When you’re first starting out in the gym and want to build some muscle, everything seems mega confusing. The issue of what training programme to follow or how to structure you’re training is one of the most baffling for most people – and something most people get completely wrong in the outset (I certainly did).
If you’ve never had a proper run at training before, or this is the first time you’ve ever taken your training seriously, this article is for you. These are all the tips and factors I wish I knew when I first started training at the tender age of 16. I wasted SO much time in the early years of my training career and I accumulated more injuries than muscle mass due to very simple and easy to fix errors that I just wasn’t aware of how to fix due to lack of knowledge (and lack of balls to ask anyone for help).
So without further ado, these are the most important things you need to take into account when setting up your first proper training programme as a beginner in the gym training to add muscle.
Body Part Splits Or Full Body Workouts?
The first issue we have is how to set up our individual training sessions. When we first start training we are encouraged by bodybuilding tradition and conventional wisdom to opt for what’s known as a ‘body part split’ routine. This means we train one muscle per day and spread our training out over the course of a week, so everything gets hit once per week (think chest day, leg day, shoulder day etc).
While this may be the ‘done thing’ in bodybuilding circles, it definitely isn’t the right approach for you as a beginner. Let me explain why.
One of the most important factors in what makes a muscle grow, is how often you expose it to a stimulus. The stimulus being, training it with weights. Now, as you are a complete beginner, you don’t need a huge amount of different exercises to create a lot of damage in your muscles as it’s a new stimulus for your body and you haven’t had chance to adapt to it yet. This is why the body part split and ‘annihilation’ of your muscles with huge amounts of volume is unnecessary for you at this point.
So, with this in mind, we can see that it’s massively beneficial for us to train our muscles more frequently and with a lower amount of volume (sets, reps, exercises).
The approach I recommend for beginners trying to add muscle is to follow a full body training protocol.
By lowering the volume and training your entire body in one given workout, you reduce the amount of inflammation you’ll accumulate in your muscles and allow yourself to recover faster (so you can train the same muscles again sooner, and therefore grow faster).
Now, for more advanced athletes this approach won’t work. For the guys that have been training for 5-10+ years, they need much more attention to one particular muscle group in any given workout in order for it to be stimulated enough to produce growth. You aren’t there yet. You aren’t at the level that the Steve Cooks or Ryan Terry’s are that you see in Men’s Health magazines or Bodybuilding.com forums. That’s why following their training programme won’t work for you, because it is their training programme. Not yours.
A great way to set up your training programme over the course of a week would be to follow a heavy/light upper/lower protocol in any given session. So, if you plan on training 4x per week your workouts may look like this:
Day 1: Heavy Upper, Light Lower
Day 2: Heavy Lower, Light Upper
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Heavy Upper, Light Lower
Day 5: Heavy Lower, Light Upper
Day 6 & 7: Off
What this does is help you cover a multitude of rep ranges (and as such, muscle fibres).
On the heavy portion of your workouts, you’ll be looking to hit exercises that are more in the 5-8 rep ranges. This will help you activate more of the big, dense fast twitch muscle fibres and be pivotal in increasing your strength.
On the light portion of the workouts you’ll be utilising a different mechanism of hypertrophy. This is not only going to be tapping into different muscle fibres, but it will help you accumulate volume, lactic acid and metabolites and is more likely to create the ‘pump’ sensation in your muscle tissue.
Now, an important side note to this sub section is when I refer to ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ weights, you must remember that this is all relative to you at any given time. You’re not in competition with anyone else and what’s light weight for someone else may be a heavy weight for you right now, or vice-versa.
The weights you choose should be appropriate for you to be failing within your target rep range. So the 5-8 rep range will be considerably heavier than the same exercise for 15-20 reps. It’s not difficult to figure out. This is not to say you’re picking up the pink dumbbells and going through the motions though. You still need to be choosing weights that challenge you and are sufficient to cause an adaptation. Basically, walk the line between ego lifting and being a pussy. The sweet spot incorporates intensity but a sensible approach at the same time.
