How should I structure my workout routine?
A common issue most people have is being unsure how to structure the appropriate workout program for their goals. Instead of just picking up a random magazine or following someone else's workout you need something specific for you and your goals. But there are many variables to consider such as, frequency, intensity, volume, setting and equipment, exercise selection.... it can be overwhelming in the beginning.
First and foremost acceptable levels of mobility and muscular/ postural balance must be obtained. You may find it necessary to add additional corrective and mobility work into whatever program you end up doing. This isn't geared for the absolute beginner, stick with the beginners guide if you have less than 3 months of consecutive training. I am going to go through some programs I have done and what I have my own clients do but first lets cover the main goals people come to me with. Keep in mind at the end of the day diet has the largest role to play in achieving these goals so I've also included diet suggestions for each.
The balance between volume, intensity and frequency
Our puny bodies don't posses the capabilities to train high volume, intensity, and frequency all at once. Well not for long anyway, this is something that could be done in an overtraining phase but thats beyond the scope of this article. We must find the appropriate balance that allows us the best chance of reaching our specific goals. So what exactly are these 3 factors?
Volume- This typically refers to volume per body part in a given workout, usually spoken in terms of sets and reps. I take this one step further and think of volume as the total time under tension for a given muscle in a workout. Volume can be increased by performing more reps, more sets, slowing the eccentric, partial reps etc. Additionally volume could be used to account for a phase of training whether its a week or 3 months. Volume typically has an inverse relationship with intensity.
Intensity-This does not refer to the effort put forth. You are putting full effort out all the time even when you aren't reaching failure. There is no varying intensity in that sense. Its always full throttle, and you should be in pain or gasping for air at the end of your sets. Intensity means how much of maximum power is being used. So a typical bodybuilding routine will be performed between 65-80% of ones maximum lifting capabilities, while power lifters often operate at 90-110% of their max. Since they are lifting at such a high percentage of 1 set maxes, the volume is usually low if intensity is high.
Frequency- How often you workout a given body part within a week typically. Your volume and intensity will dictate your necessary recovery time, which in turns controls the frequency. As you become more conditioned you may be able to increase the frequency. You should not exercise another body part if it is still primarily in a state of recovery unless you are an advanced lifter trying to induce a short period of overtraining or using it as an active recovery.
So as you become more fit and your body adapts you must further manipulate these variables to prevent plateauing. You could train at the same intensity and volume level while increasing the frequency, or maintain frequency and intensity while increasing volume.. there are a lot of ways to go about progressing your program. It will ultimately be dependent on your specific goal.
What is your goal?
Strength and Power- This is someone who just wants more power and is not really concerned with weight gain or loss although either can be accomplished through manipulating diet. Often people in this category compete in sports and need to include some sport specific training as well. Bodybuilders will also train here for periods of time to increase overall workload capacity when trying to stimulate muscular hypertropy. Training for power should be low volume, high intensity and high frequency. Strength and power are mostly dictated by strong neural connections and the ability to rapidly recruit type 2 muscle fibers. To achieve this repetitions should be kept low, typically 1-5 using a compound movement, and volume per body part will be relatively low each workout as well. Also there is ample rest provided after a work set, usually 2-5 minutes. Due to the low amounts of volume and microtrauma to muscle tissue you are able to train the full body more frequently enabling a stronger neural connection. Most strength based athletes train full body 3x a week, which allows ample time to recover. Recovery is important for everyone but most so for those with this goal do to the high frequency.
Unless you are a strict powerlifter and strength is your only goal, cardio should be done 1-3x a week in a HIIT style for 10-30 minutes. You should do a combination of plyometrics and explosive compound exercises. Typically keeping a work to rest ratio between 1:3-1:10 There is a wide variety for those who wish to gain power because it will be very goal dependent. You should try to mimic and whatever activity you are trying to get good at. For example a powerlifter only needs about 1-10 seconds of explosive energy at a given time, followed by ample rest. This person may do box jumps for 10 seconds and the rest for a minute and half. A running back may have 20-30 seconds on a given play with about 60-90 seconds between plays. They could do kettlbell swings for 20 seconds with 80 seconds rest. If your goal is to get the most out of the cardio benefits while preserving power then do 1:3 work to press ratio.
Someone with this goal or that is playing a sport should consume more carbohydrates than the average weight lifter, especially before and after a workout or event. Also consider an intra workout with easily digested carbs, like Glycofuse.. I recommend a macro breakdown along the lines of 35-50% carbs, 25-35% fat, 20-30% protein. If you are an athlete that has to cut weight like a fighter or powerlifter, schedule your carbs around your workouts and lower them other parts of the day. Intermittent fasting may provide some benefits that will help with strength but it is not really necessary for this goal, and could be detrimental in some circumstances. I would only do it if you are a man who is competing in something where body weight is an issue.
