The information in this article is aimed at lifters new to the gym who have very little experience when it comes to exercising.
So let’s say you walk into the gym, it’s day one and you’re feeling confident. You should totally go up to the free-weight area and start lifting heavy things right? You’ve watched a load of YouTube videos so you know what you’re doing right? Wrong. Dead wrong.
Right now you haven’t earned the right to touch heavy weights. In fact for the next few weeks you shouldn’t be touching any weights at all. After all you don’t even know how to move properly yet and that’s key. You need to be able to move properly using just your bodyweight before you can start loading those movements.
So what are the fundamental movements you need to know?
In no particular order we have:
You’ll notice there are no biceps curls in that list and for good reason. For now you simply don’t need them. The learning curve for isolation exercises is so small you don’t need much practice to get them right. These larger compound movements however require a lot more coordination and understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
My advice would be to master the following exercises:
That’s right bodyweight, not your bodyweight on a bar across your upper back. This is where you need to start. If you cannot go very low without rounding your back then you need to work on your mobility. Here’s a tip, if you elevate your heels slightly using a thick mat or thin weight plate and you can suddenly go much lower without rounding then it’s your ankle mobility or calf flexibility that needs work. If it doesn’t make much of a difference then you’re either looking at poor hip mobility, tight glutes or tight hamstrings. Figure out what is wrong and fix it. A great way to practice is to squat down onto a box, step or bench. Ideally you want to find a bench that is low enough that the crease of your hips are level with, or below, your knee when you are at the bottom of the squat.
Bodyweight good morning
I’m going to put this simply, if you cannot touch your toes then you shouldn’t be doing any loaded hip hinge work until you can. That being said the good morning is a very good place to start. To make sure you are doing this movement correctly stand just in front of a wall. Start by getting your back straight and bending your knees slightly, don’t bend them any more than this though or the exercise will turn into a squat. The next step is to bend at your hips and push your butt back until it touches the wall, and to finish return to your starting position by driving the hips forward and squeezing your glutes. If this is too easy then shuffle your feet forward an inch and try again. Ideally you should feel a very slight stretch in the hamstrings and your back should be neutral (straight). Without a weight this is not a particularly challenging exercise but that’s okay, get this perfect now and you’ll be able to lift so much more over the coming months than you would have otherwise. Plus not getting injured is great.
The push up
Love it or hate it it’s a fantastic exercise for building upper body strength, power, adding mass, improving shoulder stability and increasing core strength. So do it. If you can’t do a full push up (feet on floor, legs straight) just yet that’s okay, drop down to your knees and do a ¾ push up. Do not call it a “girly push up”. If you call it that you are an idiot and you deserve a punch.
If you can’t do pull ups then do chin ups, if you can’t do those do holds and slow negatives. If you’re in a commercial gym you probably don’t have access to resistance bands, which is a shame, you could have used them to provide whatever assistance you needed to be able to do full pull ups. But that’s okay, holds and negatives are a great way to start. Either jump up or, if the pull up bar/handles are too high, use a bench. Get yourself into the top position of the pull up. You should have your chin over the bar (without looking up, that’s cheating, look forward) and your arms tucked tightly in at your sides. A great cue for this is to think chest to bar. Try to hold this position for 5 seconds, if that’s a challenge drop down and start again. Once holding for 5 seconds becomes quite manageable it’s time to add negatives. From the top position you will lower yourself for a 5 second count and start again from here. Do this until you can do full pull ups.
The TRX or inverted row
If your gym has a TRX great, crack on. If not then you’re going to want to set yourself up in a squat rack or even better the smith machine. In my opinion the smith machine is garbage and this is one of the few legitimate uses for it, this way you’re not taking up a squat rack. What you’re going to do is set the bar or handles at chest height, grab hold of said bar/handles with either an overhand or underhand grip. Which grip you choose doesn’t really matter for now. From here you’re going to walk forward so that your legs are straight, arms are straight and you are hanging from the bar in a reverse plank/push up position. All you have to do now is, keeping yourself in a nice straight line from head to toe, pull your chest towards the bar and then lower yourself back down.
Okay so I haven’t got any safe way (handstand push ups are not for beginners) for you to do any vertical pushing without using a weight. The safest way to get practicing this movement is either with a shoulder press machine or using cables. If you’re going to use cables I would recommend being in a kneeling position.
Once you have mastered these exercises you can progress onto loading them with resistance bands if you have access to them or dumbbells/kettlebells. When it comes to core work, for now, keep things simple. Front and side planks are your friends. Do them, they will make your core a lot stronger and maybe even help with hip mobility (look up “Dean Somerset hips” on YouTube).
