How to Safely Get Started With Exercise - Part 2 Resistance Training
Choose your ideal resistance training schedule. Ideally you hit every major muscle group ~2x a week, but 1x a week is still better than nothing.
Choosing a good resistance training schedule is slightly more challenging than cardiovascular training, given the recovery requirements.
I recommend full body training to most people due to simplicity.
2x a week of full body training is pretty approachable and easy to integrate with cardiovascular training.
The key to resistance training is a concept called ‘progressive overload.’
This means progressively trying to do a little bit better each week. Higher weight used than last week is ideal, or a few more reps with the same weight.
Start with 1 set of 6-12 reps for each exercise as an absolute beginner. Progress to at least 2 sets of 6-12 reps. Adding a set each week for each muscle group is a good soreness reduction strategy. Work up to as many as 5 sets per muscle group, or ~10 sets per week.
Compound multi-joint exercises are more time efficient and I’d prioritize them for beginners generally speaking in more of a 6-8 rep range. If you choose to use isolation movements, opt for 8-12 reps as your range.
More specific recommendations are provided below and part 3 will feature plans of action.
In Part 1, I focused on a couple of key mindset considerations for reducing exercise anxiety. Some tips on how to avoid feelings that prevent people from exercising, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
I followed that up with my practical recommendations for the modality (either walking or biking) to start with. Note: This is merely as a suggested starting point and any piece of cardiovascular equipment can still be utilized.
I also discussed the importance of planning and establishing a schedule. This will help you decide what approach to cardiovascular exercise is best for you.
Lastly, I gave numerous practical examples on how to identify where you’re at currently. Followed by tips on how to safely scale up cardiovascular exercise into your routine with either duration or intensity.
I started with cardiovascular exercise because it’s the easier of the two to do. It’s an ideal starting point for a lot of people just looking to build momentum. It requires far less equipment and it’s easier to explain.
Just to make this clear, these articles are for novices. They are written with a certain assumption. You’re probably new to training, or you haven’t been consistent in a very long time.
Everything from people who have never exercised a day in their lives, to people that have done a little exercise here or there but aren’t that advanced. They could be people who haven’t exercised in quite some time too.
Table of Contents
- Part 2 – Resistance Training Exercise
- Resistance Training Terminology
- How Much or How Little?
- What About the True Time Involved?
- Different Rep Ranges Yield Different Training Effects
- What Set and Rep Scheme Should You Train?
- Why 6-12 Reps?
- How Long Does it Take to Develop a Good Foundation?
- The Starting Point
- Step 1 – Determine Your Schedule
- What is a split routine?
- The ‘t’ Split (Upper/Lower Split)
- The ‘H’ Split (Anterior/Posterior Split)
- The ‘X’ Split (Upper Body Push/Lower Body Pull and Upper Body Pull/Lower Push Split)
- Back to Your Regularly “Scheduled” Programming
- Example #1 – Training Once a Week
- Example #2 – Training Twice a Week
- Example #3 – Training Three Times a Week
- Example #4 – Training Four Times a Week
- Fill In The Gaps
- Step 2 – Determine Your Equipment Access
- Bodyweight Training (Calisthenics)
- Band Training
- Machine Training
- Free Weight Training
- Miscellaneous Tools
- Step 3 – What Should You Train?
- The Safety Part
- Managing Muscle Soreness
- For Your Warm Up (AKA Movement Preparation)
- Progressive Overload
- Limitations and Considerations
- If You Go Bodyweight Route
- If You Go with Bands
- If You Go with Machines
- If You Go with Free Weights
- If You Go with a Mixed Approach
- What About Core Training?
Part 2 – Resistance Training Exercise
Today I’m going to talk Resistance Training. AKA Strength Training. AKA Weight Training or Weight Lifting. Colloquially all of these terms mean roughly the same thing:
“Physical training that involves lifting and lowering some kind of resistance, weight or weighted object through a range of motion to a degree of fatigue.”
This is a major component of my preferred umbrella term: Neuromuscular Training. It’s also a little more complicated than most cardiovascular conditioning, which is also partly why I started with cardio.
It is easier to start with cardio because the learning curve is so short comparatively. There are fewer schedule concerns. There are fewer recovery concerns. There are fewer equipment concerns and technique concerns too.
This does not make cardio ‘better’ than resistance training. Actually, I fundamentally believe if you had to choose between the two, resistance training is actually the more valuable use of time.
It has a greater trickle down effect into the realm of cardio. Than vice versa.
If you only have two hours to train, you’re going to get more cardiovascular benefits from the two hours of resistance training. Than you are going to get muscle, bone and nervous system benefits from two hours of cardiovascular training.
The two are not mutually exclusive but cardiovascular training has more specific and less broadly applicable benefits. At least when compared to resistance training.
You could say it’s part of the mission at Skill Based Fitness to encourage people to do more resistance training because it is such an under-utilized, under-appreciated and less frequently used form of exercise.
Yet it delivers more bang for your buck.
I feel people avoid it for a variety of reasons that I hope to address with this article. Not the least of which is, simply not knowing how to get started with it.
Lifting weights should be one of the safest activities a person can engage in, next to walking and stationary biking. At least if you do it well and don’t go too crazy, too soon.
Resistance Training Terminology
Cardio terms can be pretty simplistic by comparison. It’s really just modality (the exercise, or movement of choice), duration (time spent) and intensity (speed, rate of perceived exertion, or heart rate).
Resistance training requires a tad more thought, especially when deciphering relatively common abbreviations. Mostly because there are lot of shortcuts fitness pros use to save space in exercise programs.
It’s like a code, you have to know a little of the lingo to make sense of it.
I’ve written an entire article on these terms, largely because of this article.
You should read that article here. There will be several links to follow that go to specific references in that article.
It will help provide some context to the language I’m about to use. Also it will prevent me from stopping all the time to explain each and every term I use.
How Much or How Little?
Unlike cardiovascular training, conventional training advice for resistance training from world health authorities is even more vague.
Sadly it’s almost an asterisk on most physical activity guidelines. CSEP only gives this advice for people over the age of 18:
It is also beneficial to add muscle and bone strengthening activities using major muscle groups, at least 2 days per week.~The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP)
My qualification of ‘over 18’ here does not in fact mean that resistance training under the age of 18 isn’t recommended.
The CSEP recommendations for 5-17 years olds is actually higher than adults. It’s recommended at least 3 times per week.
Let’s dispel this myth that resistance training is in any way bad for kids. It has roughly the same rules as training in adults, with perhaps even more benefits.
While the American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) created these guidelines at health.gov in the USA. Which state:
Muscle Strengthening Activities: Do activities that make your muscles work harder than usual at least 2x a week.~ACSM
Now you can at least, dive into these recommendations a little further, but the ACSM document is 120 pages. Most of which is not that practical. Are you going to read it?
