Getting started strength training guide: Keeping things simple and effective

Man adding weights to a barbell

The getting started strength training guide is the final article in our getting started guide series. If you missed the first two you can check those out here.

The purpose of today’s article is to help you put together a smart and effective strength training workout that doesn’t take a ton of time or leave you feeling burned out.

It has been written for the beginner in mind. Or someone that wants to keep things simple, basic, and effective. 


Getting started strength training guide: The purpose of your training

Your strength training program is exactly that. It’s designed to help get you stronger and to build or maintain lean muscle. This can be done if you are or are not trying to lose fat

It IS NOT designed to burn maximum calories. This is for a number of reasons.

First, you can’t out-train your diet. Even if you’re wearing a heart rate monitor or another device that tells you how many calories you burn. While they seem to accurately measure heart rate. Studies (2) are showing they can be off by more than 10%. Some as much as 27.5% to 93%.

What ends up happening is people are “eating back” their calories. They think they burned 800 when in reality it may have been much less. 

Second, most people tend to believe that more is better. More training, more cardio, must push harder. Too much exercise without proper nutrition, sleep, and recovery or stress management will leave you tired, hungry, burned out, and sore.

This means endless amounts of cardio. Tons of high-intensity circuits (HIIT). Or random workouts of the day geared to make you sweat may not be necessary. As we discussed in the getting started with movement guide, if you like those things then do them.

But I’m biased towards simple fitness, smarter nutrition, and doing less but better. If that jives with you, keep reading.

Getting started strength training guide: What does a good workout look like?

I’ll keep this short.

Lots of sweat, soreness, and long training sessions do not mean it was a good workout. Leaving your workout feeling good. Like you could do a little more, improved strength, better movement, and quality of life are.

Getting started strength training guide: The keys to a successful training program

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1 – Progressive overload

Without this it’s virtually impossible to get stronger or build muscle. In order to get stronger, build, or maintain muscle – The stimulus has to be more than it is used to. If you do the same thing over and over again nothing will change.

There are multiple ways you can do this.

  • Intensity: Lifting more weight in your next training session.
  • Volume: Doing more reps, sets, or exercises.
  • Frequency: Doing more training sessions than the week before.
  • Tension: Increasing the duration of each repetition within an exercise. For example, taking 5 seconds to lower yourself in a push-up.
  • There are just a few

I know that may be a little confusing. But don’t worry, we’ll be going over how to progress with your training in a little bit.

2 – Good form

Full range of motion through every exercise. No half or partial reps unless specified. If you can’t work through a full range of motion it’s a good idea to change exercises, work on mobility so you can, or lower the weight so that it is possible.

Moving your body or weight at a safe tempo. Generally, take 2 seconds to lower weight or your body. For example, take 2 seconds to lower yourself to the ground when doing a push-up. Or take 2 seconds to bring the bar back up while doing a lat pulldown.

3 – Rest and recovery

More is not necessarily better. Remember, we’re not trying to burn as many calories as we can through training. Its aim is to get you stronger and build lean muscle. The diet will take care of fat loss.

  • Getting quality sleep.
  • Actually resting on rest days (or getting in your meaningful movement)
  • Practicing de-stressing techniques

Not every workout needs to be all out.

Despite what fitness advertisements say. You do not need to push it to the limit and give it 110% all the time.

I know, can you believe I’m saying that?

Remember, a good workout has you leaving your training session feeling good. Like you could do a little more. And improves strength, movement, and quality of life.

  • Laying in a puddle of sweat does not mean you got a good workout
  • Being so sore the next day you can’t sit on the toilet does not mean you got a good workout
  • Lifting to failure does not mean you got a good workout

Every set doesn’t need to be to failure (1) (2) (3). Every workout doesn’t need to take forever or move as fast as possible. You don’t need to be left laying on the ground in a puddle of your own sweat or vomit.

Training like this all the time can lead to poor form, injury, and burn out. You want to be able to come back to each workout fully recovered and ready to go.

Getting started strength training guide: How much weight do I start with?

This is one of the most common questions that I get. The good news is this will get easier and easier to figure out the more experienced you become. For now, let’s use an example for figuring it out.

