The ABCs of Building a Rock Solid Training Program
There are more than a few options out there to choose from when it comes to training programs and methodologies. You can hop onto the internet and find dozens of plug and play programs that are sound and can produce great results.
However, it fires me up when you step into your own shoes and venture to design your own training program custom tailored to your own personal goals.
Everyone who starts as a novice in the iron game should get some coaching and guidance. But at some point, you’ve got to claim your autonomy with your training. I would argue to say this one of the most important aspects of long term success in the gym: being competent enough to coach yourself to produce the results you want. I’m not claiming that coaching isn’t beneficial. I’m saying that you shouldn’t rely exclusively on a coach for the rest of your life in order to train well.
One of the areas you should build up enough knowledge to support your autonomy in training is through program design. When you know the basics of how to put together a training program for yourself, it gives you confidence and direction. These two aspects have probably been limiting factors in your past.
Lacking confidence in your training program efficacy leads to low self-esteem and program hopping. Lacking direction within your training plan, leads to low motivation and no sense of purpose. Combine the two, and your chances of making solid gains are slim to none.
I’ve seen some training programs that make me cringe. Poor warm ups, terrible exercise selection, and awful rep ranges. But to be sure, I’ve not only seen these programs designed by others, I also used to be this guy who’d design training programs that made no sense. But I’ve learned my way with the help of others who have traveled down the same path before me.
My hope is that this post will do the same for you. This is a timeless template that you can use for years to come. Rather than continually looking for that “perfect” system that doesn’t exist, you’ll have a tried and true formula that leaves room for variance but is also grounded in a sound approach that has worked for hundreds of lifters in the past.
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What’s your fitness goal?
This is where you start. Getting laser focused on your one goal will determine everything else; how you train and how you eat. Unfortunately, the most important aspect of designing a rock solid training program is often overlooked.
You’ve got to get specific with what you want. The old saying goes, “if you try to chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either of them.”
In other words, unless you are unshakably certain about what you want out of your training, you leave yourself vulnerable to selecting a training program that doesn’t match your goal.
For example, I’ve heard this before:
“I want to get strong, big and shredded.”
That can sound like one goal. But in reality, that’s three goals. Decide what you want first, and decide on ONE GOAL and pair it accordingly to the right training program.
Getting shredded fundamentally requires you to burn more calories than you consume, making the goal of getting big at the same time very difficult, and impossible for most people.
Getting strong focuses on making your central nervous system more efficient through lifting heavy weight and in lower rep ranges. And while you can see some muscle growth with a strength focus, it’s not optimal if maximum hypertrophy is what you’re after.
Getting big fundamentally requires you to eat more calories than you consume, while lifting loads that support maximum hypertrophy. Getting big while trying to burn the winter fluff off is like trying to ride two bicycles at one time. You can’t do it.
The point is that you need to stick to your goal long enough to see progress. If you’re constantly jumping ship from a fat loss program to a mass gaining focus to a strength wave from month to month, you’ll end up chasing your own tail.
A good warm up will sharpen your reaction time, enhance concentration, improve coordination, and regulate your mental and emotional state.
Hierarchy of a training session
Building a training program will be based on a few parameters that will for optimal performance. Think of this as a template of how your training session should flow.
- Warm up
- Power/Strength work
- Hypertrophy work
- Conditioning (optional)
Perform a full body dynamic warm up. Warming up will prepare all of your systems to ensure that you perform most efficiently in your workout. A good warm up should affect the heart, blood vessels, nervous system, muscles and tendons, along with the joints and ligaments.
Additionally, a good warm up will sharpen your reaction time, enhance concentration, improve coordination, and regulate your mental and emotional state. The warm up template below is a surefire way to ensure that your mind and body will be prepared to take on any workout.
- 5–10 minutes of aerobic activity (jog, bike, row)
- 5 minutes of dynamic stretching (arm swings, leg swings, lunges, neck rolls, mountain climbers, foam rolling, etc)
- 5 minute mental prep
By using this template and performing a makeover on your warm up rather than just stretching, here is how you’ll improve your health mentally and physically:
- The aerobic activity will prepare your cardiovascular system for exercise.
- The dynamic stretching will not only prepare your joints and ligament for similar movements you’ll be doing in your workout, but it will also raise and maintain body temperature as you enter your workout (static stretching can drop your temperature).
- By practicing visualization and including mental prep in your warm up, you’ll not only be laser focused for your workout, but you’ll improve movement efficacy lowering your risk of injury.
It would be impossible to list out every possible exercise for each body part. I could sit here and come up with hundreds of creative movements. While variance is important, I feel like variance is the culprit of lackluster results for many.
The limbic system of the brain is responsible for emotion, addiction and mood. Many people call this part of our brain “The Lizard Brain” because the limbic system is all about a lizard has for brain function.
Our lizard brain kicks into gear when we get addicted to all of the “muscle confusion” and “functional fitness” marketing schemes that invades the internet. Outlandish, illogical and weird movements and methodologies are attractive because they’re new. But new doesn’t always mean better.
Instead, I’m going to give you the essentials for each body part. When I design workouts for myself and for other people, I rarely venture outside of the basics.
I’m going to break this section up into two parts: Primary movements and secondary movements.
