PLEASE NOTE: We are undergoing a name change. Unleashed Training is now Sprint Ninja. We still offer high quality strength and conditioning along with personal training, with our specialty being sprint training.
Beginner strength training exercises are exactly the same as any other strength training exercises. So why have I bothered to write an article on beginner strength training exercises at all? Allow me to clarify; certain exercises are best for beginners, however these same exercises are used throughout your entire life. There are no exercises you do as a beginner then never do again. The only thing that would fit that category are progressions of some of the more advanced strength training exercises that require a lot more skill.
Before we cover some of these exercises and learn why you should be doing them, lets first define beginner and work at what level you are at currently.
Strength Training Stages
Stage One: Absolute Beginner
An absolute beginner at strength training is someone that may never have lifted weights in their entire life. You’re also a beginner if you have never been shown how to do basic compound movements properly. You may have been to the gym and used machine weights and performed bicep curls or other insignificant exercises.
Stage Two: Foundational Beginner
A foundational beginner is someone that has done some level of strength training at a very basic level. They may have been shown how to squat, deadlift and bench press, however have not done any of this under a reasonable load. I would classify someone that has done Les Mills’ Pump classes as a foundational beginner. You have gone through the motions but are yet to undergo any real challenges in lifting.
Stage Three: Low Intermediate
The low intermediate level is someone that has been strength training for at least a few months and has a solid grounding in most of the compound movements. At this stage you know how to squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press etc, however you are by far not a master lifter. You will have lifted with a reasonably heavy load with good technique and you can handle a decent volume without being crippled the next day.
Stage Four: High Intermediate
This is the average person that frequently lifts heavy free weights in most commercial gyms. This is the guy that all the beginners go to for training advice. This guy squats heavy and really knows how to push some weight around. Technique is seemingly flawless and he/she is significantly muscled. You will start learning more advanced moves at this point such as Olympic lifts and will add plyometrics and other advanced training methods to your strength training. At this stage I would expect you to be shooting for your maximum lifts from time to time, whereas at the previous three stages I would never put you anywhere near that kind of intensity.
Stage Five: Low Advanced
This is the guy in the gym that is serious about his training. At this stage you would expect more of level four except you know about the science of getting strong and you are able to periodise a strength training programme. At this stage you will have hit plataeus and maxed out on many of the major lifts. You no longer progress in linear fashion and have to get creative in designing programmes that keep you getting stronger. The low advanced strength training athlete is someone that has likely hired a professional for a considerable amount of time and is likely to be at a level where they could be considered elite. At this stage you know all the advanced lifts and you can handle considerable weight with them.
Stage Six: High Advanced
This is your serious strength athlete. This is someone that has mastered every lift and knows how to get the most from a strength training programme. A competition power lifter that has competed multiple times and possibly won some titles is at this stage. You are an expert at the technicalities of programme design and the science of lifting and you know how to get stronger when you hit a plateau. This is a stage that only a very small percentage of the population gets to. At this stage you have a personal style and you know what needs to be done. When I say a small percentage of the population I mean a very small number of people. Put it this way, even elite body builders are not at this level. They know how to get huge, but they are not strength training technicians. This is the state champion of power lifting or someone of equivalent mastery.
Stage Seven: Master Strength Athlete
This is the level reserved for the top 0.0000001% of the strength training population. You won’t find this level at most gyms. This is your world champion power lifter. This is the level of someone that has trained for a long time and has mastered everything there is to master about every major lift. A weightlifter competing at Olympic level is at this stage, but even then it’s only the top 1% of those people. This level is the tenth dan black belt of strength training. You don’t need to be a weightlifter or power lifter to get to master strength athlete level, you just need to know strength training inside and out. You need to have every aspect of it mastered. At this level you are likely not far off a world record in whatever strength and/or power sport you compete in. Not only that, you can likely advise others on a quality strength training programme spanning an entire season and you know how to create a contingency plan for improvement when progressions begins to fail.
