Whether you’re totally new to strength training or coming back from a long layoff, this stripped-down program is ideal for the initial four to six months, when the gains come fast and big. After that, a greater understanding of your own body will allow for customizing. But as for the first few months, these are not rough templates, nor should you add anything else: These are the workouts.
You see, cardio and endurance training work at odds with strength training. You simply cannot simultaneously train for a marathon and push your pure strength upward. In fact, long-distance endurance training shrinks and weakens precisely the muscles you’re trying to build and strengthen. Plus, lifting heavy demands real recovery time, such that if you squat hard on Monday you’re going to feel it big-time during Tuesday’s 20-mile mountain-biking ride.
For some, this is going to sound like a huge bummer: a little boring, a little restrictive, like something a big power-lifting gorilla would do, even if it means he can’t run a mile. It’s true that this method is so effective you’ll put on some size immediately, but after building the intended foundational strength, it’s easy to shift focus from muscular mass to muscular endurance by simply increasing reps and decreasing weight accordingly. Once you’ve gained an awareness of how your body reacts, it’s also easy to back off and reintegrate cardio (more about integrating cardio below).
The truth is, strength training is a whole lot more interesting than it sounds, for a couple of reasons: First, because it works – you actually get incredibly strong incredibly fast. Second, because the lifts take practice to get just right, and practicing any athletic technique is interesting, as it forces you to understand your body in a new way. Think of it like learning how to serve a tennis ball.
Technique is the key to efficient (as in short) workouts and in preventing injury (these big moves can lead to big injuries if not done properly). One great reference for form is Mark Rippetoe’s ‘Starting Strength’ DVD, available on Amazon for $20. You can also find an excellent online library of form videos at the website of CrossFit, a training methodology.
While most trainers are a costly crutch, if you can find a true power-lifting pro – a guy who has actually competed in the power lifts, or in any strength sport that demands learning them properly, like football or track-and-field throwing events such as the hammer and the discus – pay for a couple of sessions. It’ll be worth it, and the benefits will last a lifetime.
(see below for weight calibration and warm-up routine)
3 sets x 5 reps across (the same weight for all three sets) Squat
3 sets x 5 reps across Press
1 set x 5 reps Dead Lift / 5 x 3 Power Clean (Alternate these two lifts so that you dead-lift the very first time you do workout A, power-clean the second time, dead-lift the third, and so on)
3 sets x 5 reps across Squat
3 sets x 5 reps across Bench Press
3 sets x 10 reps (or 5 x 10) Back Extensions
Chin-Ups: 3 sets to failure or add weight if completing more than 15 reps
A two-week program looks like this:
Monday: Squat, Press, Dead Lift
Wednesday: Squat, Bench, Back Extensions, Chins
Friday: Squat, Press, Power Clean
Monday: Squat, Bench, Back Extensions, Chins
Wednesday: Squat, Press, Dead Lift
Friday: Squat, Bench, Back Extensions, Chins
The actual days of the week don’t matter – Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday works just as well – what matters is that you take one day off between each workout, and two days off between each one-week cycle.
For session 1 only:
• Warm up with 500 yards on the rowing machine and some sit-ups to get the blood flowing.
• Squat five times with an empty bar (the average bar weighs 45 lbs).
• Add a 10-lb plate to each side and do another five (65 lbs total).
• Add another 10-lb plate to each side (85 lbs total)
• Keep going until you can tell that the next jump would be really, really hard. Do two more sets at that same weight.
• Stop and make a note of that top weight.
• Do the same with the press and dead lift.
• Go home: You’re done.
For session 2 only:
• Warm up your squats with, again, a moderate set of five; then a slightly heavier set of five; then a slightly heavier set of three, then a slightly heavier set of two (four warm-up sets total, none heavy enough to tax your muscles before your “work sets”).
• Now for your work sets: Load the bar with 10 lbs more than the top load from session 1, and do 3 sets of 5 reps with three minutes’ rest in between.
• Stop squatting and move on to the bench press. Repeat the calibration warm-up from session 1: Do 10 with the empty bar, add 20 lbs, do five reps, add another 20, do another five, and keep going until you can tell that the next jump would be really, really hard. Do two more sets at that same weight.
