Making a Weight Training Program for Beginners

By Drew Price BSc Masc ACSM Cert RNutr

If you aren’t qualified to do so then I would discourage people from trying to train raw recruits in the weights room. I also know that that bit of advice isn’t going to stop anyone either.

There are many reasons for this and they concern both the new trainee’s health and your legal status!

However, I realize some may be interested in what goes through a trainer’s head when they have a client who has never seen the inside of a gym. When looking at writing up a program for a beginner there are few things you must consider.


Are they in a fit state to lift? Do they have muscle or joint problems? Do they have cardiovascular issues? Are they just not fit enough to be able to get anything out of the experience? How are they reacting to the exercise they are doing? This is always the first consideration. Their age but also occupation is also important so you always ask this.

The American College of Sports Medicine, where I received my certification, spent an enormous amount of time teaching us how to take a medical history, asses the client for musculoskeletal issues, take blood pressure readings, and monitor the client’s reaction to exercise. They do this for a reason. Many of the people walking into gyms or asking for advice just have no business lifting weights in the state they are in.

Supervision level

Many gyms like to have people start on machines. It’s a way of allowing people to get tuned into their muscles a little, without being in the position where they are going to drop weights on their heads. Remember lifting is a skill that you have to learn. If someone is going to be supervised closely along the way then deadlifts and overhead dumbbell work is fine. If they are in the gym on their own it probably isn’t. Execution of the movements is also important.

Remember people are learning so it’s best they start off getting it right from the very beginning. This is an important issue to keep in mind when selecting movement choice.

Movement choice

If someone has some supervision available then free weight compound movements are the best choice. There should be a limited number (so as not to confuse) and they should be the basic bread and butter movements; nothing too elaborate. Also dumbbells are very useful as they limit the trainee from lifting too much and also accelerate the rate at which that mind muscle connection is formed.

Sets, Reps and Volume

12 reps here is the magic number. I don’t care what set/rep scheme is best for hypertrophy or strength, I just don’t. All I am interested in is helping the trainee get a few reps under his or her belt and acquire the lifting skill – reps should not drop below 12 for a while.

Volume is kept low. Generally new trainees generally don’t have very good recovery, OK many are young and that helps a lot but volume should be well controlled in the initial stages of training. The next bit is important; volume is kept low by concentrating on a few movements at higher reps. Select only a few movements and do them with higher reps. Perfect the skill.

What to Leave Out?

  • Isolation movements; yes that’s correct; it does mean arm exercises.
  • Deadlifts. UNLESS they have someone there helping them to get it right form day one.
  • Calf movements. Most should probably spend the first few weeks developing range of motion in the calves instead.
  • Clean and jerk, kettle bell windmills, Turkish get ups, etc
  • Taxing bodyweight movements like chins and dips. I actually see people recommending body weight pull ups for trainees that have no shoulder stability, lat flexibility and upper body strength. Insane, vindictive or just really stupid? You decide.
  • Most abdominal work. Most is totally useless for exercise performance anyway and it takes the emphasis off the job in hand.

False movements that feed the ego but take away from the ability to recover, or exercises that confuse have no place in the program. It’s important the trainee gets to see improvements early but you have to explain to them that concentrating on getting the basics right first is going to produce more results than four sets of concentration curls.

Useful Individual Specific Additions

So about now you have your tailored program all worked out but a good trainer/coach would at this point be thinking, ‘is there anything I need to change or add that will give my trainee a better foundation for his/her training’. After all, the better the foundation the better the progress.

Before I mentioned that, you should find out a trainee’s occupation. If someone sits in a chair all day on the phone and typing then you are going to have to pay close attention to their posture, shoulder stability, glute and lower back function. Similarly with age, the function of some muscle drops of quicker than others so in the trainee I would look at the glute function closely as this impacts on a lot of their training.

Movements that you might consider adding are ones to stabilize the shoulder and upper back, as well as movements to develop range of motion in the hips and also the stability and function of those muscles.

You may consider dropping some volume in one group of muscles in favor of another, for example lowering chest volume but increasing upper back volume to try and correct imbalances. With all additions the volume is again, strictly controlled, so they are kept to a minimum with sometimes quite low set schemes e.g. 2 sets of 12 or 1 set of 16.

Nutritional Advice

Nutrition is hugely important. In fact I’ll go as far as saying that your major emphasis should be on this area of the lifestyle. You can follow a pretty lacking plan in the gym but if you’re getting it right in the kitchen your progress can still be great.

The reverse is a little harder. I am fortunate enough to be well qualified in both training and nutrition but a lot of trainers just don’t have the time, opportunity or skills required to take a full diet and lifestyle history and build a recommendation that is right for that person. There are some basics that can be adhered to.

  • Drink mostly water and a lot of it: for most people that means 3 litres or more a day
  • Eat often, following a diet of minimally processed foods
  • Have lean protein and fibrous veg at every meal
  • Choose whole grains, fruits and other good foods as carb choices and eat them according to your goals consuming most in the morning or after exercise
  • Eat omega 3 fats and good quality monounsaturates daily
  • Learn how to cook, buy single serving Tupperware and make use of the freezer
  • Concentrate on food not supplements
  • Eat something after training even if it’s just skimmed milk and oats or a low fat milkshake

You must impress upon the new trainee that the diets they often see touted about, firstly exist for commercial reasons, and secondly are not tailored to the individual. You need to make them understand that they shouldn’t just follow some weird cooked up diet plan because it was in ‘MetroAbz’ magazine. You also need to make the trainee understand that although some supplements work very well, they are just that, i.e. supplemental to setting up good nutritional habits.

One exception to this might be a good pre-workout but quite frankly a new trainee has enough to think about. You just have to impress upon them that they need to eat some carbs and protein after training. Let them worry about types of whey proteins available after they have learned how to squat.

To summarize, programming is a hugely complicated business even when you have an athlete trying to wring a little more performance or development out of their body. That doesn’t mean training a new recruit is any easier. You have to be incredibly sensitive to their particular individual needs and come up with solutions to problems posed by their body, their mind and their lifestyle. It’s simply not as easy as concentrate on the compounds 3 days a week for 3 sets of 10. In a perfect world it would be, but this isn’t a perfect world.

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