My goal here is to give you everything you need to know to make informed, intelligent decisions in the gym for any fitness goal -- whether you want to lose those last 10 lbs, run your first 5k, or climb Macchu Picchu when you’re 80.
I want give you everything you need to start your strength training journey with confidence, and assurance that you know what you’re doing. And I want to give you enough knowledge (knowledge it’s taken me years of working with clients to attain) to continue to reap great results from strength training for years to come.
I want you to be able to reach your goals completely independently if you wanted to.
I want to teach you to fish. But, I’m also giving you a fish in the meantime, in the form of a free sample workout program. Because learning to fish takes time and I don’t want you to go hungry.
Why? Because strength is important. The pursuit of strength has fundamentally changed the course of sooo many of my clients lives so I want to share it with you! Because you’re awesome and you deserve it :)
What is strength?
Strength is the ability to exert force, to move things. More strong, more move things. The stronger you are, the heavier things you can move. Being strong also means things that once felt heavy to you become easier to lift.
May the force be with you
What’s so great about strength anyway?
For one, it could save your life. Or someone else’s life. Being strong basically makes you a superhero.
While it’s nice being able to carry all your groceries from the car without breaking a sweat, being able to carry someone to safety is just a weee bit more important, right?
Beyond that, being strong will make your life better. Being strong will make you live longer, and also improves your quality of life because you can do more fun things and with greater ease.
Strength can make you live a longer, happier, more fulfilling life. Being strong means you can be around longer for the one’s you love and still be in awesome shape to take care of them, rather than them taking care of you. You maintain your independence.
Strength makes any fitness goal easier.
Want to lose fat? Get strong. Want to build muscle? Get strong. Want to run faster? Get strong. Want daily life to not be so exhausting? Get strong. Want your achy joints to stop being achy? Get strong.
So you should get strong even if you just want to feel better in a swimsuit and don’t care if you can deadlift a baby rhino or not.
TL;DR Strength is the foundation for most physical qualities. Get stronger and you become more capable of achieving anything you want to accomplish.
The two towers of strength.
There are two ways to get stronger: Get stronger or build more muscle.
So yeah, muscle and strength aren’t 100% synonymous.
You don’t necessarily have to get bigger to get stronger.
Here’s how it works.
There are these little buggers in your muscles called motor units. Motor units talk to your brain all the time. These motor units are what move the muscle when your brain tells them to. However, not all of the motor units are listening, because they’re asleep or too busy watching Grey’s Anatomy. The more awakened motor units, the stronger the muscle because the brain is sending more electric juice to the muscle.
Think about it this way. A weaker muscle, with lots of sleeping motor units, is like if the brain was talking to the muscles in a whisper. Whereas a stronger muscle is like if the brain had a megaphone. The connection is louder.
More awakened motor units means that same muscle can exert more force. This means by waking up more motor units you can get stronger without building muscle.
Waking up motor units is basically better communication with the brain.
A bigger muscle has more total motor units, but that doesn’t mean it has more awake motor units. This is why the most muscly person in the room isn’t always the strongest person in the room. That said, a bigger muscle does have more potential for strength than a smaller muscle.
To build strength your goal is to wake up more motor units. You can do this by waking up existing motor units, or creating more motor units (muscle), or both.
So strength is about moving the weight. Muscle is about... err... having muscle. They’re linked together but aren’t exactly the same thing.
Why strength and muscle are important for fat loss
Muscle IS fat loss. Because without muscle, fat loss is weight loss.
- Weight loss = scale goes down + no change in body shape or muscle tone + muscle to fat ratio is the same
- Fat loss= scale goes down (or doesn’t) + body’s proportions change + more muscle definition + more muscle + less fat.
Being strong helps build muscle. Having muscle helps to build strength.
Beginners should place a premium on building a solid foundation of strength because when you’re strong you can push your workouts harder for faster results.
During your first few years of lifting, training for strength will build more muscle than advanced bodybuilding techniques. So as you’re reading this, know that what I recommend will build strength AND lean muscle unless you’ve been lifting for like 10 years or something i.e. not a beginner.
Plus, being strong is empowering. The more empowered you are, the more you act in line with your goals and who you want to be.
So how do you get stronger?
Pay attention because this next bit it’s reeeally important -- probably the most important part of this whole post.
