T Nation

Trying to Build a Beginner Program

Hello CT,

After trying numerous programs I’ve finally had to swallow my pride and come to terms with the fact that I am a beginner. As far as I can tell, you do not have any programs geared for beginners. On another thread you made some recommendations, but I could not find the programs anywhere. Therefore I’ve decided to try my hand at making a beginner program for myself.

I like to think of this as a true beginner program, so I’ve used untrained strength standards as the starting weights. The primary goal for this program is technical proficiency. I feel like in the few months I’ve been training I’ve tried to go too hard too fast, so I want to spend some time mastering the lifts. That said, I plan to use three techniques by Joel Seedman that help train the movements: Hanging Band Technique (HBT), Bottom Up (BU), and Eccentric Isometrics EI) - not sure if this is foolish or not. Since this is mostly about technique, I aimed for high frequency and fairly light loads. However, since I’m still a beginner, I’m not sure if I have gauged this correctly. I know you don’t usually critique programs, but any help you can provide would be helpful:

HBT Deficit Deadlift w/EI - 6x3-5 @ 110 lbs (70% untrained strength)
Cable Pull-throughs - 6x6-8
Wall Drills - 2x15
HBT Bench Press w/EI - 6x3-5 @ 65 lbs. (70% untrained strength)
BU DB Bench Press - 6x6-8 @ 30 lbs./hand
Low Cable Row - 6x6-8
Face Pulls - 6x6-8

HBT Back Squat w/EI - 6x3-5 @ 90 lbs. (70% untrained strength)
BU DB Squats - 6x6-8 @ 40 lbs./hand
Wall Squats - 2x15
HBT OH Press w/EI - 6x3-5 @ 40 lbs. (70% untrained strength)
BU DB OH Press w/EI - 6x6-8 @ 20 lbs.
Lat Pulldown w/EI - 6x6-8 @ 100 lbs.
Straight Arm Pulldown w/EI - 6x6-8 @ 60 lbs.

Sunday: OFF

For reference, I’m 35 years old, 6’0", 210 lbs., and have been training about 6 months.

He has somehow a beginner program, it’s hard to find but he has written it for a person that is (was) skinny and couldn’t move much weight. It’s a basic 3 day program.

Here is the thread:

You need to scroll it a bit down to see the program.

That actually looks like a fairly advanced program. More than that, it;s one of the worst programs I’ve seen.

  • First of all it uses some techniques that are not suitable for the beginner (HBT for example which should not be used before technique is perfect an automatized). Learn to lift and build a good foundation of strength before being seduced into using training methods you do not need. Look at a program like Starting Strength ( https://www.t-nation.com/training/most-lifters-are-still-beginners ), which is arguably the best “beginner program” and see the difference with the atrocity you just posted. Listen, I’m all for special methods. In fact in a recent seminar I explained 41 different special methods. But these methods should ONLY be used to address a problem that the basics can’t fix or when hard work on the basics has stopped working.

  • You do not understand the inverse relationship between volume and frequency. If you are a natural trainee (not using performance-enhancing drugs) you can use a high volume OR a high frequency, not both. I personally believe in frequency over volume. But Doing 6 sets per exercises, on 6 exercises per session is WAAAAYYYYYY too much. Honestly I have very good work capacity and love to train. But there is NO WAY I can do all the work you wrote into the program and have a good quality to my sessions, let alone do it 6x a week. I would say that you have AT LEAST twice the volume you should be doing.

  • If you need 6 sets per exercises it is likely that you are not training hard enough on the sets you are doing. 3 sets per exercises is better than 2 which is better than 1. But 4 only offer marginal benefits and ONLY in certain circumstances and past that there are no benefits in doing more sets when it comes to stimulating muscle growth (building strength via neural improvements is another thing).

  • You seem to have a focus on the amount of work you are doing (evidenced by the fact that you are using both a very high volume per session and a very high frequency). That is the wrong focus. The only thing that matters is progress and it will be impossible to progress past a few weeks with this program.

Here are somethings I wrote that might interest you…

"Ok here’s something I’ve gotta say.
I believe that a lot of you are killing their gains because they pride in the wrong things when it comes to training.

The ONLY thing that matters is how much progress you are making. That … is … all … that … matters. PERIOD.

I see a lot of people taking more pride in how much work they do than how much results they are getting. Listen: it doesn’t matter if you trained 7 days this week or 3. It doesn’t matter if you did 30 sets in your workout or 10. The only thing on which a program should be judged is how much progress you are making.

The work you are doing in the gym is done for one reason: to stimulate changes in your body. The goal is the changes, the work is only what you are doing to achieve the goal.

In real life would you brag about working 60 hours a week but only making 500$ that week?
Listen, being a hard worker is important. Unless you are a genetic freak hard work will be required to get maximum results. But understand that it is not an end in itself.

