Your Novice Linear Progression: Questions & Answers

Time to Read: ~6 Minutes


As mentioned in our previous article, developing strength is the first step towards any health or fitness goals you may have. If you are ready to get started, a novice linear progression (NLP) barbell strength training program is the most effective and efficient way to build strength (and size) as a new trainee. Ideally the program will focus on the main lifts (squat, press, bench press, and deadlift). If these lifts are the focus, it is easy to make daily progress for months especially if your chosen NLP program is Starting Strength. If you haven't read the book, you should. However, I recognize that many people will not read this book in its entirety. Still others may have questions about subtler points, or may be trying to integrate other information they may have heard from coaches and videos. As such, this guide will cover common trainee questions one-by-one.

Questions & Answers

What about nutrition for this program?

Some customization will likely be necessary, but generalizations can be made. First, you need to make sure you are eating enough to get through training sessions, recover from the training sessions, and build new muscle mass. For most males and females this will mean at least 2500 and 1500 calories every day, respectively. Again, this will vary with the individual, but these are good starting points. If you are struggling in the program too soon, check your calories, and then make sure you are getting a good amount of protein (at least 150g for males and 100g for females per day) and carbohydrates (at least 300g for males and 150g for females per day) comprising the bulk of your calories.

How do I know how many calories I am consuming now?

You will need to start by finding a "typical day" and looking up the values. There are a variety of calorie counting apps out there. Many are free to enter in foods and see what the macronutrient and calorie breakdown is (e.g., MyFitness Pal, Cronometer, etc.). You can also just make a list in a spreadsheet and look up nutritional information on the web. There are a variety of open-source databases such as the one maintained by the USDA. Note looking up values for prepared meals with many ingredients will be more difficult.

I calculated a typical day and I am way under 2500 calories. If I eat that much I am going to get fat.

Being "fat" means different things to different people. If you mean increasing your body fat percentage to 30%, then that would indeed be concerning from a health perspective and also not at all productive to your NLP training. If you handle your nutrition correctly, you will not gains large amounts of body fat.

I don't want to gain any fat at all - just muscle mass. What should I do?

Unless you already carry a lot of fat mass or are genetically gifted, your body likely won't let you gain muscle mass without some increase in fat mass. You just need to monitor your training progress and body composition (e.g., weigh yourself and look at yourself in the mirror regularly) to make sure the rate of fat development isn't too great.

Do I need to do a stretching warm-up routine before each workout?

Generally speaking, no. You don't need a ton of joint range of motion to do the barbell lifts and if you are lacking some range of motion you will gain some by simply doing the program. However, if you are unable to get into the proper setup position for one or more of the lifts, you may then want to cycle in some stretches to speed up the process. 

Do I need to do two sets of 5 reps with the empty bar to begin warm-ups for all of my lifts?

There is some flexibility here. Since the squat is the first lift of the day, two sets are helpful. If you wanted to then only do one set of 5 for the press and bench press, that is generally fine. For the deadlift you can often skip the empty bar set. Remember, though, that the warm-up sets aren’t just to warm your body up, they are to help you get your movement patterns up to speed by the time you have to do your work sets.

What if I miss a training day?

If you only missed one training day you can likely just push that session to your next regular training day. If you missed more than one session in a row, consider repeating your last couple of sessions and continuing on from there. 

What if I get sick and miss a lot of training days?

This will depend on how sick you were. In most cases you can just start yourself several weeks back in your program. If your sickness really debilitated you such that you are now very weak and have lost notable body weight, you will likely need to start up again with ramping sets of 5 slowly adding weight to try and figure out what starting weights will be doable in your current state. 

What if I am physically not 100% before my training session?

Go train anyway and see how it goes. As you are doing the warm-ups, if they feel fine you can proceed as normal. If you are not feeling 100% as you are warming up (or in your work sets), you can drop the weight in 10% increments as needed. If you have multiple sets such as 3x5, you can also cut out a set or two. In both cases, you are trying to retain the programming scheme as much as possible while reducing the stress levels a bit.

I feel like I am struggling way too soon in this program. What is going on?

The most common causes are not resting enough between sets, taking weight jumps each session that are too large, not eating enough, not sleeping enough (aim for 7+ hours each night), and technique errors that are making the lifts prematurely hard. For more on these points see The First Three Questions by Mark Rippetoe. If you think technique issues might be at play, consider getting a month of video coaching, a live remote coaching session, or an in-person coaching session with us. These are all available for purchase in the Science for Fitness Store.

Some sets feel too heavy; I won't be able to complete them. What should I do?

When you begin training it is highly likely that you will start “feeling” things to be not right (e.g., your setup, bar path, tightness, how hard reps are, etc.). This may seem harsh but try to ignore your feelings. It takes a very long time to be able to match your feelings to what your body is actually doing and even then you will be incorrect many times. Try to keep your feelings in check, do all the sets and reps as planned and then see what happens.

How long can I run out this program?

This will depend on a variety of factors such as your age, sex, nutrition, sleep, stress levels and so on. In the best of cases the NLP could run close to 9 months (young males who are eating and sleeping perfectly and have minimal distractions/interruptions). However, most individuals will not have all of those advantages. Nevertheless, nearly everyone should be able to run out this program for more than 10 weeks.

What happens when my NLP ends and how will I know when it ends?

Each of your lifts will have their own length of time for which their NLP lasts. One way to know that a lift is nearing the end of its NLP is when your final work sets start to get very hard. Objectively this can be seen with significantly slower bar speeds for your last couple of reps. This is not easy for lifters without coaching experience to assess, but your “eye” can be developed if you video all your work sets in the program and examine your progression over time. If you don’t catch this level of difficulty on your own and the NLP is ending, the next thing that will happen is you will start missing reps. For example, on your last squat set you might only get 4 reps instead of 5. 

So, basically, can I just run the program out until I fail reps on each of the lifts?

In theory, yes, but remember that this may happen initially for only some lifts and not for others, so you will need to have a plan of action for when this situation arises. In addition, running the program out until you miss reps can be rather fatiguing for your body. Depending on how heavy your weights are you can accumulate quite a lot of stress from failed reps and it will not be easy to recover from them. In short, failed reps can set your training back a lot. As such, we recommend that when things start to get very hard for a lift, or you start to fail a rep in any lift, you get some guidance on what to do next in your training. The end of the NLP is an appropriate point to pause and discuss your fitness goals with a coach. We are happy to help with this transition; you can purchase a full training consultation in the Science for Fitness store or you can book a brief chat with us using the link on our website.


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