Have you ever designed your own program? Are you wondering where to start? Check this out for all the info you need to know before getting started.
Before you get offended at me calling you a beginner, let me clear up what that means. In this case, it doesn’t mean a beginner lifter. It means someone who’s never designed a program with percentages and maxes, like a collegiate strength coach. Many strength coaches today are still learning how to periodize (design) exercise programs because more often than not, strength coaches are ex-football players who don’t really take the time or care to go through all the schooling that an elite level strength coach goes through.
Take a look at any elite level strength coach’s resume – the guys who do the NFL jobs or Division I NCAA jobs (that have more than just a football program – BC, Minnesota, Michigan, etc). More often than not, they have a Bachelor’s degree in kinesiology or a related field and a Master’s degree in exercise science or something like it (biomechanics, clinical exercise physiology, etc.)
The essence of being an elite-level lifter is your ability to design and effectively implement your own plan. That doesn’t mean saying, “well my chest day is Tuesday” and going into the gym and picking five or six different exercises for chest, having half be heavy and the others high rep burnouts.
The reality is, doing something like that may make you feel good, but without any kind of consistency (doing the same workout four or five times over the course of a couple of weeks) or with too much consistency (same workout every week for longer than eight weeks) you can and most definitely will hit a plateau.
Whether your goal is increased size, strength, power (moving fast), whatever, there needs to be an effective plan in place. This will be your comprehensive guide on how to shore up your weak spots, select exercises and ensure your progress never stops. Let’s start with testing.
Yeah, it’s a boring word and you might get nightmares about final exams, but in this case testing is fun.
First, you need a goal. I’m going to take the angle of the athlete here, and the tests an athlete goes through in the weight room are one-rep maxes for the power clean, deadlift (sumo or conventional), squat and bench press, in that order.
Testing doesn’t take place only over one day. It usually takes place over two to four days. For example, you could test clean on a Monday, deadlift Wednesday, squat Friday and bench press on Saturday.
A one-rep max is the most amount of weight you can lift once. Seems simple, right? Not so fast, cowboy. The one-rep max test should never, ever be performed alone because you want to ensure it is the absolute most you’ve ever lifted. In fact, many employ a three-man spotting technique when the weight gets heavy enough on a squat or bench press. The guideline is really anything over 300 you should have three guys spotting.
Even on a clean or a deadlift, there should be a guy watching you to make sure that your back stays mostly straight (a little rounding is expected on deadlifts when the weight gets heavy and you’ll be fine as long as you don’t collapse in the core), and when you get an excessive round, you’re done, even if you feel like you can lift more.
The procedure for testing is as follows: First, the warm up. Warm up by doing five or more minutes of light foam rolling or other myofascial release technique, like dynamic stretching (stretching while in motion, never holding anything longer than a second or two).
After that I recommend full-depth (ass to grass) overhead squats with just a bar or a broomstick to get the hamstrings loosened up and the posterior chain (everything on the back side of the body) working. Then, a bar warm up is pretty standard, which is five reps each of an overhead press, front or back squat (you pick), Romanian deadlift and bent-over row. Then repeat after a short rest, for a total of two sets.
Rest three minutes, then do a set of six to eight reps at half of your old max – exactly 50%, then a set of three at 80% of your old max, then you have five attempts to hit a new max, two to three minutes between each attempt. Your first attempt should be your old max. If you can’t hit it, it’s likely a form or technique error or a mental block. This occurs most often with the clean, since you can’t really spot a clean, it’s a high-velocity move, plus catching something that weighs a couple hundred pounds can be scary.
Now, what do you do with all this info?
The short answer, which will be broken down later, is that percentages of your maxes determines how many reps and sets you should be doing of certain exercises, which brings us to our next point: Exercise selection.
So now you need exercises to do. This is where that goal of yours comes into play. Again, I’m going to take the athletic angle. First, you need to decide on what kind of split you’re going to use – meaning how many days a week you’re going to train and what you’re doing on each day.
The best success I’ve had personally is with a Gayle Hatch-style split which looks like this:
Some exercises are given a rep range based on percentage used per set as opposed to a set number of reps
Day 1 – Full Olympics and Pulls
Plank 2 minutes
Power Clean 8×2
Sumo Deadlift 4×2-5
Good Morning 4×6-8
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift 4×3-6 each leg
Pull-Up 4x As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP)
Bent-Over Row 4×6
Face Pull 3×12
Day 2 – Bench/Squat
Plank 2 minutes
Push Press Walkout 4×4
Back Squat 4×2-5
Front Squat 4×2-6
Bench Press 4×2-5
Close-Grip Incline Press 4×3-6
DB Overhead Press 3×5
Then Day 3 looks like Day 1, just with different variations on each exercise, like a snatch instead of a clean, or a conventional deadlift, as opposed to a sumo deadlift. Same thing with Day 4 looking like Day 2, with slightly altered exercises. After eight weeks of training in this method, another test week would occur.
