"I wish I could have my first year of training back."
How many times have you heard an experienced trainee say that? Likewise, how many times has a newbie come up to you and asked you to help him get started in the iron game? It happens to me on a daily basis.
With that in mind, I decided to come up with some broad guidelines for program design in T-Men (and T-Vixens)-to-be. The next time you've got a newbie under your tutelage (or if you're the newbie yourself), adhere to these guidelines and it'll be smooth sailing from the start.
1. Perform unilateral (one limb at a time) exercises.
I know what you're thinking: "Beginners need to squat, deadlift, bench, and do pull-ups! These exercises will offer the most bang for their buck!" While I agree that these exercises are tremendously valuable in anyone's program (especially those learning how to train properly), it's important to first establish crucial motor control patterns that'll "keep on giving" for the duration of someone's training career.
You spend the vast majority of your life in single-leg stance, yet you'd be amazed at how few people can do a lunge without tipping over – even after years of resistance training! Even if unilateral exercises might not make you hyoooge as quickly as the core bilateral exercises (and that's debatable), you'll prevent frustrating imbalances and injuries from occurring down the road. In other words, think of getting on track from the start as a means of getting sidetracked later on in your training career.
And just in case you're convinced that beginners can't make progress on unilateral exercises, think again. McCurdy et al. (2005) compared the effects of eight weeks of unilateral versus bilateral resistance training on lower body strength and power in previously untrained men and women. There was no significant difference between groups on the free-weight squat 5RM, unilateral squat 5RM (assessed as a barbell Bulgarian split squat), power output on a countermovement jump, and performance on the Magaria-Kalamen stair-climb test.
The unilateral Bulgarian split squat
The unilateral training group significantly outperformed the bilateral group with respect to unilateral vertical jump power output and overall jump height. The researchers concluded that unilateral and bilateral exercises "are equally effective for early phase improvement of unilateral and bilateral leg strength and power in untrained men and women." (1)
The main reason that I'm so adamant about having beginners use unilateral exercises (particularly for the lower body) is that they force you to stabilize in the frontal and transverse planes, something you don't experience with bilateral exercises, which are sagittal plane dominant. By working in these unappreciated planes, you develop valuable strength in several muscles – most notably the hip abductors and adductors – whose weaknesses are implicated in a variety of injuries and conditions.
If you don't believe me, check out the laundry list of problems associated with weak hip adductors in my Construction by Adduction article, and the hip abductors in Mike Robertson and my posture-driven Neanderthal No More series. Speaking of posture...
2. Correct postural flaws!
"Postural flaws" encompasses a lot of things, and some problems will be more difficult than others to address. Unilateral imbalances, for instance, are generally much more stubborn encounters that take more intelligent programming to correct. However, you can do a lot to correct common bilateral deviations from ideal posture. These interventions (outlined in the Neanderthal No More series) include:
Scapular retraction (e.g. rows),
Scapular depression (e.g. face pulls, scapular wall slides)
Serratus anterior (e.g. scap push-ups, single-arm DB protractions)
Neck flexion (e.g. chin tucks)
Humeral external rotation (e.g. Cuban presses, all forms of external rotation)
Humeral horizontal abduction (e.g. rear delt flyes, bent-over lateral raises)
Glute activation (e.g. supine bridges, mini-band sidesteps)
Dorsiflexion (e.g. DB dorsiflexion)
Overall core strengthening (i.e. trunk flexion, lateral flexion, rotation, and stabilization)
Hip Extension (e.g. deadlifts, pull-throughs)
The face pull
Pectoralis major and minor
Psoas major and minor
Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL) and Iliotibial Band (ITB)
Hamstrings (especially the lateral aspect, or biceps femoris)
Gastrocnemius and Soleus
Pec and shoulder stretch
From a strengthening standpoint, in addition to traditional dynamic exercises, isometric holds can be extremely valuable not only for teaching proper activation patterns, but also for establishing movement specific postural endurance. For the latter category, static stretching is good, although PNF stretching with a partner or resistance band is even better. Eccentric Quasi-isometrics (EQIs) and self-myofascial release with a foam roller are also excellent choices.
