This article is written for the man who wants to begin a strength training program but doesn’t know where to start. Men and women more often than not strength train for different reasons (this conclusion comes from my 15 years of personal training experience). Where women are mostly concerned with losing weight and improving muscular definition; a man is more likely concerned about putting on size, getting freakishly strong, and looking “cut and jacked.” Now before you throw a liter of pre-workout down your throat and charge to the gym like a complete savage, we need to cover a few ground rules before you start a strength training program.
Rule #1: The first month of your new strength training routine is not a time prove your manhood.
This means being overly cautious with how much weight you are throwing on the bar and instead focusing on correct form for the lift you are performing. The meat heads may laugh at your minuscule strength at this point, but you probably won’t think it is too funny when you’re sidelined for a month with a back injury from trying to squat a weight you are totally unprepared for. Your strength will improve dramatically and quickly within the first few weeks….just do it the right way so your form is perfect and you are using a weight where you can complete the assigned number of reps. In no time those meat heads won’t think it is so funny when you are out lifting them and looking good doing it.
Rule #2: Focus on big, compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups
I always enjoy talking to the guys who do 100s of reps of bicep curls and complain about how they are having a hard time putting on size. Sure they have nice arms, but the rest of their body looks like a young Justin Bieber. Instead of incorporating exercises that only stress one muscle group; include big compound exercises that emphasize multiple muscle groups. Take the granddaddy of all exercises, the bench press, for example. This movement works the pecs, shoulders, and triceps. Another example is the squat which works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes (everyone likes a bulbous posterior). So when starting out don’t waste your time on exercises that use only a single muscle group. They have their place in a strength training routine later down the line but for now, use exercises that give you the most bang for your buck.
Rule #3: Strength train at least two times a week
Three to four times a week is even better. Starting out I suggest doing full body routines with at least one day of full rest between weight training sessions. Doing this will produce the most dramatic results in the shortest amount of time. If you can only commit two days a week to strength training, never go more than three days between sessions. Research shows this will kill your gains. Starting with a full body routine ensures you will work every major muscle group each time you step foot in the gym and is a big time saver compared to working a particular muscle group every day.
Rule #4: Avoid cardio like the plague if you want to put on size and gain strength
More specifically avoid long, slow cardio workouts. Doing long, slow cardio recruits those muscle fibers (slow twitch) opposite to the one you use during strength training (fast twitch). Long, slow cardio can also put your body in a catabolic state where it feeds off itself. So instead of using the different macro-nutrients to add size and strength, your body is instead using them to recover and repair. A much better alternative to long, slow cardio is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This involves a certain number of all-out efforts of 15-30 seconds followed by a 2-3 minute recovery between sets. For example, 8 x 15 second all out sprints on the treadmill or 10 x 100-meter hill repeats. These HIIT workouts can be performed on your non-strength training days and will help get you to lean street quicker.
Rule #5: Use the 2-for-2 rule to decide when to increase weight
There comes a time in everyone’s weight training program where increased loads (weight) are needed to stress the body to promote further gains. The big questions are a). When do I know it is time to increase load? And b). How do I know how much to increase the load by? One of the most common methods used to answer these two questions is the 2-for-2 rule. The 2-for-2 rule states that if the individual can complete two more repetitions than the repetition goal in the final set of an exercise for two consecutive training sessions, the load in all of the sets for that exercise during subsequent training sessions can be increased. In general weight increases will be ~5 pounds for upper body exercises (i.e. bench press) and ~10 pounds for lower body exercises (i.e. squat). While this method does have its shortcomings (requires consistently training to muscular failure), it is quick, efficient, and easy to perform.
Rule #6: Don’t get discouraged, don’t give up
As with most things in life good things come to those who wait. Research shows that it takes anywhere from 6-10 weeks to start seeing changes in muscular size and definition. However, that doesn’t mean you are completely wasting your time. Most adaptations that occur when starting a strength training program are happening on a neurological level. Your body is learning how to perform the movement efficiently, how to recruit muscle fibers that have never been used before, and overall adapting to the new stresses that are being put on it. While a change in size may be absent those first six weeks, you should see a dramatic increase in strength in a relatively short period of time (2-3 weeks). In sum stay focused, get the work done, and get your butt to the gym even when you don’t feel like it
Rule #7: Don’t forget Rule #1
Even as you gain more experience in the gym never load on more weight than you are capable of and always use good form.
Four weeks to a better you: A beginner’s strength training program for men
Now that we know the rules lets take a look at a sample 4 week beginner’s strength training program that involves lifting 3/days week.
Weeks 1-4: (3 sets of 12 reps with 60-90 seconds rest between sets for each exercise)
Bench Press, Back Squat, Barbell Shoulder Press, Lat Pulldown, Abdominal Crunches
Dumbbell Incline Bench Press, Deadlift, Upright Row, Seated Row, Planks (3 x 30 seconds)
Push-ups, Lunges with Dumbbells, Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Pull-Ups, Back Extension
At first glance this 4-week workout plan looks pretty simple:
That’s because it is, but it is very effective. Each day hits every major muscle group (chest, shoulders, back, legs) and also works accessory muscle groups (triceps, biceps, calves). You may say this looks too easy, but I guarantee if you are new to lifting your sore body the next day will tell you otherwise. During these first four weeks make sure you are always adjusting the weights being used, so the last rep in every set is somewhat difficult and done with perfect form. Also, pay attention never to go over the 60-90 second rest period between sets.
After you complete this 4-week cycle, you’ll want to introduce new stresses in the form of different exercises, rep/set schemes, rest period, etc.