Strength Training for Beginners

How to Get STRONG Once & For All: The ONLY Guide You Need

There are many reasons for why one should get strong. This is not a post about why you should get strong but how a barbell-novice should approach the task.

But, first: TL;DR.

Beginner Strength Training Program

Day One:

  • Squat: 3X5 @ RPE 8 (three sets of five)
  • Touch & Go Bench: 3X5 @ RPE 9 (three sets of five)
  • Deadlifts: 4X8 @ RPE 8 (four sets of eight)

Day Two:

  • 1-Second Paused Bench: 4X5 @ RPE 8 (four sets of five)
  • Squat: 4X4 @ RPE 9
  • Deadlifts: 4X4 @ RPE 9

Day Three:

  • Deadlifts: 3X5 @ RPE 8 (three sets of five)
  • Close-Grip Bench Press: 4X8 @ RPE 8 (four sets of eight)
  • Squats: 4X8 @ RPE 8 (four sets of eight)

RPE 8 means that you’re leaving two reps in the tank. Usually, this will happen when the bar speed begins to slow down.

Same logic applies to RPE 9: it means you could’ve only done one more rep.

Bench Press for Beginners

Let’s Talk Strength Training

The first question is: what makes someone strong? And what causes someone to be strong?

Strength can be displayed in a number of ways. The manifestation of strength that we’ll focus on today is the ability to lift more weights in the gym.

In specific: the Squat, the Bench, and the Deadlift.

In 2014, Greg Nuckols published an article entitled “More is More” where he makes the case that “more volume” generally results in “more gains” in the weight room.

Generally speaking, that’s true. But there’s more to it than just doing more. After all: not all volume is equal.

We’ll define “volume” as the total numbers of reps in a given movement.

For example, if you do 5X5 for Touch & Go Bench-Press, that equals to 25 total reps (volume).

Consider these different volume assignments:

  • 3X8 (three sets of eight reps)
  • 6X4 (six sets of four reps)
  • 2X12 (two sets of twelve reps)

At face value, the total training volume is matched. But we couldn’t expect the outcomes in strength to be similar.

In fact, in 2016, an article in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine demonstrated that there are differential effects on strength & hypertrophy depending on training loads.

My only comment here is that the study wasn’t volume-matched. They note that the volume for the “Volume” (moderate loading) group was substantially increased in comparison to the “Intensity” (high loading) group.

Nevertheless, the subjects involved in the intensity program still demonstrated slightly greater improvements in strength over the volume group.

I would be very interested in reading a study of what would occur if both Moderate Loading & High-Intensity Loading groups were matched.

Although this would, by necessity, mean that the High Intensity groups would have to increase their training volume to match the Moderate-Loading groups.

The inherent assumption being that if Moderate-Loading groups were to match the volume of the High-Intensity groups, their results would diminish significantly. (Or so I presume).

And that’s the direction we want to take next: how do we maximize high-intensity training volume for optimal results?

Squatting for Beginners

Volume, Training, and Gains in the Weight Room

Most beginner strength training programs generally go wrong in one major way: they prescribe a set amount of volume throughout the entirety of the training protocol.

What will generally end up happening is that after 2-3 months, the program stops working, and the trainee doesn’t know what to do afterwards.

The answer is simple: you need to train more.

More than what you were doing before.

What’s happened, in simple terms, is that your body will have become resistant to training.

The goal of physical adaptations in response to a training dose is to make that training “dose” (i.e. stress) no longer stressful. Or not as disruptive to your homeostatic balance.

This is why programs, if unchanged, will turn ineffective.

To combat this, you need to continually increase that training dose to effect further adaptations (muscle, strength, etc).

There’s a continued discussion about what this “increased dose” is, and how to go about it. However, as alluded to earlier, volume tends to be the best predictor of continued hypertrophy, and in turn: strength progress.