That’s it. That’s the basics. I will follow this article up soon with how best to progress from this point but this should do the trick for your first few weeks of training.
Author Bio –
I’m a personal trainer and coach based in Liverpool, England. I have been working in the fitness industry for a little under 2 and a half years, in both commercial and private gyms, specialising in strength training and fat loss. I have experience with training a wide range of clients from students, to young mothers - post pregnancy, to middle aged and elderly clients.
For information about 1-1 or online coaching services contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Common Powerlifting Programming Mistakes
Efficient program design is crucial in making sure that powerlifting athletes not only optimise their performance on the day of competition, but also to ensure that they make consistent progress over time, minimising plateaus and continuously adding weight to the barbell. There are a number of programming errors that I frequently see in powerlifting program design, therefore this article aims to shine a light on a number of different areas where powerlifting athletes go wrong in their training, and how to begin training in a more optimal fashion to maximise long term strength gains.
Gaining strength can be achieved through neurological adaptations, such as developing better inter-muscular co-ordination and more efficient motor unit recruitment/firing rate. Put simply, practicing the lifts more frequently will bring about plenty of strength gains. However, after a certain amount of time, these neurological adaptations to strength training subside, and one must make muscular hypertrophy a goal of their training in order to continually forge more gains in strength.
Muscular Hypertrophy is defined as an increase in muscular size, most commonly measured by analysing the cross sectional area of a muscle. Increasing the cross sectional area of a muscle is thought to enhance a muscles force-generating capacity, and plenty of studies have successfully identified a very strong relationship between a muscle size, and its ability to exert force. The increase in size of a muscle has also been associated with having a small effect on a muscles moment arm, which could further enhance strength, particularly in larger muscle groups. As we can see, muscular hypertrophy is an incredibly important factor to consider when designing a training program.
How do we train for hypertrophy? Studies have shown muscular hypertrophy has been shown to be achieved through high training volumes.
Training volume is defined as the total workload performed over a given amount of time. Volume = weight x reps x sets.
In order to elicit hypertrophy, an athlete must consistently increase the total amount of workload they perform over time. As the body adapts to stimulus incredibly well, an athlete must continuously increase this stimulus to keep making progress. In short, if you aren’t pushing the boundaries with the amount of training volume you perform, continued hypertrophy will not occur, meaning you will not continue to provide the body with more potential to build strength.
Traditional rep range parameters for hypertrophy have been prescribed between 6-12, the theory being that one can take advantage of a higher time under tension and thus an increased metabolic fatigue, eliciting a superior hypertrophic response. However recent studies have shown that when volume is accounted for (total training volume is exactly the same between two groups) hypertrophy is very similar. So when training for hypertrophy, rep ranges are less important than ensuring the athlete performs high volumes of overall workload (weight x reps x sets). Personally, during my hypertrophy phases of training, I prefer to use higher rep ranges, 6-10 mostly. I feel that this allows you to perform a higher workload in a shorter amount of time, and the lower intensity (% or 1rm) used in higher rep ranges prevents too much fatigue from being accumulated during this phase of training.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that more muscle mass brings about better powerlifting performance. Literature has shown that a larger cross sectional area of muscle in individuals is a very effective indicator of powerlifting performance, and more successful powerlifters typically have higher degrees of muscle mass. Despite this, I frequently see powerlifting programs that do not directly aim to increase muscle size. In recent years, we have seen a rise in popularity of Bulgarian-style programming, which typically promotes very high frequency with relatively low overall volume. Although high frequency is a brilliant thing for powerlifters (as I’ll discuss later in the article), and these programs are no doubt beneficial for certain periods of time in a powerlifters overall plan, I feel that athletes are selling themselves short if they solely devote all of their training to this approach. Training blocks predominantly devoted to high volume/hypertrophy are a great way to elicit a lot of muscle growth in the early phases of an athletes training program. This new muscle can then be trained to produce high amounts of force later in an athletes program as they approach competition or a test day, where overall volume lowers and intensity (%1rm) increases.
Not Enough Exercise Variation
Powerlifting is an incredibly specific sport, with only three competitive movements. Thus, as will all athletic program design, specificity must be a primary focus for the athlete. This means a lot of training volume dedicated to the squat, bench press and deadlift. However, a program can actually be overly-specific, placing so much focus on the competitive movements that athletes neglect other training that can greatly enhance their strength potential. With overly specific programming, we see the athlete place too much focus on specific strength as oppose to general strength. This is also a predominant feature of Bulgarian style programming. Again, this isn’t to say that Bulgarian programming is innately bad, however if it is not blended with other training methods over the course of an athletes annual plan, athletes may be selling themselves short on taking advantage of the benefits of training variation.
