Basic Strength Workouts for the Beginner and the Broken

Sometimes you’re just not after aggressive strength gains. Sometimes you just want a basic, simple workout to do, something productive, something that won’t mess you up or aggravate injuries. If you’re a beginner, you need slow, gradual improvements while you’re learning technique and adapting to exercise. If you’re an old horse that’s beat up to hell and back, a basic template and a simple progression scheme is the most welcome thing there is.

I have to say I find it pretty funny that newbies should lift one way, and often don’t in favor of some bodybuilding mess, and it’s the experienced and beat-up lifters, interested in simplicity and longevity, that end up coming back to nearly the same thing later on in their careers. It’s the circle of life.

These templates are going to look very familiar to you if you’re at all familiar with the 5×5 workouts, anything Dan John has written, or with Jim Wendler’s three-day templates over on EliteFTS, like the Triumvirate or 5-3-1. That’s because I’m drawing on a lot of the same thought processes and the same knowledge base. Consider these to be customized permutations, filtered through my own biases.

I should pimp this as the AmpedTraining 5×5 Beginner Workout to drive my SEO rankings up.

AmpedTraining 5×5 Beginner Workout

These workouts are designed for a straightforward, no-frills kind of training. Since they’re low-stress, relatively speaking, they’ll also fit in very well with other goals, like if you’ve got some kind of sport to train for or if you’re after a ‘hybrid’ program to focus on both strength and conditioning or overall fitness. As you might gather, there’s going to be a lot of similarities between these templates and the suggestions I’ve made for fat loss, or for mixing strength with bodybuilding or conditioning goals.

The Simplest Template

The simplest template is to use two workouts, an A and a B, and alternate them over three days per week. This can be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or it can be Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Pick whatever fits your schedule.

Here’s some examples.

Workout A

Overhead Press
Deadlift
Chinups

Workout B

Bench Press
Squat
Barbell Row

Or another option:

Workout A

Front Squat
Overhead Press
Deadlift alternating sessions with Power Cleans*
Chinups

  • Romanian Deadlifts or Good Mornings would fit here too.

Workout B

Squat
Bench Press
Barbell Row

You can also split these workouts to get away from the full-body arrangement, if that agrees with you more. The easiest way to split is either push-pull or upper-lower. I think upper-lower is usually the better choice, but there are pros and cons to both.

On the push-pull arrangement, you can end up overdoing things if you make deadlifts and cleans a “pull” exercise, since that means you’ll be working your legs at every session, and upper-body will only get half the work. But there are ways to do it smart, so I consider this a good option.

Upper-lower is of course the tried and true stand-by, but it can have some issues too. The big thing to me is that it forces you to choose between pressing and pulling, as far as what gets your effort, for the upper body. Pressing is usually the golden child, but pulling is necessary so you don’t totally wreck your shoulders. This too is just something to be aware of, not an obstacle that can’t be fixed.

Two Workouts – Upper-Lower

Workout A – Upper

Bench Press or Incline Bench Press
Chinup or Barbell Row
Whatever fluff for arms (hint: don’t do more than one exercise each for biceps and triceps)

Workout B – Lower

Squat or Deadlift
Single-leg Movement (step up, split squat, lunge)
Hip Movement (back raise/hyperextension, glute-ham raise, Romanian DL, Good Morning)
Maybe a calf exercise if you’re up to it

Two Workouts – Push-Pull

Workout A – Push

Squat or Front Squat
Bench Press or Overhead Press

Workout B – Pull

Deadlift or Power Clean
Chinups or Barbell Row

Using that version, you could wind up with a pretty easy session on either day, if you pick the ‘easy’ exercises, so you can get in and out quick, or spend more time on other things.

Remember that these are just examples. You’re free to hack up and customize as you desire, as long as you’re keeping to the same idea (hint: change the exercises, don’t start adding them).

When I say “squat”, you can back squat, front squat, box squat, whatever you want. If you’re trying to make a “pull” day easy because you’ve got football practice later, it’s probably not a good idea to go in and try for a new deadlift record; you’d want to pick an easier exercise.

You get the idea. Use some sense.

Not Quite as Simple Templates

If you want to complexify it a little, then spread it out into four workouts. This can give you a little more diversity in your exercises, if you’re into that or if you feel you need to make one day more “press dominant” or “quad dominant” or whatever.

If you have a real ass-kicker in there somewhere, it gives you more recovery time before you repeat that session. With this schedule you only repeat a workout once every 10 days, instead of every 5th day or even once a week. I’ve found that this works well with deadlifts, as one example.

You’re still only training three days a week with these, remember. Just like before, you can either go upper-lower or push-pull.

Four Workouts – Upper-Lower

Workout A – Heavy Upper

Workout B – Heavy Lower

Workout C – Light Upper

Workout D – Light Lower

Note here that ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ are relative terms, and I don’t just mean high weight/low reps when I say ‘heavy’. Or vice-versa. I’m talking about which day kicks your ass the most versus the day that’s easier on your body.

