By Adrian Van Vleck – Fitness Nerd
Every day in my group, we get several people asking about beginner programs, and I love it. “Should I do the one punch man workout?” what about “the 21-day Heman workout?” lol We all want to get jacked like Asta during his timeskip (beefcake Asta!) and I am all for it.
There are several issues and pitfalls that I have seen happen to beginners when they start this journey: They get super sore initially (which can lead to quitting), need to learn new movements (learning curve), they end up doing a lot of things with little value to their results (low-value exercises/reps), and the last one would be about overall difficulty (but I want to cover this last, so people don’t get the wrong message)
So… here is a week 1 snapshot just to help give an idea of what it is. Then we will explain everything.
Full body program
Let’s get into how this program works to eventually build it yourself.
Right out of the gate, you might be thinking
“This looks simple!”
Well…… Yes…. Yes, it is. It’s a beginner program.
Let me say it this way.
When you start teaching someone math, do you start with calculus or simple addition/subtraction?
One of the biggest problems I see with so many people is they want to do an advanced program. An advanced program is not meant for fast results. It’s meant to squeak out the last bit of results from someone with who has already gotten a massive part of their potential results. These programs usually result in subpar results for beginners, people being perpetually mega-sore, a lot more hours in the gym (and with fewer results). We all don’t have a healing factor like Wolverine.
Then why do people follow it?
People often see some fit celebrity or influence pushing it going, “here is how I did it,” and think I should do that too. But this is NOT the best way to go (for beginners)
What makes a beginner program different?
It’s designed to do fewer things well: learning movements, progressing and adapting fast, training muscles often to take advantage of the recovery.
Let’s talk about the biggest factor
The biggest factor in fat loss and building muscle is Volume. Volume is just the total amount of sets and reps done. Someone who is very advanced might need 2-3 x the volume of a beginner. The reason is that because fitness is progressive, meaning that people constantly need more and more stimulus to get more and more results. The volume that causes results this month may not be enough to cause results next month and so on. This means that someone who is advanced and has trained for several years may need several times the work that a beginner needs.
But if we do the same sets and reps, we should get even more results, right?
There are two big problems with doing a lot of volume as a beginner.
First is soreness or DOMs (delayed onset of muscle soreness). More reps/volume = more soreness. While this may seem trivial, I have talked to hundreds of people who quit going to the gym because of how sore they got after their first workout. I am talking incapacitated, can’t walk for weeks because they start with a friend’s leg day. Soreness is not a measure of progress. It is just your body reacting to doing things it’s not used to doing.
*split training often has 6-12 working sets per muscle in a workout (a working set is a set that is relatively difficult to complete), a full-body routine displaces that much work over an entire week, making it much less likely to leave someone sore*
The second issue is its effort drops with the more sets someone does.
When it comes to sets of an exercise, most of the results come from the first few sets, and each following set gives diminishing returns. 3 sets are not triple the results as one set, it’s about 30% more, and it’s only 10% more than 2 sets. Each set gives less and less return after the first set. There is one caveat to this. Someone must be able to push it each set; if they don’t, then the set doesn’t really give results (1)
Which is exactly something beginners cannot do well (yet). The more work sets someone must do, the less overall effort someone can do each set, the less effort, the fewer results. Advanced people have trained their bodies, over the years to be able to retain a high effort over several sets.
The couple, this diminishing return with amplified soreness and less effort per set, and people fall into the trap of doing more “poor” quality work with little value.
For beginners, 2-3 sets per muscle group (like legs, chest, glutes) and keeping the repetition range around 8-10 is fine. Slowly work your way up with weights and effort over time. If you want to get strong (like really strong), then 5 reps are excellent.
So if I am doing a few sets per muscle group, then how often can I train my body?
Frequency is how often someone trains. Usually, after a challenging training session, a muscle group may need 24-72 hours to recover and be able to train again fully. However, recovery is directly related to how much stress is placed on it. Typical advanced programs (or bodybuilding programs) might train their biceps once a week with 9 to 15 sets for just the biceps (remember what we said earlier about volume and soreness). If a muscle takes 24-72 hours to recover, that means you need 1-3 days off between bouts of fitness, meaning you can potentially train a muscle every other day. Since beginners don’t need many sets to get some solid results, and since this keeps soreness down, we can train at a high frequency per muscle.