CSEP also has some qualifiers elsewhere but at least we have a generally good number to work with.
You should do a resistance training for all your major muscle groups at least 2x a week.
However, again, as my cardiovascular training recommendations, 1x a week is still substantially more benefit than 0x a week.
Something is always better than nothing.
If 1x a week is the most approachable way for your to start, then start there. I will show you how in this very article.
And that’s only a minimum. You could do it 6x a week but only if you planned it out well so as to avoid training the same muscles back to back days.
The biggest scheduling problem with resistance training is that you really shouldn’t train the same muscle groups on back to back days.
Muscles need about 48 hours to recover from the training. This makes it trickier (like high intensity interval training) to program into any given week.
There are advanced ways to move around that complication, but again, this is an article for people who are fairly new to resistance training, so let’s not make it any more complicated than it needs to be.
Simply know that I try to take most of my clients to 2-4x a week, but many have started just 1x a week.
What About the True Time Involved?
As mentioned in my previous article, time is the most consistently given excuse for a lack of exercise in this world.
And the frequency of training mentioned above, doesn’t give you any idea of the real time committment per training session.
Then consider that most resistance training programs are not written with times in mind, the way that cardiovascular programs are written.
That’s because we commonly lean on the concept of sets, reps and rest in resistance training. Sets and reps are difficult to time for the desired effect, and rest is often just a minimum recommendation rather than a fixed interval.
This makes resistance training programming slightly more difficult to prescribe within time frames, but the method is also more effective than if we prescribed it based on time frames.
The point of resistance training as mentioned above is to achieve a degree of fatigue in any given exercise.
If I tell you to do 30 seconds of squats, one of two things is likely to happen:
- You finish 30 seconds without slowing down (typically because the weight used is too light)
- You slow down long before the 30 seconds and terminate squatting before you’ve complete the 30 seconds
This poses two separate problems.
- You don’t get much of a training stimulus because you never slowed down and never reached a certain level of fatigue
- You terminate the set early, doing only a few reps, creating too much fatigue and this might not achieve what we want it to achieve.
There is no way to know if 30 seconds, or 45 seconds, or 60 seconds will be the right amount of time. For a person to hit the appropriate amount of fatigue with a specific weight/load, based on their goals.
This is the fundamental long-term problem with the resistance training aspect of my eight minute workout (A Better Scientific Seven Minute Workout).
*Good place to get started perhaps, but not the ideal way to resistance train.
It’s simply not accurate enough to control the desired training effect for anything other than one real purpose:
- You want to make your resistance training more cardiovascular in nature.
*Or at least you make the training more muscular endurance in nature all of the time.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing once and a while, but it’s less than ideal in the long-term. Especially if you’re combining resistance training with cardiovascular training (and you likely should be if it’s possible).
You don’t want both types of training to provide the same benefits.
It either creates too much stress or not enough stress on the muscles and bones we are trying to stress.
All that being said, you’re probably going to need anywhere from 10-60 minutes for most resistance training days.
Different Rep Ranges Yield Different Training Effects
Research also tells us why timed sets aren’t the best approach to resistance training.
In the world of resistance training there are 4 “main” types of training.
*Click the links to learn more about what they each mean…
Each of those main qualities has a sort of ‘ideal’ set, rep and rest scheme. I’ll give you the rough idea:
- Muscular (Explosive) Power is typically trained with 2-6 sets of 1-6 reps, and 3-5 minutes of recovery (you’d also typically use lower load/weight than ‘strength’ training and focus more on acceleration)
- Muscle Strength is typically trained with 2-8 sets of 1-5 reps, and 2-5 minutes of rest between efforts
- Muscle Hypertrophy is typically trained with 2-5 sets of 5-12 reps, and 90-180 seconds (1.5-3 minutes) rest between efforts
- Muscular Endurance is typically trained with 1-3 sets of >12 reps, and <60 seconds of rest between efforts
Now it’s important to note that these are rough guidelines and nothing is written in stone. There is more to training down the road than just set and rep schemes.
There are some transitionary grey areas…
For instance, you’ll still train muscular strength to a pretty significant degree (especially as someone new to resistance training) using 6-8 reps. We often say “strength” training is actually <8 reps.
You’ll also train muscular endurance to a pretty significant degree (again as someone new) with anything >8-10 reps.
You can still build muscle using less than 5 reps, or more than 12 reps, you just need more sets, or more fatigue and the appropriate exercise execution and selection.
Sometimes you’ll need more rest than indicated. Other times maybe you need >15 reps for muscular endurance.
Also they can all be theoretically used within one training session, so long as you train them in a logical order. The order they are listed in, actually.
It’s generally ideal only to pick 1-3 qualities at most and I typically only focus on 1-2 in many of my beginner/intermediate programs.
What Set and Rep Scheme Should You Train?
Now that you know all that, I’m going to ask you to forget entirely about muscular explosive power for now.
It’s just not that well suited to novices/beginners and I’ll probably write about it separately at a future date.
I don’t want to get into it because it isn’t necessary in the beginning. When you’ve got a few months to a year of other resistance training under your belt, come back and ask me. Mmmkay?
If you’re new to training you’re likely going to want to start in the hypertrophy zone mentioned above. Even if your goal isn’t hypertrophy.
The term ‘hypertrophy zone’ is a misnomer. It’s colloquially called the ‘hypertrophy’ zone because it’s a more practical way to achieve hypertrophy than ≤5 or ≥12 reps. That’s all.
For muscle growth to occur to any meaningful extent with any kind of lifting, you need the right kind of stress and some excess energy to come from somewhere. Either your diet or stored body fat.
Other rep ranges can and do still cause muscle growth. This zone just happens to be the easiest rep range to work with for that goal, hence the name.
If you don’t change your diet (assuming you aren’t currently gaining weight) much, but have some extra body fat, you’ll likely build a little muscle and shed a little fat, which is typically what most people want, right?
Again, I don’t really want to get into the diet details of losing fat, gaining muscle or what have you. Do my free nutrition email course if you want to know more about all that.
The reality of the 5-12 rep range is that it represents the best of all worlds. You develop a bit of muscular endurance, a bit of muscular strength, maybe a little muscle and most importantly you develop a good foundation.
It’s not too intense (i.e. too heavy) a starting point as anything under 5 reps generally is but it’s not too tiring either, so you learn good technique, which should be your primary focus to start.
Too much fatigue, or load, to start, leads to poor technique development.
It also takes a much longer time to get through both muscular strength training and muscular endurance training sessions, because they require more rest, more sets or more reps.
Right now this article assumes your primary goal is to get started with resistance training. i.e. you’re here to learn how to resistance train.
This is the best way to do that, and the term ‘Transitionary Training Zone‘ is likely the more accurate name as it applies to the beginner trainee with no specific physical transformation goal.
