A (Very) Rough Guide to Beginners' Barbell Training Programs

As I promised in my last post, I'd now like to talk a bit about the different weight lifting programs I ended up researching. I spent a fairly silly amount of time here, so I'm hoping that you find it useful.

I'm going to talk about the three primary beginners lifters programs I read up on, tell you what they actually involve… and also what I think the person behind them is trying to sell you.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on any of this. I am, at best, an amateaur of the sort who tends to read everything he can find about a subject which interests him (translation: a geek). You should consider the majority of what's written here to be opinion and look into these things yourself. I hope I can provide a good jumping off point, though.

Pretty much all the programs I've found centre around four barbell lifts. So I figured I'd start by quickly describing them:

  • Bench press. You know what this one is. It's the one you saw in the montages of all those action movies. Lie with your back against the bench and lift the barbell from your nipples straight up until your arms are fully locked.
  • Shoulder press. Stand with the barbell held approximately level with your shoulders, forearms vertical. Lift the bar directly upwards until your arms are fully locked. This has more nuance than it sounds.
  • Squat. Stand with the bar braced across your shoulders, ideally resting on your lats. Drop down into a squatting position (duh) keeping your feet flat against the floor and pushing your knees apart. Stand, pushing up through your heels.
  • Deadlift. I'm not going to try and explain this one. That's a lawsuit waiting to happen. Here's a video:

Having thrown a Mark Ripptoe video in this post already, it seems only right that I start with…

Starting Strength (SS)

Starting Strength is essentially three things:

  • A barbell lifting program for beginners;
  • A book which describes the lifts in the program in incredible biomechanical detail;
  • A series of seminars.

The man behind all three of these is one Mark Ripptoe, whose dulcet tones guided you through the deadlift in the video above. Pretty obviously: he wants to sell you a copy of his book (though hard copies are really hard to come by) or possibly a ticket to a seminar. In fairness there is pretty much nothing else like the book out there. It might arguably be more detail than you need, but it's still seriously impressive.

"Rip" is also something of personality. There are entire websites dedicates to things he's said. Here's one which made me laugh:

I don't go to titty bars much anymore. They have never really appealed to me. Like going into an expensive restaurant, reading the menu for 2 hours, drinking a little, then getting up and leaving without having had anything to eat but paying the bill anyway.

…and here's one which actually has something to do with what I'm supposed to be taking about here:

There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.

I'm going to admit right away that there is more to the actual program than I originally thought there was. I'll describe what I've seen called the "core" program here, but you can find a more complete explanation over at the Fitocracy knowledge base.

Each lift in the program is preceded by a warm up, which is the case for ever lift in every program here, even if I don't mention it. You start with the empty bar[1] and then increase the weight in stages until you reach your work weight.

In the Starting Strength program[1:1] you work out Monday, Wednesday and Friday, performing three lifts each day. There are two workouts, which you rotate:

  • Workout A: Squat 3x5, shoulder press 3x5, deadlift 1x5.
  • Workout B: Squat 3x5, bench press 3x5, power clean 5x3.

"Rotate" means that your first week would look like this:

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Friday: Workout A

...then your second week would look like so:

  • Monday: Workout B
  • Wednesday: Workout A
  • Friday: Workout B

...and so on.

Firstly, the numbers after each of the lifts are in the form <sets>x<repetitions>. Secondly, the sharp eyed amongst you will probably have noticed that I snuck an extra lift in there. So, what exactly is a power clean? Basically, it's like a deadlift… but you keep going, explosively lifting the weight up to your shoulders (though not above your head).

Generally speaking weights should be increased gradually after each successful workout, and not usually by more than 2.5kg (except perhaps for the deadlift). Again, see the link to the Fitrocracy knowledge base above for more details, but I would also be quite remiss if I did not mention StartingStrength.com.

Also: anytime you want to see a good demonstration of a barbell lift, try typing "Mark Ripptoe <name of lift>" into YouTube. This is a man who knows what he's talking about.