Although this isn’t everyone’s intermediate progression model, the way that I personally go about it is to, when prompted:

  • Incremental increases in training volume
  • Small increases in food intake

What I mean by “when prompted” is: if my bodyweight stalls, or slows down significantly, I will eat more food. Similarly, if I see that my training no longer produces the desired effects, I will slowly increase the weekly volume of my programming.

Managing Fatigue & Volume

So, we understand that increasing volume overtime is going to be the main driver of long-term strength growth.

More volume > more hypertrophy > more weight on the bar

But all volume isn’t the same.

Recall that we had talked about the differences in moderate-loading and high-loading groups. Why is that important?

Because just adding more “reps” won’t do the job.

If you’re training 3×5, and to increase volume, you go to: 3×8 – you cannot expect that the end-result in strength outcomes will be similar.

It won’t.

Sets of 5 @ RPE 8 (two reps short of failure) will generally be performed at 81% intensity.

Sets of 8 @ RPE 8 will fall somewhere in the 70% range.

This difference in intensity will have long-term considerations in strength development.

Although, I would assume that the trainee would continue to see some progress, due to a 60% increase in volume.

The results wouldn’t be comparable to a trainee that performed, say: 6×4 @ RPE 8 (six sets of four reps) at (~83.7%) intensity.

In the latter scenario, the trainee would be performing 60% more volume at 2.7% higher intensity. In this instance, the trainee would derive far greater results from training.

Understanding Load Management

Now that you understand how increasing training volume in a deliberate manner works, let’s talk about the next item on the list:

Fatigue assessment

It should seem clear to you that 24 reps @ 83.7% intensity is far more fatiguing than 24 reps @ 70% intensity.

In the above program, where you’d be performing 63 reps of the Deadlift, for example; maxing out on every set using the heaviest variation of the lift (belt + straps) would be foolish.

The fatigue would build up rather quickly, especially since the Deadlift is usually going to be your heaviest movement.

So, we have a scenario where we need to meet the following criteria:

  • Lift at a high-enough intensity to improve strength performance
  • Lift with enough volume to induce hypertrophy
  • Continually increase volume over a long-period of time to combat increased training resistance
  • Do it all without feeling like you were ran over by a bulldozer

There are two primary tools for managing training fatigue. Let’s start with number one:

Exercise Selection

The goal of exercise selection is two-fold:

  • One: Introduce exercise variations that reduce total training load.
  • Two: Maintain enough movement specificity to have carry-over to the main lifts.

In meeting these criteria, we have three layers of movement specificity:

  • Primary: Also referred to as the “Competition” or “Main” lift. This is the primary form of the selected movement. The movement that will be tested in competition. Or the targeted movement (if not a competitor).
  • Secondary: Also referred to as “Developmental” lifts. These are movements that resemble the primary lift’s movement pattern, but a form of mechanical disadvantage is introduced. This mechanical disadvantage allows for lighter loading with very high movement specificity.
  • Tertiary: Also referred to as “Assistance” lifts. These are the least-specific movements, but have the highest volume. They are typically performed in moderate-intensity ranges (70 ~ 75%) with significant volume. They are also the lightest movements. The main purpose for these lifts being to maximize hypertrophy during the training block.

Examples of Developmental Lifts are:

Beltless Variations: This is where the belt is removed from the lift. This will typically cause the weight being used by around 5-10%.

Paused Variations: By introducing a pause to the movement, less weight will generally be able to be used. These are also done beltless.

Pin Variations: Very similar to paused variations, but the safety pins from the rack are used to “stop” the bar.

Examples of Assistance Lifts are:

Squats: High-bar squats, Tempo squats, Front squats. They can also be used with different equipment, such as: chains, bands, specialty bars, etc.

Benches: Close-grip bench, Tempo bench, Spoto bench, Feet-up bench. And also, using chains, bands, weight-releasers, blocks, specialty bars, etc.

Deadlifts: Block pulls, Rack pulls, Romanian Deadlifts, Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Deficit Deadlifts. And as well, using chains, bands, etc.

