Part 1: Beginner Training- Form the Foundation

Post By Mark Ehnis
What is a beginner? 
When training athletes, a beginner constitutes a young, 12-15 year old kid- at least that’s what I’m going to refer to a beginner as anyways (Anyone new to training or lifting is a beginner regardless of actual age). I like to look at an athletes “training age”. I define training age as how long has the athlete been seriously training. A 16-year old might have a training age lower than a 14-year old because the 16-year old has never done any training, while the 14-year old has been doing bodyweight workouts and technique training since he was 12. The 16-year old has a training age of 0 and the 14-yeard old has a training age of 2. Get it?
Two 8th grade PSTS athletes performing general exercises of thick rope sled pulls and sled drags

I deal with a lot of athletes that are brand new to a serious, regimented training program- and I love it. It’s great because I can teach them from scratch instead of having to work around the bad habits they have developed from previous improper training. Beginners need to be taught correctly from day 1 to not only prevent injury, but also to get the most benefit out of the exercise.

“Training is like school. There are different “grades”. The older you get, the more advanced the curriculum will be come. Stay in school, do the work, and go to the next grade accordingly.” 

I heard a rendition of this quote at a seminar once (either Dave Tate or Jim Wendler I think). What it’s saying is that the longer you train, the stronger you get and the more advanced the training will become. Don’t train a 2nd grader like a 12th grader! You can’t skip a grade because you feel like it- you have to be able to handle the workload. Just because you saw an NFL running back doing an exercise on a TV commercial doesn’t mean it’s a good exercise for a 13-year old! Beginner athletes need to start off in pre-school.
Dave Tate, President of Elite Fitness Systems ( and I at a seminar 
First, a little rant to the egotistical coaches out there. Forget the numbers. Yes, getting stronger and adding weight to the bar is important, but not at the expense of proper progression and technique. Any experienced athlete, or lifter that’s worth his salt, can tell you that you have to focus on many different things to maintain proper technique the heavier the weight gets. I really don’t think little Johnny has good enough technique, or knows his body well enough to remind himself to recruit the right muscles at the right time to fire, while thinking about the heavy thing he has to lift so he doesn’t get crushed. When dealing with athletes, their technique won’t always be perfect and that’s fine- just remember that when trying to throw on another 50lbs to an already ugly lift.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my athletes the strongest for their varsity (or beyond) years compared to making them lift extremely heavy weights (incorrectly) as freshmen- ruining their backs/knees/shoulders while creating muscle imbalances galore so they’re beat up the rest of their careers…and lives. I’ll stop the rant there for now but you get my point.
Before I go on, I have to explain that beginners don’t know how to do much of anything in the weight room… and you can’t expect them to. When I first started training athletes I quickly realized you have to explain everything, and literally, show them. You have to dictate the flow of the training session and how you expect future training sessions to go. Loading weight, spotting, using and putting away equipment are all skills that need to be taught to the beginner. Hence why a good trainer or gym can teach a young athlete skills he can use for the rest of his life and pass down to others when ready.
You need to have benchmarks in your training. For beginners, I check to see how many push-ups and bodyweight squats they can do, how stable their core and lower body is, and how they move- are they coordinated or not. If you know what to look for, all of this can be told through a dynamic warm-up. From experience, the majority of beginners can’t do 10 proper push-ups or squats and shake like crazy when they have to stabilize anything. But let’s go back to the warm-up.
The warm-up is one of the most crucial things to an athlete’s workout. If strength coaches are still having their athletes train without a warm-up then they should probably consider a career change. I’m not talking about some arm circles. I’m referring to actual light exercises and movements that make athletes, especially beginners, more athletic. I tell my athletes that the workout begins when the warm-up begins- it’s part of the workout.
At the very least, I know that any athlete I train will leave me feeling better, moving better, and be more athletic. The warm-up not only get’s your mind and body ready to train, but it increases your mobility and flexibility allowing you to put your body in the proper position to perform certain exercises. How can I expect an athlete to squat if his groin (adductors for the scientists) and hip flexors are so tight he can barely walk, let alone perform a proper squat to adequate depth? Beginners tend to have horrendous mobility and flexibility and they should be made top priorities in their training.
Mobility and flexibility should be mainstays in every athletes programs- from beginners to the pro’s!
So what does all this have to do with building the foundation? Well, we know to check our ego’s at the door, not all athletes have the same training history, we can’t take anything for granted, need to have benchmarks to look and shoot for, and to include a lot of mobility and flexibility work. Progression is next and it’s the key to any well-designed program.
In Part 2 I’ll talk about proper progression and give examples of how I progress beginning athletes to incorporating the big exercises in their training.