Beginning Weight Training Part 2

In Beginning Weight Training Part 1, I looked at some basic issues relating to beginning weight training including some commentary about different goals of weight training (and why a trainee’s ultimate goal sort of doesn’t matter in the very beginning stages) as well as looking at what defines a beginner trainee.

Today I want to continue by looking at what the specific goals of beginner training are, that is what specific adaptations and things are trying to be accomplished when setting up a beginning routine in the weight room.  As I’ll come back to when I finish up next Tuesday in Part 3, those goals desired, along with some science I’m going to bore you with go a long way towards helping to design a good basic beginning weight training program.

Now, as I mentioned in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, people have varying and myriad goals for why they get into the weight room.  And while the specifics of training certainly need to reflect that at some point, at the beginner stage, I believe that their training programs will look more alike than not.  Whether the ultimate goals are the physique sports (bodybuilding, fitness, figure), powerlifting or some other strength related sport, lifting for sports performance or general health, beginner routines will all look basically the same.  The big exception, as I also mentioned before, would be Olympic lifting training but setting that up is between you and your coach.

But hopefully the point is made and that point is this: in a conceptual sense, the goal of all beginner weight room training is to develop a base upon which to perform more specialized training.  But now you’re wondering what exactly I mean by ‘developing a base’ upon which to perform more specialized training which is, of course, the topic of today’s article.  I’ve summarized the primary adaptations that are important to beginners below:

  1. Develop a general balanced whole-body base of strength and/or muscle mass to allow for specialization later on
  2. Improving neural mechanisms of strength production/Learning to lift weights
  3. Determine optimal exercise selection for targeting individual muscle groups
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  4. Condition connective tissues to handle heavy training
  5. Improve work capacity/recovery
  6. Behavioral stuff: pain tolerance, determination, consistency, etc.

I suppose I should also mention diet here since that is, as much as anything, a key aspect of many weight room goals (whether physique or athletically oriented).  Starting to develop good basic nutrition skills can and should be done during the beginner stage, it’s all part of developing fundamental habits for later down the road.  I won’t say much about this in this series; instead I’d point readers to The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 1 and The Baseline Diet 2009 Part 2 for a look at setting up a basic athletic type of diet.

And with that out of the way, I want to look at each of the 6 topics above in some detail.

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Goal 1: Develop a General Balanced Whole-Body Base of Strength/Muscle Mass

While developing monster muscles isn’t the goal of everyone entering the weight room, I’d certainly say that increasing muscle mass to some degree (whether it’s for health, vanity or performance purposes) is generally at least one goal of going into the weight room.  Sure, some folks fall into the ‘I don’t want to get bulky’ mentality but, truth be told, given the slow rate of muscle mass gains, waking up huge is not a rational fear that anyone should have.

Mind you, if there’s anybody who wants to get huge fast it’s generally (young) males; females are more commonly in the ‘I don’t want to bulk up’ camp (and often engage in endlessly pointless training in an attempt to avoid something that isn’t going to happen anyhow).  The simple fact is that, with few exceptions (usually underweight teenage males put on a program of squats and milk), rapid gains in true muscle mass don’t happen in the first place and certainly not for beginners (and certainly certainly not for women).

In a  similar vein, increasing strength to some degree is also a common goal of going into the weight room whether it’s for performance/sport reasons or just a desire to lift minimum macho poundages and impress one’s buddies (again, this is usually common among younger males).  I’d note, and I’ll come back to this in more detail in Part 3 of this series on Tuesday that the desire to lift as much weight as quickly as possible gets a lot of beginners into a lot of problems.

But again, the point is sort of made: at least a primary goal of beginner training (whether by desire or simply end result) is to have some increase in both muscle mass and strength levels.  Both are clearly key for anyone interested in performance or physique competition and even for general health carrying a bit more muscle (or at least limiting the common age-related loss of muscle) and having more strength tend to improve overall health and wellness (e.g. you can pick up the bag of groceries/take out the big garbage can that was once too heavy).