In that regard, ‘heavy’ can be sets of 10 reps if you’re grinding out a lot of sets to failure. It can mean doing deadlifts on the heavy day and front squats on the light day, because you’ll be able to handle a whole lot more weight on the deadlifts. It can even mean doing Max Effort work on the heavy day and Dynamic Effort work on the light day.

Big lifts for the lower body will be squats, deadlifts, and the variations of those lifts (box squats, rack deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, etc.). Assistance work will be things for the hips and the quads, maybe the calves if you’re vain.

For the upper body, the big lifts are presses, pulls, and variations – so that means overhead press, bench press, incline bench, chinups, pullups, and different kinds of rows. There’s not a whole lot of assistance work besides arms and shoulders.

Four Workouts – Push-Pull

This is a simple training cycle I’ve done based on a push-pull split with four workouts.

Workout A – Pushing

Front Squat
Incline Bench Press
Triceps

Workout B – Pulling

Deadlift
Chinups (for high volume)
Biceps

Workout C – Pushing

Box Squats
Bench Press
Triceps (Heavy)

Workout D – Pulling

Power Cleans
Chinups (ramping to a heavy set)
Good Mornings

Front Squats and Box Squats were chosen because of a torn quad that prevented me from doing any heavy back squats. Front squats are too light to aggravate it, and box squats don’t seem to bother it regardless of weight.

This is also good because you’re only deadlift every 10 days, even though you get some pulling every 5th day or so. That’s a good thing if you’re a stronger puller. Power cleans are there for lighter pulling, and if you hate cleans you can probably get away with speed deadlifts instead.

On each day, I plan the big lifts (the first two listed on each day) according to a progression I’ve got sitting in a spreadsheet, except the box squats and cleans, which I’m training with an auto-regulating setup; each week I’m adjusting the rep range and going by feel.

The last exercise is lighter assistance work done for higher reps, and it’s usually arms cause I like pumping my guns.

Assistance Work

Assistance work is the stuff you do after the big lift for the day is done.

I’m a minimalist when it comes to exercise selection. I think most people will do the best by putting all their effort into one big lift, or maybe two lifts in any given workout.

Put most of your energy into your big lifts, and then follow up with 2-3 easier assistance movements. Or don’t do any assistance work at all. There’s no rule that says you have to, so if your main lift kicked your ass, or you just don’t feel like dealing with the clowns at your gym, skip it.

Assistance exercises aren’t going to do a whole lot for you if you really busted your ass on the main lifts, so keep it in its place.

Conditioning

Simple rule of thumb here: put high-intensity stuff on days you train the legs. Use low- and medium-intensity methods on other days. This keeps you from overworking yourself.

I don’t like excessive conditioning work, so keep it to 20-30 minutes. Maybe 40-60 if you’re doing something really easy. The most bang for your buck will be training a little harder and a little briefer, in my ever so humble opinion.

Just stay away from the stupid. If you want to do kettlebell circuits or barbell complexes, fine. If you want to do power cleans for singles every 30 seconds, that’s fine too. Just stay away from the spaz-out style of ‘metcons’.

You can also go outside and do hill sprints (per Jim Wendler), or push around something heavy like a prowler or a car, or you can flip a tire, or you can even sit your ass on the bike like I do.

Conditioning doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t have to wreck you.

Injury Prevention/Rehab Work

Just put this stuff in your warmups and cooldowns, and whenever you need it on your off days. Much like your workouts, your need for prehab and rehab exercises will depend on the routine you’re doing, what you’ve hurt before, and what hurts right now.

Don’t forget it, though. Your injuries won’t forget you.

Sets and Reps and Progression Schemes

I like to train my big lifts with sets of 1-6 reps. That’s always been the most productive strategy for me, and for a lot of other people. High-rep stuff is fine from time to time, but I prefer to leave it to back-off sets or just not at all, cause I hate high-rep stuff.

Linear Progression

This is best for novices and those coming back from a long layoff. This is easy enough to do. Just pick a reasonable set/rep combo, and add weight to it every time you do that exercise.

Three sets of five seems to be popular and effective, so I’d probably look to that as a starting point.

Weekly Variation

Changing the variables every week is a solid way to do things if you’re pretty strong. This is weekly undulating wave-like periodization, and I hate myself for actually typing that out.

Week 1 – 3×5
Week 2 – 3×3
Week 3 – 3-5×1

Each time you repeat the wave, you’d add a little weight to the lifts. The 5-3-1 has programmed percentages based on a conservative max. I think that’s a good idea. If you don’t care or want to play around with auto-regulation, you can use the numbers I put.

There’s no reason you have to stick with those rep ranges either.

Week 1 – Triples
Week 2 – Doubles
Week 3 – Singles

That would work just fine. Take a page from Mike T’s RTS and pick a comfortable weight for each rep range. Use fatigue stops to know when to quit. Simple.

