Start the Year Strong

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With some deft maneuvers of a computer mouse, the “information superhighway” can retrieve every conceivable bit of information you need in, well, a click, right?

Actually, we’d argue that the Internet advances of the last three decades have actually made it more difficult for you to begin a fitness program. That’s because now there’s so much noise in the world of physique-building that it’s nearly impossible to know where to start. There are countless infomercials pitching miracle products, gurus at every turn preaching about overnight change, and know-it-alls spewing about their can’t-miss workouts. That’s a lot of information (and misinformation) overload because the change you’re likely seeking is a simple one — more muscle, more strength, less body fat — and can be had by relatively simple means.

Weight training is the most basic, sustainable and effective way to transform your body for the better. That’s right — resisting heavy weight against the force of gravity is more beneficial to your body than a thousand fad routines. That’s because more strength means more muscle, which has plenty of other advantages for your build.

“Traditional weight training is the most efficient way to train, especially if you’re coming off a long layoff,” says Sean Waxman, CSCS, a former national-level Olympic weightlifter and president of Pure Strength. “Performing compound exercises such as barbell squats, deadlifts and bench presses affects more systems of the body more effectively than any other form of training, period. I’m not saying that other forms of training, such as yoga, Pilates and fitness cardio classes, are bad. I am saying that weight training is the complete package.”

The Three-Month Transformation

The following 12-week program — crafted to help pure beginners to the world of fitness and those who used to train but fell off the wagon for whatever reason — is designed to help you create a solid foundation of muscular strength, power and endurance. This progressive four-phase scheme will challenge your body with new variables each week in order to ensure steady and continuing change.

>> Exercise selection. Fundamentals win out in this program. Most exercises are of the free-weight, multijoint variety in order to recruit the most muscle possible. (Multijoint exercises rely on more than one muscle group to perform, such as a bench press, which recruits your pectorals and triceps, for example.) Isolation movements like curls and pushdowns for your biceps and triceps, respectively, are included.

You won’t find machines here, either. Waxman believes that early over-reliance on machines can inhibit the amount of muscle you can grow by limiting stabilizer muscle recruitment. (Stabilizer muscles don’t participate directly in an exercise, but they tense and flex to keep your body stable during a movement.) Don’t despair at the program’s lack of exercise diversity — the moves Waxman has chosen will more than adequately stimulate your body and reap results.

>> Weight selection. Choose a weight that brings about muscle failure at the listed rep range. By failure, we mean the point at which you can no longer complete reps with good form. If you hit the target number and still have enough in the tank for a few more reps, you didn’t choose a heavy enough weight. Achieving positive failure is key to maximizing the breakdown — and subsequent rebuilding — of muscle tissue. (Note: For the first two weeks of the program, do not go to failure; simply choose a challenging weight and focus on doing the exercises with perfect form and a steady two-seconds-up/one-second-pause/three-seconds down cadence on every rep.)

>> Frequency. You’ll work your entire body each week in three workouts (a Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule is a prime example of how you could approach it, although you should do what’s best for your particular work and life balance). Just be sure to take a day off between sessions to recover and grow.

>> Intensity. During each of the program’s four phases, your intensity (another way of saying “weight selection”) will increase, while your reps will generally decrease.

>> Volume. Initially, your volume of work will be high. Lighter loads with higher reps will condition your connective tissue to handle the heavier weights ahead. “Some undertrained or inexperienced lifters’ nervous systems may be able to move heavier weight, but the connective tissue isn’t ready, which can result in injury,” Waxman says. Over the 12 weeks, your total reps per set will decrease.

Week 13 and Beyond

These 12 weeks don’t represent the totality of your new physique and fitness levels; they represent the starting line. This program provides a solid base of strength, stamina and experience. At the end of Week 12, take a week off to recuperate and to reassess your goals.

So what’s next? You can always dive right back into this program, using heavier weights or shorter rest periods, or you can tackle one of the other programs that appear on these pages each month. The point is this: You’re only a beginner once, so make these weeks count.