Which leads me on to my next point…
I can talk about execution, programming and technique tips all day long but the cold hard reality is that if you’re not willing to remove your balls from your handbag and do some f*cking work in the gym expect to stay skinny for the rest of your life. It’s that simple.
Now, the precursor to this is to make sure you know how to train. Make sure your execution of exercises, movement patterns and technique is on point. The best way of doing this is to hire a coach who can physically teach you how to move in the gym. However, if you don’t want to hire a coach for whatever reason, jump on YouTube or you can head over to my social media channels and look for technique tips on the movements you’re trying to master.
Once you’re happy with your technique you’ve then got to put the work in.
Find your testicular fortitude and don’t stop, pause, rest or bitch out when it starts to hurt like 99% of gym goers do. If you want to be the guy that actually gets results you better be willing to go through some pain to get there. Lock in to the muscle and make it do some work.
I read a great post by an awesome natural bodybuilder/physique coach on Instagram called AJ Morris (@ajmorris_) the other day which I thought was fantastic – it’s the difference between training hard and ‘trying’ to train hard:
- Scream & Shout from REP ONE.
- Have ZERO eccentric control.
- Break all execution rules in favour of one more rep.
- Hop up and chat to your pal about how hard that set was 2 secs after finishing it
You’re not training hard. You’re just trying to train hard”
Think about that for a second. We’re here to train hard, not to try and give everyone the impression we’re training hard. We shouldn’t be concerned with other people’s opinion of us while we’re in the middle of a set, we should be focused on putting ourselves under as much stress as humanly possible until the set is finished.
Thanks to AJ for that great bit of content ^^.
Log Booking & Progressive Overload
The final point that I feel is necessary for you to know and implement into your training as a beginner is the principle of progressive overload and using a log book to track your workouts.
Progressive overload is the corner stone of muscle building, and if implemented correctly (as I’m going to outline for you below) is the number one thing that will see your physique improve faster than ever before.
The term ‘Progressive Overload’ refers to the continuous progression of some sort of variable in your training, workout to workout or week to week. Most commonly this is the progression of weight on a given exercise, as this most often represents an increase in strength.
Now, it is important to increase your strength over time and you should be seeing the weights you’re lifting go up across the board the further you get into your training programme.
However, we should never chase weight at the expense of execution.
Standardising your reps is an absolute must in your training programme. Lift with immaculate form, and then start progressing your weights from there and get really strong with great form. If you follow these instructions and have all your recovery variables on point (sleep, hydration, nutrition, mobility), your training progressions will translate into muscular growth. Stick with it and work hard.
It’s important to note that increasing your weight isn’t the only way of progressing your training. There are other variables you can take advantage of. Increasing the amount of reps at the same weight you did last time is another great way of progressing strength. Another way of eliciting progress would be to improve the execution of a certain lift on a given weight.
For example, if you can hit 200kg on the leg press for 6 reps with sloppy form, the next time you come to that exercise hitting the same weight and the same reps but with perfect form would reflect an increase in strength. You have more control of the weight and are therefore capable of making yourself work harder under the same load.
Now, we need to remember that if progress is the goal – we need to have a way of tracking said progress.
This is where log booking comes in. Your log book is a pivotal component of your training and ultimately your results.
Before you go into the gym, write your workout in full out in your log book. That way you don’t need to take your phone or a ton of paper into the gym with you, just your log book. Then, after you complete each exercise write the weight and the reps down beside it, along with any extra notes you need to remember for future workouts on execution or connection with the muscle you’re training. These will prove very useful for the next time you do the same workout.
That’s pretty much it.
Obviously there are a ton more little nuances and other factors that come into play but to get started, follow the advice I’ve laid out in this article and you’ll have a great foundation to push from.
I hope this article proves useful to you and allows you to get a kick start to your training career. If you have any questions about anything raised in this article or something I’ve not covered that you’re curious about – please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me on the following platforms:
Cheers and happy training
PS – Want some more great free information?
Why not check out this blog I wrote on the role of strength in physique development: