|CrossFit: Not even once, bro|
I received a request the other day to put together a simple beginner’s guide to lifting and technique aimed at someone who was looking to shed fat and gain muscle. Since I am nothing if not a servant of my readers (OK, I know, that’s a stretch), I outline below a basic program that is based on what I did when I started training and what I’ve learned over the last nearly-4-years of lifting heavy stuff.
The problem is that this is a huge topic to cover, even at a beginner level, so I’ll split this up into two, maybe three posts. This one will cover a basic and straightforward training program that I firmly believe any weak or skinny-fat bloke can use to transform himself into a muscular, powerful, and strong man worth being around. The second one will cover technique for lifting correctly and safely. The third, if I get around to it, will cover motivation- because, let’s face it, lifting heavy is hard work. (The irony of that statement is not lost on me.)
Before I get started, I need to add a few important caveats.
First, literally nothing I am going to tell you below is new*. Everything that I write on the subject of lifting is merely an adaptation of lessons learned in my time in the gym, from other lifters, and from the program that got me started on lifting in the first place.
Second, it’s worth bearing in mind that, objectively speaking, I’m not all that strong myself. At peak fitness I weigh around 83Kg (about 183lbs). My 1RM numbers are: 165.6Kg squat (365lbs), 213.2Kg deadlift (470lbs), 100Kg bench press (220lbs). By the metrics of objective strength standards, this puts me in the Intermediate to Advanced categories for each of these lifts- and I will be the first to admit that my bench press sucks. While these numbers do put me in the Thousand Pound Club, there are quite a few men out there who are much stronger than me, for whatever reason- mostly because they have better technique and started younger than I did.
Third, I DO NOT claim that what works for me will work for you, come what may. I simply claim that what I outline below should work to make you stronger and fitter, provided you stick to it and train safely, with good technique. What I’m about to outline WILL NOT turn you into Arnold.
|Oh, how the mighty are fallen…|
All I’m saying is, caveat emptor, that’s all.
As long as you’re down with that, let’s proceed.
The StrongLifts Program
When I got started with powerlifting back in mid-2011 or so, I started with the StrongLifts 5×5 program. Before that time, I wasn’t skinny-fat- I was just fat. I’d been pretty lean in college, but then that’s to be expected given that I was eating college “food” and exercising six days a week. When I started working, I was still exercising five mornings a week, but my sedentary lifestyle combined with what was at the time a pretty high-carb diet and a cardio-heavy exercise routine that favoured light weights and chin-ups (and really s***ty “bench presses”) over actual lifting, meant that I quickly gained back all the weight that I’d lost, in the form of fat.
Four years after I left college, I had strong arms and strong legs… and yet I was still fat and weak. That is because I was training completely the wrong way, avoiding heavy compound lifts, without any real direction or program.
Deeply dissatisfied with my life and my results, I looked around online and quickly found a program that seemed to make a lot of sense- though it took me a while to see it.
Once I started the program and stuck to it, though, I never looked back. The Didact of four years ago would not recognise the Didact of today, such is the transformation in strength and confidence that I’ve achieved.
I achieved this using Mehdi Hadim’s Stronglifts 5×5 program as my starting point.
Visit his site and go through Mehdi’s stuff, he writes copiously and well (especially considering that he’s not a native English speaker) on the subject of gaining strength. And note that the training program I provide down below is, verbatim, the StrongLifts 5×5 beginner’s program. Full credit goes to Mehdi for coming up with it- and if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he just took ideas that Mark Rippetoe and Reg Park and Arnold came up with back in the day and adapted them.
The basic idea is really, really simple. You lift three days a week. You perform exactly five exercises. You add weight every workout. Through progressive loading and hard training, your body grows muscle and adds strength rapidly.
No screwing around. No monkeying about with light weights. No spending half your life in the gym. Just simple, direct, results-oriented, and to the point. It’s a no-BS program from a no-BS guy who, like most of us, started out genetically weak and skinny-fat and transformed himself into a beast through single-minded dedication and training.
Take it from someone who followed this program religiously for nearly two years before branching out- this WORKS.