3. Lift free weights and avoid machines.
We all know from reading T-Nation that free weights top machines any day of the week when it comes to building size and strength while improving functional carryover in experienced lifters. However, there's a lot more confusion about the role of machines in training beginners.
Some claim that machines offer greater safety than free weights, but I think this debate is a "push" in the short-term and a definite win for free weights in the long run. You're just as likely to catch a finger under a weight stack as you are to drop a dumbbell on your foot.
Moreover, machines don't accommodate different body types as their manufacturers insist. You can adjust the settings all you want, but some exercises will never be perceived as natural motion by the body. With free weights, you'll always find the right groove; it just might take some time to do so. Specific to the "long-run," machines fix you into certain movement planes that can lead to pattern overload and overuse injuries over time.
There's also the argument that machines are less intimidating to novice trainees. Perhaps, but who really wants to remember the settings for the weight stack, footpad, bench, chest support, hair-dryer, and bright neon sign that says, "Hey sucker, you should be doing this standing up and with free-weights, but then our company would be out of business and your favorite TV station would have to replace our 90-minute infomercials with actual programming."
Those who are intimidated by free weights are that way because they haven't been educated about how free weights aren't that much different from what they do in their everyday lives. Is a squat that much different from wearing a backpack? Is a one-armed row that much different than starting the lawnmower? Teach these individuals about functional carryover and how free weights will improve their quality of life, and you'll see very quickly that the intimidation argument is bunk.
Now, my final argument: machines require no stabilization. When someone lifts weights, they aren't just training muscles; they're training their neuromuscular system, which includes efferent (feed-forward) and afferent (feedback) mechanisms. They're stressing the somatosensory, vestibular, and visual systems. It's your responsibility to expose them to the richest and most appropriately functional proprioceptive environment from day one.
The argument of starting someone with machines and then switching them to free weights once they're "comfortable" doesn't hold water. Crucial neural and muscular components of stabilization won't be in place, so it'll be much harder and more dangerous to master the new movement than if the individual had been progressed in a functional manner from the start.
Do you teach a child to throw a baseball by rigging him up to some fancy contraption that fixes his arm into a specific line of motion? Or do you just let him throw, offer subtle cues, and allow him to develop in the most functional sense possible? In a weight training context, I'd much rather have a client pinned under a bar-only bench press attempt as a beginner, than have him train on machines and build a false sense of strength and security, only to be crushed under 135 pounds eight weeks later.
Don't get me wrong, there are some machines that have their place in all training programs. In fact, I'm a huge fan of cables, glute-ham raises, and reverse hypers. However, the vast majority of your training should be based on free weights. Use both barbells and dumbbells. The former will allow you to teach maximal loading sooner, while the latter will offer greater functional carryover and protection against overuse injury.
4. Develop the posterior chain.
Walk into any gym and you'll find that 90% of the people you see carry their weight too far forward. Everything they do is on their toes. This is partially due to lack of flexibility at the hip and ankle, but just as importantly, it's related to over-reliance on the quadriceps.
Weakness of the hamstrings, glutes, and lumbar erectors are extremely commonplace and frequently implicated in lower back pain, something that affects 80% of the U.S. population at some point in their lives. So, what to do? Hip extension until the cows come home!
Deadlift variations, pull-throughs, step-ups, lunges, split squats, wide-stance squats, back extensions, and reverse hypers are all excellent choices for beginners. The occasional leg curl won't hurt (although it's best to perform this movement with bands) because it's pretty difficult to train the knee flexion function of the hamstrings with free weights. Eventually, glute-ham raises and good mornings are options to which beginners can progress.
Step-ups are great for newbies.
It's important to note, however, than many beginners will lack the flexibility to safely deadlift from the floor. For these individuals, the best options are rack pulls and stiff-leg deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts where the bar's starting position is just below the waist.
