Let’s get a some semantics out of the way first.
A session. Singular. It’s a one off.
A training program is a series of workouts, with each building on the last, with the intentions of improving specific qualities. It’s a roadmap of sorts.
So, to be clear, a training program is not:
- rolling dice to see how many reps of an exercise you’re going to do
- a random list of exercises
- copying what other people who look the way you want to look are doing
- figuring out which muscles are sore AF and training everything else
With that being said, you can make designing your own training program incredibly complex and time consuming, or you can simplify the process, freeing up time and energy to, you know, actually train.
Now, a little housekeeping before we begin:
- if an exercise hurts, don’t do it
- unless you’re competing in powerlifting, there are no specific mandatory movements. Find the right variations that fit your body
- warming up effectively is important and should be done with focus and intent on your needs
- don’t forget that throws, jumps, and carries are important to connect the dots of a training program. Do them after your warm up and before your strength training to build a body that looks good but can also perform when called upon
In order to start designing your program together, you have to decide what your purpose is, and then understand what role strength training will play in it.
Throw a football a quarter mile again?
If fat loss is your goal, then nutrition needs to be your primary focus, while strength training will maintain your muscle mass while you’re in a caloric deficit.
I hope to God that this answers the age old question: what exercise can I do to get rid of this?
If you’re looking to gain muscle mass, then the opposite is true: eat more than you need to maintain your weight, and strength training will facilitate muscle growth. It’s like building a house: the bricks are the food, and the laborers laying them are akin to lifting heavy stuff. One without the other is useless.
So be honest with what you’re trying to do, first and foremost, so you know how to budget your time and energy.
A big reason why people don’t follow training programs with any regularity is because they bite off more than they can chew realistically chew. They hop on a 5 or 6 day a week program, and the first time life throws a curveball and they miss a day, their program gets blown up, because remember, each training day builds on the last.
To avoid this, figure out how many days can you train on your absolute worst week. 2 days? 3 days? Whatever it is, design your training program around that, and if your schedule opens up a bit, there are little filler training days that you can strategically add in to complement your existing program.
How To Structure Your Training Week
Regardless of goals, if you are going to train 2 or 3 days a week, you’ve been training for less than a few years, or if you haven’t reached an appreciable level of strength that requires more recovery, then full body training is going to be your best bet.
The litmus test I use for this is if you are unable to do 10 chinups for men, 5 for women, bench press your bodyweight, and trap bar deadlift 1.5 times your bodyweight, then you’re most likely going to benefit most from full body workouts.
If you can perform the strength standards above, are going to train 4 days per week or more, or have serious wear and tear on your body from a life of wild adventures, then splitting your upper and lower body up and training each separately is a good idea.
For the former, alternating between upper body and lower body training sessions is probably optimal. For especially beat up guys I tend to train who do a lot of active stuff outside of the gym and are really strong, a 3 day program that consists of an upper body pushing day, upper body pulling day, and a lower body day can also work really well.
This isn’t to say that on an upper body day you don’t address some lower body issues and vice versa, it’s just not the focus of the particular day.
I know you’re wondering: what about chest day? This is the deal: everything we know about training has proven that 40-70 reps per muscle, per week is the optimal range for building strength and muscle. If you do all of those reps on a single day, there are going to be at least half of them that are done with Fisher Price sized dumbbells because you’ll be so fatigued. If we go back to the principle that strength training is for building/maintaining strength and muscle, then those light dumbbells aren’t going to help us at all, are going to inhibit recovery, and lead to sore joints from overuse, rather than improve the very qualities we’re training to improve.
So a better idea is to split up your reps over a few different days, where you can train them hard and with perfect technique each time out.
This leads me to my next point: train movements patterns over muscles. Trying to split the body up into individual muscles makes no sense, as nothing works in isolation.
“When you train patterns, you won’t miss muscles, but if you train muscles, you will miss patterns.”-Mark Verstegen
When you make the shift to a movement based approach, you’re going to cover all your bases. They can be broken down into the following:
Upper Body Pushing: bench press, dumbbell bench press variations, pushups, overhead press, dumbbell overhead press
Upper Body Pulling: chin ups, rows, and all of their variations
Lower Body Hip Dominant: deadlift variations, kettlebell swings, RDL’s, hip bridges
Lower Body Knee Dominant: barbell squats, goblet squats, lunges, reverse lunges, single leg squats
Core: planks, side planks, rollouts, Farmer’s walks, anti rotation presses
If you think of chest, triceps, and shoulders all separately, you need 3 different movements. If you do 3 different movements, then one of two things happens:
- you don’t have the same ability to train all of them, so something get shortchanged,
- you spend too much time doing isolation movements in order to save energy, which aren’t as effective at building muscle.