So let’s recap. Take a look at your own strength training experience. How strong are you? How confident are you with the essential compound movements? Can you squat at a basic level with a moderate weight? Can you deadlift any more than your own bodyweight? What have you been doing at the gym? How long have you been training there? Have you ever hired a professional trainer?
Speaking of trainers, before I outline the beginner strength exercises that I would like to cover, I need to provide a word of warning on “fitness professionals”. Trainers are certified rather easily now days. In Australia at least, you can do a 16 week course and become a completely certified personal trainer from scratch. This certification does not make them an expert on anything, it gives them a base to launch a professional career and mastery of fitness instruction.
Before you hire a trainer you need to establish how much they know and which level of strength training mastery they have reached themselves. Do they know how to correct your squat? Do they know how to periodise a training programme? If you are to get anywhere near advanced level strength training from where you are now then I suggest you seek out a proper professional that can design you a programme and make adjustments along the way that are based on science and experience. I have been in this industry a long time, I live and breathe it, so I can always guarantee any person that they will reach the full potential of what they are training for if they apply my principles and methods. A fitness trainer or strength and conditioning coach is like a doctor, and I mean that literally. They need to know the ins and outs of everything they are teaching and they need to know how to come up with alternative plans on the spot if what they are doing is not working.
Beginner Strength Training Exercises
Ok, now for the actual beginner strength training exercises. In addition to beginner strength training exercises I will include a few progressions that would be valuable to start learning at a basic level. So the way this will work is, I will start with the absolute MUST exercises you need to learn in order of importance. Feel free to debate this with me, but I will provide solid reasoning for why I have chosen what I have.
Ok, so you thought that I would say squat first right? Most people in the world of strength and conditioning would probably think the same thing. However I recommend that the first thing you learn is a deadlift. Why? Because deadlifts teach you how to engage the erectors that protect your spine and it teaches your posterior chain to handle load. If you can’t deadlift then you can’t do a hell of a lot else.
The deadlift is an exercise that works all the way from rehab to advanced strength training. This is what I consider a primal movement pattern when it comes to dealing with external load. Whenever you pick anything up from the ground with any amount of weight in it you are essentially doing a version of a deadlift. You move house and lift a box, that’s a deadlift movement. You are carrying one side of a heavy lounge, that’s a deadlift movement. You want to learn the Olympic lifts, they are all deadlift movements for at least the first half of the lift. Learn the deadlift and master it, but start light and build up to avoid injury and sloppy learning of technique.
Aim to master a weight of at least double your own body weight.
Ok, now we learn the squat. This should be learned along with the deadlift, but in the very initial stage it is secondary to it. Squatting properly is another primal movement pattern and something all humans need to be able to do properly. Being able to squat is the essence of lower body power combined with a connection to the core, which is what unites lower and upper body.
Learn the back squat, front squat and, although not essential, learn the overhead squat. For the overhead squat I recommend learning it initially with just a moderate weight. You can forget this exercise after the initial learning of squats if you like. The reason I recommend it to a beginner is to teach the torso to support the squatting movement, and nothing straightens your spine like an overhead squat.
Aim to keep your maximum squat at a similar weight as your deadlift max.
Overhead Press (Standing)
Yes, this comes way before bench press and is much more relevant. Why do I say standing? For one thing, when I see a guy at the gym sitting in a seat to do overhead press I often believe that they probably sit down to pee too. This movement is not just a shoulder exercise, so I want you to get out of the bodybuilder mentality of individual muscle groups.
So why do I recommend the standing overhead press? Simply because it trains your body for the overhead movement and strengthens your base of support for when your centre of gravity is radically challenged. This lift involves a massive amount of core strength.
Aim to lift at least 1.5 times your body weight at least once.
So far, if you have mastered all three of these lifts then you have built a very solid base for just about every other lift you can imagine. Now it’s time to start building multiple planes of motion and learning to master your own bodyweight. The next beginner strength training exercises are progressions to a more advanced strength training programme.
Yes, pull-ups, you read correctly. In order to gain strength you need a very strong base of strength in your posterior chain, of which the lats are a major player. This is a bodyweight exercise and you should master it until you can do at least 10 full reps with your own bodyweight unassisted. Play around with learning more advanced versions and alternatives. Learn the kipping pull-up, do weighted pull-ups and do them with varying grips. I personally always do them on gymnastics rings.
