Strength Training Principals: The Beginner


This phase of an athletes training is arguably the most important, if done correctly this time will set the trainee up for great success in his or her future. I briefly mentioned in the last article a pyramids peak is only as high as its base will allow, well this is where you start building that base. First, we must understand what a beginner is. The standard definition of a beginner is someone who has not participated in fitness for at least 6 months to a year, or has just begun a structured training program. There is a lot of grey area in that definition and if we follow it we very well may be heading in the wrong direction. You must look at each individual and decide if they are a beginner or not. You may get an athlete who will come to you that has been an elite level cyclist competing at the international level for the last six-year, but has never done a day of strength training (highly unlikely, example only). Although they are elite in their sport, they are beginners at strength training and should be treated as such. We can now see that if we just follow the academic definition we may lead this athlete down the wrong path in their progression towards absolute strength. Although very different from the elite cyclist in terms of fitness, the sedentary father who has not worked out in ten years would also be a beginner, even if they were once a high school football star. Both are beginners but both’s programs will still look different, not only in terms of the difference in-goal, but volume, intensity, and frequency.


The next thing we must realize about a beginner, and ultimately one of the biggest differences that separates a beginner in strength training from someone who is intermediate advanced is the rate of adaptation. Beginners adapt much quicker than an advanced and even intermediate lifter. In a unadapted lifter, basically any stimulus will cause an adaptation, meaning technically that for the sedentary dad one set of any exercise will cause him to get stronger. A training program should take advantage of this early ability. The beginner can adapt in as little as 24-48 hours. Knowing this a program for a beginner should progress from workout to workout. Simple methods of progression are the best for beginners. Linear progression has been shown to be most effective for this population, meaning add weight to the bar each training session if proper movement patterns and previous workout performance allow it. Deadlifts have been shown to allow for 15 pound increases from workout to work out for the first three to four weeks. Squats 10 pounds, bench press and cleans 10-15 pounds. These numbers can vary depending on individual circumstances. Eventually progress will not be this dramatic, but linear progression should be utilized until the athlete becomes more advanced and more specific methods need to be used to elicit adaptation


Exercise selection for the beginner weightlifter should be limited to full body “big lifts” such as the squat, Deadlift, Press variation, and row variations. As the athlete progresses and acquires new skills add in other functional exercises. Like all things exercise selection is dependent on the athlete’s function and ability which we will learn from the assessment phase we put them through, obviously, a barbell squat is not even an option in a training program if the assessment shows that the athlete cannot perform a correct unloaded bodyweight squat, single leg step up, unloaded split squat, unloaded rear foot elevated split squat. same goes for the bench press, if the client cannot perform a push up its highly unlikely they will be ready for a loaded bench press. Olympic lifting is a great way to develop explosive power, but just because it’s there doesn’t mean the client is ready for it. Depending on the clients function the Olympic lifts may be needed. CrossFit as a sport is highly dependent on the ability to perform high loads under fatigue in the snatch and clean and jerk, and a football player may use the power clean as a method of explosive strength training. This is a very good time in the athlete’s career to place a huge emphasis on technique in these lifts, their CNS is highly adaptable at this point and its far easier to build good habits than to break bad ones.


This may mean that as the clients develops a good base of strength over months or even maybe years they can work on unloaded Olympic lift movement pattern drills eventually leading into loaded drills such as the snatch deadlift, snatch balance, or snatch pull. The important thing here is that there is no rush, the snatch and clean and jerk take years to develop. It would be highly unwise to have your beginner athlete perform high load snatch’s and clean and jerks until they learn the proper movement patterns through repetition.

Core training is an area that I see coach’s go wrong as well as athletes. Many people associate a strong core with hundreds of reps of movements like sit ups, this does not build a stable core. Your core should be strength trained through weighted variations, if the client is not ready for that planks and isometric holds are a great start. The cores main function is not to cause movement (flexion, lateral flexion, rotation) it’s to prevent it from happening, hundreds of reps on the GHD are therefore counterproductive. Through the assessment phase the coach should be able to spot any structural balance problems or postural dysfunctions the athlete might have. Functional body building is a great way to close some gaps the client may have. When using, functional body building it is important to progress from simple movements to complex, and closed chain to open chain movements. An example would be to progress from a seated bilateral dumbbell press, to an alternating Arnold press, to finally a half kneeling single arm press. Functional bodybuilding is also great for developing motor control, which is priority number one for a beginner. A basic guideline to remember that will keep the programming on the right path is you must have enough absolute strength and motor control to perform or maximally express Strength speed activities (Olympic lifting), speed strength (med ball throws, low load Olympic lifts), And absolute speed (sprinting), so focus on exercise that develope motor control and absolute strength to allow for future success in the other areas on the continuum.



