A Basic Exercise Program for Beginning Participants

A Basic Exercise Program for Beginning Participants

Table of Contents

By Wayne L. Westcott and Rita La Rosa Loud


Have you ever felt confused about the myriad of strength training models presently being promoted in the fitness market?  Do you wonder why there are so many different strength training protocols and workout programs?  Variety aside, do you wish that there was a simple and sensible plan for muscle development that involved standard exercise equipment and basic exercise guidelines?

Good news!  There is a highly effective and time-efficient strength training program that is relatively easy for beginning exercisers to understand and implement.  It is essentially the strength training protocol that was recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) in 20071.  These guidelines call for participants to select 8 to 10 standard exercises that address the major muscle groups and to perform each exercise for at least 1 set of 8 to 12 repetitions 2 or 3 non-consecutive days a week.

This basic strength training protocol is not difficult to implement, and it typically takes less than 20 minutes to complete the workout.  We conducted a research study using the ACSM/AHA strength training protocol as well as the ACSM/AHA recommendations for  endurance exercise, namely, 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity 3 days a week1.

Research Study

Our large-scale research study implemented the ACSM/AHA training recommendations using a small class format, in a private exercise room, with careful instruction and close supervision.4 The exercise classes, offered hourly throughout the day, were limited to 6 participants with 2 instructors; and, included 20 minutes of strength training (10 weight- stack machines) and 20 minutes of aerobic activity (treadmill or recumbent cycle).  Classes were held 1 day a week (Saturday), 2 days a week (Tuesday-Thursday) or 3 days a week (Monday-Wednesday-Friday) for 10-week training periods.

More specifically, the study participants performed 1 set of the following exercises using a weight load that could be lifted for 8 to 12 repetitions, at a movement speed of 6 seconds per repetition (2 seconds concentric muscle action and 4 seconds eccentric muscle action).  Whenever 12 repetitions were completed with proper form, the weight load was increased by approximately 5 percent.

Weight stack Machines

Leg Extension                                     Biceps Curl

Leg Curl                                               Triceps Extension

Double Chest                                      Abdominal Curl

Pullover                                               Low Back Extension

Lateral Raise                                      Neck Flexion/Extension

Program Participants

Over the study period, more than 1,600 men and women between 21 and 80 years of age completed the 10-week ACSM/AHA recommended beginner exercise program.  Due to the relatively small percentage (5%) of participants in the 1 day per week frequency, we will report only on the subjects who trained 2 days a week (53%) and 3 days a week (42%).  All aspects of the exercise programs except for the training frequency were identical for all of the study subjects.

Program Results

Before and after the 10-week basic exercise program all of the participants were carefully assessed for body composition and resting blood pressure.  Participants who trained 3 days a week experienced approximately a 2 percent decrease in percent fat, a 4 pound decrease in fat weight, a 3 pound increase in lean weight, a 5 mmHg reduction in resting systolic blood pressure and a 2 mmHg reduction in resting diastolic blood pressure. (Please see Table 1.)  Participants who trained 2 days a week attained approximately a 2 percent decrease in percent fat, a 3 pound decrease in fat weight, a 3 pound increase in lean weight, a 3 mmHg reduction in resting systolic blood pressure and 1 mmHg reduction in resting diastolic blood pressure.

Body Composition and Blood Pressure Responses to 10-week Training Program Using the ACSM/AHA Exercise Guidelines1

                                                                     Exercise Frequency

Factor                                                  2 Days/Week             3 Days/Week             Total

Percent Fat (%)                             -1.9*                         -2.2*                         -2.0*

Fat Weight (lb.)                            -3.2*                         4.4*                          -3.7*

Lean Weight (lb.)                         +3.1*                       +3.1*                         +3.1*

Systolic Pressure (mmHg)          -3.1*                        -4.6*                         -3.8*

Diastolic Pressure (mmHg)       -1.4*                        -2.2*                          -1.8*

*statistically significant change from beginning value (P<.05)


All of the body composition and blood pressure changes represented significant improvements (P<.05) over initial measures, indicating that the standard ACSM/AHA exercise guidelines are effective for fitness enhancements in new participants.  Perhaps the most impressive outcome was the 3 pound gain in lean (muscle) weight obtained by both training groups.  Apparently, performing basic and brief strength training sessions either 2 or 3 nonconsecutive days a week is sufficient for stimulating significant muscle development in beginning exercisers.

The lean weight gain is noteworthy because resistance training associated with 3 pounds of muscle gain has demonstrated a 7 percent increase in resting metabolic rate2,3. Of course, a higher resting metabolic rate is advantageous for fat loss and weight management.  Combining the average lean weight gain (+3 pounds) with the average fat loss (-3.5 pounds), our study participants actually improved their body composition by almost 6.5 pounds over the 10-week training period.

Finally, our beginning exercisers were receptive to the ACSM/AHA strength-training guidelines, as evidenced by their participation rates.  More than 90 percent of the class registrants completed the 10-week training program, attending more than 80 percent of their scheduled sessions, and reporting high levels of satisfaction with the exercise protocol (4.9 on a 5-point scale).

Although advanced participants may require more challenging strength training programs for continued improvement, the ACSM/AHA exercise guidelines appear to be particularly appropriate for previously sedentary adults and seniors.  Based on this large-scale study these standard exercise recommendations provide a basic, brief, simple, sensible, efficient and effective strength training protocol that appears to be highly productive for beginning exercisers from a health and fitness perspective.

Check out AAHF specialty CEC programs to learn more about exercise and nutrition for special populations!


  1. Haskell W, et al. Physical activity and public health:  Updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association,   2007: 116: 1081-1093.
  2. Campbell WW, et al.  Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1994: 60: 167-175.
  3. Pratley RB, et al.  Strength training increases resting metabolic rate and norepinephrine levels in healthy 50-65-year old men.  Journal of Applied Physiology. 1994: 76: 133-137.
  4. Westcott WL, et al. Prescribing physical activity: Applying the ACSM protocols for exercise type, intensity, and duration across3 training frequencies. Physician and Sportsmedicine. 2009:37(2): 51-58.


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