Variation is defined as ‘The manipulation of training variables to prevent staleness and injury and to magnify the long term adaptive response to training’.
In powerlifting terms, exercise variation will predominantly come in the form of developing general strength. Developing general strength should always be performed with the predominant goal of improving the sport specific movements, in this case the squat, bench and deadlift. This prevents the athlete from violating specificity, and ensures that the training program has a clear focus of enhancing the competition lifts. This is where assistance training becomes an important part of a powerlifters program. Assistance work is often characterised as exercises directed at improving movement strength. For example, if you frequently miss your squat right at the bottom of the lift, implementing pause squats may help you to build a lot of static and supportive strength in the hole by eliminating the stretch reflex and helping to maintain tightness. Similarly, if you often miss bench presses right off the chest, long pause training can help to develop strength in this position in exactly the same way. This is where individual differences come into play. There are plenty of brilliant assistance movements out there- it is up to the athlete/their coach to decide where their weak points lie and to implement relevant assistance exercises accordingly.
In addition to performing movements to target weak areas of the competition lifts themselves, exercises can also be added to athletes training programs to target specific muscle groups that are weak or underactive. We can describe these as supplementary exercises. As they are not as competition specific as assistance exercises, they are best performed during earlier phases of an athletes training program to promote muscular balance and postural integrity. For example, an athlete may have weak triceps in their bench press, in which case tricep-specific work such as close grip bench pressing/skull crushers can be added to address this issue. Similarly, an athlete may have weak glutes, which may be affecting their hip extension strength in the squat and deadlift. Exercises like weighted glute bridges/cable pull throughs would be a brilliant option here.
Consistently performing competition specific exercises without applying exercise variation in the form of assistance/supplementary exercises can massively hinder an athletes long-term strength potential. Not only will weaknesses remain weaknesses, but the athlete will likely hit plateaus due to the adaptive resistance associated with performing the same exercises over and over again. We will hinder our ability to build new functional muscle mass and strengthen connective tissues that may be hindering our competitive lifts, and will hit technical plateau’s caused by failure to address movement weaknesses.
It can also increase our likelihood of injury. The competition lifts emphasise the development of a lot of larger musculature, however in many cases neglect smaller muscle groups that can play an important role in posture and muscular balance. For example, muscle groups like lower trapezius and serratus anterior play a key role in promoting shoulder girdle health. Due to the fact that the humerus moves independently of the scapula during a bench press, these muscles receive no activation. Consistent bench pressing without addressing these crucial muscles could result in shoulder injuries. A powerlifting program must give some focus to musculature that is needed to maintain overall muscular balance, as this will allow them to perform the main lifts at higher training volumes without injury occurring.
Neglecting specificity altogether
As mentioned above, specificity is crucial for every athlete, especially powerlifters, given the incredibly specific nature of the sport. Specificity needs to be the main focus of an athletes training program, particularly as competition draws closer. Just as an athlete can rely too heavily on specificity and neglect weaknesses, many powerlifting programs often neglect specificity to the point where it becomes detrimental to performance. We often see this in programs such as Westside barbell templates, which often involve rotating exercises on a weekly basis, with very limited training volume being accumulated on the competition lifts themselves. This leaves the lifter never actually developing technical prowess on their competition specific skills, and often spending a lot of time performing exercises that arguably don’t even have high transfer to the main lifts. Thus, there is a fine balance between providing enough specificity to ensure the athlete makes the most specific training adaptations possible, however enough variation so the athlete does not stagnate from movement inefficiencies and muscular imbalance.
In powerlifting terms, performing a one rep set, to competition specific technique requirements whilst wearing competition specific equipment would allow an athlete to optimise specificity. Although this should be more emphasised as competition draws closer, it is also a good idea to keep this sort of training in a powerlifters training program year round. This allows the athlete to consistently work on developing technical prowess under heavy load (85% + of their 1RM) whilst taking advantage of the neurological adaptations to heavy strength training. This is a valuable skill for powerlifters, therefore completely neglecting this strength altogether may result in a de-training effect. Many training programs utilise this method of training even during hypertrophy/volume phases of training with great success. For example: an athlete will often work up to a heavy, submaximal single (in the 85-95% range) before dropping down in weight to perform their remaining working sets of volume.
