Starting Smart – A Beginner’s Guide to Training Programs

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Beginner Training Programs
By Jacob Trout, Physique and Performance Coach at The Strength Guys Inc.

The next time you are in a checkout line, count the number of contradictory claims being made from different magazines. Magazine A claims that they have the secret to weight loss, Magazine B claims it has the secret exercise for bigger biceps, Magazine C has another secret for weight loss, and Magazine D has another secret for bigger biceps! The catch? It’s contradictory. Consider it white noise. It is my belief that these flashy titles only serve to distract beginners from a reasonable and proper foundational program. Are there really “best” exercises for a muscle, or a best workout? Are these claims merely hype without substance?

There are so many options and choices for beginners, and it’s easy to see how one can become overwhelmed and confused rather quickly.

Let’s dissect a good training program and discuss what to look for when deciding where to start with your fitness journey.

Consistency & Progression

The number one determinant of long-term success ultimately appears to boil down to consistency (Cooper, 1969; Renger, 1993). If athletes can be consistent with their training program day-in and day- out, they will likely see the results they are after. So, if we want our athletes to be successful we need to make sure their program is within their capabilities. Starting untrained individuals on a program that destroys them and has them crawling out of the gym every day is going to do nothing but cause burnout (overtraining), increase the risk of injury, and discourage the athletes, eventually causing them to drop the program altogether (Fry, 1997; Schoenfeld, 2010).

Developing a program that slowly increases the demands put on an athlete but is still within the limits of the athlete will encourage weekly and long term progression.

Progressive overload is an overlooked basic principle of training. There are a number of different ways that progressive overload can be achieved, but when an athlete is just starting these are a few ways to incorporate it: lifting the same load and volume with better form and more control, lifting the same load for more reps, lifting a heavier load, or lifting the same load with decreased rest times (Bird, 2005). If an athlete is able to do any of the aforementioned he is making progress, and progress will encourage further consistency to the program.

Exercise Selection

When deciding on a program to start, an athlete should look for a program comprised of mostly compound movements. A compound movement involves several joints and multiple muscles to move the load through the full range of motion. Examples of these multi-joint exercises include: squats, deadlifts, lunges, overhead presses, bench presses, pull-ups, and rows.

Utilizing a program primarily comprised of compound movements will recruit more total motor units and, therefore, stimulate more growth than a program centered on isolation exercises (i.e. chest flyes, leg extensions, bicep curls).

Training Programs

Change in Stimulus

Any popular fitness magazine or program likes to depict the idea that drastic alterations to your training program and the modes of exercise are needed in order to make progress. Truthfully, slight adjustments such as grip width, load and volume, or tempo are enough variation to cause a new stimulus and continue an athlete’s progress. Your body is made of highly adaptive systems that require alterations in the stimulus for optimal results. (Fonseca et al. Pub ahead of print). I recommend changing the training stimulus every 4-6 weeks.

So let’s review what a beginner’s program should look like. The program is going to challenge an athlete each day and a little more each week, but it is NOT going to kill the athlete every day or be filled with sets/reps schemes that are physically impossible (i.e. 5×12 @80%). The program is comprised of mostly compound exercises that work multiple muscles. Every four to six weeks it will slightly change how the muscles are stimulated, whether by grip position, intensity, rep range, or the tempo when performing the movement. Small alterations in the programming can impact the amount of metabolic stress, mechanical stress, and muscle damage placed on the trainee – three of the integral components of muscle hypertrophy as indicated by Schoenfeld (2010).
Training Programs

Program ADD or Program Hopping

One of the main pitfalls of novice athletes that I see is that once athletes have a program to start, they fail to stick with it and follow through the program. Fitness media wants to portray the idea that the “grass is always greener”, this new program is always better than the one currently being used. Athletes need to stick to the program they choose and give it some time to see results. Hypertrophy is a painfully slow process. By constantly switching programs, an athlete will never be able to yield the full benefits from the program’s design.
There is no need to overcomplicate things. Results will come when an athlete sticks to a basic, simple training protocol.

1. Bird, S. P., Tarpenning, K. M., & Marino, F. E. (2005). Designing resistance training programmes to enhance muscular fitness. Sports medicine, 35(10), 841-851.
2. Cooper, L. (1969). Athletics, activity and personality: a review of the literature. Research Quarterly. American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 40(1), 17-22.
3. Fry, A. C., & Kraemer, W. J. (1997). Resistance exercise overtraining and overreaching. Sports Medicine, 23(2), 106-129.
4. Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., … & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association.
5. Renger, R. (1993). A review of the Profile of Mood States (POMS) in the prediction of athletic success. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 5(1), 78-84.
6. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.