Beginner Training Programs

This an article for beginners and novices in accordance with our mission to take people from a beginning level of fitness knowledge all the way through to a comprehensive higher understanding.

This article, in particular, is going to talk extensively about novice template programs and their applicability as well as introducing intermediate templates that may be adopted once the novice phase has finished.

We will also introduce some concepts that you can use if you do not have access to weights.

The goal

As we noted in Skill Guidelines for Building Strong, Useful, Adaptable Athletes, Dynamax classified 10 components of fitness — that has since been used by CrossFit — that are relevant in all kinds of sports, combat, and physical activities.

Of the 10 attributes — cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, speed, power, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy — the one attribute that correlates the best to every athletic endeavor is strength. Thus, for the novice and recreational athlete looking to improve in their athletic or sports abilities, strength is the place to start.

For those looking to gain muscle, lose fat or just overall improve body composition we still recommend the same protocol. This is because linear progression strength work is one of the best ways to gain muscle mass and encourage the body to lose fat. Coupled with a proper diet even physique minded people will see significant improvement with novice programs.

Beginning Bodyweight Training

We have recently completed the Second Edition of our guide on bodyweight strength training.

Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength (Second Edition) is one of the best books out there.

The article on our site — The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training — is a great preview of how to construct a bodyweight workout routine geared towards strength and hypertrophy.

Beginning Barbell Training

The main novice barbell program we recommend is Starting Strength. We recommend that you check out this book because it goes into much detail about proper technique — 50+ pages for the squat alone — which is critical for both athletic and physique success. Increasing the intensity of exercise through programmed increases in weight is critical for stimulating neurological and muscular adaptations for strength, hypertrophy, and body composition. Mark Rippetoe, the author, on “the novice effect” which is an essay on why you should do Starting Strength for strength and mass gain.

Why are these two books so effective?

Starting Strngth is a program of only 5 different exercises – the squat, deadlift, power clean, bench press, and press. This is important because

  • These compounds all use large amounts of musculature which give the most “bang for buck” by eliminating excessive exercises,
  • By focusing specifically on few compound exercises allows our bodies learn the movements easier when there are less motor patterns to distinguish,
  • They teach proper biomechanics that have a high translation to athletics and real world tasks.

The workouts are every other day (3x a week) and the weight is increased in each workout. Beginners have poorer work capacity and recovery than conditioned athletes, so the program is only 3x a week. However, they adapt very quickly to exercise such that they can add weight quickly and safely given proper technique is emphasized. This allows for very fast progression without the potential for giving a newer lifter overuse injuries or a program that is too slow for their needs.

Overcoming Gravity, likewise, has a simple template that helps you make goals and pick out 6 main exercises for upper body push, upper body pull, and legs. Along with this it encourages skill development and core work if needed for the novice to get an all around full body workout that can drive them toward their goals.

Basically, these programs are effective because they employs the KISS principle – keep it simple, stupid. All good templates do this.


There are some alternative programs out there for novices.

Other programs such as Westside for Skinny Bastards and Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) may be effective. If you would like to know about other programs that you can try this is a compilation of links devoted to that.

It doesn’t significantly matter what training template you pick. The main thing that matters is that you stick to the program you pick consistently to make progress!

What to do beyond the beginner phase

If you are beyond the beginner phase you should have at least researched the ability to attain approximately level 2 abilities in the weight training category in the skill standards. This is about a 1.5-2x bodyweight deadlift and squat (with deadlift being a bit higher), a power clean and bench press between about 1.2-1.5x bodyweight, and a press of approximately .75x bodyweight.

From here we approach training variably depending on what your specific goals are since we have built a strong athletic base from which you can begin training seriously. We will talk about this more in the revamped “How to construct your own workout routine” which is next in the series.

For those interested in continuing to strength and mass gain or have goals aimed at lifting heavy, there are many intermediate templates that may suit your goals.

For those interested in learning more about programming for themselves, we recommend you check out Overcoming Gravity or Practical Programming, as they teach you the basic concepts of how to put together effective routines. We also have a resource section.

This article was originally published February 15th, 2010 on Eat Move Improve. Updated Jan 2017. 

Questions about articles may be addressed to the Overcoming Gravity reddit.

Author: Steven Low

Steven Low, author of Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength (Second Edition), is a former gymnast who has performed with and coached the exhibitional gymnastics troupe, Gymkana. Steven has a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland College Park, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland Baltimore. Steven is a Senior trainer for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC). He has also spent thousands of hours independently researching the scientific foundations of health, fitness and nutrition and is able to provide many insights into practical care for injuries. His training is varied and intense with a focus on gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, and sprinting.