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Strength Training: Starting a Program

So you want to start a strength training program – kudos. Strength training can help to add muscle, create a leaner physique, and increase overall confidence. With so many machines and different exercises, the task of selecting the appropriate ones can become quite daunting. We’re often overloaded with choices, making the seemingly simple task of getting stronger way too complicated. The good news – it doesn’t have to be that difficult.

Structuring Your Strength Training Program

In order to structure a strength training program, the first step is to identify the number of days per week you’re going to train. For the majority of beginners starting out, three days a week is going to do the trick. It will give your body enough stimulus to see results but won’t overload you by starting out lifting every day. Rather than breaking down your training into body parts, a total body approach is going to give you a more well-rounded program in the beginning. You’ll be hitting each muscle group three times a week rather than the one time a week you would get off of a split routine. Aim to hit the gym every other day, making sure you have at least 24 hours between lifts.

Picking the Exercises for Strength Training

Between all the cool exercises out there like barbell cleans and kettlebell swings, it’s difficult to find the right exercises for your program. Beginners are going to get the most out of multi-joint lifts like the squat and bench press. Avoid hopping on the cool exercise of the week and stay consistent with the big dogs for large gains. Program hopping is the best way to avoid gaining strength. To pick exercises for your routine, think of movements rather than muscles. If you select one exercise out of each movement category, you can be sure you’re getting a complete program.

Movement 1: Squat (Examples: barbell back squat, front squat, overhead squat…anything with squat in the title.)

Movement 2: Bend (Examples: Deadlift, romanian deadlift, single leg deadlift, good mornings)

Movement 3: Lunge (Examples: Reverse lunge, side lunge, and any other lunge variation)

Movement 4: Horizontal press (Examples: Bench press, push-up, cable chest press)

Movement 5: Horizontal pull (Examples: Seated row, T-bar row, bent-over row)

Movement 6: Vertical press (Examples: Shoulder press, push press, handstand push-up)

Movement 7: Vertical pull (Examples: Pull-ups, pull-downs)

Building a Strength Training Program

Supersets, where exercises are paired back to back, are an easy method of saving time and keeping the intensity up during your training session. Pair upper and lower body exercises back to back to get more done in less time. For the most results, rest 90 seconds between exercises. This doesn’t mean complete rest! Use this time to stretch typically tight muscles like the pecs and hip flexors or to foam roll trouble areas like the lats and IT bands.

Once the exercises are in place, it’s time to finish off the program with the little details: sets, reps, and rest times. In general, these acute variables are the main methods of increasing or decreasing intensity. When beginning a routine, it’s important to provide the right amount of stimulus to cause physique and strength changes, but also prevent unbelievable soreness and pain. Gradually increasing the intensity will ensure that you don’t burn out in the first few weeks. For those just starting out, two sets of 10-12 reps at a lighter weight for each exercise should do the trick. Higher reps allow you to perfect the movement before tacking on tons of weight. Gradually increase the number of sets as you become more accustomed to the exercises. After 10-12 weeks of consistent training, you can look at increasing the weight and dropping the reps to target heavier strength gains.

What About Abs?

The core is an area of interest for many guys in search of the elusive six-pack. If your program consists mainly of total body moves like the ones mentioned above, you’re going to be challenging your core assuming you do them with correct form. To complete your program, add in some targeted core moves at the end of your routine. For most guys living at a desk during the day, stability exercises like planks and side planks are going to be the best bet for preventing back pain and helping to improve posture. Exercises like crunches and sit-ups help to reinforce the hunched posture at the computer. Once you get extremely comfortable with planks and can perform them for longer than 30 seconds with proper form, you can start to add in core variations like woodchops, pikes, and roll-outs.

The keys to a successful strength training program are consistency and progression. Don’t major in the minutia by focusing on incorporating the perfect bicep exercise. Instead, start with a basic approach incorporating exercises that will target the major movements and hit every muscle. Start light with the weight to get the form down, then play with the sets and reps to increase the intensity. Master the basics before hopping on to advanced training techniques.

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