Muscle Gain- If your goal is to gain muscle you are mostly concerned with gaining actual size. This is often a phase of a larger cycle of training, typically proceeding a strength and power phase and preceding a recomposition. Fat loss and strength are secondary to muscular hypertrophy. Training for hypertrophy will be high volume, moderate intensity, moderate frequency. Hypertrophy has been shown to be best induced by a rep range of 8-15 with a high amount of volume per body part (within a week. Due to the high volume intensity is usually started low and increased as you become more conditioned. Rest periods are typically in the 1-3 minute range. If you are more interested in muscular endurance and a little cardio benefits you would shorten the rest periods to 30-90 seconds. Intensity techniques will be frequently used with this goal and its typically a combination of compound and isolated movements. Due to the large amount of volume, training must be less frequent than someone focusing on power.
This individual would benefit from doing HIIT 1 time a week for the hormonal benefits, with additional fasted cardio as an option if you want to minimize fat gain.. Many of the benefits of HIIT will spill over to your resistance training. I like a 1:2 ratio for this goal. Typically 30 seconds of work with a minute of rest. The idea is to mimic the length and rest period of a typical set. Again I always prefer to do HIIT involving my whole body and core instead of just my legs so instead of running or biking look at things like boxing, kettlebells, battle rope etc.
Eating for muscle gain means eating more carbs. If your primary goal is to gain muscle I recommend a macro break down of 35-50% carbs, 20-30% fat, 25-35% protein. Unless you are a really naturally skinny person who has trouble gaining weight I like trying to incorporate some sort of fasting period at least a few days of the week. If I'm bulking I like a fasting period of 12-16 hours, and really feasting during my feeding window without trying to restrict carbs. I'll do this 4 or 5 days followed by a full day refeed. However I don't typically have my women clients do any intermittent fasting if their primary goal is muscle gain.
Get Ripped- I categorize this as someone who has a very good base with a relatively low bodyfat. For men this will usually be 10-15% and for women around 18-23%. If you are above these ranges this cannot be your goal, instead opt for body recomp or more weight loss. While diet will be the largest factor in reaching this goal its important to train with variety if this is your goal. You must include some work (and rest periods) in the power range, some in strength range, and some in endurance as well. I recommend using moderate volume, moderate intensity, and high frequency. Most exercises will be compound movements.
Cardio for this individual should be a mix of HIIT and fasted cardio. 1-2 days a week of each is fine. The fasted cardio should be done for at least 45 minutes at a easy to maintain pace. HIIT training should be done with a work to rest ratio between 1:1 and 2:1. I will typically go with 30 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest.
Diet will be key in getting to that lean muscular look. You have to eat in a way that supports an appropriate amount of lean muscle tissue, yet making sure you are fat adapted. For the average person all they really need to look and feel healthy is to eat the correct foods (paleo style+ a little of the appropriate grains) while keeping carbs from going too high (<30%) But for this individual its important to take things a step further and pay close attention to nutrient timing as well. I recommend both men and women try to implement a 14-20 hour fast. On the lower end for women, and higher the more fat adapted you are. As your bodyfat gets lower you may have to implement a longer feeding window. Try to schedule all of your carbs post workout, most of them at night. This is a protocol called carb backloading that helps you gain muscle while losing fat. I like to break my fast with a very small meal then workout, or workout fasted early if that's not an option. Sometimes I also like to implement intra workout supplements if I am working out fasted. I believe to reach this level you need to be intuitive and in touch with your body. Some days I feel great working out completely fasted, others I feel it necessary to take carbs before or intraworkout. Some days I'll fast for 18 hours, some only 12. There are a lot of variations you can use and they will be dictated by your recovery ability, glycogen storage, and hormones among many other things. But in general I recommend a break down of 15-30% carbs 35-45% fat and 25-35% protein.
Weight loss- This is the most common goal people have when they first start a fitness program. This should be your goal if you're a man with higher than 22% bodyfat or if you're a woman higher than 30%. Since we obviously want the weight loss to be fat you will need to be in ketosis most of the time. The calorie/carbohydrate deficit make it so that volume will be low, with a high intensity, and moderate frequency. The weights are heavy in an effort to preserve lean muscle mass. When you are eating to become fat adapted and also train in a way that is very taxing on your muscles and CNS system you are less likely to use that bodyfat for fuel. People with a goal of weight loss often take the wrong approach and use light weights and high reps with little rest. When you add this up with restricted calories and you get the recipe for skinny fat. This is why programs for both weight loss and strength are very similar, the only difference being slightly less frequency or volume to account for the cutting of calories. Use the same rest period between 2-5 minutes and rep range of 1-5, for the most part.