Not to long ago I combined both approaches with numbers from Prilepin’s table to select starting weights. I think it went like this:

Week 1 – 5 reps, 75% starting weight
Week 2 – 3 reps, 80% starting weight
Week 3 – Singles, 85% starting weight

You warm up to the starting weight, using the number of reps for each week, work up if it’s too easy, and then go until a reasonable time limit or until you reach the fatigue stop. I think a 15-20 minute time limit is fine for most things.

I’m pretty sure I was aiming for an RPE of 8, leaving a couple of reps in the tank, and I’d stop when I hit a 9, or only one rep left. That ends up being a productive workout without killing you.

Linear Double Progression – The “Hepburn Method”

Doug Hepburn had some interesting progressions that had you increasing both the number of sets and number of reps at each workout. Once you hit the target, you’d bump the weights and start over. I think this is a good way to train, but it can beat you up if you do it too long. There’s lots of grinding and hard mental-focus going on here.

In the interests of longevity I want to look at some of the changes he made in his later years, compared to what you tend to find online.

One of his programs, the ‘A’ workout as I’ve seen it called, just used singles, starting with five and adding reps until you hit eight. I’ve heard it told that he later changed this to starting with four singles and then adding reps to hit 10. Either way is probably fine. I like singles. I’ve had good success using programs like that in the past, so it’s worth a go.

In most sources it says you follow the ‘power’ singles with the ‘pump’ 5 sets of 5, but I doubt I would. Apparently Doug changed his mind later on and realized that was too much work. I agree.

Another version had you moving from eight doubles (8×2) to eight triples (8×3) by adding a rep to each workout. This was the ‘B’ workout.

Workout 1 – 8×2
Workout 2 – 1×3, 7×2
Workout 3 – 2×3, 6×2
etc.

The modified latter-day version of the ‘B’ workout is supposed to be used once you go stale on the singles. You’d start with 4×3 (four triples) and work to 10×3 (ten triples).

He had another progression, the ‘C’ workout, that he would use for easier training phases after the A and B worked you over. This one started with five triples and ended with 5×5. You’d add reps to the first set until you hit 5, then start working on the second set, and so on until you hit 5×5 with the original weight.

Workout 1 – 5×3
Workout 2 – 1×4, 4×3
Workout 3 – 1×5, 4×3
Workout 4 – 1×5, 1×4, 3×3
etc.

A solid progression and one that Hepburn recommended along with his later modified workouts is to start with the ‘A’ singles workout, switch to the ‘B’ triples workout once you get burned out on singles, and then once you peak and get stale with ‘B’, switch to ‘C’ (the 5×5 or pump workout) to unload a little and recover.

That sounds a lot more appropriate here.

Auto-regulated Daily Max and Back-Offs

I touched on this just a minute ago with the RPE numbers, but there are more options if you really want to auto-regulate the whole system.

Instead of using percentages as a starting point, you can just go in an freestyle it. I’d still pick a rep range and a time limit, but otherwise just show up, warm up, and ramp up to a top set for the day. After you hit that top set, do your back-off sets.

Mike T talks about how to calculate fatigue percents and whatnot in his book. I don’t think it’s that complicated. The harder you want the workout, the bigger the fatigue drop-off. If you want a really easy session, stop once you hit the top set. If you want a hard workout, set a target of 10% off the weight of your top set and work down in 5 lb (2.5kg) increments with lower reps (1-3). If you want more volume, drop straight down to that back-off weight and do sets with higher reps (5-6).

This is the easiest system of all because you don’t have to calculate anything, but you have to be honest about what’s going on. If you can’t tell yourself the truth about how hard a set was, then you’re going to screw this up completely.

One thing I’ve found is that you should always lean towards conservative. If a set might have been an 8 or a 9, go with the 9. Being conservative will help you in the long run. Trying to push your numbers up just makes you stall out.

So to summarize:

  1. Pick a rep range. I like sets of 5-6 reps, triples, doubles, and singles.
  2. Warm up and then ramp up your weights (that is, make reasonable weight jumps from set to set).
  3. When you hit a comfortably heavy set, around a 9 RPE or only one good rep left in the tank, that’s your daily max for this session.
  4. Pick a back-off value depending on how hard you want the session to be. If you want an easy session, stop at the top set (daily max). If you want a hard session, drop back 10-15% from your daily max. If you want something in between, shoot for 3-7% off your daily max weight.
  5. Do back-off sets until you hit the fatigue stop (same as the daily max, shoot for an RPE of 9) or until the time limit.

A good compromise here is to not worry about working down the pyramid. Just drop to your back-off weight and do sets in the same rep range.

Say you’re doing triples for the day and you work up to 210×3 @9. You want a fairly hard workout so you’ve set your back off to 5%. That puts your back-off weight at 200, so you’d do sets of 200×3 until they hit an RPE of 9 or until you reach the time limit for the day.

Or if you do the same workout but feel like crap, you can cut the back-off sets entirely and just go home.

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