OK, you’re not an idiot not as much as me anyway. But, I want to explain a really simple template for programming your workouts. It’s super easy to over complicate these things, so this blog is going to be a basic step by step guide on how to put together your own training plans, why you could program it that way and also how a trainer could involve their clients in the process.
First off, you need to understand your goals. I mean, if you want to enter a bodybuilding competition and you’re running 20k per day you’re going to look shit on stage aren’t you? So, when it comes to deciding on exercise goals you might use the SMART template. Or apply this hierarchical template:
To break that down a bit, the superordinate goal should be something that resonates with your core values. So if the selfish pursuit of overwhelming wealth is a core value, you're not going to make time to spend an hour a day in the gym. But if health, happiness, physical strength are important to you it will be easy to prioritise that time. The intermediate goals are the processes, like going to the gym and eating accordingly. Then the subordinate goals are the specifics of what you'll actually be doing in the gym and exactly what you'll be eating and when.
So, essentially you have to know what it is you want to achieve, why that’s important to you and then you reverse engineer the process. The process goals are the actions you have to take in order to reach the desired outcome. Easy right? That's a very basic and somewhat vague take on the deeply complex psychology of behaviour change, but this is a blog about training not behavioural psychology so, you know...
Do you want to get stronger or bigger? Sure, if you get stronger you WILL get bigger but the more specific your training is to the goal the better the results. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t seem to get that.
There are a few factors you need to take into account but before I break that down, be honest with yourself (or have your client be honest). Are you saying you want to be stronger but really you want to be bigger? It’s important to define that goal and important to set your expectation realistically otherwise you won't create the most effective program for your goals. Doing deadlifts, squats and bench press 3 times per week for 5 or 6 sets of 3-6 reps will get you stronger but it won't maximise hypertrophy as much as a higher volume high frequency training template will. It goes without saying that, the newer you are the more impressive your results will be, but at some point your training process needs to more directly reflect the goal. The longer you’ve been training the smaller the results and the longer you will have to keep going in order to get the outcome you want, meaning that your training specifics will need to be more precise. This is why outcome goals ought not to be the primary focus for you. Instead of the outcome concentrate on the smaller process goals, the daily habits you have to complete that get you closer to the desired outcome.
I’m putting this one first because most people want bigger muscles. To do this you need to take the total training volume into account. Volume is the intensity (weight) x reps x sets. But this doesn’t mean that you lift as much as you can as often as you can because you still need to allow your muscles to recover and adapt.
When it comes to this kind of stuff there’s two researchers I rely on (there’s more but for simplicity's sake I’ll mention these two) Eric Helms, whose Pyramid book helped me to understand these principles and Brad Schoenfeld, who’s authored a number of studies on the topic. Because these two experts have done their due diligence they are in agreement with each other. It’s funny that isn’t it? Those who do the research agree, as opposed to those who choose to ignore it or press their own agenda. I’ll side with the clever scientists, not the biased lunatics and conspiracists thank you very much. But I digress.
Schoenfeld identified intensity levels of around 75% of the one rep max and rep ranges of 8-12 being optimal for creating the adaptations needed to cause hypertrophy – there’s that word again! It means muscle growth, by the way. Ideally 4 sets of 8-12 reps but if you aim for a minimum of 40 reps per set and at least 80 reps per week on a given muscle group you should be good to go (1,2) those are beginners ranges you can go up to about 210 reps per week for elite lifters. No, you don’t have to go super heavy to build muscle, you can get similar effects from low load versus high load training methods (3). But you do need to go heavy to build maximal strength, more on that in a bit. As an example, if you want to grow your biceps, the minimum you should is 4 sets of 10 reps twice per week, at a weight that is heavy enough to feel like your last rep of each set is somewhat close to failure.
First off, to be developing maximal strength you need to be lifting heavy weight, like above 85% of your 1 rep max for the most part. Therefore, it is necessary to perform lower rep ranges. Typical sets and rep ranges for novice strength athletes are 3-6 reps for 4-6 sets. The classic 5x5 is a good example. Lifting heavier weights is far more taxing on your central nervous system than moderate weights at higher reps. Basically, it requires a lot more effort and creates a lot more fatigue using near maximal efforts. The key variable to focus on with max strength work is progressive overload. This is a continual and gradual increase in the amount of weight being lifted. Although you can also increase reps or sets. For example, if you are doing a linear 5x5 program and after a few weeks you simply can't add any more weight to the bar on a given lift then increase the reps instead. Let's say you are stuck at 100kg squat for 5 reps, increase the reps by one until you are at about 8 reps and then increase the weight and drop the reps back to 5.
Although actual volume is less important for strength development than overload (as opposed to hypertrophy) a good minimum volume range to focus on for the novice strength athlete is 15-25 total reps per lift. That could mean 3 x 5, 4 x 5 or 5 x 5 or 8 x 3! Obviously lower reps would mean higher weight, so more intensity which equals higher systemic fatigue, which means longer recovery times. This is why sensible programming is important, but can also be a little confusing.
As I mentioned, recovery is very important. Your muscles require fuel sources called Adenosine Triphosphate and Creatine Phosphate. These occur naturally but they take time to replenish. Therefore, you need to rest between sets to allow this fuel tank to top up. It takes about a minute for the muscles to refill but the harder the effort the longer it takes to recover. 60-90 seconds is generally enough (1). But, the more weight you lift the longer you can rest, ideally between 2 and 5 minutes. Less intense lower load efforts, like some of your accessory lifts may only require 30 seconds to recover.
