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Intro To Strength Training


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#1 FerrousMaverick

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Posted 24 June 2011 - 12:33 PM

We've all been beginners at some point, and it can be intimidating and scary. This guide is here to help introduce the idea of strength training. We aren't dogmatic, nor do we think that one plan is the plan for everyone. So let's start at the very basics, and I'll present the information in a series of questions and answers that are similar to the ones I asked, and hopefully things will be a lot clearer.

What's the difference between strength training and bodybuilding?

The biggest difference is in your training goals. Strength training is all about lifting the heaviest weight you can lift, and it is less concerned with the size and shape of the muscles. Bodybuilding is concerned with the size and shape of the muscles, and less about the absolute strength. They both have there place, and some people alternate between cycles of strength training and body building. That's great. Just remember that this forum is about strength training, so when you want to switch to bodybuilding you might be better served by a forum that specializes in that. You will get bigger with strength training, and you will get stronger with bodybuilding; but the focus of each discipline is different. Strength training will build strong muscles, but they won't be huge. Body building will make your muscles bigger, but they won't get as strong.

If you've never lifted a weight before in your life, but you want big muscles, I recommend starting with strength training rather than bodybuilding. The reason has to do with the fact you need to establish a body to build. A word you are going to hear in bodybuilding circles is hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the process of making your cells bigger, kind of like filling a balloon. The problem is that it doesn't add more cells, so once the balloon is at its largest size it can't get any bigger. A strength trainer will be building more muscle to support lifting heavy things. It's like getting more balloons to fill. The strength training will increase the amount of muscle you have, although it will be very lean and dense. Now I hope no bodybuilders get offended at the analogy I used, but I couldn't come up with a better one. In short, you are going to realize your goals more quickly if you get all your beginner gains with strength training and then fine tune those results with body building. There's no reason you can't go back and forth between the two disciplines.

OK, so what do I need to do strength training?

The bare minimum prerequisites are:
  • a body
  • heavy things to lift
The tool of choice for strength trainers, particularly in the beginner programs, is the barbell. There just hasn't been a better tool invented. Not dumbbells, and definitely not machines. So a more complete list would be:
  • a barbell (preferably Olympic standard)
  • weight plates
  • power rack
  • bench
  • room to do your lifts (most of us go to a gym that has all this stuff)
  • A plan to follow
When you are a beginner you don't need to worry about the chalk, belts, straps, or any of the other stuff. Just start with the basics. The most important thing is to get started and build from there. When you start having problems that those other things solve, then you can ask about them.

What does a strength training program look like?

The exact set of lifts and the order will be a little different from program to program, but the following principles will be the same across all of them:
  • Compound lifts that recruit as many muscles working together as they can
  • Working out 3x per week
  • At least a full day of rest between each session
  • Progressive loading (you are increasing weight on a schedule)
  • Parallel squats. This is the foundational lift for all of strength training. You will learn to love them.
  • 5x5. That's 5 sets of 5 reps. While not every strength training program uses that, most do. It's older than Reg Park, and no-one knows where it originally came from. We just know it works.
What are some examples of compound lifts in a good strength program?
  • Squats. Don't kid yourself, any routine that doesn't have squats doesn't build strength.
  • Deadlifts.
  • Overhead Press (or simply called the Press)
  • Bench Press (many argue it isn't as good as the press, but it's an official power lifting technique so most routines include it)
  • Barbell Rows
  • Olympic lifts (Clean, Jerk, Snatch)
  • Power cleans. Like a clean without the front squat.
  • Power snatch. Like a snatch without the overhead squat.
  • Dips. Later they will be weighted dips
  • Pullups/Chinups. Later they will be weighted
  • Pushups
  • Reverse Pushups
Some of the lifts/exercises are assistance exercises, some are very technical, and you may not see all of them in any given program. You should see the first four in any beginner strength program.

I'm a complete beginner, and I don't know how to choose a program. What should I do?

