When it comes to designing programs, there are 6 basic movements that I want people to work with:
1. Squats/deep knee bends
2. Hinges/picking something up off the floor
3. Horizontal pushes/pushing something away from you
4. Vertical pushes/lifting something overhead
5. Vertical pulls/pulling yourself up
6. Horizontal pulls/pulling something towards you
These movements, put together, will train most muscles of the body, and they'll do so in a way that tends to have carry-over to activities outside of the gym. This is good for building muscle while in a calorie surplus, or for maintaining muscle while in a calorie deficit, and of course you're going to aim to progressively increase the loads used in each exercise, resulting in (and, at the same time, caused by) increased strength. With that in mind, here is my Basic Novice Program for Strength and Muscle.
3. Bench Press
4. Overhead Press
5. Lat Pull Down
7. Optional: Calf Raise
8. Optional: An abs exercise of your choosing
You will warm up for the 1st, 3rd and 5th exercise with light sets. The 2nd, 4th and 6th exercise will each be warmed up by the previous lift, however you may use some light warm up sets for these, too, if you feel it necessary. Warm up sets should be performed for 1-10 reps. I'd start with 10 reps at the lightest weight possible, then add some weight and do 5 reps, then add some more weight and do 2-3 reps, then add some more weight and do 1 rep, then continue up in singles until you reach your working weight. That's a fairly extensive amount of warm up sets, and early on you may only need 1 or 2 warm up sets -- as the working weights get heavier over the weeks, more warm up sets may be required.
For your working sets, you will complete 2x10 on each exercise. That means 2 sets, and 10 reps in each set. You'll then rest for 1-2 min between sets, which will keep the session fairly fast-paced and keep your heart rate up. It'll also allow you to complete this session in about an hour, maybe less. If you opt to include calf raises or direct ab-work, then you may use a higher rep range.
You'll complete this workout 2-3 times per week (3 is preferred), with as much rest between training days as is possible. On a 2/wk rotation, that would normally mean having 2-3 days between sessions (eg training Monday and Thursday, which is 2 days between Monday and Thursday, and then 3 days between Thursday and Monday). On a 3/wk rotation, that would normally mean training Monday, Wednedsay and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, or some such arrangement. The only cirumcstance in which you would train 4 days in a week is if you simply train every other day, resulting in 7 sessions per fortnight (3 sessions one week and 4 the next).
If you get all your target reps with good form on both working sets and without too long a rest between sets, it'll be time to add weight next session. Add the smallest amount of weight possible, which, if using barbells, will normally be 2.5kg (1.25kg onto each end of the bar), although smaller loads may be available. If you get all 10 reps on the first set, but miss a few on your second set, that's fine. Repeat the same weight next time, and keep trying to build up that second set. If you miss reps on your first set, it may be a fluke. Try again next session, and see what happens. If you continue to miss reps on the first set for a week in a row, reduce the weight by at least 10% (more if needed) so that the weight feels light, and start working back up.
Because you're only resting 1-2 min between sets, you won't be fully recovered by the time you perform your second set, so once the weights get heavy, it'll be normal to get 10 reps on your first set and only 6-9 reps on your second set. So long as you're getting the first set, just keep on keeping on until you get that second set up to 10 reps.
When you start the program, begin with weights that are lighter than you think you should be using. As a novice, your technique probably isn't very good, and the challenge in each session for the first few weeks shouldn't be in lifting a heavy load, but in lifting with consistent precision. A set of 10, even at a light weight, becomes really hard when you're focusing on technique and driving with the right muscles. Don't worry that you're not pushing your muscles to failure. You're doing something, which is more than the nothing you were doing before, and so you will get stronger and start improving your physique. All these reps with high quality technique in accumulation (60 working reps per week, plus warm up reps) will also help to establish strong motor engrams, which will allow you to keep good form for longer as the weights get more challenging, and thus allow you to progress further. It's said that it takes 300-500 repetitions to cement a motor engram, so you don't want to be training so heavy that the temptation to break form kicks in before you've neurologically mapped out your movement patterns. If in doubt, start out with an empty barbell, and even light dumbbells if necessary -- the worst that'll happen from starting too light is that it'll take you a couple extra weeks to get to where you're going, while the best that'll happen from starting too light is that you'll be better prepared for it when the heavy weights come, and you'll be able to continue progressing instead of failing due to technique problems.
Exactly What Is Each Exercise?
The Squat is a barbell back squat, performed through a full range of motion (breaking parallel at the bottom and standing up straight at the top). You may use either high bar (barbell on upper traps) or low bar (barbell on rear delts and middle traps) position. The low bar position allows you to use a little more of your posterior chain in the lift and to potentially lift more weight, and so it may be better for a lot of lifters, although the bar placement can be rather uncomfortable on the shoulders. Whichever variation you use will involve a lot of quadricep and glute work to move the bar, and trunk work to stabilise the torso and transfer force from your legs to the bar.
Me performing high bar squats with 100kg.
