To kick off the new cycle of Beginner Workouts here on Breaking Muscle, I want to talk about the plan, the goal, and the principles that the program is designed around so that achieving your goals is not only realistic, but guaranteed.
But first, we need to figure out what exactly it means to me to be a beginner in the realm of strength and conditioning in order to understand how I'm approaching this program.
Who Is a Beginner?
To me, a beginner is a clean slate. You could be a person who was once active, fell off the wagon, and is looking for a safe, effective way of regaining your fitness. A beginner is also someone who may not know his or her way around the gym and couldn't tell a dumbbell from a barbell or a kettlebell from a cowbell. And lastly, a beginner is a person who doesn't have a solid foundation of quality movement and overall strength on which to base all future training.
And all of these things are okay! And even if the aforementioned definition doesn't describe you, that doesn't mean there won't be takeaways for you in this program, as there is always room to improve upon existing skills and strengths.
- Create a three time per week routine that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely (if you are familiar with SMART goals, you will enjoy this training protocol).
- Allow the workouts to be scalable based on starting points and overall fitness levels.
- Keep the workouts accessible with minimal equipment requirements.
- Keep each workout as simple as possible by focusing on three essential skills based on fundamental movements.
- Build a foundation of mobility, stability, strength, and endurance through quality movement that is systematic in its approach and progressions.
Specific: In twelve weeks, the goal is to be able to perform the movements listed below to the minimum standard. If you are safely able to perform more, be smart about moving up. Don't perform a rep unless you are 100% certain you can complete it.
Measurable (Minimum Standards):
- 5-10 goblet squats with a 12kg/25lb weight if you are a female, and a 16kg/35lb weight if you are a male.
- 100 kettlebell swings in 10 minutes (again, 12kg for females, 16kg for males)
- A Turkish get up with either arm (12kg for females, 16kg for males)
- Go from practicing bodyweight squats to performing weighted full-depth goblet squats within twelve weeks.
- Improve your kettlebell swing technique, strength, and endurance to being able to perform 100 in 10 minutes.
- Learn the foundation of Turkish get up technique and work up slowly to the minimum standard weights by the end of the twelfth week.
Relevant: The skills learned will become the foundation of further training programs. Consider these three exercises as the basis of all training you do from here on, as they will promote balance, mobility, stability, and strength.
Timely: You will be performing at the minimum standard within twelve weeks.
By developing a solid base of these three skills, you are setting yourself up for long-term health and success in your strength training endeavors. These will groove hip and back mobility, strength, and power, as well as shoulder mobility, stability, and strength.
Before we get started on skill building, be honest with yourself. Do you have joint or muscle pain at rest? Do you have shoulder pain with overhead reaching? Do you have pain with deep knee or hip bending? Do you have a history of low back pain or dysfunction?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, do yourself a favor and find yourself a Selective Functional Movement Assessment certified clinician who can take a look at your issues. I promise that undertaking a new exercise program with knowledge of existing pain never ends well. Check the ego at the door, suck it up, and go get help from a professional.
If you didn't answer yes to any of the above, yet are serious about staying injury free, seek out a Functional Movement Screen specialist who can screen and evaluate your needs as an individual. Keep in mind, no matter how good my programming may be, a generalized program may not work for you, and it's you that matters the most.
Finally, if you have been inactive for a long time and/or are over 65 years of age, consult your physician on whether any exercise program is right for you at this time. (The lawyers make me say this! But it's true.)
Minimum Equipment Needs
- An injury-free body (training with an existing injury and hoping it will get better with exercise is usually a shortcut to further pain. Don't do it).
- A brain that is able to listen to what its body is telling it (and stop before a problem occurs).
- A foam roller of your choice.
- A pair of quality training shoes, or no shoes at all. Chuck Taylors, Adidas Sambas, Vibram Five Fingers, even a basic pair of Van's casual shoes would work, as long as they have flat soles. Under no circumstances are running shoes allowed if you care about your lower back health.
- A kettlebell or kettlebells. For women an 8kg and 12kg should work just fine. For men, a 12kg and 16, possibly a 20kg depending should do the trick. Although this may not apply to everyone, so adjust accordingly.
