Let me be frank, this article is not for those wanting bigger arms and chests. It is intended for those seeking to build a functionally-stronger body. Let me be real too; the reason most males start lifting weights is to obtain bigger arms and chests. If that is your focus from the onset, you are never going to get strong because your focus in not on the entire structure. Building a functionally-strong body is akin to building any sort of structure; you need a solid foundation first. Building a solid foundation for a strong body is a simple process, but that is often missed by coaches and athletes alike. In the beginning, less is more.
When initiating a strength program three major areas of the body need to be considered; the shoulder girdle, back and hips and legs. There are many exercises for each group, but I prefer to focus on a core lift for each group. Every coach will have a different opinion, and the type of sport an athlete is involved in often dictates which movements are superior. The exercise will suffice as long as it meets the necessary criterion of being a primary movement aimed at one of the major muscle groups.
The back squat is king for the hips and legs in the formative stages. As your strength and technical skill improves front squats and overhead squats can be included. For the shoulder girdle I believe the standing shoulder press (military press) to be the most-effective exercise. Moving a load from shoulder to overhead requires optimal range of motion at the shoulder girdle. Holding that weight overhead also requires sufficient midline stability (“core” stability) and demands all of the intrinsic shoulder muscles to be active. My choice for the back is the power clean; it works all parts of the back in a dynamic fashion and it also requires the lifter to employ an array of physical attributes such as accuracy, balance and coordination. It develops strength and improves athleticism – bonus! Once the power clean is mastered, more advanced pulling exercises such as full cleans and snatches can be gradually introduced, paving the way for superior athleticism and strength.
You’ll notice that there are no exercises for smaller muscle groups such as the deltoids, arms and calves. This is because all of these smaller muscle groups receive sufficient attention when lifting heavy on the core lifts. The only auxiliary lifts I recommend for a beginner strength program are pull ups, dips and single leg squats. Similarly, if your primary goal is to get strong, stay away from slow endurance-based activities. There is only so much energy to go around and recovery time is imperative when training for strength. However, apply your energy to getting strong and your musculoskeletal system will be better equipped to cover long distances in shorter periods of time. Get strong and all other aspects of your training will fall into place, but try and combine everything at once and little improvement will be realised.
For a beginner strength program performing the three lifts three times a week is sufficient. In my experience three to five sets of three to five reps is most effective. For example perform three sets of five at the first session of the week, four of five at the second session and end the week with five of five. While three sets of five may not seem like much, the primary goal when beginning a strength program should be technique perfection. This will go a long way to ensuring rapid progress and reduced risk of injury. Master the technique of the lifts, and then focus on increasing the numbers. Once technique at the extreme limits has been perfected, you can begin altering the loads lifted at each session. For example, begin the week with a heavy session (100%), follow that with a light session (80%) and then back up to medium loads (90%) to end the week. The idea is to allow for rest after a heavy-lifting session, and to use the light day to perfect the finer points of each lift. So you should apply yourself equally at each session. Do not shy away from lifting heavy in the fear of missing a lift, and do not shun the light-lifting day in the belief that it’s a waste of time.
Finally, training for strength demands that your nutrition and rest is adequate. Sufficient amounts of carbohydrates and fats are needed to fuel your training sessions and protein is required to rebuild and grow muscles, tendons and ligaments. Approximately 40% of your calories should come from carbohydrates, 30% from fat and 30% from protein. All of these need to come from natural sources. Stay away from processed food; instead eat lots of fruit and vegetables, lean meat and poultry, seafood, nuts and seeds.
You’ll note that there are only three training days for this beginner program. Heavy-resistance training is often a shock to the system of beginners. Albeit a good shock but more rest is required. With smart training, healthy eating and sufficient rest your strength will increase and your recovery times will improve. This will lay the foundation for building brute strength!