A Beginner's Approach to Strength Training

STACK Expert Ryan Sprague provides valuable information for strength training beginners.

So, you've decided to start a strength training program. Where to begin? There are so many options and so much information, it can be overwhelming. Linear progressions, non-linear progressions, Westside Conjugate training—it's all good stuff, but it's not all good for beginning lifters. So let's get you on the right track.

The Big 3

Bench Press

Everyone knows the Big 3: Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift. These are the three most basic compound strength movements one can and should perform. Just look at powerlifters. They compete in exactly these three lifts! How many times have you heard someone ask, "How much can you bench?" The Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift are essentially every person's baseline markers of strength. And there is a certain ratio of body weight to strength for each exercise that one should strive for.

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When I say there is a ratio of body weight to strength that everyone should strive for, it means you should ideally be able to lift X times your body weight for a 1-rep max in each lift. The numbers look like this: Bench Press = 1.5 x body weight; Squat = 2 x body weight; Deadlift = 2.5 x body weight. Are these absolute numbers? No. But I can tell you this:  you will feel pretty strong once you achieve those numbers! So how do you get there?

Strength vs. Hypertrophy


First you need to understand the difference between training for strength and training for hypertrophy (muscle growth). Strength training involves lifting really heavy weight for 1-5 repetitions with 3-5 minutes of rest between sets. Hypertrophy training, which is what bodybuilders do, involves lifting submaximal weights for 8-12 reps with 1-2 minutes rest between sets. However, when it comes to increasing strength, it helps to also increase muscle mass. Larger muscles generally mean greater potential for strength gains.

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Getting Started


A great place for beginners to start is with a three-days-per-week program, with one day dedicated to Squat, one to Bench Press and one to Deadlift as the primary exercises. I usually recommend a 10-8-6 rep sequence, as it promotes hypertrophy and strength at the same time. The way this works is the first set is performed for 10 reps, the second set for 8 reps, and the third set for 6 reps, with each set getting heavier than the previous one.

For example, if your first set of  Bench Press is done at 225 pounds for 10 reps, your second set may be at 235 pounds for 8 reps, and your third set at 245 pounds for 6 reps. As a rule of thumb, your first set should be light enough to complete on your own with the last 1-2 reps being a little difficult. Your second set should be difficult enough that you can barely get all 8 reps on your own, possibly only 7 with help from a spotter for the 8th rep. And the last set of 6 should be very difficult, where you can only complete 4-5 reps on your own and need a spotter for the last 1-2 reps.

This should be doable with the Bench Press and the Squat; however you will probably not be able to push it this far with the Deadlift, since you must complete all reps on your own. Just make sure to challenge yourself, and if you fall a rep short on any set, it can become your goal for the following week.

Linear Progression

Bench Press

With the 10-8-6 program (and most other programs for that matter), it is easy to follow a linear progression. All this means is that you progressively go heavier in weight as the program continues. Not only does each set get heavier, but each week you try to outdo your numbers from the week before. This can work two ways. The first way is to try and outdo each set of your lifts. If you bench pressed 225, 235, and 245, then the next week you would try to get 230, 240, and 250. Simple enough, right? The other way is to try and outdo your total weight lifted from the week before. Essentially that means you only have to go heavier on one set. For example, using the above Bench Press example, your sets the next week might be 225, 240, and 245. You increased your total by 5 pounds from the previous week.

Each of these methods will only get you so far. Eventually, you will hit a plateau in your training where your strength will no longer increase and may actually begin to decline. When this happens, it's time to change your program.

5 Sets of 5


The 5 sets of 5 routine is the next step I usually recommend for beginners once the 10-8-6 program begins to fail them. You can still follow a linear progression. But instead of doing 3 sets of each exercise for 10, 8 and 6 reps, you do 5 sets of each exercise for 5 reps. This is where the second linear method of trying to beat the previous week's total works best. It will be difficult to go heavier on each set of a 5x5 program if you are truly pushing yourself hard enough. But, you can always keep track of your weights and try to beat a few sets the next week. For example, if you deadlift 315 pounds for all 5 sets this week, you may do 315 for 2 sets and 320 for 3 sets the following week.

Accessory Lifts

Incline Bench Press

Accessory lifts are exercises that help you improve your primary lifts—exercises like Incline Presses, Dumbbell Presses, Leg Presses, Single-Leg Squats, Step-Ups, Lunges, Glute-Ham Raises and various rowing exercises. It's important to pick 1 or 2 accessory exercises each workout to directly complement your primary lift and another 2 to 4 exercises that work other parts of the body, but can help you become stronger. For example, on Bench Press day, you might start with your Bench Press, then do Incline Barbell Bench and Dumbbell Flys as your two complementary exercises. You could then do Chin-Ups, Barbell Rows, Seated Rows and Tricep Push-Downs as your other accessory lifts.

Final Thoughts


It's important to pull more than you push in order to keep your shoulders healthy. Many people press way more than they pull and complain of shoulder pain or end up with rotator cuff injuries. Try to maintain a ratio of at least 1:2 push to pull. So if you do 50 reps of pushing during a workout, you need to do at least 100 reps of pulling. Also, do not overwork your hamstrings. They can become big, strong muscles, but they can also be fragile and get injured from overtraining. I suggest doing one isolation movement such as Hamstring Curls or Glute-Ham Raises for 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps on your Squat day and again on your Deadlift day. That will be plenty of work in conjunction with your compound movements. Finally, always emphasize form, and never sacrifice form for weight. And always be safe.

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