Disclaimer: I originally planned for this article to be a short, quick read. It is the opposite of that. Sorry. I even cut back on stuff that deserves more attention to try and respect the total length. Here is as good of a TL;DR summary as I can come up with:
You need a training program. It will allow you to be specific with your training, measure overload, it will add structure to your training, it will force you to do exercises you don’t want to do and it will provide you with data to make your future programs even better.
For Beginners: Do 10-15 hard sets per week of each of the muscle groups you want to grow. Divide those sets into 2 or 3 sessions for optimal growth. Each of those sessions should be filled with 5-10 total exercises. Add volume week over week until it is time to deload. Repeat.
For Intermediate Lifters: Everything above except do 10-20 hard sets per week of each
For Advanced Lifters: Prioritize which muscles you are looking to grow, perform 15-25 hard sets per week for those muscle groups. Place the other muscle groups at a maintenance volume level of 10-15 hard sets per week. Choose exercises that have a high stimulus to fatigue ratio. The rest is the same as above.
If your answer to the title of this article is something like “because I don’t have any specific goals right now and I only exercise because I like it/to relieve stress/for general health/etc.” then carry on. This article isn’t directed at you. If you are someone who has specific goals, such as body composition goals, then read up, this is important. If you want to grow muscle then attacking the problem with a defined program and specific plan of action is the best way to ensure that you will succeed. When you turn it into a science instead of an art you can control certain variables and manipulate others to make reaching your goals a breeze.
The most important factor when trying to grow muscle is the principle of specificity. The principle of specificity states that in order to improve or progress towards a certain goal, you need to train in a way that supports that goal. For example, if you want to grow muscle you would steer your training towards the weight room and resistance training. You wouldn’t go run 5 miles every day. As silly as this seems so many people get this wrong. They tell themselves they want to “tone up” and improve their body composition but instead of lifting weights they jump on a cardio machine at the gym for 30 minutes a couple of times per week. You must be specific with your training.
Of secondary importance is the principle of overload. The principle of overload basically states that in order to provide a response to training, the training must be difficult and produce a stimulus great enough to tell the body to grow. As you move forward in your training you’ll likely find that it becomes easier as a result of your body adapting to that stimulus. Enter, progressive overload. Your training must progressively get more difficult to continue to see growth as your body will have adapted to the original stimulus over time. Having a defined training program is one way to ensure that you are progressively overloading.
Why you should follow a training program if you have body composition goals.
Training Programs allow you to be specific about your training.
As mentioned above, specificity is the most important factor to consider when trying to build muscle. By writing and following a defined training program it allows you to get the most of your training time to meet your goals. From years of research by exercise scientists we are beginning to understand muscle growth deeper each year and there are a couple of things that are continually supported by new science. One of these things is that it appears to be best to train a muscle more than once a week if maximal growth is the goal. If you wanted better shoulders you would want to write some shoulder exercises into your program at least two times during the week, maybe even 3 if you are able to recover well enough. Bro splits, where you dedicate one day to each body part, seem to be phasing out, which is probably a good thing. Constructing a training program is crucial to maintain the principle of specificity.
Training Programs allow you to measure overload.
Progressive overload specifically. When you have a plan of action for your training you know what your exercises are supposed to look like over time. Going into the gym and just doing whatever you want can lead to growth but it’s going to be slower, more difficult, and likely only to occur if you are a beginner. A training program where you do the same exercises each week allows you to measure your progress over time. You can see where you were on Week 1 compared to Week 10 and know exactly how much more work you did across the program.
It adds structure to your training.
Structure is something the majority of casual exercisers would benefit from adding to their workouts. The average person doesn’t have much of it in their plans. Structure allows you to get in and out of the gym. You know exactly what is expected of you each day. There is no standing around wondering “What should I do next?” You have a plan of what to do for that day and you execute it. It also promotes best practices when it comes to growing muscle. You can plan out each of your training days for the week so that you can hit each body part the requisite amount of times to promote optimal growth and recovery.
It forces you to do exercises/work muscles you don’t like to train.
Having a predefined plan for each of your workouts takes any of the favoritism out of exercise. There are so many people that never work entire muscle groups in their body because they dislike it so strongly. Training plans promote balance as long as they are well constructed. Guys with no training plan end up working their chest and arms 5 times a week and girls with no plan favor their butt and legs. If you don’t have a training plan, it’s highly likely that you will miss out on opportunities for growth.
