Four Rookie Lifting Mistakes, and a Simple Guide to Success

This is an article that’s been floating around in my head for over a year now, as I’ve seen people , over and over, despair over their inability to have any major success at lifting. In some cases, these folk just started, but in others, they have perhaps been lifting for years and still haven’t gotten any appreciable mass or strength. In many cases, you hear things thrown out like “Those guys are all on steroids” or “I’m not a generic freak like that guy” to explain their lack of progress.
If you are one of these folk, or if you are new to lifting, take heart. You can gain some serious mass and strength over a fairly short period of time – without drugs and regardless of your genetics. But before we look at how to do that, let’s first discuss what not to do….

Problem #1: Not Utilizing a Proven Beginner’s Program

This is the biggest problem to those new to lifting. Often, they will go with a buddy or read up on routines some huge dude on or in a muscle mag is doing and try to copy that – often with poor form and no real progression to speak of. This is, at best, going to lead to some very limited short term gains followed by a stall.
In most cases, you see folk burning out or injuring themselves pretty much right off the bat by trying to use too much volume (sets x reps) with too much intensity (weight). On the other hand, maybe these guys are the lucky ones. Some guys follow bodybuilder splits with lots of isolation work for high reps with little weight, and spend literally years just spinning their wheels.
I’m not going to get into a big discussion of periodization here, as that’s beyond the scope of what I’m trying to do, but beginner programs are different from advanced programs for some very good reasons. First and foremost, when you are just starting out, your muscles are likely woefully under-developed. Any type of training in this state results in a stimulus that the body wants to adapt to overcome. So almost anything will work for those first few weeks.
After that, your body needs more and more stimulation to grow. This means you have to adjust, and that means your training load has to progress. This is done by either increasing the intensity of the exercise (adding weight), increasing the volume of work (adding reps and/or sets), or increasing the frequency of exercise (more sessions per week). So, the first thing a good beginner program will have is some kind of progression built in.
Additionally, you have to match this progression with your body’s recovery capabilities. Now, everyone is a little different here, but in the beginning, we are all weak, and can’t handle enough weight to really tax our recovery too much. So most beginner programs have you setting new personal records (PRs) very often (sometimes every workout, but weekly at the very least).  And this is something almost everyone can do in a linear fashion for a fairly long time (three months is not unusual). So, the second thing good beginner programs have in common is rapid, linear progression.
The third thing that good beginner programs have in common is an emphasis on heavy compound lifts performed with correct form and full range of motion. Some folk will argue with me on this, and that is fine. My experience and anecdotal observations show that these three things, when combined, provide the safest, most efficient way for the average trainee to improve in the beginning.
The final thing that all good beginner programs have in common is that they are short and intense. The focus is on getting in 2-4 times a week, knocking out a few heavy work sets, setting some PRs, and getting out.  The whole point of a beginner program is not to kill you, but to provide just enough stimuli to support growth, and then let you get on with your life.
It’s the growth that hooks you initially, not the pain, or even the endorphin rush. So you don’t want to take a new trainee (you) and beat yourself to death. All that leads to is a hatred of exercise. What you want to do is promote results in a minimum of time, and to do that, you need to lift heavy and full-body.