If I’m being honest, the first phase of programming I write for pretty much anyone I’ve ever worked with is a ‘Base Phase’ (or foundation phase) and it’s likely 1-4 sets of 6-12 reps for 2-12 exercises (depending on the schedule).
No matter what their skill level or previous experience may be, I have to be sure they can tolerate basic moderate range training, before we move onto anything advanced.
Then we go from there depending on the goal and how skill develops.
Why 6-12 Reps?
The primary reasons to resistance train are generally:
- Improved tolerance to training/stress (including every day stress)
- Muscle maintenance (or sometimes growth) to stave off sarcopenia (muscle loss that happens during aging)
- Improved neurological function
- Improved physical performance and increased ‘functional’ capacity for everyday living or physical activities like sports
- Improved muscle/tendon strength (force production and absorption)
- Increased bone density
- *New research is suggesting it also improves mental state/health
- Here’s a whole other article on why you should do it
No other rep range covers as much of those improvements as this rep range.
To get good at lifting, everyone needs to develop an adequate base or foundation of training. A tolerance, if you will.
You need to develop a tolerance for training (enough effective repetitions too) but you also have to develop some movement skills.
Too much fatigue is counterproductive to skill acquisition.
If we start with sets of >12 reps or >15 reps, we wouldn’t get the desired learning effect. You’d feel tired sure, but skills are harder to acquire when you’re tired.
<12 reps is better for learning. I’d take that a step further and say that 6-8 reps is even better for it.
That’s the sweet spot starting point in my experience, for any training foundation, after many years of trial and error.
Significant muscular endurance changes happen the fastest. And as I already indicated this rep range will allow a trainee to develop a tolerance for resistance training just fine.
High rep (>12 or 15) lifting near failure is soul crushing if you’ve never done it before.
To be effective it has to be closer to failure than moderate load lifting too.
Nervous system changes and significant muscular changes take a few weeks to a few months to take shape.
Most of what happens when training even in this 6-12 rep zone is neurological skill development at first.
Some muscle growth sure, but even then most beginners are lucky to build 2-4 lbs a month on average, in their first year of training.
Significant bone density improvements take even longer to take shape. The closer you train to your maximum ability, the more bone density improvements we see.
However, most of those improvements in the <5 rep zone are also neurological at first. It’s not that great an idea to develop technical capacity with loads that are truly that heavy relative to your ability.
You get the most out of training <5 reps when you have a good technical base first.
6-8 is heavy enough for good technical development, but not too heavy to be risky as a starting point. While the higher end of that zone is perfect for isolation or accessory movements.
Lastly, there is the issue of exercise appropriateness. The 6-12 rep range is appropriate for nearly every and any exercise.
Again large compound movements work well in the lower end of that zone, while their supplementary or assistance lifts do really well in the upper part of that zone.
Compound movements are more technical in nature, so that makes sense.
A lot of compound movements are great under <5 reps, but a ton of isolation movements are not. A 3RM arm curl or shoulder raise is a rarity and they should be.
Yes, if you’re astute, the math difference between 5 and 6 is somewhat negligible. It is. However, I also find it to be a more appropriate buffer zone for beginners to start.
Once you have your foundation developed, you can start moving more easily in any specific training direction.
For more on this, read this article: Is It Better to Lift Light Weights or Heavy Ones?
How Long Does it Take to Develop a Good Foundation?
Before you move onto to more intermediate or advanced stuff you mean?
Well obviously this depends on your starting point. Younger people will take less time than older people.
People who play sports or move pretty well already due to practice at another period in their life (or a recent period) will develop more quickly than people who have never been active.
In my experience it takes anywhere from a couple of months to a year for a person to develop a good foundation with training.
I’d count on doing at least 2-4 months of training in this 6-12 rep range at first. If you’re smart about the training this will do, before expanding yourself outside of that rep range.
If you’re simply returning to resistance training after a long absence it can be tempting to push back into it too quickly and a lot of people actually get themselves into trouble with that. i.e. injury
Remember that tissues like tendon and bone take a while to develop. A few weeks or even months absent from lifting is very different than a few years.
When in doubt, spend longer training in that intensity range before you move on.
Or consider hiring a coach to get a program that progresses you in a smart logical manner. 😉
The Starting Point
Normally I take every client I work with through at least a movement assessment to start.
This helps me determine where they are currently at and what programming is likely to take them where they want to go.
The first week or two past this, is prep work, it looks a lot more like a long warm up, than a serious resistance training session.
I don’t know how strong you are, how well you move or how much experience you actually have so I’m going to present you with some conservative recommendations.
Step 1 – Determine Your Schedule
Read all of my basic scheduling recommendations here.
Yep, it’s the same first step as cardiovascular training.
However, I wrote these in reverse order.
If you only have an hour to train a week, I’d rather you prioritize resistance training for 30 minutes twice a week, or 60 minutes once a week or even 20 minutes three times a week.
Whatever works, but prioritize the lifting if at all possible and fill in the gaps with cardiovascular work.
It doesn’t even really have to be that much. Twice a week for 30 minutes, with a warm up, is probably enough resistance training for a lot of people.
The trick with resistance training is that necessary day off between exercising the same muscle groups.
This is not fully explained in my article on scheduling, because it’s unique to resistance training programs.
Train full body if at all possible. Honestly, in my experience training beginners, it’s just easiest. Less thinking. Just take at least one day off between efforts and you’re set.
Now that isn’t always an option for some people with highly specific schedules. A common example I encounter being shift workers.
What happens if you can only train on back to back days? Say for instance, you’re super busy during the week, but you’ve got a lot of free time on the weekends?
This scheduling issue is also quite common. A lot of people are working long hours these days.
Remember that scheduling something you’ll actually do (say lifting every weekend) is better than an ‘ideal’ schedule you never do.
The only solution to back-to-back training days is to use some kind of split routine.
What is a split routine?
A split routine is exactly how it sounds. You split up the body into sections, portions, groups of muscles, what have you.
In effect, to avoid training the same groups of muscles on back to back day.
There are a multitude of ways to do this. Many of which are overly complicated and receive far too much publicity, in too many bodybuilding magazines.
- Repeat Thursday/Friday/Saturday
- Take Sunday Off
A lot more complicated than 95% of people want or need….
Good if you’re taking steroids (“juicing” as they say) and are looking to gain a couple of pounds of muscle this year so you can strut your spray tan speedo on stage.
Not ideal for nearly anyone else.
Mostly due to the impossible volume/effort/time it requires, the infrequency of training the same muscle groups it tends to cause, and/or the inadequate recovery anyone training eau naturale deals with.
Now if you prefer resistance training, or you’re looking for a really productive way to fit it into a Mon-Fri schedule, that’s one thing. This post won’t address that, because it’s more of an advanced schedule.
If you want to train Mon-Fri, do some of the walking/biking protocols mentioned in Part 1 on Wednesday, and then a four day split mentioned below.
The majority of people benefit more from simple splits, rather than complex muscle group driven splits.
