“Where do I start?” is a commonly shared question for a lot of beginning strength trainees. I asked it myself at one point. It can get a little overwhelming, especially if you’re the kind of person who becomes intimidated by the idea of lifting heavy weights right off the bat. Hard to know where to begin.
That is why I decided I’d put something together for those who would like to get more involved with strength training/powerlifting, and need to get their basics covered. This will be the first part of a 2-3 part series dedicated specifically to beginners. It’ll be broken down according to priority.
The first section being…
STEP ONE: ADJUST YOUR MENTALITY
Before understanding anything else about strength training, you must first understand the mental aspect.
I myself started out by watching people squat and deadlift large amounts of weight and thinking “Psh, I can do that!” I remember boasting to my friend that I could squat 225 no problem. I had barely begun weight training at this point but was pretty convinced it was no difficult feat. Needless to say, I was put in my place very fast and I learned that nothing is going to come that easily to me. However, regardless of my initial pride, it was that attitude that got me as far as I am today. It ignited some sort of spark, and since then I’ve always wanted to keep getting stronger. And here I am, 2.5 years later, nearly at a 300 lb. squat; and yet, first hitting that 225 was the biggest mental milestone for me ever. Because it was what made me realize that although I may not be capable of doing something at the time I said I would do it, with enough training anything is possible for me. It was at that point that I really realized that hard work can pay off. Now I can look at a 350 lb. squat and think to myself, “Psh…I can do that!” and hey…someday I will!
I think that if you can adopt that sort of mindset that anything is possible, it will get you much further in your strength goals (and anywhere in life, for that matter). You have to be determined to lift the weight, and you have to know that you are capable of doing it with enough training. Doesn’t matter how old you are, what you weigh, if you’re male or female, if you had an injury at one point or not, etc. All of that is irrelevant. You can and will get stronger if you are determined to. And more than 80% of lifting is mental anyway. That being said, if you’re not in the right place mentally, chances are you won’t be training to your fullest capacity, nor will you be reaching your full potential.
(If she can do it, you can too ^^)
So above all else, make sure that you approach strength training with the right attitude. Don’t approach the idea in fear or uneasiness. Go all the way! Even if you’re starting out very light, don’t worry about other people around you and what they’re doing. Do the best that you can do. It’s a lot more than 90% of people in the gym are doing right now.
STEP TWO: PROGRAM PICKING
Generally speaking, cookie cutter is something you should stay away from especially when it comes to diet and if you are a more advanced athlete. But cookie cutter programs, believe it or not, can work well for those who are just starting out. Seeing as you are a beginner, you want to stay away from programs that focus solely on percentages. This means you can scratch the idea of 5/3/1, as in my opinion it’s not that great of a program and there are much better options to choose from. I am much more partial to programs such as Madcows, Starting Strength, WS4SB (Westside For Skinny Bastards), and Stronglifts.
WESTSIDE FOR SKINNY BASTARDS:
And remember, these are cookie cutter programs (namely the 5×5 templates), but they really do work. Try to follow the program exactly for the best results. It’s when you tamper too much with these kinds of programs that things get messy. Follow it because it was designed for progress, period.
The biggest piece of advice I have to give before starting any program is to START LIGHT. Don’t assume your max is something when it isn’t. Even if you start out the first 2 weeks lifting very light, almost all of these are linear progression programs, which means that every week you are going to be progressing and adding more weight to the bar. So it’s better to start out light and slow then to start out too heavy and risk stalling too early and having to reset. That’s no fun at all!
I have never seen anyone who did not progress with one of the following programs, so give everything a read and see which one would better suit you and your goals.
The second best piece of advice is to STICK TO THE FUCKING PROGRAM. So many people are “program hoppers” and they jump around from one to the other on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. You will need to stick with these for awhile before deciding that you can move onto something different. In the beginning you get things which we like to call “noob gains”. It’s that point in your training where you can keep excelling every workout, and get stronger on a linear basis without anything plateauing too drastically.