This leads to a 3-4 x a week full-body workout. The great part of this is that the science shows that training a muscle more than once a week gives BETTER results than once a week (even if the same work/volume is done) (2)
Now on off days, while your muscular system is recovering, you can do lighter cardiovascular training and even do mobility stuff also. Since they are different systems, they won’t interfere with each other (remember fitness is progressive, so don’t go crazy at first)
As someone becomes more advanced, and they need more and more sets to get stimulation, the workout time keeps on increasing (due to adding in more work). Eventually, the workout gets to a point where it will need to be split into components. Usually, after a full body, a 4 x a week program that’s split into upper body workouts and lower body workouts (both done twice a week) is the next step. This is still a solid step-up for a workout since you are still training muscle groups twice a week to limit/prevent soreness. Here you might want to get 2-3 exercises per muscle group (2-3 sets each) for the lower and upper body days.
A higher frequency of training a muscle group is also a higher opportunity for learning exercises, practicing, getting stronger, and being able to push harder each time. Training your legs 3 x a week over the first month means 12 workout exposures to learning the right technique. Most strength gains for beginners is neurological (not muscular), which works even better with high exposure to practicing technique and pushing the exercise.
Imagine learning a spot if you just practiced once a week compared to practicing it 3 x a week. It’s a bit of a stretch, but that is what is going on here.
Not every rep is “worth” the same when it comes to results. How difficult a rep is matters quite a bit.
As a workout goes on, the overall effort will decrease throughout the workout. A long workout takes more energy, takes me exertion, and leaves someone more tapped. Also, the more work sets a muscle goes through, the less and less energy it has. As we talked about in the volume section, overall effort per set drops as sets go on. When the effort gets lower, so does the benefit from the set. The more sets, the less overall effort per set, the less benefit per set but increased levels of soreness and the need to recover.
As we mentioned with frequency, by splitting the amount of work/volume over 3 different workouts instead of 1 means you can keep the effort super high on each set and get a lot of benefit from each set.
While we don’t need you to kill yourself each time, it’s important that the workouts are hard enough.
There are 3 ways to determine how hard a set is: intensity, rating of perceived exertion (RPE), reps in reserve (which is how many reps someone has left in them at the end of a set), also known as RIR
I personally like RIR as I feel clients understand it a bit better.
Basically, if you did a set of push-ups for as long as you could until you collapsed on the ground and couldn’t manage to push yourself back up, no matter how hard you tried, that would be an RIR (reps in reserve) of zero. You had no reps left even if you tried. Stopping right before the very last rep, effectively leaving one more rep in you, would be an RIR of 1 (there was 1 rep in reserve). This is important because while it’s not failure, leaving a few reps in you allows you to get results and have enough left in the tank to do another high-effort set.
Whenever you complete a set with an RIR that is +2 over the target RIR, go ahead and increase the weight by the smallest amount you can and try again at the next set.
Let’s say you do a set of dumbbell curls. The program calls for sets of 10 reps. Say you grab the 12-pound dumbbells and start your set. You get to 10 reps, but it’s not very hard. You feel that if you tried to do as many reps as possible that you could possibly get 5 more. Then we would say that the set of 10 was an RIR of 5. That set might be too easy for muscle growth (or preserving it for fat loss). Usually, an RIR of 2-3 is needed for solid growth (3). Maybe the next set, you grab the 15-pound dumbbells to make the set even more challenging. This time you get to 10 reps, and it’s a STRUGGLE! Maybe 1 rep left in you are the end of the set. Perfect.
The biggest issue with RIR is that many people don’t actually know what an RIR of 2 or 3 even feels like. People often call an RIR of 2 when they really had several reps left in them. It can help a lot with training yourself to understand RIR better by using your last set of an exercise to go to absolute failure (a genuine RIR of 0). Now I would NOT do this week 1 and 2 due to the crazy levels of soreness it can produce, but it really helps going to absolute failure to understand just what an RIR of 0 effectively feels like.
What about training to failure?
Look, you don’t need to train your arms so hard that they look like Deadpools broken hand lol.
Training to failure has it’s place, but I would wait on that for a while (after a couple months) until some solid progress is made.
Now we know about effort, frequency, and volume. Now it’s time to talk about what exercises we should do.
There are 9 million exercises out there, some that require insane amounts of technical abilities that people spend years perfecting, to exercises that take no thought at all to do. Exercises also are looked at in a few other contexts: single-joint/isolation, multi-joint/ compound exercises, body parts they target, and movement patterns.