Meaning, that your full body resistance training program that would normally hit all or most muscles in your body in one training session, now becomes two. Simple split.
The easiest ways to accomplish that are:
The ‘t’ Split (Upper/Lower Split)
This is likely the most common split.
Most people call this the upper/lower split. I’ve started calling it the ‘t’ split, because…it’s faster to write. I usually lose the single quotes…
Basically you train movements/muscles that involve the upper body only on one day. Then you train the lower body only on the next day. Very little overlaps.
The torso, core, abs or whatever you want to call it, would generally fall on the lower body day. Not always, but that’s usually my preference.
The ‘H’ Split (Anterior/Posterior Split)
This is less common than the t split. However, it’s likely more common than the X split.
Instead of upper and lower distribution, this one ops for anterior and posterior distribution.
Meaning one day you train most/all of the muscles in the front of the body, the next you train most/all the muscles in the back of the body.
This tends not to be as clean a distribution of training, as upper/lower, which is partly the reason it isn’t as popular.
However, it does at least break up leg training. Honestly most people find only leg training the most difficult or at least it feels harder. Which is likely why so many men avoid it.
The ‘X’ Split (Upper Body Push/Lower Body Pull and Upper Body Pull/Lower Push Split)
The more I play with this, the more it’s becoming my favourite 2 day split approach.
There is something about training just legs on one day that most people hate. This approach distributes the stress a bit better overall. Makes it a little more tolerable.
It’s also easier to program and distribute than the H split.
I wrote a whole article on this one. That’s how much I like it.
This is seen far less than either, probably because it sounds a lot more complicated than it is. No one I know even calls it this. Let alone programs like this.
I’ll write articles on the other two some day, but the upper/lower has been written about plenty.
Back to Your Regularly “Scheduled” Programming
That’s a quick primer on three of the main 2 day split approaches.
The only reason I give you that information is because there may be scheduling conflicts where it’s ideal for you to train on back to back days.
Any one of those will work if your schedule warrants it.
I still think full body training is ideal for most beginners because it requires none of the, ‘what-part-of-the-body-does-this-exercise-train‘ thinking.
Let’s run through a bunch of common examples of this in practice:
Example #1 – Training Once a Week
Simple, train full body once a week. Don’t mess around with anything else if you can only train once a week.
Spend up to 60-90 minutes with a detailed full body approach.
Example #2 – Training Twice a Week
Ideally you train full body twice a week and have a day off somewhere.
If that isn’t possible, choose one of the splits above.
For instance, you’re super busy during the week but have loads of time on the weekend. Get two big hour long lifts in on the weekend or something.
- Saturday/Sunday (X Split)
- Friday/Saturday (t split)
Generally any two day split, done only twice a week, should only really be a weekend thing, but maybe you work strange shifts or something.
Training full body twice, assumes you can take at least a day off. If you can take at least a day off between sessions, then a two day split is less preferable.
Example #3 – Training Three Times a Week
Again, I still think it’s ideal for you to get three full body resistance training sessions in. Separated by at least a day off from lifting.
Probably the maximum most people will schedule in any given week as full body training.
- Monday/Wednesday/Friday (very popular)
Due to the frequency of training with this schedule, each workout doesn’t need to be epic an 60-90 minute session or anything.
Higher frequency generally means shorter training sessions are possible. Unless of course you want to do 3×60 minutes? I certainly have.
If you find full body training in this fashion to be too much, turn two of the days into a split. You can still separate that split out by a day.
- Monday – Full Body
- Wednesday – Upper Body
- Friday – Lower Body
Or due to scheduling concerns the split can be put on back to back days.
Maybe the full body day is on a weekend day and can be an epic 60-90 minute session. While you do two shorter 30 minute split training sessions during the week or something.
Again…scheduling is a major factor in whether or not you’ll actually do a routine, so don’t glaze over this stuff.
Example #4 – Training Four Times a Week
I don’t really recommend doing 4x a week full body. Which means you’re going to do at least two days as a split with this sequence.
- Monday/Wednesday/Thursday/Friday (very popular)
Honestly I rarely see beginners start here. It’s a bit much, too soon, for most. However, beginners quickly become intermediates and intermediates often train 4x a week.
Most of the time you’re going to use a split routine with a day off or two here and there.
Typically one day off between back to back training days once a week, and two days off after the other back-to-back training days. As in the first and second examples.
Other times maybe a day off between one sequence (third bullet point) and back to back training for another.
The third sequence could facilitate two full body training sessions (a day of rest between them), followed by the split back-to-back training days.
I actually really like this last approach for beginners who prefer to spend most of their time resistance training rather than doing cardio.
It’s up to you to decide what you’re most likely to do.
Fill In The Gaps
Again, these are all hypotheticals. I don’t know your particular situation.
In a perfect world I’d probably just have all beginners do three times a week, full body training, but we don’t live in that world.
All of these example schedules will work to some degree, but obviously again the more frequently and completely you can train the faster the results.
Training 6x a week doesn’t seem to be that much more effective than 4x.
Training for 20 minutes is likely more ‘complete’ a training session than training for only 10 minutes. 30 minutes is likely more complete than 20 min. 40 more complete than 30. Etc…etc…
From a resistance training standpoint; If you have more time available to you than 3-4x a week, I’d fill it in with cardiovascular training mentioned in part 1.
Slow to moderate aerobic work is ideal but that doesn’t mean you can’t do intervals. It simply means any intervals you do, should be low to moderate intensity.
The easy tell for that? Can you keep breathing through your nose?
I don’t recommend that you fill the gaps with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) quite yet. Resistance training and HIIT for beginners, do not mix well.
If you want to integrate HIIT down the road I’d recommend one of two things:
- Replace a day or two of resistance training with HIIT. *I’d only do this is you’re already resistance training 2-4x a week.
- Do HIIT on the same day as your resistance training. *If it’s not that technical (biking or elliptical) it can go after. If it’s technical (running) I’d probably put it before resistance training believe it or not.
Step 2 – Determine Your Equipment Access
Once you’ve determined your schedule. Prioritizing resistance training and filling in any available scheduling gaps with cardiovascular exercise.
Now you have to figure out what equipment approach you’re going to go with, and what limitations are present.
There is a lot of choice here:
- Various Machines
- Free Weights like Dumbbells, Kettlebells, Barbells, etc…etc…
- Body Resistance (Calisthenics)
- Chin Up Bars
- Suspension Trainers
- Literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of different tools…
Overwhelming, I know…
You can join a gym and most of your equipment concerns are alleviated.
Not all gyms will have everything mind you. A lot won’t be well equipped with kettlebells. Others will have a lot of machines, some next to none.
It will depend on what gym you join. I say don’t pigeon hole yourself to any one tool if at all possible. It’s tempting, but it closes your training off to methods that may be more productive for your goals.