It provides you with data.
Tracking your workouts is an additional part of having a training plan. Arming yourself with weeks worth of exercise data can show you where you are performing well and where you may have inefficiencies. It shows you where you can make improvements to further your progress and as a learning tool for future cycles.
So how do I make my own training program?
The way I see it there are 4 groups of lifters: complete noobs, beginners, intermediate, and advanced lifters. They will all have different needs when it comes to a training program. An advanced program for a beginner lifter doesn’t mean it is better, they will have different requirements because they are farther along in their training age. Just like anything else in life, the dogmas of training philosophy are hotly contested and many different opinions exist. The following recommendations are based upon my experience and beliefs as to how I would go about training. This is by no means the only way. It may not even be the best way but it was I have found in my experience to work best. Getting a training program from a professional coach that is tailored to you is obviously the best option. But that costs money and sometimes it’s fun to learn on your own, right? So let’s discuss.
For the purposes of this argument I am strictly referring to training programs for hypertrophy (muscle growth). Training programs that are sport specific, for strength, or for some other kind of goal are not what I am going to discuss here. Simply hypertrophy training. There are a few terms that are commonly used when referring to training protocols.
Rep: A movement of an exercise spanning from the starting position to the ending position and back to the starting position.
Set: Multiple reps strung together without rest between each rep.
Volume: The amount of total work done throughout a given period of time. It can be measured by calculating force x distance but it is commonly referred to in hypertrophy training as the total number of hard sets performed.
Frequency: How many times you perform an exercise or work a muscle group per week.
Reps in Reserve: The amount of reps you have theoretically left to perform before you can’t do another rep. For example, a true 1 rep max lift would be 0 reps in reserve because you would fail if you tried to do another rep. As this number grows it gets harder and harder to estimate and it is best used between values of 0 and 5.
RPE: Rating of perceived exertion. This is measured on a scale from 1-10. 1 being very easy and 10 being the most difficult it can be. RPE is related to reps in reserve in that RPE 10 is equivalent to 0 reps and reserve, RPE 9 is equivalent to 1 rep in reserve and so on.
When it comes to training for hypertrophy it is important to make the distinction between a “set” and a “hard set”. You can go through the motions and complete a set of 12 reps of an exercise with a weight that you could do for 50 reps. Many casual exercisers are lacking in this aspect because they don’t put enough effort into their training. Without going too deep into what causes a muscle to grow, know that it is important to push close to failure in order to stimulate the muscle fibers that are most prone to growth. It has been common in the fitness world to define a set that is stimulative and growth promoting as a “hard set” or a “working set”. These terms are closely related to Reps in Reserve. Although there is no globally accepted definition of what a hard set is, I prefer to define it as any set that has a maximum of 5-7 reps in reserve.
If you are in the complete noob category, developing your own program isn’t going to be easy. Luckily for you there are hundreds of good, free programs available all over the internet. Just about any of them will be better than nothing so don’t fret about which one to choose. Decide what you want your ultimate goal to be and find one that suits those needs. If you need guidance on how to perform the movements, I would recommend hiring a trainer to teach you the basics or tag along with a friend for a few weeks until you learn the ropes.
Adherence to your plan is critically important. It comes back to the principle of specificity. If you want to grow muscle you need to do things that promote growing muscle. Not training is not promoting any muscle growth. You don’t want to start out with a plan of lifting weights for an hour a day, 6 days a week if you have never done anything else before. That is not sustainable and you will probably destroy yourself. If I were to train a complete noob I would start them out doing about 3 hours a week divided into 3 or 4 sessions. That should be more than enough for them to make progress in both movement patterns and growing muscle.
Going from 0 to something is going to provide a stimulus to grow. Worrying about not doing enough for a complete noob isn’t something that needs much consideration. As you advance in your training age you’ll reach certain thresholds that you will need to pass in order to see growth, a minimum amount of volume. Until you reach competency in all of the foundational movements, this can be placed on the back burner. The goal for any complete noob should be to drill movement patterns and create good habits to set you up for future success. The gains will come easily because it is so new to your body. Find a beginner program online and stick to it for a couple of months. Once you can prove to yourself that you are committed, can perform the movements correctly, and have made measurable progress you can graduate to a beginner and start making more advanced considerations.
Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Lifters
People commonly misclassify themselves as an intermediate or advanced lifter because they have spent years in the gym lifting weights. In my mind, you can have 20 years of “lifting” experience and still be a beginner if your training was never well constructed, which unfortunately is the case for many. The amount of years you have spent gaining experience doesn’t always correlate to your training age. There is no perfect way to measure your status as a lifter but I think using strength is a pretty decent proxy. Even if strength training isn’t a goal of yours, if you have been training hard there is a high chance you have accrued some strength as a result. Here are some landmarks on the big three lifts to estimate where you stand in terms of training status. Again, this is an estimation based on my own observation and is in no way a proven method. Find your max lifts and divide them by your weight and compare to the values in the table. For example, I weigh 170lbs. My max bench is at 275lbs so I would divide 275lbs by 170lbs and find that value to be 1.6 which would put me in the Advanced category according to my rudimentary measure. It’s not perfect but I have been training hard for 10 years now so I think that makes sense for me.
Beginners will still be able to make progress quite easily in the gym. While the pure noob gains may not be fully accessible, noticeable and measurable gains are still to be had. Intermediate lifters have less wiggle room for growth but still have room to grow. Advanced lifters need to really drill down on the specifics of what they want out of a training program and develop it to be very pointed towards those goals.
Setting up your Training Programs
Step 1: Training Goals – Determine what your training goals are. Figure out what you want out of this training program. The more advanced you are the more specific this needs to be. As a beginner, saying “I want to look better and appear more toned.” is a fine goal to have and it is completely doable. As an advanced lifter, you will likely have to periodize your training plan into separate blocks in order to manage fatigue and your time in the gym. Picking two or three muscle groups per cycle to focus on is likely necessary in order to see meaningful growth. It would be extremely difficult to grow every muscle group at the same time as an advanced lifter as you will accumulate a ton of fatigue and because it would take hours to complete each workout. It just isn’t feasible.
Step 2: Frequency – To start building your program, decide on how many days you want to lift per week. As a beginner I would stick between 3 and 5 but the choice is ultimately up to you. Intermediate and advanced lifters should likely choose between 4-7 days per week. I personally do a 5 day split but if you are able to manage fatigue and enjoy training enough to do it 7 days a week then have at it, but know that it is a lot of work.
Step 3: Volume – Determining how much volume you should do is something that comes with experience and knowing your own body and limits. As a beginner, it is your job to begin to learn where these thresholds lie. As an advanced lifter, you should have a solid grasp of how your body responds to different amounts of training volume. Part of being a good programmer is to know where these volume thresholds are and how you feel and recover when you reach them. This will allow you to structure your training plans in a way that fully optimizes your time spent in the gym.
For a beginner, 10 hard sets per muscle group per week is likely sufficient to see growth. You can probably fit in every single muscle group each week in a reasonable amount of time per session if you wished. As long as you are able to manage fatigue and not be too sore to lift a muscle group the next time you need to, I say go for it. 10 hard sets per week is not that many when you think about it. Growth for beginners is quite easy to achieve.
For intermediate lifters, a bit more volume is probably necessary to achieve an adequate stimulus and see growth. 10-20 hard sets per muscle group per week is a good landmark to shoot for. As the number of sets increases, you will likely have to cut back on the volume of some muscle groups for time’s sake as well as managing fatigue. This is one of the purposes for periodizing your training.
Advanced lifters may need even more volume in order to see growth. 15-30 hard sets per muscle group per week is a ballpark estimate but as an advanced lifter you should have a general idea of where you stand. Each muscle group will likely be different. You may find that your biceps can take 25 hard sets per week where your hamstrings are toasted after 15. Know your own volume landmarks. Another factor for advanced lifters to consider for hypertrophy training is the stimulus to fatigue ratio, meaning how good of a stimulus does a particular exercise give me compared to how much fatigue it adds to the total accumulation for the week. Conventional deadlifts are a poor exercise for hypertrophy in terms of stimulus to fatigue ratio for most people. Choosing an alternative such as RDL’s or stiff leg deadlifts is much preferred by veteran lifters when it comes to hamstring development as they have a far greater stimulus to fatigue ratio.
Step 4: Exercise Selection – Knowing that specificity is the most critical factor in a good training program, you need to select exercises that match your goals. If you want to grow your butt you need to program exercises that target your glutes. Big compound movements are great for hypertrophy. Bench, squat, row, deadlift, hip thrust. I prefer to start all workouts with some compound exercises and then follow them up with single joint and accessory lifts. With exercise selection you also have to take into account frequency and volume. If you are only going to lift 3 times a week it may behoove you to do 3 full body days in order to hit each muscle multiple times. If you were going to lift 5 times a week you will want to select exercises that allow you to hit your volume landmarks as well as spread them out in a way to stimulate those muscle groups multiple times per week and manage your fatigue levels.
