Beginner Programming: The Definitive Guide

At 19 years old, I started lifting for aesthetic purposes. I found a ton of “beginner workouts”, but not much material on beginner programming.
I had no clue where to start. I just googled something like “beginner workout program”, found what I thought the best one was, and started doing it.
Now, at 25 years old as a pre-med graduate with a focus in exercise science, I’m writing the guide I wish I had found back then. I hope it helps take your education to the next level and gets you going in the right direction.

Overview of Beginner Programming

The typical expert advice for beginner programming is to “start a program with a linear progression that focuses on strength.” Programs like ICF 5×5, Stronglifts 5×5, and Starting Strength. But they often fail to explain why you should do those programs, or how they could be more personalized for your goals.
6 years ago I wish I knew why these programs are recommended to beginners, and sometimes it’s a little more complicated than saying, “to build as much strength as possible”.
After coaching anyone from professional athletes to everyday people, my experience ( and science) indicate there are 4 main goals a beginner program should address:

  1. Proficiency of movements.
  2. Muscular awareness.
  3. Recovery.
  4. Increasing work capacity.

In this guide, I’ll dive into how to address these through your programming.

Movement Proficiency

As a beginner, it feels awkward to do any type of lifting. Your bench press is shaky. Proper squat depth is a foreign concept. Heck, you might not even know what half the workouts are.
As a beginner, your first priority is to master the movements, especially the main ones (squat, bench, deadlift, row). To become proficient in the movements, your program should take the following into account:

  • Frequency – How often you workout
  • Intensity – How heavy are the reps
  • Volume – Reps x Sets x Load x Time Under Tension. My preferred method to track volume is simply counting the number of hard sets, a method I learned from Nathan Jones.
  • Progression – How you progress strength and the amount of work done in a training session. Progression will be more linear for a beginning lifter vs. a more advanced lifter.
Beginner programming progression
Beginner progression. Courtesy of Reddit user /metallicadpa.

 

Beginner programming vs. advanced programming
More advanced progression. Courtesy of Starting Strength.

 

  • Conjugation- How often you change techniques, variations, and tempos on lifts
  • Accessory lifts– Lifts other than the main lifts (bench, squat, deadlift)

Each factor plays a role in helping you become more proficient in the movements.

Frequency

The main lifts should be performed 2-4 times per week in order to get enough practice. There are a couple reasons for this:
1. Research doesn’t indicate working out more frequently than this would be more beneficial for beginners. Beginners will grow from implementation of any stimulus regardless of magnitude.

Beginner programming doesn't show added results with increased frequency
Results from this study showing no significant differences in results in training frequency in untrained subjects.

2. Beginners continue to synthesize protein for 36-48 hours after a workout, meaning you’re still growing during a day of rest between workouts.

Beginner programming doesn't need as much frequency because MPS is sustained longer
Results from this study showing the duration of muscle protein synthesis in Trained vs. Untrained subjects post-exercise.

This is a major advantage of a beginner. Advanced lifters only have elevated protein synthesis for 12-24 hours after a workout. If you only workout 3 times per week, you’re still growing muscle optimally. An advanced lifter can only dream of this.

Intensity

Most beginner programs tell you to lift as heavy as possible. However, lifting too heavy interferes the goal of becoming proficient in the movements. When you first start lifting, you’re a fish out of the water. Your reps are shaky, and you’re weak. Lifting too heavy combined with this is a recipe for learning poor form.
A beginner should spend the majority of their time working in the 60-80% 1RM range in order for the reps to be higher quality.
60-80% is enough intensity to stimulate growth in a beginner, while still working towards becoming a master of the movements.
If 80% 1RM stimulates growth, why sabotage the opportunity for quality reps by lifting heavier than that? A proper stimulus that stimulates growth allows for perfect reps, and sets you up to continue growth for years to come is preferable for a beginner.

Volume

The majority of your work will be done in the 60-80% range, meaning you should do 3×8 reps instead of the traditional 5×5.

beginner programming should take into account the dose response relationship between volume and muscle hypertrophy
Results from this study show a dose-response relationship between volume and muscle thickness in untrained men.

With higher reps on the main lifts compared to the typical beginner program, you’ll be able to have sufficient volume, avoid poor quality reps, and recover faster so you can practice more.

