If you’re about to start strength training for the first time, or you’re getting back into it after a long layoff, you may think being labeled a “beginner” is not desirable. And you’d be wrong. Being a strength training beginner is awesome.
The first several months of training is when linear progress is at its peak, and it’s the period when most people build muscle and burn fat simultaneously. This translates to a radical change in body composition, if the individual trains properly and eats well consistently (more on this in a moment). First, let’s cover a few things that happen when you start strength training that are totally normal.
1. The movements feel jittery.
Like when you start your car and immediately drive without letting it warm-up on a frigid winter morning. When you first start strength training and learn movements for the first time, they’re not usually smooth and fluid. This is completely normal.
Don’t worry about looking silly or think something is wrong when your squat feels jittery. You’re challenging your body in a new way, so give it time to learn how to perform the movements correctly, and it’ll be smoother next time.
This is a reason why I start beginner trainees with just a few exercises — so they can learn proper form quickly and perform the movements with a high frequency. This helps them learn correct form faster, and get stronger faster, too.
2. One leg or arm is noticeably stronger than the other.
Everyone has a dominant side, and the resulting strength discrepancy is exposed from the very first workout. If someone performs a dumbbell bench press, they quickly realize one arm is stronger than the other. Or if they do a split squat or lunge, they discover the movement is easier on one leg than the other.
This too is completely normal. The strength difference between limbs will decrease over time with consistent training, though it will likely never disappear entirely.
So the strength discrepancy doesn’t interfere with training, or dampen your confidence from one side feeling weaker than the other, it’s best to start with bilateral movements to build a solid foundation of strength. That means doing squats instead of lunges; push-ups instead of a dumbbell bench press; inverted rows instead of a dumbbell row. This will help smooth out some of the imbalances so they’ll be less pronounced when you perform unilateral exercises in the future.
“Will my weak side be doing enough work?” is a common question when someone opts to perform a bilateral exercise like a barbell bench press instead of a dumbbell bench press. The first couple times someone performs the exercise, one side may come up a bit quicker than the other, but this goes away after a couple workouts. Unless only one end of the barbell goes all the way up then, yes, the weaker side is doing its fair share.
While I recommend trainees use barbell and bodyweight exercises that engage both limbs simultaneously when starting out, one exception is overhead pressing. The standing barbell press is an incredible exercise, but many gyms only have 45-pound barbells. For many women, especially petite women, this is too much at first. If the gym doesn’t have smaller barbells, the other option is to start with the standing dumbbell press — this will quickly expose the strength difference between arms.
The first few times you perform the dumbbell press, stop the set when your weak arm starts to fatigue, even though the stronger arm could keep going. After a couple weeks, most women can progress quicker with the exercise and the strength discrepancy will wane noticeably.
Bottom line for beginners: start with exercises that engage both limbs simultaneously. If that’s not an option (e.g., if you only have dumbbells to work with) then do what you can, and terminate the sets when the weaker limb starts to fatigue.
3. You get sore.
Insert the, “Yeah, no sh!t comment” here.
But you shouldn’t get too sore to the point it affects your daily activities — working out shouldn’t hurt. Struggling to style your hair or get out of a chair isn’t pleasant, and it certainly doesn’t make you want to repeat the workout that put you in that position. To prevent getting so sore you have to roll out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom in agony, start easy the first week of strength training.
Take the first few workouts to learn proper exercise form, and perform two sets for each exercise. If you’re not too sore the day after you complete the workout, you can perform three sets the next time the workout is performed. This way you can learn the movement, challenge your body, and still be able to come back two days later to train again.
4. You start to carry yourself differently.
I still remember the first few months I approached strength training seriously, with purpose and a desire to get strong. Your body feels different, in the best way possible. You start to walk differently. You stand differently. You even sit differently. You just carry yourself in a more confident manner.
And it feels incredible.
When performing daily tasks, you feel muscles activate in a way you never paid attention to before. Getting stronger allows you to discover your body in a new way outside the gym, and it’s damn fun.
5. Daily activities become easier, and less tiresome.
I’ve never had a client who didn’t comment on how much easier daily tasks had become once they had been strength training for a couple months. Activities that used to wear them out are barely a challenge anymore. Whereas at the end of a long day they didn’t have energy to play with their kids, now they can.
