Growing out of your Newbie Phase; The Essential Guide

How the hell do you become one of those people that regularly goes to the gym? How do those people always know what to do? Should I hire a trainer to teach me all of these things? These are some of the questions many of us asked ourselves when we first started some sort of strength training. No matter what approach you take to getting started, it seems that everyone always has to go through the awkward “beginner” phases.

This article is written for those of you who have less than 4 months of strength training experience and are wondering the same questions I listed above.

Consistency and Experimentation

Programs for true beginners are tricky; when you’re new you’re going to progress at everything rapidly due to neuromotor learning and adaptation, you need to figure out what kind of exercises you genuinely enjoy doing, and you need to establish the habit of exercising regularly. With regards to these factors you should prioritize going to the gym consistently, and experimenting with different types of exercises.

First, be realistic about how often you can train every week. Training 2x per week is perfectly fine and better than committing yourself to 4x per week and feeling like a failure because you only went 3 times. Plan out the day and time you are going to train, don’t just say “I’ll do it when I have time,” that almost always leads to failure. Try to make the times consistent, for example if you’re going to train on Tuesday and Thursday don’t do Tuesday at 9:00 am and Thursday at 9:00 pm.

Second, don’t limit yourself to a standardized protocol. Set a general theme to your workout days, Upper/Lower Body days for example, and do any workout you feel like trying within those themes. If you see someone else doing an exercise that looks interesting, do it! You can even ask them for advice! Look around on Instagram and if you see someone doing an exercise you think you can safely do, try it! Experimenting like this in your first few months of resistance training will help you discover what exercises you really like, and which ones you absolutely loathe.

Play around in a safe weight and rep range

When you’re within the few months of your strength training you don’t want to push your limits to find out how strong you are. Instead I recommend you expand your limits. The difference between these two phrases may seem trite but let me explain:

  1. “Push Your Limits” – Consistently performing at the edge of your capabilities in order to push your absolute maximum effort up.
  2. “Expand your limits” – Consistently performing near the mid-range of your capabilities in order improve the quality of your efforts.

There is absolutely a time to “push your limits” but it is not when you’re a complete newbie. Instead, aim for completing 1 – 4 sets of any exercise for 8 – 12 reps. This range of volume will work to stimulate growth and neuromotor adaptation quite well while simultaneously limiting the risk of injury.

Don’t be nervous: (Almost) Nobody else has any idea what they are doing either

Don’t worry about judgement from people in full matching tracksuits, they’re still figuring it out too.

It’s easy to go into a gym when you’re new and feel like everyone is judging you because you’re new. This insecurity is completely normal and honestly you have nothing to worry about.

You can prove this to yourself by paying attention to how much everyone is looking at themselves in the mirrors next time you’re in the gym. Also notice how hard it is for you to pay attention to other people and not just look at yourself in the mirror. That’s how everyone feels. Everyone is looking at themselves, they are there for themselves, and they don’t care what you’re doing. Step into the gym knowing that most people there won’t even notice you at all.

There are the occasional assholes in the gym. These are the folks that record someone overweight on the elliptical and post it to their Instagram with some snarky comments. These are the 1% that make people feel like everyone in the gym will make fun of them and, while some of them are in decent shape, these idiots aren’t the people to emulate or care about what they think. Disregard these people, pretend they don’t exist, and do your own thing.

Lastly, when you’re insecure about your form or choice of exercises remember:

2/3 of the people in any regular gym have little to no idea what they are doing!

The more comfortable you become in your gym, the more you’ll realize this to be true. There are guys doing curls in the squat rack, calisthenics wannabes doing back levers while hanging on the connective tissue of their shoulders, deadlifts being done with crescent shaped spines, etc… It’s normal. Everyone has to start at this level. You can get better by recording yourself, asking friends for feedback, reading/watching exercise tutorials online, or hiring a trainer/coach to teach you how to do it.

Should you hire a trainer to show you the ropes?


If you’re going to want to explore more explosive and technical exercises, like the box jump, it’s smart to hire an experienced professional to provide critical feedback.

I do quite a few consultations with people that have either zero training experience or have not consistently trained in years. I usually tell these people it’s a waste of their money to hire me on so early; not because they’re inexperienced and I don’t want to work with them but because hiring a trainer that early on won’t make as big of a difference as they think. For the biggest bang for your buck simply follow the pointers we listed out in this article:

  • Make a realistic training schedule and stick to it.
  • Do something simple like a upper/lower body split.
  • Continually try different exercises to discover what kind of training is best for you.
  • Don’t push the weights super heavy and stay in the 8 – 12 rep range for most exercises.
  • Try not to stress yourself out about what other people are thinking, they’re usually focused on themselves.

