After spending over a decade of my life in gyms, I have realized that most people do not have any clue what they are doing. Especially when it comes to strength training.
This is evident by looking at the workout programs that the average gym goer does.
Typically, Monday is “chest day”, Wednesday is “arms day” and Friday is “lat pulldown day”.
With a program like this, it is no wonder that your goals end up going nowhere.
So how do you actually know what to do and when to do it?
Which exercise routine gives you the magic formula?
We are going to get to all of this but first we need to talk about the absolute most important thing related to strength training.
Choosing The Right Program All Depends On Your Goals
I will never forget my college physics teacher. One day he gave us an exam and I tried to rush through it and get the highest score possible in the process (what a nerd!).
The next week after he finished handing us our exams back, I was shocked. Not only did I not do as good as I thought. But there was actually a note on the exam commanding me to come in and see him in his office immediately.
Curious, and frightened, I went into his office and asked him why he called me there. He took out my exam and said to me that I have very strong arithmetic skills and I clearly understand the material, but I was rushing.
He told me to always remember that there was absolutely no point in rushing to get a wrong answer.
Wow. Those were powerful words!
So why did I share this story with all of you? Because this is exactly what most of you are doing. You are charging forward all headstrong but you are not logically thinking about what you are doing.
Choosing Your Goal
I have already written an article about choosing the right goals for you. But here I want to talk about the different types of strength training goals with their pros and cons.
Remember every goal has a cost to benefit ratio. There is a price to pay for every benefit you get. If you think you are going to get everything all at once, you are not.
You have to prioritize and ruthlessly select your goals based on what matters to you the most.
Gaining Muscle Mass
Typically this is more common for us guys. Why? Because we all want to be badass alpha males. No shame with that.
Gaining muscle mass typically involves lifting moderately heavy weights for an high amount of volume. This increases your time under tension.
Larger amounts of growth hormones and growth factors are released into the bloodstream which will make the muscles grow bigger and stronger.
I go into much more detail in my build muscle naturally article.
- High Volume
- Less stressful on the central nervous system (CNS)
- Can potentially increase aerobic capacity
- Helps to keep weight off with a proper diet
- Requires more days in the gym than a typical program
- Bulking is required so the tendency to gain bad weight is possible
- Slower strength gains due to the high rep ranges
- Can get boring very fast
Building Massive Strength
Training for strength is a completely different animal. With strength training your main focus is to lift the largest amount of weight possible for the fewest amount of repetitions.
Sometimes this can be for 3 reps or 2 reps, but most of the time it is usually for one repetition. All repetitions in any strength training program is based off of calculating your one repetition max.
According to the Bulgarian programming philosophy, when you train above 97% of your 1 Rep Max, your body responds in a completely different way than any other intensity.
So unless you train heavy, you will not increase your true strength potential as much as you possibly can.
Unfortunately this is also the biggest drawback to this goal.
- Builds massive amounts of strength
- Increases your performance in sports
- Helps boost your training volume for gaining mass
- Helps to build more explosive strength
- Very fatiguing
- Greater risk for injury
- Requires more motivation
- Requires longer recovery
Most of us are not thinking about cutting weight around this time of the year. But during the late winter, cutting weight is on most of our minds.
Let’s face facts we all want to look good. Being big and strong is one thing, but if you are overweight and unhealthy, then nobody will see how hard you truly worked.
By reducing the amount of calories you eat and changing up your diet plan, you will lose body fat and have a sculpted physique, right?
Well, not exactly.
You see, you still have to train and workout as you normally do without taking in as many calories. It is a really tough transition.
Your workout program will have to be similar to the gaining muscle mass program described earlier. Except the thing is you won’t be gaining much, if any muscle mass because you are cutting calories.
You can still build strength, however. So not all is lost.
- Reduced body fat
- Better aesthetics
- Less stress on the heart
- Overall healthier physique
- Strength gains are very limited
- Little, if any, muscle gain
- Difficult to maintain
- Strict eating schedule
If you are the competitive type (aren’t we all), then the speed and power program will work wonders for you.
What makes a great athlete? Is it strength, or endurance?
The answer is neither. It is power.
There is something called the power to weight ratio. The more powerful you are relative to your bodyweight, the better the athlete you will become.
Think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Most sports require you to move as quickly as possible. Using that logic, if you are too slow, then you will never be the best athlete. Period!
But wait a minute! What if your not an “athlete” in the professional sense? Does power/speed training have any benefits for you?
Did you know that the strongest lifters in the world are also the most explosive? When you lift a weight quicker, the muscles spend less time under tension and therefore don’t get damaged as much.
Plus by lifting more explosively, you will increase your total strength, be able to lift more weight for more reps AND lose more body fat.
