The Metamorphosis of the Novice Coach and Novice Programming
How rigid does novice programming need to be? Can useful progress be made for a new lifter that has other priorities besides strength? Mac McGregor shares some insights he has learned over the years working with his clients.
The Metamorphosis of the Novice Coach and Novice Programming
By: Mac McGregor, BLOC Staff Coach, PBC
“We can’t entrust the Sword of a Thousand Truths to a noob”; Trey Parker & Matt Stone 1997
I’ve been in this game for a wee while now, and I think it’s fair to say that I have enough experience training novices to have an opinion y’all might be interested in. But we need to talk a little before I get to the point. Strap in.
Right then, let’s get on the same page. When I say “novice,” I’m not referring to experience or skill level. So don’t get all defensive. I’m referring to a person’s physiological ability to recover and adapt to a period or cycle of training.
And yes, a single workout can be a complete cycle all on its lonesome (depending upon the trainee’s response to the stress imparted by that single training session). If they can recover before the next session, then we’ll be calling them a novice until those circumstances no longer apply. Boom.
The advantage of being an unadapted novice is that significant gainz can be made in a short time. It’s effectively a honeymoon period, where everything goes great before realizing that living long-term with a spouse and raising a family might be more challenging than initially thought—but that’s another story (Love you, babe 😘).
It’s also sublimely simple to make progress. Novices are exposed to a stress (the training session) and then add a little more weight next time. There’s no need to also add volume and change exercises all at once. They only need to add a little more of one thing. In strength training, adding just a little more weight every session works just fine. Until it doesn’t—but there can be months of solid progress with this approach.
This novice linear progression (NLP) has been an extremely successful approach to training for many people. It exploits Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (SRA) and utilizes a selection of movements that train the most muscle mass over an effective range of motion, to get lifters stronger as efficiently as possible. Those movements would be the squat, bench press, deadlift, and press—with a barbell, preferably.
The NLP is aimed at the previously sedentary individual and targets the weak spots in their physical attributes for potent life-changing gainz. At its simplest, it consists of two alternating workouts performed three times per week with 24 to 48 hours between them. If you want to be pedantic, a full cycle in this case is every two workouts. Look, here’s a picture:
Workouts A and B are very similar with just the pressing movement alternating. There are good reasons for that. I won’t go into detail on that or specific set/rep schemes, because neither element is necessary for the main point I’ll be making. If this is of interest, go check out the Barbell Logic NLP e-book.
The NLP design only requires that the load goes up in small, steady progressions with every workout. That is, in fact, it. As things get more challenging, there are simple tweaks that the novice can make and additional movements that will start showing up to complete the masterpiece.
Now, this is where my experience and observations come into play. Are you ready?
The noob coach in me loved the NLP, and I still do. I still use it for the folks it suits. But to me, it was the way—in its exact form—as if written in scripture. It was lost on me that it could be highly flexible and accommodating.
The problem is people. People aren’t machines with set inputs and outputs. Sure, if someone is ready to prioritize lifting above all else and forsake any other beloved hobbies/sports, then the NLP as written works wonderfully. They’ll have to make damned sure they turn up and hit every session, establish solid technique, eat more food than they want to, hit protein targets, get plenty of sleep, and embrace the grind. And a lot of folks think they can do all of that, but they can’t. ”Stuff”—like their values, priorities, responsibilities, perhaps even their fears—get in the way, and that’s okay.
I didn’t use to give that enough thought or import. I just didn’t have the knowledge, experience, or wherewithal to apply more critical thought. I thought that to be a good coach, I had to convince my clients that they should change their priorities to embrace the holy teachings. I tried to enforce the NLP. That approach will deliver results in the short term, but if the client’s priorities aren’t being satisfied, it does not matter how much progress they’ve made. They won’t continue to train.
Most lifters come to me because they want to improve their lives, and they’ve identified that getting fitter and stronger is fundamental to that. My programming must be practical for their lifestyle. I’m not going to dismiss them because they can’t maintain an “ideal” program. They’ve sought me out for help, and that’s why I’m a coach, dammit.
So, I underwent a significant attitude adjustment. Now, my NLP probably doesn’t look like the traditional NLP.
I still aim to have my clients squat, bench, deadlift, and press somehow. But clients come to me as they are, not as I would like them to be. I’ve learned over time that rather than forming an antagonistic relationship with them when we do not agree, I can apply good training principles, build trust, help them make progress, and eventually encourage them to try things that they weren’t comfortable with when they first started. So, if they prefer front squats instead of low bar, that’s fine. I won’t slam the door in their face. If they want to focus on pressing instead of benching, okay. We can work with that. If they’re afraid deadlifts will hurt their back, I can find ways to make them stronger and start to feel more capable. Maybe they’ll see it my way later. Maybe not. I’m still going to employ the linear progression approach of adding a little more weight each session for as long as I can.
If they fancy using different tools like safety squat bars, Swiss bars, or dumbbells that’s fine too. They will still get stronger over time.
Want to mix in some sit-ups and curls? Let’s do it.
Want to do some conditioning? Game on.
Want to keep training for a sporting event and get stronger at the same time? Let’s go.
Is any of that “optimal” or the most efficient approach for getting stronger? Probably not, but it allows me to meet the lifter where they are, explore their boundaries, keep them engaged, and continue making long-term progress.
However, it’s still my job to translate all that for them in terms of potential consequences—like inviting more DOMS, compromising recovery, enduring slower progress, or sacrificing potential gains in pursuit of enjoyment or personal preference. After that discussion, if they’re still set on taking a different path than the baseline template, that’s fine.
I’m also way more open to scheduling variations. There is no one set schedule that everyone can conform to. Perhaps a client is a shift worker, manual laborer, or is devoted to another activity that they don’t want to move down their priority list. Maybe training three times per week isn’t the most effective way forward for them. Maybe shorter workouts with just two movements will work better. Or what about training just twice a week or (check this out) maybe even just once a week? The SRA Cycle/NLP will still work with reduced frequency. It will just take longer, or it might stop working sooner. But it will still work for a time, and accommodate the values, priorities, and responsibilities of that lifter without putting them under pressure to conform to something they’re going to hate. By the time a change of programming is necessary to keep driving progress, there’s a solid chance that their approach to training will have changed as well. If that helps them engage in the process more, improves their quality of life, or helps them stay consistent and get results, then that is what their NLP should look like.
The other cool thing is this programming approach has so many flexible options that it can respond to unexpected interference like illness, injury, and sudden work or life stress. It can ebb and flow—as long as there is solid communication.
The NLP as written is a programming template with a very specific intent: get bigger, stronger, and more capable as efficiently as possible. SRA is my model; Minimum Effective Dose is my toolbox; and it’s my client’s values, priorities, and needs that will drive how I program for them. I won’t force anyone into something they aren’t going to groove with. As a coach, I’m here to help people find their way—not coerce them into mine. I’m here to translate, educate, and guide so others can exercise free will to get stronger and more capable along the way.
Does that sound like what you’ve been looking for? I got you. Let’s find your novice linear progression.