EDIT: I want to point out that this article is as much for women interested in getting into lifting as it is for men. While the original Meat and Potatoes programming would be very effective for both men and women, there are some differences between the two populations (a little more about this here) that are probably worth accounting for, so I’ve made some small adjustments to the program (at the bottom of this article) to further optimize it for everyone! Now forth, For the Love of Lifting!
Beginnings are magical. There’s nothing quite like the excitement that often surrounds them—the promises of what’s to come. It tickles my heart to see this kind of wild ambition in people as they prepare to take their first real dive into the world of fitness. What ruins said tickling is when most of the good effort these guys and gals are putting in is focused on the minutia that really just doesn’t matter at that stage rather than the most basic, important fundamentals.
I’ve seen novice guys agonizing over what supplements they should be taking (“Should I use Jack3d or C4?? Aghhh!!!”) or what kind of chest fly variation will lead to the greatest gainz. The real kick in the pants is that they aren’t even consistently making it to the gym. I know it’s a hell of a lot more sexy to focus on the little details and imagine that optimizing them is going to be the key to exploding with muscle, but the truth is that the biggest determinant of your success in these endeavors is just being consistent with your lifting and nutrition. If someone comes along offering you a magic program (‘this guy lost a bajillion pounds and got super effing jacked with this one weird trick’) or supplement that promises significant results in a manner of weeks, they’re probably full of shit.
Now here’s a method that will get you jacked in just a few short weeks… Ha! Just kidding.
So what is a beginner to do if all of those magazine ads are lies and you can’t actually build boulder shoulders or sculpt a beer gut into toned, sexy abs in 6 weeks? Start with the basics, and implement changes in small steps. More often than not, I see people who decide to make a change altering every aspect of their life drastically all at once. They go instantly from sedentary lives and excessive caloric intake to working out 5 or 6 times a week and barely eating enough calories to sustain the life of a small rabbit. In these cases, it’s extremely common (and unsurprising) to see people burn out and give up rather quickly. Psychologically, this kind of extreme paradigm shift is just not sustainable a lot of times, especially given the fact that very little progress will be visually noticeable in the first couple weeks, which will be particularly discouraging to someone that has put themselves in an uncomfortable routine for the sake of changing their body. Also, I’ll save the details for a future piece, but these kinds of drastic changes really are not beneficial in terms of optimizing your long-term progression and success.
So what would I recommend you actually do if you want to get started in a sensible way? I’ll break it down into the two steps that I think will be most beneficial for almost everyone to start with.
1) Start and stick to a lifting routine that revolves around linear progression with basic, compound barbell exercises.
When I refer to basic, compound barbell exercises, I’m talking about squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and their respective variations. Olympic lifts are also wonderful tools for building power, but they are, in my opinion, a bit more tricky to learn as a beginner due to the need for the precise coordination of very quick, explosive movements to complete them successfully. So, I would recommend first learning to squat, deadlift, press, and row. Together, these heavy barbell exercises are what I like to call the meat and potatoes of lifting. I even wrote a linear progression program a few years ago that I jokingly called “Meat and Potatoes.” I never planned to use it again, but once I started writing this post, I decided to brush it up so that I could share it with you! It will be at the end of this post if you would like to start off with something written by yours truly.
Linear progression, by the way, simply means that you increase the weight you are using for a certain movement at a fixed (linear) rate for each workout you complete the lift. In other words, a linear progression program might call for you to squat 3 times per week and add 5 pounds to the weight you’re using each day you squat (e.g. squat with 100 lbs for workout 1, 105 lbs for workout 2, and 110 lbs for workout 3). There are already several popular linear progression routines available such as Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5, and as previously mentioned, I’ve laid out my “Meat and Potatoes” program down below if that happens to stimulate your lifting appetite a bit more.
