This program is for healthy boys AND girls. Men and women have the same musculature, separate programs for men or women are not required. If you have injuries or health issues, this might be the wrong program for you. I'm not a strength coach, a trainer and I'm certainly not a doctor, so check with your appropriate professional before starting.
Let me start off by saying that this is heavily borrowed from Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength. Starting Strength was the most effective program I've ever done. If you want to do Mark's program, buy the book (link at the bottom), stop reading my blog and do it. You will make awesome progress.
But … Real Life Happened
A word about the goals of this program. I'm not a strength coach or author, so I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. I simply had goals based on the need of my training partner to get the most bang for the buck. We need to get in and get out of the gym. It needed to be SIMPLE. As he said to me "I don't wanna read no book". Lucky for him, I already did … several, in fact.
Let me talk about progressive overload briefly. If you're familiar with the concept, skip to the next paragraph. Progressive overload provides the stimulus to build muscle. Muscle is built when the body adapts to stress. If you do the same thing over and over, new stress is not introduced, so new adaptations (muscle, in our case) are not produced. There are two ways to produce new stress in weight training, either add weight, add reps or both. If you're doing the same thing over and over, you're wasting your time. Stop wasting time.
OK, FINALLY … the program, complete with progressive overload.
It's 4 lifts. That's it. The lifts are:
Barbell Bench Press
Yes, I said barbell, not dumbbell, not bands, not pink rubber coated weights. I have reasons that I don't want to discuss now, but let me stress that the barbell is important. You might say, but I don't want to accidentally Arnold Schwarzenegger! You will not "bulk up". Bulking up is a function of eating, not lifting.
This program is to be done 2 days a week, with at least 1-2 days in between each session. Each session you will perform one upper body and one lower body move. So day 1 might be bench press and deadlift. The second day will be the overhead press and the deadlift. That's it. No more and absolutely no less. You should be out of the gym in less than 30 minutes. We're talking 1 hour a week to build some muscle.
Now that you're at the gym and have selected your upper body and lower body lift (I recommend doing upper body first), you are to perform 3 work sets with a goal of 5 reps per set. To spell it out, your workout log for week 1 might look like this:
Bench Press - 100 pounds
Set 1 (warm up) 50x5
Set 2 (workset 1) 100x5
Set 3 (workset 2) 100x5
Set 4 (workset 3) 100x5
Deadlift - 150 pounds
Set 1 (warm up) 75x5
Set 2 (workset 1) 150x5
Set 3 (workset 2) 150x5
Set 4 (workset 3) 150x5
Overhead Press - 80 pounds
Set 1 (warm up) 40x5
Set 2 (workset 1) 80x5
Set 3 (workset 2) 80x5
Set 4 (workset 3) 80x5
Squat - 130 pounds
Set 1 (warm up) 65x5
Set 2 (workset 1) 130x5
Set 3 (workset 2) 130x5
Set 4 (workset 3) 130x5
Note: rest a couple of minutes between each set. For the lower body work you may need 3-4 minutes (especially for the last work set). Do NOT over think resting. Just rest until you feel you can do another set and do it.
The notation above is weight x reps. Now here is the good news, you completed all 5 reps for all 3 of your work sets, next week you increase your weight by 5 pounds. So in our example, you'll be benching 105, deadlifting 155, pressing 85, squatting 135. Congratulations and enjoy, this will not continue forever!
Oh and WRITE IT DOWN. Write your work set lifts every single time. Keep this log somewhere that is easily accessible. Track your progress, it's rewarding. If you're putting weight on the bar, you're getting stronger and you're getting stronger everywhere. If you want an example of a log sheet, let me know and I'll send you mine.
What If I Don't Hit All 5 Reps?
Just remember, 3 strikes and you're out! You're not going to progress forever, and some days/weeks are worse than others. If you've stuck with the program and lifted at least twice a week, follow the 3 strike rule. If you don't hit all of the reps on the work sets DO NOT INCREASE WEIGHT, try again next week with the same weight. If you miss again, try again the following week. If after 3 attempts (weeks) you cannot complete all 5 reps, you need to deload.