The Deadlift is a conventional barbell deadlift, beginning with the barbell lying still on the floor. The bar is then dragged up the shins and pulled back into the body while the hips are driven forwards until standing up straight. The hips are the prime movers of the deadlift, so the glutes and hamstrings get a lot of work from it, however the lower back, upper back, abs, lats, grip muscles and quadriceps all get some quality work from the movement, too. If you're familiar with programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5x5, you may think that 2x10 deadlifts 3 times a week is too much. However, when you're only squatting 20kg and deadlifting 25kg, I'm fairly confident that you'll be alright. If and when you progress to a point at which this becomes too much volume and/or frequency, then it's time change programs.
My current Deadlift PB of 160kg.
The Bench Press is a fairly universal measurement of strength. Lie down on a bench, lift your chest, plant your heels into the floor and hug the bench with your shoulders. Grip the barbell with your hands an even distance apart onthe bar (use the knurling to figure this out), and pull the bar out with straight arms. Pull the bar apart and squeeze your elbows in as you lower the bench to your chest, then, when the bar touches your chest, drive up until you reach lockout. The bench press uses your pecs, triceps, anterior deltoids and even lats to move the weight, as well as your posterior deltoids, trapezius, trunk, biceps and legs to stabilise. It's more than just a chest exercise.
The Overhead Press is a standing barbell press, from the shoulders to overhead. The legs and trunk should be tight throughout the lift. The torso should be tilted back slightly at the bottom with the face pulled back so that you can drive the bar straight up, and then you should lean forwards slightly once the bar has passed your forehead so that you can lock out. The overhead press uses the anterior deltoids, triceps, upper pecs and upper traps to drive the weight overhead.
The Lat Pull Down is a machine exercise.* Your gym probably has multiple of these. I'd prefer that you use a cable lat pull down as your machine of choice. The lat pull down mimics the pull up in the basic action of pulling something down to your chest (when you perform pull ups, you should be attempting the pull the bar that you're hanging from down to your chest, rather than focusing on pulling yourself up to the bar), and it uses the lats, rear deltoids, lower trapezius and biceps to move the weight, along with grip muscles and core muscles for support. Once you can perform lat pull downs with a load equal to your body weight, consider learning pull ups.
The Row is a machine exercise.* Just like lat pull downs, your gym probably has a few different machines for these. I want you to start out using a seated cable row for at least the first 3-6 weeks. After that, you have my permission to start experimenting with other machines, or with freeweight rowing variations (DB or BB rows). The row works your middle and lower traps, rear deltoids, lats, biceps and grip muscles. The row is also very valuable for balancing out the shoulders after all the pressing earlier in the program, so that you can avoid shoulder injuries.
*Machine exercises can be problematic when it comes to adding weight. Most lat pull down and seated row machines I've encountered have 10kg main plates, with 3x2.5kg small plates that can be slide onto a seperate part of the weight stack. If your set up is like this, then you can progress on these exercises in the same way you would the barbell exercises in this program. However, your set up may be 10kg plates without any smaller weights, or some other add loading pattern that makes small progressions of weight difficult. If this is the case, then instead of doing 2x10 and adding weight when you get all your reps with good form, perform 2x8-12, starting at 2x8 and adding reps until you get 2x12. When you get 2x12, add weight and return to 2x8, then repeat the process.
Exercise Variations and Alternatives
You may not be able to perform the exercises as described above, or a variation may be more appropriate for your goals (for example, if muscle mass is more important to you than absolute strength, you may choose to do dumbbell bench presses instead of barbell bench presses, as it's often easier to make a mind-muscle connection with the pecs when using dumbbells). If so, here are some appropriate alternatives. Try not to stray from the original exercises if you don't have to. Every time you change an exercise, you have to take a couple steps back, so don't change something unless you have good reason to believe that you'll get more forward steps from it than backwards steps.
- Bodyweight Squats
- Goblet Squats
- Front Squats
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Leg Press (performed with your feet in the same stance you would use for the barbell squat if it's safe to do so)
- Romanian Deadlift
- Weighted Hyperextensions
- Sumo Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlift
- Rack Pull
Bench Press Variations
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Weighted Push Ups (use resistance bands wrapped around your upper back)
Overhead Press Variations
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
- Push Press
- Incline Bench Press (not to be used if this is also your bench press variation)
Lat Pull Down Variations
- One-arm Lat Pull Down
- Pull Ups
- Chin Ups
- Chest Supported Row
- Barbell Row
- T-Bar Row
- One-arm Dumbbell Row
- Face Pull
How Long Should I Do This Program For?
I'd aim to do this for at least 6 weeks, however if it's consistent with your goals and you can keep progressing on it, then run it until it stops working. This could take several months. If you're truly strength oriented, then you'll get to a point where you have to extend your rest periods to make each set as productive as possible, and you'll have to start working in lower rep ranges, but running this program for at least 6 weeks will help you to work on form and acquire some conditioning to be able to handle a program more suited to maximal strength. If you're truly hypertrophy oriented, then you'll get to a point where you have to increase volume and include more exercises. By all means, when something else becomes more appropriate to your goals, change over to it, but if this remains good for your goals, keep at it. This is not a powerlifting program, nor is it a bodybuilding program, but this program will teach you how to do the basic exercises used in both disciplines, and it will make a beginner stronger and better looking, as it's conducive to both building muscle and burning fat, provided you've got your nutrition sorted out for the desired goal.