Problem #2: Program Hopping

The second issue is what I call Program Hopping. Basically, this is where the individual’s gains starts slowing down or stalling, so the individual decides that they are bored and it’s time to switch programs. Or even worse, the individual decides ‘Oh well, so much for linear gains’, and switches to some complex beast of an Intermediate or Advanced program.
First things first: If you are stalling or the rate of progress is slowing down, it doesn’t usually mean that the program has quit working, or that you need something more complex. What it usually means is that you are reaching a point where your body is not recovering from your training as fast as you used to. This is fine, expected, and nothing to worry about. On the contrary, it usually means you are improving.
All good beginner programs have guidelines to deal with stalls, and some kind of a deload cycle built in. For many programs, it’s something like this: Keep adding weight to the bar at the standard linear rate (5 lbs session, 5 lbs a week, etc.) until you fail to get all of your reps in for one or more sets. When this happens, keep the same weight next week and try again. If you still don’t get all of your reps, reset the program. This usually means dropping 10-20 lbs off of the bar and starting the progression back up from there.
This deload or reset should not be skipped, and should not be viewed as a bad thing. This is a natural, and necessary part of improving. While you are deloading, you will usually notice that you are feeling better, and starting to get excited again about hitting PRs when you come out of the deload. This is precisely why you should resist the urge to program hop when you get bored or ‘tired’ of the program. Most of the time, it’s not the program at all – you just need a deload. You being tired and cranky and bored is your body trying to tell you that its getting run down and needs a break.
On the contrary, if you program hop, most of the time, you feel some invigoration and excitement at starting the new program and just keep pushing your body. At best this leads to an endless cycle of ‘boredom’, fatigue, and little  to no gains. At worst, this leads to injury.
Now, this isn’t to say that you won’t ever need to change things. But you should be highly resistant to changing anything that is working. A new program isn’t going to magically make you gain any better if you are already improving at a reasonable rate.

Problem #3: Effort Does Not Match Need

This is a problem that plagues most beginners who are lifting alone, and for good reason – Most people have no idea how hard they need to work to succeed. A lot of beginners work hard initially, but as soon as the bar speed starts to really slow down and they have to grind, they give up. Many are afraid of hurting themselves if they push too hard. Others simply have no tolerance for being uncomfortable.
There really isn’t anything that can be done to soften this one. You just have to suck it up and push. If you are worried about getting injured, don’t be. Be careful, be smart, start light, use proper form and range of motion, and follow your program and you will probably be fine. In most cases, you simply haven’t done it enough to know what really struggling feels like.
But even if all of those things are solid and you do get hurt, so what? Assuming you did everything correctly, it was simply going to happen. If you want to improve your body, whether it be for health, or strength, or aesthetics, or any other reason, you are going to have to risk injury. It’s a fact.
Pushing boundaries means that sometimes, things are going to give. You are pushing beyond the limits of what your body wants to do in order to expand those limits. There is no other way to expand the limit, and, as far as injuries go, weight lifting is one of the least injurious ways to push your limits (beating out Football (both kinds), Basketball, and even Badminton). 
However, no matter how safe, you are still pushing limits, and the risk is still there. Either accept the risk, or accept not reaching your goals. But not working hard enough to progress is simply a waste of time.
Now, while most beginners definitely fall into the ‘not working hard enough’ category, there is a small group that will pretty much kill themselves if left to their own devices. These people will want to go off of the beginner program to do extra reps, sets, or add weight faster than the program calls for. This is just as bad.
The reason you start slow and progress linearly, despite how much you feel like you can do, is to keep it as safe as possible and allow you to progress as long as possible. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Running faster in the beginning just means you have to slow more later on. In the end, at best, you end up at the same place at the same time. 

Problem #4: Lack of Consistency

This, I would have to say, is the biggest, most common problem I see. Simply put, you cannot make progress if you cannot be consistent. On this front, constantly strive for consistency and resist the urge to ‘switch it up’. Strive to be consistent on your form, your range of motion, your level of effort, your attitude, and, of course, your attendance.
Now, this doesn’t mean to be stupid. If you have a form problem, deload and correct it. Similarly, if you aren’t squatting deep enough, once you get the flexibility, deload and increase it. But before you change something, you should have a damn good reason for doing so. There’s a place for experimentation once you have some mass and strength, but as a beginner, concentrate on forming good habits.
On the attendance, you can occasionally skip a week for a vacation or something, and generally you can come back and pick up right where you left off. Two weeks is usually going to result in a setback, and any longer than that probably necessitates resetting.

