One of the most difficult tasks facing a novice is how to determine the optimum training volume—how many sets, reps, and exercises should I do? How many days a week should I train? What weight should I use? How much cardio should I do?
There is no single right answer to any of these questions. The answer varies widely dependent on a great number of factors, including but not limited to:
Exercise history (type, frequency, time since training regularly)
Injuries and limitations (such as mobility restrictions)
Individual tolerance for exercise
Time you are able to commit to training
Consistency of training
This is why, for novice trainees, the application of a simple, structured, progressive program is so important. A novice simply lacks the data to accurately gauge the correct answers to these questions. The purpose of a novice program is not to find the optimal exercise prescription right away—that takes months or even years—but to gather data.
Who is a novice?
A novice is someone who meets any of the following three criteria:
No regular exercise for 3 months or longer
This might seem counter-intuitive the case of advanced athletes who just take a long break, but even an advanced competitive athlete will have to spend time in a novice-type program following a long hiatus in order to optimally evaluate and redevelop their tolerance for training
Lack of experience executing basic compound exercise with consistent precision within clearly delineated technical parameters—in other words, having excellent technique in major lifts (squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, etc.) and lots of practice (for a rote novice, that can be anywhere from 6 months to 2 years) executing that technique.
Lack of prior experience or current conditioning in a given modality (i.e. strength training, kettlebell training, Olympic weightlifting, high-intensity interval training, etc)
Pretty simple! A novice isn’t just a rote beginner; it’s also someone who hasn’t trained consistently in a while. Someone who regularly misses workouts or fails to train consistently for an extended period of time will have a lot of difficulty moving past the novice stage.
Novice programming: simpler is better
Keeping in mind the goals of the trainee, a novice program should not be complicated. The goals may be any combination of:
Post-rehabilitation functional strength
Because we’re biased toward the simplicity and efficacy of barbell training here at Styrka, we generally recommend that novices begin by following a basic strength training program comprised of a small number of compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, rows, presses) for 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions per exercise, 3 sessions per week. Squats are trained every session, with the other exercises rotated. The weight starts as light as is needed for the trainee to demonstrate sound technical execution, and the weight is increased in small increments every session—this is called linear progression.
Regardless of the long-term goals, we generally recommend that accessory exercises, such as dumbbell exercises or cardio, be avoided at first. We want to begin with a simple program and assess tolerance. Often, just a simple exercise program can be pretty taxing for a novice. Each month, we can reassess the athlete and adjust the program as need. If fat loss is the goal, we can begin adding in cardio—again in small increments that increase very gradually. If muscle mass is the goal, we can start adding in moderate volume dumbbell work.
The key is to add as few variables as possible at any given time, so that the trainee is progressing consistently. Consistent progress in a limited number of variables will always, without exception, produce significantly better results than inconsistent progression across a wide variety of variables.
Trying to do too much
Too often, novices get excited about working out and they want to have it all. They want to be leaner, stronger, and more muscular. They want to have more endurance and better flexibility. But all of these domains require specificity of training. Sure, there is crossover—heavy barbell training, for example, can be very demanding on the cardiovascular system and will unquestionably develop muscle mass. But the primary goal of such training is the development of sound, consistent biomechanics and general strength, and it’s important to assess the trainee’s tolerance in basic training before expanding the modalities.
That’s why the best program for a novice is a simple on. You have to learn to walk before you can run! There are trendy fitness classes whose approach is constantly varying the training modalities and prescriptions, with the intent of “chasing fatigue” rather than ensuring the athlete is making consistent, measurable progress. Start small, take one step at a time, and you’ll accomplish great things.
Are you a novice looking to get started on the right foot? Visit our coaching page to find out how we can help!