A Basic Weightlifting Routine for Beginners – Part 1
This routine forms the basis for all my later routines and the exercises are the primary way that I measure progress. It consists of what I consider to be the most basic weight lifting exercise for each major body part. These exercises aren’t performed as just a part of this beginning routine, but form the basis of any subsequent workout that I do.
All of these are done with the barbell. The idea is at this stage to engage as many muscles as possible while working and protecting the tendons and ligaments and those small, vulnerable stabilizers. Since both arms are working together, the barbell provides an additional level of coordination and stabilization.
I know that all this information is available in a thousand different places but this is how I have distilled it over the years into my own personal routine and what I am teaching my son as he begins his journey on what I consider to be an absolutely essential path for any person and so I am writing this as a way to gather my own thoughts as well as hopefully provide him with a reference. And hopefully it will be of use to some of you in the land of the web as well!
The List of Core Exercises
Below I list each ‘primary’ body part, followed by the exercise, with the exercise name acting as a link to the exrx website demonstrating the movement. This website is fantastically dense with material presented in a very concise manner. I think it’s important to delve deeper into all these movements, especially as you move up in weight, but here you will find a quick, informative reference with a short animation demonstrating the movement. I suggest saving the links to your phone or tablet and keeping it handy the first few times for a quick guide, or better yet link to this blog since I have them all listed for you! This is also generally the order in which I do them.
Back – Barbell Bent-over Row
I look at this as a reverse bench press, preferring therefore to place my hands in the same width grip so that my forearms are perpendicular to the floor and my upper arms are about 45 degrees when the bar is pulled up to around my belly button.
I approach the bar with it in line with the end of my shoe.
I’m careful to tilt my head slightly up just until I feel my back straighten, but not pulling all the way so I’m looking in front with a good bend to the knees.
Chest – Barbell Bench press
This exercise is synonymous with weight lifting, which I think is ridiculous. I just can’t see it as being a measure of any real world strength. It is important, though, since it really works some very important stabilizers and the chest acts as a balance to the important back muscles.
I think it’s important to note that this is a dangerous exercise as well, from potentially fatal consequences of equipment or muscle failure with a heavy weight above your head and chest, to severe injury to the shoulders. There are far too many big guys out there with stories about how much they could bench press in the old days before they ruined their shoulders.
Therefore, form is of the absolute utmost importance with this exercise. Also, if you’re lifting alone, don’t collar the weight so you can dump it; and respect your numbers – don’t go for that last rep outside of your last rep + 1 unless you have a spotter (I’ll talk about the routine and progression in the next post).
This video by Alan Thrall is by far the best I’ve seen on good form. I’ve watched it a dozen times and I’ll watch it a dozen more to really get the principles. All his videos are fantastic and I suggest subscribing to his channel.
Legs – Deadlift
I consider this the real benchmark for overall functional strength since you are really using so many core, structural muscles.
This is another exercise with enormous potential for permanent injury so again form is everything along with a respect for the weight and your limits. Be aware that this exercise puts a huge load on the cardiovascular system as well – I feel like I’ve run a full out sprint after each set and in the beginning I would get very light headed after each set as well, to the point of almost falling if I didn’t lean against something. Proper breathing as you stand is of the utmost importance, although as you advance you may come across techniques involving ‘swallowing’ as much air as you can to brace the abdomen.
Especially when you start adding ‘secondary’ exercises such as the front squat, I prefer to use a wider stance and really emphasize work on the rear chain, including the hamstrings and glutes.
As you increase in weight be sure to start using the hook grip with your heavy lifts. It takes some experimentation to get right but it’s well worth it.
Shoulders – Barbell Overhead Press
This is the other real benchmark for functional strength far over and above the bench press (which is really just working shoulder stabilizers), especially when combined with the power clean. Never forget that protecting the shoulders is absolutely crucial to the ability to train into a late age, so again form is of the utmost importance.
Getting a full range of motion and moving the head forward really ensures you hit the medial and rear deltoids as well, though you’ll concentrate more on these as you progress to using ‘secondary’ exercises in your workout.
Biceps – Barbell Curl
Depending on what you’re doing, the biceps are really just for looks. However they are important as secondary action muscles and I don’t see anything wrong with putting some effort toward some good looking arms.
Remember these are small muscles relative to all the others and they are being worked in relative isolation even with the barbell, so stay with a weight on the lower side. Also form is very important to avoid damage to the shoulder where the muscles attach.
Squeezing at the top of the movement to avoid pulling the shoulder forward is important. Also keep the elbows at the side, allowing minimal drift forward and backward.
Triceps – Barbell Close-Grip Bench Press
This is the gold standard for really working the triceps. Pay attention to the tension you feel in your wrists – too close a grip can really put a strain on them and lead to injury.
Generally I put my hands on either side of the bottom of my rib cage and then track up to the bar to get the best width.
The triceps fail fast and completely. With most of these exercises you can really squeeze out a last rep or two when you start to feel failure, but you will find the triceps just give out without much warning so be very careful because again you are in a position with the weight suspended above your chest and head.
That concludes the list of exercises for a beginning workout to establish the base for more focused workouts with heavier weights. These exercises form the core of all my weight lifting workouts and are the measure of my progression, so later workouts don’t drop them, but instead increase the weight and add secondary movements as you move into routines that work only two or three parts per workout and focus on specific muscle parts or groups, like upper or lower pecs or rear and middle delts.
Next I’ll discuss the routine. I’d love to hear any advice or comments. I’m always learning when it comes to weight lifting.
(edit – 12/1/2016): After listening to the Charles Poliquin on this Tim Ferriss podcast and a bit of additional research I don’t see the low bar squat as an alternative to the deadlift. Mr. Poliquin states that it’s for competition lifting and leads to hip problems, and the man knows what he is talking about. So I do good mornings and front squats to compensate for not being able to do deadlifts because they exacerbate my tri-malleolar fracture ankle.