I’ve been getting tremendous feedback from my recent article on The 15 Strength Training Principles published on T-nation. In this post I’m providing a list (in no particular order) of 7 more principles I abide by when designing all strength training programs for athletes and athletic-minded folks.
Sure, individuality in workout program design is essential. But the following are seven more principles that I feel all field, court and combat athletes, along with exercise enthusiasts should follow when looking to take a smarter approach to strength training.
1 – Use the same exercises in different ways.
Any good program should have enough consistency to allow you to see progress, and it should have enough variety to prevent boredom and potential repetitive stress injury. This involves using the same foundational exercise movements (pushing, pulling, rotation, etc.) but in slightly different ways. For example, with a squat, you can mix up your foot positions (wider stance or parallel stance), you can place the bar in various positions (e.g., front squat, back squat, trap bar), and you can perform single-leg versions such as split squats and knee-tap squats. The consistent exercise is the squat, but every few weeks you perform a different squat variation like the ones just described.
2- Your workout structure (aka. split) is determined by how often you training throughout the week.
I don’t get caught up in arguing about what type of weekly workout split is “best” because it’s very context dependant. Since both work volume and rest are both important of programming, the weekly workout split is determined by how often you train throughout the week. And, this can change throughout the year depending on your life.
That said, as a general rule of thumb:
- If you train 2 to 3 times per week, I’ll give you total-body workouts.
- If you train 4 times per week, I’ll give you an upper-body/ lower-body split program. So, you’ll alternate between upper-body and lower-body workouts, while hitting both upper-body and lower-body each twice per week.
- If you train 5 to 6 times per week, I’ll give you body-part split workouts, which could be on a 3-day on and one day off rotation, or a 4-days on and one day off rotation. That depends on your preferences.
To get into all the details of how I’d design each split is far beyond the scope and focus of this post. But the main takeaway here is simple: I don’t fit individuals to training splits, I fit training splits to individuals.
That said, you can see this concept in action in my book, Your Workout PERFECTED. In that book I’ve provided different workout programs for all of the above weekly training frequencies.
3 – Vary the sets and reps.
Another way to get all around strong, which is a big theme in my 15 Strength Training Principles article, is to mix up sets and reps, which means the loads you’re using.
Both regularly varying the exercise applications used while keeping the reps range (i.e., loading scheme) consistent (1) and regularly varying (i.e., undulating) sets and reps (2,3,4,5,6) have been shown in the research to be effective means of improving muscle strength and size. This should come as no surprise since both are means of expressing the principle of variety. However, since there’s a much larger body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of regularly varying (i.e., undulating) sets and reps, I tend to favor this approach to programming (for non-beginners), hence the undulating set/rep framework used in the workout programs provided in my books: Building Muscle and Performance, and Your Workout PERFECTED. Not to mention, different rep ranges create different strength adaptions, which is a big part of what it means to get all around strong!
4 – Don’t rush rest breaks between sets. Use paired-sets and tri-sets.
The general recommendations for rest between sets are similar for strength and power development. A review of the research for rest intervals between sets found that resting three to five minutes between sets produced greater increases in strength by allowing your body the optimal amount of time to recover, and higher levels of muscular power were demonstrated over multiple sets with three to five minutes of rest versus 1 minute of rest between sets (7). Resting longer than three to five minutes doesn’t mean performance will increase further. Plus, you’ve only got so much time to work out anyway.
Well, paired-sets, tri-sets and quad-sets enable you to train multiple muscle groups in a time-efficient manner, while also allowing each muscle group to recover while you’re working another area, which helps to maximize volume.
If you’re into the scientific evidence on this, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated the acute effects on volume load (load × repetitions) of performing paired set vs. traditional set training over three consecutive sets in trained men. Not only did this research show that paired set training may be more effective than traditional set training in terms of volume-load maintenance and more efficient, but the researchers of this study suggested that individuals wishing to maximize work completed per unit of time may be well advised to consider paired-set training. (8)
In other words, increasing your work volume and also resting longer between sets are two scientifically-founded strategies for maximizing your gains in muscle size and strength. Using paired-sets and tri-sets allow you to accomplish both!
Now, don’t get it twisted! This doesn’t mean you should never do traditional sets in your workouts – especially if you prefer it – or that traditional set training is somehow ineffective. It simply means that paired-sets, along with tri-sets and quad-sets, are an efficient method of strength training.
5 – Keep logistics in mind.
We may be limited, for example, due to being in a crowded gym or by training at home or in a small hotel gym with limited equipment and space.
The training programs I designed for clients, along with all of the workouts provided in all three of my books have been designed with the big-box gym member in mind. For instance, they group exercises requiring immobile equipment (e.g., squat rack or machine) with exercises using mobile equipment (e.g., dumbbells, resistance bands). This mixture enables you to bring the mobile equipment to the immobile equipment and remain there without having to walk all over the gym and lose the equipment you’re using to another member.
Of course, some training environments contain limited space or equipment and therefore are not conducive to performing certain exercises included in the programs provided in this book. In such cases, simply adjust the program by substituting another exercise option from the same category that better fits with your training environment. In most areas of life, success involves making good adjustments, and this book provides you with more than enough exercise options to adjust to any training environment.
6 – Consider risk vs. reward
Training hard without also taking the smartest approach to training is an ego-driven recipe for quickly reducing your performance and health. Be sure to begin using workout concepts by using your brain, not your ego. This means:
- Progress through the workouts at a gradual pace, keeping all of your workouts at a level that challenges your current fitness without leaving you crawling on the floor or feeling like you want you throw up.
- Progress (i.e., increase) the load you lift and the amount you do (i.e., how many total sets and reps you perform) very carefully.
- Don’t force end-range joint motions
- Don’t exercise through pain; exercise around it.
- Be especially careful with movements and positions that were part of the previous injury.
The internet is riddled with gym fail videos. Instead of watching those videos and learning from the mistakes of others, lots of people take it as a challenge to try it themselves. Gym fail videos aren’t just for entertainment, they’re also an educational tool in what not to do. The only thing smarter than learning from your own mistakes is learning from the mistakes of others.
7 – Rest and reload. Get enough sleep.
In my training system, the first time you do each workout in a new program (after 3 to 6 weeks or so), it’s considered a reload workout. A reload workout is simply a lower-intensity version of the workout, which helps you stay active and acclimate yourself to the movements and sequencing of the new program you’re starting. Reloading also allows you to use workouts in a way that doesn’t fatigue you so you can recover between programs. It also provides active recovery days between workout programs.
Speaking of getting enough rest, make sure to get 7 to 10 hours of sleep per night. Following appropriate sleep guidelines (9,10,11,12,13) for performance enhancement and injury reduction is a solid, evidence-based practice for everyone.
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2. Rhea MR,Ball SD, et al. A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 May;16(2):250-5.
3. Prestes J, Frollini AB, et al. Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2437-42.
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8. Robbins DW, Young WB and Behm DG. The effect of an upper-body agonist-antagonist resistance training protocol on volume load and efficiency. J Strength Cond Res, 2010 Oct;24(10):2632-40.
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13. American Sleep Association. What is sleep? Available from: www.sleepassociation.org/ patients-general-public/what-is-sleep