A Crash Course in Strength Training

Building and keeping physical strength has been shown to be probably the single most important things you do for your longevity and overall health.

But building strength has historically been something of a black art, and worse yet if you do some searching online for help, you’re just as likely to find a bunch of hyper-complicated stuff that a beginner doesn’t need to worry about or you’ll find stupid shit saying that if you study martial arts, the only thing you need to do is to do more reps of forms/basics and you’ll get stronger (which isn’t a lie, but more on that later).

What is Strength?

We’re specifically talking about physical strength here.

Physical strength is the ability to produce force against a load – that’s it.

Can you move the load or not?

This is how resistance training in particular, causes adaptation within the body that ultimately increases strength, and thus the ability to move heavier and heavier loads.

Resistance Training Basics

In simplest terms, a strength training program does one thing: increases the amount of weight you move over time.

There are two ways to increase this amount of weight:

  • Higher weight – i.e. more intensity
  • Higher reps – i.e. more volume

Both will build physical strength but in different ways. Higher weights increase peak output, higher reps increase the ability to continually perform a motion (endurance).

Your overall goals (and constraints like time and money) will dictate what your program looks like.

Ways of Training

The simplest and most readily available form of strength training is with bodyweight exercises. Back and when I started wanting to get fit again (I had been letting myself go and started getting fat) I didn’t have a lot of money, but I came across what’s now called: DareBee.

I found the Super Saiyan workout (I was going through a DBZ phase and it seemed like fun). I got all the way to being able to do the 10 sets with 2 minutes of rest. But I didn’t really see much difference in my overall appearance. Yeah, I felt a ton better but I wanted more – so I tried some more bodyweight stuff, again it helped. But, ultimately I found barbells and dumbells are far more effective tools.

I came across The Art of Manliness’s video series with a guy named Mark Rippetoe and started learning how to do “The Big Four” lifts:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press

I also bought Rippetoe’s book: Starting Strength which I can’t recommend enough for novice/beginning lifters.

Now here I am almost 10 years later, and I can bench over 300lbs for multiple sets of 5 reps, Squat 330lbs (I’ve had some mobility issues I’ve been working on), I can 1 rep a deadlift at 405lbs, and I can overhead press 175 for 5 reps. I’ve even been doing unassisted pull ups (which at 300lbs of body weight, I think is a pretty decent feat).

Yeah, not super impressive, but considering I was 165 and 6’2″ when I graduated high school and couldn’t bench 120 and now I’m 40 years old and am in the best shape of my life – I’ll take it.

Getting Started

A few things to note before you get started with any program:

  • Rest is important – your body builds strength while you’re resting!
  • You can’t outrun your fork – proper nutrition is a must for both building muscle and losing fat
  • There are genetic limitations to what your body can and can’t do

Picking a Program

First of all you need to look at what your constraints are – if you can’t afford a gym membership (or don’t already have a squat rack, bench, and weights) you’re somewhat limited – but you can still get results!

For any program, simplicity is best until the need for more complexity presents itself (don’t worry it’ll be a while if you’re just starting out).

Pick a program that will target all of the major muscles in your body (legs, arms, and back).

Setting a Schedule

There are a few pitfalls when starting out, but the easiest one to fall into is: “Too Much, Too Fast.” It’s really easy to do a lot on your first workout and then become sore the next day and really sore the day after that, then not train on your next scheduled day. So it’s important to work into a routine – some soreness is to be expected, but with a 48 hour window between sessions you should be pretty good to go.

Rest between sessions is important, but that doesn’t mean sit on your ass – go for a walk – even it’s just 5 or 10 minutes.

Try to set your sessions for the same time each training day, it will help you get into a rhythm. As well, try to keep your training sessions consistent in terms of length – 60 minutes is great to shoot for when you’re starting.

An example weight schedule might look like:

  • Week 1:
    • Monday – Weight Training A
    • Wednesday – Weight Training B
    • Friday – Weight Training A
  • Week 2:
    • Monday – Weight Training B
    • Wednesday – Weight Training A
    • Friday – Weight Training B
  • Then take 10 minute walks on your off days


Like I said, you actually get stronger during recovery, you’re actually weaker after you finish a good workout.

In order to maximize recovery, you need plenty of good quality sleep – shoot for 8-9 hours the day you do your workout.

As well, make sure you’re resting long enough between sets – particularly with weights.


Along with recovery, you need raw materials for your body to build from.

There are three basic Macro Nutrient types (you need all of them):

  • Carbs – provide ready energy
  • Protein – provides raw materials for muscle building
  • Fat – provides long term energy and stuff for hormones

Water is also a key for helping your body work properly! Try to drink a gallon (128oz) or more a day of filtered, plain water – you’ll feel awesome!

Supplements can help, but it’s very easy to go nuts and they get expensive fast! Take a multivitamin and call it a day while you’re just starting out or if you don’t have any needs you’re aware of.

Overall, just eat as clean as you can, single-ingredient foods are a great rule of thumb.