The problem is that those who pride themselves first and foremost in the amount of work they are doing, are often killing their gains because the amount they are doing exceeds the amount of work they can handle and have a positive adaptation from.

Because of biochemical factors that are outside the scope of this post, it is completely possible to regress because you are doing too much work (lose muscle and strength).

Take powerlifting for example. I know a lot of people who took the Westside Barbell system and decided that it wasn’t enough work soi they added more exercises and sets in each session. Listen why would you believe that YOU can tolerate more physical work than someone who is (1) likely genetically built to handle hard physical work (2) has years, sometimes decades of experience with high level strength lifting (3) might be using drugs.

If the Westside split is 4 hard days a week why could you handle 5 or 6? If they can handle 1 maximum and 1 heavy assistance lift per session why could you handle 2 or each?
And that is just one example. When you look at the top strength athletes for advice if your first reaction is 'are you sure that’s enough?" you might have a problem."


This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about getting results being the only important thing with training.

One of the basic needs of a human being is “esteem”: Feeling like you are achieving something and getting the respect of others.

People who are achieving either important things or accomplishing something worth respect have this fairly easily. But those who aren’t doing anything special need to crate surrogate goals for themselves.

This is true in life and in training.

A typical example is somebody who is a militant/manifestant for a cause that doesn’t affect him personally. For example an heterosexual, middle class male who is actively participating in feminist manifestations.

If you are a woman and you feel that you are oppressed or treated unfairly because of your sex I understand why you would want to protest publicly. I do not agree with the modern feminist views (I feel that our society is pretty balanced, in fact men are often treated unfairly themselves) but I understand why some females would feel strongly about that cause.

But why would a middle class, average male take this cause at heart? He might make you believe that he is fighting for the rights of women. But the truth is completely different.

The reality is that this cause is a surrogate goal: something that the person latches on to be able to earn the respect of others. In this case the person is subconsciously looking for the respect and approval of women.

Anyway I don’t want to engage on this slippery slope but that is an example of a surrogate goal.
I see the same thing in training all the time:

  • I might not strong but I can do more work than everybody else. That person uses the amount of work being done to get a sense of accomplishment or the approval/admiration of others.
  • I’m not gaining a lot of muscle mass but I can do crazy exercises like one-leg overhead squats on a Swiss ball, let’s see those muscle monsters do that! Again using a surrogate way to feel good about yourself and feel like others are respecting you.

The problem is that chasing these surrogate goals will take your eyes off of the real purpose of training. Training’s purposes are to improve your body’s composition (adding muscle, losing fat), capacity to perform (strength, power, agility, speed) and make it healthy (injury prevention, improving health markers). Anything other than that is just an illusion of accomplishment.
If focusing on the illusion prevents you from achieving the true meaning of training, you are wasting your time.

What will happen is that you will focus so much on the surrogate goals that eventually you will forget why you started training in the first place: to improve your body. And when that happens NOLT getting gains actually becomes acceptable to you as long as you are finding other ways to feel good about yourself.

Then you will ridicule those who are actually making significant changes in their body (he doesn’t even train hard… yeah he’s big but he isn’t functional like I am).

This is a dangerous spiral because the more you focus on those artificial validations the less results you will be getting and the more you will forget about actually trying to get results.

And when that happens you actually stop trying to find ways to solve your lack of progress issue.
See when you aren’t progressing (adding more muscle, getting stronger, getting more powerful, etc.) there is a problem somewhere… your training, nutrition, sleep pattern, etc. might not be adequate. And you need to fix the issue. But if you stop focusing strictly on the results you will also stop trying to find ways to solve your problems.

Once again: the only thing that matters in weight training is getting results. Everything else is just a surrogate goal to make you feel good about yourself when you really shouldn’t.

Listen it’s OKAY to feel bad about yourself, about your lack of results IF you use that frustration to find a way to solve your problem."


"The number one mistake made by natural trainees
I believe that the work mistake someone training without the help of performance enhancing drugs can make is to do too much volume.

The whole purpose of training to build muscle is to trigger protein synthesis. Once it’s been triggered there is no added benefit to continuing punishing a muscle, it will not grow more. In fact, it will grow less and might even lose size!

The key to growth is having the biggest difference between protein synthesis (building muscle) and protein breakdown (mobilizing amino acids from muscles for energy). The more volume you do, the more protein breakdown you get. Why? Because the more volume you do the more glycogen you need to burn for fuel.

What does this have to do about protein breakdown? Plenty!

When you have to mobilize stored glycogen you need to increase the release of cortisol. Basically during training cortisol’s role is to mobilize energy to be used for fuel.

The more fuel you need, the greater the cortisol release.

So the more volume you do, the more glycogen you need to burn, the greater the cortisol release.

And cortisol also comes with a drawback: it can hurt muscle growth. It does so 3 ways:

  1. By increasing the breakdown of amino acids from muscles… basically cortisol breaks down muscle tissue to turn it into fuel. That’s why we say that cortisol is a catabolic hormone.