Beginner programming should have more than just 1-2 sets
Results from this study show an increase in hypertrophy in young untrained men with increased volume.

Progression
Here’s an example of how you should progress using this rep scheme:

  1. Add 5 lbs per workout on each lift
  2. Once you can no longer continue to go up 5 lbs per workout, THEN drop your sets to 5×5 with the weight you left off at on 3×8.
  3. Once you fail to go up 5 lbs each workout on 5×5 do 5×3.

This progression is more suitable for a beginner than the typical beginner program calling for a 10% deload when you fail.
You should avoid plateaus at all costs as a beginner. The progression from 3×8, 5×5, then 5×3 allows you to avoid plateaus you’d hit on a beginner program. You will progress faster this way.

Conjugation (AKA Lift Variations)

A lot of programs will vary the main lifts’ technique and stances during a microcycle and/or mesocycle. Leave programs rich in conjugation for more advanced lifters. This interferes with becoming as proficient as possible in the main lifts.
There should not be very much conjugation in a beginner program.

Beginner programming shouldn't have as much conjugation or undulation
An example of what a program with more conjugation and undulation might look like. Leave this to more advanced lifters.

Above is an example of what conjugate programming with undulation block to block, with more curvilinear progression might look like. Beginners don’t need nearly as much conjugation to progress (in fact it might make you progress slower).
Conjugation becomes a necessary evil as you advance to create new neural adaptations, but the goal for you as a beginner is to master the movements. Frequent conjugation is not in line with that goal.

Accessory Movements

Bodybuilding style accessory movements (bicep curls, triceps pushdowns, lat pulldowns etc..) are beneficial in the beginner program because they help you develop a mind-muscle connection. A mind muscle connection can help you become more proficient in the movements.
The better control and kinesthetic awareness you have while lifting, the more proficient you’ll be in a lift. Determining which parts of your lift need more work will be effortless. It will be easier to pinpoint weak points as you become more advanced.
Body weight exercises are also great as an accessory movement. Studies have shown body weight exercises to be good for developing kinesthetic awareness. Simply add in push-ups or squats for 2 sets to failure at the end of your workout as a finisher periodically.

Muscular Awareness

Goal number two of a beginner program: increase muscular awareness. This is important for a few reasons:

  1. Awareness provides you the ability to feel weak points you need to address. The ability to address weak points before they cause you to stall is a major advantage. If you can pinpoint your weak points and address them before you plateau, you’ll progress much faster. As a beginner (or at any other stage) you want to avoid plateauing as much as possible.
  2. Increasing the effectiveness of cues and coaching. Cues like, “stiffen your upper back” don’t work well if you don’t know what stiffening your upper back feels like. Coaching cues are more effective when your motor control is refined.

beginner programming should have a focus on form more than anything.

How to increase muscular awareness

Here a couple ways I to make a beginner program better by addressing muscular awareness:

  1. Bodybuilding style lifts (single-joint, isolation exercises). As mentioned above, traditional bodybuilding exercises (think bicep curl) at lower intensities in higher rep ranges allow you to focus on your mind-muscle connection.

It also allows you to add more volume to your workout while still being in line with the overall goals of the program. Gradually adding volume with bodybuilding accessory lifts to training sessions helps with an easier transition to an intermediate program when it’s time.

  1. Main lifts at a slightly lower intensity than typically recommended. I already addressed this earlier. But to hammer home the point, lower intensities allow for more quality reps.

Lots of quality reps lead to proficiency of the movement. Your strength and size gains are not limited by the lower intensities because beginners will grow from just about any stimulus.

Recovery

Goal number three of a beginner program: optimal recovery.

Workout programming to help you recover

Programming with recovery hits some of the same points we’ve already touched on, but takes into account a few other things as well.

  1. Frequency

 2-4 workouts per week will allow 1-2 days off between each full body workout. This allows plenty of time for you to recover between workouts.
Beginners have elevated muscle protein synthesis up to 48 hours after a workout. Working out 2-4 times per week allows for sufficient recovery without limiting muscle protein synthesis.

  1. Intensity

Reps in the 60-80% 1RM range remove possible injury concern. Proper form decreases the risk of injury while also developing movement proficiency without limiting an increase in strength or muscle protein synthesis.

  1. Increasing work capacity

This is covered in more detail below.