A multi-tool approach is best for learning in my experience.
If you want to specialize in something later (like powerlifting, or kettlebell competitions), that’s up to you.
Or you can train at home and you’ll have to invest in some equipment.
It can take some time to acquire a decent library of tools to make training effective and enjoyable.
If you opt to train at home, here are my minimum equipment recommendations, in the order I’d purchase them in.
You don’t need all of them, but you’ll need at least a few of them and some creativity.
I also have some reservations about training at home, especially starting out.
I think a gym environment is best for beginners. At least until you’ve accumulated some training skills, some home training equipment, and notched out a section of your home dedicated to training.
It’s key however, to find a gym with a bunch of people that resonate with you. Too many gyms are stale and offer no real community connection. I recommend opting for ones you can feel apart of.
Having access to a variety of equipment — that is quite simply too large or expensive for the average person to purchase for their home — can be really useful to the beginner.
It opens doors. If that isn’t an option, any one of the following is an option.
Bodyweight Training (Calisthenics)
Your biggest limitation with bodyweight home training is the need for something to pull. A band, a suspension trainer, a chin up bar, something.
The second biggest limitation is that bodyweight is fixed. The main principle of resistance training is progressive overload. That’s the dilemma.
In resistance training, progressive overload mostly means creating more stress by adding more load. Easy if you have some adjustable dumbbells at home, or the space for a squat rack, a barbell and some plates.
With bodyweight training, it will mean having to learn how to manipulate levers to increase stress or simply doing a seemingly endless amount of more reps.
The former is more complicated than adding 2.5 lbs. The latter has an upper limit.
If you opt simply for more reps, it will mean it takes a lot longer to accumulate effective reps. It also means you’re predominantly training muscular endurance (mentioned above) as a physical quality.
You’ll quickly be beyond my 6-12 rep range recommendation.
Yes, it’s tempting to go the calisthenics route because it’s free (or at least cheap), but it also means spending more time learning and also more time training to get similar training effects.
It’s not impossible, I just want you to be aware of the tradeoffs you’re making with equipment selection. Remember my motto; something is always better than nothing.
Bodyweight can be a starting point, but again I wouldn’t recommend it be a focal point, unless you’re committed to learning the techniques.
Bands offer a somewhat unique stimulus, which is the only reason I’m separating them out here.
They tend to have the most resistance when the movements you’re doing are easiest.
In effect, the top of an push up is easier than the bottom. If you loop a band around your hands and back, now the top is the hardest, and the bottom is the easiest because of the slack in the band.
They also tend to be really inexpensive and really easy to use at a home gym when you’re first starting out. An even cheaper way to train the back muscles than a chin up bar or suspension trainer.
Even if you plan to do mostly bodyweight training, purchase some of these too, trust me, you’ll thank me later.
The problem is they are never used properly by beginners.
They should be used for light muscle activation work (i.e. warm up stuff, or recovery stuff), to develop explosive power (remember I asked you to forget about that for now) or you have to take them to absolute failure.
Bands are weird. They get too hard too quickly, or it takes forever to create fatigue. It’s hard to find the middle ground (that 6-12 rep range), which means you usually need a variety of thicknesses for a variety of movements.
However, they are an excellent way to load a lot of movements on the cheap when you’re first starting out and training at home. Can help fill in the gaps of bodyweight only training for beginners.
This is the really easy first step approach for a lot of people. The learning curve is short. The movements feel safe. You can get an appropriate stress quickly and you don’t have to do too much thinking.
The downside is you’ll need a gym membership. Most machines are expensive, save some cheap multi-machines that tend to break down quickly.
Most gyms that have machines, will have a machine for pretty much every major muscle group. If they don’t, they have free weight options for training that muscle, group or movement.
There is usually a machine “circuit” set up at gyms like this, so it will remove a lot of your guess work as to what machines to use.
It’s not my preferred long-term approach for the beginner, but if you don’t want to, or feel like you can’t, invest in a coach and you just want to get started.
Starting with machines might be the better idea than training at home with bodyweight and more technical movements (again really long learning curve for those).
Machines are also great for periodic phases of training and getting highly specific training effects. Many are not that easy to achieve with other tools. For instance training the calves, hamstrings in leg flexion or rectus femoris.
The reason it isn’t my preferred long-term approach is that machines tend to train only prime movers and they tend to lack movement variability.
Prime movers are the bigger muscles that most people know. For instance the hamstrings, or quadriceps.
However, there are a lot of smaller stabilizing muscles that far few people know. The supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis for example. Together they are often just called ‘the rotator cuff.’
These sorts of muscles are often termed stabilizers. Stabilizing muscles don’t have a lot to do on fixed machines, because the machine does a lot of stabilizing.
This is great for stressing the particular muscle(s) the machine is designed to stress. It is not so great for the stabilizers when they have to control a joint doing movements that aren’t in the machine.
Say playing rugby on the weekend or throwing a frisbee around. In the short-term, it’s a non-issue. In the long-term if it isn’t balanced out with stabilizer work, a lot of people end up with joint issues.
Movement variability is slight variance in the execution of movements or similar movements. It’s important for motor learning (learning how to move well) and in my experience injury prevention.
It’s the strongest reason I switch resistance training exercises up for all my clients every 2-12 weeks or so. And it has a whole draft article that needs to be polished before it’s published.
Machines tend to only have one fixed plane of movement, and low movement variability by extension.
A free weight or bodyweight resistance can be lifted many different ways, every time, and muscle is stimulated slightly differently each time. They have room to move, machines don’t.
All of these issues are easily resolved by programming intelligently and mixing machines with free weights, bands, bodyweight training and other tools of the trade. Fundamentally what I’d recommend you do.
Free Weight Training
I’m lumping a lot of tools into this category to save space and avoid talking about each and every tool known to man.
This category includes but is not limited to barbells, dumbbells, trap bars, kettlebells, weight vests, ankle/wrist weights, cans of soup, water jugs, nearly anything has mass and can move freely through a range of motion.
Anything you can use to add load to a movement, and progressively add more to over time. Plates on a barbell, or dumbbell, or heavier kettlebells.
Weight adjustable tools are ideal for your home. Who has the space for a rack of dumbbells, let alone 10k lying around the cover the cost?
If you have the space and 1k lying around, buy a decent power rack, a barbell, some plates and maybe a bench.
This one group of equipment is incredibly versatile and can be loaded with a lot of weight.
On a tighter budget?
I’d opt for a set of weight adjustable dumbbells. Make sure you have room to grow with your selection. If you’re male, I’d get something that can at least be expanded to 90 lbs (40 kg).
I also personally like kettlebells (and have a few at home) but the learning curve is a bit higher than a dumbbell. One adjustable one is likely enough for a beginners home gym to start, but if you think it will appeal to you, there are advantages to having pairs.
A lot of these tools just make it easier to add progressive overload. They can also be used to add load to bodyweight training techniques.
