweight, the amount of food you're eating, and then compare that to your goals? If you want to get bigger but the current amount of food you're eating is only maintaining your weight, I'd suggest eating more.

All right, I've already taken this point waaayyy too far, but I've done it purposely to make a point: don't allow yourself to get perplexed by the minutia when you're not even doing the basics! Okay? O-kay????

4) What "No Pain, No Gain" Really Means.

Post-exercise muscle soreness is the biggest single cause of lost clients for personal trainers. However, once you get "hooked," something funny happens: you start using pain as a guide to judge how well your workouts are going. Now this next little chunk of wisdom is kinda my claim to fame so to speak, so listen closely: the best way to judge a workout is by your performance, NOT how that performance felt.

Here's what I mean: Let's say that every Friday you perform 5 sets of 5 reps on the squat, resting exactly 3 minutes between each set. Last week you got 185 for all 5 sets. This week you bump the bar up to 190 and are again successful. These are numbers you can trust, even if you never get sore, even if you never puke or get dizzy or have an out-of-body-experience.

It just doesn't matter how it felt, or how sore you get the next day. When you can increase your work output from session to session, from week to week, and so on, your body will respond with continued strength and muscle hypertrophy (growth).

5) Keep A Journal And Learn From It.

Welcome to basic life skills 101. You keep a checkbook register right? Why? My guess is that you want to have a record of how you've spent your money and how much you have left. It really makes life a lot easier.

Same with a training journal. How can you be sure you're making progress if you don't know what you did last time? How can you know what's worked well for you in the past if you try to work from memory? You can't! So whether you use computer software or a notebook, the point is, keep records.

Oh, while we're at it, you almost never see anyone teach how to notate your workouts in a journal, so let's cover that real quick, shall we?

Although there are different approaches to notation, the quickest and most economical way to go is to use fractions, where the numerator represents the weight used, the denominator represents the reps performed, and the multiplier stands for how many sets you performed. So for example, if you benched 135 for 5 sets of 8 reps, your fraction would look like this:

135/8 x 5

If you're using a pyramid system and/or want to log your warm-up sets, you'll just use a series of fractions like this:

45/12 75/10 95/8 115/8 135/8 x 5

A few other things you might consider recording:

• The perceived difficulty of the workout. You can use a 1-10 scale where 1 is the easiest and 10 is the hardest.

• Any unusual aches or pains.

• The time of day and total duration of the workout.

• The environment (How busy was the gym? Did you have a training partner? Etc.).

• Any personal records you might have set during the workout.

Basically, you can record anything you think might be useful and worth tracking. I always find that the endorphin rush from training puts me in a creative frame of mind, and so in my journal you'll see notes about new article topics, marketing ideas for my business, reminders, etc.

As such, I started using the Planner Pad system (www.plannerpads.com) which allows me to keep my schedule, to-do list, project sheets, and training log all in the same notebook.

6) Learn Safe And Effective Technique.

It never fails. EVERY time I meet with a new client who's experienced, he or she will invariably tell me that they have "perfect form." Or at least that they pay a lot of attention to or try to have "perfect form." Then, when this person demonstrates a lift for me, I quickly find out that what they're calling "perfect form" is simply the fact that they're lifting the weight slowly! (What's the deal with that anyway?!?!)

Listen, you can lift slow with good form, slow with bad form, fast with good form, fast with bad form. And everything in-between.

As you might imagine, trying to describe "good form" in text format is just riddled with limitations. But that won't stop me from trying. Look, all experienced lifters, trainers, and coaches have their own version of what it means to have "good form," and that's fine. And honestly, the ideal approach does vary from person to person, because we all have different proportions, injury histories, goals, and so on. So maybe we'll approach this question from the standpoint of what ISN'T good form, okay?

• Standing on one leg atop a Swiss ball trying to juggle dumbbells isn't "good form."

Good form, or a man having a seizure?

• Dropping/bouncing a heavy barbell off your chest while benching isn't "good form."

• Loading every 45 in the gym, plus a few of your buddies on a leg press, wrapping your knees in 8-ply super wraps, waiting for a few hotties to look your way, and then doing a few 3-inch leg presses while coughing up a lung isn't "good form."

• When your spotter is lifting more than half the weight on the bar, that isn't "good form."

• Doing barbell curls in a squat rack isn't "good form."

• Being in pain isn't "good form."

Nothing you do in a Smith machine is "good form," no matter how slowly you do it. Especially now that I've told you so.

• Letting the weight throw you instead of you throwing the weight isn't "good form."

• Looking at yourself sideways in a mirror as you lift isn't "good form."

I could go on and on but I won't, even though personally I find these examples to be quite humorous. The point is, use your common sense. Usually, if it looks or feels wrong, it IS wrong. For everything else, get some hands-on training from someone who gets good results personally or from his clients. Or study the various articles and videos on this site. Information is everywhere.

7) Confused About What To Do? Try "The 3-5 Method."

This method has been around forever, but has recently been popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline in his book Power To The People. Understanding The 3-5 Method couldn't be simpler: it calls for 3-5 workouts a week where you perform between 3-5 sets of between 3-5 reps per set, using 3-5 exercises per workout, resting 3-5 minutes between sets.