I would note that developing any muscularity/strength in a reasonably balanced fashion across the body might be considered a sub-goal here.  Put differently: just training the pecs and guns (guys know what I’m talking about) or whatever isn’t what I’m talking about.  Rather, developing some muscle mass and strength throughout the body in some sort of roughly ‘balanced’ fashion should be one goal of beginning training.

In a related vein and this is something that will be far outside the scope of this article is the fact that, as often as not, beginning strength training needs to address the massive imbalances that are often caused by our modern life.  Folks who sit all day at a computer/in a cubicle or do various and sundry jobs often enter the weight room with strength and/or flexibility imbalances that need to be corrected.  Pelvic tilt issues, shoulder rounding issues, neck issues and others are common as a function of what most of us do all day long and early training is a good place to address these.

However, addressing all of them in any detail in this article would be impossible; in Part 3 I’m going to make the (probably incorrect assumption) that no corrective work need be done.  But that is a consideration and something that usually needs to be addressed to at least some degree in the beginning stages of training.  Unfortunately, it’s a consideration that is hard for people to deal with without some form of competent coaching or training.  I would suggest folks read Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson’s excellent Neanderthal No More series for a rather thorough look at the topic.

But ignoring that last bit, that’s the first primary goal of beginning weight training; regardless of your ultimate goal down the road, developing a good base of all-around whole-body strength/muscle mass to provide a ‘base’ upon which to lay more specific training down the road (whether it be jakkedness, hottiness, strengthiness, general healthiness or what have you).

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Goal 2: Improve Neural Mechanisms of Strength Production/Learn to Lift Weights

To address Goal 2, I have to bore you with a bit of physiology about how the body adapts in the very initial stages of a weight training program.  For context, simply realize that how much weight you can lift in a given exercise is determined both by muscular size and a variety of neural factors.  Of course, levers and such affect this but you can’t change those for the most part so I’m going to focus on the neural and muscular factors here.

Simplistically, we could write:

Strength Output = Muscle Mass * Neural Factors

Where muscle mass is the size of the muscle (technically the cross sectional area) and neural factors refers to a host of adaptations that I’m not going to detail (if you’re really interested, I discuss them in my first book The Ketogenic Diet; I’d note that a lot of additional research on this topic has been done since that book was written so some of the information is probably a touch out of date).

Now, early studies repeatedly found the following phenomenon: when people started lifting weights, they would increase their strength without significant/any increases in muscle mass.  This was taken to mean that the body first made improvements in neural mechanisms with gains in muscle mass coming later; this was eventually almost extended to the idea that the only initial adaptations to training were neural and that actual gains in muscle mass happened later.  However, there’s a problem with this interpretation which is that studies also show that, even in total beginners, training clearly turns on protein synthesis (one of the key aspects of gaining muscle).  What’s going on?

Various explanations for this phenomenon have been thrown around ranging from the idea that beginners also ramp up protein breakdown in the initial stages to the simple fact that most methods of measurement are not accurate enough to pick up changes in muscle mass in the early stages.  I tend to go with the latter interpretation, I think muscle mass gains are begin stimulated in the beginning stages of training, they are simply too slow and small to show up with the methods we have to measure them. In that vein, in my experience with beginners was that gains were simply too slow for anything to show up on body composition measurements until about week 4, and by week 8 there were always measurable changes in something (usually an increase in muscle mass with some fat loss).

Regardless, the point is made that many of the early adaptations to weight training are neural in nature.  Simply, when you start lifting weights, you get stronger initially without necessarily getting bigger.  Which is great if your goal is to get stronger without increasing muscle mass but not so great if your goal is to get jakked as quickly as possible.  But ultimately you sort of don’t have a choice in the matter, you have to go through the neural adaptations one way or another before the real gains muscle mass start to occur/show up (and there are relatively better and worse ways of getting them to occur as quickly as possible which I’ll talk about in Part 3).

I’d mention that weight training tends to cause increased carbohydrate storage in muscles and this also causes water to be stored; and this probably explains why some people do feel as if they are ‘bulking up rapidly’ when they start training.  Women especially tend to feel like they are ‘getting huge’ when they start lifting (and freak out because of it) from this mechanism but it always goes away by about week 3 as the body gets back into water balance.

