Even though I have been lifting for only 1.5 years, looking back at my 3 to 6 months in the gym I can think of quite a lot of things I would do differently. Things that would have helped me get bigger, leaner and stronger faster than I did until now. But, that’s just part of the learning curve.
If you hit the gym hard, stay on of your nutrition and be consistent with everything, eventually you will probably reach your goal physique at some point, but wouldn’t it be better if you would get there faster? Why go through all the newbie mistakes instead of optimizing your training, and nutrition for faster and better progress?
If you are just starting working out this article is for you my friend. It will help you maximize muscle growth, fat loss and strength gains as a beginner, and eventually you will start seeing results much faster, while benefiting from all the advantages that you have as an untrained individual.
Untrained beginners have unique advantages when it comes to muscle growth, strength gains and fat loss.
Let’s look at the tables below for a minute.
|YEAR OF PROPER TRAINING||POTENTIAL MUSCLE GAINS|
|CATEGORY||RATE OF MUSCLE GROWTH|
|Beginner||1-1.5% of total body weight per month|
|Intermediate||0.5-1% of total body weight per month|
|Advanced||0.25-0.5% of total body weight per month|
As you can see, according to the calculation and estimations of these 2 fine gentlemen you can make almost 50% of your gains in the first year of lifting. How cool is that? In just one year you will build half the size you can put on naturally in a lifetime.
This however requires spot on training and nutrition, something that most newbies do not know how to do. That’s why you see guys that lift for 2 years and look exactly the same as when first stepped in the gym.
Training frequency, intensity and volume
On your early days of lifting you will notice strength gains literally each time you walk in the gym. You will be able to squeeze in a one or two more reps each workout or you can increase the weighs. Therefore it makes perfect sense to train each body part more frequently. By hitting everything more frequently you will have to lower the volume, while keeping the intensity relatively high.
I’ve talked in depth about training frequency, volume and intensity over here, but let me briefly explain what it means and why it is so important.
Training frequency, training volume and training intensity are inter-dependent parameters that you can tweak based on your goals. In a nutshell, frequency means how many times you train a certain body part a week, volume means how many sets and reps you do per muscle group per workout and intensity means how heavy the weight you are lifting are (expressed as % of your 1 rep maximum).
For a beginner the frequency – volume – intensity triangle should look something like this:
High frequency, low volume, high intensity
Beginner workout routine
Here is a two day split that done twice week would be a good beginner workout routine that would support the high frequency, low volume, high intensity setup and maximize muscle growth.
- Legs (8 sets)
- Shoulders (6 sets)
- Abs (4 sets)
- Chest (5 sets)
- Back (5 sets)
- Arms (8 sets)
Exercise selection should consist of mostly compound (multi joint) movements, such as squats, standing shoulder press, bench press and deadlifts. The intensity should be set at about 80% of 1 rep max, which will result in a rep range of 6 to 8 repetitions per set.
A common mistake in beginners is not lifting heavy enough. Muscle growth is triggered my progressive overloading. You need to constantly increasing the weight and force the body, the muscle to adapt to new stimulus, my growing bigger.
It’s all about dose – effect. The heavier the weights become, the bigger the muscles will become. Getting stronger should be your main focus, don’t stick with the same weights forever.
An anatomy lesson
I’ve got this covered in this article over here, but let’s briefly talk some anatomy. Skeletal muscles are made out of muscle fibers. There are two types of muscle fibers: slow twitching (Type I) and fast twitching (Type II). The slow twitching fibers are great for endurance but have very little growth potential. When you are training with light weights and doing high reps you are using the slow twitching fibers.
The fast twitching fibers on the other hand have great strength, poor endurance and great potential for muscle growth. These are the fibers you want to target and you can do that by lifting heavy, and using a low rep range of 6 to 8 or even lowers. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.
Lose weight vs lose fat
A lot of the beginners start working out because they want to lose weight. That’s a poor goal to start with. You don’t want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. Even though this might seem the same for the average person that walks for the first time in the gym, there is a big difference between the two, and it has a lot to do with body composition.
An untrained individual is in a very privileged position because he or she is able to recompose his or hers body. In other words a beginner can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. This should be your goal. Recompose your body, not just lose weight. Yes, you may lose some body weight as a result of the training, but it shouldn’t be your goal.
Focus on weight training not on cardio
Weight training is the best way to recompose your body and a very good way to lose fat. Unlike what many people believe, cardiovascular training is not the best choice here.
