I learned this one the hard way. When I first got into lifting weights at the age of seventeen, I wanted to get strong and I wanted to get big. Sound familiar? So, this lead to me lifting 5 sets of 5 reps for about 5 years. It is what dudes in magazines did so it must work. I got kind of strong and kind of big, but also spent about three of those years lifting the same weights. It wasn’t until after I learned about strength training through my education with Opex Fitness that I really realized how much time I had wasted in the gym. Immense hours. When someone asks what kind of reps and sets they should be hitting the answer is, "it depends". Mostly on your goals and training history, this blog will talk about training history.
Well, it turns out that if you are new to lifting, what works for you, is going to be completely different than what works for a veteran lifter. However, a lot of the strength training advice out there is geared towards veteran lifters and followed by newbies. I was this guy. I completely skipped the introductory phase of lifting weights and strength training, and as a result progressed really slowly. I wanted to put on muscle, but the rep-range I followed wasn't geared towards that goal.
Before we dig into what kind of lifting is appropriate for beginners, it is going to be important for us to define what your training age is or what a beginner actually is vs. a veteran lifter. As a Crossfit coach I remember being flabbergasted on occasion when someone would describe themselves as a veteran lifter after doing group-classes for a year or two. Sorry, spending 15-20 minutes lifting weights in the strength wod three times a week does not mean you are a veteran lifter. Not even close.
So when do I stop being a beginner?
I am going to keep things simple and stick to two classifications of training age for this blog post. You are either a beginner, or a veteran. Of course there are in betweens and many different levels of what can be considered veteran but we don’t need to dig into that here.
For someone to be considered a veteran it is someone who has put in three to five years of consistent lifting. By consistent lifting I mean that the main focus of your training has been strength focused. This means going to the gym and lifting weights for 60-120 minutes 3-5 times/ week for at-least 85% of the weeks in the year. The veteran lifter can also easily deadlift 2x their body-weight, back squat 1.5x their body with relative ease, and strict press somewhere close to their body-weight and perform 5-10 strict controlled pull-ups with ease.
This seems like a lot, but lets bring some numbers into it. If you are a group-class fitness person who goes three times a week that means you are spending (3 x :20 strength wod) 1 hour/week training your strength specifically. If you go every single week at that frequency, in a year you will have put in just over 50 hours of strength training work. I do not know of many pursuits where 50 hours makes you an expert or advanced. It is likely you spent more time in that year scrolling through Instagram than you did lifting weights.
If you compare to our veteran lifter, they are putting in at a modest estimate at-least 230 hours/year lifting weights (90min x 3/week x 52). So, as you can see. The “meat-head” who just lifted weight for a years is going to develop 4x the experience and potential for strength dvelopment than is the group-class attendee. This is why it is ever so common for a body-builder or normal gym guy to walk into a Crossfit class and be one of the strongest, able to do gymnastics, and power clean a decent weight on day 1.
So.... mirror time. Are you a beginner?
Realistically most Crossfitters and people exercising in general fall into the beginner category. There is nothing wrong with this and we shouldn't be ashamed to be a beginner.
But what is super common in the world of fitness, because of “The 1% Ideal”, is that people skip their rookie training which they seriously need and straight away start following an advanced training program.
I recently saw a great example of this in a gym in Japan. Two french guys, who were clearly new to lifting based on their physiques and the weight they lifted were wearing heavy duty powerlifting belts, and their highest rep sets were 3's. I was curious and sneaked a look at the training book of the one guy and saw evidence of a powerlifting program. I hate to break it to you, but if you weigh 200 pounds, are wearing a belt and arching your back like the exorcist to pump out a 3 rep max bench press of 135#, you do not need to be following what looked like an elite level Powerlifting program. Johnny Bench Press’s friend was even worse off shaking his way through a heavy set of 3 at 115# for a Low Bar Back Squat wearing a powerlifting belt. (I am an intJ)
Although it is hard to witness such things, and my reaction is to think WTF? I can’t be too hard on these guys. I’ve been that guy on some level at the beginning of my lifting career as well and think its all part of the evolution of being a lifter of weights. Mistakes will be made along the way, which is ok, as long as you learn from them. But, putting the judgement of these two poor lads aside, let's talk about what would actually benefit them.
Okay, I am a beginner, what rep-range do I need?
Beginner gains aside, if you are beginner you will not benefit from 6x3’s, 5x5’s, or build to heavy’s. Your central nervous system is not yet adapted to lifting heavy weights and you will not recruit enough muscle fibres to make your 5x5 taxing enough to elicit enough of a response in your body to grow size and strength. Not only will you not be able to recruit enough muscle-fibres, you will not build muscle in these rep-ranges. If on the other hand you have been lifting for 5 years, 5 sets of 5 is a freaking battle, and you will need some days to recover. This is because your CNS knows how to dig and recruit every last muscle fibre for you to get that weight up.
