My purpose in coming up with this workout was to make the simplest freeweight workout that would still give beginners good gains in strength and muscular development. If you’ve read the Beginner’s Fitness Guide, you’ve already seen the same basic workout. But that was a pretty bare-bones description, so I’m going to provide a fuller explanation of the workout here.
There are only 6 different exercises in this workout, and you will only do 3 of them in any one workout. This may sound like an absurdly small number, but these are exercises that give you tremendous “bang for the buck.” All are compound (multi-joint) movements that involve multiple muscle groups at once. You will be putting all of your effort into the most productive exercises, and dispensing with everything else.
Don’t confuse “simple” with “easy.” This workout is exactly as hard as you make it. With only a few exercises you can give all of them your maximum effort, and if you do, you will see results. More advanced lifters can benefit from more volume and more variety, but you aren’t them (yet), so don’t try to train like them.
II. The workout plan
In this program you will do two different workouts, workout A and workout B. You will work out 3 days a week, alternating between A and B for each workout. For example:
Week 1: A/B/A
Week 2: B/A/B
You will want at least 1 day off between workouts. For example, you could work out Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday or some other combination like that. How you do it isn’t particularly important as long as you get 3 workouts every 7 days and don’t work out on consecutive days. Do not try to work out more than 3 times a week to get faster results; it won’t work.
“5x5” means you do 5 sets of 5 repetitions each, with each successive set heavier than the last. For instance, for the barbell bench press you might start with 5 reps at 45 pounds for your first set, and then do 5 reps at 55 pounds, 65 pounds, 75 pounds and 85 pounds. This 5x5 progression is a good compromise between weight and volume, and because it gradually increases the load you will be adequately warmed up for the most difficult lifts, and less likely to find yourself trying to lift a weight totally beyond your ability to handle safely.
“2x @ max” reps means you do two sets of as many repetitions as you can. This is only done for exercises that just use your body weight, not barbells or dumbbells.
You will want to precede your workouts with a few minutes of light cardio. You shouldn’t do strenuous cardio exercise before lifting weights, because this will make you too weak to work out at maximum effort. For best results, do your heavy cardio on your non-lifting days.
1) 5x5 Barbell deadlift
This exercise all but requires a barbell, because you generally can’t get dumbbells heavy enough to give even a beginner a good workout. I know of no useful machine substitute for this exercise.
2) 5x5 Barbell or dumbbell bent-over row http://exrx.net/WeightExercises/BackGeneral/BBBentOverRow.html
Beginners may find the dumbbell version of this exercise easier to perform properly than the barbell version. It also places less strain on the lower back. A seated row machine is a passable substitute, but nowhere near as good as the real thing.
3) 5x5 Barbell military press or dumbbell shoulder press
Either the dumbbell or barbell version is acceptable. A machine overhead press is a mediocre substitute, at best.
1) 5x5 Barbell squat
Like the deadlift, this exercise all but requires a barbell, for the same reasons. There is no useful machine substitute for this exercise; leg presses are massively inferior in almost every respect, and the Smith machine squat is mediocre at best.
2) 5x5 Barbell or dumbbell bench press –
Either the barbell or dumbbell version is valid. Machine chest presses are a poor substitute for the real thing here. The Smith machine bench press is a marginal improvement, but still mediocre compared to a proper freeweight exercise.
3) 2x max reps pull-up/chin-up
An assisted pull-up machine is acceptable if you can’t do a full pull-up yet. Machine lat pulldowns are better than nothing if that is unavailable. You can also try doing one set with an overhand grip and one set with an underhand grip.
III. Implementing the plan
The key to making this plan work is consistency and intensity, because there is no slack built into this workout; that all got cut out to make it simple and easy to follow. This isn’t a situation where I’m saying you should work out 3 times a week, and I really mean 2 or 1. I’m saying 3 because I mean you need to do it 3 times a week or your results will be poor. Likewise with the exercises; you can’t really skip an exercise you don’t feel like doing and not expect it to seriously hurt your workout when it’s 1/3 of the workout!
Like I said, this is simple, not easy. If you are lifting as hard as you can, this workout will not be a 10 minute walk in the park. If it is, you are not putting any effort into your lifts.
Don’t swap exercises between workouts or re-order them within a workout; they are organized the way they are for specific reasons. Don’t think you need to add exercises, because as a beginner you really don’t. People think their arms don’t get enough work, but 2/3 of the exercises in this workout involve their arms.
Use barbells or dumbbells, not machines, unless you literally have no other option. This isn’t some kind of macho posturing on my part; it is an objective fact that machines will give you much inferior results for a given amount of time and effort. Every reputable strength coach on Earth agrees on this point. If you are determined to use machines, you are cheating yourself, badly.
When starting out, be conservative with your starting weights, do the exercises slowly and concentrate on doing the exercises correctly. Then gradually increase the amount of weight you are lifting from week to week for each exercise. Keep doing this for as long as you are still able to do 5 sets of 5 while keeping the weight under control with good form. Don’t cheat on form so you can add 5 pounds to the bar; it won’t do you any good, and you’re more likely to hurt yourself. If you can’t increase the weight and still do 5 proper repetitions, try to increase the number of repetitions in your last set until you can do 10, then try increasing the weight a small amount again. The goal is small amounts of improvement all the time, and it doesn’t really matter what weights you start with as long as you keep adding weight or reps from workout to workout.
Beginners following this workout can expect to see very rapid initial gains. Then their gains will slow down, but they can still make steady progress. Eventually, their progress will tend to stagnate after several months. This stagnation is actually a natural side-effect of this workout’s simplicity; over time your body will actually develop a tolerance to doing the same exercises in the same way over and over again, reducing your ability to gain strength that way. This is why more advanced workouts are more complex: they have planned variations in the rep ranges, frequency of training, etc. to defeat this phenomenon.
You can add some simple variations to mix things up and extend the useful life of this program. For instance, you can change your rep ranges from 5x5 to 3x8, or switch between barbells and dumbbells. Eventually, you will want to move on from this workout and adopt a more advanced workout plan. This is true of any beginner weight program.