How to Choose a Beginner Lifting Program

So you’re ready to try out the gym, but you don’t know where to start?

You’ve read all over the internet about dozens of lifting programs for beginners, but you can’t pick one?

Worried you’ll start lifting with a program that sends you down the crooked path of tiny arms and a gains-less future?

First of all. Relax. Everything’s going to be okay.

Here’s the good news:

As a beginner, it’s hard to go wrong. When you first start lifting, you’re going to make a lot of progress really quickly.

Most of the beginner programs floating around the internet that have a lot of people vouching for them work just fine. The nitty gritty details of your program aren’t nearly as important as the fact that you’re going to the gym.

That being said:

You still want to be confident that you’re choosing a program that works.

Even more importantly, some programs might be better or worse for you. Even if they’re all good enough, why not at least try to narrow it down to one that’s a closer fit to what you want?

How can you do that?

It’s easy. You just have to ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does this program have good exercise selection?
  2. Does this program have an explicit progression?
  3. Does this program match what I want?

We’ll go over each of these questions and how to answer them.

But remember, no matter what program you go with, you’re probably not making a mistake either way. Just relax and pick one!

Question 1 – Does this program have good exercise selection?

The specific exercises in a program are extremely important. You’ll want to make sure that the program you choose is well-rounded and has a good balance of lifts.

It’s helpful to think of exercises as falling into a four basic movement patterns (although some people list five or even seven).

To keep things simple, we’ll stick with the basic four:

  • squat
  • hinge
  • push
  • pull

Most exercises you see people doing in the gym fall into one of these categories.

Here’s a quick rundown of these movements:

Squat

Everyone knows the squat. It’s not called the king of exercises for nothing! It’s the best way to strengthen your legs, and it’s the foundation of most programs.

The squat and its variations primarily work your legs, including your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. But they’ll also strengthen your back and core as well.

The most common type of squat you’ll see in a program is the back squat, where the barbell rests on your upper back. Almost every single beginner program includes the back squat.

The front squat is also a popular squat variation. You’ll have to use lighter weight with front squats, but it’ll really hammer your quads. On top of that, holding the barbell in the front rack position is a killer for your abs and upper back.

Other common squat variations are:

  • goblet squat
  • Bulgarian split squat
  • overhead squat

Hinge

The hinge, or the hip hinge, is any movement that primarily has you bending and then straightening your hips.

Hinge movements are unbeatable for working the posterior chain—the hamstrings, glutes, and back.

The most well-known type of hinge is the deadlift. The deadlift is right up there with the squat as fundamental to any lifting program. It’s an incredible movement for your whole body, working your legs, abs, and back, as well as your grip.

The great thing about the deadlift is that it has a lot of different variations that can target different muscles. For example, there’s the stiff leg deadlift—by bending your knees less than the regular deadlift, this puts even more emphasis on the posterior chain.

Another popular one is the snatch grip deadlift. You grip the barbell with a very wide grip, making the movement much harder on your upper back.

Some other effective hinge exercises:

  • kettle bell swings
  • pull throughs
  • back extensions
  • good mornings

Push

You can probably figure this one out from the name. Push exercises have you push a weight away from your body in some way.

The most obvious example is of course the bench press, the most well known lift there is.

The bench press and other push movements typically work some combination of your chest, shoulders, and triceps.

It can be helpful to break down push movements into two categories: horizontal push and vertical push movements.

The bench press is a horizontal push—you’re pushing the weight horizontally away from you. Push ups are another example of a horizontal pushing movement.

In a vertical push you move the weight away from you vertically—over your head. The prime example is the strict press, also known as the overhead press, or just “the press”.

Generally speaking, horizontal push exercises will work your chest more, whereas vertical push exercises will work your shoulders more.

Some other good push exercises:

  • dips
  • incline bench
  • push press

Pull

With pull exercises, you are—of course—pulling a weight towards your body. These types of lifts work muscles like your lats, upper back, and biceps.

