Despite the fact that an estimated 60 million people in the U.S. belong to gyms, and plenty of others have access to equipment at home, school, or work, there are still many millions more who’ve never touched a weight with the goal of training with it. Many have never stepped inside a commercial health club. Some of them will be your clients.
How beginners are different
For many beginners, the usual strength-training rules don’t apply.
Why? One word: adaptation. Our bodies adapt to our regular habits and routines. It’s part of being human. When training a beginner, you’re likely working with a body that has adapted to the postures and shapes of sedentary life. And reversing that acclimation is not going to be easy.
Consider the squat. It’s a fundamental human movement, and one of the most powerful strength-building exercises you can do. Not only does it work the entire lower body, it can even reduce lower-back and knee pain when done correctly. Everyone should be able to squat.
But the reality is, many of your clients are already exposed to hip flexion all day. People sit on their commutes, at their jobs, at mealtimes, and while binge-watching Netflix. If they’re side sleepers (most are), their hips may be flexed all night.
Clients like this don’t need more hip flexion. They need the antidote: hip extension, with movements such as deadlifts and glute bridges.
Treat training as the antidote to the client’s life. Create a program that helps counteract the negative effects of your client’s lifestyle, not reinforce them. Address those muscle imbalances and mobility issues first. You can always put more emphasis on the squat later.
Great results start with quality movement. Movement affects joints, muscle growth, cardiovascular fitness, sleep quality, stress management—you name it. It’s the foundation for everything.
For beginners, I like to focus on primal movements:
The best training method for beginners
My go-to method for beginners is peripheral heart action (PHA) training. By alternating upper- and lower-body exercises performed at medium intensity with no rest, the training style offers a few benefits for beginners:
It teaches full-body tension.
It’s not too intense.
The lack of rest between exercises means sessions are shorter, and clients will feel like their time is being used productively.
How many sets and reps should a beginner do?
Beginners tend to have poor work capacity, which means you can accomplish a lot with a relatively low volume of training.
So instead of three sets, start with just one. A Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research review found that for untrained individuals, single-set programs show gains similar to those of multi-set programs during the first few weeks.
Focus on grooving the movement patterns and helping your client understand what she needs to do outside the gym with nutrition, sleep, and physical activity to reach her goals.
As for reps, go with however many the client can do at an intensity level that’s about 55 to 65 percent of her one-rep max. That could be anywhere from eight to 15 reps, depending on the client and the exercise.
Sample strength training routine for beginners
Perform the following moves sequentially, with no more than 30 seconds of rest between them.
1a. Kettlebell deadlift 1-2 12-15 Slow
1b. Seated row (neutral grip) 1-2 12-15 Slow
2a. Lateral step-up 1-2 8-10* Medium Add dumbbells
2b. Alternating bench press (see note above about using manual resistance) 1-2 10-12* Medium Add dumbbells
3a. Reverse lunge 1-2 8-10* Medium Add dumbbells
3b. Standing face pull (high pulley, pronated grip) 1-2 10-12 Medium
4a. Bird dog 1-2 5*^ (See below)
4b. Farmer’s walk 1-2 30 seconds Medium
* Each side
^ Hold each position for 5 seconds, with perturbations.
A novice client can easily do this relatively short workout three times a week. Because you aren’t chasing fatigue, there’s plenty of time to recover between workouts.
QUICK TIP: Set the client up to win by breaking big moves down into small, incremental steps. For example, you’d almost never teach the deadlift with the bar on the floor. Start with the regression—in this case, lifting the bar or kettlebell from a box or step. Let your client master the regression, and give him a high-five when he nails it. Celebrating small successes now helps build confidence for bigger victories later.
Men and women should have equal success with this program. But there is one small difference: Women tend to recover more quickly than men, which means your female clients may need less downtime between sets.
Conversely, an especially deconditioned client, or one recovering from an injury or illness, will need more time between sets, regardless of gender.
Beginner clients typically don’t prioritize themselves. That’s why they’ve waited so long to get serious about their fitness.
To help them reach their goals, be genuinely curious about their lives. Find out who or what motivates your client, and tailor your motivational message accordingly. So your line for new moms might be something like this: “Your family is really lucky to have you setting such a great example.”
Progression in your workouts might come fast or slow. But what matters most for their long-term success is progression outside the gym. You can’t control it, but you can certainly encourage it.