Previously, Christian conducted part 1 of newbie school, covering such topics as basic program design and progression, along with providing a pretty slick glossary to weight training lingo. Today he'll cover more advanced elements of program design, along with the fundamentals of loading parameters.
Pay attention so he won't have to rap your newbie knuckles with an EZ curl bar!
Don't neglect anything.
It's the very rare newbie who starts out with a balanced training program that includes sufficient lower body and back work. Most beginners begin their quest by focusing on the "mirror muscles." These are the muscle groups you see when they look in the mirror (chest, shoulders, abs, biceps, triceps).
Working only the mirror muscles is asking for trouble. First off, it can lead to postural problems and muscle imbalances, which can increase the risk of injury. Second, and equally dire, it makes you look like a dork. You may see yourself only from the front, but others see you from the sides and the back. Do you really want a David Copperfield physique that magically disappears whenever you turn around?
And don't forget about serious lower body work. Not only because a big upper body supported by scrawny "chicken legs" looks stupid, but also because intensive lower body work will help stimulate whole body growth by increasing anabolic hormone production.
When designing a training program, make sure that it includes at least one movement from each of these exercise categories:
Upper Body Horizontal Push
Bench press, dumbbell bench press, low-incline bench press, low-incline dumbbell press, decline bench press, decline dumbbell press.
Upper Body Horizontal Pull
Seated rowing, 1-arm dumbbell rowing, chest-supported dumbbell rowing, T-bar rowing, bent-over barbell row, machine seated row)
Upper Body Vertical Push
Military press, seated dumbbell shoulder press, seated barbell shoulder press, standing dumbbell shoulder press.
Upper Body Vertical Pull
Chins, pull-ups, lat pulldown in front with a pronated (palms away) grip, lat pulldown in front with a supinated (palms toward you) grip, lat pulldown with parallel grip.
Lower Body Quads Dominant Bilateral
Close-stance back squat, front squat, leg press, hack squat.
Lower Body Quads Dominant Unilateral
Lunges, step-ups, Bulgarian split squat.
Lower Body Hips Extension Dominant
Romanian deadlift, dumbbell Romanian deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift, reverse hyper, good-morning, pull-through.
Lower Body Knee Flexion Dominant
Lying leg curl, standing leg curl, glute-ham raise.
Obviously, you don't need to (and shouldn't) do allof these exercises in the same workout, but you should do an exercise from each group every training week. You can add additional exercises only when you're doing at least one of each. Once you're at that point, you may choose from the list below.
Direct Biceps/Arm Flexion Exercises
Preacher curl with straight bar, seated dumbbell curl, seated incline dumbbell curl, hammer curl, reverse preacher curl.
Direct Triceps/Arm Extension Exercises
decline barbell triceps extension, decline dumbbell triceps extension, lying barbell triceps extension, lying dumbbell triceps extension, various types of cable triceps extension movements.
Direct Deltoid Exercise
Dumbbell lateral raise, leaning-away dumbbell lateral raise, cable lateral raise.
Chest Isolation Exercise
Cable cross-over, decline dumbbell flies, flat dumbbell flies, incline dumbbell flies, pec deck machine.
Rear Deltoid Exercise
Bent over lateral raise, seated rope rowing to the neck.
Dumbbell shrugs, barbell shrugs, overhead shrugs.
Standing calf machine, seated calf machine.
Enthusiasm is Great, but Overwork is Your Enemy
Understand that most of your gains will come while you're recovering from your training sessions. When you hit the gym hard you'll stimulate your muscles to grow bigger and stronger, but the actual growth happens when you rest. Training too much and/or too often can really limit your gains. You should include 2-3 days of rest per week to stimulate maximum growth, and limit your volume to 9-16 sets per muscle group in a training session, 9-12 being better in most cases.
Training is a highly emotional issue. We want that lean, strong and muscular physique so bad that we often throw away reason! We fear that we're not doing enough and end up doing too much for our own good. Always focus on quality, not quantity. And never forget that rest and recovery are just as important to the growth process as the training itself.
Change is Good, Within Reason
Few people know this, but when I was younger I was quite an accomplished golfer. I come from a golfing family: my father used to be the president of the local country club, my younger brother played on his college team and Sundays were generally spent playing a family golf game. I actually played competitively until I was 18, even winning two junior tournaments.
