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Your First Two Weeks of Strength Training: What to Expect

So you've finally decided to Be Somebody and start a strength training program. Not a machine-based health spa/corporate gym exercise plan with leg extensions, treadmills, and three-pound dumbbells, but real strength training involving barbells, basic full range of motion movements, and regular incremental increases in load that drive an actual increase in strength. You may decide to hire a coach to show you how to use the exercises correctly, you're going to train three days a week, and you're going to increase the weight on all the exercises a little bit every time you do them.

What will happen during the first two weeks of this program? More than you will probably expect.

First -- let's get this out of the way -- you will be sore. Your muscles will be sore, a little, for a few days. This will mostly stop after the third workout, and it's a natural consequence of using your muscles in ways they haven't been used before. Specifically, the eccentric component of the work -- the lowering-phase of the movement pattern, where the muscles get longer as the weight is lowered -- is the source of this soreness. This soreness is not what's making you stronger, it is just a side effect of doing the work that does make you stronger.

If the soreness is excessive, you have done something wrong. For example, if your joints are sore, you have performed the exercise incorrectly -- you have placed your joints in positions they are not designed to be in. Your technique was wrong, and it must be corrected. One of the advantages of barbell training is that the exercises can be performed correctly according to your individual proportions (your anthropometry), a factor that cannot be controlled for using machines. The down-side is that they can also be performed incorrectly, since you are in complete control of the barbell's movement. If your knees, shoulders, elbows, or hips are sore, you did something wrong. That's okay, you haven't crippled yourself. Just correct it next time.

If your muscles are so badly sore that you can't move, you did too much in the previous workout -- either you did too many reps (the most common problem) or too much weight. Too many reps add up to too much eccentric work, to which you are not yet adapted. The recommended number of reps is five and the recommended number of sets is no more than three, for a very good reason. And too large a jump in weight will overwhelm your ability to correctly perform the movement, placing you in an incorrect position under the load. If your eyes get bigger than your stomach in this particular case, you will be in a lot of pain for a few days. Don't do this. Stick with the program.