For the first five years of my lifting journey, I went to the gym without a program, or with a poorly designed one. I was making progress and thought I was doing the right thing. However, once I made the switch to following a well designed program, my results skyrocketed. I saw more results in that one year than I had seen in the previous five years combined. Seeing this progress showed me the importance of a proper program and inspired me to learn more about the details of lifting.
Now, I am going to give you a 40,000 foot overview of the steps I follow in designing an effective program for myself or for my clients.
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What Are Your Goals?
The first step in determining what exercise plan to follow is defining what goals you want to achieve. Are you trying to lose weight? Build muscle? Add strength? Increase athletic performance? Improve your range of motion? Improve your quality of life? Have more energy? Run your first 5K? Just increase overall physical activity? Maybe a blend of the aforementioned or something entirely different. The more specific you get when defining your goal, the more efficient your workout plan can become. By doing so, you can get the most out of the time you carve out of your schedule for exercise.
How Much Time Do You Have?
The next step in developing an exercise plan is deciding how many days per week you have to exercise and how long per each of those days your workouts will last. It is important to be realistic with yourself. For instance, if you have struggled to go to the gym in the past, trying to force yourself to go everyday could lead you to dread going to the gym, which could then lead to giving up entirely. It is much better to start with something that is easily attainable to build momentum for a lifestyle change.
Especially as a beginner, or as someone who took a long hiatus from exercise, less is more. The research shows that a beginning lifter can perform 2-3 full body workouts of 1-2 exercises per muscle group per week and make excellent gains in muscle mass, strength, and start to see positive changes in their body. However, as you start becoming more advanced and see progress plateau, you may have to start adding extra days to your workout routine and change up your split.
A split is the term used to define how you will structure your exercise program to hit different muscle groups on different days. There are endless different splits out there, each with nuanced differences that can help you hit your specific goals in the time you have allotted for exercise. An example of a few popular ones are full-body, push-pull, upper-lower, and bro-split. Going into detail about each of the different splits and the nuances is beyond the scope of this article but I will be posting about them in the future, or you can reach out to me and I can help you figure out which one will work best for you.
After you have decided on an exercise split that fits your schedule, it is time to start filling out the program with specific exercise selections. Again, exercise selection also depends on what goals you are trying to achieve. Selecting the correct exercises ensures that you are getting the most out of your time at the gym.
Lifts can typically be described as either compound movements or single joint accessory movements. A compound movement is any exercise that uses multiple joints to perform. A few examples include the bench press, deadlift, squat, and pull up. Compound lifts are usually the best bang for your time since they work a lot of different muscle groups during their execution. When time is limited, you want to put more focus on performing compound movements instead of single joint movements. Usually, compound exercises are harder than single joint accessory movements, so it is important to put them first in your program. This ensures your muscles are fresh and can perform the most work possible on these lifts.
Single joint accessory movements are exercises that use a single joint for the movement (bet you could not guess that). They are defined as accessories because they compliment the compound movements and let you work on a specific muscle group. For example, a pull up works many muscle groups, but primarily your back muscles and biceps. However, you may want to focus on adding muscle mass to your biceps, so in addition to having pull ups in your workout routine, you would add an exercise, like a bicep curl, as an accessory exercise to create more work for the bicep, stimulating the desired growth. You do not need to add many accessory movements to your workout routine, but they can be great tools to work on weak points or focus attention on a certain muscle group.
Selecting exercises that hit each muscle group is extremely important to avoid developing muscle imbalances that could increase the chance of injuries. Therefore, exercises should be varied throughout the week to work as many of the muscles of the body as possible.
Furthermore, muscle groups should be hit from different angles to ensure that they are getting worked to their maximum potential. For instance, two back exercises, the row and pull up work the back muscles in different ways. This is because the muscles of the back have varied connection points, meaning that the contractions of these muscle fibers happen in different directions. As a result of this, performing only a pull up will not allow for complete development of the back since it only works the muscles of the back in one plane of motion. This is why it is important to select varied exercises for each muscle group for a healthy, balanced, and fully developed body.