While the most important thing is to get started, anything you do now will help you get stronger. There are a few options you can go with:
  • Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength. It's a solid program that gives you good results.
  • Adam Wathan's Average F'n Program. It's home grown with our own Adam Wathan. You only have to worry about a pair of main lifts and one assistance exercise.
  • Medhi's StrongLifts 5x5. Medhi is a marketer, and maybe not the best guy to get to know, but his program works. Many of us got started with it.
Regardless of which program you start, I highly recommend buying Rip's book because it really breaks down the lifts and helps you recognize when you need to correct things. If a program isn't working for you, then you may need to change programs. Just commit to one for the first 12 weeks and re-evaluate from there. The following points should help you decide:
  • StrongLifts 5x5 is simple, but has a lot of volume. If you are an older lifter, or have problems recovering, it may not be the best solution for you.
  • Starting Strength has a lot of information that will help you in the long run. There's less volume than SL 5x5 in the beginning, but it still may be tough to get through all 12 weeks depending on how heavy you started.
  • The Average F'n Program has the least amount of volume. That should be a good match for older lifters to get started with. Some of the finer details are still being worked out, but it promises to be a solid starting program.
How do I pick a gym?

The list of guidelines here are to provide some help to pick a gym when you have a choice. Depending where you live you may only have one gym you can use, so you will have to make the best of that situation.
  • Power racks. They help you perform squats safely. If they don't have power racks, they need squat racks with safeties.
  • Olympic barbells. They weigh 20kg, or about 45lb.
  • Bumper plates if possible. They make barbell rows and deadlifts easier. Unfortunately, finding a gym with these is not common.
  • Round plates. If you have a choice between two gyms and one has hexagon plates and the other has round plates pick the round plates. Again, they help make barbell rows and deadlifts easier.
So, what about clothing?

If you are working out with someone, it helps to use close fitting clothes. Baggy clothes can hide form problems that your lifting partner would be able to point out to you. Other than that, you may want to consider the following:
  • Sweat pants on deadlift days. The knurls on the bar can scrape your legs when the bar is heavy
  • Weightlifting shoes. The difference is that the sole is hard and does not compress. They can be expensive, so some less costly alternatives would be Chuck Taylors or lifting barefoot. Running shoes will give you an unstable platform when the bar gets heavy.
  • Nothing that will restrict your movement. It's hard enough lifting heavy things, you don't want your sweaty clothes to be adding to the resistance. That usually means something that stretches.
  • Nothing slippery, particularly not in your shirt. It can be hard enough to keep the bar in place when you are squatting, but if the bar slides around on your shirt because it is so friction free then you can have some problems. Favor cotton or a 50/50 blend over all synthetic clothes.
How long am I a beginner?

In strength training we don't look at how long you've been lifting. We look at how quickly you can recover and adapt to be stronger. A good resource that talks about this in detail would be Practical Programming for Strength Training. The general hierarchy goes something like this:
  • Complete beginner: can recover and adapt in 24 hours (gains every day)
  • Novice: can recover and adapt in 48-72 hours (gains every other day)
  • Intermediate: can recover and adapt in about 1 week (gains every week)
  • Advanced: can recover and adapt in about 1 month (gains monthly)
  • Elite: multi-month recovery and adaptations (gains can be 2x or 1x a year)
You transition from the complete beginner to novice so quickly, it doesn't make sense to depend on that. Besides not many people have time to work out every day. The biggest take away is that once you start stalling all over the place, and you've made the best of your deloads, it's probably time to switch to a program designed for the next higher level. If you can't make gains every session, you are not a beginner any more. It's time to move on to an intermediate program.

If you are curious about what ballpark weights you might be able to lift, check out the Weightlifting Performance Standards. It's important that you don't read too much into these standards, but they are a good way to help you figure out if your goals are reasonable or not. I wrote something more in depth about using the strength standards here: Applying the Strength Standards to You.

Now, don't feel discouraged if you can't lift what is listed under "Untrained" for your size and gender. You'll be surpassing that in no time at all. What's important to realize is that what's expected of strong changes with your weight. You will be getting heavier as you add on more muscle. That means the potential of what you can do will also increase.


Just Say No to Steroids

Look, it's clear you can get stronger and build larger muscles with steroids. However, they come at a significant cost to your body. Folks like Reg Park could bench press 500lb before steroids were invented. You'll have a lot more respect when you lift heavy things natural than when you are using steroids. The bottom line is that your body naturally produces hormones and and uses muscles within a certain range of proportions. Isolation exercises and steroids will knock that balance way off, which causes other problems. Besides, you're a beginner now. There is no reason to try to eke out that last bit of performance when you haven't even maxed out what you can do raw.