Primary movements will be compound, multi-joint movements, while secondary movements will lean more towards an isolation movement. This is a general and flexible template. Although I do want you to grow into your own coach and find what works for you, I advise you stay away from choosing secondary movements over primary movements. This typically gets you off the hook from doing the movements that are easy to hate, but highly effective, like squats and deadlifts.
There will be times when you can use more advance methods like pre-exhaust sets in which case you would use a secondary movement before performing a primary movement, but for now, and until you’ve had some experience with the basics, stick to doing primary movements first.
- T-Bar row
- Pull Up/Chin Up
- Pull down (neutral, overhand, close grip)
- Reverse fly
- Back extension
- Seated row (wide and close grip)
- Press (barbell or dumbbell)
- Dumbbell raises (lateral, front, rear)
- Arnold press
- Smith machine press (front or behind neck)
- Upright row (barbell or dumbbell)
- Rope face pulls
- Bench Press (Incline, flat or decline. Barbell or dumbbell)
- Machine Press (Incline, flat, decline)
- Cable crossover (high to low, low to high)
- Dumbbell flys (Incline, flat, decline)
- Barbell curl
- Incline dumbbell curl
- Dumbbell hammer curl
- Preacher curl
- Dumbbell hammer curl
- Drag curl
- Concentration curl
- Skull crusher
- Close grip bench press
- Rope pushdowns
- Straight and angled bar pushdowns
- Overhead extension (rope, cable or dumbbell)
- Back squat
- Front squat
- Hack squat
- Walking lunges (short step)
- Leg press
- Leg extension
- Body-weight squats
- Romanian Deadlift (dumbbell or barbell)
- Lying leg curl
- Seated leg curl
- Walking lunges (long step)
- Glute bridge
- Single leg glute bridge
- Glute kickbacks (donkey kicks)
- Walking lunges
- Ab roll out
- Hanging leg raise
- Rope crunch
- Oblique sit ups (45 degree bench)
- Standing calf press
- Seated calf press
- Calf press on leg press
The order in which you perform your movements has a significant impact on how your body will respond. Generally speaking, you want to perform the movements that require the most investment in the first part of your workout. This is a tried and true continuum that should be considered in every training program:
- Primary Lift (rep ranges will be in the 1-6 rep range)
- Hypertrophy (rep ranges will be in the 6-15+ range)
Here’s an example:
- 5×5 Barbell row (~85%)
- Pull ups, seated rows and reverse fly for accessory work.
- Conditioning (optional depending on goal)
Power and strength work should be done in the beginning of the workout when you’re fresh because these lifts not only require a good deal of physical effort, but they also demand mental effort, and neural efficiency. Follow up with your hypertrophy work. Lastly, if it makes sense for you, conditioning should come last.
Sets and reps
There are a number factors that play in the role of how many sets you should perform, ranging from work capacity, experience, and your schedule.
As a general guideline, 8-12 sets per muscle group is plenty to work with to make great progress. If you’re busting through 8-12 sets and you’re not stimulating your muscles enough to respond, you’re pretending to lift. You need to dial it in and maximize each set. Stop being soft.
Once you’ve given this kind of volume a chance, then, and only then, do I suggest bumping up the number of sets you do per muscle group.
As far as reps, there are three ranges that yield a different response. Depending on your goal, you’ll have to decide which rep ranges you’ll invest more time into given the desired training adaptation you want.
- Power (low rep): 1-3 reps
- Strength (mid-range rep): 3-6 reps
- Hypertrophy (high rep): 6-15+ reps
A basic guideline to selecting the appropriate rest intervals between sets:
- If you’re training for strength, complete or nearly complete recovery of the central nervous system is required. 3-5 minutes between sets is typical.
- If you’re training for fat loss, operating under an incomplete recovery of metabolic processes has a positive impact on growth hormone that will improve body composition and fat burning. 30-60 seconds between sets is typical.
- If you’re training for hypertrophy, somewhere in the middle of the two prior rest intervals (strength vs fat loss) is where you’ll fall. You want enough recovery time to move heavy weight, but partial recovery is optimal increasing blood flow to the muscle. 90-180 seconds is typical.
Proper protein intake helps you to maximize muscle recovery and growth. Whey protein powders allow you to easily add 25 to 75 grams of protein per day.
Recovery weeks are one of the easiest things you can do to improve your training. Every 12-16 weeks you should consider taking a recovery week. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, you’ll have to base it off how you feel.
Recovery week isn’t a warrant to let the wheels fall off, eat whatever you want and be a total slob. The purpose of recovery week is to allow the improvements you’ve made in your last training cycle to transpire. This is known as delayed transformation.
Aside from the delayed training effects, you also be giving yourself a psychological break. When you come into the gym day in and day out for weeks in a row, your body and mind need a break at some point. Taking a recovery week allows for this.
During recovery week, it’s a good idea to stay active but avoid doing what you would normally do during your training cycle. Things like hiking, swimming, outdoor workouts, recreational sports and some yoga are all good options.
Sample workout splits
Training once a day, 4-5 times a week is the most realistic split for many people. Here are a few examples.
4 Day Split:
- Day 1: Chest/abs
- Day 2: Legs/calves
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Back/abs
- Day 5: Shoulders/arms
- Day 6: Off
- Day 7: Off
5 Day Split:
- Day 1: Chest/abs
- Day 2: Quads/calves
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Back/abs
- Day 5: Arms
- Day 6: Shoulders/hamstrings
- Day 7: Off