Reps, Sets, Volume, Frequency, Timing, Rest
After determining what exercises you will be performing in your workout routine, it is time to hammer out the final details of how they will be performed. We will quickly define each of the above terms and dig into their basics.
Repetitions (reps) are the number of times you will perform a movement of an exercise without rest. The amount of reps you perform per exercise depends largely on your goals. For instance, when you are lifting for strength, you want to move as much weight as safely possible. Research shows that performing 1-5 reps is an ideal range for improving strength. However, when aesthetics and muscle size are your goals, the reps are typically more in the 8-15 range. Smart choices in selecting rep ranges can go a long way in helping you reach your goals.
Sets are the amount of cycles that you perform of an exercise. Typically, 3-4 sets per exercise is an ideal amount. In a more broad sense, research has been showing that performing 10-25 working sets for each muscle group per week is the sweet spot for maximum results (working sets are after the warm up sets for each exercise). Anything more than this range can sometimes be considered junk volume, meaning it does not lead to any better results and can actually be counterproductive. Anything less and you may be leaving a lot of results on the table. This set range is subjective per person and also depends on how you lift, but works as a good general guideline. Moreover, main muscle groups, like the chest, back, quads, and hamstrings can be at the higher end of the set range, while accessory muscle groups, like the bicep and tricep, that also get worked during exercises for the main muscle groups, can fall into the lower end of the set range.
Volume is the Reps x Set x Weight Used. It can also be called the amount of work done by the muscle groups during a certain workout. When designing a program, it is not as important to consider as reps and sets, but it is a good gauge to understand how much stress you are putting on the body. One piece of information to know about volume is that if you have one person performing strength work with lower reps and higher sets, and another person aiming for muscle growth (hypertrophy) with higher reps and lower sets, if you equate the volume, their muscle mass gains will be similar. However, the strength person will typically add on more strength than the hypertrophy person. Before it seems like you should just focus on strength though, it takes 2-3x longer to perform these strength focused programs if you want to equate volume.
Frequency is how many times per week you hit a different muscle group. Research has been showing that hitting a muscle group multiple times per week is superior to only hitting it once a week. Therefore, you should aim to hit a muscle group at least twice a week. It should also be noted that depending on how hard you work a muscle during a workout, it could need 48-72 hours to recover before you hit it again.
Timing is how long each rep takes to perform. For safety and avoiding injuries, it is much better to do slower reps where you take 1-2 seconds on the concentric phase of the exercise and 2-4 seconds on the eccentric phase of the exercise (e.g. for a bicep curl, the up is concentric and down is eccentric). Furthermore, research shows that slower reps are better for hypertrophy style training. You would typically only want to perform fast explosive reps when you are training for explosive power, and do so only on exercises that are meant for this. Fast reps where you do not control the weight on many exercises are how you injure yourself and they are usually counterproductive to your goals.
Rest is the recovery time between sets. Typically when training for hypertrophy, 60-120 second rest periods are ideal. However, when training for strength, longer rest periods of 120-240 seconds are better. Some strength athletes will take as long as 10 minutes between sets to allow their muscle to recover for maximum output, but that is just unrealistic for the average gym-goer. Listen to your body on this one and notice how you feel on different sets with different rest periods. These could change based on how you feel that day.
This is the basic formula I follow when designing a program for myself and for clients. By following this formula, 80% of the program falls into place. That remaining 20% are the little details that would take hours to get into. As a beginner, a simple program will be plenty to see the positive body changes we are all after. As we get more advanced, however, the 20% of little details can become more and more important.
As I found out, along with many of my clients, a properly designed program can lead to greater results than seemed previously possible. Are you leaving results on the table? Enter your information into the contact form found HERE for a free 30 minute consultation!