A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about how to put together a training program. Needless to say, my thoughts on training have changed significantly since then so I figured it was time for an update. For the sake of simplicity, I’m targeting this post towards those who have the (very common!) goals of increasing strength, building muscle and losing fat.
The first point you must consider when writing your own training program is how often you plan on training per week. Be realistic. I would say the ideal number of days to lift weights per week is four, but this will vary based on gender, genetics, age, experience and recovery rate. If you are doing cardio as well, I’d recommend one to three additional conditioning sessions per week. You should have one, but preferably two, complete rest days per week.
If you can only fit in two or three workouts per week, stick to full body sessions. If you can train four times a week, an upper/lower body split is generally best. I’d argue that the vast majority of people should follow an upper/lower body split, even those bodybuilders who tend to prefer a body part split (back day, arm day, etc).
Make sure you rest at least 48 hours before training the same muscle group again.
Your weights session should always begin with a heavy, compound lift. Regardless of what your goal is, I’d argue that everyone should be trying to get stronger at squats, deadlifts, bench pressing and overhead pressing.
You want to do these exercises at the start of your training session when you feel strongest and most alert. Unless your goal is specifically to build up muscular endurance, you should be performing sets of eight repetitions or less when training the compound lifts. I’d also recommend performing at least five working sets of these exercises.
If you are doing a four day upper/lower split, do one of the main exercises at the start of each session. If you have less days available to train, just do two of the compound lifts in a row.
Main lifts and sample programs
There are countless ways you can become stronger at the main lifts. You may increase your weights weekly but maintain the same set/rep scheme, or you may vary the sets and reps but keep the same weight. Popular programs available freely online include 5/3/1, Strong Lifts (5×5) and Starting Strength for beginner to intermediate lifters, and Westside Barbell and Smolov for more advanced lifters. If you are completely confused about where to start, I’d recommend hiring a coach who will do the hard work for you!
Prior to starting my new program this week, I was following an eight week program of eight sets of three repetitions for all the major lifts, increasing the weight by five per cent of my one rep max each week. This seemed to work pretty well as I was about to hit new PRs in all my lifts.
80 per cent of your focus should be on the very first exercise in your program. Everything that comes after this is just an accessory lift, and should be chosen to complement that initial exercise. Your accessory exercises may start off as variations of the major lifts (a paused squat, straight-legged deadlift, narrow bench press, or seated shoulder press, for example) and then progress to other compound or isolation movements.
Structure your workouts so that the most taxing exercises come first. After performing your main sets of deadlifts, for example, you may then move on to deficit deadlifts, barbell rows, cable rows and then bicep curls. You would never perform bicep curls as the second exercise in your program, for example, as it is an isolation exercise and would fatigue the biceps when they will be needed in the other compound exercises.
There are an endless number of accessory exercises available for each compound lift (you can see a few on my Exercise Guides page). I’d recommend choosing three to four, and performing a higher number of repetitions and fewer sets than you would for your compound lifts. A good rule of thumb is that as the number of sets increases, the number of repetitions decreases, and vice versa.
Select more free weight accessory exercises rather than machines, where possible. Unlike with your main lifts, you can focus more on achieving a “pump” and training less for strength. That said, the last two to three repetitions should be challenging. If they are not, you need to increase the weight!
Make sure you achieve a balance between pulling and pushing exercises, and include a variety of unilateral exercises to address any imbalances you may have between your right and left sides.
You should rest at least two to three minutes between sets of compound lifts, and 60 to 90 seconds between sets of accessory exercises.
Typically, those following more of a bodybuilding-based program will complete around 25-35 total sets and be in and out of the gym in 45 to 60 minutes. Those following a powerlifting-style program will usually train for up to two hours or longer, but often complete less total sets as their rest time is higher.
Assessing your progress
You must follow a program for at least four, but preferably six to eight, weeks before you can adequately determine whether or not it is working.
Ideally, you should only test your one rep max (1RM) in competition. You want to save your PRs for competition day, not YouTube. I am a hypocrite, as I have tested my maxes twice this year outside of competition – but for good reasons!
If you don’t compete, you shouldn’t test it more than once every 12 weeks. If you are not a competitor and you are at a stage where you would like to test your 1RM, I would recommend cycling your programming to reach a peak. This means each week the weight should get progressively heavier, until you hit 85-90 per cent of your 1RM the week prior.
When it comes to the day of actually testing your max, keep all your lead-up sets relatively easy. Don’t make too big of a jump in weight between sets, but also don’t waste too much energy performing a million warm-up sets. I set a number I would like to hit (usually 5-10lbs heavier than my previous 1RM) and work with that in mind as my new 1RM, and typically follow something like this:
8-10 x empty bar
5 x 50%
5 x 60%
3 x 70%
1 x 80%
1 x 90%
1 x 95% (depending on how 90 per cent feels, I may skip this set so as to not waste energy)
1 x 100% (if this feels easy, I may attempt another PR, but this is rarely the case!)
Ideally, your programming should have worked perfectly and you will hit a new PR. If not, it’s time to try a different program or find a coach!
Do you write your own training programs?