Another Split You Can Use Is A Muscle-Grouping Split
The most popular one I’ve seen used and that I used to use myself is the three-day split divided into six training days, two of each type. Day 1 would be chest and back, Day 2 would be shoulders and arms, then Day 3 would be legs. Rest a day and repeat. A sample plan would look like this:
Day 1 – Chest and Back
Bench Press 5×5
Bent-Over Row 5×6
Dumbbell Incline Press 4×8
Half-Kneeling Lat Pulldown 4×8
Hanging Leg Raise 3×8
Day 2 – Shoulders and Arms
Barbell Overhead Press 4×5
Dumbbell Lateral Raise 4×8
Cable Behind-The-Back Lateral Raise 3×12
Barbell Drag Curl 4×8
Seated DB Overhead Extension 4×8
Preacher Curl 4×8
EZ Bar Skullcrusher 4×8
DB Curl 3×12
Tate Press 3×12
Day 3 – Legs
Back Squat 4×5
DB Romanian Deadlift 4×8
Front Squat 4×5
Good Morning 4×6
Bulgarian Split Squat 3×8 each leg
Single-Leg Physio Ball Hamstring Curl 3×6 each leg
*Various exercises for 2-3 sets each, high repetitions
Then that would be repeated for another cycle after a rest day. Weights would increase weeks 1 to 3, then a de-load or lighter week would occur and the fifth week would be a testing week.
These “splits” are the two most popular you will see in an athletic or powerlifting setting, and even with the non-IFBB pro bodybuilders. They both ensure results, and are pretty grueling, but this is not supposed to be easy, and that’s supposed to be the fun part.
Keep Excercise Selection Simple
Now it’s time for the more scientific end of exercise selection, like which exercises to select and how to order them. To determine which exercises you should use, there’s one fairly simple principle to keep in mind: The K.I.S.S. principle. What it stands for is “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” meaning you don’t have to do a two kettlebell swing while balancing on one leg on a Bosu ball that’s upside down on top of a box.
Firstly, that exercise has an inherent risk of injury, and secondly, doing anything with a Bosu ball as the surface you push against isn’t going to make you any stronger or more balanced.
Want to create some instability training for yourself?
Simple, take your shoes off and stand on one leg for longer than 30 seconds without putting your other foot down. That will give you plenty of instability training, and you can superset that with the stuff that matters.
Big To Small
The other thing you want to think about when ordering exercises is going from big to small – both in terms of complexity of the exercise and the size of the muscle being used. For example, in the Hatch method, you wouldn’t do a lat pulldown before a deadlift. If you look at the detailed workouts, you’ll see that the complexity of the exercise and the number and size of muscle groups being worked starts very high and goes to low.
For example, when on an Olympic/pulling day under the Hatch method, the power clean comes first because it’s the most complex move and hits many different muscle groups, then the deadlift is next because it’s almost as complex and hits almost as many muscle groups as the clean, then Romanian deadlift and on down the line until you reach the simplest row.
Time To Be Honest
The other major part of selection is which exercise will benefit you the most. For this, you have to be honest with yourself when you answer this question:
Where are you weak, relatively speaking?
Do your knees collapse inward on a squat?
Where do you get stuck on the bench press?
Do you dip while doing a bent over row or throw your shoulder forward during a dumbbell row?
After you answer questions like those about the major exercises (bench, squat, deadlift, bent-over row, overhead press, clean), choose an exercise that will work on that aspect of each exercise. For example, if you get valgus collapse (knees inward during a squat), then doing something like a barbell hip thrust on the same day that you do squats would be appropriate.
Prilepin’s Table For Program Design
So now you’ve got your maxes, your split, and your exercises picked out. How does this all apply to program design?
Time to get familiar with Prilepin’s chart. Prilepin’s chart is a table that details how many sets and reps are optimal for a positive training response (form looks good, bar speed is constant, etc), meaning how many sets and reps over a program period will lead to an increase in your maxes and thus size increases if that’s your goal as well, as long as you’re eating enough.
|PERCENTAGES||REP RANGE PER SET||OPTIMAL TOTAL REPS||OPTIMAL REP RANGE|
There’s the table, now how to use it. I won’t bother you with all the scientific jargon you might hear from anyone trying to sell you a training package. Pick an exercise, or better yet, pick a motion.
Let’s use the squat as an example. If you are training at 85% of your one-rep maximum on the squat, you should be able to do two to four reps, according to the table, which is based on experiments with tens of thousands of Russian lifters, so it’s pretty darn accurate. The optimal total number of reps for a positive training response is 15 reps, so five sets of three reps at 85% one-rep max (1RM) would give you the optimal 15 reps.
However, according to the table, the drop in quality of the reps (form breakdown) would occur at around 20 total reps, and doing 10 or less reps would not be enough stimulus to get a positive training response. But, doing five to eight sets of straight back squats is pretty darn boring, which is why we switch it up to front squats from back squats, or lunges or Bulgarian split squats – it keeps your attention and works you from a different angle to ensure progress.
Use this table when writing a program and base all your exercises, except for maybe curls and triceps extensions, on these percentages. Remember, if you want to use a certain lift, you need to test its max before putting it in your program. There are certain ones that you can estimate using your other maxes, like incline press and front squat. Those maxes are usually approximately 78% of your 1RM for bench press and back squat, respectively.
The only way you really get good at making a program is to do it and have someone who’s experienced pick it apart and show you what areas could be improved and what was good. Reinforce the good habits and get rid of the bad ones.
Also, remember variety! Don’t put things in the program just because they’re easy or because they’re comfortable. Do the boring things as well as the fun things, because staying responsible about them will make you stronger in the long run.
Do you care about being the strongest guy in your gym or feeling good after a workout?
If you had to pick one, I bet it would be a lot more fun to be the strongest guy in your gym because I guarantee you that hottie behind the desk who hands you a towel will be a lot more impressed by the guy who squats 500, benches 325 and gets in and out within an hour than the guy who benches for hours on end and seems to get stuck at 185. Now get out there armed with your program and watch your progress soar.
By Michael Schletter, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D
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