Weight Training – The First 12 Months and Beyond (Stepping Stones)

By Micky McKay Dip PT – Personal Trainer 

You have decided you would like to take up some form of weight training; where do you start?

There is so much information on the internet it can be a minefield! Best exercises are squats, deadlifts, bent-over rows, heavy barbell curls, etc they say … best for mass, yes; best for you? A resounding NO!

For weight training, first of all we have to go back to the basics of training.


Adaptation is allowing the body to progressively adapt to the task that it is being given. In our case, it’s the capacity of a muscle contraction. Before the muscle can contract, however, it’s the pull of the tendon that makes the muscle contract. So, the first force is not the muscle, it’s the tendons that initially take the strain.

Now, here lies the problem with people new to training: The muscles are generally stronger than the tendons and ligaments that are also taking the strain. So, if a new trainee starts doing too heavy a movement, yes, it feels ok on the muscle which can take the strain but, the tendons and ligaments suffer with this increased intensity too soon and very soon start to wilt under the constant straining. This eventually leads to injury and if this starts early in their career it tends to get worse and worse until eventually training is almost unbearable due to do so much pain, eventually their training career comes to a premature end.

How do we proceed so this doesn’t happen to us, the smarter trainee?

First of all remember weight bearing exercises build up the muscles, tendons, ligaments and help with bone density. This all happens over a period of time so like a baby learning to crawl, stand up, walk, run it adapts to all of these but then increases its capacity over time making it stronger, faster and more resilient to the outside world.

Likewise we need to slowly adapt all of these tendons, ligaments and muscles to resistance, so a basic beginner should follow an all-over weight training programme for between 8-12 weeks. This programme will have one exercise per body part, apart from quadriceps where, as a much bigger body part, they can have two exercises such as leg extensions and leg press.

The length of the programme is such because of muscle fibre recruitment (MFR), and this is what makes us stronger, faster, etc. The more we do a given task the more fibres we recruit but, after around 8 weeks these fibres tail off making gains much harder and we hit plateaus. So, to recruit more fibres we must make some changes to our programme such as adding another exercise, decreasing the rest time, changing to a more compound movement, changing the days we train, adding another day, etc. These are all tricks we can employ and when these are fully exhausted we can then go on to split routines.

A basic male beginner’s programme could look like this:

Flat bench press 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Lat pulldowns (front) 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Tricep pushdowns 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Leg extensions 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Seated leg press 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Seated leg curls 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Cable curls (bicep) 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Lateral raises 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Standing calve raise 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Sit-ups/hip flexion 2 sets reasonable failure

This routine should be followed in the correct order working at 50% of your one rep max. This means a work-load of half what you could lift for one repetition. Still try to increase the weights when you can, keeping correct form, but not at the sacrifice of your reps; these must still be completed. Rest time should be between 90 and 120 seconds.

This is a basic plan for a beginner 8-12 weeks to then upgrade to an intermediate routine, which would consist of adding another day of training and increasing the workload with more compound movements. This would be worked at a one rep max of 60%, again an upgrade on the first routine completed. Once this routine is completed the muscles, tendons and ligaments are strengthened enough to hopefully embark on a basic split routine if so desired.

Also one thing to bear in mind is a lot of trainees new to weight training are deconditioned. This means a lot of compound movements will put too much stain on the heart which could prove fatal! People with high blood pressure should follow a peripheral heart action (PHA) programme, as this protects the heart by reducing the stresses placed on it by slowly increasing the demands of the training, and it rotates the workload so as to limit the build up of lactic acid and prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). The main workload of the workout is always in the middle once the body has fully warmed up. PHA programmes are also known as the anaerobic curve.

There are no pressing movements above the head in PHA programmes as too much pressure is put on the heart as it has to pump blood against gravity putting too much pressure on a deconditioned heart.

This is a step by step guide to hopefully guide people to build up their body in a safe and controlled manner. There are always conflicting ways of peoples’ thoughts to training; after 25 years of training myself and clients I have found this the safest way to go about helping people progress. It takes patience, but, if it’s longevity you want and, after all most of us do, this is the way to safely progress.

The Next Stage

You have now hopefully completed your first 6-12 months of training. You are feeling on top of the world; feeling stronger, leaner and ready to progress further. But, your gains have slowed down considerably; your strength seems to have dipped completely. Why, you may ask, when I’m putting all this effort in and more?

