If you’re new here and new to gym training but missed my previous post about getting started in the gym as a total beginner, have a read of this post before getting stuck into this one.
In my previous post, one of my top tips for getting started weight training in a gym was to go in with a plan. This blog is going to help you set up that training plan with some simple guidelines for exercise selection and programming in a way that makes getting stronger really straightforward.
Before I get into exercise selection, reps and sets there are some really important rules that I tell all my clients - especially if they’re new to training.
If something hurts, stop doing it. This doesn’t mean the discomfort that comes from a muscle getting tired when you’re working hard. It means sudden sharp pain that you’d associate with an injury. Whilst weight training is pretty damn safe, accidents do happen and if you experience a sudden pain that doesn’t go away within a couple of minutes, it’s best to play it safe and skip that exercise. Most time’s it’s nothing and it will go away - because bodies just hurt sometimes. Rest a few days then try again. If you continue having this problem, seek help from a doctor/physiotherapist/a reputable personal trainer to see if they can troubleshoot this.
If you feel lightheaded at any point or like you’re going to be sick, stop! Nobody should be training/pushing themselves so hard that they pass out or throw up. And if you have a coach that pushes you to that point, get a new one cos they’re just on a power trip and stroking their own ego. Learn to regulate your own body, take adequate rests and ensure you’re fueling yourself properly before a workout. If you do feel lightheaded, lie down on the floor with your feet up on a wall or a bench for a few minutes and let it pass. It’s unlikely you’ll feel like this but it’s important to understand that sometimes bodies feel a bit gross and it’s totally normal if it happens occasionally!
So how should you choose your exercises? Let’s just assume that you’re planning on training two times per week. In this instance you want to plan two FULL BODY workouts. There’s no need to split into upper body and lower body or anything like that. You want two workouts (or just one that you can repeat) that get a nice balance of upper body, lower body, pushing and pulling movements and some core training. Here’s how I’d split it up:
Squat movements - pick one DOUBLE (bilateral) leg squat variation and one SINGLE (unilateral) leg variation.
Squat movements generally mean movements that involve a lot of knee bend. Your torso should stay fairly upright and you should aim to be able to squat to a good depth (ass to grass if you can!). I like to choose both a double leg variation and a single leg variation so that I can challenge my balance and train in different movements/positions. Here are some examples written in order of simple to more advanced.
Beginner Bilateral Squat Variations:
Body weight squat
Counter weight squat
Heels elevated squat
Goblet box squats
Dumbbell front squat
Dumbbell Zercher squats
Goblet pause squats
Beginner Unilateral Squat Variations:
Rear foot elevated split squats
You should master each one, spending a few weeks at a time on each variation before progressing to the next. At least 6-8 weeks! You’ll notice there are no barbell variations there for beginners. That’s because until you can comfortably move 20kg in dumbbell form, you shouldn’t be touching a barbell. Earn the right to progress to that level.
2. Deadlift/hip hinge movements - pick one DOUBLE (bilateral) leg variation and one SINGLE (unilateral) leg variation.
Hip dominant movements cover lots of things from deadlifts to hip thrusts but they predominantly target the posterior chain - ie the back of your lower body, so hamstrings, glutes etc. If you’re new to deadlifts then take the time to learn the movement, ask for help and even video yourself to see whether you’re getting it right. It’s all about learning! Again I’ve listed these in order of simple to more advanced.
Beginner Bilateral Hip Hinge Variations
Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Hip bridges (bodyweight and dumbbell loaded)
Hip thrusts (bodyweight and dumbbell loaded)
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Hamstring bridges (bodyweight and dumbbell loaded)
Beginner Unilateral Hip Hinge Variations
Single leg hip bridges (bodyweight and dumbbell loaded)
Single leg hip thrusts (bodyweight and dumbbell loaded)
Single leg Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
B-stance Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Single leg hamstring bridges (bodyweight and dumbbell loaded)
3. ‘Push’ movements - pick one or two push movements per workout, depending on how much time you have. Better you select one and really push yourself on that than two but rush them!
Beginner ‘Push’ exercise variations
Press ups (band assisted/elevated, knees or feet)
Dumbbell floor press (single or double arm)
Overhead press (seated or standing, single or double arm)
Tricep extensions (dumbbell or cable machine, seated/standing/lying down)
Pushing variations tend to target the front of the body and involve anything that means you’re either pushing your weight away from the floor (press ups) or pushing weights away from your body (overhead press). There’s a longstanding myth that you need to do 2-3x more pulling exercises than pushing exercises for good shoulder health. This is untrue - you’re better off just ensuring you do a variety of things so that you’re not just hammering away at one movement multiple times per week and then overdoing it.
4. ‘Pull’ movements - pick one or two pull movements per workout, depending on how much time you have. Better you select one and really push yourself on that than two but rush them!