What beginners need is…. bodybuilding. People who want to just be strong and look good (which is far more of you than you’d admit) just need bodybuilding. It is unfortunate that because of physiques like the picture below, cheesy ad-campaigns, touchiness shallowness, and drug abuse, that bodybuilding is a bit of a joke in the fitness world and turns the average person off. It is a true shame because bodybuilding is extremely beneficial in terms of learning movement patterns, building muscle, strength, and it is better than cardio for improving body composition. Bodybuilding used to be a noble pursuit with beauty and perfection as the goal. Now it has turned into a very dark reflection of our society as a whole where bigger is better ant any cost without any consideration of what is lost by this mindset. Anyway, I digress.
What 90% of the people who are looking to stay fit, look fantastic, and be strong actually need is weight training in the 8-15 reps range. You have not trained long enough to benefit from 6x3’s, 5x5’s etc, unless you fall into the category of experienced lifter that I outlined above (3-5 years of 200+ hours/year). It is the 8-15 rep-range you will teach your central nervous system how to connect to your muscles, and recruit more muscle fibres for growth in size and strength. At lighter weights you will be able to move with better technique and stay safe as well. Think of bodybuilding as spending time learning your scales and theory on the piano which prepares you to play the full song later on.
Body-building isn't only beneficial for rookies. As you progress in strength training it becomes extremely important to change up the "time under tension" in your training. This means spending time going heavy, going medium, and going light/high rep. As a personal example, as someone who skipped this stage and hopped right into 5x5’s, even as someone who had lifted for a decade, last year when I started focusing on this training more, I experienced far better results in terms of strength and body composition by doing about half-the volume as I did when I was going heavy all the time and hitting low rep-ranges.
Worth noting here as well that you will "not get too big" if you do body-building rep-ranges. You do not eat enough to get anywhere near the results of the freaks you see in magazines.
What about olympic lifting?
Olympic lifting is also worth mentioning here. Because of the prevalence of Olympic Lifting in Crossfit, it is also the case that a lot of people start olympic lifting before they do much of any strength training. It is so common that we don't really consider what is going on here and whether or not we should be doing it. But, to be honest, this is akin to taking the training wheels off your kids bike and the next day taking her downhill mountain-biking. There is something called the speed-strength continuum and to simplify it means that strength (moving weight slowly) has to come before power (moving weight fast) unless we want to plateau forever or get injured. So, an example of this is that you should be able to perform a slow snatch-grip deadlift with 3 second pauses at each position with a weight before you snatch it. This is a bit of an extreme view, but just like the skill-work fallacy, there is a technique fallacy in the world of Crossfit. Most intermediate/advanced people who are stuck at lifts have adequate technique but are simply just not strong enough to control the weight when adding speed to the equation. So, without even speaking about rep-ranges here, what this means is that if you want to do olympic lifting safely and experience results, you need to get really strong first and not skip the stages of strength development like 8-15's for beginners. (Do you ever see knees like this in group-class?)
I used to lift consistently but its been a couple years...
There are going to be some people who have put in chunks of consistent training, or used to be really strong but haven't been in the game for awhile. These mud-bloods are just as likely to select the wrong rep-ranges and think they can pick up right where they left of. If you have been lifting for 7 years, but haven't strung together more than six months consistently at any point in time, you are a beginner. Sure you will likely get results from a 5x5 because you know how to push, but you would benefit much more from retraining the body with the 8-15 rep-range. Just like when an athlete comes back from an injury, day one isn't a full contact game. It's light practise, then full practise, then a few shifts in a game, then a full-game. Common sense and a sense of reality win over here. If you are not consistent you can't follow the program of those who have been consistent. On and off for five years might be equivalent to only one or two years of consistent training.
Once again I am brining some tough love here. But, this is something I feel is important for people to know because of how prevalent it is for beginners to follow 5x5's and other advanced training rep-ranges. Or lifting because they want to look good, but end up following a rep-scheme which will gain strength but not size. So, when you think you need 6x3's and then a 25:00 "Heavy Metcon" because you want to get strong and put on muscle... you are way off unless you've been in this game for a minimum of 3 consistent years (and know how to program metcons). If you are a beginner, which you likely are, what you actually need to get strong and build muscle is 3-4 sets x 10-12 reps @ 3111 tempo for 4-5 exercises followed by a brisk 60 minute walk that evening.
We don't learn an instrument at full-speed or by starting off with Flight of the Bumblebees and we don't learn a language by arguing with a native speaker about their favourite sport in their native tongue on day one. Remember that when you are lifting weights, or doing any physical training in general that you are learning the language of the body and just like learning a real language or instrument that you need to start slow, put in the time and work and earn the right to follow an advanced training program.
Grit Human Performance
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