5. Pay attention to flexibility and soft tissue qualities.
We're becoming an increasingly sedentary society. People spend more time sitting in traffic and in front of the computer than ever. As a result, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't need a substantial amount of flexibility work on a weekly basis – partially because they're tight as a drum, and partially because they've got so many adhesions and trigger points in their soft tissues that they're constantly in pain.
Flexibility work should encompass both dynamic and static stretching modalities. Dynamic flexibility drills are best utilized during the warm-up period to improve active range of motion. Think of them as controlled movements through the entire range of motion at joints. Because passive range of motion doesn't necessarily carryover to dynamic movement patterns, this component of flexibility can't be overlooked.
Static stretching is of value primarily for preventing or correcting excessive muscle tension and establishing proper length-tension relationships at joints, both of which will improve movement efficiency. This type of stretching is best performed post-training or several hours after the exercise session.
It can also be advantageous to statically stretch the antagonist musculature between sets of a given exercise to improve subsequent performance on that exercise. For instance, hip flexor stretches between sets can allow for better recruitment of the glutes during lunges. Likewise, there are some muscles that most people ought to be stretching all the time. They include the iliopsoas complex, piriformis, TFL/ITB, and quadratus lumborum.
Myofascial release with a foam roller, Active Release Techniques (ART), rolfing, and massage are all excellent ways to improve soft tissue quality. In many cases, these modalities can make the difference between a painful initiation to the world of exercise and a painless, successful start to organized programming.
One final note: All beginners should be encouraged to train through a full range of motion. Doing so may be the best way to improve range of motion at a joint. If a beginner is obviously limited in range of motion on a given exercise, he should train to the end-range of his "safe zone" while working to improve his flexibility through the aforementioned approaches. Over time, he'll get to where he needs to be.
6. Utilize the core properly and train it extensively.
Let's face it, a lot of the T-Nation beginners are going to want to jump right in and squat and deadlift heavy. The only problem is that the weights are in the upper body, and the majority of the muscles doing the work are in the lower body. How do you suppose the force is going to get from the legs to the bar?
If your core isn't strong, this force will never be applied optimally to the bar; your form will break down first. This brings to light one reason why leg presses are absolute garbage in terms of functional carryover. The core is almost completely removed from the movement, so in those with any sort of training experience, they won't do anything except make you better at leg pressing.
So, how do we strengthen the core? Well, certainly not with feeble, hopelessly misinformed attempts to isolate the transverse abdominus (TVA) and multifidus. I don't care what the personal trainer at your gym says or how big the Body Blade is that he uses to threaten you, this isn't the way to go about doing things. There's actually considerable evidence to suggest that the TVA can't be isolated in the vast majority of individuals anyway, and that attempts to do so can actually promote dysfunction (2).
If you want your core to be strong while you're performing compound movements, you should think of bracing the midsection. McGill recommends that you think about "locking the rib cage to the pelvis." (2)
In addition to understanding how to properly use the core musculature, you need to know how to train it for function. I subdivide my core training into six categories of movement:
Trunk Flexion: pulldown abs, crunch variations, bar rollouts
Trunk Rotation: cable woodchops, Russian twists, full contact twists
Lateral Flexion: sidebend variations, lying side-raises
Stabilization: prone and side bridges (with and without "stacks"), barbell walkouts, unilateral training, any overhead work
Hip Flexion: hanging leg raises, dragon flags (These exercises aren't used as frequently, especially in those with hip flexor tightness.)
Lumbar Extension: back extensions, reverse hypers (This is, for the most part, covered by hip dominant movements such as deadlifts, but some specific exercises can also help to solidify this area if weaknesses exist.)
High-to-low cable woodchops
7. Train movements, not muscles.
A program geared toward improving the size of specific muscles will invariably lead to imbalances and dysfunction. Conversely, programs that balance movement schemes allow for excellent progress in terms of hypertrophy, strength, and function without the risk of injury.