A frequent comment is, “I didn’t realize how low I was on energy, until I finally had more.” If you tire quickly or have become accustomed to running on fumes, you may think that’s a normal energy level. It’s not until you have more energy and stamina that you become aware of how little you had previously. (Chronic fatigue may be a sign of an underlying issue, so go see your doctor to determine the cause.)
Whether it’s with work, play, chores, or just living life, strength training makes Real Life Stuff even easier.
6. You improve in other hobbies.
Strength training complements everything else you do — literally everything else.
I’ve worked with many women who had no interest in getting strong for its own sake. Strength training served one purpose for these women: to help them perform better in other activities and hobbies. From competitive runners and bikers, to horseback riders and careers in law enforcement — strength training will improve your performance in those activities.
Perhaps you don’t have any interest in building a big deadlift for the sake of having a big deadlift. But if you compete or participate in other activities, getting strong in the gym can give you an edge. And don’t worry, it doesn’t require a huge devotion of time as you can see in The Busy Woman’s Guide to Strength Training.
This is just one of the myriad benefits to strength training.
7. Rate of progression will be at its highest.
Throughout the beginner training phase, linear progress is at the highest level it’ll ever be. This means you can get stronger, fast. This is also the time when you can lose fat and build muscle simultaneously (depending on your body composition when starting).
This is when a trainee can squat an empty 45-pound barbell for a shaky set of five reps, and then a few months later be crushing 135 pounds, or more. Throughout that process she may drop 10 pounds of fat and build 10 pounds of muscle.
This reality is what makes being a beginner so damn awesome and motivating to keep you returning for more. If you eat well and train consistently, the first few months of your strength training journey are immensely rewarding. Take advantage of it.
A Word of Caution for Beginners
If you’re new to strength training, practically any strength training program will produce some results. Someone who has never strength trained can start out performing squats on a Bosu ball, and they will get stronger and build muscle.
Any progressive strength training program will produce results, but some will produce significantly better results than others.
Look at your strength training program like an investment. Putting $100 in a savings account every month that delivers a measly 1% interest rate will increase your net worth. But putting $100 into low-cost funds (via a 401k, Roth IRA, ETFs, etc.) with an average of 7% interest will increase your net worth much more over the same period. The former will technically produce a return on your investment, but the latter will deliver significantly better results.
Approach your time in the gym like you would a monetary investment: put it where it will produce the greatest return.
Your sole purpose as a beginner trainee should be to learn a few basic movement patterns you can master quickly, and then get stronger with those exercises. This will build a solid foundation upon which you can later customize for your specific goals.
As said a moment ago, a beginner could perform Bosu ball squats and build muscle and strength. Contrast this with a beginner who performs barbell squats, or goblet squats, and this individual will get stronger faster, namely because a heavier load can be used since they’re not (dangerously) balancing on a bouncy-ball while squatting. The former trainee may be able to squat with 20 pounds after a month of Bosu squats, but the trainee squatting with a barbell on her back may be closer to 100 pounds in the same period.
One is getting a return on her training investment, but the other is reaping greater rewards from the same time commitment.
The real question should be: What should a trainee do to maximize the returns from her time spent in the gym, so she doesn’t just achieve some results, but achieves the most results possible?
Use compound exercises that train basic movement patterns that can be learned quickly. This should include a squat, deadlift, and pressing movement; a row and chin-up variation is great, too. Notice we’re prioritizing movements and not talking about individual muscle groups. These big movements will effectively and efficiently hit every muscle in your body.
Perform three total body workouts per week. This training frequency is not only manageable for most people, but it’s been proven to be effective for building strength and muscle. This is why total body workouts are superior to bodybuilding splits that work each muscle group once per week for beginners.
Improve performance every workout. You must do better than the last time you performed the same workout. Perform more reps with the same weight, or add more weight. Heck, the first few workouts you may just hone better technique, or perform an extra set or two. But you must do a little better every time you repeat the same workout.
If you do those things, you’ll achieve excellent results from a minimum time investment.
One final word of caution for beginners: be wary of the surplus of bullshit in health and fitness. It’s easy to get distracted or led astray with empty promises and expensive gimmicks. Stick to the basics and you’ll be well rewarded.
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