Strength is built by following the principle of progressive overload. This means you overload the muscles with either more weight or more reps, they adapt because they’re all like “Wtf bro, this is too heavy! I can’t do this with my current levels of strength!”. Your muscles adapt by waking up more motor units and/or building muscle. You get stronger so what was once heavy becomes less heavy. This means you can now go heavier, and so on and so forth.
It’s a wee bit more complicated than that, but that’s what it really comes down to. Make the body think it needs to get stronger, and it does. If you follow this principle, you could have a terribly written workout and still build muscle and strength. Progressive overload is THAT important.
Reps, how do they work?!
Reps are important because how many reps your workout calls for determines how much weight you use.
- More reps => lighter weight
- Less reps => heavier weight
This also affects what change you’re making to the body. The body adapts to the specific challenges it faces. So the body will respond differently to an insanely heavy set that lasts 5 seconds vs. a set with a light weight that lasts a minute.
Here’s a simplified version of how it works:
- 1-5 reps per set Strength/Power
- 6-12 reps per set Muscle/Strength Endurance
- 12-25 reps/set Muscular endurance
- 25+ reps/set Basically Cardio
The 1-5 range is how you build the most strength because you’re using the heaviest weights. However, if you use progressive overload you’ll get stronger regardless of rep range.
Let’s say you do 3 sets of 20 lunges for your Monday workout. At first, you use 10 pound dumbbells. Once 10’s get a little easier, you bump up the weight to 15 lbs dumbbells, then 20’s, then 25’s. Even though your reps are in the “endurance” category, you’re definitely stronger because you’re lifting a heavier weight for the same number of reps.
That said, getting strong in the low rep range will make you graduate to heavier dumbbells more quickly, even for your high rep exercises. Heavy, heavy weights for 1-5 reps simply build strength best. That’s why they’re in the “strength” category. But as long as you’re pushing the weights up in some way you’ll get stronger.
If you’re brand new to strength training, stick with getting stronger in the 6-12 reps range for at least 3-6 months before thinking about going into the 1-5 rep range. Because there isn’t much point in going that heavy until you have a decent amount of experience under your belt, and your technique is solid enough to handle that amount of weight safely.
Plus, with new clients I’ve noticed if someone can lift something 5 times, they can usually lift it 10 times or so. Might as well do more reps :)
As long as:
- You’re using progressive overload
- You have good exercise selection
- You don’t get hurt
- You rarely (if ever) miss workouts
- You’re recovering enough from your workouts.
You’ll keep getting stronger and building muscle. Any strength program can work for you if you follow those things.
What does this look like from a practical perspective?
It looks like challenging yourself just a little bit more each workout. You won’t always be able to add weight to the bar. That’s normal.
Add reps each workout until you can get the maximum number of reps planned for your workout. Then add weight.
So if your workout program calls for 4 sets of 5-8 reps per set, you should at least be able to do 4 sets of 5 with the weight you choose. Once you can get 4 sets of 8 with that weight, it’s time to add weight to the bar and start the process over again.
So adding reps and weights will look something like this:
- Week 1: 4 sets of 5 @ 100
- Week 2: 4 sets of 6 @ 100
- Week 3: 4 sets of 7 @ 100
- Week 4: 4 sets of 8 @ 100
- Week 5: 4 sets of 5 @ 120
- Week 6: 4 sets of 6 @ 120 etc.
I like doing it this way because it’s structured -- it prevents you from adding weight too quickly or too slowly. At the end of each set, you should feel like you could have done 1-3 more reps if you had to.
You can carry on like this for a loooong time before before progress stalls out and you need a more complex program.
There will be days where you don’t feel so hot and have to tone it down. There will be days where you feel mega strong. Adjust your workout accordingly and don’t go too crazy on the days you feel super strong. You still want to train smart.
Building strength is about getting the reps in and leaving your ego at the door. Testing strength is seeing how heavy you can go.
Intelligent training means knowing the difference between building strength vs. testing your strength.
What are the best exercises for strength?
Some exercises work well for going mega heavy for low reps. The squat, deadlift, and bench press are great examples.
These exercises allow people to lift insane amounts of weight because they involve the body’s biggest, most powerful muscles all working together.
Exercises that work multiple muscle groups, and involve the movement of multiple joints, are called compound movements. For example, a pull-up is a compound movement because it involves the biceps plus all the muscles in the upper back. Both the shoulder joint and the elbows move to a great degree.
A bicep curl, on the other hand, is an isolation exercise because it only works a single muscle group, the biceps, and movement only occurs only at the elbow.
Simply put, compound movements are better for building strength because you can lift heavier weights. Makes sense, right?