  2. By inhibiting mTor. MTor is the light switch that turns on protein synthesis (muscle building). Cortisol can inhibit mTor directly and my increasing the level of AMPK. So the more cortisol you produce, the more likely you are to negate the effect of training on protein synthesis. Basically mTor will turn on muscle-building, cortisol can turn it off

  3. Cortisol and other glucocorticoids increase the expression of the myostatin gene. Myostatin expression limits the amount of muscle you build. The more myostatin expression you have, the less muscle you build. High cortisol levels, and thus a high volume of work, lead to a greater myostatin expression during the recovery period after a workout.

So what we want is to trigger mTor/protein synthesis but also keep cortisol release as low as possible to maximize the growth stimulus. This means that volume must be kept low.

It also means that since you can’t afford to do a lot of volume you have to make sure that the volume you do is done at an intensity level that will trigger mTor activation.

Note that enhanced (drug-using) bodybuilders do not have that same problem.

Enhanced bodybuilder do not need to stimulate protein synthesis with the session: the anabolic hormones they are taking artificially increase protein synthesis 24/7. As such doing too much volume will not have the same negative impact as for a natural trainee."


LOL! Wow, my program really is atrocious!

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond, I’m very grateful. I’m glad you steered me away from my own prideful foolishness.

So no advanced methods - stick to the basics. I picked those techniques to help me build my form, but they are obviously out of my league. Without the benefit of a coach, what do you recommend for working on form?

Starting Strength. I’ve looked at this program, I like it, and am planning on trying it. I just wanted to focus on form a bit first.

WAAAAYYYY to much volume. I hear you loud and clear. I thought frequency was the most important variable in training for form - I think I read somewhere it would be best to train the movement 2-3 times a week. But somehow I thought I needed more volume for more “practice”. What is a good frequency/volume ratio for training for form?

I’ve read your articles on building a program and knowing your training percentages, and they generally focus on either hypertrophy or strength, with some notes about fat-burning. What is the ideal load for working on form and technique?

Is there an ideal rep style for working on form/technique?

In thinking about your reply here, and what you said in “How to Design a Damn Good Program”, I realize I haven’t seen any programs that address form as a training goal - from you or otherwise, and it’s not a goal that’s really talked about. So I guess a better question to ask would be, is form in the basic lifts a good training goal?

You are right… frequency is the most important variable in motor learning NOT volume/amount of practice.

3-4 work set per exercises with ONE of these being a really hard set. Hitting the big basic lifts 2-3 times per week each (ideally 3) . Daily I suggest 2 big lifts and 2 assistance movements, or 3 big lifts and 1 assistance move.

1 Like

Thank you so much for the feedback. If I understand this correctly, then only one set per day is a really hard set. So something like this

Deadlift 2x5 @ 80%; 1x3 @ 90%
Bench Press 3x5 @ 80%
Pull-Throughs 3x8 @ 70%
Low Cable Rows 3x8 @ 70%

Squat 3x5 @ 80%
Overhead Press 2x5 @ 80%; 1x3 @ 90%
Leg Extensions 3x8 @ 70%
Lat Pulldowns 3x8 @ 70%

Deadlift 3x5 @ 80%
Bench Press 3x5 @ 80%
Pull Throughs 3x8 @ 70%
Low Cable Rows: 3x8 @ 70%

Squat 2x5 @ 80%; 1x3 @ 90%
Overhead Press 3x5 @ 80%
Leg Extensions 3x8 @ 70%
Lat Pulldowns 3x8 @ 70%

Deadlift 3x5 @ 80%
Bench Press 2x5 @ 80%; 1x3 @ 90%
Pull-Throughs 3x8 @ 70%
Low-Cable Rows 3x8 @ 70%

Squat 3x5 @ 80%
Overhead Press 3x5 @ 80%
Leg Extensions 3x8 @ 70%
Lat Pulldowns 3x8 @ 70%


Really hard doesn’t mean sets of 3 reps with 90%. Really hard means pushing to the limit on a set, regardless of what weight you are using. I would not use percentages if you are a beginner and I would not use less than 5 reps per set.

If you do 3 sets of 5 it would mean 2 more conservative sets, where you might have 2 reps left in the tank and a third set where you go a bit heavier and go until you can’t do another good rep… on some sets you might get 6 or even 7 reps on some you might get only 4 (although you should shoot for at least 5).

1 Like

Wow, that is very helpful and definitely not what I thought. Thanks a lot for your help.

A few more questions, if you’ll indulge me:

So if I’m not using percentages, do I just use the same weight every time and just push it for reps on the last set? Or do I autoregulate progression in a kind of double progression manner?

Since I’m doing big lifts every day to tech failure, is there ever any need to deload? Or is there enough time to recover with this low of volume?