Updated: Jan 26
I see more and more people deciding to take a turn towards exercising. There is no doubt that lifting weights is becoming more and more accessible for men and women. More and more people are realizing that getting stronger and building muscles is not a bad thing, but in fact, the very opposite.
However, as much as it makes me happy, it brings a certain feeling of concern. A concern, that the approach towards exercises won’t be as healthy as it should be. A concern, that people don’t know where to start, so when someone walks into the gym, determined to start lifting weights, they get attracted to the circuit class which is advertised as a fat-finisher. Or they just get overwhelmed and intimidated, so they just give up and go to the elliptical.
I decided to write this piece, with the aim to help those same people, start and rip the real benefits of weight lifting. In this article, I am going to try my best to provide you with the tools, so you don’t have to follow any high-intensity youtube type workout, or join the CrossFit class and burn out after two weeks of intense exercises, but rather create your own workout routine, that will give you the results you want.
First things first, when it comes to lifting weights, it is very important to ask yourself the following question and be very honest about it.
How many days can you realistically commit to training at the gym for one year ahead?
Don’t say 5 days, because that is not true. It is very likely that you are determined, want to get rid of the fats as fast as possible, and feel pissed about yourself, so you are ready to suddenly change everything.
I get where that comes from and it is very tight to expectations. You will go to the gym for 5 days straight for no longer than a week. Maybe two. And then you will feel, tired, not motivated. You may skip one day or two, trying to make up for them the day after or on the weekend. This is not sustainable and not realistic
Start with one day, maybe two, a maximum of three. If you are determined to start lifting weights, your best bet is to exercise frequently, but to give yourself enough time to recover. Especially for a beginner, this is crucial. You want to make sure that your body is adapting to the stimulus, by recovering and building, not just healing from the damage. Two to three days of exercising your whole body, over a course of one year will serve you better than five days of classes, following every sort of youtube workouts or training like a bodybuilder.
Now, presuming that we figured how many days per week we are going to be exercising the body, let's see which exercises are going to give us the best bang for our buck.
Use the big four.
Squat, Deadlift, OverheadPress, Chest Press.
Now, I am not trying to make the case that these are the best and the only movements that everyone should do. Of course, there are thousands of other exercises that are beneficial. However, for someone who just wants to start, doesn’t want to invest in a personal trainer, who will design appropriate workout according to the person`s needs, and spend enough time teaching the correct technique (Hopefully), those four lifts are perfect.
They are not only going to build you the most amount of muscles but also help you be better at any sort of move that you do in your daily life.
Think about it. We squat every day when we sit when we stand up when we go down to pick something. We also deadlift very often. It might not be with a lot of weight, but the movement is the same. We often have to push stuff away from us or put them overhead. These four movements are the foundation of fitness and strength.
They will teach stability, proper core activation, correct movement patterns, which as I mentioned earlier, will substitute everyday life.
And speaking of technique, I want to make something clear. I am suggesting those or a variation of those exercises. If you cant do Squat, your goal should be to find what stops you and work towards improving it. That means that for now, instead of squats you will do lunges. Or step-ups. Some sort of a variation of a squat, that will strengthen your legs and substitute for the squat.
Here are some alternatives that you can use if you cant perform the big four.
Reverse lunges, walking lunges, side lunges, step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, box sit-ups.
Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, single-leg deadlifts, Trap bar deadlifts, Dumbbell deadlifts, rack pulls.
Wall push-ups, Knee push-ups, Push-ups, Barbell chest press, dumbbell chest press, negative push-ups. Overhead press:
Kettlebell overhead press, Dumbbell overhead press, single-arm overhead press, barbell overhead press, Z press (that would be the best to start actually) medicine ball overhead press.
There are so many different variations you can do in order to get the strength and right muscle activation, but the ultimate goal would be to work your way up to the big four and practice them to perfection.
Incorporate mobility exercises.
Speaking of improving technique, that doesn’t always come with just practicing the big four or a variation of them. The technique often gets better, by identifying the weak links and working towards strengthening them.
Let’s see the squat example again.
Let’s say that you cannot do squat, due to hip pain or you noticed that your knees are caving in. What you can do, is to work on improving glute activation and hip mobility, by doing a mobility drill called 90/90.
Another example is the overhead press.
Maybe you can put your arms perfectly straight above your head and you experience shoulder pain. Then what you can do, is to do a mobility drill called Prone cobra, to strengthen your upper back muscles, and then another one called prayer stretch to improve thoracic spine mobility.
Mobility deficits, happen because of the fact that we do not practice or often go to those ranges of motion. Think about it, how often do we fully extend our arms overhead. Especially when we sit all day long in front of the computer. That limits the ability to use our muscles in those ranges of motion, leaving us with the inability to do the movement. This is why apart from practicing the move that is foreign for us, before loading it, it is great to optimize our joints and connect to those lost ranges of motion.