Just like with push exercises, you can split up pull movements into horizontal and vertical groups.

Most horizontal pull movements are some type of row. The prototypical row is the barbell bent over row. But there are an incredible number of row variations that are effective as well.

Pull ups are the go-to vertical pulling exercise. Since many beginners can’t do many, or any, pull ups, vertical pull movements are a case where machine exercises can be useful, such as the lat pull down.

Some common pull movements:

  • dumbbell row
  • t-bar row
  • chin ups

Free Weights & Compound Lifts

You might have noticed that most of the lifts mentioned use free weights. For beginners, free weight movements are much better than machines. They develop full body coordination much better, work more muscles, and are easier to progress since you aren’t limited by the weight stack on the machine.

The lifts in a beginner program should also mostly be compound movements.

Compound movements are lifts that involve more than one joint.

The squat has you bend at the knees and the waist. The overhead press involves your shoulders and elbows.

Biceps curls, on the other hand, only involve the elbow. Movements like this are called isolation movements.

The advantage of compound lifts is that they work more muscle groups and allow you to use more weight, which will make you stronger.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting big biceps! And there’s no reason your program can’t have curls or other isolation lifts in it. But compound movements are a much better use of your time, so they should form the bulk of your program.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with machines. They’re just generally not as useful as free weight movements.

So, to recap:

  1. Your program should have squats, hinges, pushes, and pulls
  2. Your program should consist mostly of free weight, compound movements

Balance

Now we know what types of exercises a good program should have.

But just because a program has squats and deadlifts in it doesn’t mean that it’s well designed. There should be a healthy balance of the different movements.

What does that mean?

First of all, there should be at least one of each movement. For example, a program that has you only squatting, deadlifting, and benching could lead to some serious issues, since it’ll be lacking any pull movements. Too much pushing and not enough pulling can lead to shoulder problems, which will not only interfere with most of your upper body lifts, but could even affect your squats.

Ideally, a program would also include both horizontal and vertical variations for its push and pull lifts. This isn’t as important as the four major categories being represented, but it is still a good quality for a program to have.

Second of all, the amount of work the program has you do for each lift should be roughly equal. If a program has you deadlifting, overhead pressing, and doing pull ups four times a week, but only squatting once every other week, then it’s not balanced.

Again, the ratios should be roughly equal. That does not mean there has to be an exact ratio of 1:1 for every lift. There are many good reasons to deviate from this.

For example, a lot of programs have more squatting than deadlifting, and for good reason. Deadlifting usually causes more fatigue than squatting. That means you won’t be able to do as much other work in the program. On top of that, training the squat has a lot of carryover to the deadlift. It works a lot of the same muscles, so if you bring your squat up, your deadlift will probably go up too.

Some programs might have more emphasis on the upper body, with more push and pull work than squats and hinges. There’s nothing wrong with this either, so long as there is consistent lower body work.

A good rule of thumb is that a program should have you doing each type of movement at least once a week.

Most programs will have you squatting two or three times a week, deadlifting once or twice, and pushing and pulling two or three times each.

Question 2 – Does this program have an explicit progression?

In addition to the right balance of the right exercises, a program needs something else to be effective.

It needs to have a progression.

The progression of a program is simply the rules by which you add weight to the bar.

A lot of people spin their wheels in the gym, because even though they go consistently and do effective movements, they’re not actually challenging themselves.

If you never add weight to the bar, you won’t get stronger. It’s as simple as that.

This is known as the principle of progressive overload, and it’s the basis of all training programs.

For more advanced trainees, there are actually a lot of different ways to incorporate progressive overload into your training. It doesn’t just have to be by adding weight.

But for beginners, this is the best way to do it.

A good beginner program will tell you exactly how much, and how often, you should be adding weight to the bar.