Not enough frequency
Several studies have examined the effect of training frequency on muscular size and strength gains. When volume is controlled for, higher frequency programs appear to elicit more strength and hypertrophic adaptations. It is theorised that this is because protein synthesis is peaked more frequently - which causes more muscle growth. As we’ve already discussed, a larger muscle has the potential to exert more force. In addition, training with a higher frequency allows an athlete to get more practice at performing competition specific movements, which will improve neuromuscular adaptations and promote more strength gains. A study on Norwegian powerlifters revealed this exact result. It found that athletes who divided their training program over six sessions made more muscle size and strength gains than those who only divided their training over three.
Put simply, dividing training volume over more frequent training sessions is very beneficial for a powerlifter, as long as volume is kept in check. The key point here is that volume must spread over the course of more sessions, as oppose to just increased. Dramatically increasing your volume and frequency simultaneously is likely to quickly hinder your recovery capacity.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article on just a few different common mistakes that are often found in powerlifting programs. It is also very important to mention two of the most important factors that will dictate an athlete’s long-term strength progress – sleep and food! If these two things are not kept in check, the most optimal program in the world will not elicit optimal results.
About Matthew Brown
I’m a Strength & Conditioning/personal development blogger currently studying Strength & Conditioning at Uclan University. I have a huge passion for strength training, personal growth and philosophy. My content aims to inspire you to develop mentally and physically, under the barbell and beyond.
Further Reading -
Brechue, W.F. and Abe, T., 2002. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 86(4), pp.327-336.
Bryanton, M.A., Kennedy, M.D., Carey, J.P. and Chiu, L.Z., 2012. Effect of squat depth and barbell load on relative muscular effort in squatting. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(10), pp.2820-2828.
Erskine, R.M., Fletcher, G. and Folland, J.P., 2014. The contribution of muscle hypertrophy to strength changes following resistance training. European journal of applied physiology, 114(6), pp.1239-1249.
Lovera, M. and Keogh, J., 2015. Anthropometric profile of powerlifters: differences as a function of bodyweight class and competitive success. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 55(5), pp.478-487.
MacDougall, J.D., Gibala, M.J., Tarnopolsky, M.A., MacDonald, J.R., Interisano, S.A. and Yarasheski, K.E., 1995. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Canadian journal of applied physiology, 20(4), pp.480-486.
Raastad T, Kirketeig, A, Wolf, D, Paulsen G. Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week (abstract). Book of abstracts, 17th annual conference of the ECSS, Brugge 4-7 July, 2012.
Schoenfeld, B.J., 2013. Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Sports medicine, 43(3), pp.179-194.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Ogborn, D. and Krieger, J.W., 2016. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, pp.1-10.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Ratamess, N.A., Peterson, M.D., Contreras, B., Sonmez, G.T. and Alvar, B.A., 2014. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(10), pp.2909-2918.
Sugisaki, N., Wakahara, T., Murata, K., Miyamoto, N., Kawakami, Y., Kanehisa, H. and Fukunaga, T., 2015. Influence of muscle hypertrophy on the moment arm of the triceps brachii muscle. Journal of applied biomechanics, 31(2).
Wesley Smith, C. Israetel, M. Hoffmann, J. Scientific Principles of Strength Training.
I have a very specific goal in writing this post. I want to convince you the reader, and myself the writer, of something very important. I am not trying to convince you that over training is dangerous – we already know that. I am not trying to convince you that some of you are addicted to exercise – we certainly already know that. I am trying to convince you that we really, really need to take action and do something about it.
I work in a fitness environment. I absolutely love teaching classes and coaching people and pushing them to their limits. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing someone dig deeper than they have before and give a workout everything they have got. You recognise that passion in people that you see in yourself in your own training sessions, and it’s inspiring. So I encourage it, of course.
Recently I have noticed a worrying number of people coming over before a class to let me know that they’re feeling like shit, but will do what they can. “I’ve just got this sore throat that won’t budge” “My hip is playing up again” “I’m still so sore from last week”. At first, these comments didn’t worry me. Niggly pains and little injuries are common…as long as they had addressed that and were reigning it back in their workouts a little, they would be fine. It was only when I recently noticed it happening to myself that I started getting a little concerned.
How many times have you found yourself getting frustrated about not quite getting the results you want, or expect, from your training? Your 1RM just won’t increase, your physique just doesn’t seem to be changing, you can’t quite shave that last second off your running time. I’ll bet you’ve complained about this to a number of people and been met with the question “are you getting enough rest?”
And I’ll bet you probably brushed them off and kept on searching for the answer to your lack of results. Stupid hippies and their rest. I don’t have time for rest.
Or maybe you are well aware that you could do with a little more rest (like myself), but you just enjoy training so damn much that you’d actually rather sacrifice those results a little in order to keep the training sessions in. You’re in love with training. You’re not in love with results.