I like a combination of HIIT and slower fasted cardio for weight loss, I like my clients to do 1-2 days of HIIT and 3-5 of fasted cardio. I also encourage my clients to try to do short periods of low intensity cardio, preferably fasted, whether its riding the bike, walking for 20 minutes with the dog anything. I have seen studies that show this kind of low intensity high frequency movement is optimal for fat loss, which makes sense considering how we evolved from people that walked everywhere and never really stopped moving for too long or being physical. When doing HIIT I like a 1:2 or higher ratio for my more deconditioned clients, up to 3:1 ratio for my more conditioned clients.
For those that have this goal I recommend being in ketosis most of the time. To achieve this you need to be consuming at least half your calories from healthy fats. Carbs should be scheduled pre and post workout and thats probably it. Even though I am a big advocate of doing some workouts fasted, this individual is more at risk of breaking down lean muscle through the process of protein turnover (breaking down lean muscle tissue for energy) due to the restricted caloric intake. Also they are more likely to have elevated cortisol, which will lead to fat storage, if they workout fasted. Try to stay at 5-20% carbs, 50+% fat, 25-35% protein. I usually have my clients do a refeed once every 5-10 days. On this day flip the %'s for fat and carbs. The more fat you have to lose the longer you can go between refeeds. I like intermittent fasting for 14-20 hours unless you have to workout early. On those days consume something before and after. If you are working out first thing in the morning try an intraworkout or at least some BCAAs.
Body Recomp/toning- This is the person who has a little higher than ideal bodyfat but does not need to lose large amounts of weight. I would say most people that want to lose 5-15lbs fall in this category. For this I recommend something that is a cross between weight loss and muscle gain using moderate levels of volume, intensity, and frequency. Typically this is someone who does not have a large amount of muscle to begin with so they must do enough volume to stimulate an appropriate level of hypertrophy. Because of this increase in volume, intensity must be a little lower. Reps will range from 5-15 and rest periods of 30-90 seconds. The exercises will be a mixture of isolated and compound movements.
Cardio should be 1-2 days of HIIT and 2-4 days of fasted cardio. For the intervals I like a work to rest ratio between 2:1-4:1. Diet is tricky for this individual because they are basically trying to lose fat and gain muscle. I prefer an isocaloric approach getting a third of my calories from each macronutrient, give or take 5 percent. Intermittent fasting for 14-18 hours will be beneficial for most men and some women, although I would not recommend working out fasted for the majority. Refeed every 3-6 days.
Pain management- I get this goal alot and while the program itself will be very individual there are a few things that will remain the same. If your main goal is to ease general muscoskeletal pain a large portion of your training will focus on mobility. This means corrective stretching and exercise, as well as soft tissue manipulation like foam rolling. Reps are typically 10-20 with low intensity. This individual needs to gain strong neural connections to proper movement patterns but cannot risk losing form and compensating and reinforcing dysfunctional biomechanics by using too much intensity. To do this the reps will be a little higher as well as a little slower tempo, at least on the eccentric and sometimes on the concentric as well. Movements will be functional full body typically, with a few isolated exercises meant to activate or fire a specific underactive muscle. Depending on the individuals capabilities resistance training is only 1-3 days a week usually, with the rest of the time focused on mobility. Rest taken will vary from 30 seconds to 5 minutes.
Cardio will be dependent on capabilities and the modality that will best serve your specific issues. If pain is an issue swimming is always an option that will allow you to achieve the benefits of cardio without the stress on your body. Recumbent cycling is also an option for some that are limited by back pain. The important thing is to not reinforce bad movement patterns. If you cant walk or jog with good movement patterns, don't do it even if your goal is to lose weight. That will come through diet.
As far as diet for this person I think it is very beneficial to lower inflammation as much as possible through diet. I wouldn't recommend trying purposely to intermittent fast as that may raise cortisol levels too high. However carbs should be kept low under 25%, fats should be 40-60%, with protein 25-35%. In addition to avoiding the typical things such as sugar, gluten, processed dairy, and highly processed food in general I also think it is good to try and hold back on grains as well. Ketosis has been shown in studies to have an anti-inflammatory effect so I would try to maintain that state as much as possible.
