Strength training is a journey, it's hard work, it require's planning, change, and flexibility. Strength training is all about the journey, because you never actually reach your destination, it's like a drug, when you hit a PR, you always want more, you always want to be stronger. With this article I am going to show you how to start your strength training journey in hopes that it will change your life just as it has changed mine.
Strength Training with barbells is the most effective and efficient type of training that you can do, PERIOD! It doesn’t matter if your goals are to gain strength, increase muscle mass, lose body fat, or just move and feel better. However, many people are afraid of, or uncomfortable with barbell training, because they just simply don’t know where they should start, or what lifts they should be doing.
Which Lifts Should I Do?
There a many options with barbell training, but the majority of people should include the four major lifts, the low bar back squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press. Throw in some pull-ups and barbell rows and you have a well-rounded strength program. Sure there are other options, but these lifts give you the most bang for your buck no matter what your strength and fitness goals are.
Learn to execute the lifts properly.
There are two main ways to learn the lifts. The first and what I recommend is to find a qualified coach to teach you the lifts. If you have a Starting Strength Coach in your area I highly recommend contacting them to schedule a session or two to be introduced to the lifts. There are without a doubt other highly qualified coaches out there and by all means if you know one contact them, but there is no doubt Starting Strength Coaches are the best at teaching the movements.
The next way is to watch video tutorials and teach yourself. The only issue with this is that there is a lot of bad information out there, so again I would attempt to find videos created by a Starting Strength Coach, they are by far the best at teaching the lifts. Video yourself and be overly strict when it comes to judging your form, you need to be your worst critic. Always start with just a barbell and progress from there.
The Complete Beginner
In my opinion there are two options for finding a starting point to begin training. The first would be for absolute beginners who have never done any real barbell training. Your starting point is simple, you will start with just the barbell and add weight from there.
To keep it simple I prefer to do sets of 5 reps for all of the lifts. Using 5 reps per set allows you to get practice on the lifts, but not so many reps are performed that your technique will begin to deteriorate. For beginners I suggest three workouts per week that look like this:
Back squat – 3-4 sets of 5 reps
Bench Press or Overhead Press – 3-4 sets of 5 reps
Deadlift – 3-4 sets of 5 reps
Upper body pulling variation
Beginners should train three days per week performing the squat and deadlift every session, and alternating the bench press and overhead press each session. Training three days per week will give you frequent exposure to lifts to improve technique, and will also give you plenty of opportunities to add weight to the bar. If you train alone make sure you are regularly filming your sets so that you can see what you need to improve.
Beginners should add 5-20 pounds to the bar work set each set, of each workout. For your average male beginning lifter I would recommend 5 pound jumps on press, 10 pound jumps on squat and bench, and 20 pound jumps on deadlift, if the deadlift starts to get hard too fast drop to 10 pound jumps. For your average female lifter I would recommend 2.5 jumps on the press, 5 pound jumps on the squat and bench, and 10 pound jumps on the deadlift, if the deadlift starts to get hard too fast drop to 5 pound jumps. To make smaller than 5 pound jumps get yourself some fractional plates, they are well worth the price, you can find some great options on Amazon, just search fractional plates.
So here is what the first week of training might look like for your average male lifter:
Back squat – bar x 5, 55x5, 65x5, 75x5
Bench Press – bar x 5, 55x5, 65x5, 75x5
Deadlift – bar x 5, 65x5, 85x5, 105x5
Horizontal Row Variation – 3 x 10 (1 arm row, seated row, chest supported row)
Back Squat – warmup sets: bar x 5, 65x5, work sets: 85x5, 95x5, 105x5
Overhead Press – bar x 5, 50x5, 55x5, 60x5
Deadlift – warmup sets: bar x 5, 65x3, 95x3, work sets: 115x5, 125x5, 135x5
Pull-up Progression (check out my article, The 4 Levels of Pull-Up Power, at T-Nation for more on how to train pull-ups)
Back squat – warmup sets: bar x 5, 75x3, 95x3, work sets: 115x5, 125x5, 135x5
Bench Press – warmup sets: bar x 5, 65x5, work sets: 85x5, 95x5, 105x5
Deadlift – warmup sets: bar x 5, 65x3, 95x3, work sets: 145x5, 155x5, 165x5
Horizontal Row Variation – 3 x 10 (1 arm row, seated row, chest supported row)
As you can see adding weight each set adds up pretty quickly, there is no reason to go any faster. This also gives you plenty of opportunity to perfect your technique with lighter weights. The next week your workouts would look exactly the same except you would bench press twice and overhead press once, alternating these two movements allows you to progress a little slower on these two lifts. These two lifts don’t use as much weight and you will stall out faster if you perform them every session.
Notice the warmup sets on Wednesday and Friday. Each lift should always start with the bar (no matter how strong you get), and then you can take some larger jumps to get to your work sets of the day. Another important point to note is that on the deadlift (unless you have bumper plates), you will have to perform a Romanian Deadlift until you are using 135 or more for your work sets. If you try to deadlift from the floor with less than 135 the range of motion is too great and this will compromise your technique.