Benches, boxes, power racks, stability balls, sliders, mats, chin up bars, suspension trainers, etc…etc… really just facilitate certain styles of training. They aren’t really ‘types’ of training on their own.
They help create friction, or they help make something easier to do (pressing from a bench vs pressing from the floor) through a full range of motion. Holding onto the weight your using (power racks hold barbells).
I only bring them up because these accessory tools are great to have around. Especially when you’re learning. Boxes of various heights can help you learn how to deadlift with good form. Benches make pressing more comfortable and free up space for chest supported rows.
It’s a convenience thing really, but also incredibly practical for learning.
Other specialized forms of equipment like flywheels or pneumatics are more complicated than is warranted for beginners, unless the gym you join already has them.
The point of all of this is really to determine what exercises you can use in your program and also how you are going to progressively overload it.
Step 3 – What Should You Train?
I’m a big fan of customized programming. That’s impossible to do here. I can’t write a customized program for any of the thousands of people that might read this.
This is not an article on customizing your exercise routine. That is literally what I do professionally, and it’s too broad a topic for a book, let alone an article.
Needless to say if you want to develop or build a specific muscle, movement or group of muscles, you’re going to have to train them.
It’s impossible to please everyone, so the best thing you can do is simply start. Experience training first, then learn how to tweak things as you want or need.
You’ll have to learn as you go through the process — or read some of my other articles and piece some things together. 😉
My assumption in this article series is that your goal right now is learning how to train. Or at least it should be.
It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what exercises you can or should do, even if you know what equipment you have access to. Join my Facebook Group and ask, if you’re struggling.
I’m just going to come out and say exactly what exercise concepts I think you should spend most of your time on as a beginner.
Rather than specific exercise recommendations you get broad recommendations because specifics are a can of worms I just can’t open here.
There are four fundamental movement concepts I’d focus on as a beginner:
- Lower Body Push (squat/leg press/lunge/etc…)
- Lower Body Pull (deadlift/hinge/leg curl/glute bridge/etc…)
- Upper Body Push (push up/bench press/machine press/etc…)
- Upper Body Pull (chin up/row machine/band rows/etc…)
Yes there are plenty of others but these four will train almost everything to some degree.
One could say that you should do some unilateral work and some bilateral work, or some vertical upper body pushing and horizontal upper body pulling.
Down the road some calf specific, direct arm work or knee flexion specific training is certainly warranted.
For now let’s just keep it simple to start, it’s enough for now, and assume you can always add layers to this resistance training cake later.
When you have some experience under your belt, you’ll be able to squeeze 6 or 8 or even 10 exercises into the same time frame it’ll take you to do these 4 right now.
Learning takes time.
The Safety Part
That is what this whole article series is about.
The number one thing I have to stress is: Train exercises you feel you can do with good initial technique and no pain.
That means be conservative and err to the side of caution when you first load any movement. Start light, and slowly raise the weight you use as you become confident in your ability to handle more weight.
In your case (no coach to help), it’s wise to do a little self experimentation.
If you think you can probably do 20 lbs for 8 reps, do your first set with 15 lbs and see how it feels first.
If you think you can move a reasonably heavy weight on a leg press, like three plates for 6 reps or something, cut that in half for your first set and see how it feels.
Your first training phase or block is really about figuring yourself out, without killing yourself the first week in. With practice you’ll eventually end up like me, you just know what weight to use for what.
I will say that beginner men, are notorious for overestimating their ability. Beginner women are more likely to underestimate their ability. Take that as you will.
If it hurts don’t do it. Simple rule of thumb. There are always alternatives that can achieve similar outcomes.
If you try squats with a light weight (an empty barbell or a 10kg dumbbell), and they hurt? Play with the range of motion (shorter) or maybe buy a day pass at a gym and see if the leg press or leg extension also hurts.
If it keeps hurting no matter what variation you try? Go and see a physical therapist or at least a qualified trainer (who should refer you to a therapist).
For your own sake….
The same procedure can apply to any of what’s to come.
For more specific recommendations read my article: Injury Prevention Principles for Weight Training
Managing Muscle Soreness
Again, something else I’ve been meaning to complete a whole article on, here we are. Cole’s Notes.
Resistance training has the ability to make people sore. A lot more sore than walking or a stationary bike.
Soreness sucks. Soreness will dissuade you from lifting. When it’s bad it can linger for more than a week.
When it’s appropriate, it should be only a day or two, and it shouldn’t feel like your legs are going to give out from under you when you get in and out of your car.
Soreness should also dissipate as you go through any given phase of a program. As you do the same workouts, twice, three time, six times, you should notice it less and less.
That’s the hallmark of good program.
Resistance training makes people sore because it’s a new stimulus for most people and a more direct muscle/tendon stressor. Specifically there is a lot of eccentric force, or muscle lengthening.
There is a little more to it than that but all you really need to know is that doing enough heavy-ish weight (remember 6-12) lifting is more likely to make you sore than the cardio recommended in part 1.
You have to adapt to the stressor of these new movements slowly over time and the localized eccentric stress they create.
Meaning, whenever you do your first session. It’d be wise to do one or more of the following:
- Do only 1, maybe 2 sets as a starting point.
- Don’t train to absolute failure, stick to technical failure or an even lower RPE than that (technical failure is usually an 8 or a 9, so try a 6 or 7 in week 1 of a program)
- Use concentric only resistance training methods (step ups rather than lunges for example)
Forget about that last one, like you forgot about power training. It’s too complicated to explain in a blurb, keep an eye on the site for that eventual article on this.
This also applies if you’ve missed a couple of weeks from any given training program and you’re trying to get back into the swing of things.
Do 2 sets only, if for whatever reason you miss more than 2 weeks straight of a resistance training program. Even if your program tells you to do 3 or 4 or 5 for the week you should be on.
That’s the easiest thing to do, but your very first attempt at a resistance training workout. Stick to one.
I dunno why, but first timers still seem to get more sore than I’d like if we do 2.
Even with sporadic consistency, non-beginners rarely do.
The closer you get to absolute fatigue (i.e. not being able to lift it concentrically one more time) the more sore you’re likely to be.
So delay any attempts to train to that level of fatigue, until you’ve done a workout about three times or more.
Once you’re no longer a beginner, those recommendations won’t apply the same way, but it’s a good general rule of thumb.
For Your Warm Up (AKA Movement Preparation)
I know. I know. I need to write that article already too. So much to write, so little time.
For now, I recommend you steal the warm up from my eight minute workout (AKA A Better Scientific Seven Minute Workout).
It’s three exercises, takes 2 minutes to do. Requires no equipment, and can be used for any resistance training approach (bodyweight, bands, machines, free weights, etc…).
It won’t be the best option down the road when you’re throwing around hundreds of pounds, but you can cross that bridge when you get to it.