Compound lifts work multiple muscle groups:
- Deadlifts: Hamstrings, Quads, Butt, Back, Core, Forearms
- Squats: Quads, Hamstrings, Butt, Back, Core,
- Bench Press: Pecs, Shoulders, Triceps
- Military press: Shoulders, Triceps, Pecs
- Pullups: Upper/mid back, Biceps, Forearms, Abs
- Rows: Upper/mid back, Biceps, Forearms, Abs
- Farmer walks: Everything
Isolation lifts work one muscle group
- Bicep curls: Biceps
- Tricep extensions: Triceps
- Leg press: Quads
- Hamstring Curl: Hamstrings
- Dumbbell Fly: Deltoids
Compound movements are versatile, they can work with high, moderate, or low reps. Put these first in your workout and do them in the 1-12 range most of the time. Make sure the right muscles are moving the weight, but it’s more about getting the weight from point A to point B with good technique than feeling a muscle burn.
Deadlifts from the floor are the exception here. Anything over 6 reps is usually counterproductive. If you can do more than 6 solid reps in a set, you’re not going heavy enough.
In general, isolation exercises are better with moderate to light weights in 8-25 rep ranges. Do these at the end of your workout after your compound exercises. The goal with isolation exercises isn’t to add weight over time, but to get a crazy muscle pump. If you can’t really feel the muscle working, go lighter.
In the next section I’ll show you how to use all this to design awesome workouts for yourself.
Components of a workout:
A strength workout is made of 3 components:
- Main exercises (2 per workout): These are your money. This is where, like 80% of your results come from. This is where you really push yourself. Your mission is to add weight to the bar. Prioritize these by doing them first and hitting them hard when your body and concentration are fresh. Make these exercises mad heavy (1-5 reps) or moderately heavy (6-12). This is the meat and potatoes of your workout.
- Accessory exercises (2-6 per workout): Compound lifts, but because they come after your main lifts you can’t push them as hard. You still want to work on going heavy, but you’re going to be in the 6-12 reps range so these won’t be as taxing.These are the side dishes your meal would suck without.
- Extra credit/isolation (2-3 per workout): Spend no more than 10 minutes on these guys. These are your little isolation exercises that only work one muscle group. By this point you’ve already worked every muscle in your body, so this is just giving the areas you want to improve most a little more extra attention. This is where you throw in bicep curls. Don’t even worry about upping the weight or reps. Focus on getting a crazy pump in the target muscle by squeezing that little bastard as hard as you can every rep. This is dessert, not necessary but it can be a sweet way to finish up your workout
"The fundamental movements are...fundamental!”- Dan John
There are 5 Fundamental movement patterns you need to regularly include in your training program to have a balanced, effective program. Your main and accessory exercises will be made of these 5 fundamentals.
- Push: Push-up, Bench Press, Military Press
- Pull: Pull-up, Dumbbell Row, Lat Pulldown
- Squat: Back Squat, Lunge, Goblet Squat
- Hinge: Deadlift, Hip Thrust, Kettlebell Swing
- Carry: Farmer Walk, Suitcase Carry
You don’t necessarily need to include 1 of each movement every workout, but throughout your training week, you should include all 5 movements.
How often should I switch up my routine? What about muscle confusion?
I often see people doing completely different, random workouts every time they set foot in the gym, usually at the hands of trainers who don’t want their clients to “get bored”.
Muscle confusion is a myth--it’s a bastardized interpretation of the principle of progressive overload used to make people think they need more help than they do because $$$.
My job as a trainer is help you get fit and show you how to be completely independent in your fitness journey -- I don’t think it’s honest for me to say you need a completely different workout every day. Especially when it’s not the fastest road to results.
Plus, getting better at something is fun! Most of the things you like doing, I’m guessing you’re pretty good at them.
Strength is a skill, like riding a bike. You can’t learn to ride a bike by practicing once a month. To really fall in love with exercise and have it not feel like a chore, let’s get you to feel like a badass whenever you lift.
Besides, when you have to move your friend’s couch, the last thing you want is for your muscles to be confused.
Do the same 3 workouts for 4-6 weeks. Then switch it up, but only slightly.
Every month, you’re going to Push, Pull, Squat, Hinge Carry, but change up the variation of those movements. For example, if month 1 has you Goblet Squatting as a main exercise on Monday’s workout, you could do Lunges for month 2. Same movement, just a different variation.