At least part of these ‘neural adaptations’ is that you’re basically learning proper technique for the different exercises.  That is, without going into all of the details, a lot of initial training is ‘learning to do the movement properly’ and a majority of this is neurologically based.  And, as I noted in Beginning Weight Training Part 1, while much of what’s done in the weight room isn’t as technical as many sports, the point is that proper technique is still generally superior to improper technique when you’re looking at making long-term progress.

I would mention here that lifting technique is actually one place that pure bodybuilding/physique training and pure strength training can potentially differ (and often athletes training for improved performance may be doing something a bit different from either of those two groups).  To make a massive generality, bodybuilders have often attempted to perform exercises in a way that maximally stresses the muscle, based on the idea that it is that stress that causes growth.  Exercise form is often subtly different in bodybuilding and attempting to beat the hell out of the muscle is a big part of how bodybuilders train.  In essence, they try to make the exercise as inefficient as possible, to put the maximal stress on the muscle they want to grow.

In contrast, pure strength athletes tend be more about lessening muscular stress in the sense that the less work the muscle does, the more weight you can move for the same amount of effort.  In essence they are looking for ways to maximize efficiency as this allows them to lift the most weight with the least effort.  So specific techniques or what have you are often made in the strength/power sports to lessen muscular work.  Somewhere in the middle, athletes who are lifting for performance reasons often use lifting techniques somewhere between the two extremes used by bodybuilders or pure strength athletes.

As an example of the differences, I would point you to my article on Bench Pressing Variations where I contrast a ‘bodybuilder’ bench press to a generic power bench (what most performance type athletes would do) to a pure shirted (sort-of) powerlifting bench press.  You can see that you’re moving from one extreme to another with the generic power bench being right in the middle.

Now, as I have mentioned several times already, I feel that this type of specialization or difference is fairly academic in the beginner stages: whether someone is an aspiring physique athlete, aspiring strength athlete, general athlete or simply in the general public, I tend to stick with the middle of the road exercises with a focus on learning how to actually train the target muscles.

That is, whether or not a powerlifter will eventually use a shirt, I think they should learn the technique of Benching with the Pecs. And even if a bodybuilder type eventually moves to an elbows flared ‘pec-tacular’ bench press, I still would start them with a generic power bench in the beginner stages.  Athletes, with few exceptions will be doing the middle of the road variations as a matter of course (there are always some exceptions).  Of course, anyone lifting for general health/fitness or what have you is going to get the middle of the road variations.

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Goal 3: Determine Optimal Exercise Selection for Targeting Individual Muscle Groups

In addition to the basic goal of ‘learning to lift weights’, there are other important goals of this phase of training. Related to the idea of learning to lift weights in general, I’d suggest that folks interested in physique based activities start figuring out what exercises are best for their individual mechanics and such.  This can also be relevant for those who eventually want to pursue strength or performance related activities, figuring out exercises (usually assistance stuff) that best targets a given muscle group or muscle groups (or improves the primary lifts) is important.

Now, I’m not going to get into a big discussion of exercise selection for hypertrophy here as that will be the topic of a future article, sufficed to say that any exercise that generates sufficient tension overload can make you get bigger and/or make the muscle you’re training stronger.  And Internet flame wars to the contrary, exercise selection for hypertrophy or strength is not as simple as “Compound is better” or “Isolation is better”.  As discussed in the highly contentious Squats vs. Leg Press for Big Legs – Q&A article, differences in mechanics and weak points make it more complicated than that and what usually happens is that people project what’s best for them onto the entirety of the training universe.

And, similar to what I wrote above regarding what exercises to first learn, exercise selection tends to be where pure physique sports and pure strength sports often diverge the most.  With athletes it gets even more complicated depending on your overall philosophy (e.g specific vs. general) in the weight room but I’m not going to cover that here.

It should be fairly obvious that anyone who wants to powerlift has to learn to squat, bench and deadlift (or just bench/deadlift if they go into that type of federation).  Obviously Olympic lifters have to do the competition movements (and most would argue some form of squatting) although philosophies can differ drastically beyond that.  Due to the demands of something like strongman competition, squats, deadlifts, overhead pressing of some sort and possibly the Olympic lifts will generally be an important part of training.  While they may not be strictly required, good luck getting very far without them.