There are a few exceptions in which hiring a trainer or a coach early on isn’t a bad idea:

  • The only way you’re going to establish a consistent schedule is to pay someone to hold you accountable.
  • You have enough disposable income to spend on a trainer/coach when they are likely to not be as effective.
  • You have special training needs and need a professional to tailor your training approach.

Overall, if you can make yourself get to a gym at least twice a week consistently follow the tips outlined in this article before hiring a trainer. Once you start to feel comfortable in the gym and with your style of training you can start shopping around for a trainer. Trainers and coaches are amazing resources that can help you reach a higher level of performance than you might have reached on your own. Much of this success is due to the fact that you will get to benefit from the past mistakes your coach made, you get to skip a lot of the trial and error phases. However, coaches can’t help you skip every sub-optimal phase of your training; primarily the beginning awkward phases.


The 3 Top Goals in the Gym and How to Hit Them

This article is about how to achieve 3 specific goals people have in the gym. If you’re interested in the basis of goal setting strategies you can read more here.

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Here are two fake conversations I didn’t have with anyone the other day, but let’s pretend they happened so I can make a point:

Fake Conversation 1

Me: “What’s your fitness goal?”

Them: “Well I want to lose some fat, gain muscle, be healthier, more athletic, stronger…”

Me: “That’s a lot, how are you going to do all of that at once?”

Them: “I don’t know, go to the gym and hope for the best.”

In this example we have the problem of not being able to set a specific goal.  Even the most in-shape individual at your gym right now wants all of those things I listed.  Being general like this doesn’t help.  It’s important to select a singular focus for a span of time.  That doesn’t mean that focus becomes your only care, it just means that you’ll devote your training to that specific focus for a given length of time and then you can decide to switch it later.

A really common example of this is Bodybuilders.  Bodybuilders typically go through an off-season “Bulk” in which they will eat more, and lift heavier in an attempt to increase their overall muscle mass.  They will then change focus as their competition gets closer to a “cut” in which they eat less and change their training to lose body fat while retaining muscle mass.  Overall they have a singular goal but their focus changes.

Fake Conversation 2

Me: “What’s your focus?”

Them: “I’m focusing on my endurance for my upcoming marathon!”

Me: “Then why are you doing a powerlifting program?”

Them: “I don’t know, Jesus! Leave me alone!”

Once you know what your focus is it’s important to figure out what tools will help you reach your goal.  It’s very much like an inexperienced hunter not thinking there is much difference between a shotgun and a rifle, while an experienced hunter knows that which gun you select depends a lot on what you are hunting.  Similarly, we need to know what our specific goal is and choose the appropriate “tools” to achieve that goal.

When I meet with new clients I like to tell them to pick their most important goal.  Out of the plethora they listed which one are they most impatient to complete?  In this article I’m going to list out the three most common focuses people have and the general “tools” I recommend for getting the job done.

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Getting Stronger

I’ll admit I’m biased in my inclusion of this section.  Whenever I work with new clients I heavily recommend starting with at least one 9-week strength cycle.  Building a foundation of strength before pursuing other fitness goals makes achieving those other goals much easier.  There are many ways people define strength, in this section we will define getting stronger as the ability to lift a larger amount of weight.  For example:

  • Pulling a 275 lb deadlift when your previous max was 225 lbs
  • Performing a strict pull up when you couldn’t do one before

The easiest way to build strength is to perform low rep sets frequently.  For instance, if you wanted to increase your squat max from 225 lbs  you would perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps at 205 lbs (approximately 85-95% of your max).  A good strategy is to perform a minimal amount of sets but perform them as many days during the week as possible.  4 sets per day for 2 days is better than 8 sets in one day, and 2 sets per day for 4 days is even better than that.

For bodyweight exercises we use a similar strategy.  Simply sneak one rep in after a set of another exercise.  For example, I will usually perform a single pull up after I finish a set of squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc… Doing one rep certainly isn’t hard and it will build real strength.

In summary, if you’re trying to build strength:

  • Keep your reps under 5 reps
  • If possible, split your sets into multiple days (4 sets split over two days is better than 6 sets on one day)
  • Keep the weight between 85-95% of your one rep max

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Losing Fat

This is probably the most common goal people come to see a trainer about.  In general, people are wanting the trainer to be a drill sergeant that keeps them on the treadmill longer and forces them to burn calories.  I am very upfront about not being this kind of trainer and my methods do not include screaming at you just so you feel guilted into burning more calories.

When it comes to losing fat the secret isn’t in how much you exercise, it’s in how you eat.  You can’t out-train a bad diet and you can’t run off all the junk food you want to eat.  You likely already know this.  The secret to fat loss is a negative energy balance.

