Achieve your optimum health and fitness for a lifetime!


By John Litteral 1/29/23

After writing articles based upon my training split and various training splits for intermediate and advanced lifters, I want to focus on the novice who is starting from square one; or those who have been going to the gym and randomly getting onto various workout equipment without following any kind of training program. Going to the gym without following some type of program but doing exercises is just exercising, but training is the action that will bring about noticeable results. There is a difference between “exercising” and “training”. Strength coach and author Mark Rippetoe had this to say about the two…

“Exercise and training are two different things. Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the basic workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal. If a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training.”1

People can go to the gym for years and “exercise” and not improve their performance or appearance. This is because “exercise” alone has only a very short-term evolution of progression because it does not produce enough stress to the muscles and central nervous system to develop more strength. Strength gains will only happen for a very limited time without doing a “training” program. A beginner can get stronger by doing almost any kind of physical activity no matter how minor it is, as compared to doing nothing. Twenty-minute walks through the neighborhood will make you stronger than you were for about the first couple weeks, but your body will adapt quickly and any increases in performance will stop, unless you increase the intensity. The same thing happens especially when people lift weights or exercise on gym equipment. Without actually being on a program that calls for increasing the resistance and intensity of certain exercises, you will stop getting results no matter how long you do those exercises, whether weeks, months, or years.

For those who have been going to the gym and randomly getting on gym equipment, or for those who are wanting to start getting in shape but have never trained before, then I recommend following this training split for at least a few months before doing any intermediate or advanced training splits that call for isolation movements. There are four main exercises that all novices should do, that is, the squat (legs), deadlift (back and glutes), flat bench press (chest), and overhead shoulder press (shoulders). It is very important that you are taught how to do those exercises properly. This article is not about how to do those exercises properly, but rather to teach you about them and their importance in beginning your fitness journey. Click onto the hyperlinks to watch videos of how to properly do SQUATS, DEADLIFTS, BENCH PRESS, SHOULDER PRESS

As a novice, you can do all four exercises all in one workout for three times a week, such as Monday-Wednesday-Friday (but it doesn’t matter what days they fall on). I recommend that if you are just beginning, that you start your very first workout with only one set per exercise…

Flat Bench Press                    1 set of 5-12 reps

Overhead Shoulder Press     1 set of 5-12 reps

Squat                                      1 set of 5-12 reps

Deadlift                                  1 set of 5-12 reps

For your second workout, I recommend raising the sets up to 2 sets per exercise…

Flat Bench Press                    2 sets of 5-12 reps

Overhead Shoulder Press     2 sets of 5-12 reps

Squat                                      2 sets of 5-12 reps

Deadlift                                  2 sets of 5-12 reps

For your third workout, I recommend raising the sets up to 3 sets per exercise…

Flat Bench Press                    3 sets of 5-12 reps

Overhead Shoulder Press     3 sets of 5-12 reps

Squat                                      3 sets of 5-12 reps

Deadlift                                  3 sets of 5-12 reps

The reason why I recommend only doing 1 set per exercise for your first workout and 2 sets per exercise for your second workout, is because you will get sore for the first week or so after your workouts, and that it is important that you do not get too sore by doing too much of something that you are not used to. Easing into your training program is most beneficial because those exercises can make you very sore if you do too much right away without carefully allowing your body to adapt to the stress. For maximum results, I recommend men to do sets of 5 reps per set, and to increase the weight 5lbs each workout. For women I recommend 2 or 3lbs increase per workout. The novice should be able to increase weight every single workout for at least a few months.


If you are having difficulty learning the proper technique of those exercises above, then I recommend doing a modified version of those exercises until you get the proper instructions and training. Getting the proper instruction is very important because if you don’t, then doing those exercises wrong will not only increase the risk of serious injury, but it is very difficult to unlearn bad technique and form and correct it after doing it wrong for a while. Just learn the right way as early as possible.

Below is a modified version of the novice training split above. This should be done for however long that it takes to be taught how to do those exercises above.

Chest Press

Overhead Shoulder Press

Leg Press

Lat Pull Down

Lower Back Extension   


The chest press can be done on a machine. Gyms like Planet Fitness unfortunately do not have barbell equipment. There are various kinds of machines that you can use to train your chest.

A Smith Machine is a fairly good alternative for the chest press and overhead shoulder press, but not a good alternative for squats and deadlifts. Doing the bench press and shoulder press is safe on a Smith Machine, but the risk for injury for squats and deadlifts on a Smith Machine is high because of the fixed position. There are also other kinds of chest press machines in many gyms that are sufficient for a novice to begin training with until they can start using barbells.


As mentioned above, the Smith Machine is good for doing the shoulder press. You can build a lot of strength on the bench press and shoulder press using the Smith Machine. It is not as good as using free weight barbells, and you will notice great improvements when going from machines to barbell training. But if you do not have access to barbells then the Smith Machine is a great alternative.

Most gyms, even Planet Fitness, has dumbbells, which is an excellent choice for doing bench presses and shoulder presses. But just like barbells, dumbbells require careful form and technique.


The leg press is a good exercise for building size and strength for your legs. It is not as good as the squat, but it makes a really good alternative if you need to. The leg press is easy to learn, and you will get stronger for quite some time.


The lat pull down is a back exercise. I recommend it for the novice until the novice can learn to do deadlifts. Not that the lat pull down mimics the deadlift, but it will allow the novice to strengthen their upper back in the meantime. Once the novice trains with deadlifts for a period of time, he/she will develop the back enough to move on to an intermediate training split that will incorporate lat pull downs once again.


The lower back extension is an exercise that will strengthen the lower back in places where the deadlift strengthens. Deadlifts are a more natural movement and should be done for real progress, but the back extension is a good modification exercise that can help until you learn to deadlift.


A novice is fortunate enough to have a very high adaptation and can get stronger for months even in a calorie deficiency. But to maximize your results for gaining strength and muscle, a novice should aim to get plenty of protein in their diet. I recommend one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. I recommend plenty of meat such as chicken, beef, fish, etc. I wrote an article called PROTEIN SOURCES FOR WEIGHT-TRAINING that I highly recommend for reading.


1 Mark Rippetoe,

One response to “WHERE TO START IN THE GYM”

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