Leg Day Observer

What new weightlifters need to know about strength training programs

With much of training built on improving and peaking, some lifters can get left out in the cold.

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Strength training, at its highest levels, is psychedelic or at least reality-altering: endless repetitions creating endless depth of experience in the main lifts, with assistance exercises going out like fractals. They’re all related, simple, and secondary, but vary so widely that ultimately everyone does the same thing: they squat, mostly, and do exercises that help the squat.

But with much of training built on improving and peaking, lifters who may not have the form down can get left out in the cold.

Lifts are simple, but not at first. Even a unity exercise like the squat — up and down, barbell on your back, a lift that just about every strength athlete does regularly — can be expressed in infinitely different ways. It’s a tyranny of small differences, creating a scene infiltrated by different lifters and characterized by their variety. There are “equipped” lifters grinding out reps in compression suits, to bent-over Mark Rippetoe enthusiasts to springy Olympic weightlifters busting out a no-no-no — no belt, no wraps, no spotters — as fast and upright as possible.

But while some approaches to form and programming work better than others, athletes’ competition lifts — mostly powerlifting or weightlifting— cluster, roughly, in a pattern. At a meet, one competitor might look like a gymnast and another a roofer, but both will generally lift roughly the same weight. With so many ways to skin a cat, it’s still just that.

The numbers for non-competitive lifters are more spread out. Workaday gym-goers — people who can’t or don’t put the gym first, or who don’t compete for a living — that lift with a purpose have a wide range of limits, some in the range of respectable strength, or close to it, and some on the way there. It’s up for debate what strength really is — a full definition is beyond the scope of this column — but this chart, with squat numbers for lifters at different expertise levels, shows the gulf between beginners and elite lifters in a clear way.

Most beginner lifters work off of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding."Keystone/Getty Images

To non-lifters, the numbers may jump out: In what universe is a 205-lb. squat something a beginner can do? But it’s possible in the universe of programming literature. That literature that contains intro sections to strength routines, either for beginner or intermediate lifters, and foundational texts like Arnold’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding which most beginner lifters work off, include the premise that it’s easy — if not unavoidable — to hit certain goals. The assumption, sometimes, of fine programs like Starting Strength, or decent ones like 5x5, is that reaching 205 is less an end-game than a signpost you pass with enough reps at the gym, rest, and quality food.

Meet "progressive overload" — The inevitable progress these books take as a given comes via small amounts of weight that get added to the bar each week and which makes subsequent workouts harder. This is defined as progressive overload, and it’s the magic key to understanding for lifters: lift a bit more, in one way or another, and your muscles will grow. But going from nothing to a double-bodyweight squat is not always inevitable for everybody. It’s not always possible to hit every rung on the staircase.

Nearly every strength training program, at a base level, works off that shared set of assumptions: that the lifters following them are healthy enough to make the lifts and athletic enough to get through the workouts. Readers are not assumed to be strong, but at least healthy: balanced enough, and without lags in a muscle group, with no serious injury, and respectable, or at least capable, core strength. The assumption is a beginner is in a position to build strength. Their body works, and they’re healthy enough to add a few pounds on the bar a week, every week, for a while.

But it’s an elite groundwork and assumption: high school students — so much of strength training is based on high school football, and still is — or folks who used to compete in other sports might be spry enough at the start, but the largely desk-bound, unathletic class of people who are more and more interested in getting under a bar could face barriers. The dormant hamstring and glute muscles that decay over a life of desk work and the symptoms they cause, like a tight back after a night on your feet, can’t handle a squat. It all seems less like a reason to get under the bar than to prepare for it. And while those disadvantages and weak points are nothing to be ashamed of — most of us have them! — following an overloaded program spells an uncertain path. There’s no promise you’ll hit that intermediate squat number.

The limits in lifting — One issue is strength programs are designed to help lifters move past a 300-lb. squat to 400, and the ones that set up the 300 are both based on progressive overload. The exercises and programming can be mostly the same. But the lifters who do them are not. Lifting weight, like in a squat, is as much an expression of strength as it is a skill: an ability to sync up a dozen concurrent movements quickly enough to push against gravity, and then do it again. Like writing, or Italian food, the simpler it looks, the more complicated it is. It takes time to learn how to squat perfectly.

And while elite and intermediate programs rightly take this skill-set as a given — any lifter who can double bodyweight squat presumably knows how to do it — and channel it into an expression of strength by progressive overload, that recipe doesn’t work for everyone. Many beginner lifters — whether muffled by injury, lack of proper coaching, or simple gaps in spatial awareness — may not even be able to sit in the squat’s lowest point, unrack the bar safely, or have the cardiovascular resilience to lift an empty bar two dozen times.

It’s a problem that highlights the limits in lifting. Once on the bar, weight moves slowly, and elite and intermediate programs, from lively ones like Jacked and Tan to the humorless Smolov, recognize this and focus, through volume and assistance exercise, on jumps and shoring up weaker groups to avoid lags and hiccups on a lift. (Those two programs are wildly different, but both offer higher strength expressions at the end; additionally, not every trainer thinks progressive overload is helpful for intermediate lifters.)

Intermediate and advanced programs are also often defined by peaking: pushing that weekly 2.5 or 5-lb. increment over several months to a one-day absolute upper limit of what a lifter can squat. Peaks, historically, are for competition — the Olympics, or a casual gym meet — and work well for elite lifters, who train against talented peers predisposed for the sport, and for intermediate lifters who need an extra push in their routines. The slow march of progressive overload is sometimes the only road to strength. But only when the skill has been mastered. Beginner lifters, who may be unathletic, stand to not get much out of a peaking program if they haven’t mastered barbell form.

Weightlifting forums are filled with folks suggesting interminably long empty-bar programs — low-weight warm-up routines stretched to permanent, a Zen mastery of form that’s not really lifting. It’s not the way. If people want to lift they should. But there’s some truth here. Beginners, whose bodies might be decimated by office jobs, might not be ready for serious weight. With their posterior chains shredded from sitting, some may be better off building up their base level of athletic capability: perfecting their balance, spatial awareness, and cardiovascular wherewithal. It’s not fun, but it builds the foundation for a lifetime of squatting and the inevitable stalls and hiccups that come with it.

Achieving this baseline is less about avoiding heavyweight than being ready for it; the point is not to get an empty bar form down perfectly, but running a mile and not collapsing or holding the perfect posture. It’s not fun at first. Who wants to be in shape to go to the gym? A program that’s all sitting in the hole, weightless lunges, toe touches, and wind-sprints is not sexy. Aren’t compound exercises, like the barbell squat, supposed to be healthy? Why all the trepidation?

It’s a fraught answer. Compound exercises work just about everything, and it’s beginners aren’t just likely to gain strength and balance through those lifts, but expected to.

The worry, though, is the subtle injuries and glut of imbalances built up from a lifetime of desk work need to be addressed by themselves. It’s not that you shouldn’t add weight to the bar, or that you have to be an athlete to lift. But in a way, they’re designed for high school athletes. If there’s weight on the bar, you should at least be as loose as one. You can't start to peak from nothing.

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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