I've always been in love with learning and experimenting. When weight training became a passion I read everything I could on the subject, tried every routine and method possible. Well, when I played golf I was the same way. For example, each month I used to read Golf Digest. This magazine presented a monthly swing analysis: basically presenting a frame-by-frame breakdown of a top pro's swing. Without exception, I would devote that month to trying to swing like the month's featured pro. For one month I might try to copy Fred Couple's swing, then move on to Davis Love, and from him to Ernis Els, and so on. The funny thing is, even though I copied the swings of all the top pros, my swing never actually improved. Why?
- Because I never devoted enough time to a swing style to actually become good at it and reap the benefits.
- Because the "swing of the month" might not have necessarily been well suited to my own body mechanics. Ernie Els is 6'3" with long arms and a lot of flexibility; I'm 5'8" with short arms and pretty tight.
Where am I going with this? Well, I see the same thing happen all the time with weight training. Some guy (usually a teenager or a newbie) will read about this novel program and will immediately discard what he's currently doing (regardless of whether it's working or not) to try the new routine.
Many people bounce from program to program every 1-2 weeks! They never give a program a fair chance to prove its worth. It takes time for muscle to be added to your frame. You can't judge the efficacy of a training philosophy if you change around before the routine has actually had time to work. Yes, changes in your workout are important to long term progress. But changes that come too soon, or that are too drastic, are sure to stop your progress dead in its tracks.
I'll say it again. Body transformation is a highly emotional issue. We deeply want to believe that somewhere lies a program that will instantly change our body into the image we always dreamed about, giving us gains beyond our wildest expectations.
I'm sorry to disappoint you, but such a program just doesn't exist. Some programs are better than others, but nothing is so drastically superior that it will cause you to pile on muscle at a phenomenal pace. The secret formula to getting the body you want is (and always will be) the amount of effort you put into each workout, multiplied by your long-term dedication.
Furthermore, a program might sound super-cool and effective; but that doesn't mean that it will suit your body-type, needs, objectives, and mental demeanor. For example, a Westside-inspired program looks cool, and this type of training has been proven to be super effective to build strength. However, if adding muscle mass and building an aesthetic and balanced physique is your main goal, then the Westside template might not be the best option, even though it can help you build muscle.
The same could be said about the Olympic lifts. I love them, they are fun to do, and they really give you a great sense of accomplishment, as well as a ton of power. However, if you're training for a bodybuilding show, a Bulgarian Olympic lifting program might not be the best choice for you. On the other hand, while a bodybuilding program might give you some good muscle gains, it's not what you want if your goal is to peak for a powerlifting contest.
If you're a long-limbed person, you'll need more direct limb work to grow maximally while a "stubby" guy will often get big all over (limbs included) from doing only the basic lifts. Longer limbed guys also generally need more unilateral work than their shorter limb counterparts. So while a "back to the basics" program of only squat, bench, deadlifts and rowing might be fine for Pugsley, it might not work not so well for Lurch.
Finally, guys with severe muscle dominance might require more direct/isolation work to bring up their weak points. For example, if you're deltoid-dominant, simply doing bench presses and variations for the chest might not be optimal, because your delts will take over the movement, leaving the chest under-stimulated.
So you can see why you shouldn't switch to a program only because it's the flavor of the month, or because your favorite author (even me) just wrote about it. Never be seduced, always be convinced!
Select a program only if:
- It fits your goal(s)
- It fits your body type
- It fits your strength ratios/muscle dominance
- You gave your former program a fair chance to work
- You're willing to do the program justice by working hard at it and giving it enough time to work its magic. If you approach a program thinking, "I'll do this for a few weeks just to see how it goes," then forget about it. The only place it will go is nowhere.
To stimulate continuous progress, you do have to change your training program regularly. Changing the program can mean changing the exercises around, switching the number of reps or sets you perform or even the type of training methods you use. If you always keep using the same program, eventually your progress will stall.
Understand, however, that you need to stick to a routine for a certain amount of time. The more advanced you become, of course, the more frequent you must change your program. A beginner should stick to a program for 6-8 weeks, while a more advanced individual might have to change it every 3-4 weeks. Some very advanced individuals actually need to change it as often as every two weeks to maximize progress. But for a beginner, I recommend sticking to a program for 6 weeks before switching things around.