I feel focusing on movement patterns takes care of a lot of things for people as it’s an easy way to think about things. There are 6 movement patterns (or exercise buckets) we are going to put things in: Hinge/bridge, squat/lunge, Push/press, pull/row, core/rotation, and lastly, locomotion (walking, running, carries, crawling, climbing).
A movement pattern is basically bucketing exercises into similar movements. A squat, leg press and a hack squat are all very similar knee, hip, and back mechanics. While some things might be different between them, teaching one covers 90% of the other. We can say the same thing for push-ups, bench presses, or dumbbell presses.
Each movement pattern targets different muscles or similar muscles but differently.
Squat/lunge work the front of thighs (squads), inside of thighs (adductors), glutes, and a bit of your low back.
Hinge/bridge work the back of your thighs (hamstrings), glutes, and lower back (erectors).
Press/push work your shoulders, back of the arms (triceps), and chest.
Pulling work your upper back, lats (upper sides of the back), front of arms (biceps), and forearms.
Core/rotation work your stomach area and sides of the stomach (obliques) among a few other small hips areas.
When programing, you want to make sure there are equal amounts of each pattern for balance. For a full-body workout, it’s fine to select one of each (I added a list to help for these). As a rule of thumb, for every exercise on one side of the body, you want an exercise for the opposite side of the body. For every hinge/bridge, you want a squat/lunge; for every push/press, you want a pull. This also goes for arm exercises, if that makes sense.
Squat: Goblet squat
Hinge: hip thrust from a bench
Press: chest press machine
Pull: lat pull down
Core: kneeling planks
TADA! That’s a simple and solid workout.
Then we can pick a different series for each one for each of the other full-body workouts.
But having a good workout isn’t enough. There is one more important concept to go over.
There are a few core rules/laws when it comes to training. One of the most important laws is what is called progressive overload. The body is lazy in that it doesn’t want to get stronger/faster/ build muscle unless it must (this is because growing tissue is energy expensive). To get it to change, we need to put a stimulant on it that causes it to adapt. The issue is that what caused it to adapt yesterday won’t cause it to adapt in the future. Progression needs to constantly be pushed with more reps, more weight, more sets, more difficult exercises to continually push the body to change. It is VERY common for people to just do stuff without trying to progress and force the body to change. Leaving people in maintenance.
Therefore advanced people NEED more stress and volume compared to beginners.
There are a couple of simple ways to progress that I want to cover: linear progression exercise progression.
Linear progression is where each workout you do, you try to add another couple pounds (or the next smallest increment you can adjust). This works well with plate loaded exercises as you can get fraction plates and increase the load by 2-5 pounds each workout. I have done this method with people and added over 80 pounds to people’s squats in less than 2 months.
An example of linear progression would look like this.
Deadlift: 5 reps w/ 30 lb kettle bell, 5 reps w/ a 35 lb. kettle bell, 5 reps w/ a 40 lb. kettle bell, 5 reps w/ a 45-pound barbell (each listing being a different workout day)
The last example is of what we would call an exercise progression.
Exercise progression would be moving to a more challenging version of an exercise or a version of the exercise where we could increase load easier (a barbell is easier to load than dumbbells as people get stronger). Exercise progressions are excellent as simpler exercises are often easier to learn, and as someone’s lifting skills grow, we can scale the exercise itself.
Here are a few examples of exercise progression.
TRX – assisted squats -> squat to a box -> goblet squat -> barbell squat
TRX – chest press -> kneeling push-up -> push-ups -> feet elevated push-up.
A program like this, with constantly trying to improve on your training/technique, can last 3-5 months of solid progression. You can always ramp up, but I used to train the full body for years and got strong and fit.
Following a beginner program (when someone is a beginner) is the best way to get faster, longer-lasting results without the massive soreness that can debilitate some people.
With small improvements, this program can go a very long way. Just remember to start small and work your way up. Train smart and hard and keep at it.
PS: why such a generic plan for “all” beginners, regardless of goals?
Beginners don’t need much to progress and adapt. I remember my old professor used to joke that riding a bike would improve a beginners bench press lol. The biggest reason is that a general program for beginners will improve ALL aspects of fitness: strength, mobility, endurance, hypertrophy ect. Someone doesn’t need to specialize yet. Simply getting some solid, smart and scalable training is more than enough to help many goals.
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- Dose – response relationship between weekly resistance training https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27433992/
- Effects of resistance training frequency on measure of muscle hypertrophy https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27102172/
- The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562558/