When you land at the gym – do you get stuck into a programme or do you train whatever feels good at the time?
There is no golden rule when it comes to programming, as long as you’re progressing right? However, I often see a reoccurring pattern in the gym when people don’t have something productive to follow – this can often lead to giving up or feeling defeated. If you’re able to see progression in the gym and subsequent changes to your physique, you will be more likely to stick to it.
So, how do you get smarter with programming to enable continuous progression?
Identify short and long term goals
Pin point exactly what you want to achieve and build your programming and nutritional approaches around this.
Do you want to increase your bench press?
Do you want to improve your power for sport?
Do you want to increase your muscle mass?
Do you want to maintain/build muscle and reduce body fat?
Do you need to rehab from an injury?
Do you want to compete on stage?
The above are just some examples of what you may want to achieve. My point is – it is imperative to make your programming goal specific. This may mean adjusting your weights, adjusting rep ranges, changing the type of exercises or reconsidering your split routine to enable progression.
Let’s talk about hypertrophy. Training specifically to increase the size of your muscles. It’s always very appealing as a beginner to start with a 5 day split like this for example:
Monday – Chest (obviously, international chest day)
Tuesday – Back
Wednesday – Shoulders
Thursday – Legs
Friday – Arms
Weekends – Rest from training – dancing shoes on for some cardio.
I’ve been there and done that around 14 years ago and as much as it’s enjoyable – if you want to progress your physique more effectively I suggest an upper/lower body split routine like this for example:
Monday – Upper body 1
Tuesday – Lower body 1
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Upper body 2
Friday – Lower body 2
Weekends – you could incorporate an upper 3 session, or some technique work for example. Of course don’t forget – dancing shoes on for some cardio.
Armed with a split like this starting out on your lifting career, you’ll be able to build muscle far quicker by using a lower volume approach and an increased frequency of up to 3 times per week per muscle group. This in turn increases your opportunities for protein synthesis and growth. Please note that upper and lower (2) would be different workouts focusing on different movements.
On an upper/lower split you could train chest up to 3 times per week compared with once per week on the 5 day split routine. That’s 36 sessions in 12 weeks compared with just 12 if you stick to a 5-day split protocol. I wonder who would have had the best physique adaptations in that 12-week period?
I recommend 1 compound exercise for chest, back, shoulders and perhaps one isolation exercise for biceps and triceps.
You could also add an isolation movement to chest/back/shoulders dependant on recovery for the next session. 1-2 work sets would be adequate here. As a beginner you will see far greater benefits focusing on stimulating large muscle groups compared with high volume isolation work.
You could progress with an upper/lower split for 3 months if your recovery and progression is on point – then you may reach a point where you want to increase training volume per session to promote more growth. At this point in time you will have a really good base to work with. You may then consider a push/pull/legs split. I’m a huge fan of this split routine and still use it now on a regular basis. For example if recovery was optimal you could perform:
Monday – Push (chest, shoulders and triceps)
Tuesday – Pull (back development and biceps)
Wednesday – Legs (quadriceps, hamstrings and calves)
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Push 2
Saturday – Pull 2
Sunday – Legs 2
In the above split you are still hitting muscle groups twice per week but it would be with increased volume but still high intensity. I suggest you don’t increase the volume too high, as it would hinder recovery for the next sessions. I suggest 5-6 exercises maximum per session with 2-3 working sets per exercise. Recovery is essential for progression.
For hypertrophy I recommend working amongst a spectrum of rep ranges anywhere from 5-6 reps (when completing occasional strength work) to 10-20 reps. Utilising different techniques to promote muscle growth (please check my last blog on The Core™ – ‘exercises for big results’, which explores this further).
Progressive overload / log booking
I’m really boring and probably mention this in most of my blogs. But it’s one of the most important aspects of being smarter around programming. Record your workouts and programming. Aim to beat your lifts and/or reps every time you repeat a workout. This in turn will increase the stress on your muscles over time thus promoting a growth response. If you push your body to places it hasn’t been before – you will see results that you’ve never had before.
Listen to your body
I know that sounds like something your Mum would say. But it’s really important in programming and self-preservation. The goal for me is always to be progressing strength and size. But don’t be disheartened if this doesn’t happen every single session. Some days you will just need an extra day off the gym to let your nervous system recover or to stop aching. If you push yourself too hard when you weren’t feeling it and subsequently pick up an injury, then you’ve taken several steps backwards.
If it’s not broken don’t fix it
There is no real set time for a programme period – just guidelines. My advice is that if your lifts are progressing weekly and recovery is optimal, resume your current programme until you max it out. That could be anywhere from 3 months to a year. The most important thing is to set a programme that coincides with your goal. Throw in some good intensity and consistency – the rest will be history.
About the Author
Ben Rowe is the Lead Coach at Team Benbo Body Coaching. Team Benbo have over 10 years of experience in the fitness industry, sharing their in-depth knowledge around Sports Specific Training, Nutrition, Online Coaching and Competition Preparation.