Ok so what is the right resistance program for me?
So lets go over some different programs I have done myself or have my clients do. This is not meant to be all inclusive but covers everything I have personal experience with. Remember when it comes to changing body composition diet will be the main factor, there are multiple programs that could work. Check the program name for more info.
5x5- Ideal for: power, and weight loss. Not optimal for: muscular endurance. Suitable for: Beginners-Advanced
There are a couple of variations of this for the more advanced lifter but they are very similar and aim to accomplish the same things. If you are intermediate to advanced make sure to check out the Madcow Version. 5x5 is a very versatile program that can be used to accomplish just about any goal other than muscular endurance. For this reason it is not optimal for endurance based athletes but for those who need explosive speed, strength and power it's ideal. You can also stimulate a good amount of hypertrophy doing this as well, although some smaller muscle groups may require a little additional volume. For those that need to lose weight this is a great program to retain lean muscle mass while in a calorie deficit and also elicits favorable muscle sparing hormonal responses.
Upper/Lower split- Ideal for: toning and getting ripped. Not optimal for: Stength/Power. Suitable for: Beginner-Intermediate
There are a couple ways to run this, usually 4 days a week or sometimes 6. This is ideal for someome who is looking to get toned/ripped, and to gain muscle if they are a beginner or even intermediate. However, the advanced athlete may require more volume per bodypart to stimulate enough hypertrophy. While power can certainly be gained it is better to work out the full body at once if that's you primary goal. Here's an example of how I like to set this up for a beginner.
- Barbell chest press 1x12 1x8 1x5 (alternate between flat, incline, and decline)
- Compound tricep exercise 3x8 (like dips or close grip press)
- Military shoulder press 3x8 (dumbbell or barbell)
- Dumbbell chest press 2x10 (different angle from the barbell press)
- Isolated tricep exercise 2x12 (like extensions, skull, french press)
- Shoulder fly 3x12 (lateral for the most part)
- Pec Fly 3x15 (I like cables, use different angles)
- 6-12 sets of ab work
- Squat or dead lift 5x5 (alternate these, can be every workout or every couple weeks)
- Stiff leg dead lifts or leg press 3x10 (if you squat then do the SLDL, if you do deads do leg press)
- Pull down or pull up 3x8
- Low row 2x10 (I like cable for this)
- Barbell curls 3x8
- Kettlbell swings 3x15
- High rows 2x12 (machines, cables, or free weights are fine)
- Lunges 2x12 (all variations of lunges)
- Preacher curls 2x12 (machine or free weights)
- Shrugs 3x15
Metabolic Hypertrophy- Ideal for: getting ripped/toned. Not optimal for: strength/power or fat loss. Suitable for intermediate-advanced
This is a good program for someone who wants to build muscle with minimal fat gain or to lose fat with minimum muscle loss. Someone who needs to lose alot of weight will be too deep into ketosis to perform this workout, and it's not ideal to gain strength either. This can be a 4 day or 6 day a week program for the more advanced. Here's how I like to set it up:
- Full Body
- Full Body
Or for the more advanced (if you go this route make sure to drop the weights down on the full body day a bit)
- Full Body
- Full Body
On the hypertrophy focused upper/lower days you can go ahead and try something similar to the above upper/lower split. For the full body pick 1-2 groups of 5 exercises and do them with as little rest as possible (5-20 seconds), taking 1.5 minutes rest after a full round of all the exercises. Perform 2-4 total rounds, dropping the number of reps or time slightly for each round. For the first couple weeks you should probably just try just one group of 5 exercises 3 times through, but you could also do 2 sets of 2 different circuits if you feel like you can handle the volume. Make sure to begin with a 5-10 minute warm up on any piece of cardio equipment. Total workout time for the circuits should be 30-45 minutes.
Heres how we choose exercise selection: No isolation exercises, only compound or core oriented movements and out of the 5 exercises we choose we must have
A leg movement
A pressing movement
A pulling movement
A cardio movement
A core stability exercise
The following is a list of optional exercises to start with.
