Simple, Effective Strength Training For Beginners

Thursday, July 18, 2013

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
Barbell Squat
Barbell Press
Barbell Deadlift

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:

Day 1
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

Day 2
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.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Found this in a post in the Iron Maidens team and I have printed it out to stick in my workout journal!

    I just started lifting and not really sure how to put a routine together. I confident in my form just not sure of how to put it all together.

    2287 days ago
    Many thanks for your comments on my blog. I have subscribed to this blog to come back to it
    2486 days ago
    Thank you for this blog post! I'm going to print it out and take it to the gym with me.
    2493 days ago
    Brewmaster Bill,

    Is this how you work off that beer? :)

    I just finished my first sales call for my new biz and can really use a cold one.....but I'm going to lift first! I love your blog. I just need to figure out how to incorporate this with my bad shoulder.
    2498 days ago
  • MPLANE37
    I have done this routine (and additionally Pendlay rows) for almost a year, got stuck, and switched to the 3x8 version of this program. It was very hard in the beginning (although both 5x5 and 3x8 have about the same number of total reps, 3x8 is far more demanding, even when the load is reduced to about 70% of the 5x5 load), but now it seems to work very well. Also, I started to rest 72h between sessions, because if I rest less, I don't recover.
    2506 days ago
    I never said it was anything new. In fact, barbell training is quite old. It has worked for decades, but people seem to overlook it for the next fad/video/whatever.

    You did understand that this post is all about strength training? I didn't really say anything about cardio (other than keep it sane), diet or otherwise, so I'm not really sure what your point was there.

    Losing weight is all about diet as you say, then why did you also say it's about routine? It really isn't. I do this while cutting or bulking.

    So what is your routine? What books do you recommend?

    You've provided nothing of substance here.
    2509 days ago

    Comment edited on: 7/20/2013 3:54:34 PM
  • no profile photo LAZY_DAVE
    First off I'm sure it's a fine routine but really nothing new. Power lifters and body builders have been using these types of full body exercises to build mass and strength for many years. The questions is what is a persons goal? If its to gain strengh/mass than these are fine. If its to be overall healthy and loose weight I'd do a different routine.

    Rippetoe did steroids when he was powerlifting, and really doesn't look all that healthy now. The goal of powerlifters is to be strong, not necessarily healthy. He has a cult following on the Internet for some reason I can't understand. There are many folks that have written good books on strength training, for power and for body builders. Most any of these work if you increase the weight and work the muscle to failure.

    Cardio is very important to health, just as much as weight training is. Folks should be doing at least 30 min a day. Powerlifters might not be so crazy about it because they are wanting to put on mass, not lose weight. But for most people on here I suspect that's not the case and plenty of cardio is what they need in addition to resistance training.

    Diet is key. Cut out the bread and wheat and sugar. Unless you are trying to gain weight. Eat plenty of animal protein and veggies. Fruit too of course but not too much as it contains sugar.
    2509 days ago
    Here's a great story about barbells:

    100-rep squats: super-duper widowmakers! Whoa!

    2511 days ago
    Thank you for this! I've been wanting to incorporate barbells on my strength training. Your recommendations at easy to follow. Thank you for writing this out.
    2511 days ago
    Great post, Bill. Well written, well thought out. Very encouraging.

    I definitely need to get a knowledgeable person to tell me what things I can do with my post surgery shoulder and leg nerve problems. But I've reached a sort of limit with small weights and calisthenics.

    emoticon emoticon
    2511 days ago
    This is extremely similar to what my husband is doing and I'm planning to start, but I totally misread the sample log and emoticon when I thought you were doing 100 reps, rather than 100lbsx5 reps. I know this works because I've seen the results and I'm starting tonight.
    2511 days ago
    emoticon emoticon

    This was almost exactly what I used to do (back before surgeries and hernias), and I am missing it baaaaddd! I think not being able to do it has messed with my head, and I've been getting all twisted up in there with more and more complicated plans of just where I would have to start to get back to "me".

    You've ever-so-eloquently reminded me that it really is *this* simple. Thank you!

    I've got this bookmarked as a reminder for after the hernia is fixed and I can get back to doing the *real* stuff!
    2511 days ago
    Let me put in a plug for PROPER BACK POSITION when doing these lifts, especially deadlift and squat. Learn it, and don't lift what you can't lift with good form. A bad form rep DOES NOT COUNT as a rep--it counts as NOTHING...same as a miss.

    2511 days ago
    Stirling blog - clear, educational, extensive, and complete. Thanks for the effort. emoticon
    2512 days ago
  • LEWILL1982
    Thank you so much for sharing, really good and informative.
    2512 days ago
    Oh man Bill. It's been too long since I've read a post from you. So refreshing to see someone else who knows what they're talking about for strength training on this site. Threads in the exercise forum title "Best DVD for strength training?" really irk me.

    Got a question for you. I've finally stalled hard with my SS type program, trying to get muscle back to where it used to be when I was fat to, and am going to switch to 5/3/1. Curious if you think that's the next best program to 'graduate' to, and what you think of the assistance work for it.
    2512 days ago
    Great info. Thanks for sharing this, Bill. I've got it bookmarked so I can have something clear to focus on after I finish my boot camp.
    2512 days ago
    If you're not adding weight, you're wasting time, period. Your goal is to add weight, every workout. It will not happen every workout, but that is your goal. A little disheartened that this wouldn't be a basic tenet of a trainer.
    2512 days ago
    Sounds very efficient! I like my ST program with my trainer, who is also my friend and sometimes workout partner, so the hour a week I spend with her is never wasted. We usually alternate upper body and lower body concentration, and I have a mostly upper body routine I do on my 2nd (and sometimes 3rd) ST session of the week. While I've shown progress, my best bench (2 whole reps) has been 80 pounds. I usually just use the Olympic bar (45 pounds) for the deadlift and squat...perhaps I could add some weight there. But I still have shoulder issues with the overhead press, so I use the smaller barbell with a little weight added, no more than 22-25 pounds total, including the bar weight.
    2512 days ago
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