In similar fashion to pull-ups you should be able to repeatedly push your own body off the floor. This is far more important to learn than free weight movements or machines that mimick this same action. Push-ups are one of the best ways to strengthen the core while also strengthening the targeted upper body.
This may seem like a strange exercise to have in an article about beginner strength training exercises, however it is relevant. A burpee simply involves jumping down into a push-up position then quickly springing to your feet then jumping up as high as you can and repeat.
Why is the burpee a great exercise and one you should learn early? How many people are fairly slow at going from one posture to another at rapid speed. The burpee teaches you to get up and down with speed and power.
Bench Press, Bent Over Row and Other Barbell Movements
Now you can begin to broaden your options for strength training by including other exercises that will extend on the solid base you have just built. Stick to compound movements mostly.
Olympic Lifts, Kettlebells and Other Complex Movements
As far as beginner strength training exercises go I would not include Olympic lifts and other movements with a high skill component, however these are something that I would recommend you learn at a base level when you have mastered all the above-mentioned beginner strength training exercises.
Why would I recommend these? Simply because they teach your body to handle a large load at a rapid rate using a very large percentage of the overall muscle mass in your entire body. Personally I don’t really like the snatch, but I do it with dumbells and kettle bells with considerable weight. My one Olympic lift of choice is the clean, as in the proper Olympic style clean where you catch the weight at the bottom of a squat position. Mastering at least one of these complex and dynamic movements puts your strength at a new level of confidence. It means you are able to manipulate a large load and do so with speed and momentum.
Putting it All Together
So I have shown you my professional pick of best beginner strength training exercises, but that still does not put it all in perspective for you. What you need now is to put it into practice and design a programme that will make you strong.
Ok, so how do you apply these beginner strength training exercises? Here is a basic week of strength training for you to get started. Keep adding progressively more weight each session while keeping technique smooth and perfect, but not slow. Learn the movements first with the lightest possible weight before adding anything to the bar.
Ok, LET’S GO!
Deadlifts for 5-5-5
Front squat for 5-5-5
Deadlift for 3-2-1 (add a bit more weight, provide a bit of a challenge, but not anywhere near your absolute max)
Back squat for 5-5-5
Deadlift for 7-7-7
Squat for 7-7-7 (your choice of squat type)
Overhead press for 10-5-2
Deadlift for 1-1-1-1-1 (challenge yourself, but not max effort, focus on technique)
Squat for 1-1-1-1-1 (your choice of squat type)
Overhead press for 1-1-1-1-1
Pull-ups super-set with push-ups
For this workout just do your maximum number of pull-ups (even if it’s just one rep) then immediately do your maximum number of push-ups without resting. After you’ve done both then rest for one minute and repeat. Keep going for 30 minutes.
This is simply a technique session. Work with light weights on anything that needs the most improvement. Use a mirror, use a coach, use whatever you need to in order to improve your technique. You can also, later down the track, use this day to master complex lifts like the clean with a small amount of weight. Don’t go hard on this day, just ensure you perfect anything you need to and make it repetitive to ingrain it into your nervous system.
Day Seven and Day Eight
Have two rest days, which will make this programme an eight day cycle. So your training for each of the days in the cycle will fall on a different day of the week each week.
Obviously this programme is majorly simplified and needs to be tailored to your specific needs. The aim of the programme is simply to illustrate the simplicity of learning beginner strength training exercises and building a solid base for future progression. Keep challenging the amount of weight you’re lifting and correct and build technique along the way. Never stop learning and moving forward. Keep progressing in weight until you begin to notice strength plateaus. When that happens it’s time to start hitting it hard and getting creative with a periodised strength training programme.
Also keep in mind that your other training will effect your strength training. Try and train as fresh as possible when it comes to strength. Quality is more important than quantity.
I hope this article clarifies some of the mystifying questions about beginner strength training exercises and gives you a solid base to work from.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.