How long do you continue adding weight every set? When you’re top set starts to feel “hard” but still doable it’s time to change things up, just a small change, not a big change. For most lifters this would be 1-3 weeks. For the next step in your journey you should alternate between two different workouts that look like this:
Back Squat – 3 sets of 5
Bench Press – 3 sets of 5
Deadlift – 3 sets of 5
Back Squat – 3 sets of 5
Overhead Press – 3 sets of 5
Pendlay Row – 3 sets of 5
Upper Back Exercise
At this point you’re top sets are getting heavy and you will need to progress slower. Instead of adding weight every set, you will add weight every workout perform your three work sets all at the same weight, with the exception of the Pendlay row. We will progress Pendlay rows in a similar manner as we did the rest of our lifts, by adding weight each work set. We are not performing the deadlift less frequently because it can be more difficult to recover from, so we are subbing the Pendlay row every other workout. When your sets get hard, but still doable on Pendlay Row you will progress them in the say way as the other lifts.
Let’s say that our beginning lifter was able to add weight to the bar every work set for 3 weeks in a row and they finished with squatting 215 for sets of 5, bench pressing 125 for sets of 5, deadlifting 255 for sets of 5 and overhead pressing 85 for sets of 5. A week’s worth of workouts may now look like this:
Back Squat – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, work sets: 215x5x3 sets
Bench Press – warmup sets: bar x 10, 85x5, 105x3, work sets: 125x5x3 sets
Deadlift – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, 225x1, 255x5x3 sets
Back Squat – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, work sets: 220x5x3 sets
Overhead Press – warmup sets: bar x 10, 65x5, 85x5x3 sets
Pendlay Row – bar x 5, 65x5, 75x5, 85x5
Upper Back Exercise – 3 x 10 (face pulls are my favorite)
Back Squat – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, work sets: 225x5x3 sets
Bench Press – warmup sets: bar x 10, 85x5, 115x3, 130x5x3 sets
Deadlift – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, 225x1, 265x5x3 sets
At this point smaller jumps will be implemented, likely 5 to 10 pounds, or even less. As I mentioned above you can purchase fractional plates to make jumps as small as ½ pound. These are very useful for female lifters and for younger lifters. It is likely that you will be able to make progress using progression 2 for a few weeks or even months depending on the lifter. At that point it’s time to consider more changes that could require the lifter to move to an upper/lower training split and include more variation in rep ranges as well, but that could be a whole other article. If you are at this point shoot me an email at email@example.com to learn more about my online coaching program.
Coming Back After Years Off
There are many of you out there that have performed a fair amount of strength training in their past and would be able to begin training with more than just the bar. After reviewing and re-learning proper technique on all the lifts these lifters would move straight to progression 2 and here is how to find your starting point.
Back Squat – work to a heavy set of 5 reps
Bench Press – work to a heavy set of 5 reps
Pendlay Row – work to a heavy set of 5 reps
Overhead Press – work to a heavy set of 5 reps
Deadlift – work to a heavy set of 5 reps
Pull-ups – 3 sets of max reps
From here you will take 90% of your top set and use that as your starting point for your 3 sets of 5 to begin progression 2. Let’s say a female lifter squatted 225x5, bench pressed, 135x5, deadlifted 265x5, overhead pressed 95x5, and Pendlay rowed 125x5. From here their first week of training would look like this:
Back Squat – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 175x3, work sets: 205x5x3 sets
Bench Press – warmup sets: bar x 10, 65x5, 95x3, work sets: 120x5x3 sets
Deadlift – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 175x3, 215x1, work sets: 240x5x3 sets
Pull-up Progression (again check out my article, The 4 Levels of Pull-Up Power, at T-Nation for more on how to train pull-ups).
Back Squat – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, work sets: 210x5x3 sets
Overhead Press – warmup sets: bar x 10, 65x5, work sets: 85x5x3 sets
Pendlay Row – warmup sets: bar x 10, 65x5, 95x3, work sets: 115x5x3 sets
Upper Back Movement (face pulls are my favorite)
Back Squat - warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, work sets: 215x5x3 sets
Bench Press – warmup sets: bar x 10, 75x5, 105x3, work sets: 125x5x3 sets
Deadlift – warmup sets: bar x 10, 135x5, 185x3, 225x1, work sets: 250x5x3 sets
From here you would plan to add 5 to 10 pounds per lift, per workout, for as long as possible. Just like we mentioned above when you reach the point your can no longer add 5 to 10 pounds per movement it will be time to consider moving to an upper/lower split and also include some more variation into your training. If you are at this point shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to help you plan the next step in your strength training journey.
Strength Training Will Change Your Life
No matter how old you are or what your goals are, strength training with barbells is the most effective and efficient type of training you can perform. Throw in some pull-ups, barbell rows, and appropriate low impact conditioning, and you have EVERYTHING you need to accomplish your strength and fitness goals. Not only will strength training help you accomplish your fitness goals, it will improve your confidence and your quality of life. Strength training changed my life forever, start strength training today, you won’t regret it.