This method for beginner strength training is not so much a routine as a method for learning and honing in your strength training lifts so that you can become very good at them at the same time as building up your initial strength very quickly. This is not just a way to start strength training but a way to start back to strength training after a layoff. I call this routine the honeymoon period, because it gives you a chance to become familiar with weight training while putting weight on the bar so that you can quickly get to your base strength level. Although it is best if you have some resistance training and weight lifting experience, this method can be used by anyone.
Before I begin describing the routine, it may help to understand the rationale for it and why it exists. Most beginner strength training programs do not allow you to adequately learn the lifts. And if they do allow you to learn the lifts, they do not allow you to progress the lifts and add any weight to the bar, which is also a part of specific motor learning for strength training. The goal is not to “train movements” as so many experts may tell you, the goal is to learn to lift a loaded bar in a specific way. As such, Learning a lift is not the same thing as receiving instruction on a lift and demonstrating a basic grasp of the technique. Learning is a more complex and ongoing process.
Let’s examine two different hypothetical training situations, both novice lifters beginning their first real strength training program, to see how they learn the lifts.
First Strength Training Program Scenario
Let’s suppose you want to start strength training and of course, one of the lifts you choose is the bench press. We could be talking about overhead press, squat, deadlift, rows…you name it.
The first thing you do is have someone show you the basic technique. Or if you don’t have anyone to show you, you watch videos and read instructions to prepare. In truth, some people don’t even do that. It looks so simple they just get under a bar and start pushing it up and down. But let’s assume that you at least TRY to learn something about the technique.
So, typically you use an empty bar and spend a couple to ten minutes getting the basics down with that. Then you some plates on the bar and do 4×6, 3×5, 6×4 or whatever reps and sets you have been told are best for beginners.
Then you’re off to the races! You pick a quite arbitrary but light weight since you don’t know how much you can handle and, this time, we’ll say you did 4×6. You either go to muscular failure on the last set or a little short of failure, again, depending on what you’ve been told is the best. Then next workout you put 5 or so pounds on the bar and do the same thing again. And again and again.
This scenario, of course, is repeated with the other lifts in the program. And it works. Or so you think. You’re able to add weight to the bar for a while. If not every workout then at least most workouts or once a week. You’re getting stronger fast!
No, you’re adding weight to the bar fast. While your busy counting reps and sets what little technique you managed to pick up is quickly going out the window. You cannot maintain a good set position on the bench. The bar starts and ends in different places. You lift your ass in the air and arch your back in a tremendous effort to get in those last, all important, one or two reps. You’re compromising your shoulders and even hurting your back. Setting yourself up for all sorts of heartache down the road.
Those few extra pounds you put on the bar FASTER now..even 40 or 50 extra pounds, won’t mean anything in the long run.
In fact, I’ve heard it said that this is an instinctual way to train. Given the chance, we will simply go in and try to put weight on the bar each workout and progress in a linear fashion. And it’s true. Putting weight on the bar is instinct. But I don’t think “4×6” reps has anything to do with it!
Better Way to Start Strength Training: The Honeymoon Period
Instead of using something like the above and picking a program, or at least a set number of sets and reps to do every week, this method is going to allow you more time to properly learn the lift while getting stronger AND maintaining quality technique.
To begin, set aside a good bit of time for your initial session with the bench press (and one other “lower body” lift). Good learning takes time. You can’t do it in 45 minutes or less.
The first few times you train the lifts and perhaps as many as 4 to 5 sessions depending on your comfort level you will concentrate only on honing the technique and getting quality time with the lifts. You will not worry about reps and sets. You will not worry about failure or lack of it. You will not worry about incurring fatigue. In fact, you will avoid fatigue.
To an observer, it would appear as if you are training more like an advanced lifter than a typical beginner. Except you will not be trying to train with near maximal intensity (the most possible weight on the bar).
After receiving instruction or watching some YouTube videos on how to do the lifts properly, including the setup, begin with the empty bar.
Provided you are using an Olympic bar it will weight 45 pounds or perhaps 44 pounds. Lighter bars are available, including Olympic style bars made of aluminum, which weigh around 25 lobs, and standard one-inch bars, which weigh 15 pounds. If you are training at home and need a barbell, find out more about purchasing a bar in the article What is a Good Quality Cheap Barbell for Home Workouts?
Beginning with the empty bar, concentrate only on the setup. Get into the proper position on the bench. receives the bar from a hand-off, or unrack the bar and do your best to maintain good positioning. Do a few reps trying to get comfortable with the TECHNIQUE of performing a rep. At first, go slow, if you can. Go through the motions, so to speak to help yourself learn the technique and the bar path.
Do no more than three reps at a time depending on how tough it feels. For some, the empty bar may quickly feel too light but keep practicing with three reps at a time. You are trying to avoid getting fatigued. Rests liberally in between taking as much rest as you want or need (which probably will not be more than 3 or 4 minutes).
Repeat this practice quite a few times. Receive the bar. Go through the motions. Rest. Do it again.
Then when you feel comfortable with technique put some weight on the bar, from five to ten pounds. The amount of weight depends on the trainee, of course, but if you are not sure, use five pounds.
Now, you can begin lifting, not just going through the motions. Push the bar harder but don’t try to push it super fast. Emphasis is on QUALITY. Again no more than three reps at a time. Plenty of rest. Perform three or more sets like this. You should not be straining at this point. It should feel easy and fluid. If it feels difficult no more weight is added to the bar. If not, you can put 5 more pounds on the bar and repeat.
Between each set, you are recovering almost completely. There is no aim to be exhausted at the end of this training session. Or to get a muscle pump. The only aim is to learn the lifts and get a reasonable amount of quality volume in while loading the bar only as much as that quality can be maintained. When the weight on the bar negates this the session ends. If this happens too soon due to too aggressive loading of the bar then the weight can be backed off and some more practice can be done with lower weight. Again, once the weight becomes too heavy for you to do moderately easy high-quality reps, it is time to stop.
