Strength Training Progressions for Beginners

“Progression” means gradually moving towards a more advanced state. In strength training, progressions are crucial. If you as a beginner skip them, you are going to either hurt yourself or learn shitty form (and eventually hurt yourself) or just fail at doing the exercise at all. If you don’t have the option to work with a personal trainer who can correct you at all times, progressions become even more important for you. In this article I have summarised 7 strength training movements for you along with suggestions for how to best structure your training to get there.

Please note that based on for example your anatomy and mobility, your perfect progression might be a different one. This post also doesn’t explain HOW exactly to do the shown exercises. 

1. The Squat

If you would like to learn a barbell squat, this is what a progression can look like:

1. Practice bodyweight squats “sitting” back on a bench (or other object). Start somewhere above parallel (thighs to floor), then squat to parallel.

2. Put a thick and strong abduction band around your thighs right above your knees and practice bodyweight squats with it. Imagine how you were sitting your hips back towards the bench.

3. Keep the band and grab a kettlebell or dumbbell and perform so-called goblet squats. The weight in front is helpful because you don’t have the feeling you’re gonna fall back.

4. Next up, practice goblet squats without a band. Maybe you can already squat to below parallel. But you don’t have to. Never think that this is a must. But that’s a different topic… Work your way up to higher weights for goblet squats.

5. When you attempt a barbell squat for the first time, use than bench again. It really helps. You don’t need to be scared of the weight pressing down on you and not being able to stand up again. It’s also helpful to learn how to use your glutes at the right point during the squat.

6. When you feel comfy with the bench squats, remove the bench but put a medium-strong resistance band around your thighs right above your knees. Practice barbell squats with the band thinking about how you were sitting your hips back on the bench.

7. Whoop whoop, last level is barbell squats without a band if you don’t need it any more. To be honest, most beginners have the same issues when learning the squat and the band really helps. You can stick with it for eternity if you like 😀 Well, now you can work your way up to higher weights.

If you have issues with your knees, perhaps from sitting a lot, try some of the routines described in my blog post here.

2. The Deadlift

If you would like to learn how to do a deadlift (DL) with a barbell, this is what a progression can look like:

VERY FIRST STEP: Learn the difference between a squat and a deadlift (DL). The squat is knee-dominant whereas the DL is hip-dominant.

1. Start practising sumo Das with a kettlebell (KB). This is the easiest variation for beginners to start with. The sumo stance brings you closer to the floor which helps with mobility, and the KB means you don’t have to maneuver a barbell along your legs.

2. Make yourself familiar with the difference between a normal DL and Romanian deadlift (=RDL), then practice RDLs with a KB. The RDL will help you learn how to pull through your hamstrings and NOT your lower back.

3. Grab 2 dumbbells and practice RDLs with dumbbells, sliding them along your legs. Focus on keeping your torso tight (shoulders back and down and armpits squeezed to activate your lats).

4. Don’t stop doing KB sumo DLs. Instead, go up in weight continuously. Most gyms don’t have heavier KBs than 24kg anyways.

5. Grab an unloaded barbell (whoop whoop) and start doing barbell RDLs. Remember: THERE IS NEVER ANY AIR BETWEEN YOUR LEGS AND THE BARBELL.

6. Load the barbell and go heavier in RDLs.

7. Once heavy KB Sumo Das and loaded RDLs are working well, this is a good point in time to start practising barbell DLs.

If you have issues with a tense lower back, perhaps from sitting a lot, try some of the routines described in my blog post here.

3. The Hip Thrust

Most fitness beginners have under-developed glutes which has nothing to do with the size or shape of your butt. Hip thrusts (HTs) are a great way to to build strong glutes. If you are a fitness beginner, start easy before thrusting heavy weights.

VERY 1st STEP: Learn how to tuck your pelvis and brace your midsection, to avoid an unhealthy curve in your lower back. Think of your pelvis as a shovel with your spine as the handle and your genital as the shovel.

1. Start with bodyweight glute bridges (GBs) using a loop band around your thighs. Chin tucked to your chest, feet flat on the floor. The distance of your heels to your butt can vary. Play around with it until you have found the stance where you feel most in your glutes.

2. Move on to single leg GBs.

3. Instead of going straight to the HT, do GBs with elevated feet first to create a higher range of motion. Mainly for the reason that a lot of fitness beginners are finding it super uncomfy having their shoulder blades on a bench like in the hip thrust.

4. Get familiar with the HT (torso elevated) just using a loop band at first. Again, find a good foot position. How close to the bench you’re sitting depends on how high the bench is and how tall you are. Your shoulder blades should be able to rest on it but not your entire upper back.