- A lightweight dowel or towel rod.
- A space of about 8'x8' to conduct your training sessions.
A hinge is a fold at the hips. Imagine chopping your hands in to your hip flexors, like Pavel Tsatsouline always says. Chop into those hip creases to get your rear end moving backwards. Continue pushing it backwards as far as it will go, until you feel a stretch in the backs of your thighs. Let your knees bend as the stretching increases, but don't sit down. At the end of your hinge, your shinbones should be completely vertical, you should feel lots of stretching in those hamstrings, and you should be tall in your spine.
A squat is a bend at the hips and knees, where the goal is to get an equal amount of bend in each. Imagine stumbling in to the bathroom late at night, fumbling for the light switch as you sit down on the pot. If you don't reach your bum back far enough as you sit down, and you just let your knees push forward over your toes, chances are you'll land with a resounding plop or miss the seat entirely! Squat by reaching your butt back behind you as far as it goes and sitting down as you do so. Your hips, knees, and feet should remain in alignment with each other, meaning that your knees should not be caving in.
The Get Up
Explained as simply as possible, the get up is a way of starting in a lying position, getting up to standing, and then returning to the start position, all while maintaining a weight up and overhead. It is a complex movement that will be grooved slowly and systematically in order to ensure safety when going overhead with weight.
The Correctives aka The "Catch-Alls"
Chances are if you're starting a new program with the intent to gain some new movement skills, strength, and endurance, you'll need a few drills to help you perform above movements better. My go-to movements are the following:
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch with Pry
If done correctly, this drill will loosen up the hip flexors (of which there are many) and quadriceps muscles, which in most people are tighter and weaker than they should be. Set up in a half-kneeling position with one knee down and one knee up. When you are kneeling, tuck your butt underneath you as much as possible (imagine you're tilting your belly button up towards your nose). Use a dowel, towel rod, or some kind of stick you can use to pry into the ground as you stretch. One important point to remember is to keep your weight on the big toe of the back foot (i.e. keep it dorsiflexed) – a relaxed (plantarflexed) foot will shut off much of the stretch.
This drill is to promote good posture and better squat depth by loosening the hip joints and surrounding tissues. There are many ways to do rocking, and they are all good. Start on all fours, your hips over your knees, and your shoulders over your hands. If you mess up the start position this drill will be worthless, so make sure to nail it every time. Stay long in your spine, get your crown of your head up as high as it will go, and rock your butt back towards your heels while maintaining this posture. If you do it correctly, you should be able to balance a water bottle or tennis ball on the small of your back without dropping it as you rock your butt back toward your heels. If you drop it a lot, you're probably rounding your back. Don't. Play with toes up, toes down, wide knees, narrower knees, etc., but keep the posture the same always.
This is an excellent drill to open up the thoracic spine as well as solidify the quality of your hip hinge. Stand hip width apart with your dowel resting on your shoulders, with your hands just above your elbows. Place the heel of one foot in line with the toes of the other, while maintaining your hip width stance. Hinge at the hips as far as you can. When you can no longer hinge deeper, rotate your nearest elbow towards the front knee, with the goal being to pry the elbow inside the knee to get the upper back to open up. Make sure not to shift the hips from side to side as you turn. A good tip is to grip the dowel with fists and actively squeeze your shoulder blades back and down. This will open up the t-spine even more without the chance of you shrugging your shoulders as you twist.
Scapular Wall Slide
The scapular wall slide is another excellent shoulder mobility drill, as it will open up the thoracic spine and activate the muscles in the upper and mid back to help improve posture, and allow you to get overhead more safely. Set up in a standing position with your butt, back, and head all touching the wall. Your feet are okay to be out in front of you as much as necessary. Make fists and rest your knuckles on the wall with your fists directly above your elbows. Actively pull down as deeply as possible while maintaining elbow and knuckle contact with the wall, then return by sliding them back up the wall as high as you can go while maintaining contact.
That's it! Four drills will be all that is necessary to cover our bases for this program, as long as you adhere to them exactly as they are designed.