Increase Work Capacity

Most beginner programs do a good job of increasing strength. However, most programs fail to address improving work capacity. Increasing work capacity helps set up a smooth transition into the intermediate phase of lifting.
Work capacity is the total amount of work you can do in a training session that you can recover from while still progressing toward your goals.
The 4 factors you need to focus on as a beginner to increase work capacity are:

  1. Body Composition
  2. Aerobic Conditioning
  3. Nutrition
  4. Lifestyle Stressors

Body Composition

At around 17% body fat, your body starts making hormonal maladaptations making it harder to recover, get stronger, and look better. When lean people gain weight while exercising 60-70% is lean body mass. An overweight person’s weight gain will only be 30-40% lean body mass.
As you gain weight, excess adipose tissue (fat) will cause a greater proportion of your weight gain to be fat rather than muscle. Fat tissue contains an enzyme called aromatase which converts testosterone to estrogen. Estrogen makes it easier to gain fat, and harder to gain muscle.

Beginner programming should address body composition
The leaner you are, the more muscle you’ll be able to add.

As you gain fat, your testosterone production also decreases. Low testosterone also makes it easier to gain fat, and harder to gain muscle. Keeping your body composition in check will help you train harder and recover faster.
The leaner you are, the higher proportion of your weight gain will be muscle.

Aerobic Conditioning

In the near future, I will write an in-depth article as to why aerobic conditioning is important for strength and hypertrophy. But, in the meantime, use this general rule of thumb:

  • If you’re under 200 lbs. and your resting heart rate is in the high 50’s or low 60’s, you’re in good enough aerobic shape.
  • If you’re over 200 lbs. and your resting heart rate is in the mid 60’s, you’re in good enough aerobic shape.

The type of aerobic exercise you do, how often you do it, and how long each session lasts affects work capacity.
Follow these guidelines:

  1. Evaluate your baseline resting heart rate before you get out of bed in the morning. Re-evaluate your morning resting heart rate at least once per week. Here’s a good video showing how to test your resting heart rate:
  1. Start with 2 sessions per week on the stationary bike or incline treadmill walking for 20 minutes with your heart rate at about 130 beats per minute or 60-70% max HR.
  2. Track your resting heart rate at least once per week in the morning. As long as your resting heart rate is steadily decreasing week to week, don’t increase the amount of aerobic exercise you’re doing.
  3. When you’re heart rate is no longer trending down, increase your sessions by 10 minutes. Your heart rate goal should be somewhere in the 50’s.
  4. If your heart rate isn’t in the 50’s yet, and you’re up to 3 sessions of 40 minutes per week, it’s time to add in high-intensity intervals (most people won’t need to do this). Start by adding 4 intervals of 1 minute with 2 minutes of rest between sets with low skill movements such as cycle sprints, kettlebell swings, jump ropes, etc…. Add an interval each week until you can hit your target heart rate.

The idea is to perform the minimal effective dose of conditioning possible to achieve an aerobic capacity that won’t limit your recovery between workouts, and between sets.
Following this protocol, you should notice a significant difference in the amount of time it takes you to recover between sets and workouts.

Nutrition

Nutrition and body composition go hand in hand. I’ve already written a comprehensive article on nutrition, so I won’t go into depth on that here.  Having proper nutrition will help you recover faster, and build muscle faster. More muscle means lifting heavier weights and looking better.

Beginner programming is not exclusive from nutrition
Daniel lost 60 lbs. using our Guide to Flexible Dieting.

Lifestyle Factors

Lifestyle factors can have a dramatic affect on your strength, recovery, and work capacity. The depth of this topic is beyond the scope of this article but here are some practical guidelines to get you started.
Lifestyle factors that play a role in work capacity:

  • Sleep habits
  • Eating habits
  • Financial obligations
  • Illnesses
  • Medications
  • Drinking habits
  • Profession

Usually, one or more of the above factors can hold you back from increasing your work capacity. If your limiting factor is body composition, focus on losing fat to increase work capacity. If it’s nutrition, focus on nutrition.
Pick your weakest lifestyle factor, and work on it deliberately.
Work capacity is an often overlooked component of beginner programs. But, to optimize results and transition seamlessly to the next stage of lifting, a focus on increasing work capacity is key.

