Beginner lifting series: Exercise selection

Beginner lifting series: Exercise selection

In part one of my weight lifting series for beginners I talked about how many days per week you should be training. If you missed the post, you can read it here. To summarise, I recommend three options when it comes to lifting: three full body sessions, a four day upper/lower body split, or a four to five day body part split for the aspiring bodybuilder.

So now that you know how many days per week you should be going to the gym, what exercises should you do?

Compound lifts
Every single time you lift weights, you should base your workout around one heavy, compound movement. The four main exercises are a squat, deadlift, bench press or overhead press. In most cases, and certainly if you are a beginner, these exercises should be performed first in your workout when you have the most energy and focus.

Each compound lift can be varied slightly both to prevent boredom, and to ensure proper technique is mastered. For example, I usually teach a client to goblet squat to a box and then front squat, before teaching them a full barbell back squat (I wrote two posts covering back squats here and here).

My deadlift progression usually starts with cable pull-throughs and then straight-legged deadlifts to ensure the hip hinge has been perfected. You can usually start off with a bench and overhead press straight away, unless you have serious mobility issues.

A cable pull-through


Given that I have listed four exercises, you’re probably thinking what you should do if you only have three days per week to train. Squats and deadlifts are generally the most taxing of the four exercises, so always separate them. I would therefore recommend sticking the two presses on the same day.

If you have four days per week to train, it’s easy – just do each compound movement on a separate day. If you are training five days a week, I usually recommend focusing on chin-ups or pull-ups as your additional compound lift – especially if you are a woman. When I was teaching myself to do unassisted chin-ups, I always did them first in my workout. Now, if I do even one exercise before attempting chin-ups, my performance suffers.

Accessory exercises
So far you have one compound exercise making up the base of your workout. What next? Here’s where it gets tricky, and many people overthink something that can really be quite simple.

Fill the rest of your session with accessory movements. Overall, including the compound lift, you want to perform four to eight exercises per session. The exact number depends on how many sets you are doing, which I will discuss in my next post.

Make sure your focus is in the right place!

The accessory movements are just that – an accessory to the main lift, and designed to complement it. Choose exercises that are within the same realm. For example, don’t do an overhead press on leg day. Generally speaking – and if you are breaking up your workouts this way – squats are on leg day, bench presses are on chest day, overhead presses are on shoulder day, and deadlifts can fall either on leg day or back day. Of course, if you are always doing full body workouts, it doesn’t matter so much when you perform each exercise.

If you are performing a body part split workout, it’s quite easy. Just pick exercises that target that day’s muscle group! With a four day upper/lower body split, you can either try to hit all the muscles of the upper or lower body in a single session, or break down the muscle groups even further. For example, two legs sessions per week might involve hitting quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves equally twice, or you could target quads and calves one day and hamstrings and glutes on the other.

Some things to keep in mind:  

  • Make sure you hit each body part (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, chest, back, shoulders, etc) with at least two to four different exercises per week. If you’re doing three full body workouts per week, you could do one exercise for each muscle group per workout or you could target certain muscle groups more than others on various days. Train opposing muscle groups (eg biceps and triceps, quads and hamstrings) equally in order to prevent muscular imbalances.
  • Balance your workout between pushing (eg presses) and pulling (eg rows) exercises. Think of your body as a machine which you are trying to work most optimally, rather than an individual collection of muscle groups. Make sure you incorporate some single side training (eg single arm presses, split squats) to make sure both sides of your body are equally strong.
  • Follow the same workout for four to eight weeks. Do not change the exercises every single session, or you will never be able to tell if you are progressing.
  • If you are mixing various muscle groups throughout your workout, you want to do all of the exercises targeting one muscle group first before moving on. For example, if you are doing a chest and triceps workout, perform all of the chest exercises before doing any tricep exercises. You want to keep the working muscle group warm to prevent injury, so don’t give it time to cool down.
  • Leave 48 hours before hitting the same muscle group again – don’t do two leg days in a row.
  • There are hundreds of exercises for each body part to choose from, so I’m not going to list them all (visit my Weekly Workouts page to see some of the exercises I’ve already covered). Don’t overthink your selection – you will not be stuck with these exercises forever! Remember that the compound lifts are the most important and, so long as you’re not using a bosu ball, you can exercise some freedom in choosing your accessory lifts.

One of my favourite accessory exercises

  • Limit the number of machines you use. Make sure you can master your own body weight and then use free weights (barbells and dumbbells) to master movement patterns.
  • I typically recommend one to two days of abdominal training per week. Perform two to three exercises targeting the core muscles at the end of your weights session. You need your core strength during all of the compound and  some of the accessory exercises, so it makes no sense to fatigue your abdominal muscles first.

Please note that this is quite a simplified explanation of exercise selection. This is where working with a trainer can come in handy, as there are a number of important factors we consider in program design – such as muscular endurance, progression, targeting weak muscle groups and planning periodisation.

What is your favourite compound lift?

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