For the second session, you will repeat the same method, only without all the time with the empty bar. A good starting point is about 10 to 15 percent less than the greatest weight used on the preceding session. If you feel like you need to start with a lighter weight, that is perfetcly fine. You can just build back up as in the first session. If during any one set you feel like you need to do less reps, that is fine. Just keep the reps between one and three. Remember, you can’t do this wrong as long as you stay within the parameters.
Third Session, Etc.
Repeat the process again, starting with 10 to 15 percent less than the greatest weight you lifted in the second session. Since the weights are getting heavier, you can start with an empty bar for eight reps, then load 5 or 10 pounds on the bar for six reps. This will serve as an initial warmup. If you think you need more load a bit more and then only do 4 to 5 reps, after which you can begin with your working sets. Keep going until you feel you can’t add more weight to the bar while still maintaining very good quality form.
You can continue for a fourth session and then on for as long as you like but you will not be able to go on adding additional weight to the bar for very long after this. When this happens, you will have stalled. If you still want more practice, after you stall, you can repeat your last workout but try to do 4 reps instead of three, moving up in weight until you can no longer comfortably add more.
How many times a week?
Ideally, this will be a standalone workout. Remember it’s going to take up a lot of time. How many times a week you do it will depend on what other type of training you are doing on other days. As well, your frequency should be flexible. If you are doing very little other training, you can do this two times a week with two days rest in between. There is no particular advantage in trying to do it three times a week. However, most trainees will want to start with one upper body lift and one lower body lift using this technique, so, with other training such as muscle building workouts, you will probably do each lift once per week. This will be fine!
This may seem too conservative. But only subjectively. In fact, you will actually end up lifting a greater overall volume than in typical programs or methods and you will end up putting MORE weight on the bar! While doing so you will not compromise technique meaning you will hone in good habit and not have your learning influenced by too much fatigue and sloppiness. The second session he will be much more comfortable than what a typical trainee goes through by starting to program too early.
But will I be stronger? Don’t I need a certain amount “stimulus” or reps and sets?
You need stimulus. You need repeated exposure. Here, the ‘stimulus’ IS the practice, aka, the repeated exposure. And you have the added benefit of doing this practice with MORE weight on the bar. More weight on the bar is NOT the aim..but it is entirely possible and likely. That is because recovery is being allowed to take place between sets. The typical scenario has you resting for a predetermined period and doing a predetermined amount of reps and sets. Meaning there is only so much weight you can handle to get the job done..and you STILL will not get the job done as well.
Using this method you will recover more completely before the next session. In fact, recovery has already begun during the first session. You’ve practiced the lift a GREATER number of times, used more weight in the end, AND recovered more.
If, after repeating a few more practice sessions you were to go on the SAME program as first scenario above, you would probably start the program with more weight on the bar. Even if you were to stop progressing after the same time period as the first trainee he would still be in much better shape. You’d have more weight on the bar AND he would able to maintain proper technique.
But that’s it for the honeymoon period. That’s the general gist of it, anyway. It’s not a program, as said, but a method for learning the lifts and getting stronger in the process.
Why Does This Method Work?
I could explain this using motor learning theory and explaining the influence of repeated exposure without quality being affected by unnecessary fatigue. However, it may be easier to understand if I explain using a familiar real-world analogy.
If you’ve ever spent a long period of time engaged in a monotonous, repetitive task, you know what is at work here. Those that have worked on assembly lines or loading trucks or anything like that know what this feels like. The first few times you may even find yourself daydreaming about doing that task. As if your mind is obsessed with it. Even when you’re not consciously aware of it, your mind IS somewhat obsessed with it.
Say you ARE on an assembly line. You are getting paid by the piece. The only thing on your mind is keeping up and going as fast as possible. The first time it’s a disaster. Your fingers fumble and you ruin as many pieces as you complete. You wonder how the workers around you got SO fast and SO good. Impossible, your end the day worse than you began.
You lie in bed that night with the assembly line running through your head, your fingers blistered and aching. The second day your improvement is miraculous. You are still slow but you don’t ruin so many pieces. By the fourth day, it’s old news. You know you can hang now and pretty soon you’ll be the fastest and best assembler in the room.
You didn’t THINK about what you were doing. You were too desperate trying to do it. You got better DESPITE the worst possible learning environment. It happened naturally without any conscious involvement from you. You were doing this eight hours a day! You get better or it’s the unemployment line. One advantage you did have, though, is continued and repeated exposure to the task.
Imagine if your first week you were expected to only work one hour and to get as many pieces done in that hour as possible. Then after the first week you were thrown to the wolves, so to speak, and you were expected to make quota.
You wouldn’t. You’d be in trouble.
Yet this is exactly how most beginner programs work. You are expected to go right into the program with minimal exposure and MAKE QUOTA.
Well…I don’t want to end up with the products that person assembles and I don’t want to be the guy to have to fix that trainee. We can’t spend eight hours a day fuddling with the lifts but what we have with this honeymoon period is much more time than is typically spent on QUALITY rather than just quantity. Which makes the time spend much more efficient.
What Strength Training Program Do I Do Next?
You will be ready to do most beginner strength training programs now. However, my recommendation would be set yourself up for SDT Training, or Single, Double, and Triple Progression. To do so, pick a weight that is one or two increments from the heaviest weight you used on your last session. After an initial warmup such as I described above, use that weight to do 3 sets, aiming for 5 reps. If you cannot complete 5 reps for all the sets, pick a weight that is about ten pounds lighter. Use this weight in your next workout to begin training with Single, Double, and Triple Progression.