A Beginner's Guide to Designing an Effective Workout Program

So what's the number 1 problem that beginners face when it comes to lifting weights?

In reality, this problem plagues many experienced lifters as well...

And that is understanding good program design.

The strength of your program, the quality of its structure can make ALL the difference between average results vs great results, getting injured vs being pain-free.

Due to the old-school approach of bodybuilding, most people think that a body-part split, where you're only working one muscle group a day, is the best way. However, thats simply not a sensible approach for beginners, and it MAY not be optimal for intermediate/advanced lifters either, depending on their circumstances.

Here are the reasons why a typical body-part split is not best for beginners:

1) Lack of Reinforcing Movement Patterns

Beginners have a lot to gain by simply learning the proper technique of an exercise and working on it multiple times a week. In a traditional body-part split, you would only be doing each exercise/movement about once a week, which doesn't allow for enough frequency to adapt & learn a specific movement.

Another term for mastering an exercise/move is motor learning, which results in significant strength gains especially for beginners. Getting stronger will set you up for much greater success in the long run.

2) Way Too Much Volume

By performing 15-20 sets on chest or back on the same day, there is an unnecessary overload placed on the joints, tendons & ligaments, which may be at risk of injury if the lifter is not experienced with that much volume.

Infact, frequency of training is more important for a beginner than high volume, so all you need is a few sets on chest, performed 2-3 times a week. With low volume and higher frequency, you'll get stronger faster and have enough energy to perform at a high level on the rest of your muscle groups and exercises as well!

3) Unnecessary Stress

Body-part split routines emphasize isolation movements, especially for smaller muscle groups...

While compound movements are equally as effective, if not more effective at strengthening an individual muscle group. For example, chin-ups and pull-ups can increase bicep strength just as well as bicep curls (probably work better than bicep curls too at increasing size & power)

See our article on compound movements to learn more.

4) Training the Core

Big compound movements, especially for the lower body, work your core by calling on greater stability. The approach of training "Abs" once a week simply doesn't make sense, even for advanced lifters.

The Abs are part of the entire Core, which include the muscles that attach to the hip or spine, and core training is more effective than abs training. Core training needs greater frequency and recruitment than what a single Abs day can provide.

5) Overloading the Shoulders

Most pushing movements(bench press, dips, pushups) work the anterior(front) deltoid, while most pulling movements(seated row, dumbbell rows) work the posterior(rear) deltoid...

And for the lateral(middle) delt, a vertical pressing move such as shoulder presses or military press is sufficent. Body part specialization has its place, but not in a beginner's routine!

6) Inefficient

Unless you have several hours to be in the gym everyday, time is probably a major factor. There isn't any need for more than 3-4 days a week in the gym, working your major compound movements and getting excellent results in less time.

Just because something worked for someone else doesn't make it the most efficient, optimal way of training. For beginners, almost any type of resistance training will yield results...but does that make it the best approach?

Infact, setting yourself up for greater long-term gains is another major benefit of not using bodypart splits in the beginning. You'll save yourself from burning out and prevent overuse injuries that can result from programs with excessive workout volume.

The Balancing Act

In order to understand how a weight lifting routine works, we have to analyze and structure it as a microcycle, which can be 1 week, 2 weeks, or whatever else. There has to be a good balance of the following exercises in each microcycle:

Knee-Dominant Lower Body Exercises
Hip-Dominant Lower Body Exercises
Upper Body Vertical Pulling Exercises
Upper Body Horizontal Pulling Exercises
Upper Body Vertical Pushing Exercises
Upper Body Horzontal Pushing Exercises

Here's a quick list of exercises that fit into each of the above categories:

Knee-Dominant Lower Body Exercises:

Squats (including many variations such as back, front, sumo, etc)
Lunges (many variations such as forward, lateral, reverse, etc)
Step-ups (including forward, lateral, etc)

Hip-Dominant Lower Body Exercises:

Deadlifts
Stiff-legged & Romanian Deadlifts (more hamstring & glute focus)
Glute Bridge

Upper Body Vertical Pulling Exercises:

Chin-ups & Pull-ups (including all types of grips)
Lat Pulldown (many grip & attachment variations)

Upper Body Horizontal Pulling Exercises:

Seated Rows (machine or cable)
Dumbbell Rows (single or double handed)
Bent Over Row (different grips)

Upper Body Vertical Pushing Exercises:

Military Press (behind neck or front)
Shoulder Press (with dumbbells seated or standing)
Push-Press

Upper Body Horizontal Pushing Exercises:

Bench Press (many grips, positions such incline, decline, etc)
Pushups
Dumbbell Press (incline, decline, etc)
Dips (parallel bars, close, narrow, chair)

Some of these exercises fall in a gray area, such as lunges and stepups, which may be classified as knee OR hip dominant depending on the variation...

Moreover, some exercises emphasize the same muscle groups even though they are in different categories. For example, back squats and regular deadlifts have a lot of overlap in emphasizing the quadriceps(front of thighs)...

So a better way to balance Squats is to use a stiff-legged deadlift or romanian deadlifts which work the hamstrings & glutes much more. Also, if you're using lunges or stepups, depending on the the variation(lateral, reverse, front), your exercise consideration would change.