Yes, cardio helps you lose weight, but doesn’t really support muscular development. As a beginner you want to have your focus on hitting the weight hard and use cardio just as a supporting tool to burn off a few more calories. I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 90 minutes of cardio a week, but this might vary on how much fat you need to lose and how overweight you are. Taken to extreme, cardio training can even cause muscle loss.
Anyways, the take away point here is that you can lose a lot of fat and build muscle just by weight training; while doing cardio will help you lose weight, without actually supporting muscle growth.
This is one of the mistakes I use to make. I was using 50% of my time and energy on the treadmill, leaving muscle gains on the table. Yes, it helped me lose over 50 pounds, but at a cost.
Long story short, cardio should be kept at a minimum. Long and intense cardio session have a negative impact on strength and muscle mass.
Don’t be afraid to eat
Even though in the first couple of months you will see an increase in muscle size without paying too much attention to nutrition, eventually you will need to start paying attention to what you are eating. Muscle growth happens in a caloric surplus most of the times.
You need to know your way around calories and macronutrients, there is no way around it. Find out what your caloric maintenance is and start from there. Add a couple of hundred calories for a lean bulk surplus and restrict about 20% of the calories for a deficit.
Be patient and don’t rush things. Increasing the caloric surplus too much won’t build more muscle; it will get you fatter fast instead. The same goes with the deficit, cutting back on calories too much will damage your metabolism and you will eventually stop losing weight and start binge eating. Take it one step at a time, be patient and the results will start showing.
A lot of overweight beginners are under eating when they start dieting. Combine this with working out and the caloric deficit will be extremely high, which will definitely not support muscle growth and will even hinder weight loss at some point because of the metabolic adaptation.
Besides the calorie intake which will dictate if you are going to lose weight or gain weight, the next big thing is macronutrient distribution, which is very important for recomposing your body. There are 3 macronutrients you want to track: protein, carb and fat.
Proteins are the main driver for muscle growth, carbs provide the energy you need and the gym and fats keep you running smoothly at hormonal level. This is an over simplified explication, but I think it servers the purpose of this post.
A good macro distribution would be something like this:
- 30-40% protein
- 40-50% carbs
- 20-30% fats
Don’t be afraid to eat carbs! There is a big hype around low carb diets nowadays, but carbs are extremely important for performing well in the gym, and for muscle growth. Carbs don’t make you fat, calories do.
The take away point is: stay within a healthy caloric deficit threshold (20% under maintenance) or in a minimal caloric surplus (200-300 kcal above maintenance), while keeping an eye on macros.
Don’t be afraid to supplement
I’ve seen a lot of people staying away of supplements for reasons that just don’t make sense. There seems to be this general believes that supplements cause diseases, mostly because beginners that have no clue about supplementation and associate any type of supplement with steroids. This is complete bullshit and we have science to back us up here.
The only two supplements I recommend to a beginner are creatine monohydrate (5 grams a day) and whey protein (just in case you can’t get all the protein you need from food). These two products have decades of testing and studies behind them and are absolutely safe to use. Check out the extensive reviews from Examine.com on creatine and whey protein.
Creatine will make your strength and energy levels to increase, enabling you to perform better in the gym, and whey protein will help with muscle repair and growth. There’s nothing but benefits from taking these supplements.
On top of that fish oils pills such as Omega 3 or Omega 3-6-9 are recommended, especially if you don’t like eating fat fish.
By everything I mean calories, macros, bodyweight, waist size, and progress in the gym (how much weight you are lifting). Based on all these parameters you should figure out if you are making progress towards your goals and if you are not, where is the problem.
Tracking calories is pointless if you are not measuring your body weight regularly. If the scales goes up or down to fast, or it goes in the wrong direction you haven’t set your caloric intake correctly.
A healthy fat loss rate is around 1 – 2 pounds per week and a lean bulk rate is 0.5 – 1 pounds per week.
Since most people hold fat around the mid area, waist measurement is a good indicator of the body fat level. A rapid increase in waist size during bulk means your body fat is going up too fast and you are gaining more fat than muscle and that you should lower the calorie intake.
Personally I like to write all these things down, have weekly averages, compare this week with the previous week and make changes to my diet accordingly if needed.
The same goes with training. It’s a good idea to write down you bench press, squat, deadlift, bicep curl, triceps extension, etc., revisit these each month and make sure you are making progress by getting stronger. It’s the only way to building more muscle.