Out of all the goals above, speed/power is the one goal that actually will boost all of the others.
- Increase athleticism
- Boost total strength levels
- Gain the competitive edge
- Helps with ALL other goals
- Low reps
- Fatiguing on central nervous system (CNS)
- Has to be trained along side other programs
- Co-dependent on maximum strength levels
Finally, our last major goal is for those of you who want to stay in the game the longest. The endurance crowd.
Endurance is how long you can keep going when everybody else quits. Not just on the field, or in the gym, but in life itself.
The mind and body are connected. By having more physical endurance you will have more mental endurance. And vice versa.
By building a solid base of endurance for yourself, you ensure that you can handle the most amount of work in a given timeframe AND are able to recover from it.
This applies to any and all strength training programs. If you are just starting with strength training, then this is the program you want to start with.
By having a solid base of conditioning, you ensure that you are “in shape” and are able to handle the workouts without too much fatigue.
If you are new to training and don’t have enough endurance, then ANY of the other workouts will kick the crap out of you. You will literally feel so fatigued that it will take you much longer to recover from your workouts.
Some examples include MetCons and Small Workouts. Read more about them in my Top 10 Conditioning Exercises article.
- Can be done in small doses during every workout
- Requires very little equipment
- Lots of variety
- Improves recovery time
- Can only be done around 1-2x per week if done alongside regular program
- Too much will lower your strength levels
- Requires extra planning/programming
- May be tough for busy individuals
Selecting The Best Strength Training Program
Now that you know all of the different types of programs out there, it is time to choose one to focus on.
“But wait a minute Anthony! You said earlier that some of these programs overlap and need to be worked with others. I don’t know what I should do!”
Relax, I’ve got you covered. In this next section I am going to cover all of this for whichever level you may currently be on.
What makes you a beginner? If you answered yes to any of the following below:
- I have not workout once in at least 6 months
- I have never worked out before
- My form is bad in the big 4 lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press)
If you are a beginner, then you need to read this section very carefully. If you are not a beginner, then you can skip this section and move on to the next section.
A beginner is completely new to the fitness/sports scene based not on life experience, but based on their current level of fitness. A beginner doesn’t have any practical fitness skills, but they have plenty of potential.
There are two types of fitness: neurological fitness and physiological fitness.
Neurological fitness describes how well you body moves when exercising or during sport. Somebody with poor movement is a beginner. They have so much more potential to move better.
Likewise, their physiological conditioning (cardio) is also very low and has lots of potential.
So what is the goal of a beginner? Which program(s) above should a beginner choose?
If you are a beginner, then you want to start with endurance training AND gaining muscle mass.
Obviously a beginner needs a solid base of conditioning in order to able to handle the workouts, that is obvious. But when you are lifting weights, your nervous system is going to be sloppy with the movements. Thus, we need to perform a lot of reps with light weight.
The gaining mass program solves this problem. There is another name for the gaining mass program that I did not mention above, it is called the repetitive effort method. An appropriate name considering the amount of volume you will be doing.
Beginner Strength Training Program
For a beginner like yourself, there is no need to calculate your one rep max and write out a state of the art workout template.
This is an outdated and old school way of thinking that is overly perverse.
Beginners have the easiest programs to write out of any other training group. Why? Because it is something new. So their body will adapt to the new stimulus very quickly.
You could literally do jumping jacks for an hour straight and get great results. (Don’t do that.)
But still we want to have a structured program of some kind because the body is learning new skills and forming new habits. If you make bad habits as a beginner, then you are going to have bad habits as an intermediate.
With the right amount of structure you will learn how to lift with basic simple exercises and be able to focus on your form. That is your goal as a beginner.
Think of the beginner program as the foundation of a house, it lays the groundwork for everything else. If you have a weak foundation, then no matter how high you build your house, it will collapse.
So keep the weights light and focus on great form. The heavy weight comes later.
Typically you will be able to train like this for at least 2-3 months before you are ready to move on to the intermediate program. There are some cases where I have seen people continue for 5-6 months.
But the fastest and most overwhelming adaptations occur in the first 6 weeks. So make those 6 weeks count!
Sample Beginner Program
As you can see, multiple muscle groups can be trained in a single workout for a beginner. Also since the volume is rather light you can perform conditioning at the end of every workout.
If you are an intermediate, then you still have more potential left in the tank, especially compared to the advanced. But you can’t get away with as many mistakes as the beginner could.
As an intermediate, you need to focus on creating more stimulus. So assistance work becomes really important if you are an intermediate.
When you were a beginner you could get away with just doing a core lift. Not anymore, now you need to start adding some variety.