Why It Works
The Stronglifts 5×5 program focuses on the “Big Three” powerlifting techniques. All are technical, but nothing about them is out of reach for a beginner. All of them are compound lifts, which is why they get results- unlike isolation exercises with light weights, these exercises work out entire chains of muscles in your body, thereby forcing your body to develop in an even, symmetrical fashion that enhances your physique while increasing your strength. And all of these lifts are highly “functional”, to use a CrossS**t term (that I really hate)- all this means is that these lifts are useful in real life, where you might have to hold up or pick up heavy weights.
All of them work by putting your body through “Time Under Tension”. Your muscles gain strength and power when they are used; up to a point, the more you work them, the more they develop. As you increase the TUT that your body experiences, the more your body grows and strengthens.
So what are the five lifts, then?
As stated above, there are only five lifts to worry about in the StrongLifts program. Here’s a brief summary of all five- each exercise is highlighted with a link that goes to the StrongLifts site, where Mehdi provides a very detailed breakdown of how to perform each exercise properly and safely.
|“Meh… too light”|
As far as I am concerned, squats are the foundation upon which all other powerlifting rests. If you don’t squat, you don’t lift. To me, it’s just that simple.
The squat is such a fundamental exercise because it works your entire posterior chain. This set of muscles, tendons, and ligaments controls most of your movement and strength. If you have a weak posterior chain, you are weak, end of story.
The squat is such a powerful exercise that, if you have to choose between just doing squats and doing five other exercises in the gym, choose squats, every time. Nothing else will build strength and power faster than squatting deep, heavy, and hard.
From my personal experience, squats are a difficult and technical exercise- at least, they are for me. I have a lot of mobility issues going back to my childhood that make it hard to squat deep beyond parallel while keeping the bar under control.
But that doesn’t stop me from trying to do exactly that- because I love the results that I get, and the strength that results from squatting deep and hard. The ideal squat is very much like the ideal girlfriend- you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to find it, but you’d be an idiot not to do every one that you can.
Most guys who go to the gym never touch the Olympic barbell. For whatever reason, they’re scared of it- I know I was, back in the day. If they do go near it, they’ll use the bench press, simply because it works out the chest and arms, and those are the only body parts that most men want to train.
Personally, I am openly contemptuous of this attitude- see what I said above about the posterior chain- but I don’t deny the benefits of benching. If you want to build a big chest and strong arms, you need to do bench presses, and you need to do them right– none of that half-repping nonsense that most guys think is a bench-press.
A lot of guys fear doing heavy bench presses because they worry about getting pinned. I used to hate doing bench presses for just that reason. The only way to get over that fear is to just keep doing them. Yeah, it sucks when you get pinned- but unless you’re benching upwards of 315lbs, you won’t suffer any real damage from it if you’re safe and sensible.
|“Must… not… poop…”|
Ah, my beloved deadlifts… This is my absolute favourite exercise, bar none. Deadlifting is about as primal as you can get- you’re literally picking up a heavy weight off the ground. I love deadlifting, and not just because it makes me look (and sound) like a beast.
Deadlifting is the best exercise, by far, for building a big back and strong arms. Unlike squats, which combine concentric and eccentric movements, deadlifts focus only on the concentric part of the lift.
This exercise is absolutely critical to building big, powerful muscles. It has numerous side benefits too.
For one, doing deadlifts correctly is a great way to correct muscular imbalances and problems with your posture; the penalty for screwing up your deadlift posture is severe back pain, which means that you’re going to do your damndest to get it right (trust me, I know all about the back pain).
For another, deadlifting builds grip strength like nothing else can. You’ll notice this when you shake another man’s hand after a few months of deadlifting- the other guy will feel like he just shook hands with a steel vise.
|Pick up weight, lift overhead. It’s that simple.|
OHPs used to be an Olympic lift for a while, but it became very difficult to judge good form because you can bend backwards to push the bar up for very heavy weights. This exercise is less intimidating than the bench press, because there is no danger of getting caught under the bar. It builds strength in the shoulders, upper back, and arms, and should be used for building upper-body strength in conjunction with bench presses and barbell rows.
|Hey, what’s Conan doing here???|
Other than squats, probably the most technically tricky lift in the program is the barbell row. This exercise is designed to work out your biceps and upper back, while keeping your legs and lower back in a state of tight contraction to support you. It’s great for building strength in your arms and, when paired with overhead presses, can be a very useful exercise for developing total upper body strength.
