Inexperienced Lifters: How to Build Strength Now

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For many inexperienced lifters, the first venture into a strength program can be daunting and intimidating: the action figure physiques, the weight machines that look like props from science fiction movies, the strange names for exercises—and self-doubt. Or maybe you are a permanent beginner: you get on the workout train and jump off quickly, or you continue to skip out on the gym with weak excuses.

Your character might be strong. You just need to follow the correct strategy to learn how to build strength. Below, I give five tips that will help inexperienced lifters get strong.

1. Start Slow
The body and mind are like repetitive machines. They constantly seek comfort and consistency, so starting an intense, muscle-building routine all at once often leads to failure. Making small adjustments in your daily routine will eventually lead to positive habits. Start by training three days per week for the first month. Try to go at the same time every day and the same days each week with a day of rest in between.

Keep it simple. Perform three exercises per day for two sections of the body (upper body, core, lower body, back, etc.), spending about 45 minutes at the gym. For example, do your chest and triceps; back and biceps; or legs and core. Stick to two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps and rest 45 to 60 seconds between sets.

2. Push Your Limits
To build strength, inexperienced lifters need to get their bodies adjusted to lifting heavier loads. Perform exercises with weight light enough that you can maintain good form, yet heavy enough that you struggle to finish your final rep. This ensures that you will challenge your muscles, stimulating strength and size gains.

3. Adjust Your Volume
Lifting heavier weights is not always the answer for building strength. To achieve better results, you should regularly vary the reps and the amount of weight you lift, which also promotes a balanced body. The more your muscles are forced to adapt to a new routine, the more they grow. Instead of always doing four sets of seven to 10 reps, occasionally reduce the weight and do three sets of 15 reps, or increase the weight and do five sets of five reps. Free weights are best for building strength, and using dumbbells, as opposed to barbells, recruits more muscle fibers and works them harder, accelerating growth.

4. Cut Down on Cardio
When combined with weight training, cardio saps strength and limits muscle growth, especially if you go for longer than 20 minutes before or after lifting. According to bodybuilding expert Nick Nilsson, inexperienced lifters who do four to six days a week of moderate-intensity cardio, such as jogging or swimming, must cut back to gain muscle. Reduce moderate cardio workouts to two to three days a week.

5. Recovery
Training and eating comprise two-thirds of muscle-building. The other third is recovery. Never strength train more than five days a week or work the same muscle group on consecutive days. If you constantly pound your muscles, they will not have time to repair and grow. Also, try and get a good night's rest. The body does a lot of growing and repairing while you sleep. (Learn how sleep optimizes athletic performance.)

After one month, strength training will become part of your routine, and you will start to look forward to it. One of the advantages of being an inexperienced lifter is that you will show results much faster than those who have been at it for awhile.

Remember to continually add healthy meals to your diet, including chicken, turkey, fish, lean cuts of steak, nuts, berries, low-fat yogurt, protein and plenty of water to help you grow stronger faster. (Learn more about how you can eat right to build muscle.) If you eat right and follow a smart, strategic workout regimen, you can't gain pounds of muscle in a year. Now, jump on that strength workout train and stay on this time!

To get started with your new lifting routine, head to the STACK Workout Plan page.

Source:  Nilsson, N. (2003, Oct 3) "Weights or Cardio: What's it going to be?" Retrieved from

Kermit Cannon is the owner of Youth Sports Training and the author of The Beast Factory, a nutrition and fitness book for athletes. For 19 years, he has been a strength and conditioning coach for Santa Monica High School, where he has trained hundreds of individuals and several championship teams. Many of his athletes have received college scholarships or have entered the professional ranks. Cannon is a member of the National Federation of State High School Associations, Let's Move!, the National Council of Youth Sports, the Sports Youth & Marketing Network and USA Track & Field. In 2011, he received the Community Leadership Award from the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.

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