Plus you also need to increase the weight. In the beginner program you were doing lighter weight for many repetitions. Now in the intermediate program you are doing heavier weight for fewer repetitions.
So now the million dollar question: “But Anthony, if I am doing fewer repetitions, won’t my conditioning drop?” The answer is yes.
But it will only drop just slightly. However, this still makes a HUGE difference in strength training. Especially when the weight gets heavier.
So now instead of doing conditioning at the end of every workout, like you did in the beginner program, you will now have to do conditioning workouts on your “off days”. They should be no longer than 20 minutes.
Intermediate Strength Training Program
The basic structure of your workout should include one “core” exercise (e.g. squats) followed by around 1-2 primary assistance exercises and 3-4 supplementary “bodybuilding style” exercises.
The core exercise is the main focus of the workout. Core exercises such as the squat and deadlift will add the most value to your program and give you the most bang for your buck.
Exercises that force you to handle the most weight will also cause the greatest amount of adaptation.
But as an intermediate you will only get so far. Therefore, the primary assistance exercises will give you a boost.
The primary assistance exercises should be AS SIMILAR TO THE CORE LIFT AS POSSIBLE!
Each and every assistance lift you do has to have similar motions to the core lift. This leads to an adaptation carryover. The greater the carryover the greater the adaptation.
Chest flys may be really fun, but they are not anywhere near as good as close grip bench presses for carryover.
Following the assistance lifts, the supplementary exercises will add in more volume to make your muscles grow bigger. This helps to touch up weak areas. So pick exercises that attack weak muscle groups.
Sample Intermediate Program
After your core lift the assistance exercises are much more specific and the volume is much greater than before. The goal is to condition and strengthen the working muscle groups as much as possible.
If you are a veteran, then you are probably an advanced athlete with years of experience under your belt. This is both a blessing and a curse.
You know what you are doing and are in the top 5% of all lifters.
You also know that you don’t make gains anywhere near as fast as you used to. You are nearing your genetic potential.
Because of this, you need even more variety than an intermediate athlete does. This can include varying your program week by week or even workout by workout.
The main goal here is to create a new stimulus as often as possible.
Just like the intermediate program, the advanced program can be used with any of the 5 workout goals above. But more often than not you will be doing a mixture of them just like the intermediate program.
In order to create as much stimuli as possible. The core lift is now going to be rotated every 2-3 weeks.
For example, lets say you were doing back squats for 2 weeks. Once those 2 weeks are done, you will switch to heavy front squats for the next two weeks. And maybe box squats for the following two weeks, etc.
Advanced Strength Training Program
The structure of the advanced program is VERY similar to the intermediate program. If you have been following the article up to now, the changes will not be too dramatic for you but it will still be a shift.
There are two main differences:
- Rotating The Core Exercise
- More Volume On The Assistance Lifts
We already talked about the core exercise in the last section. You have to pick one that will provide a new stimulus compared to the previous core exercise.
The assistance lifts are the other big change. The volume will dramatically increase for these exercises.
In the intermediate program you would be doing 4-6 sets of 8-10 reps. With the advanced program you will be doing 6-10 sets of 8-15 repetitions for the same number of exercises.
That is a HUGE increase in volume. You may need to taper it a bit as you are getting used to it. Try doing 6 sets for a little while and then boost it up to 7-8 sets when 6 sets becomes too easy.
As usual, pick assistance exercises that address weak areas and hit them hard. Weak areas are a real problem when your weights start getting really heavy.
Sample Advanced Program
Notice how the core exercise is no longer your typical squat, but a variation of the squat. Also there are fewer reps and more sets to ensure good technique. This provides the nervous system with enough drive to adapt. It is also is helpful to add in a simple exercise at the end of the workout and try to do as many reps as possible. Aim as high as possible (~40-50 reps).
Well there you have it. These are the main training goals that everybody should be training for along with a blueprint for which ever level you may be on.
By following one of the programs along with the practical advice in the programming sections, you will make far better progress than your fellow peers.
You always need to have direction with your workouts, otherwise progress will come very slowly or not at all.
There is so much more info that I could not fit into this article, but it will surely help you make more gains.
Warren Buffett says it best, “those who read are those who lead.”
Reading and researching is the best investment of your time that you could ever make. If you consistently read something every day about a field you’re interested in you will be in the top 5% of that field within 5 years.
So don’t stop here! Keep reading more and learn how to be the strongest version of yourself.
If you want to read further into this then check out these related articles below to keep learning more:
- Building Muscular Strength – The Truth!
- Increase Physical Strength The Easy Way
- Strength Training Equipment You Absolutely Need!
- The Absolute Best Way To Build Muscle Naturally
- Top 10 Butt Kicking Conditioning Exercises