Now that you’ve seen the basic lifts, here’s how you put them together.
You train three days a week. Five sets of five reps of three exercises (except deadlifts- I’ll get to this in a moment). The next time you do a particular exercise, you add 5lbs.
That’s it. This should take you no more than an hour to do at the gym, with warm-ups.
Here’s how this program would look:
- Monday: 5×5 squats, 5×5 bench press, 5×5 barbell rows
- Wednesday: 5×5 squats, 5×5 OHPs, 1×5 deadlifts
- Friday: 5×5 squats, 5×5 bench presses, 5×5 barbell rows
- Monday: 5×5 squats, 5×5 OHPs, 1×5 deadlifts
- Wednesday: 5×5 squats, 5×5 bench press, 5×5 barbell rows
- Friday: 5×5 squats, 5×5 OHPs, 1×5 deadlifts
And so on and so forth. You basically cycle between A and B for the entire program.
When you fail to complete a rep or a set at a particular weight twice in a row for the same exercise, you take 10% of the weight off the bar, and reset. This will help you break through the plateaus which you will hit eventually- usually after about 10 weeks of lifting.
On the subject of deadlifts- the reason you only do one set of five reps is because squats and deadlifts work out the posterior chain, but deadlifts hit the lower back much harder. The lower back is a critically important part of your body, but it’s not designed to take huge amounts of stress the way your legs are. Squats WILL tire you out and work your lower back hard, and you’re doing 25 reps already- that’s on top of your warm-up sets, too. If you try to do more than a single set of heavy deadlifts as a beginner, you’ll seriously tire yourself out and increase the risk of hurting your lower back.
I’ve been there. I’ve seriously injured my lower back by being stupid with my deadlifts, twice. Each injury put me out of the gym for over a month, and resulted in massive setbacks to my strength training.
Take it slowly, add weight over time, check your form, and above all be consistent, and I can promise you that this program- and I reiterate, this is Mehdi’s program, I didn’t come up with it- should add strength, muscle, and confidence in very short order.
Based on my experiences, here are a few things that a beginner should keep in mind:
- Start with a completely empty bar. Yeah, you’ll look and feel like an idiot lifting an empty bar, then a bar with 2.5lb plates, and so on. Other guys in the gym might just laugh at you. Screw ’em, they don’t matter. By Week 10 of this program, you’ll be at the point where you’re squatting well over your own bodyweight, and the same chuckleheads who smirked at how weak you are will be amazed at the progress you made.
- Be consistent. The key to success is always hard work. There are no shortcuts to gaining strength and muscle. Just keep showing up, keep grinding away, keep lifting.
- Be SAFE and lift with good technique. Nothing will destroy your gains or your ability to progress faster than crappy technique or a blatant disregard for your own safety. Work with spotters if you want (I never do), use the equipment properly, treat it well, and respect the gym for the temple to the Iron God that it is.
- Feed your gains. A strong body is forged in the gym, but it is sculpted in the kitchen. If you lift heavy but eat a trashy high-carb diet, you won’t be giving your body the nutrients and fuel it needs to grow. A diet high in protein and fat, low in carbs (but don’t do away with them entirely- you need your fruit and vegetables), and absolutely minimal on the processed crap that passes for “food” in the modern world, will get you the results you want. Eat clean, train hard, and remember: steak, eggs, and bacon are your friends.
- ALWAYS warm up before starting your lifts. Don’t be that toolbag who walks up to the squat rack, slaps on two plates on each end, and proceeds to pretend he can squat 225lbs. Warm up with an empty bar, add weight carefully, treat each warm-up rep like it’s a one-rep PR attempt, and you’ll be ready to hit the work sets with the right mindset and focus to get the job done.
- Don’t bother with expensive gear as a beginner. You don’t need it. When you find yourself getting to heavier weights, invest in a real weight belt and some lifter’s chalk. That’s all you’ll ever need. The rest is just garnish.
