Where to start with a weight training program: A beginner’s guide

Weight training is great for building strength, getting toned and for overall health.  You’re sold on this.  But where to start?  What equipment should you be using? How many times a week do you need to go? What weight, sets and reps should you perform? What exercises should you be doing?

There are so many different programs available, and so many people swearing by one particular method or another; how can you tell which one to pick?

Working with the basic principles of weight training, and then making them relevant to your goals and lifestyle will clear up much of the confusion.

Here we will not give prescriptive lists of what exercises and reps to do, but empower you with the tools to enable you to choose, or maybe even structure your own program.

(NB: The below is relevant for beginners.  More detail, structure and nuance is needed for those who have been training for a long time, or who have specific sport performance goals).

The principles of a weight training program

Progressive overload

Progressive overload is the key concept that underpins any kind of successful weight training program: To increase strength and size, the skeletal muscle must be placed under sufficient stress so that it then adapts to these new demands.

To do this, you must gradually increase your workload.  You can do this by increasing volume, Intensity, frequency (VIF), or a combination of them, over time.  ‘Over time’ should hopefully mean to you, over your lifetime, or at least a few years.  However, it’s not practical or necessary to plan a program out for the next decade of your life! Hence, most programs last between 4 – 12 weeks.

Volume

Volume refers to the number of reps and sets you perform of each exercise.  You can do a wide range of sets and reps.  For beginners 2-3 sets and 8-20 reps is a good start. The actual number doesn’t really matter, provided you feel challenged by the end of each set.  For example, if you decide to do 3 sets of 10 reps; you should feel like you can just about do another 2 reps beyond that.  If you are doing 3 sets of 6 reps, you should therefore choose a heavier weight so that you are still challenged to that same point.

Intensity

Intensity is how heavy the weight is (relative to your ability).  For beginners, working with light to moderate loads for higher reps (e.g. reps above 6) will ensure you familiarise yourself with the exercises and can practise good form without risking injury.

Frequency

Frequency is the number of training sessions you perform a week.  A minimum of two sessions a week is thought to be sufficient to see progress.  If you are an absolute beginner you will likely see some adaptations with once a week as well. Something is always better than nothing. If you find you don’t have more than 30 minutes available at any one time, you can increase your frequency so that you achieve the equivalent amount of work.

The movements

There are almost an infinite number of exercise variations when it comes to weight training; which can be daunting.  However, when you break it down, these exercises will mainly fall under some kind of push, pull, or hinge. Aim to perform these moves with each part of your body, including some unilateral training (using one side of the body at a time), over the course of your training week.

Making it relevant to your lifestyle

Doing what is practical trumps trying to do what is optimal.  The most important thing when starting a weight training program is to make it work for your lifestyle.  Aim for something you can stick with, because muscle and strength are built over time.  Lots of time. And to sustain them, you must keep training. You will achieve far more with an hour or two once a week, than a couple of sporadic intense weeks over the year. Below are the main factors to consider before deciding on a weight training program.

Opportunity

How many days a week do you have available to train?  This could be anything from two to six days a week.  You should include at least one rest day. Then figure out how much time is available to you on those training days.

Equipment

What equipment is available to you?  Do you have access to a gym? Do you have home workout equipment such as dumbbells or kettlebells? Even if you don’t have anything you can still weight train by using your own bodyweight as resistance.

Goal

Do you have a specific goal?  Do you just want to focus on building muscle or do want your weight training to support another sport you are doing?

All the factors will dictate which kind of training program you will follow.

Applying the principles to create a method

We now have a framework to create a weight training program.  Let’s take one example and cover one way you could approach the scenario.

Opportunity: You only have x 2 days available within the week to train for one hour.
Equipment: You have access to weights as you are a member of a gym.
Goal: You just want to build muscle and strength.

Based on the above information we can now apply this to the principles of weight training by increasing VIF in some way:

Volume: Increasing sets and reps are a great way to overload muscles and produce muscle growth (hypertrophy).  However, increasing sets will eat into your time available, so here it would be best to increase reps instead.
Intensity: You have access to a gym so increasing the weight over time is possible, and also a great driver of hypertrophy.
Frequency: Increasing the number of days you train would be a good way to progressively increasing your workload over time.  However, you only have x 2 days a week to train so you cannot increase frequency.

From this we now know we have 2 hours to train each week, and we can only increase the reps and the intensity.  We also know we need to use the whole body to push, pull, and hinge weight. A quick google search of ‘beginner upper/ lower/ push/ pull/ hinge exercises” will give you a variety of exercises to choose from.  Below is a sample of what this might look like:

WEEK 1

Day 1: Push

Exercise: Squat,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower push

Exercise: Reverse Lunges,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower push single leg

Exercise: Bench press,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper push

Exercise: Single arm shoulder press,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper push single arm

Day 2: Pull

Exercise: Deadlift,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower pull

Exercise: Single Leg Hamstring Curl,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower pull single leg

Exercise: Lat pull down,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper pull

Exercise: Single arm row,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper pull single arm

WEEK 2

Aim to either increase the weight and or/ reps, or if that is not possible, increase one or the other

Day 1: Push

Exercise: Squat,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower push

Exercise: Lunge,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower push single leg

Exercise: Bench press,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper push

Exercise: Single arm shoulder press,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper push single arm

Day 2: Pull

Exercise: Deadlift,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower pull

Exercise: Single Leg Hamstring Curl,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Lower pull single leg

Exercise: Lat pull down,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper pull

Exercise: Single arm row,  Sets: 3,  Reps: 10-12,  Weight: 2 reps in reserve,  Notes: Upper pull single arm

There are many ways you could make this 2-day program work.  For example, there would be nothing wrong with doing a whole day of upper body push and pull, followed by a whole day of lower body push and pull and increasing the reps and weights with that.  You still would have satisfied the principle of progressive overload, and working all the muscle groups.

Bonus tips

Collect Data

Write down everything you do in your training sessions (reps/ sets/ weight lifted/ how difficult you found it).  This might feel alien to do at first, but it will be worth it.  When you need to revisit the same exercise again you will now have a starting point.  You can’t progressively overload your muscles if you don’t know what they were capable of the last time round.

Don’t change it up too often

The common mistake is to change up your exercises too often.  You can’t tell if you’re getting stronger at lunges, if the next week you’re doing step ups.  That’s like trying to compare apples and oranges.

When to progress the program

Eventually, you will need to change the exercises, your program structure or both. This is subjective and will completely depend on your circumstances.  Generally speaking, you will know when this time has come as you will have either plateaued with a move, manipulated VIF as much as is practical to do so, got very bored of it, started to feel like you are getting injured, or your lifestyle has changed and you can no longer follow the same program design.  At this point, it would be a good idea to change things up to increase your enthusiasm to train and prevent injury from repetitive stress.

It is worth noting that you can progressively overload through means other than just VIF.  For example, you can change the tempo of your moves; making them quicker or slower, or focus on keeping your form really strict.  So even if you aren’t able to change the type exercises, you have this to play with as well.

Summary

The key thing is to do more work over time. Not necessarily more over the same session, or the same week, but over months and years.  The exact program you follow is kind of irrelevant.  As long as it is structured in a way that suits you, and you find a way to progress within that program, you will see improvements.

Anoula
info@freegym.co

FreeGym Blogger Legend. Personal Trainer at Fitology. Powerlifting Level 1 Coach.



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