Anyone new to lifting can easily get overwhelmed with the wealth of knowledge online. There’s strength workouts, volume based workouts, HIIT, you name it. I’d like to help simplify it and focus on the core guidelines you should be following if you want to optimize your growth as a beginner lifter.
I just want to quickly go over the rationale behind frequency, exercise recommendations, sets and reps. It’s important especially as a beginner for you to understand this, because as you continue your fitness journey, it’ll only benefit you to learn the logic behind proper programming.
Frequency - 2-3x a week - A beginner lifter doesn’t need to be going to the gym 5 days a week. You are new to lifting. Thus, even the slightest stimulus will give you the biggest response. More intermediate and advanced lifters go more often, because they need more stimulation to get the same effect a beginner can achieve in 2-3 sessions (think of how someone with a high tolerance for alcohol needs more and more to get them drunk). This also gives you enough time to properly recover and be ready for the next workout.
Exercises - As a beginner (and any level really) you should always have staple exercises. These are compound movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press which involve using more muscles to accomplish the movement (think about how a biceps curl only stimulates biceps where as a bench press uses your chest, back, triceps and shoulders). By stimulating more muscles you are getting more bang for your buck.
Sets & Reps - A beginner lifter only needs 8-10 sets per muscle per week to get the effective dose. Doing more work doesn’t mean more gains. You need just enough to maximize the muscle building signal. Again, extra sets are only needed when that minimum dose no longer results in growth.
This is just a sample workout. There are many ways you can construct this, and if you want a full workout plan I suggest checking out the Mind Pump MAPS Anabolic program. It’s the perfect workout for beginners.
Frequency: 2-3x a week (keep 1-2 days of rest in between to recover)
Length: 4 week cycle with one week deload
Sets & Reps: 2-5 sets with 3-6 reps per exercise (rest up to 3 minutes between sets)
Day 1 -
Barbell Squats 4x5
Bench Press 4x5
Weight/Assisted Pull-ups 3x5
Barbell Curls 2x6-8
EZ Bar Skullcrushers 2x6-8
Day 2 -
Overhead Press 4x5
Seated Row 3x5
Dumbbell Shrugs 3x3-6
Dumbbell Hammer Curls 2x6-8
Day 3 (only if you aren’t sore and are recovering from Day 2)-
Romanian Deadlifts 4x5
Incline Bench 4x5
One Arm Dumbbell Row 3x5
Lateral Raises 3x6-8
Preacher Curls 2x6-8
Tricep Pushdowns 2x6-8
Ideally you want to be phasing your workouts. That is, you’d focus on a rep range of 6-8 (like above) for 4-6 weeks and then deload. Then the next 4-6 weeks maybe you’ll try similar exercises in the 10-12 rep range and deload again. Different rep ranges stimulate the muscles differently, allowing for a stimulus that causes growth in all forms. Also, make sure to be choosing a weight that allows you to hit whatever rep range you choose leaving 2-3 reps shy of technical failure.
Make sure you are deloading at the end of those 4-6 weeks. As you try to add more weight, or do more reps week to week, your body should start to accumulate more and more fatigue to where you hit a point that you can’t beat last week's performance. That’s when you know you need a deload. The deload week is when you do half as many sets, and half as many reps but with the same weight you used on your final week. It allows your body to catch up recovering to the accumulated volume you’ve placed on it for 4-6 weeks. This is very important if you want to grow.
If you follow the tips above I have no doubt you will see your strength and size go up. Keep in mind building muscle takes time. Any program you choose to follow you must follow for at least 6-12 weeks to let your body respond to the stimulus being placed. Just make sure as mentioned above you are changing the rep ranges every 4-6 weeks to allow for the muscle to respond to SLIGHTLY new stimulus. If you do change the exercises, make sure they are a similar movement to the ones listed (for example, switch out a back squat for a front squat, not a leg extension).