If your training is boring, uneventful, and predictable, you have no one to blame but yourself. Workout programming is a crucial part of being successful in the gym and reaching your physique goals. As with anything else in life, you need to be prepared and set up a solid, well-thought-out plan before you go into the gym. Simply flying by the seat of your pants won’t get you very far for very long.
Even though you need to set structure to your workout for the day, it should be in pencil so that changes can be made on the fly. You have no idea how a particular weight or exercise is going to feel until you get into the gym and get after it. There needs to be room for adjustments because the best plan in the world is only as good as the adjustments that you make.
There are a myriad of factors that you have to take into consideration when programming workouts. Most are directly related to recovery because you can train harder than everyone else in the gym, but if you’re training beyond your recovery abilities, you’ll not only waste time and not grow but you could open yourself up to injury as well.
I’ve put together five main points to help simplify workout programming. Clearly, there are other aspects of programming like nutrition, supplementation, and cardio, but these five points are exclusively focused on training.
This is incredibly important because you need to schedule your training outline so that you train frequently enough to get the most growth but not so frequently that you aren’t able to recover and grow from workout to workout. If you are unsure as to how well you recover, space your workouts further away from each other, and then as the weeks go by you can experiment with reducing the time between workouts. Keep in mind that your recovery time will fluctuate based on variables in your life like stress, how physically demanding your job is, etc. Always err on the side of having more time between workouts. More recovery almost always means you will progress better.
Weaker muscle groups should be trained earlier in the week, when energy reserves are higher and you may need to train them more or less than other muscle groups, depending on your recovery ability. If you have a weak muscle group that can recover quicker, you can train that muscle group more frequently.
On the flip side, if you have a muscle group that recovers slower, less frequent workouts for that muscle group would be best. Delts and arms tend to be muscle groups that people overtrain with regularity. If you find your arms aren’t responding as well as you’d like, fight the urge to train them more frequently and actually cut back on arm work. You may be surprised to see new growth.
3. CHOOSE WHAT WORKS
You need to use exercises that feel right and fit your body and particular structure. It doesn’t matter if your buddies tell you that you have to do a certain exercise to get huge. If it doesn’t feel right and it isn’t digging into the muscle like it should, do not do that exercise. Not everyone is built for the same exercises. Some people can squat and target their quads and make incredible progress, but others can squat for years and not progress much at all. You don’t need to squat to have great legs. Find what works for you through trial and error. Don’t do an exercise that isn’t working for you.
4. FIND YOUR RANGE
Volume is usually dictated by recovery ability. Anyone can do 20 sets of back, but if that volume is too much and you aren’t going to recover from that type of workload, it would be a waste of time to do it. It will be to your benefit to work out with different rep schemes for a predetermined length of time and then assess, based on progress, which rep ranges work the best for you. The other option is to change your rep pattern to keep the body off balance. You can do this from workout to workout or even within the same workout. Variety is incredibly important when trying to cause the body to adjust to stimuli that it isn’t used to.
This one is important because when you first start, you don’t have to push the intensity all that hard and you’ll still make great gains. Once those initial gains slow, you’re going to want to look for ways to keep intensity high. Intensity builds muscle and builds physiques. It’s the level of effort in the gym that makes for great progress, and yet you have to keep that tempered by not training too hard, beyond your recovery abilities, or progress can come to a screeching halt. There are numerous intensity techniques to use, and some of the popular methods are:
- Dropsets: After failing with a particular weight, make the weight lighter and immediately continue the set to failure again.
- Rest-pause sets: After you fail, rack the weight for 30 seconds and then go after a few more reps to failure.
- Forced reps: Your partner helps you get an additional one or two reps after you fail.
- Decrease the time between sets: If you usually rest 90 seconds between sets, cutting that rest time in half will usually cut your strength down a little bit for the following sets, but if intensity is higher, the drop in strength due to fatigue is acceptable. The muscle doesn’t know what the weight is, it only knows the demand being put on the muscle.
- Change rep tempos: Be explosive one day and very controlled and methodical the next, or do the positive portion of the rep quickly and then slow the negative portion. Even subtle changes in rep tempo can provide a new stimulus that causes adaptation. Adaptation equals growth.
Although there are a broad range of variables involved in programming your best workout, the five listed above will be a great start to making your workouts more efficient. Be structured, but be flexible with your plan. Have a reason for doing every single thing you do in the gym. If you cannot answer the question, “Why am I doing this?” then you ought not to be doing it. No one will get huge or ripped without a solid, programming structure. It hasn’t happened yet, and you won’t be the first.