The art of programing in Barbell Training is not difficult; it is insanely difficult and in most cases, it really is a game of trial and error. There are so many variables that need to be taken into consideration, a “one size fits MOST” is not even conceivable. Don’t take me wrong, at the start its pretty straight forward, or it would seem to be anyway.

With a beginner, it’s a simple understanding of the principles of Stress and Supercompensation.

Find a stress big enough to disrupt homeostasis, adapt to it, recover from it, and then apply a slightly larger stress factor. In time you will get stronger. If you don’t get stronger there is something wrong in your training, your diet or your rest. In essence, this is logical enough and makes complete sense. Physiological adaptation, given all the correct parameters are applied, has been proven and is a fundamental part of evolutionary logic.

And this is where the “simple” of it ends.

Let’s start by defining a “beginner”. In the broader sense of the word, a beginner is an individual who can recover from a disruption in homeostasis in 24 to 48 hours. Whether you are a beginner because you are new to Barbell Training or because you’ve been away from it for a lengthy period doesn’t really matter. If you can recover in 24 to 48 hours and add some extra weight to the barbell (linear progression) then you are a beginner.

Many people are beginners even if they’ve been “working out” every day. Barbell Training is not “working out”, it is planning a long-term progression with a clear objective in mind.

So technically a beginner should be able to hit a personal record (PR) every time he trains. (Keep this in mind as it becomes important in the long run).

A fundamental factor in structuring, even the most basic of training programs, is age. An older trainee will require a lot more attention to proper dosing of training and recovery. Some more than others, so it is an individual approach required from the very start.

Though there are numerous books and research done on strength adaptations in older populations, there is not a single “one size fits all” program out there. In the best of cases there are templates, which coaches can base their initial approach to an older beginner’s training program (the same is true for the younger beginner).

Next, you need to take into account any biological, physiological or biomechanical complications that may or may not be present. Please note that I address them as “complications” and not problems. A problem that cannot be overcome is not a problem it is a fact. (If someone cannot squat for whatever reason it’s not a problem, but a simple fact which needs to be addressed by using a different movement – or avoiding one.) A hip injury, a shoulder injury, or even poor mobility can and will play a factor in programming.

Let’s not forget we need an objective. An objective is fundamental in programing because the programming will need to reflect ones’ objective/s. Many do not factor this important element in programing, yet it is essential. Is the objective to gain 20 pounds of muscle mass or are you preparing for firefighting training?

In the case of the later, the programing may (most probably will) be different. It may use the same movements, but in a different set up, or within a different context.

Lastly, and this is not only valid for beginners but for most other individuals, most people are not ideal trainees.

They are not ideal in the sense that they have lives outside of the gym. They have jobs, they have concerns and worries and complications. They can get sick, they can have a bad night’s sleep and might not always have the time to rest and eat properly.

It is therefore quite obvious from the start that the “one size fits all” doesn’t necessarily work. There are just too many variables that need to be taken into account.

Now that we have the initial information at hand – status of the trainee (Beginner), age, eventual physiological or biomechanical complications, objective, and how much time he has to dedicate to training - we can start setting up a program.

Before moving any further, we need to define the Stress and Supercompensation principle. There are actually two different theories here: The One Factor Theory and Two Factor Theory, (Also known as the Fitness-Fatigue Theory). The Two Factor Theory is used in some cases for Intermediate Trainees and exclusively used at advanced levels by elite athletes.

We shall start with the One Factor Theory, as this is the most straightforward representation of the process of training and getting stronger.

The One Factor theory is a four-step process. The first step is to apply a stress high enough to disrupt homeostasis. The body will initially react to this stress with fatigue and a drop off in performance. The second step is, with rest and proper nutrition, the body will recover from this stress and return to baseline homeostasis, which is the point where you started at when you applied the original stress. The third step is the supercompensation phase, also known as the “rebound effect”. That is where the body “gets stronger” physically, physiologically and technically. It is now above the baseline where you were before applying the stress. The fourth step is the loss of the supercompensation effect. In other words, if a new stress is not applied at the peak of supercompensation, your body will return to its baseline of homeostasis. Also known as the detraining phenomenon.  

Below is a graph that is quite self-explanatory:


What defines a novice is essentially the time it takes to recover from the initial Training Stimulus, pass the “Fully recovered” part, and enter the Supercompensation phase. This tends to be between 24 to 48 hrs. I personally use the 48-hour concept. For example, train Monday, recover 24 hours later (Tuesday), and reach the peak of Supercompensation on Wednesday, when you apply the stimulus again (train). This subsequent stimulus needs to be greater than the previous one to generate a new Supercompensation phase. This is, in essence, the principle of linear progression. Simple enough. Take the Squat as an example; this is what a basic training week would look like:

-Monday                         3 sets of 5 repetitions with 100 pounds

-Wednesday                   3 sets of 5 repetitions with 102.5 pounds

-Friday                              3 sets of 5 repetitions with 105 pounds

After which you have a 72-hour break (the weekend), and on Monday you start all over with 3 sets of 5 repetitions at 107.5 pounds. Simple enough.

At this level we are not basing ourselves on percentage of a 1 RM(Repetition Maximum) to estimate the weight we will start our program at, because a novice doesn’t have a 1 RM. A novice has yet to learn, (or needs to re-learn following a prolonged absence from training) the ability to DISPLAY strength, he/she has yet to learn how to generate force, use his/her motor units to their full potential, and create new ones. Neurological synapses have still to be created; tendons and ligaments need to be strengthened.

At this level, the novice is also still on a learning curve as to technique of the lifts themselves, creating new motor pathways, learning how to execute the movement with proper, ideal form and proper muscle recruitment.

Apply this principle to the other movements, (the Overhead Press, the Deadlift and the Bench Press), add some extra arm work if you wish, (Chin ups for example), and you have a very basic training template which can suite one quite well for a few months, if not a tad more.

Simple enough but note that I refer to it as a template, not a program. It can be turned into a program if it suits all the other parameters mentioned previously, (age, eventual complications, objectives, time available to train, etc.)

Where you start the program (load, reps, sets, time between sets) and how you structure it (the actual program) will depend on the ability of your coach. If you train yourself then you are your own coach. Again, simple enough, and if you are 18 years old and with no injuries or worries, then progress should be achieved on a daily basis, (thus hitting a Personal Best every time you hit the gym).

Unfortunately, we are not all 18 years old and most of us are not, as mentioned earlier, ideal trainees. Even the most basic principles of linear progression are already challenged by outside factors, from the food we eat, to our bodies’ ability to respond to a given stress.

Not everyone gets a perfect tan with constant exposure to the sun, some people tan faster, some slower, some get sunburn faster, and some just get wrinkly.

There will be more to come on the next blog on the Essentials of Programming, but for now this blog is long enough and should be digested thoroughly. The multi-billion Fitness Industry has done a great job in promoting fully detailed “work-out” programs that will instantly add inches to your arms, six-pack abs, and massive shoulders. It really doesn’t work that way. It’s just not that simple. It never has been, and it never will be.

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