Training Novices - how to get better, better

The boys fondly remembering noob gains
Are you bad at lifting (me too!)? Do you train people who are new to lifting?
Whether you are constructing a program for yourself/your clients or following another plan, my thoughts below should help you understand where and why to invest your efforts.
What is a novice?
Other people have rigorous definitions for novice (eg the Starting Strength definition has to do with the ability to undergo a full adaptation cycle from workout to workout). I think definitions based purely on time spent training, degree of muscularity, or even rate of adaptation don’t necessarily capture EVERYTHING fully. It’s not uncommon for people to have been lifting weights for years and yet lack muscularity, or be quite jacked but lack any technical proficiency. Similarly it’s hard to actually discern how quickly somebody can have fully adapted to a given stimulus if their programming is haphazard or just plain shitty like many lifters’ is.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be talking about people I would consider novices in powerlifting. You can still extrapolate the lessons to people pursuing general strength training (largely I think that’s a good idea) and even to a degree bodybuilding, with the caveat that you’re assessing training proficiency as opposed to advancement of their physique, with the end goal being that by improving their training proficiency you can increase their rate of and capacity for advancement.
I would define a novice in powerlifting terms as somebody who fulfils a number of the following criteria;
1- Limited exposure to structured training (irrespective of number of years training)
2- No (or very limited) competitive experience +/- exposure to lifting under the rules of powerlifting
3- A high degree of technical inconsistency (consider that a novice may make 5 or 6 different mistakes during one set of 8-10 reps, whereas more technically developed lifters may only display 1-2 consistent errors)
4- A lack of muscularity
5- Low training capacity
While broadly the advice in this article is, I think, BEST for rank noobs to lifting, I still think there is merit to taking even those who have some training experience and muscularity through the process I describe for a few reasons. 1 – maintenance volumes for size and strength are much lower than volumes required to develop new qualities, so even with a reduction in training stimulus these individuals are unlikely to detrain
2 – repatterning poor technique is hard under fatigue and with very challenging loads, but its necessary to set their ceiling for advancement high. Accessory work still allows enough volume/challenge for maintenance of muscle and strength without needing high RPEs in primary lifts.
3 – maintenance of actual physiological abilities to produce force coupled with improved technique still leads to improved strength in the powerlifts.
So at best you end up progressing the athlete with lowered training stress and at worst you repattern technique and can strategically increase training stress a little quicker until you’re providing enough stimulus to progress them again.
What do novices need?
Novices need to basically address the selection criteria for being a novice.
That means
1 – Developing sound technique. Having solid technique is important for safety but also lifts the ceiling for strength development. As I’ll address a little later, I put a premium on movement patterns as opposed to rhythm in the early stages (I think it is easier to teach somebody to go fast once they can do a movement replicably under control).
2 – Building muscle. Just as technique contributes to a lifter’s performance ceiling, lacking the actual force-producing architecture to lift anything heavy does too. Muscle also takes a long time to build, so starting early is a good idea. Note that plenty of bodybuilders begin powerlifting, and once they develop a reasonable technical base are nearly immediately good, because they have a lot of muscle to actually lift things with.
3 – Develop connective tissue strength. Whilst adaptations to tendons that promote force transduction/strength performance (eg increased stiffness) are maximised using near-maximal contractions, simply habitual loading contributes to hypertrophy of tendons, which reduces the chance of injury.
4 – Develop training capacity. Other than the connective tissue resilience described above, people new to structured training need an introduction to training with volumes that will allow them to progress. That doesn’t necessarily mean a maximalist approach to volume (as the rest of this article will attest) but there’s something to be said for developing the capacity to do a decent number of sets of a decent number of reps in a reasonable time frame and recover to do it again, and a gradual introduction of training stress allows this.
5 – Develop broad movement “skill”. This is my most tentative “requirement”, but still one that I think has value considering. Development of strength in a variety of planes/motions and improved kinaesthetic sense helps make athletes more athletic and resilient, and easier to coach, respectively. There also just seems to be something to having wide movement experience, in that lessons from how you executed one task, or how something “felt” are transposable, at least in my experience. This is my most tentative reason both because of the ill-defined and unsupported nature of it, and because powerlifting (and all gym lifts, really, unless you’re doing weightlifting) are remarkably simple skills, and so you don’t need to be freakishly coordinated to get at least good at them.
The novice state
People who are new to weight training have a few defining features that influence how they should be trained.
1 – Probably most importantly, they have a very low threshold for adaptation. As an almost absurd example, you can find examples in literature of cardio inducing muscle hypertrophy. Less absurdly, there’s plenty of literature showing meaningful amounts of hypertrophy for people undergoing just a few sets of resistance training per muscle group per week.
Obviously this doesn’t continue forever, and eventually the magnitude of stimulus required to elicit adaptation increases, but it’s important to remember that the minimum effective dose for increases in size (and strength) is at this point very low.
2 – The carryover between exercises/adaptations is very broad. Chad Wesley Smith (of Juggernaut Training Systems) talks of a pyramid of specificity, where as training age progresses the carryover from exercises and stimuli that vary from the competition form reduces. An easy way to consider this is the following – for a beginner, if you had them squat, then didn’t squat for a while but improved their leg press strength considerably, chances are they would still be able to squat more.
This isn’t due to improved proficiency in the squat (of which they’d have none), but simply because all of the components of strength performance (neurological and morphological) are so untrained that developing any one improves an athlete.
