The more you read about strength training the more you realise the incredible amount there is to learn both for training and nutrition; the cornerstones of the strength game. From anterior shoulder function to zinc and its effect upon testosterone production, the internet is a hugely powerful tool with so much information that it seems impossible to absorb it all, even with hours spent reading each week.
The answer? Don’t bother. Go out and get a life!
If you’re a beginner and healthy then you don’t need to know or worry about your multifidus function or high threshold motor units and I even challenge the more experienced amongst you to take a look at the below and ask yourself “am I really getting the most out of the basics?” In the West we have a tendency to see the basics as something you work on for a short amount of time then move on to higher, more interesting, effective or worthy things.
People who train in the martial arts know that the basics are the key and many spend many years only doing these foundation movements. We can reach a happy compromise and learn a lesson when we realise that it’s mostly about the basics.
‘Basics’ or ‘Fundamentals’?
Basics is a word I dislike when it comes to most things to do with training. In my experience the word ‘basic’ suggests to a lot of trainees that the connected movements or ideas are somehow simple or ‘not cutting edge’; things we suffer and then move on to better things. When it comes to building a strong, lean and muscular body, as well as the good health to go with it, this is wrong.
Below we will go through the fundamental basics of what you need to do to build the body you want. The article is short with not a huge amount of detail and justification for good reason. The more information, the more confusion. The internet is full of information and I don’t want to swamp you with loads more. Below is the basic information you need.
The article is not referenced, again, this is an article based upon limited information on proven ideas. For every scientific reference I include, you could find a reference to research that seems to disagree. This is the nature of science and the below is not science, it is a complete plan that works.
Include some variation of the following compound movements every week:
- Squat variation
- Deadlift variation
- Vertical pull
- Vertical push
- Horizontal push
- Horizontal pull
- Torso sit-up or crunches variation
- Torso twisting movement
- Torso isometric exercise
- Olympic lifts and their variations
That’s that. (Examples of variations are in the FAQ below.)
Your rep set scheme:
Forget everything you have heard about ‘three sets of ten for muscle’, etc. There is no ‘golden’ set rep scheme. The rule to follow here is just make total reps for each exercise add up to 25-30 so (sets x reps):
- 3 x 10
- 10 x 3
- 5 x 5
- 2 x 15
All are good. Obviously with the lower reps you are going to need to add more weight to the bar to make it hard enough. Mix the set rep schemes up, maybe do one week 5×5 and the next 3×10 but do mix them up. However, it’s worth adding that if you are very new to weight lifting you’ll be better served sticking with 3×8, 3×10, 3×12 and 2×15 reps schemes.
Weekly volume and balance
This is the amount of ‘work’ you do through the week, i.e. reps x sets / week
As a rule of thumb, don’t go over 100 reps total per week if you’re new to training for the following movements:
- all push
- all pull
- all squat
- all hip dominant (deadlift) and hamstring
Yes, some people will have a higher tolerance for volume but this varies. Use the above as a guide and play about. Later on in your training you can go higher and you may want to use transient overtraining to bust plateaus.
The ‘balance part’ is very important. Do as much work for the ‘pulling’ movements as for the ‘pressing’ movements. In fact, do a little more. Just about the dumbest thing you can do in the weights room is blindly concentrate on pressing besides, that group of 16 year olds are using the bench rack and they will be there all afternoon. This leads on to the subject of planning your training from session to session and week to week.
Just as there is no best rep scheme, there is no best training scheme, but I’ll tell you there are a lot of very stupid ones. You’ll find them in many of the hardcore bodybuilding magazines where they are claimed to be the training schemes of the champs. I’ll tell you now forget them! They don’t work, and if they were ever used, it’s by guys on enough performance enhancing drugs to kill a donkey. As I say there’s no best way here but rather swapping between different plans to keep challenging the body, a few tried and tested example plans that do work to get you going:
Day Full Body (starter)
- Monday – 3 exercises 3 x10
- Tuesday – Cardio
- Wednesday – 3 exercises 4 x8
- Thursday – Off
- Friday – 3 exercises 2 x15
- Saturday – Cardio
- Sunday – Off
Full Body (more advanced)
- Monday – 4 exercises 3 x10
- Tuesday – Cardio
- Wednesday – 4 exercises 5×5
- Thursday – Off
- Friday – 4 exercises 2 x14
- Saturday – Cardio
- Sunday – Off
Body Part Split Plan
- Monday – 4 exercises all ‘pushing’ 3×10
- Tuesday – Cardio
- Wednesday – 4 Exercises all ‘pulling’ 3×10
- Thursday – Off
- Friday – 4 exercises all ‘legs’ 3×10
- Saturday – Cardio
- Sunday – Off
In the full body plan, you pick one pushing, one pulling, one legs and one other movement all different from the session before. Changing sets and reps and movements every session speeds the process. It’s best to group ‘horizontal’ movements in the same workout and ‘vertical’ together. For example:
- 4 exercises 3 x10
- Legs: Back squat
- Horizontal push: Dumbbell bench press
- Horizontal pull: barbell row
- One other: High row aka cable pulls to neck
That’s a great training session with, if done right, a huge amount of muscular stimulation through the whole body. If you have never seen the inside of the gym you’ll want to start off on the starter plan. If you have a few months experience lifting then go with the more advanced plan.
