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The Beginner Lifter: Starting Points and Avoiding the Potholes

A lot of questions I receive on a weekly basis pertain to getting started in the weight room – particularly the young guys (but also the female beginners now and again) looking to go from zero to hero in a matter of weeks.

There are so many websites, books, people and opinions that you can reference when it comes to the process of actually getting started, so I’m going to cover some resources I think are highly useful, along with some practical experience working with beginners.

First, let us state what a beginner is.

A beginner is someone who is new to strength training, and has very little to no experience navigating the typical gym setting of barbells, dumbbells, machines, and cardio equipment.

Also, according to the strength standards, a beginner is someone able to add weight to the bar every single workout.

A beginner is also someone who has not tapped much, if any, of his or her genetic potential for muscle mass or strength gains.  Now due to this second classification of a beginner, they could very well have experience in the gym, lifting weights and going through the motions, but if they never gain any appreciable strength or mass, they’re still labeled a beginner, simply because they ain’t made much progress.

Let me expand on this just a bit.

In later 2008, I was working a dead-end job at a gym near my house and I remember a certain guy who came in all the time.  He was probably in his mid twenties, and had your typical skinny guy frame.

We eventually chatted here and there and he would always ask me questions about training, nutrition, etc.  Like most skinny guys, his utmost desire was to pack on mass, but he made all of the classic excuses such as “I just can’t eat enough” or “I train really hard but can’t get any stronger – I don’t know what’s wrong.”

I gave him a link to the Madcow 5×5 and then I did some simple math by multiplying his body weight by 18 and told him to EAT.  A week later, he brought his food journal in for me to take a gander at and guess what?  He really wasn’t eating as much as he thought he was.

Fast-forward to 2012 (4 years later) and I still see him training with the same loads on the bar since I met him.  He’s still skinny, and mopes around with a disgusting look in his face knowing that what he’s doing ain’t getting him the results he wants.  However, he just won’t do what it takes, which is eat and stick to a specific program.

Now, I was very fortunate to have been involved with athletics since my preteen years, so I was exposed to strength training and conditioning relatively early in life.  I am forever grateful for this.

Others are not so fortunate.  However, when the desire to learn is there, there’s about a million ways to go about it.  Most people will just go to the gym, aimlessly trying out various exercises – mimicking others and pretending to know what they’re doing.

Surprisingly, I don’t feel this is that bad of an approach because eventually, one will figure this lifting stuff out.  Is it the most efficient and safe method of learning how to train?  Nope, but jumping out of a plane is not too safe either and I’ve done that twice.

In saying that, you truly can coach yourself, but it takes time.  It also takes a lot of patience and objectivity.  The problem with coaching ourselves is that in the beginning, we normally don’t possess the amount of objectivity, or the know-how to push past the learning curve successfully.

So there’s that – we can learn by doing. If you decide to go this route, there are a few resources, I want you to have and utilize in your favor.

The first one is the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.  For anyone who needs an introduction to efficient and effective barbell training, this is one of the best resources on the topic.  If one will study this book in its entirety, you can take make great strides when it comes to strength and mass gains in a year’s time.

Another book I find myself referencing a good bit is Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore.  This book is a bit more in depth when it comes to setting up training cycles for the lifter who’s advanced past the recommendations in starting strength.

However, I still recommend beginners pick it up simply because the information is great and learning how to set up your own training cycles helps one understand how all of this training stuff works together.

The third book I think is highly informative and practical is Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert.  This book goes into great depth on how to train intelligently, especially if you’re not a part of the genetic elite, and only a few of us are.

So the first method of learning is simple; not easy.

Teach yourself

  • Read books
  • Watch videos
  • Train with others
  • Apply what you learn and keep practicing until you figure it out and succeed

And now we have another method, which is highly preferred, but not always an option for many.

Hiring a Trainer

If a beginner wants to cut their learning curve significantly, while being coached and motivated at the same time, hiring a trainer can be highly beneficial.  However, there are two problems.

  • Trainers are expensive
  • Many of them suck

Let’s start with the first one – great trainers cost money.  That’s a fact.  If you want to be coached and instructed on a weekly basis, a good trainer ain’t cheap.  You know the old saying “you get what you pay for?”