Try to avoid getting too caught up in the details; all of these programs will work tremendously for beginners if you just get to the gym and stick to one consistently. Also, I realize that it might seem weird to you to not be doing any of that good ol’ isolation work (e.g. curls) that the magazines show those jacked Adonis-looking fellows doing. Isolation work absolutely has its place down the road, but it’s been pretty well established time and time again that full body workouts comprised mostly of heavy barbell lifts are what work best for newbie lifters for building both size and strength. Actually, a very recent study found that even trained individuals experienced superior hypertrophy doing full-body workouts and hitting each muscle group 3 times per week when compared to another group that completed the same amount of weekly exercise volume in a more typical body part split where only a few muscle groups were trained per day and each body part was only trained once per week. The bottom line I’m driving at is this: doing a bunch of barbell lifting multiple times per week can get you big and strong (assuming you eat to grow). If you build it (strength on the good ol’ barbell lifts), they will come. The gainz, that is. All of that being said, I know a lot of people won’t be able to help but add in a few curls and whatnot anyways, so I programmed a sprinkle of arm work into Meat and Potatoes. Eat your heart out!
2) Increase your protein intake, aiming for a daily intake of at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.
This is simply (in my mind) the most logical place to start with what will be a gradual process of adjusting your diet. While cleaning up your eating habits and figuring out a good baseline of what you should be aiming for in terms of daily macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) are important steps that you will want to address (and I will write about these things later), you don’t want to go crazy with changing everything all at once. Your body is already going to be burning a lot more energy than it is used to burning if you are starting a good strength training program like the ones mentioned above, so the first dietary consideration to tackle is just making sure you are giving your body enough protein to maintain itself and grow. Good sources of protein include meats (poultry, beef, pork… whatever you prefer!), eggs, dairy (cheese, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, etc.), and powders like whey and casein (which kind of fall into the dairy category, really). Yes, foods like beans and nuts also have some protein in them, and I’d recommend eating them, especially if you’re looking to bulk up, but I advise you to try to get most of the protein to meet your target through the sources I listed above.
I’ll point out that the 0.8 grams per pound of lean bodyweight is just a guideline more than a hard rule; it is simply near the top of the consensus range of prudent protein intake for strength athletes. Several studies narrowed in on this number by assessing the level of dietary protein necessary to maintain a neutral nitrogen balance (a metric that is often calculated using blood or urinary urea levels to determine whether an individual’s dietary protein intake is sufficient for meeting the body’s demands) in individuals undergoing resistance training regimens. Note, I specified “per pound of lean body mass” above to point out that those who have a large excess of fat tissue should base their intake on their estimated lean tissue weight:
A few extra tips:
- For those grossly overweight who are interested primarily in weight loss, don’t hold back on increasing your protein intake, but make more of an effort to start removing some of the most egregious “trash” foods from your diet. You might be tempted to drop calories like crazy, but you will likely find that your body will start responding in a great way to just the weight training and these small dietary adjustments. If you really feel like you need to do something extra, add a bit of conditioning once or twice per week (I’d recommend either stationary cycling or hill sprints in a high intensity interval training (HIIT) style or walking lunges for distance; I’ll write more about this soon).
- For those who are underweight and looking to bulk up, don’t be scared to eat more! Things like nut butters and olive oil are great for adding in extra calories. Also, bacon and eggs. Mmmmm… Consider adding whole milk with all of your meals if you’re really struggling to put on weight (drinking a gallon of milk a day is a time-honored method for putting weight onto underweight beginners who struggle to eat enough). How much is too much? First, eat enough to get your weight moving. Once that’s happening, shoot for gaining 2 or 3 pounds per month. Anything over 3 or 4 lbs per month at this stage probably means you are also building a small amount of unnecessary fat as well, in which case you can back off just a little bit on the caloric intake.
- For those somewhere between grossly overweight and underweight, forget about the number on the scale for a while. You might think you need to lose weight, but as you start increasing your lifts and supporting yourself nutritionally, you’ll build muscle, likely while burning some fat. The end result might be that your weight doesn’t change much at the start, but you will begin to look different. Trust the mirror and the way you feel more than the arbitrary weight you think is right for you.
- Don’t get discouraged when you don’t see results in the first week or two. Changing a body takes time. It could be months, but I can almost guarantee that if you stick to one of these programs and stay consistent with your eating, people are going to start noticing in a good way.