In a highly advanced powerlifter, the same process is very unlikely to yield any benefit as the leg press and squat are not sufficiently similar. (This is also part of the reason it takes time to convert increases in general qualities, such as leg size, into improved performance in the actual lifts in advanced athletes, especially where said general qualities were obtained via general means, hence a more periodised approach).
3 – As a sort of synthesis of the above, where more advanced athletes can and should draw a distinction between the adaptation derived from given stimuli, amongst novices the lines are blurred. In the untrained, hypertrophy work can promote maximal strength, and work that would be “technique” work (or a low-stress day) in an advanced athlete’s program due to having lower volumes and RPEs may still be enough to elicit adaptation in novices. Whilst there is no doubt that for the expression of maximal strength qualities there is benefit to training with heavier weights, the need for true intensification/a peak is reduced, and given the long-term imperatives of developing size and good technique, sticking to largely “hypertrophy” and “technique” loading parameters for novices is likely enough to continue to develop their base.
Bringing that together – how to train
Given all of what I’ve said above, a decent framework for developing a novice plan is the following.
1 – Perform the competition lifts and any close variants at relatively low RPEs. This allows for technical practice and is likely to still be enough stimulus to actually promote strength increases. Remember that “strength”, if measured through a lift and not a dynamometer, is an intersection between the neurological/morphological capability to produce force and the technical ability to express it, so simply getting better at lifting can make you stronger when all else sucks. This also allows for load progression so that by the time the lifter is handling loads that are objectively challenging for the number of reps being performed they should have engrained good enough technique to perform them with a degree of consistency.
2 – There is probably benefit to performing work with deliberate tempos and/or pauses or other similar positional work. My friend JP Cauchi often says (in that I heard him say it once) “move slow, learn fast”. There is a relationship between the speed of movement and degree of movement precision. Consider that old trick of stabbing a knife into a table between your outstretched fingers – if you did it at a snail’s pace nobody would be concerned for your wellbeing, but if you go at it in a more frenzied fashion it’s much more fun to watch. The same is true of motor tasks – it is easier to establish the sequencing of joint movements and impart some positional awareness on people when they move slower, and they are likely to be more consistent in their execution doing so. In the powerlifts, however, establishing rhythm (eg a faster drop into the hole for a squat) will help performance long-term, so once positional consistency is reasonable this is the next step.
4 – Given the wide carryover between exercises, novices should use a larger number of them. This serves the additional benefit of allowing larger volumes of work to be done without compromising the performance of the main lifts through fatigue (interfering with technical development) and also helps develop that nebulous movement skill that I mentioned earlier. Also, if much of your compound movements will initially be deliberately easy, there is still benefit to doing some harder grunt work. This should be done on exercises with lower technical demand. You can only so egregiously fuck up a leg extension (although that Gym Memes page has me wondering, sometimes) and doing some high-effort work is absolutely necessary still to maximise adaptation.
5 – Volume should be gradually introduced. This reduces the chance for injury, takes advantage of the low threshold for adaptation in the untrained, and means that by the time higher volumes are being performed the lifter has some of the advantages of the repeated bout effect (less soreness, structural damage and performance disruption from a given stimulus, allowing them to train more).
A sample week
Day 1
Squat – 3×10 @ 15RM
Bench – 3×10 @ 15RM
Seated row – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Chest fly – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Lat pulldown – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Day 2
Deadlift – 3×10 @ 15RM
3 count paused bench – 3×5 @ 10RM
Leg extension – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Leg curl – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Day 3
Squat – 3×8 @ 12RM
Close grip bench – 3×10 @ 15RM
DB row – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Face pull – – 3×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Day 4
Tempo Squat – 3×5 @ around Day 1 weight
Incline bench – 2×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
Paused deadlift – 3×5 @ around Day 2 weight
Lunge – 2×12-15 w 2-3 reps in reserve
For the above – all loads could progress week to week by 2-5% although the premium initially would be on execuction. This could easily have been preceded by a phase with 1 fewer set across the board for most exercises and even lighter loads or just alternating A and B sessions to give more frequent practice of a given lift and keep a rapid rate of advancement.
As the lifter progresses, simply adding sets here and there (or the odd additional exercise) could keep spurring adaptation.
Once technique is well-established, I’d progress the athlete to slightly heavier loads again and reduce the rep targets of primary lifts to accommodate this.
As a rank novice you could bring the lifter to competition by having a very abrupt taper (by simply having one slightly heavier workout, a few days off, and then going in with a conservative meet plan based around getting 9/9 lifts).
You could also just as easily do the above and simply do a mock-meet, and I’d do the same for general strength trainees (for whom you could also use AMRAP testing or similar) before restarting the process with higher loads and slightly higher volumes, at which point you may begin to introduce some more targeted work depending on what you observed in the athlete through their first training cycle.
Novices need to develop sound technique and build muscle and the physical resilience that will set them up for productive training careers. Due to their low threshold for adaptation and the high degree of transference from a wide variety of stimuli, the best way to do this (in my opinion, anyway) is to keep the main lifts easy and then do additional grunt work loaded for hypertrophy. It is easy to forget both how little work is required to actually promote adaptations in novices and how quickly they recover from it, so I think higher frequencies (2-3x/wk training most movement patterns/muscles), especially with the lower volumes used, is the way to go. This also allows for more frequent technical practice.
Once you have engrained solid movement patterns and are beginning to build muscle, the transition to “intermediate” trainee essentially entails increasing training volume and beginning to tailor the work done to the needs of the individual to a greater degree.
And that’s it.
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