It rings true, in many cases.  Every once in a while you’ll over pay for a trainer that’s not worth their salt, but I think it’s rare.

If you head down to the commercial gyms where they actually have a personal training sales room, and you get sold training at 30 minutes/session, then beware you’re probably not going to get the best trainer out there.

So this is a barrier for many people.  Some don’t have an extra 200-400 per week to pay for a trainer’s service.

The other problem is with the industry itself.  Lots of people think of training as just another job.  This is mainly because of how easy it is to be certified as a trainer.  If you can pass an exam, you can be a trainer, despite not having any experience or knowledge in the field of strength and conditioning.

Because it’s so easy to enter the fitness field from a credential standpoint, lots of bad experiences are had between clients and trainers.  Some trainers have no business working with others.  It may sound harsh, but it’s true.

That’s enough with the cons of hiring a trainer.

What are the positives a coach can provide for the beginner trainee?

A good trainer has an objective set of eyes.  They can see your back is rounding when your hip crease is parallel with the floor.  They can tell you’re not packing your shoulders during a bench press.  When you fail to activate your glutes during various movements, they can immediately have you perform a movement that enables you to.

When you’re going it alone, it’s not always easy to catch these things, especially if you don’t know about them (and most beginners don’t).

Is it absolutely necessary to work with a coach to get the body you desire?  No, but it can and most often will cut the time spent drastically and may even save you from some easily avoidable injuries down the road.

Trainer or Consultant?

The last thing I want to touch upon is whether or not you should hire a trainer or a consultant?  What’s the difference?  It’s very clear.

If you hire a trainer, you’re working with them in person multiple times during the week.  They’re at every session guiding you through the movements, spotting you, checking your form, and providing constant feedback to ensure your safety, progression and understanding of the exercises.

If you were to hire me, Roger, Martin, Alan, Sohee or anyone else for fitness consulting and nutritional counseling from afar, then you’re not getting the hands-on approach.  You’re simply paying us for the service of program design, nutritional recommendations and accountability as per your personal fitness goals.

Both services are equally valuable, but they’re reserved for different scenarios.

For instance, I get many consultation requests from pure beginners – the folks who are just getting into strength training and want to build muscle, lose fat and get strong.

However, after a short email exchange, I end up turning these people down and recommending they hire a coach in their area to help them get started properly with their training OR to take the initial approach of teaching themselves.  Once they’ve educated themselves, I encourage them to come see me in 6 month to a year when they’re ready.

The reason is because consulting is reserved for those who have experience in the gym, with training and diet in general.  It’s virtually impossible to teach someone proper form and movement patterns over email or Skype and it’s generally not a good use of time for either party.

Take home points for the pure beginner (no experience whatsoever)

  • You need to spend time educating yourself on proper training methods.
  • You may shorten this learning curve by hiring a competent trainer.
  • Lots of practice is needed in the early stages to learn the movements and become familiar with all things fitness (training, nutrition, recovery, rest, etc.) and this is why I recommend full-body training.
  • Spending money on a fitness consultation is likely a waste until you’re ready to put the advice to use immediately.

Take home points for the experienced beginner (understands how to exercise, but farts around and hasn’t made any real progress)

  • You can benefit from hiring a trainer or a consultant because you obviously understand how to exercise – you merely need a planned approach and some accountability. Consulting may be more cost-effective.
  • You need to get your crap together and not waste any more time going through the motions with nothing to show for it.
  • Continue educating yourself through self-study, formal education and/or through working with fitness professionals.

Avoiding The Potholes

So how does one make sure they progress and not spin their wheels like the guy I mentioned above who looks exactly the same as he did 4 years ago?

It’s fairly easy…  If you follow these principles below, you’ll ALWAYS win.

