Fool Proof Program Design

Editors Note: This article was written with the beginner in mind. It is for someone who has not grasped the fundamental concepts of exercise and how to apply them. If you truly want to learn how to create a better body you must start by understanding what the basic exercise variables are in a strength program and how they can be changed to suit the needs of your body. I encourage you to read the article over and then print it off.

There is hean old saying that states, “A house is only as strong as its foundation”. This statement can be reworded to read, “Training is only as effective as the design of the program”.

The quest for endless achievements in training is directly related to efficient program design. Without a correctly structured program we’d have no direction. Our training would be relegated to walking in the gym and doing whatever number of sets and reps that we’d like. Our exercise selection would come to, “What do I feel like doing?” and “What will make me look better tonight?” There is a need for a better understanding of the acute variables that make up a training program.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The first step in the program design process is to establish a desired outcome. Ultimately this is broken into two categories, performance enhancement and body composition. Before we get any deeper let me ask – are they any different? Aren’t we seeking to enhance our performance in the gym even if we are training to look good for the opposite sex? Our first goal must be to raise our conditioning. Conditioning can be thought of as our ability to improve upon our current state. There is no difference if that state is a decreased 40-yard dash time or adding five pounds of lean muscle mass.

The performance enhancement camp is made up of athletes, weekend warriors and individuals attempting to move and feel better. It can include the high school or college athlete all the way down to your 60-year-old who wants to move better. The body composition group consists of competitive bodybuilders and individuals that seek to decrease body fat and increase lean muscle mass, their goal is purely physical. Before we can determine the outcome we have to answer another question. Is body building the same as building our body? Emphatically the answer is no, so our training needs to change.

Once the outcome is determined, we now begin to think about our training splits. These splits are body part, upper, lower and full body splits. Body part splits are the most popular and are focused on two muscle groups per session (chest/back, arms, and shoulders/legs). Upper and lower splits alternate between upper body days and lower body days, while full body splits are just that, a full body workout each session.

Which is better? That depends on what our goal is. It is pretty much common knowledge that if you are training for athletic achievement or function, you should be using upper/lower and full body splits. The problem begins when our goal is body composition. Just because we’re trying to look better doesn’t mean we need to blindly follow what has been done for the past 20 years.

I understand the argument that you need to fully stimulate a muscle in order for it to grow. But is there really a difference between four chest exercises on one day and one chest exercise on four days? Yes, there actually is. In one day you’re maximally fatiguing it and hoping it will grow. Hitting it once four days during the week you’re ensuring that it’s fresh and offering the better chance to grow.

Repeated exposure is necessary for maximal motor unit recruitment. When you really break it down, the ability to recruit motor units (muscle fibers) is the core of weight training.

I never really understood the concept of hitting a muscle once every seven days and I hated the endless challenge of trying to hit my chest from all different angles and being overly sore for three days. It just never was fun to me, plus I wasn’t growing as fast as I wanted. If the best program is the one that you’re not on, then why waste time hitting the same muscle the same way for four weeks? Why not hit it slightly different throughout the week and keep giving it the wake-up call to get big?

While it may seem that I am just another anti-bodybuilding performance coach, in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. It is my job to use every tool in the box to get my clients the best results. So while I seem anti-body part split, I recommend them at times. Depending on the situation they can be just what the doctor ordered. It is my contention that for the majority of people for the majority of time, upper/lower or full body splits will work the best.

This all ties into the first decision you have to make in program design. We have established that those who are training for performance or health need not worry about body part splits, but what about the body composition crowd? Raise your hand if you’re a competitive bodybuilder or fitness competitor. Now raise your hand if you’re someone who wants to look his or her best. That’s a big difference. Competitive bodybuilders need to focus on specifics like distal muscle size and peaks. The majority of people trying to look their best need concurrent increases in muscle mass and decrease in fat. So then why wouldn’t they want to have a more metabolically demanding workout every session that hits every muscle?

The Set and Rep Manifesto

The majority of training programs have no rhyme or reason whatsoever when it comes to prescribing sets and reps. In 1970 research came out that said three sets of ten repetitions was the best for increases in muscle mass. Great, our training has sucked for thirty-six years. I understand that with the recent trend in the industry to alternate set and rep ranges, use less reps, more sets and some other methods making rounds, the industry has become more educated. The problem we still face is that individuals are just following ideas. Even if you are not in the fitness industry and just work out, understanding the “Why” and not just the “How” will lead to much more success.

The following pyramid displays the rep ranges and their qualities improved. 