Rate of perceived exertion

Rate of perceived exertion chart
                                 Credit: Mike Tuscherer at reactive training systems

The chart above is called the rate of perceived exertion. It’s a great way to estimate how much weight you should be lifting.

After each set, you can use it to identify how difficult it was. If you rate a set with a 1 thru 7 it’s time to bump up the weight. Anything with a 9 or a 10 and you may want to drop the weight. You’re looking for each set to feel like an 8 to 9. 

An example when you start too light.

Your training program calls for 3 sets and 8 reps of the goblet squat. You’re not sure what weight to use so you guess and pick a 20-pound dumbbell.

On your first set you get 12 reps and rate it a 5.5. This is too far too light. So you bump it up to 25 pounds and get 11 reps and rate it a 7. Still a little light. On the third set, you use 30 pounds and hit 8 reps and rate it an 8.5. You would start with this next week.

An example when you start too heavy.

Your training program calls for 3 sets and 10 reps of the dumbbell overhead press. You start with 30 lbs dumbbells and get 7 This is too heavy. On your next set, you bump it down to 25 lbs and get 8 reps. Still a little too heavy. On your final set, you use 20 lbs and get 11 reps. This is what you’ll start next week.

Getting started strength training guide: When should I add more weight and by how much?

You will add more weight when you’re able to do all the reps for each set with the current weight you’re using. For example:

Week 1: Goblet squat, 3 sets x 8 reps with 30 lbs

  • Set 1 – 8 reps
  • Set 2 – 7 reps
  • Set 3 – 7 reps

Because you did not get 8 reps for each set you will stay with 30 lbs for week 2

Week 2: Goblet squat, 3 sets, 8 reps with 30 lbs.

  • Set 1 – 8 reps
  • Set 2 – 8 reps
  • Set 3 – 8 reps

You were able to get 8 reps with each set. Week 3 you will bump up to 35 lbs

Week 3: Goblet squat, 3 sets, 8 reps with 35 lbs.

  • Set 1 – 8 reps
  • Set 2 – 7 reps
  • Set 3 – 6 reps

You were not able to get 8 reps for each set. So you’ll stay with 35 lbs next week. You’ll notice that set 3 was a few reps short. This may tempt you to go back down to 30 lbs. But don’ t – this is ok. Stay with it next week.

Getting started strength training guide: How much do I increase weight?

Increase by the smallest amount your gym or personal equipment allows for.

  • 2.5 – 5 lbs for upper body exercises (i.e – single arm rows, overhead press, dumbbell curl, etc…)
  • 5 lbs – 10 lbs for lower body exercises (i.e. – dumbbell walking lunges, leg press, deadlift)

For example, if you have 30 lbs dumbbells, 32.5 lbs dumbbells, and 35 lbs dumbbells. Increase by using the 32.5 lbs dumbbells. For a barbell lift, most gyms will have 2.5 lbs plates, use these.

Note: In the first 3 to 6 months and sometimes as much as 12 months. You’ll notice that your strength may increase rapidly. Then all of a sudden it gets harder and harder to get stronger. Leaving you all like 🤯 and 😩 and 😕.

This is totally normal and is creatively called “beginner gains.” Almost anything you do is progressive overload at this point and your body responds very quickly to it. You can even get great results with poorly designed programs and random workouts.

You may even notice that some exercises are easier to progress with than others. Again, totally normal. Stick with it – we’ll make adjustments and be just fine.

Another caveat, as your form improves exercises may get more difficult. This is because you’re loading the muscle more efficiently. You’re most likely NOT getting weaker. 

Getting started strength training guide: A simple warm-up routine 

Getting injured sucks. So while we don’t want to skip a warm-up there’s no need to overthink this too. 

The goal of a warm-up is to elevate the heart rate and put muscles and joints through a full range of motions before loading them. 

Here’s a simple warm-up routine I use for some of my personal coaching clients.

  • 2-5 minutes of light cardio (walk, jog, bike, row, elliptical, side shuffles, etc…)
  • 10 slow bodyweight squats (or walking lunges)
  • 5 to 10 push-ups
  • 5 to 10 inverted rows
  • 1-2 warm-up sets of your first exercise or two (10 reps using 50%-60% of what you’ll start with)

But what about a dynamic warm-up? I heard they’re awesome? 