• Make a note of the top weight; stop benching.
• Do three sets of chin-ups to failure, resting five minutes between sets, and go home.
For session 3, and every session thereafter:
• Repeat the squat routine from session two.
• Repeat the press routine from session one, and then alternate between the bench and the press every other workout.
• Repeat the first-time routine with the power clean: Start with an empty bar; add 20 lbs; add another 20 lbs, and so on. Alternate the power clean and the dead lift workouts, and do back extensions on the days in between.
• From here on out, it’s important that you add a little weight to your top-end sets every time you lift. The amount you add doesn’t matter; what matters is that it’s small enough that you can finish all the prescribed reps. It’s always better to be conservative, keeping the incremental increases small enough that you can keep making them; don’t get greedy, in other words, by adding too much weight, failing to make the reps, and losing your upward momentum.
A note about rest: These aren’t speed exercises, so you don’t have to slam out the reps. But they aren’t isometrics, either; we’re not intentionally going slow or fast. Just move the bar at the pace that best allows you to finish your reps. Also, be sure to take enough rest between sets: 3 minutes ought to be about right, but there’s nothing sacred about that number, especially as you get stronger and the weight gets heavier. If you want to wait five minutes or more between sets, that’s fine too. Your workout will just take longer.
Customizing Your Workout
This is a novice program, which doesn’t mean it’s for novice athletes; it means it maximizes what Rippetoe calls the Novice Effect, in which a relatively untrained guy can get really strong, really fast, on a simple, focused, repetitive program. But the gains, session to session, will get gradually smaller over time. The 20-lb jumps you were making in your squat during the first couple of weeks will soon drop down to 10-lb jumps. Then 10-lb jumps might last a month before you’ll have to settle for 5-lb jumps, and so on. After that, you’ve exhausted the Novice Effect and you’re at a crossroads. So what next?
If you’ve got the bug and have fallen in love with pure strength training, it’s time for a more advanced training program, one that doesn’t push for daily gains. You can find great ones in ‘The Westside Barbell Book of Methods,’ by Louie Simmons, and ‘Power to the People,’ by Pavel Tsatsouline.
But if you’re a major endorphin junkie and simply cannot bear not to breathe hard, you can still see strength gains if you take care to keep your cardio either very short and very intense – like running sprints on a day off – or engage in longer but truly mellow workouts like easy swimming. If you try to go hard with both, you’ll burn out fast and the strength gains won’t come at all. It’s understandable if you eventually get sick of having legs so wrecked from squatting that you can’t enjoy a trail run, or shoulders so toasted from pressing that you can’t paddle a surfboard. So for the outdoor athlete who simply wants his life back, think of your athletic pursuits in terms of alternating focus, meaning you alternate between periods of pushing for strength gains while keeping cardio on life support, and the inverse, pushing your cardio (or skiing, or mountain biking, or whatever) while you simply maintain all those killer strength gains you’ve made.
For example, let’s say summers are all about trail running, while winters are all about surfing, and early spring and early fall are kind of neither. Your training might look like this: During the summer, you want your legs fresh every time you hit a mountain trail, but you’re not so concerned about your upper body. This means you can press and bench as heavy as you want, but you’ve got to dial back your squats and dead lifts to strength-maintenance levels. Winter looks exactly the opposite: You’re happy to bomb your legs with squats as long as your shoulders aren’t fatigued when you’re paddling for a wave. Spring and early fall are up for grabs, meaning they’re good moments for going all out on strength.
Strength maintenance is all about figuring out how little lifting a man can do and still maintain the gains he’s made. To achieve this, just hit each lift once a week, for three sets of five (dead-lift only one set of five), and you’re fine. Do it over two sessions to keep it even easier: squat, bench, and dead-lift on Tuesday; press, power clean, and do chin-ups on Friday.
If you’re, say, a skier in the heart of your season, you’ve got to ask yourself how often you really get to the slopes. If you live in Telluride and you ski three to four times a week, stick to maintenance-level strength work until the season’s over. But if you live in New York, Denver, or San Francisco, and you ski every other weekend, you can easily go full speed ahead with your strength training as long as you drop the squats on the Friday before you drive up to the slopes.
Program adapted from Mark Rippetoe’s ‘Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.’