Individual Workout Routine

Generally speaking, its not advisable to lift weights more than a maximum of 4x a week for beginners, with 2-3x a week being optimal for good results. Here are some of the options:

4 Days per Week:

Day 1: Upper Body
Day 2: Lower Body
Day 3: Upper Body
Day 4: Lower Body
*its a good idea to take a one day rest between day 2 & day 3

3 Days per week:

You can either train the FULL body 3 times a week, OR...

Day 1: Full Body
Day 2: Upper Body
Day 3: Lower Body
*there should be a 1 day rest between each workout

2 Days per week:

Day 1: Full Body
Day 2: Full Body

Keep in mind that balancing the different categories of exercises as discussed earlier is important when choosing your exercises.

Exercise Order

Generally speaking, here's the order in which exercises should be performed in a workout:

1) Explosive Lifts
2) Compound Exercises (multi-joint movements)
3) Isolation Exercises (single-joint movements)

If you're confused about exactly how to identify compound exercises, read this.

Within a group of compound exercises, you want to do the largest muscle groups first. So squats would come before the bench press, deadlifts before chin-ups, etc. The larger the muscle, the more priority it has early in the order of sequence.

Intensity

There are a lot of different ways to define intensity, but the most accurate way to define it is as a percentage of a 1-repetition maximum, abbreviated as 1RM. It can also be expressed as a 2-repetition, 3-repetition or even 12-repetition maximum & more.

When starting a new routine, you may not know your 1RM on most exercises. In that case, its ok to guess and pick a weight that you think you'll be able to do 12-15 times with good form. The more you do a certain exercise, the better idea you'll have about your unique repetition maximums.

Here are some guidelines on the level of intensity
(expressed as a percentage of the 1RM)

50-59% - Warmup
60-69% - Technique & Form Development
70-79% - Speed & Strength
80-89% - Power Development
90%+ - Maximal Strength

The above guidelines are not conclusive. There is some research that shows working with loads of 35-40% 1RM can maximize power development due to the speed of which the movement can be done. Also, in some exercises, such as pullups and chinups, an individual may not be able to do even half their bodyweight, so they would need an assisted lift to complete a desired number of repetitions.

Depending on your genetic makeup and the proportion of slow to fast twitch fibers you possess, the above percentages would need to be adjusted. The best approach is to get a feel for an exercise at various weights to see how many repetitions you can perform at each range.

Performing less than 6 reps keeps you in the strength & power spectrum, while doing more than 12 reps is typically more for endurance. However, any type of lifting done by beginners is likely to improve both. For hypertrophy, or muscle growth, anywhere from 6-12 repetitions can work extremely well, although even higher rep ranges have been shown to stimulate growth.

The number of sets performed per exercise can be as low as 1 or as high as 5, depending on your goals and the type of routine you choose. In the beginning, its a good idea to limit your total volume to 12-15 sets per workout across all exercises.

Tempo

The number of repetitions that you perform are also determined by the speed at which you do each repetition.

If the lifting(concentric) phase of a repetition is done explosively, and the lowering(eccentric) phase is controlled, the average repetition will take about 1 second.

However, if you were to do the eccentric phase even slower, that would make each repetition more challenging and you wouldn't be able to complete as many total reps. Basically, by increasing the time of each repetition, you decrease the total number of repetitions that can be performed.

In general, its better for beginners to focus on controlling a weight by using a slower tempo on the eccentric(lowering/negative) portion. The tension & contraction that is felt with a slower tempo is a great way to establish the mind-muscle link and perfect your form for each exercise.

As long as the weight is slowly controlled on the eccentric phase, you can use a faster tempo on the concentric portion for a bit more explosiveness. This helps to recruit & maximize the development of various muscle fibers and motor units(control station in charge of contracting a group of fibers).

The transition point between the eccentric and concentric phase is another opportunity to vary the tempo. If you hold the weight for a count of 1-2 seconds before exploding it up, it would be an additional challenge you can introduce to the exercise. This technique can also help in emphasizing form.

Rest Intervals

There are many approaches to resting, and in general, it really depends on your goals. Low rest times increase the metabolic effect of training, raising your heart-rate and stimulating fat loss. In general, the lighter the weights you're doing, the less rest you need between sets.

The heavier the weights, the longer the rest times need to be if you want to maximize the performance of each set. Heavy loads are taxing on your central nervous system, which needs a greater time to recover than your energy systems.

Supersetting non-competing exercises, or anatagonistic muscle groups can be an effective way to lift heavier loads while minimizing rest times. Basically, you could do a chest exercise immediately followed by a back exercise, without taking any rest in between. Since most chest exercises do not directly compete with most back exercises, they can be effectively supersetted.

The single greatest factor that will directly translate into measurable gains is the amount of effort that you put into each set. There should be a high level of fatigue accumulated in each set, but its not necessary to go to absolute failure. Depending on your total workout volume, training to failure on each set may or may not be feasible.

If workout volume is low, each set can be worked to failure, but only after you've learned and practiced the proper form on each exercise. If workout volume is high, its not advisable to train to failure on each and every set, because of the burden it causes on the central nervous system and the rate at which you can recover.

Conclusion

Good program design is essential to getting good results, and there are many factors to a well-structured program that simply couldn not be covered in this introductory article.

Its very easy to overemphasize certain muscles and lack balance in a workout program, just as its very typical to perform too little or too much volume.

The main goal is to have sustainable long-term gains that actually improve your overall health, and program design is a critical factor in ensuring longevity of health and results.

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