It can be dangerous to make blanket statements about what works and doesn’t work in nutrition and fitness, because the fact is that different people can respond most favorably to different things at different times, but when it comes to novice lifters, these two steps (basic, heavy barbell training and upping dietary protein) are the meat (literally) and potatoes that I think most every beginner would do well to begin focusing on. After that… Well, I’ll get to that in future articles!
Meat and Potatoes
This routine will have you lifting four times per week, although I’ve included a three day per week option if you absolutely don’t have a fourth day to spare to the gym. The first workout (A) will be performed twice per week, staggered with workouts B and C. The basic setup goes like this:
|Exercise||Sets (Men/Women)||Target Reps (Men/Women)|
|B1||Barbell Bench Press*||5/4||5/8|
|C||Pallof Press (with a slight pause)||3||4-8/6-10|
|Exercise||Sets (Men/Women)||Target Reps (Men/Women)|
|B1||Standing Barbell Overhead Press*||5/4||5/8|
|B2||Chin-Up/Pull-Up||5/4||As many reps as possible (AMRAP)|
|Exercise||Sets (Men/Women)||Target Reps (Men/Women)|
|B1||Standing Barbell Overhead Press*||5/4||5/8|
|C1||EZ Bar Curl||4||8-12|
|C2||Dumbbell French Press||4||8-12|
|4 Days Per Week (The Original)||3 Days Per Week|
|Monday – Workout A
Tuesday – Workout B
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Workout A
Friday – Workout C
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
Monday – Workout A
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Workout B
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Workout A
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
*Denotes the main exercises that are to be progressed as explained below
**Letters in the leftmost column show whether an exercise should be done alone or as part of a superset (e.g. in Workout A, the A beside the back squats show that back squats are done first and by themselves. The B1 and B2 next to the barbell bench press and barbell rows indicate that those two exercises should be done together. In other words, before starting your second set on the bench press, you will do your first set of barbell rows and then continue to move back and forth between the two exercises.)
I’ve put together a couple videos to demonstrate the basics of these movements:
Starting Weight and Progression
As with any other linear progression program, it is a good idea to start light. Really light. If you are totally new, begin each of the barbell lifts with just the bar. Even if you have been doing a bit of lifting prior to starting this program, you’ll want to start with a weight that feels nice and easy. You’re going to be increasing your weight on these lifts pretty quickly, so it will become challenging soon enough. Every time you successfully complete your 3 or 5 sets (depending on the exercise) of 5 reps at a given weight, you will increase the weight for that lift on the next workout that calls for it. Increase in increments of 10 lbs (5 lbs added to each side of the bar) for squats and deadlifts and 5 lbs (2.5 lbs added to each side of the bar) for bench press, overhead press, and the barbell rows. The exercises that are not marked with an asterisk do not necessarily need to follow a strict progression; they are there to add some balance and give work to areas that likely need it (e.g. back extensions for the glutes, hamstrings, etc.). On these “accessory” exercises, just use a weight that allows you to complete an amount of reps that falls within the indicated range. Once the amount of reps you can do with that weight exceeds the rep range, increase the weight!
Eventually, the weights are going to start feeling pretty darn heavy, and you will reach a point where you can’t do all of your prescribed reps for the day. First off, if you can’t complete all of your sets and reps with a weight, just try to make it with that same weight again on your next workout (if you run into this situation within the first month or so, you probably started too heavy at the beginning). Let’s say you are doing the 4 day split and squatting 205 lbs on Monday. You nail the 5 sets of 5, which means that on Thursday, you will squat with 215 lbs. However, let’s say that when you move to do your bench press with 125 lbs that day, you hit your first set of 5, but then only get 4 reps on the second set and 3 reps on the third, fourth, and fifth sets. In this case, you’ll simply bench with 125 lbs again on Thursday and try for 5 sets of 5 once more.