It’s important you don’t add in too much variety because you won’t get proficient enough in the basic exercises to really push your results. The elite in any pursuit have mastered the basics. To master the basics you need consistent, intentional practice.
Putting it all together
Now you have everything you need to get started and to keep getting better.
- How strength training works
- The most important principle you need to make any workout effective: Progressive Overload
- What exercises to do
- How many reps to do in a set
- How to create a workout.
- How and when to add weight to the bar.
All you need is some help with technique to lift weights properly, but don’t worry. I got ya covered. In the program below I’ve included links to videos showing you how to perform each exercise properly.
Here’s a free sample Strength for Fat Loss workout my online clients have seen awesome results with. You’ll notice how I use the principles I’ve talked about to construct this workout.
This program will build tons of strength and muscle. It’s designed for beginner lifters who want to build strength,reduce body fat, and build muscle definition, but not get super huge. I’ve included the main muscles worked for each exercise so you know what you’re working.
- A1 Romanian Deadlift (Hamstrings, Glutes, Lower Back, Upper Back) 3 x 8
- B1 Goblet Squat (Quads, Glutes, Core) 3 x 12
- B2 Dumbbell Row (Upper back, Biceps, Forearms) 3 x 12
- B3 Dumbbell Bench Press (Pecs, Triceps, Shoulders) 3 x 12
- C1 Farmer Walk (Everything) 3 x 100 ft
- C2 Suitcase carry (Core) 3 x 100 ft each arm
- C3 Bear Crawl (You’ll see) 3 x 50 ft
- A1 Single Arm Bench Press (Pecs, Core, Triceps, Shoulders) 4 x 6
- B1 Split Squats (Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes) 4 x 10 each leg
- C1 Hip Thrust (Glutes, Hamstrings) 4 x 20
- C2 TRX Row (Upper back, Biceps, Forearms) 4 x 12
- D1 Face Pull (Upper Back, Shoulders) 4 x 15
- D2 Goblet Carry (Core) 3 x 100 ft
- A1 Goblet Squats (Quads, Glutes, Core) 4 x 8
- A2 Chest Supported Row (Upper back, Biceps, Forearms) 4 x 12
- A3 Pull Through (Hamstrings, Glutes) 4 x 15
- A4 Incline Dumbbell Bench Press(Pecs, Shoulders, Triceps) 4 x 12
- B1 Farmer Walk 3 x 100 ft
You’ll notice there aren’t any isolation exercises in this program.
This is because:
- I want to really emphasize the importance of compound exercises
- I don’t know you (unfortunately. I bet you’re pretty great!), so I don’t know what body part you’re most interested in building!
If you have energy after a workout, pick 2 exercises from this list of isolation moves.
- Shoulders: Lateral raise, Bent Dumbbell Fly
- Arms: Bicep Curls, Dumbbell Tricep extension
- Legs: Machine Leg Extension, Machine Hamstring Curl
- Back: Pullover, Shank Lever
- Chest: Dumbbell Chest Fly, Squeeze Press
- Butt: Band Seated Abduction, Sumo Walk
Do 3 sets of 15-20 of each exercise, then call it a day.
Remember, none of this stuff matters if you don’t show up. Engineer your life so going to the gym becomes as convenient as possible.
Become a student of lifting
If you want lift heavy things and not shit your spleen whenever you hold a heavy bar, you need to learn how to lift with good technique. You can’t get strong if you’re stuck to the couch with a back injury.
As renowned strength coach Dan John puts it, “Seek the road to mastery”. Notice it’s not “seek mastery”, but “seek the path” to mastery.
A student never says “I know enough”. They keep trying to get better, no matter how good they get.
Do your research but don’t get so bogged down by the overwhelming amount of info you don’t actually lift anything. Experience really is the best teacher so take an attitude of experimentation and growth as you move forward and try different things.
Other important shit
- How Many Times A Week Should You Workout?
- A Surefire Way To Pick The Right Weights For Your Workouts
- All You Need To Know About Proteins, Carbs, And Fats In 699 Words
- The Overthinkers Guide To Fitness, Nutrition, And Sleep
- Simplify Lifelong Leanness With This Hack For Reading Nutrition Labels
- Getting Fit On A Budget: 5 Affordable And Accessible Fat Loss Strategies
Here are some free resources that are second to none. I've learned so much from these coaches so I know you will too. These are in my opinion the best people to learn from in the industry so you should listen to what they say. I really wish I would have stumbled across these coaches earlier in my lifting career, it would have saved me a lot of trouble.