Whether you’re brand new to resistance training, had to take a few months, or had to take more than a year off, more than likely you won’t be able to walk right up to a power rack, put a barbell on your back and start squatting. I have worked with over 100 clients who are brand new to resistance training and everybody is different.
The movements I use vary depending on the client as it is completely person dependent; movements for a 60 year old woman with back pain will be different than movements for a 19 year old man who has a history playing a sport. I want to get the 19 year old training against resistance as soon as possible, and the 60 year old woman I would want to train to make her more efficient at living her life and improving her back pain. With that said I have a few movements that will work with almost anybody.
Then I get the question of, “When should I progress and when should I regress a movement”. A good rule of thumb I use is can you do 3 sets of 8-12 with a given movement? If you can what was the difficulty? I use a scale with my clients that most trainers are familiar with called R.P.E. (Rate of Perceived Exertion). This is simply a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most intense and 1 being the least intense. I let my clients have a say in what their R.P.E. is but most of the time I can tell by watching them breathe and the speed at which the movement was done. Usually at around 6-7 R.P.E. I start to progress the client by either progressing the movement or start to overload them with more weight.
Now we get to what movements need to be progressed or regressed. The most basic movements for the human being are, pushing, pulling, and squatting. Lets start with pushing. I’m sure most people can do at least one pushup or modified pushup, with modified pushups being the obvious regression. But if you can do only a few then that movement needs to be regressed to hit our target rep range. So how can we regress the already modified push up? Start working with gravity instead of against it. What I mean is during a push up you are pushing your body completely against gravity, what would happen if you put your hands on the back of your couch while your feet stay on the ground? It is still a push up (same movement patterns) but an easier version. The higher your hands are, the easier the movement is. I have a lot of clients start with just doing push ups against the wall. A lot of the time people get impatient and want to go sit on the chest press machine. And this is a common mistake most new gym goers do. Yes, you can find a weight on any chest press machine that lets you hit the targeted rep range, but doing a chest press is not the same as a push up. You can definitely hypertrophy your chest, shoulders, and triceps doing a chest press but once you get off the chest press machine how functional is that strength that you gained? Not as functional as the strength you would gain doing regressed push-ups, as push-ups require an isometric hold just like a plank to keep your body in proper position. So your core is stabilizing you to keep you in that position and strengthens along with your chest, shoulders, and triceps. I’m not completely against chest press machines for beginners as it could be utilized as an accessory movement later in the workout but definitely should be lower on the list of priorities.
Now we get on to pulling. The ultimate goal is to get the client to pick something up off the floor with a neutral spine. I first watch the client bend over and pick something up. Where is the weakness in their posterior chain? Do they round at the Lumbar spine? Thoracic spine? Cervical spine? If they do, to what extent are they rounding? I find most people round their back either because they are being lazy or they simply don’t have the mind muscle connection with their hamstrings, hips, lower, or mid back to bend over properly. Being lazy is an easy fix, stop being lazy. Building mind muscle connection is much harder. How we want to do this is to get blood flow to those particular muscles, pretty much the entire posterior chain. A simple exercise everyone can do is the superman. There are 3 simple cues you want to see executed during the exercise. Scapular retraction, thoracic extension, and having an anterior pelvic tilt. Executing these 3 cues are sure to bring blood flow to the entire posterior chain. Pointing out the 3 cues consistently over a few training sessions will teach the client to perform the cue instead of just going through the motions. Eventually you can progress to floor bridges, back extensions, then finally some form of deadlift. If a client can deadlift properly they can then start isolating parts of the posterior chain, the most popular being upper back training. So all kinds of rows and pulldowns. Many people wonder why scapular retraction, thoracic extension, and having an anterior pelvic tilt are necessary to sit on a piece of equipment and pull some weight. The reason is those three cues allow you to stabilize weight so you can pull it with proper form, scapular retraction will keep your shoulders in the correct position so they don’t roll forward and you lose tension on the targeted muscle group. Thoracic extension keeps your mid spine in a neutral position. And having an anterior pelvic tilt keeps your lower back in a stronger position.
Our last movement is the squat. If one is able to execute a deadlift properly they have a head start on being able to squat properly. As they both require a lot of effort from the posterior chain. Like the deadlift, the squat is a complex movement that requires a lot of neuromuscular coordination to execute properly. Therefore it must be practiced a lot. Assisted squats are a favorite movement of mine as you can teach hip and knee alignment without worrying about the spine. Once that is perfected you can progress to box squats with just body weight. This is when we can really focus on the spine and its alignment. Without getting into too much detail if you put a PVC pipe up against the client’s spine and it stays flush throughout the movement they are ready to start air squatting with just their bodyweight. Then soon after you can start to apply resistance, this is when most will start back squatting with a barbell.
Mastering these movements is the first step to starting your training regimen. The best part is you can do these all at home. 3 simple movements that work every muscle in the body. My recommendation would be to do these movements twice a week to start then slowly and patiently progress.
Written by Christian Reeder
NCCPT Personal Trainer
NCCPT Powerlifting Coach
Nationally Qualified USPA Powerlifter