Let’s take a step back here before we get into some recommendations and examples to talk about progressive overload.
Remember I said the fundamental idea behind resistance training is to progressively overload the muscle, muscle groups or the movement.
In other words, you have to stress the muscle a little beyond what it can currently do with ease, if you want it to adapt. Adapt towards building more muscle, or strength, bone density or simply ability.
If it’s bodyweight training, that means putting more of your bodyweight onto a harder lever. Such as moving a two armed push up to a one armed push up.
If it’s band training, it’s usually moving to a thicker band. If it’s machine training, it’s adding more plates to the machine or moving the peg so that more load is used on the movement.
If you’re using dumbbells, or barbells, or kettlebells, over time you want to be adding some weight to the movement.
As a beginner, this will seem pretty easy, especially just adding external load to a machine or free-weight movement.
There is a lot of room for development, so adding 20% or even 25% is not unheard of. i.e. you lift 20 lbs this week, and lift 25 lbs next week for the same number of reps, a 25% improvement.
As you get better at lifting, those jumps will get smaller and smaller.
Really really advanced trainees may add only fractions of a percent improvement over a training cycle or even a year. i.e. going from a 415 lbs deadlift to a 420 lbs deadlift could take months and is only a 1.2% improvement.
This can be demotivating, to say the least, so you’ll have to find ways to keep things fresh and yourself interested in the process. The scope of which is beyond this series.
You’re going to pick your schedule, figure out your initial equipment constraints and then find routines that fit that mold (or take suggestions from me in Part 3), to apply progressive overload to.
Meaning every time you attempt a given workout, you’re going to try and lift more weight (usually from week to week) or your going to try and do a few more reps with the same weight as last time.
If you progress beyond the rep range, you should be able to add weight.
And this is where you’re going to run into some confusion because you’re not going to continue to be able to add load to any given exercise indefinitely.
You’ll eventually plateau, or you’ll have some off weeks or maybe even off-weeks lumped together. Hopefully by that time, you’ve developed the right mindset and approach to training that what I’m about to say, won’t matter.
The easiest thing to do when you plateau is have a similar, albeit still different exercise waiting in the wings for that moment.
pump ramp up the volume (2,3,4,5 sets of whatever) and hold that until you plateau again with the new slightly different movements.
Let’s define a plateau as two weeks in a row when you don’t appear to progressively overload the main or priority exercises of your routine.
Usually priority movements appear first in any given workout, to give you an idea.
For example, you’re doing a squat, and you can’t add load anymore, or you can’t do more reps. Awesome, switch to lunges and keep practicing those until you get really good at them too.
This is effectively what’s called a ‘deload.’ Mostly because I’m cycling back to 2 sets instead of the 3 or 4 or 5 set volume I was doing towards the end of the previous phase (the mesocycle).
Then that first week or two is spent building the volume back up. This gives my body a bit of a break and lets me figure this new, but slightly different movement out.
And thus is circle of
life proper resistance training continues. Training should be cyclical like this, but it might not seem that way at first.
Beginners can go 12, maybe even 16 weeks before they really feel like they’ve plateaued on any given exercise. The the length of each cycle before a deload, will likely shorten with experience.
Limitations and Considerations
I’m closing in on ten thousand words, which means there will be a part 3.
Leading into that though, I want to get through some vital considerations before I make recommendations and give more specific examples.
If You Go Bodyweight Route
Lower Body Push
Bodyweight squats are going to be really redundant really quickly. I’d be shocked if you couldn’t do 12 or 15 of them right now.
You’ll eventually need to learn how to step up, lunge (in multiple ways) and then eventually how to do single leg squats because that’s about the only way to progressively overload this pattern without external weight.
Bodyweight only training is severely limiting for the lower body without obscene amounts of reps. Do yourself a favour and eventually invest in some external load.
Lower Body Pull
You can’t do bodyweight deadlifts really. You can do them, but unloaded you’ll never get a training effect, just a movement learning effect. Even on one leg, they don’t create much stress without external load.
The only significant loading option is bridging. Glute bridging and straight leg bridging. At least without equipment purchases these are your only options.
They’ll feel good, but you’re still run out of real estate even faster. You’ll again, have to shift to single leg training and again, you’ll get too good at that very quickly too.
Invest in a medicine ball or a stability ball to give yourself a little more runway, but as before, some external load will be required soon for lower body training to progress.
Upper Body Push
Simple, the staple push up. Women may have to do them from their knees or elevate their hands.
Make them harder by elevating your feet. Make them easier by elevating your hands. You’ll have a fair bit of runway with pushing if you manipulate the levers like that.
Find the right angle for each training session that limits you from doing more than 12, or fewer than 6.
If you walk your feet up a wall, it gets really hard when you’re nearly vertical even for really strong, advanced trainees.
Upper Body Pull
Here’s where you’ll need some equipment. It’s the biggest limitation for ‘calisthenic’ workouts, if you don’t have something secure to pull on.
You can get creative with a table and the inverted row but most of the time, that’s an accident waiting to happen. You could use a secure branch in your yard if you want but that won’t help you much in the winter.
Realistically I recommend you buy a chin up bar, or a suspension trainer with door anchor (provided you have a door you can use that closes into you).
You could also opt for a band (see below) if that’s too rich for your blood for now.
The problem with the chin up bar, is that most women will struggle initially. They’ll need a band to offset their weight a bit with a band (so you’re buying a set of bands anyway, may as well start there first).
*That’s not a gender slight. Physiologically women just don’t have as much proportionate upper body strength as men generally do.
Heck a lot of men, especially any carrying a few extra pounds will likely struggle with chin ups or pull ups as a starting point.
Most will benefit more from a suspension trainer because it will be more adjustable. Combine that with the chin up bar, and you’ll have a variety of ways to train the chin up and the row. This is ideal.
If You Go with Bands
Lower Body Push
Really easy, cheap, way to provide more of an overload stimulus to a squat and a lunge, even a step up.
Bands still have a short runway in terms of development, unless you have a variety of thickness and lengths for various purposes. But it’s still an improvement on bodyweight alone for the lower body pushing movements.
Lower Body Pull
Even more valuable here perhaps because now you can load that deadlift hip hinge pattern.
You won’t load the bridge successfully with these, but you can do band resisted donkey kickbacks for the glutes with more load than just bodyweight if you have a thick enough band.
You’ll need thicker bands for the lower body exercises than the upper body ones, so having 3-5 different thicknesses is ideal.
I like the 41″ bands like this, but the bands with handles like this are okay too (they just can’t be used to offset a chin up).
We wary of the really thin wide band or the looped thin bands.
Awesome for warm-ups, and activation and rehabilitation but probably too light (and thus will break) for what we’re trying to do in resistance training.
Upper Body Push
Attach to a door anchor an you can use the band like a cable press. A nice way to mix things up, but you’re probably better off just sticking to a push up in the short-term.