When you start down the path of steroids, it will give you the confidence to lift in ways that are not normal, and even detrimental to your body. It's best to focus on technique and learning how your body is designed to move. You want exercises that recruit as many different muscles as possible in its movement so that your strength is balanced. It also wreaks havoc on your body, and can cause kidney problems among other health issues. If you are curious, start googling for the detrimental affects of steroids. You'll soon realize that lifting raw (or natural) is the way to go.

So, Really How Big Can I Get Without Steroids?

OK, if you really want to know how large you can get if you achieve the level of lifting that raw body building champions do then check out a summary of the study done by Casey Butt, Ph.D. on the subject. There's even a link to a calculator that does the calculations for you. You'll need three measurements: your height, your wrist circumference (just above your styloid process), and your ankle circumference (smallest point between the ankle and the calf). How accurate is it? When the formulas are applied to the same people he used for the sample, he was within a couple percentage points. As the article suggests, they are not limitations, but to exceed those numbers you have to train harder than the crowd he took the samples from. The formula will even tell you how much you will weight at a given body fat percentage. Just a note: his formulas only work for someone who is done growing. If you are young and still growing, the predictions are going to change as you get taller.

But seriously, this site is about getting strong. Who cares if your arms are 15 inches or 20 inches, all we care about is that you can lift really heavy things. Enough of the vanity talk now. If only Dr. Butt did a study for how much we would be able to lift, that would be something...

I have more questions!

That's what this forum is for. I just wanted to provide a quick introduction. I will likely expand this some more later.
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#2 Mike

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Posted 24 June 2011 - 03:08 PM

Thanks Mav. I would like to offer a few thoughts.
  • Drop the sprinter/marathon analogy as it doesn't really clear up anything. Instead just emphasize that for BB, the end goal is looks. Strength comes as a result of the desire for more size/definition. Whereas with ST, the end goal is maximum strength, and a healthy look comes as a result of your strength gains.
  • You could also emphasize that strength training will not make you huge like BB. We build lean dense muscle
  • I think the balloon analogy can work, but needs tweaking. Picture your muscle cells as balloons. A BB will want all the balloons (cells) to be filled to the maximum size. This is best accomplished through high rep isolation exercises, done until failure. But a ST will instead add more balloons (cells). This is best done by doing low rep compound exercises, and progressively adding weight each workout.
-really appreciate the time you have put in already
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#3 FerrousMaverick

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  • Height:6'1" (185 cm)
  • Body Weight:132kg / 291lb
  • Squat PR:450lb (204kg)
  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 24 June 2011 - 06:58 PM

-really appreciate the time you have put in already


I'll add some more to it later tonight. Good feedback, I was just running short on time this morning.
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#4 FerrousMaverick

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  • Body Weight:132kg / 291lb
  • Squat PR:450lb (204kg)
  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 27 June 2011 - 12:27 PM

I've added a couple more sections to cover "how long am I a beginner", "steroids vs raw", suggested clothing, etc.
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#5 FerrousMaverick

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  • Height:6'1" (185 cm)
  • Body Weight:132kg / 291lb
  • Squat PR:450lb (204kg)
  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 07 July 2011 - 04:41 PM

Added a question and answer for the more vain among us (how big can I get).
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#6 Mike

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  • Press PR:225lb Bench x1
  • Deadlift PR:365lb x1

Posted 07 July 2011 - 04:54 PM

It's turning into a really nice article to point some new kids towards.
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#7 FerrousMaverick

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  • Squat PR:450lb (204kg)
  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 11 July 2011 - 05:48 PM

It appears that Medhi is going off the deep end. Someone I suggested should look into SL or SS asked for the StrongLifts report, and got spammed by Medhi:

http://fitness.stack...ollow/2736#2736

If this is going to be Medhi's new way of doing business, I'd recommend steering clear. It is very unfortunate as the program itself does work.
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#8 Wildy

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Posted 12 July 2011 - 09:42 AM

He did send a load of emails at the same time as the report when I signed up for it a couple of months ago but it only lasted a few days before it stopped. Funnily enough, since I signed up to hear about when his forums were re-opening, I haven't heard anything at all :)

edit: forgot to add, I didn't bother doing the census-style questionnaire for the excel spreadsheet. Call me paranoid but I see no reason at all to send all that info to some random guy off the internet.
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#9 sking

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Posted 12 July 2011 - 02:06 PM

I didn't bother doing the census-style questionnaire for the excel spreadsheet. Call me paranoid but I see no reason at all to send all that info to some random guy off the internet.

