Beginners Strength Training Guide
How do you get stronger
Exercise Selection (Compound Versus Isolation)
Learning the ‘big three’ strength training movements
A Sample Strength Training Programme
How do you get Stronger?
Put simply, there are two ways in which your body gets stronger.
You increase the size of your muscles. A greater cross-sectional area generally correlates with increased strength levels. You get bigger, you get stronger, simple.
You develop the motor patterns associated with specific movements, improving your Central Nervous System function and allowing your body to in essence ‘activate’ a greater proportion of its muscle fibres.
As a beginner, the majority of your strength development will actually come from the second of these methods. That’s not to say that you won’t gain muscle because you absolutely will. Rather it’s to say that the strength you’ll gain due to extra muscle will be far outweighed by the insane amounts of strength you’ll gain through nervous system adaption.
Exercise Selection (Compound versus isolation)
When it comes to strength training, compound exercise is the name of the game. In case you’re unsure, compound exercises are the movements that work the most possible muscle groups. Isolation exercises on the other hand focus on much smaller individual muscles. Compound exercises include:
There are other compound exercises and plenty of variations, but these six should be the bread and butter of any good beginner strength training programme. The basic idea is that by sticking to these major movements you get stronger in BOTH of the methods described above.
You get bigger (and thus stronger) because you’re using loads of muscles in every single movement you do (as well as stimulating testosterone function – but that’s a subject for another article)
You get stronger because you’re ingraining the movement patterns of the exercises you perform. Put simply, if you do 100 different exercises you’ll be average at 100 exercises, whereas if you focus on a few exercises you’ll get great at performing those exercises.
Learning the ‘Big Three’ Strength training movements
When people talk about the ‘big three’, they’re referring to the squat, the bench and the deadlift. These three exercises are the three competitive lifts in powerlifting, and are great ways of tracking how your overall strength is improving.
At advanced levels of lifting there are literally hundreds of methodologies for improving each of these lifts, as well as dozens of different cues and position drills to improve lifting technique. As a beginner, however, your main goal is to learn the basics in order to safely and effectively perform the major movements on a regular basis.
Here’s a nice short demo and guide by IPF Silver Medalist Jonnie Candito https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoZWgTrZLd8
As a strength coach, there are really only a handful of things I aim to teach my beginners. These are:
1. Use your traps and upper back/rear shoulder muscles take a ‘platform’ for the barbell. Keep these muscles tight and use them to hold to barbell as steady as possible.
2. Initiate the movement by bending your knees then send your hips back. As a beginner you’ll probably have a tendency for your knees to come way too far forwards and not sit back enough. I like to encourage my lifters to imagine sitting back into a chair. This helps you to activate your glutes and well as keeping the barbell travelling in a nice vertical bar path.
3. As you descend keep a flat back, this keeps it strong and prevents lower back pain. You can do this by keeping your chest up and your bum back. You might also find it useful to have someone watch you (ideally a coach who provides 1:1 strength coaching - [subtle right?]) or at the very least record yourself from a side view.
4. Go as low as possible whilst maintaining the flat back mentioned above, and as you do this aim to keep your weight nicely balanced over the mid foot. If you start to feel the weight coming onto your toes and your heels coming off the ground, then you’ve leant too far forwards. If this happens regularly then it may be that you have poor ankle mobility – google it and fix it ASAP.
The Bench Press…
Here’s the beautifully gruff voices of the Buff Dudes explaining the bench press - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRVjAtPip0Y
Let’s keep this one simple, I want you to follow three points.
1. Shoulder blades retracted, i.e. pulled tight together to create a solid base to push from.
2. Feet flat on the floor and actively pushing to help keep your shoulder blades together
3. Grip the bar tight as you control the descent and explode on the way back up.
Back to Jonnie candito for a quick Deadlift Guide -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6UgD1H_AXw
This is the lift you’re most likely to see people doing incorrectly, and the reason? Most people put too much weight on the bar too soon. Start light, learn the movement and develop the core strength and stability to support heavier weights before you try to lift them.
1. Set yourself with your feet about half way under the bar.
2. Send your hips and bum backwards to load up your hamstring and glutes. The back of your legs should feel tight, ready to attack the bar.
3. Keep your back flat by keeping your chest up and your bum back
4. Lift in one smooth, controlled motion. Pushing away from the floor and you pull up on the bar and squeeze your glutes to lock the weight out near your hips.
A Sample Strength training Programme
As you’ve learnt above, a good beginner programme should have you regularly performing compound lifts with good technique. Below I’ve recommend a simple three day per week programme to get you started. To be fair though, stronglifts, or starting strength, or Greyskull would all be acceptable beginner strength programmes.
Squat 3 sets of 5 reps
Bench 3 sets of 5 reps
Deadlift 3 sets of 5 reps
Pull Ups 3 sets of max reps
Front Squat 3 sets of 5 reps
Overhead Press 3 sets of 5 reps
Glute Bridges or Barbell Thrusts 4 sets of 8 reps
Back Squat 3 sets of 5 reps
Bench Press 3 sets of 5 reps
Deadlift 3 sets of 5 reps
Barbell Row 4 sets of 8 reps
I would also recommend finishing every workout with a core exercise such as planks, superman planks, bird dogs etc. Anything that emphasises stabilisation.
As a beginner you’ll gain strength really quickly. I would personally say increase the weight every time you repeat an exercise. Around 2.5kg for the squat and deadlift and around 1.25kg for the bench and overhead press.
So if you squat 60kg on Monday without missing any repetitions, then on Friday you should aim to squat 62.5kg without missing any reps. Make sense?
A good general rule is that you should always aim to increase the weight, but only if you have successfully completed a lighter weight without missing any sets, reps or compromising form or technique.
If you’ve stuck with this far you now know how your body gets stronger, which exercises to choose and how to perform them. You’ve also got a good quality strength training programme that I have personally used to help clients more than double their weights in less than three months.
If you’ve found this article helpful, feel free to share it, and do me a solid by liking Character Strength across social media.
Even better, if you happen to live in West Yorkshire, come and train with me in person. I’ll even give you a free strength assessment and advice session to get you started.
Until then, keep growing stronger
Head Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning