Q: Hi Denis,
Thanks for the great column. I have a question: My friend is starting out and has never really done weight training. What do you recommend for a program for a beginner?
. . . Marc Roberts
A: Hi Marc,
Thanks for the comment about the column. I try to make it as enriching as I can. As for your question, there is one principle in exercise prescription that should never be forgotten: individualization. This means that any program has to be specifically adapted to the abilities and needs of the person who is going to perform it.
I always focus on the basics for a beginner. I don’t know if your friend has been doing any other sports or physical activities lately, but an intelligent trainer has to keep in mind that someone who’s not very active doesn’t have the same control over his musculoskeletal system as someone who uses it frequently (even at work). If that’s not the case, you must keep it simple and easy to adapt to.
To begin with, limit the number of the exercises and the level of difficulty to what’s necessary. (If your friend has never been training before, he will get results from any kind of stimulation anyway.) You must also inform your friend that he will be sore in the first weeks of training, since the body is under a new kind of physical stress, and that most of his results during those weeks are going to come from neuromuscular adaptation (the ability to be more and more efficient at using his own neuromuscular system). Thus, I usually prescribe a program composed of one exercise for each major muscle group that will be repeated 2-3 times a week depending on time schedule and individual ability to recover. This means that you have to put away all unnecessary specific work like forearms, calves, and traps, as well as most of the isolation exercises.
The program could be performed on machines or with free weights, again depending on the present level of physical fitness of your friend (e.g., level of coordination). In the beginning, safety is of prime importance and comes before performance. Your friend has to focus on improving his ability to perform the exercises (mind-muscle connection) before focusing on increasing the lifts. (Yes, he’ll have to be patient!)
This is an example of a program I would use:
- Squat (or substitute)
- Deadlift (or substitute)
- Bench press
- Shoulder press
- Biceps curl (if needed)
- Triceps extension (if needed)
- Abdominal crunch
- Back extension
This example, as simple as it looks, works all the major kinetic chains of the body in several planes in an antagonist and hierarchic fashion. It ensures that one doesn’t create major imbalances or deficit in one’s muscular structure. To be even more functional, some exercises such as curls and extensions could be replaced by bodyweight movements like chin-ups and dips, which would work the arms but also the main stabilizers of the shoulder girdle.
I like to use full-body workouts, short rest periods, and bodyweight movements, as these are scientifically linked to a more significant hormonal (anabolic) response, which, of course, means more muscle. This program could easily be done in circuit fashion with 1-3 sets of 10-12 repetitions on each exercise. One thing I like to do is have the client alternate two exercises that are working antagonist muscles. Performing the workout this way cuts the rest periods to a minimum (and thus the workout length) and builds up the cardiovascular system at the same time (your cardio is done, isn’t that beautiful?). I wouldn’t add any other exercises and would stick to the program until there’s a significant slowing down in progress (usually 8-12 weeks). Then your friend could move on to a split program in order to increase the volume and or the intensity.
I hope I haven’t lost your attention with all these technical words. I just want this example to show the complexity and importance of careful attention when designing even the most basic program of all.
Have a great workout!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006