By using different movements throughout training, in particular, using lighter versions of the main lift will allow you to deliberately manipulate training fatigue while continuing to accrue enough volume to induce hypertrophy.

The last piece to this puzzle is:

Rate of Perceived Exertion

RPE Chart by RTS

RPE by RTS

The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a qualitative measurement tool that attempts to quantify the effort level during a singular set.

The purpose of RPE is managing the exertion of the lifter by providing a system for assessing the day-to-day, and in turn, long term fatigue accumulation.

It does this by prescribing a set “effort level” for any one set in your training. In doing so, it takes full advantage of days when you are feeling great while also scaling down the weights for days where you might be feeling beat up.

For example, Day 1 of Week 1, your Squat feels STRONG. The set RPE for that set is 8, and you complete 315 for a set of 5.

The next week, you didn’t sleep particularly well the night before. You’re feeling a bit tired and the bar just feels heavy as you unrack it. You use your best judgement to identify that 285 for a set of 5 would meet the selected level of RPE 8.

By training this way, you’re prescribing (yourself) the appropriate dose (training stress) for what you have in the tank that day.

To grind out 315 for a set of 5 while not feeling particularly well might leave you feeling sore for a few days and make the rest of your training sessions less productive.

Using RPE

Once you understand what it is, and what it’s used for – the next step is understanding how to apply it.

There is no simple guide to this other than learning to understand your body.

At first your assessments of RPE might not be accurate, but with enough time and practice, you’ll understand what your “stuff” is that day.

Then, it’s simply a matter of actively managing your training on a daily basis to continue to drive progress.

Growth is a question of consistency. Showing up day in and day out, and doing the work. Nothing more.

There are no “stretching” or “mobility” routines that will improve your training. Besides from creatine (for some people) and whey protein (if you’re not getting enough protein from your diet), there aren’t any supplements that will improve your results.

It’s just about showing up. Doing the prescribed work. Getting sleep. And doing it all over again. Day in, and day out. As far as what you should eat…

Eating for Strength Training

Eating for Growth

Any serious strength trainee will soon learn about the impact of food on their day-to-day performance. More importantly, the impact of food on their strength growth.

This isn’t a diet or nutritional post, however, a failure to eat correctly will mean zero or very small gains. Regardless of how hard or consistently you train in the gym.

This should be simple. A muscle protein synthesis response can occur once in every 3-5 hours.

Therefore, you need to eat your meals at least 3 to 5 hours apart from each other. Each meal needs to contain at least 30g of high-quality protein. High quality as defined by leucine content. Animal-sourced protein is generally high enough quality.

Therefore, your diet needs to meet the following criteria:

  • Enough protein to maximize daily muscle protein synthesis (at least 1g per lb of bodyweight: go for 200 if you can).
  • Enough carbs to sustain hard training
  • Fats, wherever they fall. I shoot for at least 50g.

Let’s take me. If I were untrained, and starting from scratch.

I would shoot for 2,700 calories to start. In the following macronutrient ratios:

  • 200g of protein (800 calories)
  • 317.5g of carbs (1,200 calories)
  • 70g of fat (630 calories)

Total: 2,700 calories.

You may need more or less calories than I do (would). Adjust accordingly. This will depend on height or your current activity levels.

Track your weight daily. If you are not increasing by at least half a pound per week, you’re not gaining a sufficient amount of weight to increase your strength.

It may be irresponsible to offer blanket recommendations like “eat 2,700” & “gain half a pound per week” – but for the most part, these assumptions would work.

The people who don’t need to gain weight know they don’t need to gain more weight. The same goes for people who need to more or less than what is being recommended here.

reasonable person would take these recommendations and see strong results.

This would have to be adjusted over-time as increases in muscle mass will result in increases in your RMR.

There’s also just “more of you” – and that requires more calories to maintain.

A 160-lb person requires less energy than a 200-lb person. As your weight (muscle) increases, you will need to adjust accordingly.