What is Deloading?
Deloading is a form of periodization, let's not detail that right now. To deload, remove 10-15% of the weight, and start over. For example, if I tried to clear 100x5 on the bench press and I failed to clear 5 reps for 3 weeks in a row, I would start my fourth week with 90 pounds on the bar and try to clear 5 reps for all 3 work sets. It's basically a "reset" and then continuation of the normal program. So if I cleared 90 pounds for all 3 work sets, the next week, I'd try 95 pounds.
Selecting starting weights
Obviously, I made up the weights above. Yours will vary, greatly. The best recommendation I can make here, especially if you're new to barbell training. Start light, start VERY light. Squat the bar, squat a broomstick if you have to. We will typically put something on the bar for each lift and see if we can get close to 5 reps (for 1 set). You keep feeling around a little until you find the number that works. Again, start light. Start ridiculously light if you want and use the time where the weight is light to practice form and get used to scheduling this program into your life. GET CONSISTENT!
Learning the Lifts
The lifts are the most important part of the program. Doing the lifts CORRECTLY is critical. These are compound movements involving many muscle groups. It is highly advised you buy Starting Strength or hire a coach for lessons. You'll likely want a gym that specializes in barbell training, not a cardio shop.
If you want to attempt them yourself (again, do not recommend this approach), there are several resources on the internet.
Here are some videos.
Congratulations! You're now a heavy lifter! You've incorporated a progressive overload program comprised of heavy, compound lifts complete with periodization. You're doing it in about 1 hour PER WEEK.
A parting rant about fitness minutes. Fitness "minutes" are the world's worst unit of measure. Spending minutes at the gym does not mean anything. Lose any love you have for fitness minutes and concentrate on putting more pounds on the bar. Pounds on the bar = success, consistency = success, fitness minutes = nothing. I don't care how many minutes you spend in the gym, ever.
----- FAQ and Informational Items Below (Optional Reading) -----
What does this replace?
This replaces anything you previously considered strength training. You don't need those random DVDs that you follow along, you don't need a bootcamp, you can definitely lose the pink dumbbells. These lifts sufficiently stimulate all of the major muscle groups. More work may be detrimental. If 5 reps of squats and deadlifts are not kicking your ass after a few weeks, you're doing them wrong. The repetitive nature of DVDs combined with isolation movements and little or no progressive overload = wasting time.
What about my abs?
These are full body, compound, loaded movements. Your abs will get a ton of stimulation. Additional ab work, especially in the first several months, will NOT be necessary.
But I also want to do (my favorite exercise)!
I don't recommend it. Again, these are full body lifts, additional lifting isn't necessary. Less is more! If you want to try more, feel free, but just a warning that it may be counterproductive.
What about cardio?
You can do cardio if you want, but keep it SANE! I would say high intensity for 15-30 minutes no more than twice a week (and independent of lift days) is totally fine. Hell, it might be helpful. Low intensity cardio (i.e. walking) is going to be fine too. I would avoid long duration steady state cardio (i.e. jogging more than 3 miles). You can build more aerobic capacity with HIIT than steady state anyway, so why waste time?
What about power cleans, barbell rows, chins?
Mark Rippetoe's program calls for these additional movements. I think Mark's program is a little more suited for younger folks with athletic goals. These people may also have less daily responsibilities and therefore more time to spend in the gym. It is of my opinion that us "normal" middle aged folks don't need to squat 3 times a week and the dynamic nature of power cleans can introduce more risk than reward. For most people like us, a plan that gets you under the barbell consistently is going to be a lot more beneficial than what 99% of beginners do. If you really get into lifting, start doing more dynamic movements.
Again, I think Mark Rippetoe's program is great, certainly better than this one. If you want to do it, do it. But my goals were to simplify and consume less time.
Here is the Starting Strength program.
Here is a link to Mark's great book.