I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to think about what I would do as a novice if I had the chance to do it over. What follows is the official forceXdist Novice Program (TM). It’s superior to Starting Strength, StrongLifts, Ice Cream Fitness 5×5, etc. /sarcasm lol no. As I said, just a thought experiment.
The main difference this time around would be that I know that I’d want to eventually compete in Powerlifting. This changes a lot. A lot of novice programs are very general. But this makes sense. Most people use them to just put on muscle and general strength. Most individuals don’t start a novice program with the intent to transition into Powerlifting. For this experiment we will plan with that thought in mind. This is also probably what I would do were I to train someone from the ground up.
A lot of novice programs have the trainee squatting 3 times a week. Why? Most explanations include hand-wavy justifications about growth hormones or some such. I think a twice a week frequency is perfectly fine for beginners. This will be an adequate frequency to get practice with the lift and to allow for some room to “grow” into a higher frequency.
I personally wish I had started out at two times a week or at least the same frequency as the deadlift. By beginning with a 3 times frequency (and thereby a higher volume) with the squat any reduction in frequency means a decrease in volume and most likely a drop in strength. I think it’s better to leave room to grow into the volume.
The Bench Press
Most novice programs rotate the Bench Press and the Press frequency every week. We can just Bench 3 times a week. This will ensure we’re getting a lot more practice than we would if we were rotating. We don’t need to worry about Pressing or any other sort of assistance work yet as the Bench will be plenty of stimulus for now.
Another important change I’d make would be to start out pausing all Bench work. Most trainees start out doing touch and go bench and then have to retroactively learn the pause for competition. I think it’d be a good idea to start pausing from the get-go and then add in variations from there.
There’s a pretty significant decision when it comes to the deadlift. Should the trainee focus on the conventional or sumo deadlift? I think a good way to figure this out is just to try both and see which one responds the best. Once there arises a clear winner we can drop the other variation and focus on the stronger one which will become the competition form.
Since we’re going to be utilizing both forms of the deadlift there will be a second movement pattern to learn. In the best case scenario the trainee following this program would have a good coach to oversee their use of the two movements and attempt to decide which their body type is suited for. We’ll start with a twice a week frequency and rotate both of the movement styles.
Conventional Deadlift (rotate with Sumo)
Sumo Deadlift (rotate with Conventional)
So this is what the template looks like. The exercise selection is vanilla on purpose. The trainee is learning the movement pattern. Friday, they’ll practice all three movements which will improve their conditioning. Monday and Wednesday only have two movements which also makes the program a bit more schedule friendly. This will probably help with compliance and motivation.
Rep and Set Scheme
What rep/set scheme should we use? 5×5, 3×5? 8×3? All of them! I think Greg Nuckols is right on the money with this article where he suggests that a beginner program incorporates periodization. I think the traditional drop X pounds and work back up is unnecessary and often doesn’t work. You’ve built up a lot of fatigue, dissipate some and continue to get stronger!
I think trying to utilize RPE in a novice program is not going to work very well. If you’re a coach observing a novice in real time, you can use the concept of RPE, along with the trainee’s bar speed to get a feel for how close the trainee is to failure. But it’s unlikely that the trainee will be able to utilize it functionally.
One thing the trainee can do is practice calling the RPE post set. They should include the RPE along with the rest of their workloads in their trainee log. Their coach can help by comparing their bar speed correlated RPE with the trainee’s subjective RPE and inform them how accurate they may or may not have been.
It’s always fun to say “what if”. This is my attempt at going back and imagining what I’d do with the knowledge I possess now.