Lift Heavy, Within Your Limits
Getting stronger on basic movements should be one of the primary objectives of a beginner. If your bench press goes from 100 pounds to 200 pounds, chances are that your arms, shoulders and chest will be significantly bigger. Striving to become stronger also follows the rule of progression which, as we saw earlier, is the key to muscle growth.
However, training with the goal of getting stronger doesn't mean you should be obsessed with your numbers. Testing your strength with sets of under 5 reps is just asking for trouble when you're starting out. You don't have the neural efficiency to benefit maximally from low-rep sets, and more importantly, you don't yet have the technical mastery or inter-muscular coordination to perform maximal work safely.
Beginners should strive to become as strong as they can, but in medium rep zones. The functional hypertrophy (6-8 reps) and total hypertrophy (9-12 reps) zones are ideal to maximize growth in a beginner. Get as strong as you can in those zones and you'll grow significantly bigger.
The Cazeault principle
My friend Steph Cazeault (who trains guys like Steven Jackson, Drew Bennett, and Richie Incognito) has a training principle that I think is really good, especially for beginners: in every workout, include one exercise that you hate!
Now, why the heck would you want to do that? Simple. Because most of the time, these exercises are the ones that will give you your best gains. Ask yourself what exercises you're avoiding, either because they're hard, or because you're not very good at them. Those are the ones you have to do.
Yes, I know. It's no fun. But do it anyway: the exercises you hate will improve your physique by leaps and bounds. You're far better off doing an exercise that works your weak points than you are with exercises that play to your strengths. And you'll get a lot more gains from an unfamiliar, gut wrenching exercise than from one that's so familiar you can practically do it in your sleep.
Bottom line: perform one exercise you despise, every single time you train.
Lift in Three Dimensions
One of your top priorities as a beginner is to improve the efficiency of your nervous system. With a more efficient nervous system, you'll be able to:
- Recruit more muscle fibers when training, especially the growth-prone high-threshold motor units. More recruited muscle fibers equals more muscle growth.
- Lift more weight because of improved intra- and inter-muscular coordination.
- Have a better mind-muscle connection, which will allow you to better target the desired muscle group during an exercise.
- Have better lifting technique, which will reduce the risk of injuries.
To maximize nervous system involvement you should focus on exercises where you have to move a resistance in three-dimensional space: this means using movements where the source of resistance is "free," not fixed. A machine is a fixed, two-dimensional source of resistance: the movement pattern is determined and controlled by the apparatus, requiring much less neural involvement than when lifting free weights.
Machines are not completely useless: some are even excellent additions to a program. However, a beginner should focus on free weights in order to maximize nervous system and muscular development. A beginner should not only build his muscles, but also learn how to optimally use his body, and you need to perform free-weight movements to accomplish this.
By the way, don't confuse cables with machines. Cable exercises are "free" movements just like dumbbell and barbell movements, and in fact can be thought of as redirected barbell movements. While dumbbells and barbells should remain the cornerstone of your program, you can also add cable exercises as needed.
Loading Parameters for Beginners
The following loading parameters are adequate for beginners. For more information about how to design training programs, I suggest reading my series entitled How to Design a Damn Good Program, Part 1 and Part 2.
- Functional Hypertrophy: 6-8 reps
- Total Hypertrophy: 9-12 reps
- Strength-Endurance: 13-15 reps
Number of Exercises per Muscle Group
- Back: 3-4
- Chest: 3
- Quadriceps: 3
- Hamstrings: 2-3
- Deltoids: 2-3
- Biceps: 1-2
- Triceps: 1-2
- Calves: 1-2
Sets per Exercise
- If performing 6-8 reps: 4-5 sets
- If performing 9-12 reps: 3-4 sets
- If performing 13-15 reps: 2-3 sets
Rest Between Sets
- 6-8 reps +90-120 seconds
- 9-12 reps +60-75 seconds
- 13-15 reps +30-45 seconds
Being a beginner can be frustrating. You're swamped with tons of information, most of it confusing, much of it contradictory, and some it downright false.
When I look back at my years of training, I wish when I was starting out that I could have found a source of information anywhere near as good as this website. Had I known halfof what I know now, I believe I would have saved myself years of wasted time and disappointment.
My sincere wish now is that by applying the guidelines explained in this article and in the next two, you'll be able to save yourself a year or two of frustration, and start your quest on the right foot.
Good luck, and bon voyage!