Yes, they are. But this is a getting started guide – we’re keeping things simple here.

Getting started strength training guide: How many reps should I do?

According to a study done by Brad Schoenfeld both low load, where reps 25 to 35 reps are completed. And high load, where 8 to 12 reps are completed can elicit muscular hypertrophy (building muscle). But high load lifting seems to help more with building strength.

What this may tell us is if your goal is building muscle the rep range may not be as important as applying progressive overload. But if building strength is, your rep ranges may matter.

1-5 REPS:  STRENGTH

Typically used for maximal strength gains. 1-5 reps are usually around 85% of your 1 rep maximum (1RM) in any given lift. Before starting any training routine, test yourself in a few basic movements. Gather some data to work with. 

1 to 5 reps is great for lifts such as; cleans, snatches, jerks, squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press, and weighted Pull-ups.

6-8 REPS: STRENGTH  AND HYPERTROPHY

6-8 reps are roughly 79-84% of your 1RM. This is a great rep range for most exercises.

8-12 REPS: HYPERTROPHY

This rep range will be around 70-78% of your 1RM. This is a great rep range for building muscle and improving muscular endurance. Also great for most exercises. However, be mindful of this rep range on high skill movements like deadlifts and Olympic lifts. Your form can suffer as you fatigue.

13+ REPS: MUSCULAR ENDURANCE

Usually under 70% of your 1RM. Most novice lifters can experience tremendous gains when working with higher rep ranges. This is also an excellent rep range for beginners in order to develop proper form and control of movements. Many bodyweight movements will allow for rep ranges in the range. 

Getting started strength training guide: How many sets should I do?

A general rule is the more reps the fewer the sets. Your muscles need to perform a certain amount of work to see results. You also want to make sure you don’t train a muscle too much. 15 reps of a bench press done with 15 sets is a ton of volume. When we look back at the rep ranges provided above a good protocol to follow can be seen here.

  • 1-5 reps: 4-6 sets
  • 6-8 reps: 3-5 sets
  • 9-12 reps: 3-4 sets
  • 13+ reps: 2-3 sets (depending on training maybe 4)

How much should I rest after a set?

Proper rest allows for proper recovery so that you can lift the weight for the required reps.

Generally speaking, anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Sometimes less and sometimes more. 

A rule of thumb to follow for rest is as follows:

  • Shorter rest period for smaller muscle groups (arms/bicep and tricep, calves). Usually 30 to 90 seconds
  • Longer rest for larger muscle groups (legs, chest, back). Usually 60 seconds to 3 minutes +

Getting started strength training guide: What’s a good beginner workout to start with?

Initial this may not look like much, and you’re right. But when applying the principles above a simple routine like this can help get stronger without a huge investment of time.

Do less, but better. 

Choose one exercise from the list below and perform the sets and rest listed. Add progressive overload and there you have it. A simple strength training routine.

Monday: Workout A

  • Squat – 3 sets, 6-10 reps
    • Back squat, front squat, goblet squat, leg press, lunges, split squats
  • Pull – 3 sets, 6-10 reps
    • Pull up, chin up, bent over rows, dumbbell rows, cable rows, pull-downs
  • Press – 3 sets, 6-10 reps
    • Bench press, overhead press, dumbbell chest press

Wednesday: Workout B

  • Hip hinge – 3 sets, 6-10 reps
    • Deadlift, hip thrust, death march, good morning
  • Press – 3 sets, 6-10 reps
    • Bench press, overhead press, dumbbell chest press
  • Pull –  3 sets, 6-10 reps
    • Pull up, chin up, bent over rows, dumbbell rows, cable rows, pull-downs

Friday: Workout A

  • Repeat workout A. Applying progressive overload if possible.

Next Monday you would start the pattern all over again with workout B.

In-between days feel free to include your meaningful movement.

Take action

Review the rest of the articles in the getting started series.

Spend one to two weeks practicing the concepts from each. Then put together a simple 4 to 6-week training program for yourself using this guide.

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Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

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