  • If you need help, ASK.  No one ever learned anything without asking questions.  If you’re stuck, email me or Roger, or go find your favorite strength-training forum for advice.
  • Brand the concept of progressive overload into your grey matter.  Strength, mass, and all things awesome come with continually progressing in your training.
  • Don’t become ADD with your approach to training.  Don’t let the latest and greatest training program derail you from the one you’re currently on.
  • Be willing to allow for some body weight gain.  Building muscle, and great strength requires a lot of energy. I’ve been 190lbs many times in my life over the last 5-6 years but this time around, I’m the leanest 190lbs I’ve ever been.  Gaining fat is not the end of the world, but don’t let yourself become sloppy.
  • Remember this all takes a lot of time.  Not time spent in the gym, but time in terms of being consistent for many years.
  • Avoid getting into a rut.  If something isn’t working, fix it.  On the other hand, if something is working really well, don’t mess with it – ride it out for as long as possible.
  • Learn to compete with yourself, not with your favorite fitness model.  Your genetics are your own and constantly comparing yourself to the genetically blessed will only set you up for disappointment.
  • Read my free guide: A No-BS Approach to Looking Great Naked – my philosophy is incredibly simple and straightforward.

Wrapping Up

If you’re a beginner, don’t waste precious time messing around with complicated training protocols and nutritional programs that only stress you out.  Don’t reinvent the wheel – do what’s been proven time and time again to work for others.

Never. Look. Back.

Note: Roger Lawson and I’s latest podcast is up and ready for listening.  Please check it out on iTunes (please give us a rating if you have a second), listen to it in the player below or click here, right click and “save-as” if you want to download it to your computer!

Image Credit: teamstickergiant

About the author

JC Deen

JC Deen is a nationally published fitness coach and writer out of Nashville, TN. Get more from JC here: Twitter | Facebook| JCD Fitness

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Leave a comment:

Jim Frank - April 16, 2012

JC, great article – you just keep the hits coming. I’ve loved your site since I found it and am gathering much of the references you mention. I have a question and this article seems like a good place to ask it. What are good goals for someone lifting for general/basic strength? For example, 2xBW on the squat; BW bench press; 1.5xBW dead lift…now I just made up those targets for discussion, but I hope you see the question. What makes good initial target goals, as a function of Body Weight, on the major compound lifts that are good measures of strength that’s not extreme or way too easy and should take some time to achieve (especially for beginners)?

    JC Deen - April 16, 2012

    I generally like to get males to a 1xbw bench and 1.5xbw squat asap. Those are good to start with. Over time, people will learn what they’re good at. Some are great at pulling and suck at squatting/pressing and vice versa. Ultimately, I push them toward 1.5xbw bench, 2xbw squat and 2.5xbw deads…

    Glad you like the site, Jim. thanks.

Bret Contreras - April 16, 2012

Great article JCD!!!

    JC Deen - April 16, 2012

    wow. thanks, Bret!

Cynthia - April 2, 2012

@Mitchell – I’m completely with you on people getting wrapped up in routines that aren’t made for them, such as magazine bodybuilding routines or other programs found on the ‘net. The way I see it, people look for a place to start, and what’s popular or looks good (super huge guy on muscle mag) draws their attention, looks simple enough/broken down into parts/advertised for six-pack abs etc. so why not? Then the DOMS hits and they go at it for whatever the program prescribes. I feel like in the case of beginners (or maybe just about anyone), is that rest couldn’t hurt, and being too zealous with exercise can. It’s exciting to be able to add to your workout just about every time, but beginners don’t have that “listen to your body” voice going on – that’s part of the reason why they’re beginners. More workout time and proper fueling will result in more gains, but people are too excited to change their body too quickly – and they want it NOW – so burnout is common, not just physically, but mentally.

    JC Deen - April 2, 2012

    Good stuff, Cynthia.
    This is why I’m adamant about beginners sticking to a schedule and routine, rather than trying to “listen” to their body. Lord knows they don’t have the objectivity to do it correctly.

    Thanks for stopping by

Mitchell - Home Fitness Manual - April 1, 2012

JC, I think most beginners don’t realize they can usually match the amount of progress they make with the amount of time they train. More lifting time results in further gains. This is, for the most part, because they haven’t reached their “genetic potential,” as you put it. Usually, since beginners will be using a lower volume of weight, which is why they can get away with only a day of rest in between workouts. But where I see a few beginners fail is getting wrapped up in advanced bodybuilding schedules (e.g. double splits) and getting too much recovery time versus the amount of weight they’re actually using.


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