After awhile once you are past that point, you will need to get on a template (or make your own) that is adjustable, which you can constantly tweak depending on your weaknesses and what areas you need to bring up. As a beginner though, you don’t need to be concerned with specialization or anything like that. You just need to get a solid strength base going and you can think about the other stuff later.
It’s kind of like with fat loss. In the beginning things may be linear, but as you get down to those last stubborn pounds, it takes a lot more manipulation and tricks to get your body to lose that fat. Same with strength gain, and when you get to that point, you’re fighting for those extra 10 lbs. on your squat/deadlift. Whereas awhile ago when you first started, you probably would have put it on in the first week or two!
STEP THREE: UNDERSTANDING MAX EFFORT
The biggest difference between an advanced strength trainee and a novice trainee, is their ability to exert maximal output on a given exercise.
An advanced athlete has learned to fire his muscles properly in a movement, and has learned how to incorporate strength from every area to work together and heave the weight. Everything works together as a unit because it has been trained to do so. A novice trainee however, has not yet learned how to use all of his muscles correctly and have them fire at the same time to generate proper force for the movement. What happens then is that the body compensates and tends to shift the load onto areas of the body that are strongest to try and muscle the weight up, rather than everything working together with equal effort. So while the advanced athlete can go for a max effort squat attempt and give at least 95% of his true max, chances are a novice trainee is only using 70-75% of his or her maximal effort. This is partially mental, and partially physical. It is not always that the trainee is not strong enough to move the weight. A lot of it is that he or she has not yet learned proper form and/or mental strength, and hasn’t yet learned to make the body work together as a unit.
So as an example, if your max bench press is 135 BEFORE you learned proper technique and before you learned how to work your muscles correctly, it’s probable that your true max is quite a lot higher, you just needed to learn how to correctly perform the exercise.
On the other hand, things could swing the other direction and you could be cheating so heavily on the movement that you are lifting a lot more (body swing bicep curls anyone?), and when you learn better technique you are a lot weaker than you thought. That is when you take some humility lessons, lighten up, and do it right.
Another note regarding max effort: most novice trainees don’t know what it actually feels like to give maximal effort. One reason being their CNS is not yet properly conditioned to take on that sort of load. Another thing that could prevent a novice from using maximal effort on an attempt is their mental approach.
Believe it or not, one of the hardest things to develop is mental strength. A weak mind equates a weak body. A strong mind delivers a strong body. If you don’t believe it now, you better start believing it soon, because it’s what is going to get you the furthest, and it’s what is going to help you reach your highest potential with training.
MORE ON MENTAL TRAINING…
I very highly recommend the book “Striking Thoughts” by Bruce Lee. This book has been the single best thing to ever come into my life regarding mental focus and thought power. Who better to learn from than the king himself? Bruce Lee still is, and always will be one of the most amazing athletes to ever grace the earth, in my opinion. And I have to say that his musings have helped me through pretty much everything.
I’ll close that thought off with an excerpt from his book regarding athletes and thought power:
The attitude “that you can win if you want it badly enough” means that the will to win is constant and no amount of punishment, no amount of effort, or no condition is too “tough” to take in order to win. Such an attitude can be developed only if winning is closely tied to the practitioner’s ideals and dreams. Experience shows that an athlete who forces himself to the limit can keep going as long as necessary. It means that ordinary effort will not top or release the tremendous store or reserve power latent in the human body. Extraordinary effort, highly emotionalized conditions, or a true determination to win at all costs will release this extra energy. Therefore an athlete is actually as tired as he feels, and if he is determined to win he can keep on almost indefinitely in order to achieve his objective.
Get the book. Do it. Seriously.
And remember guys, the world is your oyster. Anything is possible. You just have to believe it.
Will have the follow-up for this post on here shortly – Stay tuned and train hard!