Zero to One - A Beginners Program for Success
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S.
Several months ago I had a friend whom we'll call Sarah reach out and expressed that she wanted to start exercising. She was done feeling weak and feeling like her body was breaking down on her.
I agreed to help and wrote up a great well balanced exercise program for her. One based off my experience training hundreds of clients in her situation so I knew it worked.
Except It didn’t.
Not because it was a bad program but because it didn’t get done.
Sarah went to the gym 4 times and never once did the entire 8 exercise workout. I was met with excuses about how the exercise was too hard, or how she got tired, the equipment was being used; she got bored, or claiming she wasn’t sure how to do it (despite me knowing she could do it correctly).
It wasn’t long before she stopped going all together.
I was frustrated because I felt I gave her a solid and tailored workout. If she just would've done it, it would have worked. She was frustrated because again she had failed to exercise.
Several months passed and Sarah reached out again for help on what she should do.
I spent time over those months reflecting and I realized where I went wrong.
I gave Sarah a program that would get her to her goals but I failed to give her a program that solved the underlying problem - Showing up, being consistent, and believing in her ability to accomplish a task.
Sarah is like many people. She's a beginner who has never exercised but knows she should. Exercising is more punishment than pleasure for her. At the least it’s a chore that needs to get done.
Any time she has tried in the past she's failed. Each failure reinforced the idea that exercise is hard, that it's not for her, and that she wasn't meant to be fit.
This time around I created a program focused on building consistency, proficiency, and confidence.
Goals of the Program
Consistency - Your most important muscle is your consistency muscle. It allows you to show up each week and do what's required of you. Without consistency, you will never see results.
The secret to consistency is turning the action into a habit. Habits are automatic behaviors that require little mental energy or willpower such as brushing your teeth. You don't think about brushing your teeth and fit people don't think about coming to the gym.
Building a habit requires consistently repeating the task over time. Initially, it requires effort and will power which is why the program is build to minimize friction. By friction, I’m referring to anything that could impede the exercise getting done such as the workout being too long, too hard, or requiring equipment that may be in use.
It's for this reason I based it off only 4 exercises. The 4 exercises take about 15 minutes and can be modified to do at home if needed - there are no excuses.
Proficiency - Any beginner program should focus on learning how to move and perform the exercises correctly. This is your time to learn how to move your body, use your muscles, and build the foundational skills that will allow you to progress pain-free for the long term.
The 4 main exercises chosen are with this in mind. There the 4 exercises I feel will provide a good entry point for learning vital movement skills. I describe the rational for each exercise below.
Confidence - You can do it! and the only way you can do it is to believe for yourself that you can do it.
Confidence allows you to persevere when challenges inevitably arise.
Most exercise programs fail. They fail to meet you at your level. They provide you with goals or behavior changes that are too challenging. Failure ruins confidence.
In contrast, I've built this program to allow every opportunity to be successful by basing it on the minimum amount of work you need to see results. It's built to be doable, and it's built to show you progress.
The Zero to One Workout Program
Squat - 8-10 reps
Plank - As long as possible (good form) working up to one minute
Row - 10 Reps
Bridge - 10 Reps
Followed by - Anything else you feel like doing
Perform this exercise program a minimum of 2 times a week. If you get in for a 3rd or 4th day then great. If not, then no worries.
When you come to the gym, perform each of the 4 exercises above. No matter what you must perform the 4 exercises as these are the 4 exercises that will give you the most benefits.
Afterward, if you feel like doing more, you are more than welcomed to do so. However, if you don’t then that is fine as well. Rest assured you’ve already done enough to move forward
A good workout program is a blend of what you ‘need’ to do and what you ‘want’ to do. The need exercises (our 4 exercises) ensures you're doing what you need to move towards you're goals. The ‘Want’ exercises ensure that the workout is enjoyable. Clients will often add extra core work or isolation exercises which are fine - as long as you get the important stuff done first.
The 4 exercises I choose aren't mandatory. You are more than free to change the exercises based on your needs or skill level. What is important is that you get 4 ‘need’ Exercises. These are exercises that provide a high return and either address your weaknesses or push you forward towards your particular goal.
With that said I will share my rationale for why I chose the 4 exercises above to start with.
Squat - The squat is a fundamental movement that can greatly improve a person's quality of life. As an exercise, it uses the entire body. Because it uses so much muscle mass, it makes it a staple in losing fat and building muscle and strength. The deadlift is another exercise that offers these benefits however I choose the squat over a deadlift because it’s more intuitive for someone who's new to exercising.
Plank - The plank is an exercise that can help us build baseline core stability. Core stability is important for keeping your lower back safe and transferring force effectively. The plank also teaches us spinal awareness and tension important for performing more advanced exercises. Lastly, it provides us a foundation for what will lead you to learn the push-up.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the plank works the deep core muscles. These muscles wrap around the midsection and act as a corset - Providing stability while also sucking everything in.
Row - A row motion is an exercise where you pull a weight in toward your chest. Rows work the muscles of the back and biceps. This makes them great for improving posture and maintaining shoulder health.
Whenever we spend long periods of time in the same position, our body will adjust to that position. Unfortunately, that position is hunched over. This hunched over posture can put you at risk for lower back, neck and shoulder pain.
Incorporating a healthy dose of row exercises can help keep your posture upright and keep you healthy and looking good.