For beginners, sticking to compound and foundational movements is preferred so that you get the most out of your training and to set you up for the future as you grow in your training age. For intermediate and especially advanced lifters, finding exercises that have a high stimulus to fatigue ratio can become very important as you progress in your training age.
5-10 exercises per session is plenty. More exercises does not mean better. Choose enough exercises to allow you to hit your weekly volume thresholds. You can do this with more exercises or adding sets to your current list of exercises.
Step 5: Managing Fatigue – Managing how much fatigue you accumulate over a training block is important because it will allow you to actually put in the effort required to grow muscle. If you go into the gym and completely kill yourself in every workout, you’re not going to last much more than a couple of weeks. Part of writing a good training program is gradually building up to peak volume and incorporating deload weeks where you can let the fatigue dissipate. I prefer to do this by periodizing my training into cycles. If you break your training down into macrocycles (months), mesocycles (weeks), microcycles (days), and individual sessions you can focus on different aspects of your training to meet your ultimate goal.
I like to separate my training out into mesocycles and macrocycles. I don’t personally have a need to get as granular as even the microcycle or individual sessions. I have found that mesocycles 6 weeks in length followed by a 1 week deload are best for me in order to manage my fatigue. You can put as many of these mesocycles into a macrocycle as you need to reach your goal. I start out each mesocycle with an initial amount of volume that is light but still enough to see growth and gradually add volume over the 6 week mesocycle until I get to the last week that is a very intense week of training. Following the mesocycle I would take a week where I reduce my volume by about 50% and allow my body to rest, recover and make the adaptations necessary to the previous weeks of training. Then I would begin again with another mesocycle.
We know from the scientific literature that in order to grow muscle we have to at least get close to failure on our lifts. However, going to failure on every exercise, every session, would likely lead to overtraining. This is why we should build in volume over the course of a mesocycle. I like to use reps in reserve as a way to measure how close I am to failure and modulate my volume over the course of a mesocycle. Here is how it would occur:
Week 1 – 5 reps in reserve on each lift.
Week 2 – 4 reps in reserve on each lift.
Week 3 – 3 reps in reserve on each lift.
Week 4 – 2 reps in reserve on each lift.
Week 5 – 1 rep in reserve on each lift.
Week 6 – 0 reps in reserve on each lift.
Week 7 – Deload
Week 8 – Start of Mesocycle 2, change exercises if needed. 5 reps in reserve on each lift. Repeat the sequence.
Okay. I know that was a lot of info. In summary, to construct your training program divide your total weekly volume as evenly as possible between how many days per week you are going to be lifting. From here, fill in that volume with 5-10 exercises per session that are targeted to help achieve your goals. Write out your mesocycle by gradually adding volume each week. Your mesocycles can be between 4-8 weeks. As stated above, I like to do this by decreasing the amount of reps in reserve as it keeps the duration of the workout about the same. You can also add sets, weight, range of motion, etc. Another reason I like to use reps in reserve is because it is autoregulated meaning that it is based on effort and not numbers. We all have those days in the gym where we just aren’t feeling it and the weights feel heavier than normal and even days when it feels lighter. I believe using autoregulation allows for better training days when compared to trying to hit specific weights for a certain number of reps.
You don’t need to hit your volume thresholds for every muscle group each week. As an advanced lifter this can even be contradictory to your goals. Trying to hit 20 hard sets per week on every single body part would add too much fatigue and leave you in the gym for 2 plus hours a day. Not many people want to do that. For the body parts that aren’t at the top of your goals list, you can decrease volume for them to save time and fatigue. You can still grow these muscle groups but the degree in which growth occurs will be stunted if they aren’t at their maximal volume.
After you write out your program, count how many sets you have planned for each of your muscle groups. Ensure that you have reached the threshold each week for the muscle groups you are trying to grow, add or subtract as necessary.
Learning how to program takes time and practice. Following programs you find online is a great place to start. You can always modify them to better fit your individual needs. There are a million different ways you can program a training plan. The method I describe in this article is simply meant to provide a bit of guidance on how to go about doing it using strategies that are backed by science. Almost anything is better than nothing so don’t get discouraged if you still feel unsure of what to do.