Exercise order in a training program should be organized in a way that lets you train the exercise of priority first thing in the day while the CNS, and body is at its most fresh state. This will depend on the lifters ability, time of year, and sport that is being trained for. As some basic guidelines to follow, if strength is the priority of the training program then lifts such as Squat variants, Bench press variants, or deadlift variants should come first in the day. If power or technical proficiency is priority, than it would be wise to place the Olympic lifts first within the days training. Exercise selection, order, and technical drills that you choose for your athletes will always be based on the needs of the athletes. As another general rule, full body compound movements should come first within the day followed by accessory work that may resemble body building type movements, which are great for correcting structural balance issues or aiding in working through injure. An important concept to remember is that fatigue will decrease the speed, precision, and skill in barbell movements therefore high skill movements such as the snatch should be performed first. But, as mentioned that will be dependent of the time of year and the athlete’s needs.


sets, reps, and rest are highly important things to consider for the beginner. As I mentioned earlier if your athlete was previously sedentary or highly unadapted to strength training they will adapt quickly at first, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS! 1-2 sets at first might produce great results, and this gives you plenty of room to progress. If we started off with many sets you will likely still see great results but you may also leave your athlete very sore and discouraged. A good rule of thumb is to start with 1-2 sets and progress from there, remember there is no hurry to progress. Always play the long game. Reps per sets for beginner lifters will be higher than normal, since they are so unadapted usually even high rep sets will cause gains in strength, but it’s also important to develop muscular endurance in this phase to support high rep or high load contractions. Time under tension (TUT), or how long you are performing an exercise should be high for a beginner. The optimal TUT is 30-90 seconds per set, which is much higher compared to the intermediate and advanced lifter. Adding a tempo will control the TUT, tempos are great because it creates movement control and safety, allows longer amounts of time the athlete will be exposed to the lift yielding better results in learning of the movement pattern. It creates workout control and valid measures for progression (adding or reducing TUT, retesting). Time under tension directly affects sets and rest, high rep sets require lest rest and call for less sets. So, if we know beginners will benefit from higher time under tension and higher reps than we now know that they also require less rest between sets. Depending on the movement and how far along the athlete is in the beginner phase of training we have found it to be optimal in the 1-2-minute range between sets.


Optimal Frequency for the beginner athlete is 3 day per week of strength training. As we mentioned early the beginner athlete can fully recover from a training session in 24-48 hours. This schedule fits that perfectly allowing for 24-36 hours of recovery in-between workouts and 72 hours of recovery at the end of the week. Each training session will be full body main lifts and they will be progressing in load from workout to workout. They are lifting nowhere near their maximal potential so training 3 times per week in the same movements will still not tax their CNS but will still allow them to develop motor control and strength. A good way to structure this would-be Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. A method of progression from here could be adding days of training.


Daily structure of a beginner lifter will be slightly different from an intermediate and advanced lifter. Beginners cannot cause a lot of damage to their CNS so they can perform a lot of movements in the same day back to back. The most effective method for this to not only save time but develop strength, endurance, and motor control is movement pairing. That will look like below. A good rule of thumb is to pair intense movements with less intense movements and pair no more than two movements together.


A1.) Back squat

A2.) Upper push (vertical or horizontal)

B1.) Deadlift

B2.) upper pull (vertical or horizontal)

C1.) unilateral lower

C2.) unilateral upper


Between A1 and A2 you would rest 20-30 seconds and 60 seconds after A2 before begging A1 again, that if you decide your athlete needs more than one set. You would rest as needed between A, B, and C but follow the same rest structure for B and C.


Stay tuned for the next two weeks to learn how to apply basic strength training concepts too intermediate, and advanced lifters. Interested in working with a professional coach? Follow the link.

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Justin Biays

Justin is the founder and head coach of Dark Horse Performance. He is a former United States Army 11B (infantry). He served 1 tour of duty in Afghanistan, realizing quickly that standard gym routines did not cut it for the duties he was expected to perform. He found his love for "Functional Fitness" returning from Afghanistan, then he decided it was time to try CrossFit. After leaving the Army in 2012 he attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition.