Recommendations for a novice lifter

by Luke Jordan

I could have just wrote an article telling people to do an LP such as starting strength or stronglifts, but in reality, most people I meet usually want to do things their own way (they want to do curls, pulldowns etc), and so this is my attempt at telling those people what ‘their own way’ should include.


Building a foundation of strength is a relatively simple task, as such a goal can be achieved by utilising 3 or 4 core exercises. Once such a foundation is built, I have no doubt that anyone who wishes to get into more complicated areas of lifting will have a much greater chance of succeeding.

A few basic things to remember
  1. Set a goal
  2. Dont keep lame goals like, “get stronger” or “get lean”. Pick a numerical goal, keep a training log, and make yourself accountable. See where you are in 3 months and reassess.
  3. Big, multi joint movements are king
  4. This one is pretty much a given these days. Squatting, deadlifting and pressing will make you strong. That’s not to say you cant get strong using isolation exercises, but those who emphasise ‘the big three’ generally get better results faster.
  5. Warm up
  6. To warm up use 3 or 4 lighter sets than those you intend to do before your working sets. The benefit of this method is that you also get some extra volume in your training session, and some extra technique work before your more difficult sets.
  7. Keep it simple
  8. Train heavy more than once a week, but fewer than 5. Really, ive never saw much call for training more than 3 times a week when I was starting out, and I managed to take my squat from 80x5x3 to 160 for a single in about 5 months.
  9. Eat
  10. Look at the diets of professional athletes and mimic them. You don’t have to eat like a pig to get stronger. Strongmen, bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters manage to get by fine with chicken breasts, tuna, and vegetables. You don’t need to mess about with intermittent fasting, liquid diets or carb counting to maintain/lose body fat either. I have personal experience in these methods and can tell you first hand that a diet full of lots of good quality food will always be king. Read Jonny Pains book ‘Swole’ if you want more information on how to eat correctly whilst training.
  11. Dont neglect anything
  12. People who tell you not to do cardio, or to stop pressing for 4 weeks to increase your bench want you to fail. If your goal is to get strong and your a novice, pick the exercises that will make you strong and stick with them. You don’t have to be fat and out of shape either. Jogging, HIT, walking is all fine as long as you don’t go crazy. Ive done fasted runs, interveral training, martial arts and conditioning alongside my strength training (though not all at the same time obviously) and never had them affect my gains. The key is to be sensible and not to overdo things, ease into something and see how it affects you. If you feel tired then cut back.
Starting out and progressing

First things first – what weight do you use? Most people will have a general idea of what they can squat deadlift and press. If not simply start with an empty bar and add weight until the bar weight slows down. Take 5kg from this weight and start your programme from there. Each time you enter the gym to do an exercise, add 2.5-5kgs on your working sets depending on how you feel. When you can no longer add weight to an exercise, take 10% off your working sets, and continue to add weight each session until you can no longer add weight. I know the starting weight will seem incredibly light, but the lighter you start, the longer your progression will last and the better results you will see. After 1 month of training the bar weight will be at least 20kg heavier anyway, so just be patient.
Once you know what weight you are going to use, do 3 sets of 5 with that weight for all of your exercises (excluding cleans/snatches in which you should do 5 sets of 3, or 6 sets of 2). Your working sets should exclude warm-ups. If youre meant to squat 120kg for 3 sets then make sure you do them after you have warmed up with a few lighter sets.
Finally, if you want to see a constant progression workout to workout then on your last set, try to set a reps PR. This is a great way to add volume, and keep things interesting plus you by near-maxing on your last set you can keep progress as you can work out a rough 1RM by using this formula.
1RM= Weight*Reps*0.033+Weight
This calculation won’t be 100% accurate, but then again neither is testing your one rep max the regular way in a gym.