What are you training for?
It is time to sit yourself down and ask yourself what you are really training for. You don’t need to have a competition coming up or a beach holiday in the near future. Are you training because you want to be the strongest version of you? Are you training because you want to feel at your most confident? Are you training because you want the energy to play with your kids? Whatever your reason, you have a goal – you have results that you wish to achieve. It is time to start prioritising moving towards that goal, over training for training’s sake.
When we train for training’s sake, we are training for our own short term gain. We are training for the endorphin rush, for the feeling of being strong, the feeling of accomplishment and pride we get from that hour (or two or three or four…) we spend in the gym. These feelings are incredibly addictive, and that’s why we keep going back for more. Training on our rest days, extending our workouts, getting exercise in any way we can. If you always had your goals as your top priority, you would train sensibly, eat appropriately, and sleep as much as possible. If you can see that your training session is becoming more important than your results, perhaps is it time to re-assess.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. The effects of training too hard or too much on your mental health can be very, very bad. Using myself as an example – I didn’t realise just how much over training was having a negative impact on my life until I noticed these mental effects. I have had a niggly injury for two or three months, and have been feeling a little sore and fatigued since around the time I came out the womb, but these aren’t the things that stuck out to me. In the last few months I have been up and down more times than that Grand Old Duke of York (I know, that was a good one. I’m here all week…) and I have definitely noticed a link between my emotions and my training sessions.
If you have a bad training session, how does it affect the rest of your day? Are you irritable, snappy, upset? Would these feelings be reversed had you had a good training session? The last bad training session I had was last Tuesday. My parents (who I very rarely see) had driven up North to spend the week with me and were meeting me at my house after my Tuesday morning training. I had been so excited to see them, the trip had been in the pipeline for a while. It was actually my dad’s birthday celebration. When they got to my house they found me un-showered, miserable and teary, still lay in bed, struggling to find the motivation to move.
An addiction to exercise can lead to clinical depression.
The important thing to remember is that you are more than your training. Just because people respect you for being strong, muscular, lean or super-fast does not mean that this is the only thing that defines you. You probably have a lot going for you, and people recognise you for those traits just as much as they recognise you for your outstanding dedication to the gym. It is okay to focus on your other attributes for a while.
I have seen many people’s health take a hit from over training – in terms other than injury and emotions. If you have ever found yourself with a cold that just won’t quite go away, you’ll probably find that your excessive training is to blame. I recently have developed sores on the sides of my mouth that just won’t heal. I cut my feet to shreds on my last holiday from wearing shoes which gave me blisters, and I have never known cuts take so bloody long to scab over. I know fully well that I am simply run down from pushing my body to the absolute limits.
Bad skin, baggy eyes, struggling to sleep. Sound familiar? Our bodies need the chance to rest up and use our resources in order to get back to good health. We are wasting those resources dragging ourselves through hour after hour in the gym. Ultimately, if you give your body a chance to get back to good health, you are far more likely to actually be moving towards those goals we discussed.
Before it’s too late
You often find that when people go through some traumatic event – a car accident, illness, family death etc. – they always say “I just never thought it would happen to me”. Guess what? Nobody goes into the gym predicting they’re going to get injured that day. Right now, I can’t squat or deadlift because of injury. Do you know what I love more than anything in the world? Squats and deadlifts. If I could print off this article, go back a few months and say “hey Gina, I think you should take a read of this” then maybe I could have prevented injury. Having said that, I’m so bloody stubborn that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.
So please, don’t be as stubborn as myself and many others in this industry. Anyone can push themselves in their training, but actually taking the time to look after yourself mentally and physically is what will take you to the next level. Being passionate about training is awesome, and you should certainly cling on to that passion and use it to move forward in every way you can, but don’t be an idiot. Figure out your goals and always, always have them in the back of your mind. I guarantee that missing a training session when you’re feeling run down is in no way going to stop you reaching those goals.
About the Author -
I'm a 21 year old psychology graduate with a passion for health and fitness which has blossomed over the past three years. I have battled and overcome an eating disorder, and come out the other side as a much stronger person. I am currently lifting competitively as a member of the North West division of the British powerlifting federation. I am a firm believer that we never stop learning, and I try to be the sponge that soaks up as much information as possible in order to broaden my knowledge of this industry.
You can read more about my views on life, health, fitness and travelling as well as getting information on nutrition plans on my personal blog: smallstepstochangingyourlife.wordpress.com
You can follow me on Instagram here: instagram.com/georginastanway
And contact me via email: email@example.com