How To Stick With it

You’ve probably started workout programs in the past (maybe around new year’s) but fizzled out as time went on. Following a few of the guidelines below can help you adhere to a program for the long run so you can actually see and feel results.
There should be a whole guide on this subject. But here are a few of the most effective tips and tricks I’ve used for myself and clients in the past:

  1. Community
  2. Fun
  3. Investment

div class=”content-box-gray”>Resources: Create the perfect workout program so you don’t waste time in the gym.

Community

Get involved in a community. People who are involved in a community tend to adhere to an exercise program better.
A beginner program should involve some form of community
A community is why CrossFit has been so successful.
Community comes in a few ways: a group style workout gym, a partner, or a trainer. I understand if you don’t want do group style workouts. Having at least a partner is essential to adherence. Go drag you sibling to the gym with you, or convince your co-worker or friend to start working out with you.
If that doesn’t work, hire a trainer as a partner and a coach. I’ll touch on why hiring a trainer might be a smart move anyways a little bit later on.
If you can’t do any of those things (you should be able to) for now, start getting involved in communities online.

Fun

Any time you really enjoy something, you do more of it. You always find time to do the things you really like to do, even on nights and weekends (Netflix anyone??). Making your workout enjoyable is one of the most important aspects of a beginner program.
Just because it’s enjoyable doesn’t mean it can’t be intense. Greater enjoyment has actually been associated with high-intensity workouts for beginners. And they become more enjoyable over time.
Some people like variety in their workouts. You may get bored doing the same thing over and over, while someone else loves predictability and consistency.
If you like more variety, change the accessory and bodyweight movements periodically to keep the workout from going stale. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different movements that are in line with becoming proficient in the movements.
Enjoyment is more important than progress in the beginning stages. If you don’t enjoy your program, you won’t stick to it.
The best workout you can do is the one you stick to. Experiment and see what you like to do best. As long as you follow the principles laid in this guide, you will see progress.

Investment

Anything worth doing takes investment. Investing time, money, and/or effort is essential for adherence. Take advantage of a few psychological principles to help you become consistent while enjoying your lifting experience.

Education

Learning is a significant contributor to exercise adherence. Self-efficacy is a major predictor of exercise adherence. Meaning if you educate yourself about strength and conditioning you’re more likely to stick to it.
A lot of people don’t go to the gym because they don’t know where to start or what to do, and get frustrated with a lack of results. This guide is a good place to start if that describes you.
Education is an investment of time, money, and effort.

Sunken Cost Fallacy

The sunken cost fallacy states the more you invest time, money, or effort into something the less willing you are to give it up. You can use this basic psychological reality to adhere to exercise better.
Put your money where your mouth is. Pay for the more expensive gym, a trainer, an online coach, or some books on exercise. You’ll be more likely to stick with it.
The caveat: investments diminish in importance over time. For an investment to remain important to you, you have to continue investing regularly. This is why gym attendance tends to increase for a short period of time after a payment is due.
If you want to take your health seriously, put your money where your mouth is. You’ll adhere to the program better because you’ve invested so much into it.

Conclusion

If you follow the guidelines and principles above, you’ll see that the program outcome is very similar to programs typically recommended by people such as Starting Strength, ICF 5×5, or SL 5×5. However, there are several differences:

  1. Intensity is reduced so the majority of your work is in the 65-80% 1RM range.
  2. Bodybuilding movements are added in for the purpose of muscular awareness, building proficiency, and increasing work capacity.
  3. Aerobic exercise is prescribed if it will limit you in the future.
  4. Work capacity is one of the core principles.
  5. Adherence is just as important (if not more so) than progress.

Most beginner programs will have you hit a plateau before your should. They’ll never address aerobic fitness can be a limiting factor in future progress. They don’t tell you what your body composition goals should be. And they definitely don’t address adherence.
Follow the above principles and you’ll see great results while progressing for a longer period of time without stalling, while enjoying your workouts.
Because of the scope of this guide I was not able to dive deeply into each particular subject in more depth. However, this guide will continue to expand and be revised as more research emerges and I spend more time on it.
This guide is sufficient to give you all the information you need to get started with and evaluate beginner programs today.

Is there something in Beginner Programming you’d like me to address, or something missing you’d like me to cover? Let me know in the comments below.