Ian King popularized a split consisting of horizontal push-pull (i.e. bench and row), vertical push-pull (overhead press/dip and chin-up), hip dominant (posterior chain), and quad dominant (anterior thigh musculature, especially the knee extensors). Most individuals will need more horizontal pull and hip dominant movements initially to balance things out. There's a considerable amount of wiggle room with this programming, as some exercises (such as squats and lunges) can go either way depending on how you perform them.
With these movement schemes in mind, one must find a balance between sufficient exercise variety and adhering to specific exercises for at least a few weeks. The former approach allows a beginner to develop the ability to easily adapt to a wide variety of stimuli through general physical preparedness. *
The latter approach, on the other hand, is valuable for educating the neuromuscular system to "groove" appropriate movement patterns for mainstay exercises while building confidence in novice lifters due to performance improvements.
* While on the topic of general physical preparedness (GPP), some aerobic training can definitely be of value to most beginners. However, it's important to watch out for moderate to high impact modalities in overweight individuals, lest you encounter orthopedic problems.
8. Emphasize the importance of attitude and goal setting.
Yes, I'm one of those hopeless guys who actually believes that you can teach attitude. I think this can be best related by encouraging beginners to train, not "work out." When one "works out," there's no implication of a goal beyond getting the heart rate up and sweating a bit. This can just as easily be attained by holding your breath!
Conversely, if beginners set specific, measurable, time-bound goals for which they train, they'll be much less likely to just go through the motions. The fact of the matter is that some sessions will feel terrible; they won't "work out" at all. This little bit of failure is important, as it teaches you that things don't come easy when you hold yourself to a higher standard. When you just "work out," mediocrity is always acceptable.
9. Don't be afraid of body weight exercises.
Just because you're involved in resistance training doesn't mean that only external resistance can be used. In many cases, body weight alone will suffice as resistance for a given movement.
The goal should always be to progress to a point where external resistance must be added for continued improvements; however, it's best to underestimate than overestimate a beginner's strength and coordination. Beginners can actually see strength gains with only 40% of 1RM, whereas experienced trainers need to be at 70% 1RM and above (this number rises with training age).
Build neuromuscular coordination and technical proficiency with plenty of cues and minimal loading in the beginning, and you'll find that the added resistance will come sooner than later – and with excellent form.
10. Avoid low reps early-on.
This recommendation piggybacks on #9. Beginners lack the connective tissue strength necessary to handle maximal weights.
Early training programs shouldn't focus on building strength through the maximal effort method. Rather, beginners should be encouraged to train at eight reps and above as a means of improving connective tissue strength to prepare the joints for subsequent high force (e.g. heavy lifting) and velocity (e.g. high-impact plyometrics, or shock training) movements. These "traditional hypertrophy" loading parameters will still allow for increases in maximal strength via neural improvements, but without the potential tissue problems that arise when you expose unprepared tendons and ligaments to heavy loading.
Following 6-8 weeks of introductory loading in the 8-15 rep range, novice trainees can begin to look to heavier loading as long as technique is on the money.
Pulling It All Together
If I had to summarize this entire article in one word, it would be "patience." Many T-Nation readers probably have a preconceived notion of what all beginners should be doing. Unfortunately, these notions fail to take into account the fact that each novice trainee is unique.
It's imperative to fit the program to the individual and not vice versa. In time, and given appropriate programming, these individuals will grow into the "optimal training" mold that's been framed for them by those with more experience under their belts. At the start, though, both the trainer and the trainee just need to be patient and trust in the adaptability of the neuromuscular system.
That's the best way to be "smart from the start!"
1. McCurdy KW, Langford GA, Doscher MW, Wiley LP, Mallard KG. The effects of short-term unilateral and bilateral lower-body resistance training on measures of strength and power. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Feb;19(1):9-15.
2. McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Stuart McGill, PhD, 2004.