Updated: Sep 19, 2018
I see a lot of beginner lifters making the mistake of trying to follow the methods of advanced lifters, thinking that it is going to make them super strong very fast. They will try and follow programs such as Westside Barbell or other methods that are usually higher in intensity and lower in volume and frequency.
This is a huge mistake because when you are starting out, the more often you can put work in or you can train a movement the better propensity you have to make rapid adaptations. Also, it is crucial to get as proficient and efficient as possible with the main movements early on.
As a general rule of thumb, the stronger you get and the more weight you are lifting relative to your body weight, the less volume and frequency you’ll be able to do. This is because the heavier a weight is, the more taxing it is on your nervous system. Someone who has a max Squat just over their own bodyweight could easily Squat 4 times a week and be able to recover, adapt and progress between each session. Someone who has a Squat max around 3 times their own bodyweight will probably need a full 7-10 days to fully recover from a hard Squat session.
Therefore it is essential that you make smart choices when choosing the correct volume, frequency and intensity to work with to make optimal gains for your experience level. Consider your max’s on the main 3 lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) and divide each one by your body weight to work out exactly how strong you are relative to your bodyweight.
If you are just starting out, you will be able to make great strength gains in a higher repetition range, something like 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps 2-3 times per week should be able to carry you from an empty bar to somewhere around a 1.2x bodyweight Squat whether you are male or female, a bodyweight bench if you are male and around a 0.7x bodyweight bench if you are female and around a 1.4x bodyweight Deadlift for Males and Females. The beauty of this phase is that you pack on loads of muscles while getting stronger. Also, in this phase, there is no need to really use variations of the main lifts as you will be able to get stronger doing the main lifts alone while also getting better at performing them.
If you’re already at a Squat and Deadlift of 1-1.5 times your own bodyweight and a Bench somewhere in between now is the time to follow a basic linear progression model aiming for 20-25 total reps on the main lifts using rep ranges such as 4x6, 5x5, 5x4, 6x3 etc. and add weight to the bar every time you train. This is also a great time to get an experienced coach to help you achieve optimal technique for your individual leverages. Now that your relative strength is somewhere higher, you’re going to want to Squat twice per week, Bench 2-3 times per week and Deadlift 1-2 times per week. This is highly dependent on the Volume and Intensity that you choose. During this phase, you will get to know your own body and understand recovery a lot more and you may need to start using variations of the main lifts to target particularly exposed weaknesses. You will also notice that you will have to (albeit slowly and gradually) do less work on the main lifts in order to recover, adapt and continue to progress.
This will be able to take you to around a 2-2.3x bodyweight Squat and Deadlift and a 1.2-1.5x bodyweight Bench Press. Your genetics, gender, diet, sleep and physical exertion outside of the gym will have a lot to do with how much progress you can make here because this is where those factors start to matter a whole lot more.
Past this point a lot of people make the mistake of thinking they have hit their natural limit when there is still a whole lot more they can do to progress with the correct programming along with an experienced coach who can pick faults in very good technique and turn it into great technique to allow the lifter to progress further. This is the time where you are going to need to follow a linear periodization model starting with higher volume and have the volume slowly decrease and the intensity slowly increases to come to a peak every 10-12 weeks where you will probably add 5-15kg to your Squat and Deadlift and 2.5-7.5kg to your Bench in that time frame. This is also a great time to be competing if you desire to do so as you can time your peaks into competitions and really test yourself on the platform.
There are many other methods out there but this write up should give you the idea. Consider where you are at strength wise and consider the program that you are using. Ask yourself if it’s the best thing you could be doing to be making gains at your given level. If you are unsure, ask someone with more experience. Follow the right system, train hard and always stay consistent.
- Coach Steve. @redbeardlifting