5. Throw in some single leg HTs (oh yeah, those are nasty!).

6. Finally, grab a light barbell and start practising barbell HTs.

If you would like to learn a bit more about the hip thrust and the difference to a glute bridge, check out my blog post here.

4. The Overhead Press

Even though the overhead press may look less complex than a squat or deadlift, please don’t treat it like a simple exercise. Your shoulders should be treated with the utmost care. Before going straight into any kind of heavy presses, make sure you are actually ready for them. This may include consulting a physio if you have any shoulder issues whatsoever.

VERY 1st STEP: Learn how to tuck your pelvis and brace your midsection, to avoid an unhealthy curve in your lower back. Your glutes and abs are playing a major role in the overhead press. If you press with an anterior pelvic tilt (“hollow back”), you’re very likely to hurt your lower back and don’t stand a chance to activate your glutes and abs.

1. If your gym has a landmine, single arm landmine presses would be a great way to start: The angle at which you press is variable and not strictly straight up. The instability of the bar helps you build stability in your shoulder.

2. Kettlebell bottoms up presses are another great way for building strength and stability. Both in this and the previous exercise, keep your glutes engaged and your pelvis tucked.

3. Now do some standing dumbbell presses. They are easier because you don’t have to fiddle around with a barbell in front of your face and you can start with lighter weights.

4. After all this prep work, now is a good point in time to grab a straight bar and practice standing straight bar overhead presses. Many gyms have straight bars starting at 10kg, so you don’t immediately have to go for the 15 or 10kg olympic ones 😉

5. The Bench Press

If you would like to learn how to do barbell bench presses, this is what a progression can look like:

1. Start off by practising scapula push ups. This will strengthen your shoulders and you will learn how to pinch your shoulder blades together (“retract” them).

2. Move on to normal push ups. They are a great way to build strength before attempting the bench press. You can start off with an elevated torso if you can’t do push ups on the floor yet.

3. Now grab some dumbbells and start practicing dumbbell floor presses. Practice to retract your shoulders in this position. This exercise will strengthen your chest, shoulders and arms. It is shoulder friendly because it limits your range of motion due to the floor making it impossible for you to move your elbows past your shoulders.

4. Then move on to incline bench dumbbell presses. You can start with low weights. My experience with my clients is that most people find it easier to press in the incline position. Remember to retract your shoulders.

5. Finally, grab a bar and practice barbell flat bench press. I personally would recommend that you go over the barbell bench press setup with a trainer to make sure you find a good setup. There are a lot of factors involved in finding your best position and grip.

6. The Barbell Row

If you would like to learn barbell rows, this is what a progression can look like:

1. A good way to start is with seated rows, i.e. seated cable rows. Practice pulling your shoulders back and slightly down and squeezing them together on every rep.

2. Start doing single arm dumbbell rows on a bench. The bench supports you so that you don’t have to worry much about your lower back. Also when working single arm, pinch your shoulder blades.

3. Now try the same without a bench. Stabilise yourself with your free hand on your thigh. Hint: If you feel the exercise in your quads or lower back, try and push your hips more back.

4. Practice proper form for RDLs. I know, seems a bit off because what does that have to do with rowing? Well, doing RDLs, you will lern how to use your glutes, hips and hamstrings to stabilise yourself and take stress away from your lower back.

5. When doing your first barbell rows, I suggest you start with just a bar and an underhand grip. From my experience, most people find it much easier to coordinate the exercise and get a feeling for it with this grip.

6. Now play around with the grip and feel the difference between underhand and overhand grip. Generally, underhand targets the lats, lower back, traps and biceps more while the overhand primarily hits your upper back. If either or both variations feel good with just the bar, start adding some weight.

7. The Barbell Split Squat

If you would like to learn barbell split squats, this is what a progression can look like:

1. Start with alternating reverse lunges, bodyweight only. They will challenge your balance and stability. Don’t rush. Take your time for every step.

2. Do single leg RDLs (you can start with only bodyweight) to train stability of the foot that will be your front foot in the split squat. Use this exercise to learn how to actively balance yourself out.

3. Next up are bodyweight split squats. The difference to the 1st exercise is that you don’t step into a lunge but instead remain in a split stance. A good way to start is to find a stance where in the bottom position your knees are at around 90 degree angles and your front knee is not pushing much over your front foot.
Please note: Many people are complaining about knee pain doing split squats. In that case, it would be best to work with a physio or trainer to find your best split squat execution.

4. As soon as bodyweight split squats are working well, start adding weight by holding 2 dumbbells.

5. Having done all this prep work you should be good to give it a try using a barbell. Start with the lightest one they have and see how the barbell changes the game with regards to balance. As soon as you feel confident with the weight, slowly add more.