How to Run Your First Program

I’ve stated numerous times that we work mostly with beginners. By definition, beginners lack the expertise and experience to understand the nuances that go into exercise and nutrition programming. On top of their lack of experience, they often need accountability and support while they focus on making positive behavioral changes. I’ve also talked previously on just how hard changing behavior is. That being said, today I wanted to take some time to describe a beginner program that we might use at the gym. It’s not necessarily meant to be prescriptive, but a new member would run something (very) similar to the program below.

Just to be clear that the program is meant for illustrative purposes and not prescriptive, I’m going to include a brief avatar description. As you might guess, the more closely the avatar represents your circumstances, the more appropriate the program would likely be for you.

Context (how did we get here)

At our gym, we don’t just let people walk in and train. We think if we’ve tasked ourselves as being “the experts” then we should probably provide some expertise. So no, you can’t just walk in and train with us. Rather, there is a process. The process is designed to maximize the client’s return on investment (i.e., their time and money). The process looks like this:

  • Intro Meeting – we’ll discuss your training/nutrition history, your goals, we’ll talk about some ideal habits that support your goal, we’ll talk medical/orthopedic history. Next, we will gather some basic nutrition/medication/supplement information, and finally we’ll wrap up with logistics and scheduling.
  • Intro Program – we’ll build out your first 90-day program using a basic template that focuses heavily on the 4 primary barbell lifts, the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift. We’ll take plenty of time to best-fit the exercises to you, occasionally using variations of said exercises as needed. We may or may not add other exercises like upper back work, arm work, etc., but this will depend on your ability to comprehend the basics. We don’t overwhelm you, we meet you where you are and set you up for success).
  • 90 Day Coaching Prescription – finally we’ve arrived at the point where you’ll “walk in and train”. Having the intro meetings and program behind you, you’ll now be armed with a sense of how to operate in the weight room, how your program works, and what you’re coming into accomplish for the next 90 days. A lot of people start here and miss some important points but you didn’t because you sought help and expertise.

The Avatar

Our avatar is as follows:

  • John, 42 year old male, wife, 2 kids ages 8 and 10
  • CPA, works 40-50 hours per week normally, works 70+ hours during tax season, has committed to training Tuesdays and Thursdays each week @ 5:30am
  • does not currently exercise (says he didn’t have time)
  • body metrics: BMI @ 30+, waistline approaching 40
  • medical / ortho history (old knee injury from college days but doesn’t bother him unless he “does something stupid” and has frequent low back pain that sometimes lays him up for a day or two). He takes no supplements but is currently blood pressure medication prescribed by his doctor. He reports no limitations.
  • goal(s): would like to decrease BMI and waistline, would like to make regular exercise part of his routine, eventually wants to improve his nutrition habits

This is typical. Our avatar isn’t a powerlifter, he’s a father and husband, he works hard and has little time to waste in the gym. There are no major medical or orthopedic concerns at this time. We would want to make sure his doctor knows he’s starting an exercise program (we’d vet this with a standard Par-Q). He’ll be training 2x per week so we’ll want to make sure he’s hitting compound exercises each time he trains and he has limited time outside the gym so we’ll need to consider his lack of aerobic exercise during our program design.

The Program

Session A

  • Box Squat 3 sets of 6 reps
  • Incline Bench Press 3 sets of 6 reps
  • Rack Pull 1 set of 6 reps
  • Lat Pull Down x 3 min @ 10-15 reps x min
  • Sled Push x 5 min @ 120′ x min

Session B

  • Box Squat 3 sets of 6 reps
  • Overhead Press 3 sets of 6 reps
  • Rack Pull 1 set of 6 reps
  • Lat Pull Down x 3 min @ 10-15 reps x min
  • Sled Push x 5 min @ 120′ x min

Our athlete, John will alternate his sessions each week. On Tuesday he’ll do session A and on Thursday he’ll complete session B. There’s a lot of overlap between each session, this is by design and done to maximize John’s 90 day retention of “the primary exercises”. He’ll be training them often, he’ll get much better at them, and his strength will increase substantially due to this training frequency.


John’s instructions are simple:

  • show up 2x week every week for the next 90 days
  • add 5lbs for squats and rack pulls each workout, add 2.5lbs for incline bench and overhead press each workout

I know that’s overly simple but it will work for a while and at the beginning, John doesn’t need to be concerned with advanced strategies, he just needs to do a bit more each time he shows up. This will work for a long time, probably the entire 90 day window and ultimately gives John time to focus on what matters most… getting better at showing up (see goals above). Having John show up to the gym with a program that is overly complicated or difficult to execute works against him in this stage.

We’ve added some sled work to John’s program because he has limited time for aerobic exercise. I would prefer he walk 30 min each day, aiming for 150 total minutes each week but for now, John is kicking ass just by getting to us 2x per week. We’ll meet him half way but offering a small, albeit useful dose of aerobic exercise at the end of each session. The sled work will also serve as an active recovery modality and minimize any soreness that John might experience from lifting. We also minimize soreness by not programming random silly B.S. each day or changing his workout every time he walks into the gym. John is a father, husband, and professional… he doesn’t need to know anything about 1-arm push ups, muscle ups, or the 47 variations of cambered bar squats. He just needs some intelligently programmed exercise.

Down the road, John’s program will become slightly more complex. We’ll likely add some exercise variation, we’ll incorporate more rep ranges, and we would likely discuss some form of autoregulation. We would also push more aggressively for John to start logging some aerobic minutes each week. Lastly, we would begin instituting small, effective nutrition habits like protein at each meal, fiber intake, and leaning into fruits and vegetables.

I already know what you’re thinking. This doesn’t sound like much. You’re right, we aren’t roping the moon here. You might also be thinking “I could do that on my own”. In this case, you’re wrong… or you would already be doing it. Progress isn’t ONLY about the path you need to take, it’s also about being pushed down it when you don’t want to go. In other words, most people need 2 very simple things to grow:

  • a simple action plan (this is the training, nutrition, and walking stuff)
  • accountability (this is the coaching, mentoring, and bright spot stuff)

My aim is not to sound like a smart ass, it’s just to acknowledge the truth, guys like John NEED to know that someone can handle the details pf their plan and HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE to the changes they’ve agreed are useful.

If you’re still with me, you might be ready to BOOK a MEETING with one of our coaches. Let’s chat, design a simple plan and get you in the best shape of your life.

Hope this helps, talk soon.