As a beginner, you have an almost infinite number of options when it comes to workout programs. While you could pay someone to design a custom one for you, most don’t need to go that route. You can get plenty out of any one of the free options that can be found online.
The challenge comes when trying to find the “right” one for you.
- Should you do a full body split or a “movement-based” program?
- Should it be high frequency?
- What kind of volume should you start with?
- Do you need to buy a special barbell?
Take a deep breath first because I have some fantastic news for you: Literally any program you pick and STICK TO will make you stronger right now.
You are about to put your body through a bunch of stuff it has probably never done before and, because of that, it will adapt. And it will keep adapting for quite some time before you actually need to start looking for something more tailored.
That being said, it’s never a bad idea to start with a real plan so let’s go through three options you can not only start with, but they have a proven track record, and you can stay on them for a long time.
WestSide for Skinny Bastards by Joe Difranco (WS4SB)
I want to say this was the second or third program I ever followed. Not only was it my favorite but it was an introduction to conjugate training that set up how I train now. WFSB uses a structure which rotates exercises and focuses on increasing strength, increasing work capacity, and increasing athleticism all at the same time.
Written by Joe Defranco who, if you don’t know him, I highly suggest diving down that rabbit hole on YouTube. He’s a legend in the strength and conditioning world and really pioneered the “warehouse” style facilities that are popular today. You can also check out the “Driven Beyond Strength” series on YouTube to see more.
It’s a 4 day program, 3 of which are lifting and 1 is conditioning or GPP work (general physical preparedness). The template lays out what the focus is for each day and provides options for what exercises to perform. It’s very simple to follow and easy to adjust. Joe does an amazing job explaining what he did and why he did it.
The two primary benefits to this program are that:
- It’s free and easy to find.
- You can adjust it every day based on what you have access to.
Originally published in 2004, there are now 3 different iterations. My experience is only with the first but I’m sure the subsequent versions are just as good if not better.
Download WestSide for Skinny Bastards Spreadsheets
Download the WS4SB templates below, please feel free to adjust the exercises as needed in the spreadsheets.
While some would call it “controversial” I will always put the Stronglifts 5×5 program on a list like this. While it has a very simple structure, don’t let that fool you. The entirety of the program is done with a barbell.
Just about every weightlifter on the planet has used a 5 x 5 set and rep scheme at some point in their training, and for good reason. It’s simple, effective, and will give your body plenty of work IF YOU DO THE EXERCISES CORRECTLY.
Sorry for shouting there.
Barbell exercises are fantastic for beginners if they understand that how you lift the weight is more important than how much weight you lift.
This statement applies at every level and, the closer you get to the top, the more important it becomes. Just watch any of Kai Greene’s training videos because he talks about it all the time.
Think of it this way: If you are doing barbell rows to get bigger lats, what muscle should you be feeling pull the weight up on every rep? Logically we think the lats but you will always see, someone picks up the weight and just starts rowing with their entire body. A little English is fine but you still need to put the focus where it belongs.
If you can start off by being humble and using a lighter weight, you can really learn to feel the muscles contracting. If you can feel a muscle working, you can make it stronger and you can make it grow. If you can’t feel it working, you will not get bigger and stronger in that area.
Stronglifts has an amazing support network behind it, much of which is free. There is an app you can download that will choose your numbers for you, spreadsheets on the website, and whole forums dedicated to it.
Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. As I said, start lighter than you think and really try to feel the muscles. If you can’t, ask someone to put their fingers on that muscle. If there is someone who looks like they know what they are doing, ask them for help with it. You would be amazed at how helpful they would be. They are dedicated to and love their sport and more than likely love talking about it.
Download Stronglifts 5×5 Spreadsheet
The first thing I always do when learning a new subject is to find the people who are incredible at it and internet stalk them.
- Have they written articles?
- Do they have a podcast?
- Have they been interviewed?
- Are they within driving distance?
- Can I find them on Facebook and send them a message?
I’ve talked to a lot of incredible lifters and coaches just by friending them on Facebook or Instagram and sending them a message. You won’t know until you try.
Wendler is a monster. When he competed in the 275-pound class, his best numbers were a 1,000 pound squat, a 675-pound bench press, and a 700-pound deadlift. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to him speak at a conference and he is just a down to earth, truly nice guy. He’s definitely ruff around the edges and speaks his mind, but he has a no-nonsense way of explaining things that can simplify concepts.
He developed 5/3/1 to be simple and effective. It works off of 3 or 4 days a week and the workouts are all based off a primary core lift of the squat, the bench, the deadlift, and the overhead press. It is all based off percentages of your 1RM and there are apps and spreadsheets you can download (I believe for free) that you can plug your numbers into and populate an entire training cycle.
In recent years, Wendler has added different options to the program for the assistance work to cater specifically to certain goals. You can probably piece together the program just from articles he has written but I would suggest getting his book that lays it all out for $22.
Download Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Spreadsheet
Inevitably you may be thinking, “But which one is the best?” And I’ll let you in a secret that a lot of us in the strength community are striving to make common knowledge: There is no “best.”
Every program you see will give you progress to an extent. The ones listed above are proven, with 1,000s of people, to get you stronger.
The crux you have to get right to make progress though is to actually do the program and put in the effort. I always suggest, and practice myself, that you follow a program, as written for at least 4 weeks before changing anything. Even if you feel like it’s not enough, this will get in the groove, allow you to focus on getting your technique right because we all need technique work. You will make progress if you put in the work and eat.