When you first start running, you wouldn’t immediately follow the training regime of an experienced marathoner. Trying to log similar distances each week would be reckless and probably lead to injury, or at least a huge drop in motivation as you struggle with being utterly knackered all the time.
The same is true of the gym. While seeking out advice from regular gym-goers is a smart move, trying to copy their approach to training isn’t. For example, dedicating each workout to a certain part of the body. When you have been a gym regular for years then dividing up your sessions like this will help to keep progressing, but for newcomers such specificity is not the best approach if you want to get stronger and fitter.
Instead, full-body routines will lead to rapid and significant gains – and they will also allow you to manage your workload in the gym better so you’re not getting too tired. For more information on what makes for a great workout routine for beginners, plus a training session you can try at the gym, we spoke to Dan Forbes, strength and conditioning coach and founder of Veteran Athlete.
People say I need to dedicate a separate day to each body part. Is that not right?
No – and it might even be counterproductive. “The problem I see most beginners make is following routines that are too advanced for them,” says Forbes. “As every guy who’s been training for a few years knows, the first year or two in the gym is a special time, when it’s possible to make progress each and every session. Those ‘newbie’ gains are glorious, and the best ways to capitalise on them are to get moving properly and work hard.
“Doing complex split routines, where you divide your weekly workouts into body-part sessions, as a beginner is like using a sledgehammer to open a nut. They build too much fatigue, which impedes the body’s learning process, increases recovery time and slows progress.”
So what should I do instead?
Keep it simple. No, simpler than that. “One go-to routine for beginners is the ‘one set of 20’ routine created by Dr Michael Yessis,” says Forbes. “The concept is simple. Select one exercise per body part, choose a weight that you can do 20 reps with and get after it. The next time you go to the gym you perform the same routine with only one instruction: beat your last session. A couple of extra reps, the next size dumbbell up – whatever it is, you must make progress.
“I have clients do this until they fail to make progress for two sessions in a row. Then I drop the reps to 14 and repeat, then I drop them to ten reps – and only then do I introduce multiple sets. This approach will let you make progress every session. Who doesn’t love that?”
Workout Routine For Beginners
Here’s a workout to tackle on your first trip to the gym following the simple formula of one set of 20 reps for a variety of exercises that work the entire body. The next time you give it a go, you should be trying to increase the difficulty with more reps or weight, or swap out some of the exercises for new ones.
1 Goblet squat (legs)
This terrific exercise not only works all the major muscle groups in the lower body, but also helps you to develop good form that will carry through to barbell squats if you progress that far. Hold a weight like a kettlebell or dumbbell against your chest with your hands up and elbows pointing down, then drop into a squat until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground. Then drive back up.
Glute bridge (glutes)
This bodyweight exercise is a great way for beginners to activate their glutes (the surprisingly massive muscles in your backside). Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes and raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Pause for a beat and squeeze the glutes again, then lower back to the start.
Dead bug (core)
Lie on your back with your arms extended towards the ceiling and your legs raised with knees bent at 90°. Lower your right arm behind your head and your left leg until both limbs are straight and hovering just above the floor. Then raise them again and do the same with the opposite limbs. Do ten reps on each side for a total of 20.
Incline press-up (chest)
If you’re feeling confident you can go straight into a full press-up, but a good option for beginners is to start your hands on an elevated surface like a bench. From there perform a press-up as normal, lowering your chest towards your hands, then pushing back up.
Grab a pair of light dumbbells and, with a slight bend in your knees, bend at the hips so your torso is at a 45° angle to the ground. Then raise your arms up until they form a straight line with your torso to form the letter I. Do five reps on I, then five where you raise your arms at an angle to form the letter Y, and five out to the sides to form the letter T.
Standing biceps curl (arms)
The classic biceps builder. Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides with your palms facing forwards. Curl the weights up towards your shoulders, keeping your elbows by your sides, then lower them slowly. Make sure to swap between biceps exercises and triceps exercises, such as kick-backs and dips, in different sessions.
How many days a week do I need to go to the gym?
Three is Forbes’s recommendation for beginners. “That’s less about recovery time and more about keeping plenty of options in the bag for when you reach the point where you need to do increase frequency to keep seeing progress. If you can’t manage three, two days a week will still get the job done. For those keen beans who want to do more, I don’t hold them back – do whatever frequency you want.
“The key with increasing or decreasing training frequency is to remember to keep overall training volume the same when possible. For example, if a client has 20 sets of total work for their quads in a programme and goes from training twice a week to four times a week, I’ll simply spread those 20 sets across four days.”
OK, I’m officially intermediate. What are my options?
“When someone has a bit of training experience, I like an upper/lower split,” says Forbes. “An upper/lower split allows you to spread the training load across the week. I’d usually go for a power-building set-up – think big, compound lifts done with low reps at the start of the week, then some higher-rep isolation work later in the week. This increases strength while you build some lean mass.
“With this type of set-up you can ensure that your muscles get exposed to the three key drivers of muscle growth – mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress – across each week. But you’ll also keep engaged by shifting the focus of the sessions across the week.”
What if I want to improve one body part?
“To focus on a particular body part, you want to increase the amount of work that muscle is doing in a training cycle, known as the training load,” says Forbes. “In these situations, I opt for a higher-frequency set-up rather than adding in a training session specifically for that body part. It allows for a higher quality of work and higher work output.
“For example, if you were to perform flat bench presses, incline bench presses, dips and flyes, by the time you get to the dip you’ll have already activated the key muscles, accumulated fatigue and lactic acid, and caused some muscle damage. In a nutshell, you’re spent.
“In comparison, if I set up a training programme so that you perform flyes and dips on a lower body focus day, you’ll be able to use more weight. That means a greater training load for that muscle and a more frequent stimulus to grow and adapt.”
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