How to Start Strength Training: Pushing Forward

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    In last weeks article I talked about what it's like to acclimate one self to every day physical activity and the process I used personally for introducing cardio into my lifestyle. This week I'm going to talk about strength training. Much like my two previous articles the same basic principle of "Progressive Overload" is the same. Though I use the term progressive overload in a general sense of slowly increasing demands on yourself over time, I think most of you will be more familiar with the term in the context of strength training.

    I am not a personal trainer or strength coach by any means. So take what I say as anecdotal personal experience. I can tell you my observations and what worked for me, and I hope that will help a lot of you gain insight into your own design, monitoring, and alteration of strength training programs. There are quite a few beginner workout routines freely available on the internet. I'll explain why I'm not a fan of these *personally*, and go into the ways I designed my own program. Before I go into that, it's important to note that your strength training routine should change over time to better suit your current level of strength, be it novice, intermediate, advanced, or elite.

    Beginner Strength Training Routines

    The two most well known beginner routines that I'm aware of are Starting Strength and Strong Lifts. Both have a beginner lift three days per week and use an alternating ABAB program design. One workout trains some lifts while another workout trains the others. SS and SL also share in common that the beginner squat each workout. The reasoning for this is good. The squat is arguably the most important strength and mass building exercise and has carryover and benefit to all aspects of life not just competition or sports endeavours. My issue personally comes with the fact that the other lifts are alternated. So while you get three chances to "practice" the squat each week, you only get one or two chances for press, bench press, barbell row, et cetera. There are less chances for overload with most of the upper body movements, and the lower overall volume is a common criticism of squat-focused AB type program designs.

    Another issue I have with this is that two push movements and two pull movements being alternated creates a greater possibility of developing bad habits. So while you have plenty of practice with the squat, after you bench your next work out is with the press, or after you row your next workout involves the deadlift. This doesn't allow as much opportunity to fully engrain any movement pattern, which could have detrimental effects on developing form, leaving pounds on the table or — at worst — increase risk of injury. This problem is magnified with the deadlift because it's done on the same day as squatting. Deadlifts and squats both train and build essentially the same muscles: the legs and back. Deadlifts have less emphasis on quads, but also train static grip strength. The thing I see is that squatting in a low bar position introduces a lot of fatigue to the lower back in training particularly for individuals (such as myself) who have a build that biomechanically necessitates a more 'bent over' style of squatting. Combining less chances to develop technique with a pre-fatigued lower back is not a good idea in my eyes.

    I feel like it's better to use a single workout plan and make as few changes or variations as *necessary* to accomplish your goals. SS and SL aren't exactly "complex" programs, but the simpler the better. Both are great, but I feel what I developed for myself works better for me and could potentially be a good program for others who want a very simple program and don't want to think about too many variables in their training and focus on getting really strong on a few basic lifts.

    My personal program is as follows:

    • Barbell Squat:    3x5
    • Close Grip Bench Press:   3x5
    • Bent Over Barbell Row:    3x5

    Notice it's only three movements. I left out my own accessory lifts because they're specific to weak points that have become apparent as I progressed into becoming an Intermediate lifter. Someone who just start lifting is a novice and doesn't need to think about accessory movements or isolation exercises, you need to focus on getting strong. "You're not strong enough yet to have weak points; your whole body is weak" as they say. It's easy to fall into the trap of fancy split routines and doing three or four exercises per body part per workout. These things might have some use later as you become more advanced (primarily as a way to manage fatigue and introduce more volume) but for now it's counter-intuitive.

    I choose only the barbell squat for my lower body movement as it has quite a lot of carry over to the deadlift, but without being as fatiguing and more easily recovered from. The barbell row will build your isometric hamstring, lower back and glute strength, and build your lats, upper traps/back, biceps, and forearm strength. In essence, the barbell row replaces the deadlift for our purposes; it will place more emphasis on the muscles that are worked so much in the squat, and also build your grip strength and strength at the starting position of the deadlift. I chose close grip bench as it places more emphasis on the triceps and is safer for the shoulder than wider grip bench pressing styles. Sure you can use more weight with a wider grip, but only because the bar is moving a lesser distance.

    I was able to use this program to get my squat to over 315lbs/143kg and my bench press to 225lbs/102kg, both for sets of 5. The squat can be increased by 5lbs/2.2kg per workout. I recommended increasing load on the bench press and barbell row by 2.5lbs/1.1kg per workout. Many gyms don't have "micro plates" (plates lighter than 2.5lbs/1.1kg), but they can be found online for quite cheap. A single set of 1.25lb/0.56kg microplates will achieve this task. The upper body is not as large and thus doesn't have the capability to overload like the squat or deadlift does; much less overall muscle mass is being recruited for these lifts. Investing in microplates can prevent you from stalling as quickly in your training program, and can allow you to lift with more frequency, which provides more volume and a better opportunity for hypertrophy.

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