Summary: This article is geared towards providing beginners with a general overview of the basic tools to understand how to evaluate weightlifting programs for your personal needs in order to get stronger. Pascal talks about his experience with Power lifting from Smolov to Jim Wendler 531 and the Juggernaut Method.
How to use Beginner Lifting Programs to get Stronger
Author: Pascal Landshöft
Reading time: 15 minutes
Introduction to Beginner Lifting
I have been lifting for three years now, started as an absolute beginner and did all the following programs myself. The most important things about getting stronger are having a vision of where you want to take yourself and the plan to get there. This is a write up to reset your mind set, provide you with programs which work and help you execute on them in the right order.
Enter the gym with a plan
Every single year it happens again. People make their new year’s resolution to lose weight and get healthier. They sign up for the local gym. They exercise their weak, fat, tired bodies there for about 60 to 90 days. After that the gym owner is happy about the new subscription they got which most of the clients on the roster don’t use to full extent.
How does this happen again and again which makes some people feel miserable about themselves while others get rich on the back of it?
Some might blame this on the media and society we live in. The high standards from Hollywood to be a buffed dude like Thor and slender figured Kim Kardashian put pressure on all of us whether consciously or subconsciously. Maybe you can blame it on spring. In the spring the weather is just too nice to hit the gym. Who would not rather spent time with their love-heart in the sun eating ice cream. Once winter comes around all that sugary pleasure took its toll and the upcoming Christmas dinners are just too nice to say no to.
Holidays, o sweet holidays.
Again, no time to run around to find a gym to train. Enjoying your time abroad and getting the most out of the hard-earned money that you spent to fly somewhere exotic. Relaxation comes first and no training. Forget about my gym membership back in rainy Europe, I am sipping cocktails on the Bahamas. And work is so hard. You must travel a lot to see your clients and make a living. Lick a** and kick a** is the motto that you live by. Maybe even without realising. After you made all the calls, done the negotiations and closed the deals, you just do not have the energy or drive to go to the gym even though you started out with good intentions this year.
These detractors from training are not easy to overcome at first. However, they are not the main reason people drop out of the gym. They drop out because they don’t see results. Usually they don’t see results because they don’t have a plan and no clue what they want.
“I want to get healthier”. Ok great, good start. What does that mean? You want to bring down your cholesterol because you read it is bad for your heart? You want to keep your skin from aging and sagging down at all the wrong spots and heard from a friend that lunges can fix this.
“I want to get a six pack”. Cool, why is that? Do you want to earn money as a model? Do you think it will make you more attractive and therefore you can get away with bad pickup lines at the bar? Have you researched how you can get a six pack?
“I want to get stronger”. Awesome! What do you want to lift? Cars, tractors and grannies? You want to lift the same weight for more repetitions or more weight in general? Maybe you just want to look stronger and don’t care about whether you are strong?
The interesting bit about this is that a lot of people do not seem to ask themselves these questions. If you want to get results get to the bottom of what motivates you and plan how you can get there step by step. Only if you know what your specific goal is you can have a specific plan. And only if this goal is more meaningful than sitting in the sun, your work or your partner you will make the time to go and make use of that gym membership.
Getting stronger is a long-term game in our fast-paced world. Visible progress is not achieved in a day. The fruits of your labor will show month over month and then year over year.
For your programs and diets to work you should at least think in 30 day intervals. Better even in quarters which form a year. Charles Poliquin, one of the best strength coaches in the world, usually puts his athletes on a six month rota for supplements to trigger the change they need. Two examples would be the use of Fish Oil and Gotu Kola. Fish Oil is used to increase performance while Gotu Kola helps to get rid of surplus tissue aka stretchmarks when you have lost a lot of weight.
Seven day sprints or going to the gym to have a five-hour session while doing nothing for the rest of the week is not ideal. Form regular habits around training and eating to be at your best constantly. Slow and steady wins the race and keeps you away from injuries.
General knowledge around lifting
Before you look at any cookie cutter programs out there it is good advice to get some general knowledge. Make sure you inquire around lifting templates and how they are being used. The building blocks of any lifting program are cycles, sessions, sets, repetitions and load. The common misconception for beginners is that load would be the most important factor in this whole equation as they focus do increase the weight which they move per repetition, which of course is the goal in the end. However, when you put your plan together and look at the long-term game it is more important how you lay out the entire program and load becomes the smallest factor in the mix.
Cycles are most important because a cycle gives emphasis. Some call them waves, others call them programs the key thing is that a cycle stretches for a longer period in which you do the same sessions or workouts with the same intent. You can tailor your cycle to losing weight, building muscle, gaining strength or increasing explosiveness depending on you and your goal. Important to remember is that the structure of the program and cycle will determine a long-term effect on your development.
If you leave out a cycle it has a big impact on your progress. If you did the Deadlift once with two pounds more within that cycle it has not so much impact (unless you are in a competitive lifting environment which most of us are not).
Sessions or workouts are the next step down from cycles.
A session includes the minute from when you enter the gym or start training to finish. What is important to remember that progress is determined by how many tonnes you move per week. If you miss one session you most likely lose 10 tons towards your weekly tonnage. So, if you spend more time planning on what you want to do in the gym rather than how to get to the gym, you are doing something wrong. This is the difference between being effective and efficient.
Effective individuals think longer about how to secure the time each day to actually get themselves into the gym. Efficient people will overthink what to do in the gym and waste time towards action. The impactfull driver is to get to the gym each day. What you do in there is second to this (and for all the cynics out there, why would you drive to the gym to watch telly or have a beer. Of course, it also matters what you do in the gym, but getting there in the first place is even more important).