START-THE-YEAR-STRONG PROGRAM

PHASE 1 = Weeks 1-3
PHASE 2 = Weeks 4-6
PHASE 3 = Weeks 7-9
PHASE 4 = Weeks 10-12

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Exercise Name

Barbell Bench Press*

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Deadlift

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Back Extension

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Crunch

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Dip

KEY

  • 1 Rest one minute between sets and no longer than three minutes between exercises.
  • 2 Rest up to 90 seconds between sets and no longer than three minutes between exercises.
  • 3 Rest three minutes between sets and no longer than five minutes between exercises.
  • 4 Each side.
  • TF = To failure
  • * If you don’t have a spotter, do dumbbell instead of barbell presses.
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Dumbbell Lunge

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Standing Barbell Press

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Bent-Over Barbell Row

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Standing Barbell Curl

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Reverse Crunch

Barbell Squat

KEY

  • 1 Rest one minute between sets and no longer than three minutes between exercises.
  • 2 Rest up to 90 seconds between sets and no longer than three minutes between exercises.
  • 3 Rest three minutes between sets and no longer than five minutes between exercises.
  • 4 Each side.
  • TF = To failure
  • * If you don’t have a spotter, do dumbbell instead of barbell presses.
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Barbell Bench Press*

Deadlift

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Triceps Pushdown

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Side Crunch

KEY

  • 1 Rest one minute between sets and no longer than three minutes between exercises.
  • 2 Rest up to 90 seconds between sets and no longer than three minutes between exercises.
  • 3 Rest three minutes between sets and no longer than five minutes between exercises.
  • 4 Each side.
  • TF = To failure
  • * If you don’t have a spotter, do dumbbell instead of barbell presses.

Fitter Through Food

Nutrition is the key to powering your workouts and seeing improvements in the mirror. Follow these five simple guidelines to keep your energy high and your gains coming.

1 Eat five to seven times per day. Eating smaller meals more often not only will top off your energy stores for the tough workouts you’ll endure on this program but also will shift your metabolism into high gear.

2 Focus on protein. Each of your five to seven meals should include some protein. Ideal sources include lean beef, chicken breat, turkey breast, eggs and fish. Beef jerky or protein shakes are good choices when you’re on the go. Make sure you get 20 grams of whey protein before you workout and at least 40 grams within 30 to 60 minutes afterward.

3 Avoid fast-digesting carbs. Fast-digesting, or high glycemic index (GI), carbs are counterproductive if you expect to lose significant amounts of body fat. Instead, use slower-digesting sources like whole-wheat breads and pastas, fruits and oatmeal most of the time in order to keep your body fat in check.

4 Always eat breakfast. It is, in fact, the most important meal of the day. Eating a breakfast high in protein and slow-digesting carbs staves off hunger, gives you energy for the day and puts a halt to catabolism (the burning of muscle tissue for energy that results from your overnight fast).

5 Supplement for best results. Starting out, a simple stack of supplements will help fuel your efforts.

Why Weight Training?

Looking for a few more reasons weight training is the best approach for beginners or those returning from a long layoff? Here are Sean Waxman’s top three.

1 It increases your testosterone and growth-hormone levels better than any other form of training so you can quickly gain strength and muscle, even after a break.

2 It improves the strength of your ligaments and tendons, if the exercises are done in a full range of motion. This will decrease the chance of overuse injuries as your training intensifies.

3 It boosts your metabolic rate because of the high caloric expenditure of these multijoint movements, as well as from the resulting increase in lean muscle you’ll experience after a few weeks to months of regular training.

Cardio On Demand

Using high-intensity interval cardio can help you shed fat faster.

Everyone will dive into this program with different motives. Some people want to add a few more pounds of muscle. Others, however, may simply want to shed some unwanted layers of body fat.

The good news is that both audiences benefit if they follow the training program to the letter. And while there is no prescribed cardio in this program, those in either camp looking to tighten up a bit more can add two to three high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio sessions per week, as dictated by the mirror. If you’re gaining muscle and noticing more muscular detail, it’s OK to refrain from cardio for this program. Too much cardio, as can be the case with some beginner programs, can work against your muscle-building efforts.

HIIT cardio, which basically has you alternating between high-intensity sprints and slower bouts of recovery, helps you burn more fat long after you take off your running shoes. It can also help you preserve some of that muscle you’re looking to gain. To get the most out of it, try this routine — again, as needed — no more than two to three times per week.