Ever walk into a gym, and it feels like you’ve stepped into a foreign country slewed with machines you don’t know how to use, dumbbells that are too heavy to lift, and dudes that are too big to fit in their t-shirts?
Well, if I’m being honest. Me too.
When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing.
In fact, I was so anxious about going in, the night before I had stress dreams the entire night.
I vividly remember dreaming of picking up a barbell, and all the plates fell off and I got kicked out of the gym.
Dreams are weird.
By the way, that didn’t actually happen.
And eventually I learned what to do.
I was able to train hard enough, and smart enough to get to a point where I could lift far more weight than I ever believed was possible for myself.
And I was able to teach that information to my online coaching clients.
Who went from deadlifting just a kettlebell, to a 235lb barbell.
Who after a monumental amount of hard work, can now do unassisted pull ups.
So what’s the secret to their success?
Well, a lot of it comes from consistency, and hard work. That’s really the key to all of this.
But lying beneath that is program design.
By the end of this article,
You will know how to design a strength training program.
You will know what exercises to perform and when the perform them.
You will know how often to work out
You’ll know how to make a well structured plan that is going to have you be efficient, and get strong as all hell.
So grab a cup of coffee (iced is my go to, but whatever you like). Grab a pen and paper, or the notes app of your phone.
And let’s get into it.
How To Design A Strength Training Program
When it comes to strength training the first thing I need you to do is forget any workout you’ve seen from an influencer in tight booty shorts while doing a one legged bosu ball kickflip salchow with a flaming upside down kettlebell overhead press.
There’s one important rule to adhere to.
Stick to the fundamentals.
Heath Ledger said it best here (he didn’t actually say this, I actually think it was Leonardo Da Vinci who said this via a Tweet in 1502).
Fundamentals are essential.
As a general rule of thumb, the flashier the exercise looks, the less effective it actually is.
Let’s use basketball (a sport I actually can’t stand) as an example to drive this point home.
If you’ve ever watched the Slam Dunk competitions they have, where guys will do some kind of double backflip and then dunk the ball and it looks cool as all hell…
And then you watch an actual basketball game and see that literally never happens.
This becomes a prime example of how fundamentals are important.
Because while doing a double backflip slam dunk looks cool, it has no practical applications.
It’s much more practical to work on dribbling, shooting, defense, being tall (a skill I’ll never have), and whatever else it is basketball players do.
So let’s apply to strength training.
The 5 Foundational Movement Patterns
These 5 foundational movement patterns should be the meat and potatoes (mmm… potatoes) of your programming. These are the essential movements. These are the ones you probably do in every day life just walking around your house.
Squats are probably the most well recognized movement pattern. We all know what a squat is, and we all know how to do it (for the most part).
Of course, there are many different ways to do a squat.
You can do
A bodyweight squat
A goblet squat
A barbell squat
And I’ve put these in order of how you should progress these.
You want to make sure you have the fundamentals down at each level, starting with bodyweight, and working your way up to a barbell.
You’ll see a lot of sweaty dudes around the gym doing barbell back squats with 400+ pounds on their back, but their actual squat mechanics look closer to that of a chimpanzee having a mild stroke.
Make sure you have your form on point for each progression, and before adding further weight.
This one is the most elusive for new lifters to figure out. Some people get it down right away, other people can’t seem to differentiate it from a squat.
But that’s okay.
I’m here to help.
The hip hinge occurs when you are sending your butt back and forth (not twerking, that’s different).
In this quick deadlift tutorial video, you can see me sending my hips back to the wall behind me, then pushing forward. Think of it like closing a car door with your butt when you have heavy groceries in your hand. You know the one.
The hip hinge is a great way to target your posterior chain. Which is a fancy way of saying all the muscles on the backside of you. The ones you don’t see in the mirror are some of the most important ones to train for your overall health.
Examples of the hip hinge include (but are not limited to)
The Romanian Deadlift
The Single Leg RDL
The Hip Thrust
These aren’t in any particular order like last time. But make sure you have the basic hip hinge movement pattern down before you start adding weight to it.
Okay everyone hates this one, it’s cool me too.
But we still should be doing at least some variation of it.
So what classifies a lunge?
A lunge is any exercise where one leg is forward with your knee bent, and your other leg is behind you.
A lunge is similar in mechanics to a squat, but a lunge forces you to work one leg at a time, which helps you to correct any muscle imbalances you may have (we all have them by the way).
There are many variations to lunges
and my personal favorite Bulgarian Split Squats
Walk into any gym, you’ll see no shortage of pushing exercises. A push refers to any time you are pushing a load away from the primary muscle being worked.
Like a bench press is pushing the barbell away from your pecs, and a pushup is pushing the floor away from your pecs. This one is a foundational exercise because how often do you have to push things in real life? And you never know… what if you’re in a situation where something really heavy falls on you, and all that bench press training finally pays off?
In general, pushing exercises work your chest, shoulders, and/or triceps (there are some exceptions to the rule, but we don’t really need to dive into that today).
Some examples of pushing exercises:
Walk into any gym, and you may see a shortage of pulling exercises. Which in my opinion is a huge mistake. As far as general strength goes, having a strong pull is important. Most people don’t do them as much because they don’t work the “mirror muscles”. Most pulling exercises are going to work your back, (remember that posterior chain we talked about) as well as your biceps.
When you think of a pulling exercise, it’s an exercise where you are pulling a load towards the primary muscle being worked.
Some examples of pulling exercises:
Strength Vs. Muscle Gain Exercises
Alright so we talked about the different kinds of forces that can be applied to exercises, now let’s talk about the different types of mechanics that can be implemented.
Your strength exercises are going to be your big compound exercises. A compound exercise is an exercise that recruits more than one muscle at a time. When you are thinking about how to design a strength training program. These are the exercises you want to put at the beginning of each workout.
