Progression as a Newcomer: The 4 Steps to Success

Dave Thomas
CPT-NSCA, USA Weightlifting, RKC

An area where we as a fitness industry collectively botch is the progression and recommendation for how beginners should hop into programmed group training.  Some of it is pitiful and enraging, some of it just minor oversight.  Speaking as someone who has oversight over the training of nearly 1000 members at three San Diego locations at Performance360, I understand these challenges probably better than anyone who might read this.  It can be very difficult to have a set workout on the board, offer goal and format deviations from that foundation of movements and still ensure everyone is doing what is best for them for their level of progression.

Most of the time we get it right at P360, some of the time we don’t and while on the floor coaching and adjustments will always help, the better tool is self-education.

One area in which we are constantly working as coaches is to scan the room for immobile beginners who are truly that; beginners.  Going cold into a challenging S&C program can be daunting & scary at first, you just want to make sure you follow some basic guidelines as you get started to ensure you start healthy, stay healthy and get strong and lean in the process.

Most importantly, you want to make sure you are patient and do not jump the process.

Here are our recommended progressions as you begin a new S&C program.

Step 1: Proper Movement Pattern

Timeline: 30 – 90 Days

You really should not be getting underneath a heavily loaded barbell if you can’t perform body weight squats in your sleep.  I have literally run over to a barbell before and stripped weight when I’ve seen people think they are going to perform heavy deadlifts with absolutely no foundation to do so.  A lot of times, folks in a S&C program don’t want to hear that they are a beginner, and they don’t want to admit to themselves that their best development protocol is to go lighter.  It can be a sting to the ego, and often times that inner misrepresentation of what you are actually capable of can at best, stunt your progress and at worst, get you injured.

Let me first clarify just what we classify as beginner.

A beginner is someone who has not been exposed to a variety of barbell, kettlebell and plyometric training for a period of at least 3 months.

The leg press, smith machine, elliptical and marathons you have run into do not qualify you to do any of what is listed above.  It’s not meant to be harsh, it’s meant to open your eyes to the reality of the stark difference between programmed strength and conditioning, and “going to the gym”.

If you are used to a background of machine-based movement pattern or the hip demobilization from the repetition of running, you’ll need to do some work to unwind a lot of the bad movement wiring you have established for yourself.

Take the first 30 days – 90 days to perform all of the class movements at slow pace, and light weight.  You will get stronger through muscle recruitment, nervous system movement patterns and overall efficiency, and will likely see a really nice side effect of leaning out and burning fat. The single biggest mistake you can possibly make is to start at heavy weight before establishing the path to do so.  A lot of you may have seen a coach switch a new member to a modification in the day’s main movement, or perhaps you were switched by a coach.

Some good regressions to consider for yourself are:

  • Back Squat> Goblet Squat (easier to develop feel and kinetic awareness)
  • Deadlift -> KB Deadlift (less shear force on the spine and easier to develop hinge pattern)
  • Push Press -> DB Push Press (this frees up the shoulder complex and allows better mobility)
  • Pull-Ups -> Ring Rows (a more horizontal position makes the pulling pattern easier)

(Never look at a modification as inferior. The goblet squat is perhaps my single favorite functional movement and would prescribe this to the most advanced athlete. It just so happens to be a lot easier to perform than a spinal loaded back squat and a great all around movement for beginners.)

Remember, you have to lay the tracks before deploying the 200 mph bullet train.

Step 2: Conditioning

Timeline: 30 – 60 Days after Step 1

Once you actually know what the movements feel like and have developed patterns like it’s second nature, you can then begin applying a bit more challenging weight and some semblance of a pace to your workouts.  You still don’t want to sprawled out on the floor post workout, but an uptick in your pace and load is perfectly acceptable at this phase in the game.

There are a myriad of strength programs that have folks hop straight into barbell work and I couldn’t disagree with that notion more.  Conditioning should come first.  I’m not talking break neck, yelling “DONE!” immediately upon spiking your kettlebell, I am talking swift pace and a weight that challenges you. That’s where you build on the patterns you have established and prime your body to a level of exertion that will build tolerance, create stress and force adaptation.

You’ll notice we keep harping back to movement patterns and kinetic awareness.  If you are to be successful with any S&C program, your body absolutely must know what it’s doing without your having to tell it every single step of the way.

By now, you are at roughly 3 months in your training, your movement patters look good, you’re conditioned to a respectable degree and your body is set up for success.

Step 3: Strength

Timeline: 3 months from joining

Remember that point from the first step.  You will get stronger through muscle recruitment, neuromuscular efficiency, movement patterns and overall efficiency.  Just the act of your central nervous system waking up for the first time in your life will pay strength dividends as you start.  There is no need to give a baby a gallon of milk when a small bottle will do just fine.

At this point in your training, you can and should begin with a more serious approach to barbell training.  Start to really pay attention to the weight you perform each day. Use the app to track your numbers so that you can go back and look and what you squatted and ensure progression.  A lot of folks confuse “strength training” with “you’re making me train for world’s strongest man or woman”, and that is not the case.

Everybody should train strength in some facet, regardless of your goal. It is undisputed the most effective way to become stronger, leaner, more efficient and an overall more healthy, capable human being.

It will improve your work capacity, increase efficiency in other sport endeavors (hello, runners), make you faster, improve your metabolism, develop lean muscle, keep you hormonally in check (especially if you are a fast pace Nazi) and like the wise man Rip says, “All in all more useful and harder to kill”.

Step 4: The Magical Land of PRs

Timeline: 6 – 9 months from joining

Maximal and near-maximal lifting should not be applied to your body for quite some time in your program.  It takes the maximal recruitment of motor units and contraction of muscles, it takes tension in the right places and sustained for 3 – 7 seconds under load, and it takes a body that can tolerate mid rep adjustments and cues from a coach or self awareness to make a correction under load.

These skills are not learned in a month or two.  It’s why you don’t see us posting any videos of someone hitting a deadlift PR at 140#.  Because we don’t encourage that and it doesn’t exist at Performance360.

The first time you attempt a true PR, you should be coming from a background of many, many, many sets of 3 – 5 reps at submaximal weight.  The first time you PR, you should blow your own mind with how much you lifted. 

The 1R Max Lift should be a stranger to you until you:

  • Develop proper movement patterns
  • Establish and build upon them with light load
  • Endure strength training for a few months
  • Lock in your movement patterns and technique at submaximal weight

Once this occurs, you are ready young grasshopper.  Don’t let the videos that crappy gyms post of their members hitting a 80# back squat 1R PR dissuade you from the correct process.

Parting Words

Your training is a lot like running Cowles Mountain.  It’s not a sprint straight up to the top.  It’s a series of progressions with checkpoints along the way.

Performance and strength are not goals for the privileged.  They are attainable for everyone willing to work, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy in wanting to leapfrog very important processes.  Understand that like anything you accomplish, it takes commitment and most importantly, patience in the process.  Your coaching staff will always be there to guide and maneuver you into appropriate training along the way, but self education and reliance is even better.

Do not ignore strength.  Fat loss and conditioning may be your only goal, but ignoring a challenging weight and skillset of movements would be a fatal blow to that process.

Build the train tracks and the train will run course beautifully.

Dave Thomas is co-owner and coach at Performance360 in San Diego, California.