The first time you reach a point where you try the same weight for at least 3 workouts and consecutively fall short, reset your weight on that lift to 80% of the weight you failed with, and begin working up again. The second time you stall for at least 3 consecutive workouts (this should hopefully be at a higher weight than your first stall), it might be time to start getting more creative. For starters, we will manipulate the difficulty of each set to let you build up to hitting the goal gradually. The next workout after your third consecutive fail, just try to do 5 sets of 3 (women can try sets of 5 instead) with that weight (even if you had already done more than that on one of your previous attempts). The next workout do 6 sets of 3 (or 5 for women here as). Next time do 7 sets of 3 (or 5). Finally, you guessed it, 8 sets of 3 (or 5). If you want, continue up to 10 sets of 3 (…or 5). Once you’ve done this, go in on your next workout and try again for your 5 sets of 5 (or 4 sets of 8 for women). Now, this method of progression will clearly slow the rate that you are increasing weights on your lifts, but it should get you moving again. Sadly, we can’t keep progressing at the same rate forever, hence the reason I’ve not yet managed to squat a metric ton… *Sigh*
Resetting your working weight for a lift is always an option if you begin to feel like your form is severely degrading or if life takes over and you can’t make it to the gym for a week or two. Work hard, but be sensible.
Eventually, you will be better suited moving on to slightly more sophisticated programming (a lot more to come on this), but please, For the Love of Lifting, don’t think that it’s time to switch things up when you have yet to even get to the point of squatting or deadlifting your own body weight. It is far too common for beginners to move on to fancier programs thinking that they are getting too advanced for linear progression when, at the same time, they aren’t getting enough food or sleep, and they aren’t making any efforts to really learn the movements (the big lifts are skills that take a LOT of work to even become decent at). If you falter, make sure you remember that there are many facets that are involved in becoming stronger and building a body; don’t fall into the trap of blaming your programming just because it’s the easiest thing to do.
Notes and exceptions:
- If you can’t do a pull-up (or chin-up… some people like to distinguish between the two by the level of supination/pronation of the hands, or whether your palms are towards you or away, but it doesn’t matter too much here; just hoist yourself up however you like!), grab a bench and bring it over to the pull-up bar. From the bench, grab the bar and hop up into the top position of the pull-up. Hold yourself at the top for a moment if you can, and then slowly lower yourself down until your arms are fully extended. Hop back on the bench and repeat. Do this for 5 sets of 5 reps, then finish off with 2 or 3 sets of 6-10 lat pulldowns. Start off your pull-up work for each day by checking if you can manage a pull-up on your own. If not, keep going; you’ll get there soon!
- If you don’t happen to have an ab wheel at your gym, try leg raises lying on a bench or knee raises while hanging from a pull-up bar.
- If you feel overly uncomfortable or are having trouble getting into the bottom position of your squats, try doing a few sets of goblet squats (squatting with a single dumbbell held at chest level) before your normal squats each day. These don’t need to be heavy; it’s just a good movement to help you “grease the groove” for your barbell squats.
- Again, start light, and even if your workouts feel easy in the first couple weeks, don’t skip up in weight faster than the program calls for. The weights will get heavy soon enough, and the more gradually you approach this time, the further you will likely progress before you stall.
- Don’t expect any miracles in the first couple weeks. Try to give it at least 3 months before you make any decisive judgements. It might sound like a lot, but what are the alternatives? One would be giving up completely, which is clearly problematic for reaching your goals. The other option would be program-hopping, which is both exactly what many beginners do when they don’t see quick results from what they’re doing and, ironically, part of the reason why a lot of beginners end up lifting for years without ever seeing any appreciable results. Give it 3 months, skip the unproductive program flip-flopping, and get stronger.
So that’s Meat and Potatoes in a nutshell… Or a potato skin? I don’t know… Just give it a try! I tried to lay out all the important ideas clearly, but as we all know, sometimes what one person thinks to be clear as day can actually be pretty damn befuddling, so please, let me know if you have any questions! Thanks for reading, and remember: do it For the Love of Lifting!
- Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2015.
- Lemon, P., et al., Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1992. 73(2): p. 767-775.
- Lemon, P.W., Effects of exercise on dietary protein requirements. International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 1998. 8: p. 426-447.
- Phillips, S.M., Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. British Journal of Nutrition, 2012. 108(S2): p. S158-S167.
Follow me for updates and other shenanigans: