We also mentioned how many repetitions are required to increase muscle strength or endurance, but little more.
The idea of this post is to explain in more detail how you can design a training program yourself.
1. Set your goals
When you first enter a gym, the floor instructor’s first question should be “what is your goal?”.
Unfortunately in most gyms this does not happen. They simply send you to do 3 sets of 10 repetitions for a couple of exercises, 4 of 12 in others and 3 of 15 in another. At the end, 20-30 minutes of bike or treadmill and you’re done. Random routine, random results.
It is essential to have clear objectives so that you can make a program that meet your needs.
Those objectives might be:
- Gain strength
- Gain muscle mass (hypertrophy)
- Gain muscular endurance
- Increase power
- Reduce body fat
- Increase cardiovascular capacity
- Improve flexibility
- Achieve a general fitness
The first four of all those (gaining strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance, and power) are easy to set up by just adjusting certain variables.
2. Know the adjustment variables.
- Repetitions (reps): refers to how many times you are going to perform a certain movement. For example: 8 times a squat
- Sets: is the block in which you perform certain repetitions. For example 3 sets of 8 repetitions of a squat each (3×8). Series x repetitions make the volume or total work done. In this example, 24 squats.
- Intensity: it is the difficulty, load or weight that you use for the exercise. It is usually expressed as a percentage of the 1RM (weight that allows you to do only one repetition of a certain exercise). Logically, the higher the intensity, the less volume.
- Tempo: refers to the speed of the exercise’s execution.
- Rest between sets: how many seconds/minutes you rest between sets.
- Rest between sessions: how many hours/days of rest between workouts.
The following chart represents how you should adjust the variables based on your goals:
*: It means as fast as possible but, logically, when using loads of 85% of 1RM and higher, it cannot be done explosively like when training power.
Program as you like
I do believe that there are more important things in life than spending hours training in the gym.
Having that in mind, I prefer to design my program using the lower end of the range for each variable trying to be as efficient as possible.
For example, for strength I use a weight that allows me to do between 2-4 repetitions, in 3 sets and with 3 minutes rest between them. As you can see, I seek to invest the least possible time training, but still being effective.
So, by this way, doing 4 or 5 exercises per session, my workouts last between 45 and 70 min.
Obviously this is a personal choice. There are those who prefer to work in higher ranges or do more exercises and spend more time in the gym. The important here is that the variables are kept within the range for the pursued goal and, of course, to keep the correct technique.
Once you reach certain levels of strength after a few months, you will have to do some adjustments, but that is a topic for another post.
3. Set up your strategy: pure cycles, alternate days, mixed
There are no infallible strategies. You can choose any of these:
- Pure cycles (linear periodization): means performing routines where you work only one fitness component, for example 2 months doing only hypertrophy training, another 2-3 only for strength, another of muscular endurance, etc.
- Alternate days (nonlinear periodization): in this case, for each training session of the week you prioritize a different component. For example, for a 3 weekly workouts routine you would do strength training on Monday, hypertrophy on Wednesday and muscular endurance + cardio on Friday. This strategy is ideal for those who aim to achieve a good overall fitness level.
- Mixed: mix the previous ones. Do shorter pure cycles interrupted by a few weeks of alternating days. For example 3 weeks training pure strength, then 1-2 weeks of alternating days where you train muscular endurance and hypertrophy, then 2 weeks alternating days of strength and power, etc.
As said before, there are no universal rules, each person is a world. It is a matter of testing, seeing what gives you better results but, mainly, finding a way to make it consistent over time.
My personal preference: pure cycles of 2 to 6 months, I like to keep things simple.
4. Track your progress and adjust
If you intend to constantly improve, it is essential (not an option) to take notes of your workouts.
It can be done digitally in an excel spreadsheet or the old-fashioned way, as I do, in a notebook/notepad. You need 10 minutes per week (I do it on Sundays night) to write your weekly or even monthly routine, and from there you have three options:
- If it is an spreadsheet, you can take a tablet to the gym with you to write down your marks (weights and reps that you were able to do). Although I have seen several people doing it, I don’t think that tablets and weights nearby is a good idea, especially if it is a very busy gym. So consider the following options.
- You bring the notebook and a pencil to the gym.
- My preferred option: copy the workout of the day on a “pocket size” piece of paper, and then in the gym you write down your marks after each set. Then at home you transcribe the results to the notebook.
Finally, based on the records, you can make the adjustments you need: more/less weight, reps, changes on exercises, order of exercises, etc.
If you find a good trainer who asks about your goals, preferences, injuries limitations or illnesses and can design the best program for you, it would be great.
Unfortunately, not everyone has that possibility and, in several gyms, the “trainers” simply tell you to do a little bit of everything in a random way, with logical random results.
With this guide you will be able to design your own program to suit your needs or at least, to know about basic concepts in order to maintain an intelligent chat with a trainer so that you can both prepare the best program for you.
Either way, this is only for the conditioning phase (approximately 70% of a session). In a next post we will see the other phases and how they fit into a workout.
Until next time!