I have shared them here:
Kilograms
Pounds

No preview, but you can hit the download link at the top.
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#10 Wildy

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Posted 13 July 2011 - 05:46 PM

Thanks.
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#11 Mike

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 06:10 AM

It appears that Medhi is going off the deep end. Someone I suggested should look into SL or SS asked for the StrongLifts report, and got spammed by Medhi:

http://fitness.stack...ollow/2736#2736


You are a busy man on the internet these days Berin. Nice work as always.
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#12 FerrousMaverick

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  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 15 July 2011 - 07:01 PM

Added a new question for a list of the types of lifts/exercises you would expect to see in a strength training program. Also added a reference to a new beginner program I stumbled on today. NOTE: the lifts specified in the program are all the same kinds of lifts in StrongLifts 5x5 (with assistance exercises). The program is a bit more of a choose your own program based on some general guidelines, but seemed compatible with what we are doing.
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#13 MrSalue

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Posted 10 August 2011 - 05:36 PM

Thank you!!
and another thank you in arabic ;p
شكرا
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#14 Kilim

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Posted 16 October 2011 - 01:16 PM

This is a great post!
Liked it so much I had to link it in my blog post here: http://wp.me/p1ytwz-pN
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#15 AdamW

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  • Deadlift PR:601

Posted 22 November 2011 - 03:57 AM

Good post! My only suggestion is to tweak the "How long am I a beginner?" section.

How much you can lift has no bearing on determining whether or not you are a novice lifter or not. A novice lifter is someone who can add weight to the bar every session. Someone who can cause enough stress in one workout and adapt to it within 48 hours so as to be able to lift more the next time. If you are squatting 405 and still adding weight every session, you are still a novice. If you have hit a wall at 225 and keep stalling and spinning your wheels, you could be an intermediate even though you are lifting less than the other guy. It's all very individual. Being a novice is a good thing, you want to get as far as you can without making your programming more complicated.

An intermediate is someone who can only add weight weekly or bi-weekly, while advanced trainees have to add weight even slower. Nobody should be jumping to an intermediate program just because they have hit 1.5x BW, they should be jumping to an intermediate program when they are no longer making progress on a novice program.
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#16 FerrousMaverick

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  • Body Weight:132kg / 291lb
  • Squat PR:450lb (204kg)
  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 22 November 2011 - 01:39 PM

Thanks for the reminder. I originally wrote the article before I read the "Practical Programming for Strength Training" which goes into those concepts in great detail. While the chapters on the programming itself was a little weak, all the information at the beginning covering recovery, stress, and adaptation was indispensable.

I've revised that section.
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#17 AdamW

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  • Press PR:385 BP (380 paused), 275 OHP
  • Deadlift PR:601

Posted 22 November 2011 - 02:46 PM

Looks good man! Nice work on this article!
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#18 PorridgeOrange

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Posted 15 December 2011 - 06:35 PM

Thanks for this article...as a rank beginner I really appreciate a nice clear introduction!
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#19 DonkeyKong

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Posted 14 February 2012 - 03:52 AM

Nice one. My only comment would be that you should actively embrace being a beginner. Whilst you're a beginner you can progress all the time, you get to make the biggest gains in the shortest amount of time and you get to understand the thrill of adding weight to the bar each time you work out. Once you break out of that phase, every gain in strength becomes a battle. You dissect your form endlessly to make improvements. In short - life becomes harder. But it's that joyous beginner phase in lifting that got me hooked in the first place and it's the desire to continue progress at that rate (even though it's impossible) that keeps me coming back.
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#20 FerrousMaverick

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  • Squat PR:450lb (204kg)
  • Press PR:OHP: 165lb (75kg) 72.5kg 3RM Bench: 290 lb (131 kg)
  • Deadlift PR:235 kg (517 lb)
  • External Blog:http://ferrousmaverick.blogspot.com/

Posted 07 March 2012 - 05:48 PM

Reworked the "how do I pick a starter program" section with a reference to the "Average F'n Program"
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#21 AdamW

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Posted 07 March 2012 - 07:41 PM

Thanks Mav!
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#22 Lazarus

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Posted 26 April 2012 - 03:13 PM

A very well written and informative post.

Thank you.
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#23 redman

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Posted 10 June 2013 - 11:33 AM

Excellent post mate,very good info for all of us newbies, thanks for posting!!!
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