Well, again this is a about adaptation; the body adapts very quickly to new stresses put upon it. You have to train harder for the same gains, and this is where most beginners to bodybuilding give up. How do we keep the gains going? This now is where training starts to get more interesting; it is how to make sure the body is put under new stresses for more growth and thus, better results.

By now your nutrition should be a whole lot better, with correct ratios of carbohydrates, proteins and fats to help the body train, rest and grow. Nutrition is, in my eyes, 80% of how you will look! Yes, 80%: it’s not a typing error! If your nutrition isn’t up to scratch, then ensure that it is by contacting a professional person who will help you. Without a good solid diet in place things won’t get a whole lot better no matter what type of training you do, period!

You have now only trained the whole body. With a good solid programme, now is the time to progress to split routines. Split routines are designed to fatigue a body-part to exhaustion, in order to break down as many muscle fibres as possible so they grow back stronger for the next training session. This means doing multiple sets on one body part; the bigger the muscle the more sets it can endure. This is generally done once a week, but can be repeated depending on how experienced you are to training. For the routine below, I would say to train a particular body part every seven days to start with. Remember, this is not set in stone but, even after all my 30+ years of weight training it is still how I exercise to this present day.

I have given you the basics of what split routines are, now here is how a basic split routine would look like:

Monday – chest and biceps

Incline flyes4 sets; 10 reps
Incline bench press4 sets; 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Cable crossovers4 sets; 15 reps
EZ curls4 sets; 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Hammer curls4 sets; 10 reps

Tuesday – quadriceps and calves

Leg extensions 4 sets; 12 reps
Squats 4 sets; 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Hack squats 4 sets; 10 reps
Standing calf raises 4 sets; 15 reps
Seated calf raises 4 sets; 15 reps

Wednesday – rest day from weights

Thursday – back and triceps

Lat pulldowns to front 4 sets 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Barbell bent over rows 4 sets 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Long pulley seated rows – 4 sets 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Dumbbell pullovers 3 sets; 15 reps
Pushdowns 4 sets; 12 reps
French press 4 sets; 12,10, 8, 6 reps

Friday – shoulders and hamstrings

Seated lateral raises 4 sets; 12 reps
Front barbell press 4 sets; 12, 10, 8, 6 reps
Front barbell raises 3 sets; 12 reps
Bent over dumbbell raises 3 sets; 12 reps
Seated leg curls 4 sets; 15 reps
Lying leg curls 4 sets; 12, 10, 8, 6 reps

Abs can be worked at the end of each session, if desired. Never train abdominals at the start of a weight training session as they are stabilizing muscles and, if fatigued, it will detract from your session.

So, there you have a four day split session to be followed for 8 weeks, then to be upgraded. As you can see, bigger body parts get more sets, e.g. chest 12 sets, biceps 8 sets. What you have to remember is biceps will also be also be worked during a back session and triceps on chest days, so there’s no need to overload them with big workloads at this stage in your training life!

This type of split routine is a pre-exhaust, which means an isolation exercise is done before a compound movement, so flyes (isolation) are performed before bench press (compound); this allows blood to enter the muscle and allow more nutrients in before your heavy compound movement. I like to give clients who are fairly new to split routines these as it tends to help them avoid injuries from attempting too heavy a weight on their compounds when the muscles are still cold.

To be clear about sets and reps: 4 sets of 12 means doing four sets of twelve repetitions with the same weight; try to increase the weight when possible. 4 sets 12, 10, 8, 6 means do one set of twelve reps, put on more weight for a set of ten reps, put on more weight and do a set of eight reps, and more weight for a finish with six reps. This is called hypertrophy training, one of the best ways to increase muscle growth.

As with any form of training, please ensure you warm up well; before your working sets do 2-3 warm up sets then proceed with your working sets as per the plan.

There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say, for me this is the best way for people with around 6-12 months of training to proceed. I could go on forever over the pros and cons off different routines and formats but that’s for a different article further down the line.

In ‘Stepping Stones’ Part 2 – More Advanced Training I will go into a bit more depth about split routines, drop sets, bulk sets, negatives, etc and try, in layman’s terms, to explain what they are and when they can be used in your next routine. Keep training hard, eating well and resting when you can, most of all be consistent with all of this and the physique you desire will be one step closer.

If you’re seeking professional help with training contact Micky at www.fitness121.co.uk
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