Glute Bridge - The glutes - AKA the butt muscles - are more than something nice to look at.
The Glutes are the strongest muscles in the body and in a position that connects your upper and lower body. This position makes them important for performing tasks that range from walking, running, jumping, using the stairs, lifting objects, performing chores and working out.
The glutes can be pre-madonnas. When they aren't being used, they shut down. The more sedentary we become the less we use our glutes. Eventually, all the sitting turns them off.
When the glutes stop working, it means other muscles must bear the brunt of the work. The lower back picks up most of the slack, while the hamstrings, quads and other muscles pick up the rest. Over time these compensations lead to injuries, pain and diminished performance.
The glute bridge is an excellent exercise at activating the glutes.
Staying Motivated and Building Habits
Fit people don’t have to will themselves to the gym, it's a habit like brushing your teeth.
Habits are automated behaviors that don't require willpower. This allows you to focus on other tasks such as resisting cupcakes.
Building a habit requires consistency and repetition over time. The more you go to the gym the easier it gets. However, in the beginning, you will depend largely on motivation to get you there.
So how do we keep you motivated?
The same way we build your confidence - By allowing you to see results.
Having a program provides structure, seeing progress makes it enjoyable.
Tracking progress is essential for success in this program. They way you'll keep track of your progress is using a workout log.
A workout log can be an expensive journal, a notebook from the dollar store, a spreadsheet or just printing the pdf above. What you use doesn’t matter as long as you can use it to keep track of your progress.
How's it work?
Step 1 - Take initial measurements.
If you have body composition goals, this means taking a weight measurement, a circumference measurement around the parts of your body you’d like to keep track of, and if available a body fat%. (Note that body composition changes at this point will mostly come from nutritional changes).
In the gym, it’s as simple as writing down what you did each workout. If you did a 10-second plank, then write it down - that's your starting point.
Next workout -
As a beginner, you don’t need any special periodization schemes (if you don’t know what that is then good. You don’t need to - at least not now).
Instead, focus on good form and being better than you were the workout before.
If you did a 10-second plank, then aim for a 15-second plank.
Each workout you will get a little better. Eventually, you’ll be doing things you wouldn’t have imagined at the start.
Take Sarah for example.
She started with the exact program listed above. In 3 months this is what her workout looked like
Sarah's Program at 3 Months
Goblet Squat - 12 Reps with 20lbs
TRX Row - 10 reps - 55 degree angle
One arm Plank - 5 second hold, switch for 3 times total.
Weighted Bridge - 20 Reps - 20 lbs
Deadlift - 8 reps - 40lb weight
Negative Push Up - 5 reps - 5 seconds down 2 second hold (almost to her first push up)
Step ups - 12 each leg
Lat Pull down - 8 reps x 55lbs
Talk about improvement!
This all from a person who failed every workout program she ever tried. From someone who had absolutely no idea how to workout. From someone whom just showing up was a big deal.
Each week she improved on her exercises. As she felt more confident and stronger she added in more exercises.
Progressions over time
As a beginner, your main task will be learning how to do each exercise correctly and with good form. Look to improve only after you feel comfortable.
Here are a few common progressions I recommend.
Each workout do a little more than the last.
The 4 exercises I start most people off with above were chosen because they address the needs that most people deal with - weak and hunched backs, deactivated glutes, poor spinal awareness. These are all areas that by improving will help someone feel better and provide a foundation for them to advanced forward from.
Now depending on your starting place, these exercises may require modification. Below are a few of the progressions and regressions I use when starting people off - Find the right starting place and work your way up.
Always focus on good form. Always.
Progress to a harder exercise
Next, for each exercise, I offer a few standards you should work up too before progressing to the next exercise.
Example - work up to 3 x 60-second planks before progressing to the tall plank.
Also included are links to other articles I've written that detail how to perform and learn the exercise.
Counterbalance squat (12 Reps)
Bodyweight squat (15 reps)
Goblet Squat (8-12 reps increase weight when you reach 3 sets of 12 reps)
Add reps till you reach 12 then increase the resistance and start at 8 reps again. Repeat focusing on good form.
Workout 1 - 8 reps
Workout 2 - 10 reps
Workout 3 - 12 Reps
Workout 4 - 8 reps - heavier weight
Dead Bug (12 reps)
Kneeling Plank (60 seconds)
Plank (60 seconds)
Tall Plank(60 Seconds)
Incline Push up ( the 4th rung on a smith machine / about 2 feet off the floor)
Negative Push up(5 reps of 5 seconds down, work up to 5 sec down 5 sec hold)
Band Pull Apart (8 - 115 reps)
Row ( 8-12 progression)
Cable Row (8 - 12 Progression)
TRX Row (8 - 12 progression - lower angle)
Glute Bridge (20 reps) -
Weighted Bridge (10 - 20 progression)
Single Leg Bridge
The Zero to One Program is the best workout I have ever written.
Why? Because it addresses the biggest problem beginners face - Showing up.
Once exercise is a habit, it's easy. Building that habit though takes time and repetition. Unfortunately, the reason most people fail is that they stop going to the gym before the habit is formed.
Their exercise programs are too complex, too hard, too boring and too unstructured.
That's why I made the Zero to One program just the opposite; Simple, structured, and adaptable. Follow the directions, keep track of your progress, and before you know it you'll be doing more than you ever would have thought.