But what about folks with physique aspirations (whether competition or just looking better naked)?  As much as many will disagree with me here, there is no exercise that someone with physique aspirations is required to do in their training since it’s simply not part of their performance package.    How much you squat, bench or deadlift doesn’t matter on stage for a bodybuilder or fitness competitor (or for someone just trying to ‘tone up’ or whatever), it’s simply not what you’re judged on.  Rather, muscularity, symmetry, balance, leanness (mainly a function of diet) are what matter.  And as noted above, any exercise that provides sufficient tension and overload can contribute to those things.

Put more directly: the best exercise for hypertrophy of a given muscle group is the one that targets that muscle for a given individual and provides sufficient tension overload to trigger a growth response.  There are other requirements (mainly revolving around safety and the ability to progressively load them) but beyond providing tension overload, no one exercise is mandatory or inherently superior for all people.  Certainly, for some people heavy compounds fit the bill well in this respect; however, for others they are drastically inferior.  Differences in levers and mechanics along with neurology all contribute to this.  Again, this is something I’ll address in more detail in a future article.

But again, no single exercise is mandatory when gains in muscularity are the goal.  Certainly no single exercise will possibly be the best under all situations for all trainees.  At best, a given exercise might be best for an individual trainee under a given situation.  But even that can change depending on the specifics of the routine and the goals.  For example, what if you want to train chest without training triceps for some reason (maybe your triceps are overdeveloped relative to your pecs and you want to bring pecs up without further triceps growth)?  A pec isolation movement would be superior to compound chest in that specific context.

As a more specific example, one of my trainees gets absolutely nothing out of rows for mid-back.  She’s very lat dominant and ends up substituting out when she does cable rowing: her mid-back isn’t targeted optimally regardless of it being ‘the best compound movement for back’.  Rather, a more isolated reverse pec deck with scapular retraction is a far superior movement for her.  It takes her lats out of the movement and it takes her arms out of the equation as well.  And it trains her mid-back better (which is all that matters).  Of course for someone else, the exact opposite might hold true: the reverse pec deck w/scapular retraction is the inferior movement to a compound cable row.

In any case, one thing that can start to be done during the beginner stage is to determine what exercise might or might not be best for you as an individual trainee.  Of course, this brings up the question of how to tell what’s better or worse.  Often you simply go by feel; many have used soreness as an indicator and even acute fatigue or a pump during training would be at least a rough indicator of the muscle being worked (note: this isn’t perfect).  If you have a training partner (or a competent coach) partner, they can check for muscular activation during the exercise.   Various types of touch training can be used to not only help the trainee focus their attention on the target muscle but also to check for activation and such.

In any case, on top of the overall goal of ‘learning to lift weights’ in terms of overall technique, starting to determine what exercises are going to be important is something that can start to be done during the beginner stage.  Note that this is a process that will be continuing for much longer than the beginner stage as well.

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Goal 4: Condition Connective Tissues

While it’s cliche these days to throw out that “[Insert buzzword of the week] is the forgotten part of weight training” I’d suggest that one factor that goes almost completely ignored in the weight room is the status of connective tissues.  Tendons, ligaments and such can all adapt to heavy training; quite in fact they need to do so to be able to handle heavier loading down the road.  But, unlike muscles which often show rapid gains in strength (especially initially), connective tissues adapt very slowly.  Trainees who jump into training that is too heavy or too frequent often come up with joint injuries.

And once injured, connective tissues tend to re-injure fairly easy.  Develop elbow problems early on and they may annoy you for most of your career.  In fact, you can see people in any commercial gym with knees and elbows wrapped simply to get through training with minimal pain.  That’s a sign that their connective tissues are beaten up, either because they didn’t give things time to adapt early on or are training too heavily too often for too long in their current routine.