To ensure a negative energy balance you need to have an idea of how many calories your body burns every day already.  There are calculators available online to help you figure this out, just google “TDEE calculator” and you’ll have quite a few options.  These calculators are great but they’re not perfect.  A more precise method is to download a food diary app, like MyFitnessPal or MyMacros+, and log everything you eat for 10 consecutive days.  Don’t worry about how many calories the app says you’re supposed to hit, just eat normally and log everything.  After 10 days you should be able to take an average and have an approximation of how many calories you tend to eat on a daily basis.

Using this average as your “maintenance calories” amount you can now aim to eat 200-500 calories below this number everyday, this is called your “deficit.”  Continue to log your food everyday and make sure you aren’t overeating and staying within your deficit.  If you’re new to tracking your food start with a small deficit (around 200 calories) and only increase your deficit when you don’t see any weight loss over 7-10 days.  The larger of a deficit you start with the quicker you can lose weight but you become a lot more likely to bounce back into overeating and relapse.

When it comes to training that can help you out with losing weight it’s natural to think of long distance running or cycling.  These options are fine if you enjoy running or cycling, even better if you want to do either competitively, however most of us don’t enjoy hours on a stationary bike or treadmill.  Instead, try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to burn a few extra calories.

In short, HIIT involves a maximum effort interval, typically 10-20 seconds, followed by a lengthy rest period, anywhere between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.  The point of the rest period is to feel nearly fully recovered before engaging in the next interval.  Personally, I like to add HIIT on to the end of my workouts but some people like to schedule them separately, it’s all a matter of preference.  Start with 3 intervals and over time add more to get maximum benefit.

With regards to your weightlifting it is advisable to have a slightly varied approach to sets and rep schemes.  Perform at least 3 sets of 4-6 reps during compound exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, etc… and perform no more than 10 total sets of 6-9 reps of accessory exercises such as bicep curls, lateral shoulder raises, pec fly, etc…

In summary, when it comes to losing fat:

  • Track your food intake with a food diary app.
    • Stay 200 – 500 calories below your “maintenance” calories.
  • Add HIIT sessions to your workouts to effectively burn extra calories.
    • Start with 3 intervals and slowly add more.
  • Perform 3+ sets of 4-6 reps of compound weight lifting exercises each session
  • Perform no more than 10 total sets of 6-9 reps of accessory weight lifting exercises each session

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The number one reason guys get into the gym: hypertrophy (aka Mass Building).  There’s a lot of methods we can use to trigger hypertrophy, some more validated than others.  In this section we are going to emphasize two methods I’ve had personal success with as well as success with many clients: High Volume Training and Tempo Training.  In this article we are going to discuss high volume training.

High Volume Training refers to focusing on staying within a much higher rep range than normal, 6-15 reps per set.  When using this kind of rep range you will have to lower the weight immensely from your strength training amounts.  Thus, it is advisable to start your workouts with at least 3 sets of a compound exercise in the strength training rep range, 1-5 reps.  Follow this with 3-5 sets of another exercise in the 6-9 rep range, and lastly 2-4 sets in the 9-15 rep range.  For example here’s an example of a leg day hypertrophy routine I would use:

  • Squats, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • Barbell Lunges, 3 sets of 6-9 reps
  • Leg Extensions, 2 sets of 6-9 reps
  • Hamstring curls, 2 sets of 9-15 reps
  • Calf raises, 2 sets of 9-15 reps

As with fat loss, diet plays a large role when trying to gain mass except this time we want to eat slightly above our caloric maintenance level. Many early lifters take the simple approach of just cramming down more protein. I can tell you that I, nor my clients, have had much success with simply increasing the protein alone. What has usually mattered more is carbohydrates; specifically, we start with increasing carbohydrate intake by about 50g per day and increase protein by about 20g. Additionally, I have seen good results during hypertrophy phases when adding about 1 tsp of L-Leucine to Whey Protein Shakes (read more here).

In summary, when it comes to building muscle mass:

  • Eat slightly above your maintenance calories
    • Mostly carbs, some protein.
      • Add leucine to protein shakes for a little added boost
  • Incorporate 3 sets of strength training (1-5 reps)
  • Perform the rest of your sets in the upper rep range and in increasing order.

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Want extra help reaching your goals?

If you’ve read this article and are feeling like “Yeah, that sounds great but I’d still like some help” then you may want to get in touch with a trainer/coach.  Brawn for Brains offers online coaching services at an affordable price. We work with you to develop a training plan intended to get you to your goals, provide extensive nutritional advisement, and answer any questions you may have. If you’re interested in getting in touch with our training services simply click “Personal Coaching” at the top of the article.