I recommend doing at least one appropriate mobility drill prior to each of those four lifts to ensure that your body is prepared for the practice. If you are further motivated, you can do the same mobility drills on your off days, a few times a day to ensure constant improvement and a healthy moving body.
Training until failure.
Here it comes the ego which speaks in our head, telling you that you can do more, you should push a bit further. You can kind of squat, but let’s try to test the limit. You will improve fast in the beginning. That does not mean that you can continue to push until failure every time you go to the gym. This is not only going to potentially injure you, but also decrease your progress.
If you look at the way Olympic and Powerlifters train, you will be surprised to find out that they never train to failure. The only time they push their limits or test their max is at the competition. WHY?
They are practicing the movement. Because this is one of the biggest assets to improving performance and progress. They need to make sure that they are able to practice techniques as frequently as possible while giving their body enough time to recover.
If they squat every day, they will improve the technique of the squat. But if they squat every day until failure, the body will be too damaged, and only manage to heal but not progress.
That’s why it is important to never push through failure and make sure that you are controlling every single portion of the movement. If you have to cheat a bit in order to lift the weight or need a spotter - That's not good. If you have to bounce the weight or use any sort of equipment to move the weight - That's not good. If you feel like you can maybe squeeze one more rep, or trade it for a few more kilos - That's not good. Practice the movement with control and do not go all out on it. The goal is to practice it often, to improve at it and progress.
I liked to often remind this to clients:
Undertraining will give you some results. Overtraining will give you none.
Example of a full-body workout routine.
Now, with all that being said, let’s see an example of a workout that a person who has never trained will greatly benefit from.
I want to stress that as much as possible. This is an EXAMPLE. Everybody is different. You should first assess how you move and then take the appropriate actions. There are tons of videos and guide that break down the squat or the deadlift. I can also help you with identifying the limitations, but I have to first see them. So please don’t jump on this workout. Try to create your own one according to your needs.
With that being cleared, let’s see an example of a workout.
Squat, Deadlift, Chest press, Overhead press
For each of those, we should choose a mobility exercise according to our limitations.
Squat - 90/90 + Box squat
Deadlift - Dead bug + Good mornings
Chest press - Scapula pulls on a pull-up bar + Handcuffs with rotation
Overhead press - Prayer stretch + YTWL
Prior to each of those 4 major exercise practices, perform 1 or 2 sets of the two mobility movements chosen. Focus on the intent. The goal is not to just stretch. The goal is to be active and have control in those new ranges of motion.
This full-body workout is going to be pretty taxing on your nervous system. This is why I want to stress two things.
Practice the move, not the lift.
I said it before and I will say it again, just because I feel like I can't stress it enough. The goal is to practice the exercise, without going to failure or chasing heavyweights. Let's take the squat for example. Do 3 to 5 sets. 5 to 10 repetitions. Slow, control, with the intent on the technique. Use the bar or add a small amount of weight. It should not feel like the last few reps are squeezed out. After you finish with the set you should be able to do 5 more reps without a problem. Pick the appropriate weight for that.
Do this workout 2 to 3 days a week, with at least one rest day in between.
As I said, those exercises are going to require a lot of energy and focus. That is pretty taxing not only for the muscles but also for your nervous system. This is why you should have at least one rest day in between, making sure your body recovers, rebuilds, and adapts to the stimulus.
Speaking of recovery, the best way to facilitate it is to actually be active. Since our goal is to build muscles, get stronger and move better, the best way to accomplish that, plus to help your muscles recover, will be to perform frequent mobility sessions on the rest days.
Simply pick 4 of the mobility exercises you did the previous day, one per muscle group, and intensify it. Make it like a flow. 4 exercises, 2 minutes per exercise, that is 8 minutes of being active. Multiply it by 3, and now you have a whole session on your rest days, which will speed up your gains and help you move with more ease.
Wait! The math does not add here? 3 times 8, is not 30. Well, because I have another movement for you that I would like you to practice on top of your mobility exercises, or if for some reason you end up having time only for one exercise, it should be this one.
Turkish Get Up.
This exercise is one of the best mobility, full-body movements that one can do. It literary works the entire body. It challenges rotation, coordination, stability, and overall mobility. Make it a part of your routine. Do it at least once in your rest days, and you will see massive results in your movement quality.
As you progress, you can start manipulating weights, sets, reps, rest periods, add more movements and keep improving. I do not want this article to be the workout for everyone. I would like it to be a guide, especially for those who are about to start their journey but have no idea how. I wish to see more people practicing exercises and getting the most out of them, which is more energy, less pain, and overall health.
So there you have it. The guide for beginner lifters that are determined to change their life. Hope you find it valuable!
By the way, if you learn better by listening, check out Episode 25 of Fit Life Radio, to find out even more about how to design your first workout routine.