But this is something that is critical to long-term success (many old time strength athletes talked about the need to ‘strengthen the ligaments’ for maximal strength performance) and avoiding injury.  Just realize that it’s a slow process that takes time (months).  Go too hard too fast and you’re likely to pay a hard price.

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Goal 5: Develop Overall Work Capacity

In Beginning Weight Training Part 1 I mentioned that one criterion for having moved past the rank beginner stage would be the ability to handle a full 60-90 minute workout without the trainee being absolutely crushed by fatigue and that brings us to Goal 5: improving overall work capacity and training tolerance.  In essence, when starting out in almost any activity, trainees have to get into shape to be able to train. Yes, this seems like a contradiction but bear with me.

Intense training is a stress to the body.  And requires that certain base fitness quality be developed.  This is usually referred to as work capacity, others simply call it the ‘training base’.  You can think of it as having worked up to the point that a given workout, while stressful, doesn’t overwhelm you completely.  As well, recovery capacities can be improved over time and this means not only better recovery during a workout (between sets for example) but between workouts.

Beginner trainees, unless they are coming from some other sport into the weight room, have to gradually develop their ability to handle training volume.  This, like connective tissue, tends to be slower than other adaptations.  And it’s not sexy to develop basic fitness which is why nobody wants to take the time to do it.  But it’s crucial for long-term progress.  Quite in fact, in many more performance oriented sports, phases to improve work capacity are often performed between phases of performance improvement.

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Goal 6: Behavioral Issues: Pain Tolerance, Consistency, Focus, etc.

A final goal and one I’m not going to spend a ton of time on today or next Tuesday I’m going to simply group under behavioral stuff.  This includes pain tolerance, training consistency, focus, determination, etc.   These are all things that trainees often lack when starting out but which can be developed with practice.  Because nobody reaches much of a goal when they skip every second workout.  And nobody but nobody reaches their goals when they are unwilling to put forth at least some effort in their training.

While I’m not saying that trainees need to kill themselves in training, anyone not willing to work outside of their comfort zone and push themselves a bit isn’t likely to get very far.  And this can be trained over time (by gradually pushing yourself a bit harder over time and resetting what you thought of as a previous limit).  Discussing all of this would require more space than I have but it is important and can be improved by training progressively in the weight room.  It’s also where a good coach or trainer can be valuable as they will know how to push just enough to get the person to the next level without destroying themselves.

For example, beginning (and even some intermediate trainees) often think that they are far more fatigued than they are; a good coach can spot this and have the athlete successfully complete something that the athlete/trainee thought that they were too tired to do.  Which has the end result of teaching that athlete that their limits are higher than they thought.  And at some point in the future, when they reach what they perceive as another limit the coach will have them do it again, further raising the bar.

Similarly, many beginning trainees tend to give up quickly when things get even the slightest bit uncomfortable.  In many ways, this makes sense, pain is a sensation that usually means ‘stop doing that’.  But learning how to tolerate the discomfort endemic to productive training is a huge part of long-term progress; without it folks will hit an early wall since they won’t be able to push hard enough to generate further gains.

Again, a good coach can play a role here; when an athlete starts to give up, the coach can get them to go a little bit further.  The athlete learns that they didn’t die, that the pain wasn’t really that bad.  Ultimately, this teaches them to push a bit harder.  And, again, later on the coach can do it again, raising the athlete’s ability to tolerate discomfort a bit higher still.

I think you get the idea.  And while the above is certainly easier with a competent coach available, some of it can be trained during the beginner stages by following the guidelines I’m going to give you.

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Summing Up

And that’s a look at the primary goals of beginner training.  From developing a basic base of muscular strength and size (and possibly dealing with imbalances due to lifestyle) to learning how to lift weights to determining optimal exercise to others, these are all factors that are important to pretty much all trainees regardless of their ultimate goal.  Which is why beginning training, by and large, won’t be terribly specific.  Since they all have to accomplish the same things during their earliest stages in the weight room, the training will be essentially identical.  Specialization will come further down (even as early as the intermediate stage of training).

And that wraps it up for today, next time I’ll bore you with some more science and then look at some different approaches to drawing up beginner training programs with some specific examples.

Read Beginning Weight Training: Part 3.