How to Get Stronger, Part 1: The Beginner

My father-in-law is many things, but strong isn’t one of them.

At least, he didn’t use to be.

Two months ago, he asked if he could start working out in my garage gym. Since I don’t want to be excluded from the “pizza and wine”-Fridays he regularly throws, I said yes.

Being well into his 60’s and having spent a working life behind the computer desk while never really engaging in real strength training, I figured he’d have my work cut out for me. Also, being a while since I trained a beginner due to the covid-19 pandemic, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to freshen up my own coaching ability.

Fast forward to today, and my father-in-law has been training twice a week on a super simple – but effective – program. He’s been doing three working sets each of:

  • Trap bar deadlifts
  • Goblet squats
  • Bench press
  • Kettlebell row

In the time hence, he’s gone from bench pressing with the empty bar to training with 110 lbs. In the trap bar deadlift, he’s doubled his training weights and is now lifting 220 lbs. In the goblet squat and kettlebell row, he’s graduated from using the 26 and 35 lbs kettlebells to the 53 lbs.

Having stood at the sideline while coaching the old man through his first few months of strength training, I’ve gotten newfound respect for the magnitude of improvement that is possible in the beginner stage. I am also still invited to pizza Fridays.

The beginner phase and its alluring “newbie gains” can be a fruitful period that puts you on course to impressive results and a long, happy lifting career. It can also be a complete waste of time if you do it wrong enough.

Training in The Beginner Phase

The ease of training correctly when you are in the beginner stage is only surpassed by the ease you can completely mess it up. The point of this article is to help you avoid said mess.

Few things are better examples of the human body’s adaptability than when you start strength training in a sensible, progressive manner. Your strength will increase quickly provided that you follow three simple rules:

  1. Pick a few good exercises.
  2. Train at least twice a week.
  3. Improve the weight, reps, or technique each workout.

1. Picking the Right Exercises

Here’s a good rule of thumb for exercise selection: Pick one exercise for each of the four basic movements below, and you will have trained all of your major muscle groups.

  1. Upper-body push. Examples: bench press, overhead press, push-up, dips, kettlebell press
  2. Upper-body pull. Examples: barbell row, dumbbell row, lat pulldown, pull-ups, inverted row, kettlebell row
  3. Squat. Examples: barbell squat, front squat, goblet squat, leg press, Bulgarian split squat
  4. Hip hinge. Examples: barbell deadlift, trap bar deadlift, Romanian deadlift, kettlebell swing

Which exercises are the best? It doesn’t matter! Pick an exercise from each category that you have the equipment for, that doesn’t hurt when you do it, and that you like or want to improve in.

Classic barbell choices would be the bench press, barbell row, squat, and deadlift. Kettlebell choices would be the kettlebell press, kettlebell row, goblet squat, and kettlebell swing.

If you want to get real fancy, you could pick two exercises from each of the two upper body movements: one vertical pull and push (like the lat pulldown and the overhead press) and one horizontal pull and push (like the barbell row and the bench press). Alternate between the two each time you work out.

Speaking of which …

2. Train at Least Twice a Week

Training once a week will get you a little bit bigger and stronger. Training twice a week will almost double your rate of gains. Training three times a week might improve your gains slightly more, but it also means that you will have to start being a little careful, or you’ll risk overdoing it if you don’t choose exercises wisely.

Our recommended beginner barbell program is a great place to start. You will be alternating between two workouts every time you train, which I recommend doing two to three times per week.

Here’s how the workouts look.

Workout A

  1. Squat: 3 sets x 8–10 reps
  2. Bench Press: 3 sets x 8–10 reps
  3. Barbell Row: 3 sets x 8–10 reps

Rest two minutes between each set.

Workout B

  1. Deadlift: 3 sets x 6–8 reps
  2. Lat Pulldown (or Pull-ups): 3 sets x 8–10 reps
  3. Overhead Press: 3 sets x 8–10 reps

Rest two minutes between each set.