The details
Again I’d recommend everyone who wants to get stronger to just go out there and stick to a good training programme like the ones listed at the end of this article. You will be less likely to mess things up if you follow a programme devised by professionals who have noted success in strength training. That said, barbell programmes I’ve made and followed have always had a few things in common.
  1. Squat 3 sets of 5 reps at least twice a week
  2. If you want to get good at something fast you have to do it often. The first few weeks of lighter weighted squats should be ample time to learn a basic technique. Learn how to squat with good form, start light, make sure you go below parallel, and add small increments every session. Squatting is not bad for your knees. Bad squatting is bad for your knees, as is bad running, bad jumping and bad leg extensions. You can squat 3 times a week for a long time without having issues with recovery, which I’ve always found odd since trying to do the same thing
    with deadlift is simply awful. Leg presses should be avoided as a main exercise, although I have enjoyed success from using them as assistance work.
  3. Do a pressing motion two or times a week on three different days
  4. Bench and overhead are the best exercises for upper body strength, if you train them in a linear fashion, you can expect to add weight consistently for several months. Add weight every session, and you will get strong quickly. A lot of people experience less progress in the presses than other lifts, for two reasons. The current fitness/social trends are such that most people have already progressed a lot in the presses even if they don’t care about strength and, presses use less musculature anyway so there will be slower progress.
  5. Deadlift at least once a week
  6. You should be deadlifting at least once a week when you start out. The deadlift taxes every muscle in the body hard, especially the lower back and hamstrings, which are chronically weak in most. You’ll want to include other pulls aswell such as, powercleans, snatches, rows and weighted pull-ups. Again deadlifting isn’t bad for you. If your back hurts after deadlifting then you are doing it wrong, record your form and get someone to look at it.
  7. . Bench press and overhead press at least once a week and no more than twice
In an ideal world we would bench and press equally every week and progress in a nice simple linear weekly fashion. However, pressing so much for an extended period of time is difficult to recover from, so I would recommend benching twice one and pressing once in your first week and doing the opposite. This is how Rip programmes it in starting strength and it works very well. Otherwise, you could press on a Monday, and bench on a Friday and just train pressing twice a week. If you only deadlift once a week then do one of these pulling motions on your non deadlifting days. E.g. Monday- Powerclean, Wednesday – Deadlift, Friday – Pullup.

Programmes I’d recommend
  1. Starting strength
  2. Pretty much got me into lifting. You squat 3 times a week and alternate your presses and pulls. Either buy the book online or google ‘starting strength wiki’ and get a shorter version for free.
  3. Greyskull
  4. Know some people who do this, and it works well. It has you squatting twice a week and deadlifting once. It also had bicep curls and pulldowns for the beach wary amongst you.
  5. Stronglifts
  6. A 5x5 programme that a fair amount of people do. Ive met some people who have had good gains on it. You do a lot of barbell rows.
  7. 5/3/1
  8. This is what i’m using now. Its slow and steady gains, but you push yourself to the limit every workout, trying to set a new rep max. You train four times a week and can add in assistance exercises to help your week points. You add weight weekly though, which means it is a lot slower than linear progressions. Stick to an LP before you start more complex programmes.
  9. Madcow
  10. This is a progression of stronglifts for the more advanced lifer, as you progress from week to week rather than from session to session. I started this, but injured myself when the weights got heavy. I decided I needed a programme in which I could fix some weaknesses of mine and so opted for 5/3/1 in the end.
  11. Smolov
  12. Pretty brutal. Ive done it for bench and for squats. On the bench programme I went for 110 for a single to 120 for a single in 3 weeks. On the squat programme I regained 15kg on my squat that I had lost due to cutting weight. I wouldn’t tell people just starting out to do Smolov. You do one exercise 4 times a week, and chances are you will get better gains from a linear progression. If youre new to lifting, youre likely to injure yourself if you go straight from no squats a week to 4 sessions with ridiculous amounts of volume.
    Keep it simple
    Above all else just remember to keep your programme simple, and train as hard as you can whilst in the gym. There’s no need to think about training 24/7, and you don’t need to add in a bunch of assistance stuff, just remember to squat, deadlift and press and there is no doubt in my mind that you will get stronger.