A Simple Guide to Success

First and foremost, if you aren’t sure if you are a beginner or not, chances are that you make some measure of progress from at least attempting a good beginner program. However, you can use the following page to give you a rough guide to where you stand, regardless of how long you have been lifting (I personally think more of strength standards than years lifting).
Once you have decided to give beginner lifting a shot, you need to pick a good beginner program. There are a lot out there, but the ones I strongly support (and fit the ‘rules’ I outlined above) are (in order of preference):

  • Starting Strength: First and foremost, I can’t say enough good things about Starting Strength. Even if you don’t do the program, I would seriously urge you to buy the book. It will be the best money you spend on training for a long time. Overview and a bunch of general info is here, but the book will give you solid insight into all of the basics (including form explanations) that you won’t find anywhere else. Spreadsheet for setting it up is here.
  • Practical Programming – Novice Program: Another excellent Rippetoe book, though, in my opinion, not as invaluable as Starting Strength. Still an excellent read though. In general, more of a treatise on programming and periodization than a beginner’s training book. Overview is here. Spreadsheet for setting it up is here.
  • Madcow’s 5×5 Intermediate: OK, Let’s get this out of the way – This is not meant to be a beginner program. However, since this is what I used when I was a beginner and it worked pretty darn well for me, I’ve got to throw it out there. It also has the advantage of being a completely free source of a ton of the basic info you really should know. Overview of the program is here, and great background info (Training Primer) is here. Spreadsheet for setting it up is here.
  • Stronglifts 5×5: This is basically a bastardization of another program, the Texas Method, much like Madcow’s is a bastardization of Bill Starr’s 5×5. Overall, I’m a fan of the basic program, and it also has it’s own iPhone app. Spreadsheet for setting it up is included when you sign up for your ‘free report’ here, though be advised that you will have to live through a email pitch for membership in the ‘community’.
  • Beginner Routine: Very similar to Starting Strength, but uses a 8-10 rep scheme and rows as opposed to power cleans. Also completely free. In general, however, I think you will advance faster on a program based on 5 rep lifts.
  • In general, I do not recommend other Intermediate or Advanced programs, and in specific, if you are a beginner, I would advise that you stay away from programs like 5/3/1, mostly because the progression is incredibly slow. Just to give you an example, on 5/3/1 you generally up the weight once per month. So, in 3 months, you will increase your lifts by 15 lbs, going from say 135 x 5 on the bench to 150 x 5. During that same period on Madcow’s 5×5 (which goes up by 5 lbs per week after the initial 4 week ramp),  your bench would go up by 40 lbs, to 175 x 5. On Starting Strength, where it goes up by 5 pounds every other session, you would advance (assuming no stalls) by 55 lbs, to 190 x 5. Looking at it from this perspective, doing 5/3/1 as a beginner makes zero sense (and it shouldn’t; it’s not designed for beginners).
    Second, agree to stick with the beginner program until it completely stops working, but a minimum of 3 months. ‘Completely stops working’ doesn’t mean you stall, it means you stall more than once without increasing your PR in between those stalls.
    Giving it 3 months means that you give it a consistent 3 months of following the program as written. No modifications, no ‘improvements’. As a beginner, you are trying to maximize the return on your investment of time and energy, and the chances that you know enough at this stage to make any improvements on the program is very slim. Just do it as written. Then you can write it off if you want.
    Third, go balls out every time you step in the gym. Don’t worry about overtraining, you aren’t strong enough to overtrain. Go in with the express goal to set a PR, and if you can’t, make sure it’s because you weren’t recovered enough, not because you lacked testicular fortitude.
    The last thing I will mention, and I am only going to mention this briefly because it’s a relatively minor point, but if you want to maximize your strength during this period, do not diet. You can shed fat once you’ve got some muscle under there, but for now, lift and eat.
    Now, if you are obese (meaning 25%+ bodyfat), don’t eat any more than normal, but don’t intentionally try to eat less. On the flip side, if you are skinny, I want you to eat your ass off. You are going to put on some fat, but it’s going to be minor, and fat’s really easy to lose. Muscle is a bitch to build, and it’s worse if you don’t eat enough.
    And everyone, without fail, should get in at least 1g per pound of bodyweight in protein. If you don’t track your food rigorously, that’s OK. One way to cheat the system is to get in 6 scoops of whey protein a day, and eat normally otherwise. But you have to get enough protein in. Muscle cannot be made without raw materials.
    Remember, eat enough protein, follow a solid program, be consistent, and work hard – The rest will take care of itself.

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    1. #1 by Unknown on June 26, 2012 - 11:41 pm

      I just stumbled across this article. Amazing stuff!

    (will not be published)