Then loop the band around your hands and back, to make the pushups harder (if you have the 41″ bands).
Upper Body Pull
The 41″ bands I’m recommending are great for off-setting chin ups and pull ups.
However, even more importantly they can be put in a door anchor and used for rows.
If you don’t have a door anchor (they are only 10 bucks), then you at least have something to pull apart and get started with some back training.
If You Go with Machines
Easiest and won’t be mentioned in Part 3 because it’s so easy. Anyone can join a gym and get a machine circuit as part of the orientation.
I’ll focus on a the more practical at-home combination of free weights, bodyweight training and bands in part 3.
Lower Body Push
Simple: Leg Press Machine, Squat Machine or Leg Extension Machine (cycle appropriately as mentioned above)
Lower Body Pull
Still Simple: Leg Curl Machine, Glute Machine if they have one or a hip extension (AKA Back Extension) device. I’d opt for some kind of deadlift somewhere if possible too, but…this is machines we’re talking about…
Upper Body Push
Simple: Chest press machine or overhead press machine.
Upper Body Pull
Simple: Chest supported row, cable row or lat pulldown machine.
If You Go with Free Weights
Lower Body Push
Goblet squat is your hands down starting point. You take a squat and hold a weight at your chest. Improves technique/form and you can load it for several weeks.
Followed by (or including) goblet step up and/or lunge variations. A decent progression from bodyweight only too.
Anything you can do with calisthenics you can do here with a variety of loading sequences. Goblet is the easiest position, followed by holding the dumbbells or a double rack position for dumbbells (two dumbbells on the shoulders).
Barbells permit the most load for free weight lower body exercises generally speaking, which is partly why they get so much love.
Lower Body Pull
Hip hinge or deadlift variations. Holding on to the dumbbells is your likely starting point and having some boxes to lift those dumbbells off of is a good way to learn good positioning.
You can also add a barbell or dumbbell to your hips to load a bridge. You can also progress to a single leg hip hinge now that you have external load.
Barbells still permit the most load for free weight lower body exercises generally speaking, which is partly why they get so much love. I’m a big fan of the trap bar for beginners and hip hinging, as well as a power rack and rack pulls.
Upper Body Push
Any kind of bench press will do. You can use dumbbells and barbells, you can do flat or incline to varying degrees (if you have a bench), or even decline.
Of course you can also press overhead. Make sure you have the requisite mobility (range of motion) if you go that route, in my experience only about 25% of the population can start there.
The other 75% of us have to work at some other things like landmine (putting a barbell into a corner and using only one end as a lever) presses.
If there is one thing I generally caution people about, it’s barbell overhead pressing as a starting point. Start with a landmine press or a half kneeling dumbbell overhead press instead.
Upper Body Pull
Dumbbells and barbell rows are awesome. Rows in general are a movement I feel are not done enough.
However, a mix of machines or chin up bars or suspension trainers is still really nice to have for more complete training of the back and arms.
If You Go with a Mixed Approach
My preference. I’ll lay out some general tips using combinations of the above.
Lower Body Push
Most people will be able to load a squat immediately. Bands or a dumbbell in a goblet position is a better starting point for most.
Plenty of ways to develop from there that are more practical (i.e. quicker to learn) than working a 2 legged squat to a single leg squat.
Progressing to barbells or heavier loading strategies is ideal but not completely necessary.
Machine options are nice for muscle hypertrophy but don’t really train the nervous system to the same degree, nor stabilizers. I like people to learn a little how to move when they are first starting out if possible.
Of course the main limitation of these compound free weight movements will eventually be the hip flexors and maybe the tibialis anterior (pulling the toes up).
Bands, machines or some other accessory movements are options at that point.
Lower Body Pull
Loaded or single leg bridges are good starting options because they eliminate any upper body limitations (like grip). If I’m honest, weight on the hip flexors doesn’t feel that great at first.
You can’t fault hip hinges and deadlift variations here for practically training the posterior chain (lower body pull).
Yes, like the squat they have a bit of a learning curve, but long-term they can be loaded heavily and you get a good hamstring/glute stimulus. Squats don’t train the hamstrings well.
Of course the eventual limitation will be calves and hamstrings in knee flexion.
In that instance a stability ball or medicine ball for leg curls is a nice have (equipment wise), but even more ideal are glute ham devices and leg curl machines.
Upper Body Push
I’m perfectly happy if I can load a push up or any variety of dumbbell press.
Barbell press is great for some people and it’s certainly an option but it requires more equipment obviously and it’s not as shoulder friendly a starting point.
From here I’m a huge fan of landmine pressing (it’s kind of like an incline press) to train that overhead action. I’m wary of beginners training overhead presses, without proving they have the mobility to do so productively.
Overhead pressing (with a dumbell or barbell) is fine and dandy, but it’s a little more challenging for more people to do well, which means it generally requires a little more complexity than I’d prefer to get into in this series.
I find kettlebells shine in overhead pressing over dumbbells and dumbells shine over strict barbells (i.e. barbells that aren’t slanted into a corner as a lever).
Like anything else, there will be minor areas that can be plugged with accessory movements down the road like the wrists, grip or parts of the shoulders.
Upper Body Pull
Any combination of lat pulldown, suspension trainer rows, machine rows, cable row, dumbbell row, barbell row or some variation thereof will due.
Of course bands and cables will help round out one of the most complicated muscle groups in the body.
Seriously, you have 3 posterior rotator cuff muscles, a posterior shoulder motor component, biceps/brachialis/radiobrachialis, 3 different motor aspects of the traps, 2 different rhomboids, levator scapula, lats and teres major (I’m missing something I’m sure).
There is a lot going on in the upper back compared to say pressing (pecs/shoulders/triceps in some combination) by extension.
There will be more gaps to plug here than pressing at some point.
What About Core Training?
I’m too detailed I know, and at the same time, not detailed enough.
In one final twist of fate, you’ll have to wait for an entirely separate article.
I will say this. People butcher abdominal (AKA torso AKA ‘core’) training.
There really isn’t that much to it, other than people really idolize the midsection as a statement of fitness ability.
Meaning if you have a six pack, you obviously know more about fitness than anyone else.
If you follow my basic warm up, you’re already doing some core training in a very practical manner.
Otherwise core training falls into the same category as every other accessory movement exercise.
If you train a variety of compound movements as I recommend a lot of your core training will take care of itself. A chin up trains the hell out of the front of your abdominals, almost all lower body free weight exercises train the low back.
That leaves some of the sides out of the equation (side planks from the warm up cover it though).
What else is there?
Well there is some, but like calves, or rectus femoris, or serratus anterior, or hamstring knee flexion or any other obscure isolation or accessory requirement it’s a lessor priority than picking up a routine.
You can shortcut this a bit by working with a fitness professional or you can learn the rest along the way.
Until Part 3…
And if you have questions, please ask them in the comments section below. 👇