The sets and repetitions you do in the set are the least important in this frame set. When you go to the gym each day and you lift and sweat a lot, you will be stronger. To be smarter about lifting you can use Prilepins chart to understand generally how the relationship between repetitions and sets works.
The first column is defined as the percentage of your one maximum repetition on any given lift. You multiply the result by this percentage to get the load you want to use for your session on any given exercise on any given set.
The reps/sets column explains how many repetitions per set to do to optimise for strength gains. If it says 3-6 this means you should do three to six repetitions per set. The optimal column tells you how many repetitions in total for the session would be good at the percentage of load. If this says 24 you should aim for 24 repetitions of the given exercise in total for the day executed with great form. I
If you do three repetitions per set, you are doing eight sets in total on this day. If you went for 6 repetitions per set, you only do four. The total range of repetitions tells you in which range of repetitions you should work for the day. On good days, you might want to push yourself to 30, on bad days you might only do 18. Once you operate outside that range adjust the load accordingly.
Keep in mind that this chart targets athletes who want to improve their strength. Generally, for muscle gains the recommended rep range is 8 – 12 per set. These figures are for strength and muscle around 5 per set and for mainly strength under 5.
If you use a standard template, you will get standard results
Before I move on to explaining the different programs I ran to get myself from beginner to upper intermediate level lifter there are some things to keep in mind. All the programs which I outline are written for the masses as a one fits all approach. This does not mean they are bad, but it means that they are standard. Standard means that they take no individual differences into consideration. This usually results into sub-optimal training. I
f you want to take your training to the next level get an assessment by a professional strength coach and plan your programs from there to get the best result. As this takes time, resources and finding a competent trainer (which is not as easy as you might think) you might want to refrain from it as I did. Still optimal programs for you get optimal results for you. Standard will only get standard, which is still a lot better than no progress whatsoever. Moving on…
Stronglifts 5×5 and Starting Strength
Stronglifts 5×5 and Starting Strength are the two most popular beginner lifting programs. I personally used Stronglifts for ten months moving my squat from 20kg to 120kg for 5×5. Both programs are freely available on the internet on various websites. You will train three times a week using linear progression and squat every day. I personally did not see huge improvements in my physique when on Stronglifts 5×5. The main change was that my body got a lot stronger. For a full review of Stronglifts 5×5 you can check out my ten-month report on my blog. On these programs, you will probably progress for up to a year until you have to change.
Madcow 5×5 and the Texas method
Madcow 5×5 and the Texas method are the two follow up programs to Strongglifts 5×5 once you start to stall on it. I personally ran the Texas method designed by Mark Rippetoe too late in my lifting progress. Therefore, I mentioned it directly after Stronglifts 5×5 and Starting Strength here. Once you completed the beginner programs move to one of these two. Based on being too late with Texas method I did not get a lot of gains from it. You can find a lot of information out there which proves its worth if it is utilised in the right way.
Jim Wendler 531 and the Juggernaut method
Wendler 531 got me the biggest gains so far on my deadlift and bench press in a program which addresses all the three big lifts, the bench press, deadlift and squat. This is the first program you run which challenges you to do an AMRAP set. AMRAP is short for as many repetitions as possible. As you have to master the movements and also get a better feeling for how much your body can take this is a more suitable program for intermediate lifters.
Another aspect of Wendler 531 is that the maths to compute your load are a lot more complex. This is a further reason that you should only look at this, once you have nailed the basics. If you want to save time and learn more check out my 8 month Jim Wendler 531 review and the corresponding Calculator which you can download for free to hit the gym.
The Juggernaut method takes the principles of Jim Wendler 531, German Volume training, RPE training and long waves of improvement and puts them into one comprehensive program. For me personally it is one of the best cookie cutter programs out there. This is probably one of the programs with the most brains in a standard package.
Think of it like Wendler 531 on steroids, therefore do it after you have maxed out on 531. By this time, you will probably have trained for 2 – 3 years consistently and should be squatting 2 – 3 times your own bodyweight. I personally did the Juggernaut method after doing Smolov and Smolov Jr and the Texas method. I think was a mistake.
The Smolov and Smolov Jr Program
Smolov and Smolov Jr are the most infamous badass standard programs. The programs are hard because they make no compromises. You fully commit to only one of the three big lifts for an entire 1 – 3 months and shock your system. On Smolov Jr I maxed a bench press of 150kg and on Smolov at a 170kg Squat.
These are programs which you can most effectively use as plateau busters when you are not progressing on a lift any more. Whenever you hit a limit on a lift for more than half a year, you can consider a shock cycle. If injury prevents you from bench pressing but still lets you squat and vice versa. You will find more details on my blog in my Smolov Jr review and discussion of the Smolov program.
If you want to get stronger you need a meaningful goal and a plan to get there. The six programs in this article should at least take you three years to complete. This is said if you take each of the programs in their relevant phase to the max. By the end of this progress you will have advanced from absolute beginner to upper intermediate, maybe even elite lifter.
You can look up these standards online. Always be safe and execute the lifts as correct and safe as possible. A major injury sets you back by missing entire cycles, not just sessions and hurt you more than the satisfaction of a new personal record is worth. I had to stop deadlifting for half a year because of a major lower back muscle injury. The niggling pain stays with me ever since. Be smart about how you lift and visit my blog or YouTube channel if you have any questions.