Now there are many, many different ways to train, and some of them involve parameters that fall outside of these recommendations, but that being said, it's pretty hard for anyone to screw up using these guidelines. They've worked for countless bodybuilders and strength athletes for several decades, so don't tell me they won't work for you, because they will.

8) Okay, But What About Machines Or Free Weights?

If you're a newbie, machines are okay for now, but drop the training wheels and graduate to free weights as soon as your skills and confidence allow.

Muscles respond best when they're required to control weights, not just push against them. Another bonus: free weight exercises tend to improve real-world athletic functioning– running, kicking, jumping, throwing, and/or whatever sport you happen to play.

And frankly, the skill component involved in free weight training makes it inherently more fun and satisfying than just locking yourself into a machine, buckling up for safety, and then mindlessly pushing the weight until the burn sets in.

9) Seek A Mentor, But Be Careful Who You Emulate.

This can be confusing, because on the one hand, if you wanna be big and strong, it only makes sense to look to big strong guys for advice. And to be sure, this can be an effective game plan in many cases. But here's the problem: being big and strong isn't quite as simple as learning as much as you can and then working out as hard as you can. There are at least two other confounding variables that often enter the picture: drugs and genetics.

Let's tackle genetics first: when I was in my early 20's, I worked for a house painter by the name of Bob. Bob had a very interesting physique in one specific regard: although Bob was about 6 foot tall and only weighed about 170 pounds, he had a pair of calves that were just shockingly impressive. In all seriousness, any pro bodybuilder would be thrilled to have Bob's calves.

One day I asked Bob about it, and he quickly replied "It's from climbing up and down ladders all day!" "Wow" I thought, "this will be awesome, not only will I get paid, my calves will get bigger too!" Well, as you may have already guessed, after 2 years of climbing ladders, my calves hadn't grown a speck. So the lesson is, while we can all improve, the rate and specific nature of that progress is highly variable.

Which leads us to the second confounding variable: performance-enhancing drugs. You know: steroids, growth hormone, and God knows what else is coming around the corner. Now I'm going to sidestep the health and ethical issues and just stick to the practical point I'm looking to make, which is that for many people, drug use can lead to impressive levels of progress despite poor genetics and despite low levels of knowledge and despite a poor work ethic in the gym (that's why it's called "cheating" by the way).

Not necessarily a good mentor.

Just remember, when you're looking at guys in your gym, you'll see huge guys who have great genetics and who use drugs; huge guys who have great genetics but who don't use drugs; scrawny guys who have decent genetics but don't know how to train; moderately impressive guys who used to be scrawny but then figured out how to train and eat– you get my drift.

In bodybuilding and strength-training, you can't always judge a book by its cover. If you're seeking a coach of trainer, look at the success of his clients first and foremost. If you're looking for a training partner or just someone for occasional training advice, look for someone who's made significant progress, even though he might not be the biggest guy in the gym.

10) Don't Reinvent The Wheel.

Motivational guru Tony Robbins always talked about how "success leaves clues," and he's right. There are commonalities among people who are successful in a particular endeavor. So figure out what they are and do them yourself.

Yeah, it's true that you'll always run across some guy who claims to have had phenomenal success using some sort of unusual training technique (like training 18 times a week or only using one set to failure or whatever) or dietary practice, but you can save yourself a lot of time and confusion by looking at what common methods and techniques have historically worked best for most people. In other words, "the basics."

Basics are kinda boring, they're not hard to find, they don't make you look like an expert, but here's the thing: THEY WORK.

11) Use Common Sense!

Listen, don't let all us "training gurus" mess with your confidence. There's really been nothing new in the world of training for a few decades now at least. Some might say a few centuries. Either way, when you speak and write about training for a living, you find yourself needing to develop unique and novel approaches to training in order to hold the audience's interest.

Hey, it's not our fault, it's YOUR fault, because statistically, you don't appreciate it much when we re-hash reliable, effective, but time-worn and commonly known training advice. That doesn't mean our talks and writings aren't worthwhile, they are. It's just that it's important to understand our particular bias.

12) Enjoy Being A Beginner!

One of the great things about being a relative virgin to the iron is that progress tends to come fast, pretty much no matter what you do, as long as you don't get hurt. I've known guys who made really good progress using training methods that were certifiably idiotic.

So on the one hand, as a beginner, you often think you're at a disadvantage because you're new to the whole scene and you've got a lot to learn. However, thankfully enough, as a beginner, almost anything you subject your body to tends to translate to growth...but again, as long as you don't get hurt.

So just a quick side-lesson, when in doubt, err on the side of being too conservative. After all if you're deadlifting for the first time ever and you're using 135 pounds, that's 135 pounds more than your body has ever experienced, which is plenty of stimulation for new strength and muscle growth.

What Now?

Remember, everyone's a beginner at first– everyone. And the most successful people retain what's called "beginner's mind," even when they're quite experienced. Because the moment you think you know, your progress stops.

So celebrate what you don't know, because it can be your most important asset. At a recent seminar I told the audience that "the only difference between you and me is that I'm more comfortable with what I don't know than you are." I simply meant that mastery is a journey, not a destination, and that journey requires a tolerance for "not knowing." And THAT'S your last lesson...

And What Makes This Author A So-Called "Expert" Anyway?

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook