In this, the final part of our Two Day A Week introductory program to strength training, we’ll be rounding up a few things that we didn’t cover in the first two parts – what to do if your progress stops temporarily, options for how to progress when it’s no longer possible to make gains on the program – a “hard stall” – and some advise on suitable attire and personal equipment for the beginning lifter.
Part 1 covered the underlying principles behind the program, exercise selection, the reps and sets scheme, how to choose a suitable working weight and how to warm up. Part 2 discussed performing the individual lifts themselves and changing some of the lifts from the prescribed programming.
What To Do If Progress Stops
Sooner or later, you will reach a point where it’s no longer possible to add weight to the bar and complete your prescribed reps and sets. This may happen after 3 months, 6 months or 9 months depending on any number of factors but it will happen; it’s an inevitability. If linear progress could be sustained so easily, we’d be surrounded by people who could squat 1000kg+ after training for a few years.
When you do stall, your first step should be to try the same weight again the following week. You may have simply been having a bad day, not gotten enough sleep, been feeling under the weather or generally performing below bar. If progress resumes the next week then simply carry on until you stall again. If you can’t make the weight on the second attempt, it’s probably time for a reset.
A reset is the term lifters use for deliberately reducing the weight on the bar (deloading) and then working back up to, and hopefully progressing beyond the weight they initially stalled at. This normally occurs over a number of weeks and while many lifters treat a reset as a demotivating setback, it’s important to keep things in perspective. By the time you need to reset, you’ll have entered a phase in your training where “one step backwards, two steps forwards” becomes the name of the game. Progress will slow down but you’ll get to enjoy a few weeks of working out any technique problems and absolutely dominating lighter weights while your body recovers. In fact, nearly all advanced programs, like Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, and some intermediate level programs, use regular deloading and resets to sustain monthly progress over many months and years.
When resetting, the first week after stalling take 10% of the weight off the bar for the lift that you stalled on, rounding down – if you only managed two of your five reps at 70kg on the last Bench Press set the previous week after stalling the week before, the following week drop down to 62.5kg and use that as your working weight. Over the next 3-4 weeks, progress back up to where you stalled. Don’t rush this, or you’ll only stall again immediately – your body needs time to prepare itself to tackle the weight you previously failed on. If all goes well, you’ll hit that weight and be able to continue progress from where you left off. Note that you only need to reset lifts you have stalled on.
The unfortunate reality is that once you’ve stalled on linear progress, a second stall won’t be that far behind. At these stage, your body is so well adapted to the training, or having so much difficulty recovering that you need to shake things up a bit, either by modifying the current program, or by switching to different programming altogether. When you’ve stalled on the same lift 2 or 3 times, or 3 or more of your lifts have stalled at around the same time, it’s time to move on.
Options on Hard Stalling
When you hard stall on your lifts, you’ve reached a point where either a) your body isn’t capable of recovering from the stress that lifting heavier weights inflicts on it before your next workout or b) it has become so well adjusted to the stress that the your program is no longer providing a large enough stimulus to promote super-compensation. In most 3-day a week novice programs, the former is the most likely culprit but, in a 2 days a week program with recovery periods of 72 to 96 hours and where most lifts are done once a week, the latter is a distinct possibility. If this is the case, you can modify the basic 2 day a week template in a number of ways
Increase the Volume
Many people (myself included) respond really well to increased training volume. Essentially, by increasing volume you are subjecting your body to more stress and promoting super-compensation, though clearly care must be taken not to apply so much stress that you can’t recover from it. There’s two main ways you can do this.
Switch to 5×5 – on resetting, rather than dropping 10% of the weight and continuing with your old rep scheme, drop by 15% and switch to 5 sets of 5. Work back up over 4-6 weeks. 3×5 at your previous stalling point should be a breeze.
Rep Out Your Final Set – after resetting on 3×5, use your final set to apply as much stress as possible by doing as many reps as possible (AMRAP). You might do 2×5 then 1×8 with the same weight. Increasing your rep max is a surefire way of being able to lift more weight at lower reps and is again an integral component of programs like 5/3/1.
Switch To A Volume/Intensity Model
Most intermediate programs manipulate training volume (the number of reps and sets) and intensity (the weight on the bar) to allow the lifter to continue to progress. A good example is the Texas Method, which has a volume day where the lifter does 5×5 on Monday, a light day on Wednesday to let them recover from Monday’s workload and an Intensity day of lifting heavier weight on Friday to take advantage of the super-compensation that has occurred in between and consolidate those strength gains.
As the Squat is the only exercise done more than twice a week on this program, it’s really the only lift that’s suitable for a Volume/Intensity setup without switching program entirely. On Monday do volume – 3×5 or 5×5 – and on Friday go for intensity; either aim for the heaviest set of five you can do (for just one set – a 5 Rep Max) or try a heavy triple, double or even work upwards towards a 1RM with a series of heavy singles.
Start Training More Days a Week (Switch to a Different Program)
Plenty of people have gotten extremely strong only training two days a week but there may come a point where switching to training three or four days a week may greatly help your progress. By this stage, you should know well enough whether you feel it is worth committing more time towards strength training. If so, the Texas Method is an excellent 3-day-a-week program that has done great things for my Squat, though you may be able to squeeze a few weeks of good progress from an ‘advanced novice’ regime like Greyskull LP.
For those who want to keep to a two-day-a-week schedule, 5/3/1 can be done with a two day variant (it’s more usually four days), though your progress will slow to monthly rather than weekly.
What To Wear
You probably want to wear more than this
For most purposes, a t-shirt and pair of shorts or loose tracksuit bottoms/sweatpants will serve you just fine in the gym. T-shirts, tank tops, vests, muscle shirts etc all work just as well, so long as they don’t obstruct the movement of your arms, torso or shoulders. I prefer shorts to sweatpants, as the gym I train in tends to be pretty warm, but your mileage may vary.
Whatever option you choose to cover your lower half, it’s extremely important that your clothing doesn’t inhibit your leg movement in any way. Shorts or sweats must allow you to get into a full squat position without interfering with your legs on the ascent or descent. Shorts that are too long can catch over the knees as ascend while those that are too short and tight can ride up the quads, catch on the back of the thigh and make it difficult to stand back up. Compression shorts are a good option, if you can bear the look of your legs and posterior in lycra.
Adidas Power Perfect II Weightlifting Shoe
While footwear is arguably the single-most important gear choice that many lifters will make, it isn’t strictly necessary for a novice to immediately go and splash out on a pair of Olympic weightlifting shoes and Deadlift slippers. The main concern when choosing appropriate footwear for strength training is creating a stable base.
For this reason, shoes with flat soles and which are subject to very little compression when put under heavy weight are preferred. Converse Chuck Taylors, All Stars or Vans will be perfectly adequate, as will most other types of canvas shoe with a solid rubber sole. Some lifters may prefer the additional support around the ankle that high-tops provide but don’t sweat it – proper weightlifting shoes are generally low-rise.
Running trainers and other footwear with a cushioned sole, raised heel, shock absorption or any other form of internal architecture are best avoided. The reason for this is simple; these soles are highly likely to compress under the combined weight of trainee and barbell. This creates an unstable platform, makes it harder for the lifter to balance and can cause them to pitch forward, potentially dangerous when performing squats, deadlifts and even presses with a heavy load.
Those willing to spend a little money upon beginning training can pick up a pair of specialist weightlifting shoes. Entry level models normally run from about £75-100 in the UK, with various models of Do Win shoe coming in at the lower end of the price bracket and Adidas Power Perfect II (which will be reviewed at a later date) priced at £100 or near enough that it doesn’t really matter. As well as offering a stable, non-compressible sole, weightlifting shows also feature a raised heel, which enhances ankle flexibility in squatting movements, and one or two metatarsal straps that allow for a very tight fit and more stability.
If you do buy weightlifting shoes, they can be worn for squats and both pressing exercises. They’re generally not recommended for use with the Deadlift for beginners, as the heel height alters the mechanics of the lift.
Strength training novices need little in the way of equipment beyond suitable footwear and clothing. There are, however, many gym aids that are commonly used by new lifters and general gym goers. One or two are undeniably beneficial throughout one’s lifting career, while others may impede progress, encourage bad form or simply inhibit the development of various key attributes, which may cause progress in the longer terms.
Provided your gym permits it, chalk is an extremely helpful aid for lifters of all levels, to the point that it is simply indispensable for many. Covering the hands in chalk increases the friction between skin and bar and makes it easier to hold on to the weight; put simply, using chalk increases grip strength. Except in situations where the training environment is extremely warm and slippery hands from sweating is a problem, beginners shouldn’t really need to use chalk for any exercises except the Deadlift and, possibly, pull-ups/chins.