Beginner ‘Pull’ exercise variations
Inverted rows (TRX, barbell - the more horizontal your body in relation to the floor, the harder it is!)
Dumbbell rows (single or double arm/chest supported)
Cable rows or pull downs (lots of different variations of grip/ single or double arm)
Bicep curls/hammer curls
Dumbbell pull overs
Generally, the pulling exercises target the back of your body and your biceps. You’re either pulling your bodyweight away from the floor (inverted rows) or pulling a weight away from the floor (dumbbell row).
For the most part the push/pull variations target the upper body. Some people would argue that the deadlift is a ‘pull’ exercise BUT I think sometimes this description can confuse people as to how that movement should feel. ‘Pulling’ the bar or weight from the floor in the deadlift can lead to a reliance on the lower back and a breakdown in good form. Instead, treat it as a lower body exercise that targets the posterior chain (backs of your legs) and focus on PUSHING back up to your start position. You’ll get a lot further that way!
5. Core exercises - there’s absolutely loads to choose from here and sit ups should be way down your list of first choice abdominal exercises. All they achieve is that you get really good at sit ups, rather than strength that can translate across into other things.
Beginner core exercise variations:
Side plank/ side plank lifts
Planks/planks with additional movements
Rotational exercises with cables/dumbbells or simply body weight
Pick one or two exercises and work at them for a few weeks at a time, progressing where possible to ensure you keep getting stronger. I’d recommend one exercise that develops your ability to create tension in your core (resisting movement) and one that allows for rotation or movement.
The order of your exercises matters too. You should do all your big compound movements like squats or deadlifts first - as these are the most physically taxing on your body and central nervous system. Then do your single arm, single leg exercises and core. Some people would argue that core should be done first (so it’s not treated as an afterthought) and my advice would be this, if you hate doing core - do it first. That way you’re not tempted to skip it at the end of a workout when you’re tired. If you love training your core, do it last or just whenever you fancy doing it!
Finally, you might be wondering how many reps you should do. There are lots of answers to this and the most important aspect of training is to choose whatever allows you to be more consistent. Consistency in your training is vital to seeing success. But if you’re a total beginner then I would choose the 1x20 approach.
What is 1x20?
1x20 training programs basically do what they say on the tin. You perform each exercise for 20 reps for just one set. Too easy right? Well, no not quite. The idea with 1x20 is not that you just use really light weights and flap your arms about for 20 lateral raises but that you choose a weight that makes those last 3-5 reps damn challenging (but not impossible). In reality, you would use a rep range of 18-22 reps as this allows for a little bit of improvement. If you can’t do 18 reps, you’ve gone too heavy. If you do 22 reps for two sessions in a row, you’re ready to increase the weight a little bit.
Here’s an example:
Week 1 - I complete 18 reps of goblet squats with a 15kg dumbbell. So I stick with 15kg.
Week 2 - I manage to do 20 reps with the 15kg. So I stick with 15kg.
Week 3 - This week I do 21 reps. Again, I stick with the 15kg.
Week 4 - I finally manage 22 reps. It was hard. So I stick with 15kg for another week, aiming to consolidate this strength next week.
Week 5 - I smash out 22 goblet squats with the 15kg dumbbell and I feel great. So next week I’m going to try the 17.5kg dumbbell. I’ll aim for at least 18 reps!
Week 6 - I complete 18 challenging reps (maintaining good form) with the 17.5kg and I’ll repeat the process above with this weight until I can do 22 reps.
The first few weeks might see much faster progress than this and that’s great. All you need to do is understand that you’ve got one set per workout to push yourself on each exercise. 20 reps takes you through the full force velocity curve, gets maximum recruitment from all the targeted muscle fibres and helps to build your cardiovascular capacity somewhat as well. It’s perfect for practising movements and improving your form as you have to use lighter weights - injury risk is therefore super low. And you can keep making improvements for months and months. It’s not glamorous but none of the truly effective weight training is.
I’ve written out an example workout plan below of one workout where you can see the kind of progressions that you’d expect to make during 6 weeks of training.
This also highlights the importance of writing your reps and weights down so that you can effectively track your progress. It’s motivating too! Seeing in plain writing, proof that you’re getting stronger is a great motivator to keep working hard.
Remember: weight training is for growth. In more ways than just physical.
Thanks for reading! Keep your eyes peeled for the next blog where we'll talk about learning the basic deadlift movement and how to improve your squat as a beginner.
BEFORE YOU GO: If you're looking for more guidance as you venture into the gym I'll be releasing a 12 week training programme in the New Year for the absolute bargain price of £60. That's just £5 per week for structured workouts, demo videos to learn movements properly and a space to ask me questions about your training if you get stuck/feedback with your lifts. So watch this space.