Squats, kettlebell swings, lunges (all variations), front squats, split squats, power clean, dead lift, stiff leg dead lift, single leg squat row, trx single leg
Squat thrust, military press, stability ball chest press, pushups, curl to arnold presses, chest ball pass, clean press, trx chest press
Rows (all variations), squat upright rows, squat row two legs, plank row, pull ups/downs, lunge flyes, trx squat y flyes
Burpees (all variations), jump rope, mountain climbers, shuffle upright rows, side squat jump over bosu, box jumps, diamond squat jumps, jumping lunges, ice skaters, sprinter double taps in trx, any jumping movement in trx
Planks (all variations), bosu ball toe touch, trx pikes/ crunches, woodchops, scorpion variations, low plank to high plank, reverse crunch on stability ball, plank knee ups, rip trainer rotations
Ok so lets look at two potential circuits you could make out of these exercises and cover all the details. As mentioned before you can create your circuit based off of time(my preference) or reps. Also you can do 2 or 3 rounds or even 4 when you progress.
Heres the lay out for both circuits
5-20 second rest between exercises, 90 seconds rest in between rounds
1st round- perform 45 seconds (or 15 reps) of work
2nd round-perform 30 seconds (or 12 reps) of work
3rd round- perform 20 seconds (or 8 reps) of work
Optional circuit #1
TRX mountain climbers
optional circuit #2
Stability ball chest press
Sqaut upright row
DC Training- Ideal for: muscle gain, Not optimal for: fat loss. Suitable for intermediate-advanced
I ran this about 7-8 years ago when I was really focused on gaining size. I still use many of the techniques and stretches though I have not run the program for a long time. This should really only be done to gain muscle and definitely doesn't work if your trying to lose weight.
Body part split: Ideal for muscle gain. Not optimal for: power. Suitable for intermediate-advanced
This is what many would consider the traditional body builder style workout and there are many different ways to structure this. This is also a very flexible program and can be used to accomplish almost any goal. Due to the higher volume training will be less intense and less frequent so it is not really optimal for those with a primary goal of gaining strength and power. For all variations you will follow the parameters listed above for those with a goal of gaining muscle. My favorite set ups are:
1-Pushing muscles/pulling muscles/legs/off/repeat
2-Back and Biceps/Chest and triceps/ Shoulders and legs/off/ repeat
3-Chest/Back/Legs/Shoulders/ Bis and tris/ Rest/ Repeat
The possibilities are numerous but these are the ones I have used most frequently. Start with around 12 sets of work per bodypart for each workout and work up to 20 total sets. You may have to pull the muscle groups apart to accomplish this, like in example 3.
PHAT- Ideal for: gaining musle/ getting ripped. Not optimal for: powerlifters. Suitable for: intermediate-advanced
This program is a creation from Layne Norton. It stands for Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training. As the name implies it focuses on both power and gaining muscle. It is very versatile and can be used to accomplish any goal as long as diet is on point. Although there is an emphasis on strength and power in this program its not set up in a way that would be optimal for someone whose sole goal is to push as much weight as possible like a competitive powerlifter. If your goal is weight loss I recommend consuming at least a small amount of carbohydrates pre-workout.
HST-Ideal for: gaining muscle. Not optimal for: weightloss/ strength. Suitable for: beginner-advanced
This is a very scientifically backed program to gain muscle. Its set up in a very analytical way and your workouts get progressively tougher as the weeks go on. I used to run this for 8 weeks then switch to 5x5 for 12 weeks. Together they really combine for size and muscle density. The sole goal of HST is hypertrophy so if getting more muscle is not a part of your current goal, look elsewhere.
ABC Training- Ideal for: getting ripped and gaining muscle. Not optimal for: power/strength. Suitable for intermediate-advanced.
Fred Hatfield is someone I have the utmost respect for and love his book "Hardcore Bodybuilding: A Scientific Approach" In this book he unveils his ABC program. I have linked the modified version on his website but recommend checking out the program in the book as well. I think it was just way too much volume for the average person so he adjusted it quite a bit, but I use a cross between the modified one and the one in his book. The basic principle is that our muscles vary in their recovery time based off the size, type of work performed, and intensity used, and that in doing a typical bodypart split you miss out on opportunities to hit a muscle group again when its fully recovered. Over time this adds up to missing out on potential growth. There are 3 different kinds of workouts: one is more of an active recovery or light day with a short rest period after, another is a more typical hypertrophy based workout, and the most intense workout focuses on slow muscle twitch training and intensity techniques to shock the system. Out of all the workouts I have ever done this is one of my favorites and has influenced my current workout and philosophy the most.
Remember to switch up your programs so you never plateau. Make sure to include some mobility training for your specific imbalances. Don't feel like any program is set in stone.. take more rest if needed or include more volume if your body can handle it. And do what you enjoy! Even if its not designed exactly for you goal you are more likely to stick with it and make progress if you actually like your workouts. Remember diet and the amount of effort and mental intensity you approach your workout with is far more important than the specific program parameters.