For example, this is a common beginner progression:

  • Add 10 pounds to squats and deadlifts each session
  • Add 5 pounds to bench, overhead press, and row each session

This doesn’t seem very complicated, and it’s not.

But it is absolutely essential to progress.

If the program you’re looking at does not tell you when to increase the weight, and by how much, then find another one.

Question 3 – Does this program have what I want?

Most of the beginner programs out there satisfy the criteria we’ve talked about.

Most of them are based on a good variety of compound barbell movements. They almost all have a built in progression.

As long as a program has these things, then you should be alright.

But one thing you should always consider is whether the details of a program match your specific goals and constraints.

In some ways, this is the most important aspect of choosing a program.

How so?

Let’s take an obvious case.

Suppose a program is structured to have you go to the gym five days a week.

But maybe you only have time to consistently get to the gym four days a week. That means you end up having to skip one of the workouts pretty frequently.

You won’t get nearly as much out of the program as you would if you actually went five times a week and did all the prescribed work. You might start to get disappointed and frustrated with your results and go even less consistently, making the problem worse. In fact, you might stop going altogether.

That is not how a success story reads.

Let’s take another example.

Suppose a program is heavily focused on only a few movements. In addition to squats, deadlifts, and pulling movements, the only pushing movement is the bench press. Nothing else.

This program could work great for some people.

The problem is, it might be unbelievably boring for you. Maybe you don’t want to bench every single time you go to the gym.

There’s nothing wrong with doing a lot of benching, but maybe you want to be doing different exercises, because exploring new movements and getting better at them is fun for you. You might want to bench one day, do dips another, and overhead press another.

But instead, every time you go to the gym, it’s just the same boring bench press.

How likely are you to stick with this program and put in hard work?

Doesn’t sound like another success story either.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the programs in these two examples. Maybe you’re a student on summer break and have all kinds of free time, so you can easily go to the gym six times a week.

Maybe you find out you love benching, and nothing excites you more about going to the gym than seeing your bench progress go through the roof. You’d rather not be wasting your time doing dips and overhead pressing when you could be benching.

But the point is that you need to decide what works for you.

Don’t feel pressured to go with one program just because everyone around you says it’s the best.

What’s most important is that the program appeals to you.

Now, it’s okay if you’re not sure what you like yet. If you’ve never lifted before, then chances are you won’t know exactly what you want.

And that’s fine!

Over time you’ll learn more about training, how you respond to it, what you like, and how to adjust it.

But for now, as you’re looking at different programs, see if there’s one that particularly catches your interest.

Maybe it works well with your schedule.

Maybe it has the right variety (or lack of variety!) that you think you’ll want.

Maybe it puts more emphasis on upper body work, and that’s what you’re more concerned with.

Maybe it’s especially squat focused, and you really want to beef up your legs.

Whatever you choose, make sure that it’s one you think you’ll enjoy and stick to.

Why is all of this so important?

If you don’t enjoy the program, you won’t do the program, and then you won’t get anything out of it.

Ultimately, the real point of a beginner program is to get you acquainted with the major lifts, get you in the habit of going to the gym regularly, and understand how your body works.

Provided it meets the criteria we’ve talked about so far, then stuff like the specific sets and reps, or whether it has incline barbell bench as opposed to incline dumbbell bench, really doesn’t matter too much.

If you pick a program and stick to it for long enough to make real progress and start to feel like you know what you’re doing, then you picked the right program.

Then you can start thinking about moving to another program or try things like incorporating periodization and adding volume, as Greg Nuckols talks about here.

Summary

Okay, let’s recap really quickly.

A program should have three things.

It should have a good balance of exercises. That means squats, deadlifts, pushes, and pulls. It means mostly compound, barbell movements.

It should have a clearly laid out progression for you to follow. Without that, you’re just spinning your wheels.

It should work for you. It should fit your goals, and your schedule.

So, now you’re much better equipped to choose a program.

Just remember, no matter what you choose, as long as you work hard and stick to it, you made the right choice.