Pyramid for rep gains

Our issue is that way too many people are stuck between eight and twelve range and think that is the only way they will get the desired body composition improvements. Combine this with your typically three to four sets and we have a problem. The same goes for individuals training for purely neural improvement with one to four reps – they typically stay with three to four sets as well.

There is one other critical factor that needs to be considered when determining what rep ranges to use – Time Under Tension (TUT). Understanding the concept of tempo is very much a key to enhancing gains. Each rep is nothing more than the time that the working muscle is under tension. It is well established that to induce metabolically adaptations, one should strive for sets that last between 20-50 seconds. To achieve this time range, sets are broken up with a lifting tempo. If I were performing a set of dumbbell chest presses for eight reps, I would use a tempo of 301. Adding three plus one equals four seconds multiplied by eight reps and my set lasts thirty-two seconds. Set tempos are applicable for every training goal, although I’d be careful to recommend it for power work. Tempo does also give more variability to training. For example using a 211 tempo, I can achieve the same TUT of my set with different stimulus since I decreased my eccentric phase and increased my isometric phase.

This chart details the relationship between reps and TUT.

The one problem with TUT is actually counting the eccentric. Unless your iPod is made up of one-second beeps you’re going to need to count to yourself. It’s very simple to count the eccentric and once the concentric is complete simply count the reps. If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can use TUT.

While repetitions do determine our training effect, sets are equally important. We cannot do multiple sets of higher repetitions; it will just lead us to fatigue and it delays recovery. At the same time doing too few sets with lower reps will only increase strength for so long. To better illustrate this relationship we see that there is an inverse relationship between sets and reps, one goes up the other must go down.

Set/Rep Relationship

The critical factor related to set selection is the training age of the individual. The repetitions that are needed to achieve desired results decreases with experience. This is one of the reasons that you see individuals in the gym with stalled progress. They continually perform the higher repetitions, never increasing intensity or sets. A relative newcomer can do fine with higher repetition schemes, but once they become experienced (two plus years) they will need to alternate the intensity, decrease the reps, and increase the sets.

Relationship between number of sets and reps

 Sets/Rep ranges are likened to cramming for a test. Do you do better studying everything the night before (two to three sets of twelve to fifteen reps) or do you do better with maximal exposure (multiple sets of lower-mid range reps)? In the majority of cases you probably will do better with the latter, although the former does have advantages as well. The key here is to alternate your sets and reps while entirely focusing on what is suppose to work.

With this understanding we see that manipulating sets and reps is very easy for our desired goals. If increased hypertrophy is your goal, then decreasing your reps and adding more sets will activate higher threshold muscle fibers and generate a higher hormonal response. If the goal is to perform more exercises per session, then fewer sets will be needed since there is a direct link between sets and the number of exercises performed. Repetition manipulation is just as easy. Decreasing reps by two every two weeks will bring about different adaptations while still staying in the same general range. Alternating high and low reps each set is another method used to increase both size and strength.

Compounding the Problem

Once we’ve decided on our goal and the sets and reps we are going to use to get there, our next task is deciding what exercise will get us there. We need to be as efficient as possible, get in and get out. When I began training, I was a college student so I had all the time in world. I stayed in the gym for hours using various exercises and experimenting. The problem for most of us is that we don’t have an infinite amount of time. We usually have between 30 minutes and an hour and this usually occurs before or after work.

It would be a waste of our time to go from single joint movement to single joint movement. Instead our focus should be movements that give us the biggest bang for our buck. Upper and lower days should feature alternating movements such as a chest press supersetted with a dumbbell row or front squats coupled with stiff legged deadlifts. This allows us to get more work done and causes a greater hormonal output. Full body routines should combine opposing movement patterns, vertical push with vertical pull, horizontal pull with horizontal push and hip push with hip pull.

What if I have more time than the average trainer, should I perform body part days? No. This is something that angers me when people remark that full body or upper/lower splits are too easy. What is easy about burning more calories and involving more muscle mass in one workout than most people do all week? It is only easy if you make it. Full body workouts are not an excuse to throw out intensity techniques like wave loading, isometric pauses, cluster training, etc.

Well how am I ever going to get big biceps without direct work? Let’s look at a sample four-day workout. On day one your exercise was heavy weighted chins, on day two you did underhand dumbbell rows with a long eccentric, day three had you performing multiple sets of four to six reps of neutral grip chins and day four comes and you’re fresh out of options, time to curl right? Wrong, have you ever thought about towel pull-ups? The options are endless if we get creative with hand placement and even object usage.

