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Beginner’s Bliss, Part 1

I’d seen Arnie a few times at the gym. Although a beginner, he was on a three-day-split program: three days on/one day off. He was doing three exercises per bodypart and at least three work sets of each exercise.

Although 24, fit and healthy, Arnie was exhausted by the program. Although he hadn’t missed a workout in the four months he’d been at the gym, he was losing his enthusiasm for training. Plus, his muscles were still the same size as when he started.

Of course, four months isn’t long enough to produce a lot of growth, but at Arnie’s stage he should have seen visible growth—and substantial improvement in his weights.

“Guys like Dexter and Jay,” Arnie said, “train most days and do many sets at each workout, don’t they?”

“Probably,” I replied, “but they’re bodybuilding supermen, with tremendous advantages for bodybuilding that the huge majority of us don’t have. How they train works for them, but it won’t work for you. You have to train like a hardgainer should.”

Then he complained that five or six workouts a week was a struggle because he has a nine-to-five job and some part-time study commitments, and he used to have a social life. His training program had made it impossible to keep on top of his studies, had killed his social life and was causing aggravation with his fiancée. If the program had been working, he could argue that the sacrifices were worthwhile, but it wasn’t working.

Arnie wanted a training program that worked and that wouldn’t cripple his life. So, I gave him my “beginners’ bliss” routine.

Arnie’s busiest days were Monday through Friday, so we fixed Saturday at 10:30 a.m. for one of his workouts, and Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. for the other. Tuesday would be the shorter of the two.


1) Leg presses, warmup plus 3 x 8

2) Standing calf raises, warmup plus 3 x 12

3) Deadlifts (from just below knees), warmup plus 3 x 8

4) Bench presses, warmup plus 3 x 8

5) Pulldowns, warmup plus 3 x 8

6) Overhead dumbbell presses, warmup plus 3 x 8

7) Incline dumbbell curls, warmup plus 3 x 8

8) Crunch situps, warmup plus 3 x 12


1) Leg presses, warmup plus 3 x 8

2) Bench presses, warmup plus 3 x 8

3) Pulldowns, warmup plus 3 x 8

I planned to move him to squats later on. Here’s what I told him to do:

Perform all three work sets for a given exercise with the same weight. The first work set will feel easier than the third, but the key is to stop when you get to the target number of reps. Provided you make all three required work sets—for example, get eight reps on the leg press on all three sets—at the next workout you add the smallest weight increment the gym has. If you can’t perform all the required reps on the final work set, you stay with that weight for another workout or even a few workouts, until you can get the required reps.

Previously, Arnie had rested only about a minute between sets—a hopeless way to train for building strength. His focus—and that of most bodybuilders most of the time—should be on getting stronger and then stronger still, while always using correct exercise technique on sets of at least six reps. On beginners’ bliss Arnie would rest two to three minutes between sets of the smaller exercises, and three to four minutes between sets of the big exercises—leg presses, deadlifts, bench presses, pulldowns and overhead presses. That way he’d be able to do justice to each set.

I told him to keep a card with his exercises listed on it and record the weights and reps he does on all work sets. I also told him to stretch after each workout for 15 minutes but not to do any cardio for the time being.

I supervised his first two workouts to make sure he used correct form. In addition to maintaining correct bar pathways, he used a controlled rep speed of about two seconds up and two seconds down for smooth reps.

He proudly told me the supplements he was taking. There were so many that I asked, “Where’s the food?” He had a protein fixation. Protein is vital, but excessive protein is a hindrance.

Supplements are for special, not mainstay, use, I told him. On his new regimen he’d eat something every three hours or so, including something rich in protein. Whereas he used to be obsessed with protein, he now understood the importance of healthful carbs and fats. By getting sufficient carbs and fats, he ensures that the protein he eats can be used mostly for muscle repair and growth rather than for energy.

When I asked him about his sleep, he said that while he was always tired, of late it had deteriorated.

A month into the program I caught up with Arnie to check on his exercise technique and get an update on progress. Now that he trained just twice a week, he relished his training, was able to push himself and was able to make a little progress with his weights every week. Furthermore, he was sleeping much better than he had been and was enjoying his food. His previous focus on protein shakes had killed much of his enjoyment of eating. Part of his much improved well-being was that he was eating a more nutritionally sound diet.

Furthermore, he now had the time to keep on top of his studies, have a social life and keep his fiancée happy. Not only was he making good bodybuilding progress, but he was enjoying a well-rounded life as well.

Beginners’ bliss had started to work its magic.

—Stuart McRobert

Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new 638-page opus on bodybuilding Build Muscle, Lose Fat, Look Great, available from Home Gym Warehouse (800) 447-0008 or

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