If you’ve found your way here then chances most likely you’re an athlete looking to add strength and conditioning into your training, or you’re a coach looking for some guidance on writing S&C programmes for beginners. Either way I’ve got you covered. I’ll be drawing on my 10+ years of S&C coaching experience, as well as current research, to give you everything you need to write effective beginner S&C programmes. Here’s what we’ll be covering…

The Problem – Why a lot of the S&C Information Online Isn’t Appropriate

Real talk, if you look for strength and conditioning information online its a bit of a circus. Everyone is competing for your attention, so people end up coming up with more and more elaborate looking things to make themselves stand out.

Which makes it incredibly difficult to know what you should actually be doing in order to improve? Because you don’t want to waste your time and energy spinning your wheels doing things that don’t produce results.

I’m gonna do my best to provide you with the solution to this problem. It won’t be shiny, it won’t be sexy. Instead it will be grounded in the fundamentals, my own coaching experience, and what research says on the topic.

how to programme strength and conditioning for beginners

My 3 Golden Rules for Beginner Strength and Conditioning Programme

After about a decade of writing S&C programmes for all levels of athletes (including 100’s of beginners) I’ve arrived at 3 ‘golden rules’ that I genuinely think should be the guiding principles behind beginner S&C programmes. Here they are…

1) Keep It Simple

If you’re a beginner, or you’re writing a programme for someone who is, then my best advice is just to keep things simple. Beginners will get fitter and stronger with basically anything you give them, provided that they stick to it and aim to improve regularly.

The problem is that loads of S&C coaches (and I’ve seen this happen a lot) try way too hard to show how smart they are by overcomplicating the training they give to beginners. Not only is this unnecessary, but for beginners it will actually reduce your progress.

2) Make workouts moderately challenging

The goldilocks rule applies here. Beginner strength and conditioning workouts should be challenging enough to cause some positive adaptation, but not so challenging that they become unsustainable for beginner athletes.

A good rule of thumb is something like 7 out of 10 difficulty for each workout as a whole, and for the individual exercises within those workouts. Plus RPE is a simple and research-backed approach (Day et al. 2004)

The 2 big mistakes I see here are:

  • Making workouts too easy, which leads to slow or no progress
  • Making workouts too hard, which leads to demotivation, burnout and/or injury

3) Ensure that regular progression is easy

Progressive overload is the principle at the heart of all effective strength and conditioning programmes. And all this means is that training needs to continue to challenge your body over time. For beginners, the easiest way to do this is just to set up programmes that allow them to add weight to exercises each session or each week.

  • Week 1: 3×5 @ 30kg
  • Week 2: 3×5 @ 32.5kg

Or for a conditioning example:

  • Week 1: 20 minutes of intervals – record distance achieved
  • Week 2: 20 minutes of intervals – aim to slightly beat distance achieved

For beginners it really is that simple.

Strength and conditioning workouts for beginners (2 Examples)

Taking all the principles we’ve discussed above, here are a couple of example strength and conditioning workouts for beginners. Notice how both workouts are simple, moderately challenging and easy to progress.

This first beginner S&C workout is a fairly simple example of a full body strength training session. The workout begins with heavier lower and upper body exercises before moving onto slighter lighter upper and lower body exercises.

ExerciseSets x Reps
Barbell Back Squat3×5 @ RIR 3 / Moderate weight
Barbell Bench Press3×5 @ RIR 3 / Moderate weight
Assisted Pull-Ups3×6-10 @ RIR 3 / Moderate weight
Lying or Seated Hamstring Curls3×8-12 @ RIR 3 / Moderate weight
An example strength workout for beginners

This next beginner S&C workout is a fairly simple conditioning session that alternates between moderate efforts and low efforts. I’ve found this to be a really useful approach for teaching beginners how to listen to their bodies and understand how different intensity levels feel when being performed.

Best performed on a cross-trainer or airedyne bike for 20 minutes total
TimeDifficulty / RPE
1 minute Moderate / 7-8 RPE
1 minuteLow / 4 RPE
An example conditioning workout for beginners

Quick Reminder: Keep the End Goal in Mind and Balance Sport Training

If you just want to get as strong and fit as possible, then programming is a bit easier. If, on the other hand, you compete in a sport and want to use strength and conditioning to improve your sport performance, then it’s important to keep that in mind. Don’t get so carried away with gym work that your sport training suffers. In practice this mean 2 things for athletes introducing S&C for the first time.

  1. Start by adding 1 or 2 S&C sessions into your training week and see how your body responds after 8-12 weeks.
  2. Plan your S&C sessions for days and times that won’t interfere with your sport practice

Simple stuff, but you’d be amazed how many athletes and coaches seem to mess this up!

A quick tip:

Even if you’re an advanced athlete in your sport, if you’re new to the gym then you’re an S&C beginner

Special Considerations

Programming strength and conditioning for beginner women

It’s kind of crazy that I have to write a section on women as a ‘special consideration,’ but the reality is that almost all strength and conditioning writing (and research) is done mainly with men in mind. And that’s kind of an issue!

Over the years of my work as an S&C coach, I’ve found that beginner women tend to differ in 3 very important ways to beginner men:

  1. Most beginner women have far less upper body strength
  2. Most beginner women can tolerate (and often need) more training volume
  3. Most beginner women need to factor in how their body feels at different points of the menstrual cycle

In practice, what this means is that when I design strength and conditioning programmes for beginner women, I utilise easier upper body progressions and variations (for example negative press-ups or knee press-ups), but I prescribe more total sets and reps than I would give to a beginner male. For example, a beginner male might do 3 sets of 8 press-ups, whereas a beginner female might do 4 sets of 8-12 knee press-ups.

I’ll also likely encourage my female athletes to take reactive deloads (reductions in training volume and intensity) during their period if needed. I think of it like this, if my stomach was in serious pain, would I want to, or even feel like I could, tackle a serious strength workout. Probably not, right?!

Programming strength and conditioning for beginners at home

Another special consideration for strength and conditioning programming are beginners who wish to train at home, or who have to train at home for whatever reason. For these folks (and you might be one of them) it comes down to one main question…


What equipment do you have access to?

If you have a home gym, or barbells, dumbbells etc, then training is the same as it would be in a commercial gym. But if you only have bodyweight or some bands to use, then we have to get a bit more inventive. In these cases, the big things that I do are:

  1. Look for appropriately challenging exercise variations that utilise bodyweight
  2. Change the rep scheme to keep the exercises challenging

For example, 3 sets of 5 bodyweight squats would not be a challenging workout, but 3 sets of 8-10 single leg squats (holding something for balance) very likely would be.

The Solution and Conclusion

Honestly, programming strength and conditioning for beginners isn’t rocket science. It just needs to be simple, moderately challenging, and progressive over time. So don’t get drawn into any crazy fancy stuff.

Yes, for sure, there’s a lot more that goes into programme design, sets, reps, intensities, exercise selection and order (all of which I’ve likely written about in articles like this) But I wanted to keep this article focused on the guiding principles.

If you’re still a bit unsure, or want a bit of guidance, then you’re more welcome to get in touch about my custom programme writing service. It’s affordable, rolls month to month with no contract, and is a great way to learn the ropes of what good S&C programmes should look like week to week.

That’s it for today,

Til next time

Alex

References

  • DAY, MEGHAN L.; MCGUIGAN, MICHAEL R.; BRICE, GLENN; FOSTER, CARL. MONITORING EXERCISE INTENSITY DURING RESISTANCE TRAINING USING THE SESSION RPE SCALE. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 18(2):p 353-358, May 2004.