Weight Training 101: A beginner guide (PART 1)

This series is where I really wanted to start, but felt I couldn’t do this justice without first addressing a few key concepts when lifting heavy-ass weights. If you haven’t checked out my other blog posts, check out this article on progressive overload and this article on warm-up sets first. Don’t worry I’ll wait.


Right, with those 2 concepts lodged firmly in your mind, let’s start from the beginning and work up:


1. Determine your long-term goals

Seriously, this is important. It’s easy to define a short-term goal like “lose 10lbs”, but it’s far more important to plan beyond the horizon. If you set yourself something major to reach for, your training will (by and large) automatically fall into place.

This is especially true for weight training, as it’s easy to get bit by the lifting bug. Allow me demonstrate:

  • You start training with the honourable goal of toning up a bit, and getting healthier. You have set yourself a long-term goal, but you saw a lean fit body (on the cover of Men’s Health or something) and that’s what prompted you to get started. Maybe if you work hard enough, one day you could look like this:

  • A few months in, and you’re making great progress. You love the ‘pump’ you get from working out (WARNING): the bug bites. Fast forward a few years, and this:

WTF, right? This is the issue with progressive overload: mass moves mass. Somewhere you have to draw the line on strength versus how you look and feel. Bret Contreras summarised this brilliantly (and rather conveniently) just a few days ago here.

I guarantee you I can hand-pick at least half a dozen guys in any gym who fit this profile. I say this with utter confidence because I was one of them. Lucky for me, I noticed and went back to square one, and now feel in the best shape of my life at 73kg (160lbs)!

Author’s note: Eventually, the  road gets harder, and this is where many fall down and take route of exogenous compounds to fuel their addiction (strength, vanity, whatever) and risk permanently compromising their endocrine systems, their fertility, and longevity. This addiction is no different from girls insistent on more and more plastic surgery, or even anorexia! Again, it’s easy to pick out those this applies to in any gym. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


Okay, now that I’m done scaring the pants off of you: Yes, setting your sights from the off is a flipping good piece of advice if (I do say so myself) – find a picture of what you want to look like, even especially if what you want seems impossible (or at least a million miles away) – the more ridiculous the better; the more ridiculous the longer it will motivate you.

And don’t think I can’t hear you “that’s just depressing not motivating!”, and “I’ll NEVER look like that!” – the subconscious works in mysterious ways. Print out that ridiculous picture. Stick it on your bedside table. Better yet stick it on your fridge. Trust me.

I’ve already linked this article before, but it’s so damn good I’m linking it again.


Finally – whatever picture (be it real or mental) you find; keep it to yourself. There is plenty of research to support how externalising your goals makes you less likely to achieve them. I do love me some TED talks, but in case you don’t have 5 minutes spare (or audio) here is the executive summary:

When you tell someone your goals and they acknowledge it, the mind experiences what psychologists call “social reality”: you get a good feeling from externalising the goal (i.e. it mistakes the telling as the doing) and you are therefore less motivated to do the actual work!

Bottom line: Don’t tell you friends; don’t tell your trainer; and definitely don’t tell me. Externalise your short-term goals if it helps keep you legit (we’ll get to these later), but keep the Master Plan under lock and key.


2. Taking your goals and making a plan

Whatever your form of training (free weights, calisthenics, bodyweight, kettlebells, athletics) you’ll need a working range for your goal. For weightlifting, the choices are reps and sets. For track athletics, its short sprints verses long distance. In all cases, the ONLY variables in determining the adaptive response of your body from a given exercise are TENSION (muscular) and TIME, and their product TIME UNDER TENSION. Or formulaically, as I love me some science:

In words: Varying the duration and intensity of muscular contractions determines how those muscles adapt (repair and grow) following exercise. If you run long distance, your muscles will get better at running long distance (i.e. increased endurance and efficiency); if you lift a heavy weight, your body will get better at lifting heavy weights (increased strength and power).

The caveat here is that adaptive response is governed by our old friend the Central Nervous System (CNS), and he is one lazy sonuva bitch: Adaptive response after exertion is precisely the minimum change required to deal with the new stimulus. Put in the context of weightlifting, if you deadlift 300lbs for 5 reps week in week out, you will get precisely strong enough to safely (read: comfortably) deadlift 300lbs for 5 reps, even if you do it every week for 10 years. Put another way, “Time under tension” is synonymous with progressive overload, or “total load lifted” (weight x reps x sets).


So, back to the plan: In terms of rep ranges, the following is the generally accepted consensus:

  1. STRENGTH – 1-5 reps (high tension, short time)
  2. SIZE – 6-12 (medium tension, medium time)
  3. ENDURANCE – 12+ (low tension, long time)

It’s up to you to decide which of these three attributes best encapsulates the latest piece of artwork on your refrigerator door :)

Author’s note: The remainder of this series assumes you picked either #1 or #2, since nobody chooses to look like an emaciated endurance athlete. They just end up that way if the are BITTEN BY THE BUG.



Reassessment: A quick aside

Re-assessing your goals periodically is perfectly fine and completely natural as you get to know your body better and perhaps alter the image of who you want to become. This happened with me within the past year when I realised that my goal of becoming as strong as possible was making me feel less healthy (excess weight, lethargy, constant lower back pain), so I shifted my focus to more functional bodyweight and gymnastic-style training: I’m 9 kilos lighter than I was in September (without going on a “diet”) and feel great. But nothing’s ever free, here’s the caveat: re-defining your goals is fine AS LONG AS THE CHANGE IS POSITIVE. Redefining your goals to make them easier is not fine. Quit it!


Whew, this is taking longer than I thought. I’ll continue with converting your goals into a plan in part 2 (stay tuned). I hope you enjoyed reading!

– fullcirclestrength

4 thoughts on “Weight Training 101: A beginner guide (PART 1)

  1. You DRIVE me to success, I am stuck on the corporate tread mill with a negatvie attitude and this has provided me with the motivation to be the best, keep up the good work and post some more pictures I want to share in your transformation, what are your leg muscles like?

    • There will be more up in the lead up (and no doubt on the day) of the comp at the end of July! Glad I’m helping to give someone motivation – I’m planning to wirte an article soon on top tips for 9-5 workers (or in my case 8-6 lol), keep your eyes peeled :)

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