This article is geared towards the novice trainee; someone who is wondering why programs can be vastly different yet supposedly yield the same results. It’s about what works and why. It’s what I wish I’d read several years ago.
There always seems to be debate about different styles of training for different populations and what’s best for each. This is really a moot point. Young or old, male or female, everyone works with the same muscles. Older populations need strength for daily activities just as do younger populations. Women won’t become muscle-bound from lifting weights without the aid of some serious medication. Children’s growth will not be blunted by lifting weights either. In fact, heavy weight training increases bone density – something very beneficial to children and older populations alike. Though everyone is a unique snowflake and will adapt slightly differently, there are good ways to train and there are bad ways to train. Programming should be based on the trainee’s level of development and little else. A sedentary person who is exercising for the first time will gain strength and muscular bodyweight by doing just about anything, though “anything” may not the most efficient way of training. This phenomenon has been deemed The Novice Effect by Mark Rippetoe, and is a big reason there are so many fad programs abound. They all work for a while, because something is better than nothing, but they won’t work as long, or as well, as other more efficient programs. Advanced trainees, those who’ve been training for some time, will require more advanced programming in order continue making gains. What should be everyone’s goal is finding the most efficient method of training and milking the program for all its worth. Notice, I didn’t say, “find a method that is right for you” or “find a method that is fun and challenging.” I said find a method that is efficient, and it will be all of those things. It’s simply a matter of perspective.
The crux of this article is this: the reason programs are so different is because they’ve been tailored to meet an individual trainee’s needs. These needs are addressed by identifying weaknesses in the core lifts and finding the appropriate accessory exercise to eliminate the weakness. For efficiency’s sake, trainees should train movements, not muscles. Accessory exercises help to strengthen these movements. A rank novice should focus on the core lifts before incorporating any assistance exercises into their program. This allow more time to be spent focusing on the core lifts improving technique and motor patterns which will become very important when the weights get heavy.
Strength is the basis on which all programs should be built. If you don’t have the strength to move an object, no program can be performed. Strength is therefore the basis, the foundation. It is for this reason that all novice trainees should focus their attentions on strength and its development before moving on to more “advanced” programming. This advanced programming might have a maximal strength focus for the powerlifter, a power focus for the Olympic weightlifter, or speed focus for the track athlete. There can be many variations in advanced programming, but this won’t be as important for the novice trainee.
Now with the understanding that an efficient strength program is needed, there are many programs that fall under this category. The permutations vary immensely, but all strength programs should be based on the idea of getting strong and doing it safely and efficiently. Any alteration of a program should be the simplest change to continue progress and should occur only when absolutely necessary. With this in mind, there are several exercises (also called movements or lifts) that fall within these strength and efficiency parameters. They are the “best bang for your buck,” if you will, and considered the core lifts:
The following are considered accessory exercises and are meant to enhance the core lifts. There are many accessory exercises, but these will suffice for the novice trainee:
The core lifts should be executed with good form and a full range of motion, all done using weights heavy enough that only 3-5 reps can be performed correctly but not to failure. Accessory lifts also require good form and a full range of motion though they may be performed with lighter weights and higher repetitions. Just make sure the accessory lifts do not detract from the core lifts.
There are several programs that are recommended for the novice trainee from the likes of Jim Wendler, Mark Rippetoe, and Bill Starr to name a few. There are several others, but these seem to be the most widely available resources that have produced incredible gains for those who’ve stuck to their respective programs. The trick will be adhering to the program and not altering anything until a very good reason presents itself. It’s very important for the trainee to think about their training habits, and this does not involve throwing around useless exercises because they sound fun. Any change should be well thought out and planned so that progress is continued. The primary goal of training should always be progress, or getting Strong(er).
All that is required of these programs are a rack, barbell, weight plates, and a platform. Notice I didn’t say lat pull-down machine, leg extension machine, or any other machine. These have a place and can be useful down the road, but they are simply not needed in a beginner’s routine. If the trainee can devote at least 3 hours a week to training, eat and rest properly, the trainee will benefit greatly from several months of strength development. As progress slows, and the weights stop moving up, the novice progression is probably coming to a halt and more advanced programming is needed.
Advanced programming can take many forms as was mentioned above (with a focus on maximal strength, power, speed, etc). Time devoted to training will most likely have to increase, accessory exercises will come more into play, and strength training will become more of a skill to be learned as technique becomes more important. Instead of setting daily PR’s (personal records), the trainee will be setting weekly PR’s, and later on monthly and semi-yearly PR’s. This is due to factors of genetics and a trainee’s adaptation/stress response. Trainees are able to display a greater portion of their genetic potential while training and thus take longer to recover. This is where training separates the men from the boys so to speak. There’s a lot more thought that must go into the advanced trainee’s programming, and these programs start looking like the divers programs that are plastered all over the internet and magazines. These programs are for advanced trainees (if they’re even based on good training habits at all) which is a very specific training population, and usually not for the novice trainee.This of course brings the article full-circle, and I hope the reader has a better understanding of the thought that goes behind these diverse programs and why there can be so many of them. Strength training begins with general guidelines for the novice and becomes more specific as the trainee progresses. Sure, trainees can learn a lot from Westside Barbell, but they need to decide if bands and chains are actually necessary for their training. There’s no reason to jump right into advanced programming, which often is set up for weekly or monthly gains, when a novice can easily make daily gains with simpler, more efficient programming.