Strong Lifts 5x5 (SL)

Strong Lifts 5x5 is very much a program from the internet. In fact, if you were to go stronglifts.com there is a good chance that you might come away with the impression that Mehdi (the guy behind it) is trying to sell you snake oil. This is the secret training program used by Arnold Schwarzenegger, apparently. Ignore that, though, since insofar as I can tell this program is up there with SS for the amount respect it gets for a beginners program. Mehdi wants you to come to his website and make use of the resources there (which are actually pretty good), because he's monetized the site with ads. He would also like you to sign up for the paid "Strong lifts inner circle" members only community.

SL is very similar in structure to SS in that it's the four main lifts plus one extra, with two alternating workouts each featuring three lifts to be performed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The two workouts look like this:

  • Workout A: Squat 5x5, bench press 5x5, Pendley Row 5x5.
  • Workout B: Squat 5x5, shoulder press 5x5, deadlift 1x5.

This time around the fifth lift is the bent over (or Pendley) row, which is basically the exact opposite of the bench press. Yes, this is exactly as awkward as it sounds and, like the deadlift, is a really good way to knacker your back if performed incorrectly. That being the case, I'll let the man Glen Pendley himself explain it to you rather than trying to do the job myself:

The other differences to SS are that with SL you perform five sets of five reps at your work weight (deadlift is again one set), and you you have a strictly defined methodology for increasing the weight of your lifts:

  • If you hit five reps on all five sets you add 2.5kg the next time you do the lift (5kg for deadlift);
  • If you miss any reps, you stay at the same weight;
  • If you miss reps multiple times, you deload by 10% and then work your way back up.

This is the program I originally started doing, largely because it was easier to find a strict definition of what the program actually was than was the case for SS. It worked pretty well for me in the beginning, but as you increase the weight you'll also tend to increase the rest between sets, so after a couple of months I just seemed to be spending forever in the gym. In the end I stopped doing the program to try working with an online trainer, which I might talk about some in a later post.

Greyskull Linear Progression (GLP)

Greyskull LP is the beginners lifting program used at the Greyskull Barbell Club on the East Coast of the USA and created by the club's owner, John Sheaffer aka "Johnny Pain", a former student of Mark Ripptoe (remember him?).

What Johnny Pain is trying to sell you is the idea that you might like to train at his gym, and failing that maybe one of his books, such as the very one which describes the program. You can also find one variation of the program described in some detail by the man himself on the forums at StrengthVillain.com, though not in anywhere near as much detail as in the book.

Side note about the book: I bought it. I think it's a really good resource and actually quite well written (I laughed out loud more than once), but perhaps not for the feint of heart. Dear old Johnny Pain can get a little bawdy, from time to time.

This is, again, very similar to Starting Strength, but with more of a focus on maintaining the linear progression for as long as possible. This is also a very flexible program, being made of a core program and a set of "plug-ins".

The core program is three days a week, again: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. For your first lift on each day, you alternate bench press and shoulder press. On Mondays and Fridays you then do squats. On Wednesdays: Deadlift. After warming up, you move on to three sets at your work weight. Again like SS, your first two sets are of five reps, however your third set is to failure (or as close to it as you're prepared to go), so basically as may reps as you can do, but at least five. The exception is the deadlift, for which you just perform a single set of as many reps as you can manage.

If you manage to hit at least 5 reps for each of your work sets, you increase the weight. 2.5kg for squat and deadlift, 1.25kg for bench and shoulder press. This last is actually quite tricky, since it involves using "fractional" plates, which most gyms don't carry and I, as yet, have not been able to find a good place to buy. If you fail to hit your five reps on each set you knock 10% off the weight for the next time (rounding down) and start working your way back up.

The upshot of this is that firstly the relaxed pace (two main lifts a day and small increases in weight) means that you're much less likely to stall and so will continue the linear progression for longer. Secondly, doing the third set to failure mean that you'll build a little more muscle (hypertrophy) and also you'll tend to hit either a reps or weight personal best every time you lift. Deloading can be frustrating in that it feels like moving backwards. Seeing that you can now do eights reps at a weight you could only manage five at before drives home that you have gotten stronger and are making progress.

Given the amount of time I've spent talking about it, you might have worked out that this is the program I'm actually following at the moment. I liked the more gradual approach to increasing the weight here, and I like the additional flexibility of the plug-ins, which I'll talk about in another post.

  1. Calling it the SS program seems… wrong. ↩︎ ↩︎