Chalk can be bought in solid or liquid form from most strength training equipment suppliers or from specialist climbing/mountaineering/outdoors stores. Solid chalk, which usually comes in blocks or as powder in a fabric pouch, is commonly used in serious strength gyms but isn’t allowed in many commercial or non-specialist facilities. If the latter applies to your gym, you may be able to get away with liquid chalk if you use it sparingly and remember to clean any residue off the bar afterwards.
When using chalk for Deadlifts try only to use it when grip becomes a limiting factor on the weight for are lifting, unless sweaty hands are a problem of course. It’s unlikely you will need to use chalk in the first few weeks or months of training until the weight on the bar starts to get heavy but even when it does become a necessity, try to do your warm up sets without it, then chalk up for your work sets. This will allow you to balance unaided grip development with lifting the heavier weights you need to cause appropriate stress for adoption.
Lifting straps are thick-ish strips of leather or rough cloth which loop around the trainee’s wrists on one end and are wrapped around the bar at the other. This essentially allows the lifter to hold the weight with minimal grip involvement and, as such, removes grip strength as a limiting factor, allowing you to lift more weight. They are commonly used by powerlifters when doing Deadlift or Barbell Rows variants and by weightlifters doing Snatches from the hang, Clean and Snatch pulls with near and super-maximal weights and Romanian Deadlifts.
While straps are an extremely useful tool for more experienced lifters, they generally should not be used by novices. Using straps early in your lifting career can hold back the development of grip strength at a time when you will adapt most rapidly. Natural grip strength is often a reliable indicator of what a beginner can safely lift and exceeding this weight by a significant margin through the use of straps, can increase the risk of injury for an athlete unused to making maximal attempts.
There is one situation where it may be appropriate for a novice to use straps; when an injury to the hands or fingers makes holding the bar painful to the point where the ability to lift is compromised. Torn callouses or cuts on the palm of the hand or fingers fall into this category. If this occurs, use straps when deadlifting while the injury heals and lose them again as soon as possible. If only a week or so passes, simply continue to progress as normal. If two or more weeks pass where straps must be used, reset back to the last weight lifted before straps were introduced and work back up from there.
Belts are used in powerlifting and weightlifting to support the lower back and abdomen in heavy Squats, Deadlifts, Cleans etc. They stabilise these structures, helping to keep the torso upright in the Squat and Clean and the back straight in the Deadlift, and allow the lifter to safely put more weight on the bar. In particular, they provide resistance to the abdominals, which are pushed outwards on heavy attempts and help to prevent the torso from coming forward. Belts are usually made from leather or synthetic materials and vary in width, thickness and fastening device depending on the cost of the belt and the lifter’s specific requirements.
For the most part, beginners using this program will not be lifting weights heavy enough to require the use of a belt. Though using a belt won’t inhibit strength development, it is generally beneficial for new lifters to get a feel for the correct positions and movements without the use of any aids. As linear progress on this program begins to peter out and the weights lifted become significant, the introduction of a belt may allow the lifter to increase the weight on the bar for a few more weeks before hard stalling. As with chalk, as many lifts should be done without the belt once this stage is reached; it is generally advisable to put the belt for the final warm-up set to allow the lifter to adjust to lifting with it before reaching the work sets.
New trainees with a history of lower back injuries may benefit from using a belt from early on but again, at least some sets should be attempted without the belt.
Gloves are probably the most commonly spotted lifting aid seen in commercial gyms but are also amongst the least useful – and from our perspective, potentially one of the most detrimental. Gloves are ostensibly used to guard against damage to the hands, stop them from getting sore, make the bar easier to hold and to improve grip strength. Though they undoubtedly help with the former two, wearing gloves in fact makes the bar more difficult to hold on to and inhibits the natural development of grip strength – hands getting a little sore and beaten up is symptomatic of the adaptive stress required to strengthen the grip.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, wearing gloves actually makes the bar harder to hold. Placing an extra layer of material between the palm and the bar effectively makes the bar thicker, meaning that grip strength is spread out over a wider area and making the bar harder to grasp.It’s for this reason that powerlifters and strongmen often use a thicker bar or equipment like “fat grips” to make a bar more difficult to hold on to, effectively training their grip strength. Of course, wearing gloves you won’t enjoy this benefit.
There you have it, a straightforward two-day a week programme that offers beginners a gentle introduction to strength training and a path to real gains. Due to the complex nature of strength training, it isn’t possible to account for all eventualities or possible questions in a series of articles like this, so please feel free to leave a comment or contact us with any questions you may have about the program. We’d also love to hear about your progress so do keep us updated if you decide to jump in.