Body part split:
On the split plan you group the pushing, pulling and legs by days.
- 4 exercises 3×10
- Bench press
- Incline dumbbell bench press
- Dumbbell overhead press
- Dips (Assisted if needed)
See how, in contrast to the full body plans, this routine really smokes the muscle groups trained; this is the reason you do the session only once on 7 days. For abdominal exercises chose one of each movement and do two sets each workout can either be done on weights days or on cardio days.
Long and slow, hard and fast, intervals. They all work and you should do them all. Go back and read that again!
Your body is not special. It works in generally the same way as everyone else’s and needs different types of stimulus to train the different systems. Just because it makes you want to puke is not a good reason not to do the harder anaerobic type training just play with it and see how you can fit it in with you goals. If you want to be really fit you should look at incorporating:
Long and slow
These can be runs and/or rows. Mix it up and make sure you don’t push them too hard but go for distance. Please refrain from sitting on a bike reading the paper though. Useful for those looking for fat loss but not muscle fatigue.
These can be done on the rower well but one very beneficial method is to do running sprint with 3 to 6 40-60m sprints separated by 30-60 seconds.
HIIT type cardio training
Really very similar to the above but usually on an exercise bike where you are able to get more intervals in. Many bikes have an interval setting which may be helpful if you’re not sure.
Cluster type weight training
This is a type of training where you do 4-6 weights exercises from the list above using quite light weights one after another with no rest. After they are all done you rest one minute and repeat one to four more times. It’s tough so take you ego out of the equation when choosing the weights.
The harder the type of cardio the less often you can do it; aim for one set of sprints or one cluster training session a week and one or two more longer lower intensity sessions. Generally speaking, the last three types of training are better for burning fat, but they are fatiguing so may not be useful for everyone.
Your Nutrition Plan
I’m a sports nutritionist so I want you to eat well! However I’m acutely aware that nutrition plans are very hard to generalise but here we go. So, provided you have no food hypersensitivity or other health issues:
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat 4-6 times a day
- Eat lean meat/fish/dairy/other protein and fibrous vegetable at every meal
- Eat mostly wholegrain starches. The leaner you are the more you can eat including them mostly after training and in the morning
- Get your essential fats everyday (from foods and/or fish or flaxseed oils)
- Eat nuts and seeds
- Eat a variety of fruit and veg everyday (see Fruit & Veg in Health & Fitness)
- Buy the best food you can afford but don’t go mad trying to find raw yak colostrum, etc! Just eat whole good foods
- Learn to cook
- Buy Tupperware containers and use them: Plan ahead so you don’t get caught out
It’s not everything but if you follow this you’re going to get a long way towards your goals.
Please, for a minute forget supplements like ‘Megagain 5000’, hydrolyzed whey, waxy maize starch or those studies on leucine that you just read. Clear your mind and repeat after me: ‘Just get some liquid protein and carbs straight after your last set’
How much? How long is a piece of string? Generally:
- Protein in grams = bodyweight in kg multiplied by two
- Carbs in grams = bodyweight in kg
However, the fatter you are the less carbs you can get away with. In the real world supplements are useful for some things but generally food is better. After a workout is the only time where this might not be the case so things like whey, etc can be useful. However there is going to be little difference for most people between a pint of skimmed milk or a chocolate milkshake and the newest training supplement out there. Some whole food ideas include:
- Skimmed milk 300ml, 3 tblsp skimmed milk powder
- Low fat chocolate milk shake.
