Start Strong: 5 Winning Secrets to Beginning a Workout Program

Follow these five tips from STACK Experts to derive maximum benefits from your first strength-training program.

Starting to train for the first time can be an intimidating experience. You walk into the gym and see all these people lifting massive amounts of weight, and in your mind, you question if you can even do a Push-Up.

We've all been there at one point. We had no idea how to go about our first workout. The end result usually added up to a few Bicep Curls and Crunches. OK—better than nothing, but you can do much better!


Starting to train for the first time can be an intimidating experience. You walk into the gym and see all these people lifting massive amounts of weight, and in your mind, you question if you can even do a Push-Up.

We've all been there at one point. We had no idea how to go about our first workout. The end result usually added up to a few Bicep Curls and Crunches. OK—better than nothing, but you can do much better!

It's possible to get an amazing workout even if you're a beginner. You might not bench 315 pounds, but you can challenge yourself and build to a point where you're lifting serious weight. In this process, you will become a better athlete and prepare for the next level of your sport.

Here are five critical tips you need to follow when beginning your first training program.

1. Set Goals

The first step to a successful training program is to set goals. Identifying why you are training will determine how you train. It ensures that every workout and exercise you perform supports your goal, whether that's to get stronger, get faster or build muscle.

If you don't know your own purpose for training, odds are you will end up wasting time and won't get the results you expect. For example, if you want to get stronger and faster in your sport, doing 60 minutes of arms and abs is not the wisest use of your time.

Jeremy Boone, founder of Athlete By Design and trainer for several NFL players, including DeAngelo Williams and Darian Stewart, asks beginner athletes four questions before they start a training program:

  1. "What about becoming more athletic is important to you?"

  2. "What will becoming more athletic (getting faster/getting stronger) actually allow you to do on the field, court or ice that you cannot do currently?"

  3. "When I say the phrase '[Insert Name] has become a better athlete,' what does that mean to you?"

  4. "What mental qualities will you have to bring to your workout in order for you to truly improve your athleticism?"

Write your answers to these questions on an index card or in the Notes app on your phone so you can check them frequently—even before every workout if that helps. When considering a new program or exercise, inquire whether it matches up with your responses. This will keep you on the right path to attaining the improvements you desire.

2. Establish Rules

Even if you have limited experience, you should expect great results from your first training program. The key is to adopt a mindset that supports success. Mark Roozen, owner of Coach Rozy Performance Center (Yankton, South Dakota), has his athletes follow the D.I.C.E rule to maximize their results:

  • Desire—"Have the desire to get better each and every time you train."
  • Intensity—"To see results and success, you must be willing to push past what you've done in the past."
  • Consistency—"No matter how great a program is on paper, you need to stick to the schedule."
  • Effort—"Give max effort in everything you do in the weight room, at home, in school and practicing your sport."

3. Find a Training Program

Any workout is better than doing nothing at all. But if you're serious about achieving your goal(s), you absolutely need a training program.

"To ensure long-term success, you must follow a program that focuses on fundamental exercise technique to develop your fitness base," says John Cissik, president of Human Performance Services. "It also must become progressively more difficult over time while incorporating rest and recovery."

Everything should be laid out in a chart for the duration of your program—likely six to eight weeks—including the workouts for each week—typically two to three for beginners. Every exercise should have a recommended number of sets, reps, weight (if needed) and rest. Over the course of the program, increase the difficulty by adding reps or weight.

As a beginner, you might be tempted to try popular or advanced exercises like the Bench Press or Back Squat. However, we encourage you take a step back and first focus on the basics, such as Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, Goblet Squats, Lunges, Rows and Deadlifts. Don't try to reinvent the wheel with every workout. And no, you shouldn't work your arms at the start. You must earn the right to do biceps and triceps exercises.

"When athletes first start out, variety is overrated. It's actually essential to do the same things over and over," explains Tony Bonvechio, a strength coach at Cressey Sports Performance (Hudson, Massachusetts). "Even if it feels repetitive, you have to practice the exercises in your workout. Nobody was good at squatting or deadlifting or jumping the first time they tried it, so be patient and embrace the idea of less variety with more repetition."

Most important, choose a program that develops your foundation. As a beginner, improve your strength and athleticism before starting specialized workouts for your sport.

"If you are just starting out, you probably need to develop with a full-body routine. Don't pick a program that only gets you better at one thing, like the vertical jump," says Ben Boudro, owner of Xceleration Sports (Auburn Hills, Michigan). "Since you are just starting out, you need more than one skill. Pick a program that targets a little bit of everything so you build that foundation."

4. Test Yourself

Testing your fitness before you start a training program is critical. As a matter of fact, it should be mandatory. Tests identify weaknesses that might impair your workout results, or worse, cause an injury if the issue goes unaddressed.

"By finding out the brutal facts of where you need the most work, you can truly find what your program needs are," adds Boudro.

These five simple self-tests check for common issues among athletes, such as core weakness and mobility limitations. If you fail a test, take the time to correct the issue before you start your program. This patient approach will benefit your long-term results and your health.

Other tests allow you to measure your progress. By testing your strength before and after a training program, you can compare your results to see if you improved. If not, go back to the drawing board. Since you're a beginner, there's no need to test your one-rep max on any exercise. Instead, check how many perfect reps you can perform of the following exercises:

  • Max Push-Ups
  • Max Pull-Ups
  • Max Bodyweight Squats
  • Max Plank Holds (for time)

5. Push Yourself, But Not Too Much

Now that you're ready to start your program, you need to push yourself to make improvements.

"One of the biggest limitations to success that I see with beginners is training intensity," says Ramsey Nijem, assistant strength coach for the Sacramento Kings. "Most novices don't train hard enough to optimize their potential."

But you have to work within the parameters of the program. Your muscles need a challenge, which is the only way to get bigger and stronger. However, sometimes less is more. Adding reps for the sake of adding reps or doing extra exercises outside of your training program might put too much stress on your body, impairing your progress.

Lee Boyce, owner of Boyce Training Systems, cautions against trying to work beyond your novice capabilities. He says, "You may be strong enough to lift 200 pounds in an exercise, but you're probably not skilled enough to do it with good form. Starting out too heavy in the weight room—or making progressions that are too ambitious—will lead to injury and dominance issues. Always start out by lifting too light rather than too heavy, and completely master the lift so it imprints itself into your muscle memory."

This might not be an easy pill to swallow when other people are lifting heavy, but you can't let what others do affect your progress. Slow and steady is always better than rushing and creating form issues, which could inhibit your long term development or cause you to get hurt and be unable to work out at all.

"Yes, there will be other guys your age benching and squatting big weight. Worry about yourself and get the basics down with perfect form before you move on to the advanced stuff," says Boudro. "Build your foundation strong so you can use it for the rest of your life."

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