But, as important as it is to rest your muscles between sets, it’s as important to rest between workouts. Ideally, muscle groups need 24-48 hours to recover (1,2) and this is often not done by newbies who think that more is better. But, what will happen if you keep pounding the same muscles groups day after day is that fatigue will set it, exhaustion will set in, injury likelihood increases and your CNS crashes. Have you ever done back to back gym sessions for a week and then got to the end of the week and all you want to do is stay in bed eating ice cream and feeling sorry for yourself? That’s exercise induced burn-out. Don’t do that.
The way to avoid this is to not train the same muscle groups on consecutive days. Make sure that you are eating correctly – this means calculating your Calories based on your body mass and activity, eating a meaningful amount of protein (1.6+ grams per KG) and carbohydrates (3-5g per KG) and being well hydrated. Lastly, you need to be sleeping well if you want to recover and perform at your best. To go into the health factors of sleep deprivation would be a whole blog in itself. instead, read this article from examine.com. In short, not only do your muscles repair and adapt while you sleep but wakefulness is directly associated with increased fat mass and decreased lean mass. In other words, being a stressed-out insomniac will make you fatter and weaker.
OK, that’s all the technical stuff out the way. I don’t want this to be too overblown and wordy without lending you the practical advice you deserve. For the purpose of this model and keeping things simple we are going to discard isolation exercises. Not because they are bad but because you need to know the specifics of what and why you are isolating a particular muscle group. Bodybuilders use it to develop symmetry, but they have taken years (and lots of steroids) to get their physique to that level of specificity. I use isolation exercises with clients to address asymmetries and weakness as part of injury rehab or during general physical preparation (GPP). But this is the 5%, the icing on the cake and we are keeping this simple, more bang for your buck, etc.
Exercise specificity is important but, let’s face it, following a very strict periodized training plan for anyone who isn’t an elite athlete can be very dull and repetitive. I’m not into the whole muscle confusion malarkey but I do feel that for most recreationally active people that, so long as your training mode is specific to your goal and that you train at consistent times there is scope for exercise variation to keep things interesting one week to the next. For example, in my own training right now my goal is to maintain strength and mobility. That’s not a very specific goal so I don’t need a very specific periodized training plan. I decide on the day which exercises I am going to use based on the movement patterns I am training that day.
I covered this in an earlier blog HERE there are 7 primary movement patterns:
Personally, I tend to incorporate all of these during an entire workout from warm-up to cool down. But, I like to keep things simple and break it down further to the Dan John model:
This just makes programming easier. Bear in mind this is with an eye more on functional strength and athleticism than aesthetics, but if you follow this template in your workouts and choose the correct intensity/volume for your goals, and eat like an adult you will still get a great physique. Furthermore, because I'm sure you're asking already, this doesn't mean that you can only use 5 exercises per workout, just use the desired amount of exercises depending on what your goals are. For example, you could include 2 or 3 squat pattern exercises if leg strength and power are necessary for your goals. Loaded carries might not be practical in your given environment so just take that to mean 'core' exercise or substitute it for some other accessory exercise, maybe you want to do some ab roll-outs or some single leg hip bridges instead. Give it some thought and then apply what feels right for you.
Here’s some exercise examples to make this clearer for you:
Sometimes I use this template with a client to choose their own workout.
I wouldn’t do this with a new client or someone who doesn’t have a year or two training experience under their belt and I will ensure that the client has a good understanding of form and technique and knows which movements will exacerbate any existing injuries or other issues.
We might do a specific 10-15 minutes warm-up, then we’ll decide the main body of exercise between us. Lastly, if there's time we'll include an additional finisher and maybe 5 minutes of mobility to close the session out/cool down. This way, the client feels more involved in their own progress, they get to learn more about exercise programming and they can’t blame me the next day when DOMS sets in.
To clarify, the image below shows how I like to break a typical workout down into three sections. The preparation work (part of the warm-up). This might be your prehab exercises, or generic loaded mobility/stability exercises. The main body of exercise follows, which is your push/pull compound movements and then, if you have time your finisher. This might be when you do the loaded carries, core or other conditioning exercises that are specific to your goals.
To be clear, if you try this with a client, ask them to name a squat pattern that they want to do, and they say “Press-Ups” then you know this style of training is too advanced for that client.
Lastly, I often simplify this whole system down even further to just push and pull. That’s not to say that I don’t include squat or hinge patterns, I just categorise squats as a push and hinges as a pull. This just simplifies the whole process and declutters my head. That’s a good thing because then I can program a workout and still have some space left over for equally important stuff like Movie trivia. For example; did you know that Clint Eastwood was originally considered for the role of Macready in John Carpenter’s The Thing?
A (push): Goblet squat, Press-ups, Lunges, Overhead Press.
B (pull): Single Leg RDL, Gorilla Rows, Swings, Snatch.
Another template that I like to employ for high frequency training, which ensures that you can train on consecutive days, while allowing 24-hours for a muscle group to recover is upper push/lower pull and lower pull/upper push. Here's an example:
A (upper push/lower pull): Press-up/Swings
B (lower push/upper pull): Goblet Squats/Cleans
So, there you have it. A simple template for creating your own workouts. If you need something more specific or require some external accountability drop me a line and ask about online coaching. Or support me on Patreon and get monthly training plans.
1. Schoenfeld, BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 24(10): 2857–2872, 2010
2. Helms, E. (2015). The Muscle and Strength Pyramid. 1st ed. self.
3. Schoenfeld, B., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D. and Krieger, J. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(12), pp.3508-3523.