- 2 large low fat yoghurts and 30g oats and a small banana
Minimum 7 hours aiming for 9 hours. Ideally unbroken, un-drunk, un-medicated sleep. Find ways to make this happen from rearranging when you study or work, eliminating caffeine after 4 o’clock, and reading fiction to getting into a pre- bed routine.
Everyone is different; some are ‘owls’ and others ‘larks’. The fact that it is due to a 2 or 3 repeat ploymorphism on a specific gene sequence means little other than realising that there is no one-size-fits-all for sleep duration and quality so, if you’re not getting enough sleep and are feeling tired in the morning then do a little research and play around.
I’m not about to tell you to live like some kind of weightlifting monk. Life is for living and should be attacked with maximum vim and vigour however there is such a thing called ‘balance’. Burning the candle at both ends is fun but something you can’t do for long and stay healthy. For balanced, peer reviewed material concerning this hypothesis please just pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or Heat magazine. Drinking to excess, smoking, and missing out on sleep all are going to be counter productive in the long run. Similarly chronic stress, both physical and mental, is a great physique buster and should generally be avoided.
To Sum Up
That’s it really, enjoy the lifting, enjoy the results and most importantly enjoy life. There is a lot of information out there but if you stick to the basics and balance your training and lifestyle the long term results will speak for themselves. Above are the tools you need to get you very far as simple as that. Are you guilty of over complicating things or reading instead of doing? No excuses now.
I don’t know any variations?
You do now:
- Squat variation: Front, back, feet wide, feet narrow
- Dead-lift variation traditional: Sumo, snatch grip, stiff leg
- Vertical pull: Pull up, chins, palms facing each other
- Vertical push: dumbbell overhead press, push press, military press and dips
- Horizontal push: Any dumbbell bench press, barbell bench press
- Horizontal pull: Any barbell rows, cable pulls to chin, dumbbell rows
- Sit-up or crunches variation: Decline bench, Swiss ball
- Torso twisting movement: Swiss ball twists, Russian twists
- Olympic lift: Clean and jerk, power clean and jerk, snatch
Why ‘movements’ and not muscle groups?
- the basic compound exercises are the best for packing on muscle, raising the heart rate, producing lactate and shifting the metabolism up a gear so if you’re a bodybuilder, physique athlete, wrestler whatever, you should think about concentrating on these and…
- That said if you are going to concentrate on them you want to do them correctly in order to get the most intensity (whatever that may be for you) out of them. Treat a squat as a squat not as a ‘quads builder’.
I’ve followed your tips but I am not growing/losing weight/recovering
Look at the different pieces of the puzzle in this order:
- Nutrition: The answer my friend is probably sitting on your plate, or not as the case may be. Look at the rules above regarding your nutrition and your post workout nutrition, ‘then think total calories’.
- Training: Are you really putting in all the effort you think you are or are capable of?
- Lifestyle: Are you highly stressed, burning the candle at both ends or just partying hard?
I don’t think I am getting there quick enough should I look at steroids?
For everyone ‘there’ is a different place, but how you get ‘there’ is important. You have to maximize the level of fitness and physique that is possible for your body. I am not about to lecture you on the dangers of blindly using anabolic steroids and similar compounds, as there are other articles on MuscleTalk for that. Athletes and pro bodybuilders risk their health and use steroids because their pay packets are riding on how they perform or look. Yours isn’t. Athletes and pros have the support of sports doctors, exercise physiologists and psychologists. Your mate down the gym doesn’t count.
Used wisely on the right people they can be very beneficial but used wrongly they can not only impact on your health right now but for years to come. I want to feel good and look good now, I also want to feel good and look good in years to come. Using these types of drugs before they are necessary is stupid and may actually leave you looking worse in the long run. A very good level of development is easily possible by getting the eating, lifting and lifestyle choices right, not only will it leave you looking good but it will also put you in a position where you look a lot better and are much more healthy than the rest of your mates for years to come. Remember if you are going to use AAS type drugs you actually have to train harder and eat more to see the full benefits; not the other way round.
The above information is aimed at new trainees who have a good level of health and no outstanding issues. If you aren’t in good health you are going to get to your goals faster by seeking some face to face guidance from a professional rather than hurt yourself in the initial stages of a training plan. I encourage you to start training but only if you are able and always within your abilities.