At this point, we have decided how many days to train, figured out whether full body or upper/lower splits will be best, and know that we should be focused on movements over muscles to optimize your program. Now we have to figure out how to organize it all so that each day of the program does, in fact, build on the last, and isn’t a conglomeration of random movements.
If you haven’t already, I’d suggest subscribing to my weekly newsletter, which will give you access to my free eBook, which has a 6 week full body beginner program as well as a 6 week upper/lower split program for the more advanced trainee. These are great programs that I utilize with a lot of people with great results, and you can see how I build programs based on what I’m going to share in this next section.
Choosing the Right Exercises, Sets, and Reps
For full body workouts, pick an upper body push, a lower body hip dominant exercise, and a core exercise or mobility drill. Do 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps of each, resting :60-:90 seconds between each. This allows for the upper body to get a little rest while the lower body works, and vice versa.
After this block is completed, pick an upper body pull, a lower body knee dominant exercise, and a different core exercise or mobility drill. Do 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps/set, with :60-:90 seconds of rest.
Finish with 5-10 minutes of intervals on the Airdyne bike, VersaClimber, or Ski Erg, and day 1 is complete.
Your second day will be the inverse of the first: block 1 will be an upper body pulling exercise, lower body knee dominant exercise, and a different core/mobility drill for 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps. The second block will be an upper body push, lower body hip dominant exercise, and a core/mobility drill that addresses something else for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.
Again, finish with 5-10 minutes of intervals. Conditioning is mandatory, regardless of your goals, just to keep healthy.
If you’re going to train a 3rd day, repeat the template from day 1 with different exercises.
Which exercises? Focus on compound lifts that have multiple joints involved. Reverse lunges require a lot more work than leg extensions on a machine, and more muscles recruited yield to more strength and muscle building potential. (but remember, you’ll only grow muscle when you’re eating more than you burn, so if fat loss is your goal, this is still necessary to maintain your muscle as you lose bodyfat!)
Stick with this same program for 4-6 weeks, striving to add a few reps or 5 pounds to your previous session. Then, progress your exercises or use new variations for the next 4-6 weeks.
For upper/lower splits, you’re going to want to start each day with a big indicator lift. These are the lifts that we are putting all our efforts in towards improving. We measure the success of the program on this objective data: are the indicator lifts improving? If not, then we need to go back to the drawing board.
Day 1 will begin with a press.
Day 2 will focus on a squatting movement.
Day 3 will start with a chin up variation.
Day 4 begins with a deadlift variation.
Pair each lift with a low intensity mobility or core exercise that will help you perform the primary lift better.
Strive to set 5, 8, and 12 reps maxes on each of these lifts over a month. Strength isn’t just 1 rep maxes. If you can front squat 225 for 5 now and in 3 months you can front squat 225 for 8, you got stronger.
I think building up to a single heavy set of the rep max you’re looking to set that day is ideal. After you hit your heavy set, rest and decrease the load by 10-15% for another set. Shoot for the same number you hit on the first.
Use the build up sets as practice. Really groove your technique and get accustomed to the weight on the bar. Look to move it fast on every rep. This will set you up for success when the load gets heavy and it’s showtime.
After your first block is complete, your second block should consist of:
For squat days, pick a hip dominant exercise and an upper back exercise*
For chin up days, pick another pulling exercise and an upper body push
For deadlift days, pick a knee dominant exercise and an upper back exercise*
Do 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps on the exercises in this block. You’re looking to improve them over time, but they may not move up linearly week after week. This is ok, as long as the primary lift in the first block is improving.
One simple way to structure this block is:
- Week 1: 3 sets of 6
- Week 2: 4×6
- Week 3: 3×8 with the same weight
- Week 4: 4×8
- Week 5: 3×10
- Week 6: 4×10
Finish up with a bodyweight exercise for 2-3 sets. Pushups, dips, inverted rows, and bodyweight chin ups and all of their variations are great options for upper body focused days. Single leg squats, bodyweight squats, single or double leg hip bridges, and bodyweight lunges work well for lower body days. You can do as many perfect reps as possible or a set number, it depends on you.
Just like the full body program, finish up with 5-10 minutes of intervals, and you’re done.
The upper and lower body splits allow for more recovery between sessions, which is more necessary as you are stronger and handle bigger weights, even if you’re working with a 12 rep max. The full body is great for novice and intermediate trainees, but can work for advanced lifters as well.
This isn’t about reinventing the wheel. There are millions of great books out there breaking down how to design your training programs from some of the top sports scientists in the world. They all differ to some degree, but 90% of what has been figured out is the same: get stronger on compound exercises over time. The only way to do this is by sticking with the same exercises for a period of time to practice them, which is what building strength really is.
Write up your program, track your workouts, and look to improve little by little. Eat according to your goals. Sleep 7-9 hours every night. You can make this as complicated as you’d like, but simplicity always wins out.
And remember, the best program is the one you can stick to. Then do the best you can, one day at a time.