If you train twice per week, you do one of each workout per week, with a couple of rest days in between. You could, for example, train Mondays and Thursdays. This program is also suitable for training three times per week, and if you are eager for results and have the time for it, I recommend you to do so. Alternate between the workouts every time, so that one week you will be training A, B, A, and the next week B, A, B. Make sure to get at least one rest day in between workouts. Examples of training days are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

As you might tell, the program includes an upper-body push and pull each workout and alternates between a squat and a hip hinge. This is because squatting and hip hinge movements overlap in terms of what muscles they work, and designing the workouts in this way enables you to gain strength and proficiency quickly while still keeping the risk of overtraining low.

With my father-in-law, he did all four exercises in the same workout for the first few weeks. But as the weights got heavier and more challenging, we started alternating between goblet squats and trap bar deadlifts while keeping both upper body exercises in every workout. Thus bringing the number of exercises per workout down to three.

3. Improve the Weight, Reps, or Technique Each Workout

When you start training, you’re probably going to suck. You are likely to be weak, inflexible, uncoordinated, and have a low tolerance of training volume.

Good news is: this all changes rapidly once you start training!

Begin your training very light. For most of you, that means starting with an empty barbell or similar light resistance. For some of you, it means starting with something even lighter than an empty bar.

Don’t worry if it seems silly; most of us begin here (I did), and starting light is also the greatest favor you can do yourself. By starting with light weights, you allow yourself to learn the different lifts’ techniques in a safe and stress-free manner. The single best way to set yourself off to a horrible start is to use too heavy weights initially and never really get the chance to learn the technique properly.

Now, your mission for the first few months of training is to improve something every workout. Either by lifting a little more weight than last time, by doing more reps with the same weight, or improving your technique. You can often increase the weight you lift and improve your technique simultaneously in this phase. Use a notepad or our app StrengthLog to keep track of your weights.

As soon as you can successfully lift the number of reps listed in the program above, you increase the weight slightly for your next workout. Between your first few workouts, you might be able to increase the weight by 10 lbs or more, but very soon, you should shift gears down to just adding 5 lbs per workout. This will allow you to learn the technique correctly while still being a very high progress rate (50 lbs after ten weeks!).

You will have to learn the technique of the lifts somehow. You could get help from a coach or a knowledgeable friend, or you could study the exercises online, for example, in our exercise directory.

When you’ve learned what the proper technique looks like, you need to practice it. You should neither expect nor demand perfect technique from yourself or anyone else in the beginner phase. World champion technique can take a decade to learn, and it isn’t realistic to expect it from a beginner. The only way to improve your technique is by practicing, and therefore you should learn by doing. Luckily, since you are new to lifting, you will be training with light weights, which means your injury risk will be very low anyway.

And Then?

Begin by following the training program above. It’s the same as you’ll find here: Barbell Training Program for the Beginner.

Increase the weight as soon as you reach the rep goals, and keep training with that weight until you reach the rep goals again.

After about a month or so, when sets of 8–10 reps are getting challenging, you can drop down to doing three sets of five reps in each exercise instead. This will enable you to keep adding pounds to the bar for a few months more. Sets of about ten reps are great to get more practice at the lifts initially, but once you’re past that phase, sets of five will be more effective for gaining strength.

At this point, the program will look like this:

Workout A

  1. Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Bench Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  3. Barbell Row: 3 sets x 5 reps

Workout B

  1. Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Lat Pulldown (or Pull-ups): 3 sets x 5 reps
  3. Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5 reps

Keep adding weight. As soon as you complete three sets of five reps, you increase the weight by 5 lbs for the next workout. Stick with that weight until you can once again get all three fives in. Sometimes you will have to work with the same weight for several workouts, perhaps just improving from doing 5, 4, and 3 reps in your three sets to 5, 5, and 4 reps. And so on.

This will become increasingly difficult to do as you get stronger, and you will have to work hard at it. Luckily, strength training doesn’t only strengthen your muscles but also your resolve. So as you face increasingly difficult challenges in the gym, you will also be better prepared to overcome them.

Strive to increase your working weights in your sets of five for as long as you can. When you can no longer reach three sets of five with a new weight, even if you’ve been going at it tooth and nail for several workouts in a row, you have entered the intermediate stage.

Read next:

How to Get Stronger, Part 2: The Intermediate (Coming soon!)