Many people are self-conscious about being a beginner. It's as if they feel people are judging them because they just started training. It actually holds a lot of people back, which is unfortunate. My hope is that with this article, I can convince you that it's in fact a good thing to be a beginner, and that you should cherish your time spent in this stage of your training career. To set the scene, take a minute and read through the questions below and think of your honest answer.
Would you rather:
A) Be able to make linear gains every time you go to the gym without putting much thought into nutrition, sleep, recovery, intensity, volume, or perfect execution?
B) Have to be dialed in 90+% of the time with your exercise selection, intensity, volume, recovery, nutrition, and execution?
A) gain 15 lbs of muscle in 1 year naturally.
B) gain 1-2 lbs of muscle in 1 year naturally. .
A) Eat in a calorie deficit and still gain muscle.
B) Eat in a calorie deficit and pray to not lose too much muscle.
A) Go to the gym 3x/week, utilize 5-7 different exercises and get great results.
B) Go to the gym 4-6x/week and have to utilize a plethora of different exercise variations just to give yourself a chance at making tiny, fractional gains.
A) Not need to track protein and macros and still gain muscle and strength weekly/monthly.
B) Have to hit protein targets every day (not just most days) and be very precise with your macros.
If you selected A for most or all of these questions, you’d rather be a beginner than an advanced lifter. These are all non-exaggerated comparisons of what beginners experience vs. what advanced trainees experience. In this article, I’m going to break down what it means to be a beginner, along with why there’s absolutely no shame in not being advanced. If you know you’re not a beginner, worry not, Part III and IV are geared towards considerations for intermediate and advanced trainees.
It’s important to note that although a beginner is someone who has been training effectively and consistently for ~0-2 years, most people agree that there are actually 2 categories of beginners. We have newbies, or those who have never trained or have only been training for a few months or less. Then we have actual beginners, or those who have been training for 3 months to 2 years (remember, throughout this series, the month/year classifications aren’t exact/set in stone rules). I’ll have more insight on newbies in part V, but this article will be focused on the general category of “beginner”. Remember, for the purpose of this series, the criteria and key points will be focused on someone who is lifting for muscle and strength gain, but not for a specific sport or competition (not a powerlifter, olympic lifter, crossfit athlete, high level bodybuilder).
What Beginners Need To Focus On (Inside The Gym)
- Focus on movements, rather than muscles. Think of perfecting the squat movement, rather than how much you feel your quads and glutes working. Think about performing a textbook pull-up rather than how much you feel your lats and biceps. Muscle tension will eventually become a focus, but not at this stage. Gaining strength is the best way to build muscle as a beginner (and all experience levels - it's just more apparent/rapid for beginners), so when your lifts increase, your muscles will grow.
- For the first 6 months-1 year, all movements should be compound lifts
- For most lifters (there are exceptions), most movements should be done with free weights (dumbbells/barbells/kettlebells) and bodyweight (pull-ups, push-ups, dips)
-Program should be high frequency, moderate volume, moderate intensity - a beginner needs to practice the movement patterns multiple times per week. They don’t need to think about hitting failure (or really anywhere near it), because it’s not worth the potential risk. Feeling like a set was "challenging" is a perfect goal for a beginner.
-The main movement patterns should be done each session (2-4/week) Squat, hinge (and unilateral versions of each), vertical/horizontal pull, vertical/horizontal push, carry. Depending on the person/goals, jumps and throws may be added.
-Training should occur primarily in the 5-8 rep range (I'd argue this to be true for all experience levels - with the exception of strength athletes)
-Weight will usually be added to the bar each week (usually 2.5-10lbs depending on the person/exercise)
-No changes will be made until a plateau occurs
-Main movements to focus on (newb): Bodyweight/pvc squat, walking lunge, single leg toe touch, bodyweight/banded good morning, DB rows, DB press (unless they can do push ups), lat pulldown (unless they can do pull-ups), farmer’s carries, suitcase carries
(Beginner): Goblet squat, Barbell back/front squat, hex bar deadlift (for some, conventional DL), single leg RDL, DB/BB/Hex RDL, walking lunge, RFE split squat, chinup/pullup (assisted if needed), pushup, dip, incline/flat press (BB/DB) overhead press (BB/DB), Row (BB/DB/Inverted BW), farmer’s and suitcase carries, possibly odd object carries, planks, side planks, jumps, medicine ball throws, and some form of situp/abdominal movement. After a while (person dependent), the lifter may do some calf/tibialis work, bicep curls, tricep extensions, and lateral raises.
*For a beginner program that provides exactly this, along with exercise video tutorials, check out the Terminator Training Method Kickstart Program.
The focus outside the gym will be far more lax, again, because a beginner is going to make gains regardless. In a perfect world, the beginner is a young teenager, and most young teenagers are enjoying their lives and won’t be overly concerned about outside-the-gym factors. While this is fine, the dialed in beginner will obviously make even more gains. If the beginner is starting to train later in age, their lifestyle factors may be taken more seriously. Here are the main pieces of low hanging fruit:
-Protein: .8 g/lb bodyweight
-Minimize alcohol: Many newbs/beginners are highschool or college kids - so no alcohol isn’t usually realistic - at this age, gains still can be made with regular alcohol consumption. It's important to note: alcohol consumption won't enhance gains for anyone. It will detract from them. It just won't effect the progress of a newbie teenager nearly as negatively as a 40 year old advanced lifter.
-Sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours
-Activity: stay active on rest days, work on mobility (person dependent), do conditioning (if the lifter is an athlete, this is a given)
-Cardio: Cardio should be done in appropriate amounts for health and/or performance (not fat loss) reasons.
This concludes the list of outside the gym focuses. This will increase in the intermediate instructions, and significantly increase in the advanced instructions (part III and IV).
What can you expect as a beginner? There are many individual variances that can affect the rate at which a beginner will experience results. Genetics play the biggest role, bar none. Yes, even more so than consistency (in most cases) and lifestyle factors. A somewhat consistent lifter with great muscle building genetics will not only have more strength to start out (without ever touching a weight) than a lifter with average to below average genetics, but will also progress faster, even if the lifter with average genetics is more consistent. This is a very important point that many people overlook. In fact, some people still believe that genetics don’t play a role, and that hard work is all you need to experience gains. If you’ve been around enough gyms for long enough, you know full well that there are genetic outliers. I had a classmate in high school who benched 275 lbs for 3 reps his first time ever setting foot in the weight room. It took me 5-6 years of consistent training to bench 275 for 1 slow, grindy rep. I also had a roommate when I lived in Colorado who was (and still is) 6 foot 3, 245 lbs, and about 12% body fat. We wear also teammates in Special Forces, so I spent 12+ hours/day with him on most days, and therefore can say without a shadow of a doubt that he was natural, ate significantly fewer calories than I did, and trained far less consistently than I did. Yet I weighed 185 lbs at 6 foot 1. Those are just personal examples, but if that doesn't convince you there are genetic mutants out there, I don't know what will.
Consistency is the second most important factor, and habits outside the gym is in 3rd (outside the gym habits get exponentially more important with age and experience). Of course, if the lifter didn’t have a coach or mentor guiding them through this process, this would certainly play a significant role in their potential progress.
It’s important to note that although it’s fun to speculate and make predictions, it can also lead to a lot of anguish. Just because something is possible for some people (in this case, gaining strength and muscle), doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. It’s important to understand this, because a lot of people get discouraged (sometimes enough to quit) when they don’t see the results they’d hoped to see.
For simplicity’s sake, we will assume this particular beginner is a male (numbers for a female under the same circumstances will be ~half) with average muscle building genetics. They’re very consistent with their training (meaning they rarely miss workouts), and they’re ~80% consistent with their outside the gym instructions (above average compared to most beginners). They can expect the following over a 2 year time frame:
- The lifter will gain several hundred total pounds (combined, perhaps not on each lift) on their main lifts (the ones listed above).
- The lifter will likely gain at least 100 lbs on at least two of their big three lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), but more than likely all three, depending on their anatomy (I.E. someone with long arms may struggle with the bench press but make insanely fast gains on the deadlift, and vice versa).
- For the barbell row (BB row) and overhead press (OHP) - considered the last two movements added to the big 3 - the big 5 - strength gains will also be significant. Generally, a BB row strength increase will be similar to that of the bench press (assuming the lifter is following a balanced program), whereas OHP will usually lag behind a bit, due to the inherent difficulty of progressing the movement, but still progress in a somewhat linear fashion.
- The numbers I use to predict muscle gain are based loosely on Lyle Mcdonald’s (an OG fitness writer) muscle gain model. There are several different ways to calculate muscle gain predictions, but they all produce a similar result. Although there are certainly outliers, a lifter with average genetics who is following an excellent training program with an experienced coach can expect to gain ~ 15-20 lbs in year one, 8-12 lbs in year two. This results in a total 23-32 lbs of muscle. This may or may not seem like a lot to some of you, but I can assure you that adding this much lean tissue to your frame will make you look like a completely different person.
These strength and muscle gain numbers are a generalization, and there are plenty of cases of outliers.
Throughout the first two years, progress will be somewhat linear. Meaning weight on the bar and/or reps to the sets can realistically increase each week. Generally, sticking in the same rep range for a beginner and adding weight to the bar (single, linear progression) is the best practice, at least for the first several months. Sometime around the 2 year mark (not an exact number, just a guideline), this lifter will begin to experience something called a plateau in their strength and/or muscle gains (there’s certainly a possibility of plateaus happening earlier, but they’re usually short-lived and easily bustable). Plateaus may occur in just one lift, or more than one. Muscle gain plateaus may also occur (for a late stage beginner, muscle gain is generally directly correlated to strength gain - so the plateaus often accompany one another). Either way, they’re going to need to shift their focus slightly, because they’ve likely crossed the threshold of beginner status, and are now in intermediate territory. Nothing to worry about, this is normal. With some simple adjustments (double progression is usually the next step) and continued hard work, this plateau need not last long.
The concludes the beginner considerations and expectations. Again, there's no shame in being a beginner, and I hope this article convinced you of that!
In part III, I will highlight everything an intermediate lifter needs to know about what to focus on in and out of the gym, and what they can expect for results.
Thank you for reading! Do you remember your experience as a beginner? How much muscle did you gain? If you’re a beginner now, let me know if you have any more questions in the comments section below.