I hear it now, compound doesn’t hit muscle the same way. I need to use isolation movements to develop my mid-lat. Yes I get it; you still want to use isolation movements. Research doesn’t have all the answers

Your criteria for choosing exercises should answer one question. How many muscles am I involving? If it takes you more than one second to name all the muscles involved, then use the exercise and its variations as much as possible.

Principles of Rest, Recovery and Adaptation

I don’t understand why rest intervals aren’t talked about in the same breath as sets or reps. It can have as big of an impact, if not more. Many individuals don’t even pay attention to their rest. It pains me to watch people in the gym finish a set and relax until they feel they are ready to begin another set. Not only have they changed up the entire effect of that session, but they have also caused a decrease in body temperature, which has lasting impact on their subsequent reps. We must fully understand the relationship between rest and training goals.

The following outlines proper rest times for desired training goals.

  • Relative Strength – 300-180 seconds
  • Functional Hypertrophy – 180-120 seconds
  • Hypertrophy – 120-90 seconds
  • Eundurance – 90 seconds and less

Training goal and rest

It is clear to see that the length of our rest interval is dictated by our training goal. Relative strength gains require longer rest intervals than hypertrophy gains. In the case of hypertrophy and endurance, rest intervals have more possible variations. We can be very liberal by resting 90 seconds one set and 45 seconds on the next set.

We also must take into account that as we progress in a program and modify our sets and reps, we must also modify our rest intervals. For example, the body composition individuals may begin week one with a 45 second rest between sets and decrease it by five seconds every week to improve their hormonal output and change the intensity of their sessions. The advantage of pairing exercises is that shorter rest intervals are then needed, so we can achieve a higher volume during that session.

Recovery is another topic that needs to be addressed in program design. While the majority of our recovery will depend on daily stress, nutrition and lifestyle, we can do our part with our programs to speed this up. Utilizing a deload week where we have lower than normal volume can greatly enhance our gains and recovery. Deloading is not as complex as people make it out to be. Simply decreasing sets or reps during the third week of a four-week cycle will lead to greater recovery and the chance for increases in reps or weight used. A decrease in our volume will go a long way in keeping us healthy and achieving gains.

How long should you stay on a program? This is yet another variable that can be manipulated to bring new gains. Generally programs should change every four weeks to continually provide new growth stimulus. Anything after that and you begin to stagnate and underachieve. New exercises, grips, reps and sets should all be chosen during this new phase. Do not be afraid to challenge the four-week rule and alternate programs every two or three weeks. Changing up main exercises and keeping secondary exercises is another alternative to switching exercises every two weeks.

Putting it All Together

Now that we have all the principles of program design behind us we can see what an actual program looks like. One topic that I did not touch on is activation work. Everyone needs activation work; this could be a whole other article in of itself. Activation or Prehab work should be done before your first exercises begin; we want to turn on these chronically inhibited muscles so that they can perform some of their normal function during our session.

Examples of activation work include side steps, glute bridges, rotator cuff work and core stabilization.

The following example is a full body four-day training program. The sets, reps, tempo and rest periods have been left out as these exercise variables are dependant on the goal at hand. Using the charts above you can figure out based on your goal what your reps, sets, temp and rest periods should be.

Full body four-day weight training program.

Day One

Activation work for the core – Birddog

Activation work for the glute medius – Clams

Weighted Chin-ups

Dumbbell neutral grip shoulder press

Front Squat

Swiss ball leg curl

Pronated seated cable row

Decline barbell chest press

Day Two

Activation work for the glute max- One leg bridges

Activation work for the scapula – Seated cable retractions

Underhand dumbbell row

Dumbbell flat alternating chest press

1 leg stiff leg deadlift

1 leg split squat

Neutral grip pull-up

Seated side raises

Day Three

Activation work for the glute medius- Band push outs

Activation work for the glute max-

Standing Shear out

Bent Knee deadlift

Dumbbell sit to stand

“Pitcher” side raise

Towel chin-ups

Partial top half incline barbell press

Seated Face Pull

Day Four

Activation work for the rotator cuff-Incline retraction and external rotation

Activation work for the core – Reverse crunches

Incline dumbbell neutral grip row

Partial bottom half incline barbell press

Barbell Hack squat

Snatch grip dead lift

Hammer Grip dumbbell side raise

Isometric body weight chin-ups

Written by Jimmy Smith

Discuss, comment or ask a question

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