By: Barbell Logic Team
Is the Novice Program a blunt instrument that saves us from programming for your individual needs? No! It is exactly the opposite. Though the basic outline of the Novice Program is pretty standard, there are three main reasons we love it so much. (1) Everyone is a novice sometimes (usually many times) during their training career. (2) The program is the best way to generate useful training history that informs the rest of your training. And (3) in practice, the Novice Program is individualized, based on actual training, and playing out in as many different ways as the number of people who use it.
Why We Love the Novice Program
At Barbell Logic we talk a lot about the “Novice Program” or the “Novice Linear Progression.” That’s because the novice program represents a physiologically-based, time-tested approach to strength training for those whom we call “novice” lifters.
The term “Novice” and the Novice Program come from Mark Rippetoe’s works, Starting Strength (3rd ed) and Practical Programming for Strength Training (3d ed.) (written with master programmer, Coach Andy Baker). These are must-read texts for details of both the physiology behind the program and its proper application.
But we can sum things up a little bit for you. If you aren’t familiar with the Novice Program, take a few minutes to watch the videos below. In the first one, Bill Hannon explains what the Novice Program looks like. In the second video, Brent Carter dives into sets and reps, explaining why you will see so many “5s” in the Novice Program.
There are a lot of variables that go into programming for strength: The selection of exercises, sets and reps, the frequency of your training, the load or weight on the bar, and the lifter’s level of training advancement. These videos explain the rationale behind the Novice Program and its structure.
Training advancement is the main organizing factor of a lifting program. It determines the frequency and complexity of the exercises, it informs the number of sets and reps you will perform, and it helps dictate the weight on the bar relative to your absolute strength level. The term “novice” is a categorization of training advancement that helps structure how we think about a lifter’s program. It is often misunderstood since some people think “novice” means “weak,” or “inexperienced,” or because it may carry a negative connotation in other contexts. As you will see below, “novice” is a term of art, the meaning of which is specific to strength training and which shouldn’t carry any negative meaning. It is, simply, a taxonomic term, putting lifters into a general class that describes their responses to training.
The biggest criticism of Starting Strength Coaches is that we love the Novice Linear Progression a little too much. That, to us, everyone looks like a novice, the program being our proverbial hammer; and you, dear lifter, look a lot like a nail. There is some truth to this criticism; we do love the Novice Program.
The reasons, however, involve more subtle considerations than whether the program is a blunt instrument, saving us from programming for your individual needs. It is exactly the opposite, actually. Judicious use of the Novice Program and proper management reveal three main reasons we love it so much. (1) Everyone is a novice sometimes (usually many times) during their training career. (2) The program is the best way to generate useful training history, data that informs the rest of your program. And (3) in practice, the Novice Program is individualized, based on actual training, and playing out in as many different ways as the number of people who use it.
(1) You might be a novice if…
- You can recover from training and demonstrate an improvement in strength in 24-48 hours.
- You haven’t engaged in linearly-loaded training recently.
- You haven’t been using proper form.
- You haven’t touched a barbell in a month or more.
“Novice” is a term of art that refers to someone for whom the first workout is generally light enough that he or she can come back in two days and do more work using the same exercises, sets, and reps. There are many reasons why this first workout might be light:
- New Lifters: If you are new to lifting, you do not need a lot of stress to get a little bit stronger from a training session. This means that the weights will be light relative to your absolute potential. It might feel heavy because you are doing a lot of new movements or you are unused to this kind of exercise, but it will be light compared to what you could do.
- Rehab: Injuries, illness, or anything else that undercuts your physical potential so that you cannot return to training exactly where you left off, can make you a situational novice. Here, the first goal is usually to return to the standard Novice Program. In the case of rehab after an injury or surgery, often the exercises will change until you can return to the full range of motion. Once doing so, a linear progression helps to return you to your pre-injured strength. Whether the Novice Program fits your needs, in this case, is a judgment call based on your needs and your training, but this is one of the most common ways to return to lifting. (See our Podcast episodes on the Starr Rehab Protocol and Charity Hambrick’s Shoulder Rehab.)