The reason being, you want to be able to give your all to these exercises. They are the ones that you can lift the most weight with, and are going to contribute most to your overall strength gains.
In general, you should do 3-4 sets of these.
Anywhere between 3-8 reps. When you choose a lower rep range, aim to lift a heavy weight that challenges you for those few reps. Obviously, the less reps you do, the more weight you can lift, and the higher reps, you’ll probably have to scale back on weight. For more tips on how to choose the correct weight to lift head here.
Rest periods should be anywhere between 2-5 minutes per set. The higher the weight you lift, the longer the rest period should be.
Choose 1 compound exercise to start your workout with that you want to work on.
Barbell Overhead Press
Bent Over Row
Muscle Gain Exercises
These exercises can be compound exercises, or they can be isolation exercises (exercises that work just one single muscle, a bicep curl for example).
The difference between strength and muscle gain exercises really lies in how much weight you lift, and how many reps you do. To make an exercise effective for muscle growth, it should be somewhere between 6-12 reps. Again, the weight should be heavy, and the last 2-3 reps should feel like you’re not sure if you can do it
For these choose 2-6 exercises to incorporate into your program to be done after your strength exercises.
Core Isolation Exercises
Okay, let’s talk six packs.
Personally, I like a nice Blue Moon in the summer. Nothing quite like an ice cold beer with a warm sunset.
Oh sorry, six pack abs.
How often should you train your abs?
Once a week? Once a day? Once a minute?
Well, the abs are just like any other muscle. They need to be stimulated and then subsequently rested to grow (we will talk about rest later in the article).
In general, muscles need 2-3 days of rest before it becomes optimal to work them again. So you should not be training them every day. Furthermore, you don’t need to do incredibly high reps of abs.
Treat your ab movements just like a muscle gain movement. 1 or 2 exercises between 6-12 reps, and the last few should feel challenging.
And by the way, this doesn’t have to be just sit ups and crunches.
You can also do anti-rotational exercises like
The Pallof Press
Or stability exercises like
Hollow Body Holds
How often should you work out?
There’s going to be a lot of individual variance here, that all comes down to one very important factor.
You should work out the amount of days per week you can be most consistent with.
And you want to allow adequate time for rest.
One thing that most people don’t realize is that muscles do not grow in the gym during your workouts.
They grow after the gym with adequate rest.
When you’re at the gym, pumping out a sick bicep curl, you are actually damaging your muscle fibers.
After resting the muscle, your body will repair the muscle by fusing it with nearby satellite cells, and through that repair is where it grows.
You want to maximize your training by allowing for sufficient rest time.
In general muscles need 2-3 days of rest before it becomes optimal to work them again.
So, you can choose anywhere from 2-6 days working out. Though, I recommend staying somewhere in the 3-5 range. However 2 times a week is great for beginners, and 6 times a week can be effective for advanced trainees.
So let’s get into how to split some of these up
The Full Body Split
This is every workout consisting of working full body. Upper, lower, abs, all of it’s jam packed into one efficient workout. This can work well for those who choose to workout 2-3 days a week. Anything over that and I would choose a different split, as you are not going to be able to get that ideal rest time in between workouts.
The Upper/Lower Split
This is splitting up your workouts into designated upper body days, and designated lower body days. This one works great for 2 or 4 days a week. Again, because you’ll get plenty of time to let your muscles rest in between. In fact the 4 days a week upper/lower split is probably my favorite one, as you get to hit each muscle group twice a week with plenty of time for recovery in between. And besides, who doesn’t love training legs twice a week?
The Upper/Lower/Full Body Split
This one works well for a 3 day a week only.
Many people freak out about only working out 3 days a week. Personally, I’ve done many many phases of training at 3 days a week. And during the 3 day a week training phases is where I’ve seen some of my best results, both for strength and muscle growth.
If you are giving your all to those 3 days, they will be plenty, and you will feel it.
Advanced trainees only. This one works great for a 5 or 6 day a week program. For 6 days, you can do all pushing movements one day, all pulling movements another, all legs the next, then repeat. This way while your “pushing muscles” are resting, you’re working your “pulling muscles”, and vice versa, and everything is all happy with rest periods.
You can also combine this with an upper/lower split for a 5 day a week program. So your week would be Push/Pull/Legs/Upper/Lower.
Putting It All Together
Alright, your coffee you started at the beginning of the article is empty by now (go refill it).
And you’ve just received a fuck ton of information (yes that’s an actual metric).
So now what do you do with all this?
Want to know the secret, dirty truth?
There is no such thing as the perfect training routine.
A lot of this comes through trial and error. Seeing what works, and what doesn’t work.
Researching (hey step 1 complete, nice work!), hypothesizing, experimenting, and repeating. You know… the scientific method you learned about in 7th grade and never thought you’d use again.
But as far as actually putting this in to practice goes, if you want to work out 3 times a week for example, go look at the 3 times a week option listed above. Choose a few compound exercises to start with, choose muscle gain exercises, and an ab movement or two. Put them together into three nice little workouts, and then go try it for four weeks. Not just one week. Try it for four, so you can really see how the results develop, how your strength progresses, and how your form on each exercises progresses.
After that, try something else. Keep the concepts the same, try more movements, different set/rep schemes. And most importantly, have fun with it.
If now that you’re end of this article, there’s a monkey in your head banging two cymbals together, it’s okay. I know I just threw a lot of information at you.
If you need help, comment below, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll be happy to help you come up with your program, or critique one you’ve already written and offer guidance.
If you feel like online coaching might be a better option for you, go ahead and fill out my form and see if we are a good fit to work together.
Otherwise, I hope you’ve taken something out of this article, and feel confident in how to design a strength training program.