If you are looking to begin strength training the best way to ensure you are going to see results from your efforts is to look for these things.
Before you start with your strength training
A medical check-up before starting your strength training is mandatory, our professional athletes regularly participate in a medical check.
A medical check-up will give you clearance to start your strength training or will inform you about risk factors and what to avoid.
How to begin strength training
I strongly believe you need to have a plan, before you get started.
Before you begin your strength training, you need to ask yourself a few questions.
- What do I want to achieve with the strength training? Getting stronger, build muscles, health and wellbeing, …
Goals setting is important, because it determines
- training frequency, the amount of strength training sessions per week
- training mode, free weights, strength training machines, resistance bands, etc
- training methods, you are probably aware that there are a lot of training methods out there. Training methods include rep schemes, training intensity, work-rest ratios, etc
It’s important to understand the different training modes and methods, because not every mode and every method is suitable for every goal you desire to achieve. Once you have selected the right mode and method, you need to select the appropriate exercises with the right training intensities and volumes.
In the beginning you can seek out for professional help, that will help to inform you about strength training modes, strength training methods and strength training frequency.
- Where do I want to be in 3 month, 6 month, 1 year? Managing expectations and setting realistic expectations is where it goes wrong in most cases.
Start with a macro plan, which covers a period of 6 month to one year, break this macro plan down into multiple smaller plans of 4 – 12 weeks, you can then break down this plan into a weekly plan and design your training session from this point.
- Another important question is to ask yourself whether you are in it for the long haul? If you are ambitious and you want to learn the basic techniques of the Olympic lifts, such as the Power Clean, Power Snatch, Back Squat and Front Squat, you need to invest time in learning the techniques and mastering the technique before you can benefit from these exercises. This is exactly the reason, why a lot of people and athletes make progress in the beginning, but won’t progress any further at a later point. Because the technical execution of the exercises limit them from progressing further.
If you want to achieve good results there are also ways around it, you can chose to work with exercises that are less challenging to learn and master, but they also offer a less greater or lesser reward in the long run. Again I want to refer to point 2 of setting realistic expectations and not expecting results in a short period of time. For example with the young athletes that come into my program, we allocate 6 to 12 month to learn the basic strength training techniques and learn how to do strength training.
- Consistency is more important that frequency. Unfortunately, I have seen this too often, people start out ambitious and over time once the initial motivation and ambition fades away and strength training becomes another routine, the training frequency suffers and approximates towards zero. It is better to commit to 2 sessions a week for the next 12 month, than stating out with 4 sessions in the first weeks, followed by 2 – 3 weekly strength training routines, followed by a week off, etc
This does not only apply to training…
Reverse-engineered strength training
From the previous questions it becomes clear that we start with the end in mind (answering the questions, what do I want to achieve? Where do I want to be in 3, 6 or 12 month?) and work our way backwards. This way we give ourselves better chances of achieving our goals, as opposed to starting and seeing where the journey takes us. As Alice in Wonderland said ‘If you don’t know where you are going, every road is going to take you there.’
How much strength training do you need
how much strength training do you need and what is the right relation between input (strength training) and output (your desired results)? Most people and athletes overestimate the training frequency (how much strength training is done in a week) and strength training duration (amount of minutes per session). On the other side people underestimate the consistency that is required and the training intensities week in and week out.
In the beginning there is a linear relationship between input and output, the more you put in, the more you get out, at a later point this relationship is going to flatten out. For some of our Olympians it can feel they put in more, than they get out (in results), therefore it is important to manage expectations early enough, write the goals down as well as how you get to those goals!
How often should strength training occur
Let’s start with the probably the biggest misconception, which is the assumption, that more is better. People tend to overestimate the amount of strength training sessions per week.
In practice that means 3 strength training workouts are better than 2 strength training workouts and 4 strength trainings are better than 3, and 5 better than 4 and so on.
The truth is, as with many things, that there is an optimum and adding to that optimum will actually be detrimental.
So what does that mean for our strength training frequency?
When planning the strength training program you need to consider what are your other responsibilities in life (family, work, study, etc) and then see how to fit the strength training into the main responsibilities.
For beginners I would recommend 2 – 3 strength training workouts a week on non-consecutive days.
Follow the strength training program for 8 – 12 weeks and evaluate your progress. By the way, in order to evaluate the progress, you need to record what you are doing. There is good strength training software out there, you can use your own excel spreadsheet or an old school training log using pen and paper.
How much strength training is too much
This is actually a very valid question, since the biggest misconception is the assumption that more is better. Another misconception is that you need to be fully exhausted after a strength training workout. In the article The Fundamentals of Strength Training I shared the story of Milo of Croton.
In a nutshell, Milo of Croton lifted a young calf, when he was a boy and continued to lift the calf every day until he was an adult and in that time the calf has turned into a full bull and Milo in return of lifting a bull became the strongest ancient Olympian.
What we can learn from that story is, that Milo lifted that calf and continued to do so every day. He did not lift the calf until he was fully exhausted, instead every day he lifted a slightly heavier load which made his body adapt and Milo becoming stronger and stronger.
Bottom-line, adaptations (regardless of strength muscle mass or strength endurance) rely on a progressive and consistently executed strength training routine.
For those who have heard, that going to exhaustion and beyond (doing forced repetitions and special techniques) will lead to the greatest adaptations, and those are probably quite a lot of you, I add my words of caution.
Training to failure and the acute and chronic adaptations has been repeatedly shown to have a detrimental effect training adaptations.
There are a few negative reactions to training to failure, such as
It increases stress hormones, such as cortisol and decrease hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone (which are the most important hormones for gaining strength and size).
It has a negative effect on the nervous system by interrupting the physiological neural pathways. In very simple words, the brain sends a signal to the muscle to contract, the muscle contracts and send a signal back to the brain. You can think of that feedback that is sent back as a kind of report, where the information is delivered about the contraction (force, speed, etc) and the brain uses that information to adjust and adapt (which is what we want adaptation). Now once we train to failure and / or do forced reps or any other special strength training techniques, the brain send a signal to the muscle, the muscle doesn’t fully contract or at least doesn’t complete the repetition, therefore the feedback send back to the brain doesn’t contain the same information as a successful repetition.
By the way, failing happens at times, but training to failure is a side effect of training at maximal intensities or near-maximal intensities, it is not the goal of training.
Beginner Strength Training Conclusions
In order to begin strength training successfully, start by
- Setting goals
- Establish a realistic timeline how to achieve these goals
- Plan the work and work the plan
- Record and monitor the training
- Evaluate the improvements, did you get closer to the goal?
- Continue or adjust