- Time Off: A return to training after an extended time away from the gym also often warrants a linearly-progressed program, or at least a short run of one. Depending on how long you took off from training, you may need to start light and give yourself an “on-ramp” to your previously programmed regimen.
- New to This Type of Training: Many people have experience with weight training. Not many have trained with the focus of the Novice Program, using excellent form, and progressing the biggest, most useful barbell lifts in a linear fashion. If you reorganize your training based on these principles, you will be a novice for at least a little while as you benefit from the newness of the stress and get used to this type of focused strength training. Similarly, if the “newness” of your training is your lifting form—you recently had your form fixed in significant ways—a short linear progression will allow you to train while bringing your lifts up to (technical) snuff.
It meets you at your current level
The most basic reason that the Novice Linear Progression is useful is that it meets you where you are. When you walk into the gym on Day 1, you do so with a certain level of ability. This program starts wherever you are on that day. It doesn’t really matter if you are squatting several plates or a broomstick. The point is you can do something on Day 1. Everybody, almost without exception, can cause a stress large enough to produce a physical change right now. No prerequisites required. The Novice Program puts organization and form to that stress, directs it toward strength gains, and puts it in a context that allows you to get better over time and generate training history.
We don’t really care how strong you are right now. We care about making you stronger, starting right now. This means that your first day lifting on the Novice Program may feel light. The point is that you did something new that directs the physical activity toward your getting stronger and that you will come back in a few days and do it again….only slightly heavier.
But, as you will find out, the Novice Program is not easy for very long—if ever. For many people, it is the most difficult physical thing they will ever have the opportunity to do. So, if it works as a great starting point because we can start light, why stick with it when it gets fear-inducingly difficult?
Two reasons: First, it’s hard because you are playing catch-up and catching up requires a metaphorical sprint. Second, the Novice Program is the absolute best way to generate useful training data that will inform your training and programming decisions to help you continue to make progress for a long time.
It is hard because you are playing catch-up
Whether you are a true novice lifter, picking up a barbell for the first time—or the first time in many years—or you are a situational novice, returning to training after time off or an injury, you are going to play catch-up. You will be training under the assumption—until proven otherwise—that you aren’t as strong as you could be with the simplest organized training. This means that you can get stronger quickly, but it also means that you are going to add weight to the bar and make yourself stronger at a very fast rate. This is great because you get to make progress quickly and enjoy the benefits of training and watching the weight on the bar go up every training session.
However, there should also be a sense of urgency. The fuzzy line that marks the end of your novice gains is a base-line, not a finish line. It marks where you should be. The strongest you can be with the least amount of complexity, the least amount of time, and the simplest program. There is no number that signals when you have met an acceptable base-level of strength. The Novice Program not only meets you where you are on Day 1, but with the proper application, it takes you to your base-level of strength given your lifestyle, genetics, and training habits.
Some people are constantly playing catch-up. This happens with masters lifters especially. There are some people who will be perpetual novices. They will train for a while, then they will travel, get sick, or require some kind of layoff. Masters lifters tend to de-train more quickly so that, when they come back to training from even a short time off, they require another burst of linear progress. The cycle tends to repeat for some people, making them “novices” for years. That’s okay, however, because they are still getting the benefit of training. Every time they come back, the program meets them where they are and gives them the structure to improve from there.
Unfortunately, in most modern societies, strength is not valued as a necessary part of our culture. There was a time before the automation of our lives, before disposable income, and before leisure became a part of daily life, when your physical ability was directly linked to your survival. You can see this in the traditions of many cultures. Rites of passage often included tests of strength, and games from traditional cultures tend to involve physical feats as much as skill-based ones. These games, rites, and sports highlight the importance that physical preparation has played in the cultures. Lacking that survival imperative, most of us have to train just to reach a base-level of strength and physical preparedness.
The Novice Program is typically the best place to start or to start over when you need to hit a reset button on your training. This article has focused on why the Novice Program is simple and hard. Next week we will round out the “Simple. Hard. Effective.” triumvirate and discuss the Program’s usefulness beyond its obvious value in making you stronger.