There are a million and one reasons why someone chooses to work out. For the sake of clarity, “working out” in this context does not include yoga classes or leisurely jogs in the local park. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those choices, of course —I mean, any mode of exercise is good exercise. But I’m a strength coach, and I’m a little biased. Convincing people to lift heavy things–whether off the ground or over their heads—is what I do.
Guys like me start lifting weights at a young age because:
- They recognize it’s a way to improve performance in their sport.
- They’re bullied and just want to get huge.
- (Most importantly) they want to garner some attention from the opposite sex.
Some guys start a little later in life–maybe in college or even further down the road into their 30s and 40s—because they recognize that lifting weights:
- Enhances their athletic performance (like adding a few more yards to their golf drive or collecting a few more rebounds in their recreational basketball league).
- Helps maintain lean body mass, boosts metabolism and improves posture.
- (Most importantly) garners some attention from the opposite sex.
Whether you’re a teenager or an older weekend warrior—and regardless of what circumstances took you there in the first place—the weight room can seem like uncharted territory and a very intimidating place. Many “newbies” encounter numerous barriers that prevent them from making significant progress, whether their goal is performance-based or aesthetic-based.
And nothing frustrates people more than heading to the gym for weeks or even years at a time and not seeing the fruits of their labor. We can hypothesize all we want about why they don’t make progress in the gym, but it mostly comes down to one common denominator (along with a little dose of tough love).
I don’t mean weak-minded or weak-willed. If you make an effort to hit the weight room three to five times per week, motivation isn’t an issue. What I mean is that you’re not strong. Before I get the barrage of eye rolling, huffy responses and people grabbing their pitchforks, let me preface everything by saying I understand not everyone is interested in training for maximal strength or becoming a competitive powerlifter. But, having a foundation of strength is integral for continued and long-lasting progress in the gym—regardless of one’s personal goals. I’d argue that gaining strength is one of the most under-rated goals there is. Which is a shame.
Let’s put it this way: if you can’t complete five strict, Bodyweight Chin-Ups, you have no business performing an “arms day” at the gym.
Similarly, many guys are quick to jump to advanced training protocols like adding chains or bands to their lifts when they can’t even lift the equivalent of their body weight on the barbell Squat.
Some trainees place the cart before the horse and make things more complicated than they have to be. Rocket science is hard. Long division is hard. Figuring out why women love Hugh Grant movies is hard. Lifting weights should not be hard.
Focus on the Basics
If your training revolves around compound, multi-joint exercises, you’re almost always going to be way ahead of the game. The exercises can be awkward, and yes, there’s a learning curve, but if you perform them correctly, you’ll reap rewards such as:
- More strength. The body isn’t meant to move in isolation, so stop training it that way. Compound movements train multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which helps increase both inter- and intra-muscular coordination, which in turn leads to improved nervous system function, which yields greater strength gains.
- Increased Size. The more weight you lift, the more potential there is for muscle growth.
- More calories burned. Compound movements force you to use larger muscle groups, which burn more calories. So, even if strength isn’t your goal, you’ll likely burn some excess body fat. Score!
- Other benefits include time efficiency, improved bone density, etc., but it’s hard to trump the “Big 3” listed above.
Speaking of the Big 3, to get the most out of compound movements, you’d be hard pressed to beat the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. When writing training programs for newbies, I often prescribe a three times-per-week program in which each day starts with one of those three exercises.
A. Squat Variation (Goblet Squat, Front Squat, Box Squat), 3-5 (sets) x 5-8 (repetitions). 90-120 seconds rest between sets.
B1. Seated Row – 3×10
B2. Flat Bench DB Press – 3×8
(B1-B2 are a superset. Perform B1, go right to B2, then rest 60-90 seconds.)
C1. DB Reverse Lunge – 3×8/leg
C2. Pallof Press – 3×10/side
(C1-C2 are a superset.)
A. Bench Press Variation (Flat Bench, Incline Bench, Decline Bench) – 3-5 x 5-8
B1. 1-Arm DB Row – 3×10/arm
B2. Chin-Up – 3×6-8
(B1-B2 are a superset.)
C1. Walking DB Lunge – 3×8/leg
C2. Reverse Crunch – 3×10
(C1-C2 are a superset.)
D. Cable Pull-Through – 2-3×10
A. Deadlift Variation (Trap Bar, Sumo, Conventional) – 3-5 x 5-8
B1. Push-Up – 3×8-10
B2. Seated Cable Row – 3×10
(B1-B2 are a superset.)
C1. DB Step-Up – 3×8-10/leg
C2. Stability Ball Rollout – 3×8-10
(C1-C2 are a superset.)
For most “weaklings,” following a full-body routine three times per week will reap the greatest benefit and provide the best stimulus to not only get stronger, but transform the body as well.
Eat. Like, A lot
While building strength has a bit more to do with neural adaptations and how well the nervous system operates (i.e., trainees generally see marked improvements in strength long before they see improvements in their physique), we’d still be remiss if we did not recognize the importance of calories (and building muscle mass).
The body can’t build muscle out of nothing. Impossible. One of the biggest roadblocks for a lot of guys is the fact that many simply don’t eat enough.
Lifting weights breaks down muscle tissue and provides the stimulus for the body to repair itself and come back stronger. To do so, it’s crucial to provide the body with ample calories. Think of strength training as like laying bricks, where the bricks are the calories and the brick layers just sit around doing nothing, telling crude jokes and checking their text messages.
Simply put: most guys barely eat enough to keep a hummingbird alive. Not coincidentally, many wonder why they have a hard time getting stronger and making continued progress in the gym.
It’s not a perfect formula and it requires tweaking/re-assessing as you go, but a great starting point is to take your body weight and multiply it by 15. The product represents roughly the number of calories you need to maintain your current body weight.
A 170-pound male needs 2,550 calories per day. Add anywhere from 250 to 500 calories to that number to determine the total number of calories you should eat on training days. The same 170-pound guy needs anywhere from 2,800 to 3,000 calories per training day. On non-training days, he will eat at maintenance level.
I like this approach, because some guys take the “let’s eat to add mass” approach a little too far and end up adding too much body fat.
This way allows you to match your caloric intake to your activity level.