Basic Meal Design

It amazes how many people don’t understand how to construct a basic meal. You need three basic things:

  • A starch – corn, rice, bread, pasta
  • A protein – meat, soy
  • A vegetable – carrots, cucumbers, peas

For serving sizes, I shoot for something like: protein is about 10oz, then my plate is divided between starch and vegetable.

Gallon of Whole Milk a Day

If you’re underweight or need a source of cheap calories, try whole milk (3% milk fat). If you drink a gallon throughout the day – you’ll easily add 2400 calories to your intake. It’ll give you carbs, protein, and fat.

Actually Working Out

Okay, holy crap, enough already – get to the actual work out. I can hear you saying, I will. But, you need to build a lifestyle around building strength and fitness, thus all of the previous bases were covered.

Workout Journal

It’s important that you track your progress, both from an accomplishment standpoint as well as a mental load perspective. Having a written record simplifies programming and you can also establish trends over time.

For entries, I simply recommend:

  • A date
  • A column for lift/exercise name
  • Five or six columns to write in weight x reps completed
    • i.e.: 225×5

This setup has allowed me to keep a single composition notebook going for years at three workouts a week.


If you’re using bodyweight exercises, I would say just pick something from DareBee and do just do as many sets as you can, then when you’re exhausted call it a day. Then come back on the next workout day (if your first was Monday, wait until Wednesday, and do Friday) and do it again – you’ll probably be surprised how quickly you get to being able to do 10 sets.


Okay, a really basic but effective workout is as follows (again see the previously linked stuff from Rippetoe on how to do the lifts):

  • A Day
    • Squats – 3 sets of 5 reps at working weight
    • Bench Press – 3 sets of 5 reps at working weight
    • Deadlift – 1 set of 5 reps at working weight
  • B Day
    • Squats – 3 sets of 5 reps at working weight
    • Overhead Press – 3 sets of 5 reps at working weight
    • Deadlift – 1 set of 5 reps at working weight

Warm Ups and Working Weight

Warm up sets are incredibly important, you need to prime your nervous system before putting it under real load. Working through two or three progressively heavier sets will get your blood pumping and get you set into the muscle engagement pattern to do the work required when going for a new Person Record (PR).

Working weight is highest weight you’re currently lifting. Getting three sets at working weight is generally enough to cause an adaptation within the body (i.e. muscle growth) so long as the weigh/volume of weight has increased from the last session.

Figuring Out a Starting Weight

To figure out where you should start with a particular lift, just start with a low amount and do a set of five. Then jump 20lbs and do another set of five. Continue adding weight until you get to a weight where you start feeling like you can’t do more than five. Then wait a couple minutes and do two more sets at that weight. Then move on to the next exercise – when you’re starting out you’ll probably get through two lifts and that’s probably enough for developing program.

Some good weights to try initially:

  • Squat:
    • Ladies: 95lbs
    • Dudes: 135lbs
  • Bench:
    • Ladies: 45lbs (just a standard bar)
    • Dudes: 135lbs
  • Overhead:
    • Ladies: 45lbs
    • Dudes: 95lbs
  • Deadlift:
    • Lades: 135lbs
    • Dudes: 185lbs

Adding Weight

Discomfort is the key to triggering growth (both physically and mentally), if you want to get stronger, you have to push yourself more and more.

The basic rule for upping weights is to add 5lbs per lift per session as long as you can keep getting all the reps in your work sets.

Once you start missing reps verify that you’re resting long enough between sets – at least two full minutes. Even then you might want to try three minutes and see if things improve. As well make sure you’re getting enough sleep and enough protein – a basic rule of thumb is 1 gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight. As well have someone critique your form, this really should be number one on the list but it can be the hardest to accomplish.

If you’re still missing reps after that, then there are few things I’ve had some success with:

  • Back off 20-30lbs and take another run at adding 5lbs per session
  • Switch the order of your lifts, do the trouble spot first
  • Take a de-load week

If you’ve tried all of those and are still having trouble, it’s more than likely time to add some assistance exercises such as:

  • Dips
  • Pullups
  • Rows

De-Load Weeks

You can’t run flat out all the time – you’ve got take some extra time and rest more thoroughly. This could be you stop lifting altogether like if you’re going on vacation, but ideally you still want to be active. Do work sets at 70% of max or get straight cardio in. Your body will have more time to continue building its adaptation and you’ll come back stronger.


Weight/Resistance training is crucial for long term health and is really the only way to increase your physical strength (provided you’re not sorely de-trained, in which case any physical activity will result in an increase in strength!).

Strength and fitness are lifestyle choices and must be planned and worked around. But you should keep things simple and focus on keeping your training time as effective as possible. Focus on big compound movements.

Rest and recovery are where the body builds muscle, nutrition is what provides the raw material to build the muscle.

Consistency is key, workout three days a week to start for an hour at a time. You’ll feel better and be surprised at how fast your body improves.

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