- The supplement industry is not your friend. Don’t spend a lot of money on fancy protein powders or supplements. All you need is: a simple, effective, high-protein whey supplement; creatine monohydrate; fish oil capsules; and maybe a multivitamin. THAT’S IT. Everything else is marketing BS.
- Protein powder does not build muscle. Lifting heavy builds muscle. The rest is merely details.
Once you’ve mastered the basic program- it doesn’t take long- and you feel like you’ve made some really good progress and enjoy spending time in the gym, you might feel like adding a few lifts to the set that I’ve already mentioned.
Most non-compound lifts are a complete waste of time, in my view. These three lifts aren’t mandatory, but they do work and they do build muscle and strength.
|Not seen: CrossFit Kipping|
Use these to build up your biceps and triceps in conjunction with bench presses, OHPs, and barbell rows. You should aim to be able to do 10-15 chin-ups, with full range of motion, in a single set.
Just please, for the love of Almighty God, don’t do that Kipping Row nonsense that CrossS***ters think are pull-ups.
|Kind of missing a step, but it’ll do|
This exercise is sort of a combination of a deadlift, a front squat, and a barbell row- it incorporates movements from all three exercises. It is a highly technical exercise and I don’t recommend doing it until you’re very comfortable with squats, deadlifts, and OHPs.
You start with the bar in the barbell row position. You lift it up to the “hang” position just like you would in a deadlift. Then, in a single explosive movement, you drop down a little as if doing a front squat while swinging the bar up to your chest. At the end of the movement, the bar will be sitting at the starting position for your OHPs.
This is a terrific exercise for generating real explosive power off the ground. It’s perfect for conditioning work- try doing 5 sets of even light power cleans and you’ll soon find yourself gasping for air, struggling to stay conscious.
A clean-and-jerk is basically a combination of a power clean with an overhead press. Again, this is a highly technical exercise and should NOT be attempted by beginners until you’re comfortable with squats, deadlifts, and OHPs. Because it combines many movements into a single fluid exercise, it’s a great way to build up your conditioning, stamina, and strength. Just be very careful when doing this movement, as the penalty for screwing it up is severe.
Alternatives to Powerlifting
I do not claim that powerlifting is the only way to get strong and shredded. There are at least two solid alternatives that I can recommend as well.
The first is bodyweight training. This involves using nothing more than your body and a few available surfaces and ledges to build up your strength. You can forge a very powerful body doing just this. For instance, Halfbreed has been doing this for a while, and… well, see for yourself:
|He’s shredded. I’m not. You decide.|
The second, which I personally recommend very strongly, is martial arts training. Fighting is about the most primal activity there is- aside from deadlifting and drumming, I mean. You’re literally training to beat the crap out of other people. There is NO activity that I know of that builds strength, agility, speed, fitness, and power as fast as learning how to fight. There is a reason why MMA fighters are some of the most highly conditioned and fittest athletes on the planet.
Your specific choice of training method depends on what you want. If you want to build a big, strong body, do weights. If you don’t want to spend money on a gym, or time around other people (I sympathise completely), do bodyweight training. If you want to be fit and deadly, do martial arts. I lift and do martial arts, and I know full well just how beneficial both can be.
I have written quite a lot over the last two years on the subject of lifting. Here is a selection of posts from the past that give more specific advice on training (mostly on how NOT to train), and also contain gratuitous shots of hot girls in the gym.
What NOT to Do
- Smith Machines ought to be banned
- How NOT to lift
- DON’T do these either
- Steroids ARE cheating
- Gym etiquette 101
- Wimps and posers leave the hall
- How to deadlift
- The “Why” is as important as the “How”
- Diet tips
- Getting your gear right
- No-BS muscle-building
- My original post on lifting
- A two-year retrospective (written two years ago)
- No victory without sacrifice
- Embrace the pain of discipline…
- A servant of the Iron God…
- The beast of…
And to all future
slaves devotees of the Iron God- lift hard, lift heavy, lift strong, and may the Iron God bless you with the power of steel.
*This is true of the Manosphere in general- very little of what you see is really “new” or original in any sense. The Manosphere promotes ancient and incontrovertible truths, repackaged and reformulated in clever and interesting new ways. But the basic ideas about who and what a man is have remained unchanged since the dawn of Mankind.