Saturday, February 7, 2009

Program Design Tips!

"For the waywardness of the naive will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. But he who listens to me shall live securely and will be at ease from the dread of evil."
- Proverbs 1:32-33

If you have been resistance training for a year or two and have knowledge of how to perform various exercises but don't feel satisfied with your results, then it may be time to develop a training plan to help you make consistent progress in the gym.

Most beginners and intermediates go to the gym and perform whatever exercises they feel like doing on that particular day. I have seen many people follow a bodybuilding program where they perform chest and triceps one day, back and biceps another, legs one day (if they actually work their legs) and shoulders, calves and abs another day.

This is only one variation of many that I have seen that require a minimum of four days per week devoted to resistance training in addition to any type of energy system development or cardio that they perform in addition to the resistance training workouts. When you add it all up, it requires 6-7 days devoted to training at approximately 60-90 minutes per session. I don't know about you, but I just don't have time to train that often!

There are a few problems with a bodybuilding training plan if you're not a bodybuilder or don't have plans to compete as a bodybuilder or want to look like a bodybuilder:

  • First, if you are a beginner or intermediate lifter, you may not see many results after your first few months of training. Once your body adapts to the exercises and overall volume and frequency, it will stop making gains. At this point, many lifters try to add more volume to their workouts or add additional workout days.
  • Second, most people that want to get in shape don't have four, five or six days to train (which is typical of most bodybuilding programs). If you have problems getting to the gym more than three days each week, a bodybuilding program is not going to give you the best results.
  • Third, a bodybuilding program typically has the lifter performing long workouts with a high amount of volume while targeting each bodypart once per week. For those of you who are time challenged, then this type of workout plan won't help you get the results you want in the time you have available.
  • Fourth, most people don't want to look like a bodybuilder. Many people prefer a more athletic physique and want to lose fat, gain strength and muscle, have some sort of athleticism and be healthier than they currently are. If this sums up your goals, then a bodybuilding training plan won't help get you where you want to go.

There are more reasons why a bodybuilding training plan is not ideal for most people (other than bodybuilders), but the above bullet points give you something to think about.

I was speaking with a friend recently that asked me for some tips on what she should be doing in the gym. This is what I recommended, and it's a good way to help you design your own training plan so you can continue getting the results you want to meet your goals.

Program Design 101

First, keep it simple. How many days do you have available to train at the gym (or at home if you have a home gym)? How much time can you devote to training each session? If you have 30-60 minutes, two-to-three times per week, then the following tips will be very useful for you.

If you can perform 2-3 resistance training workouts each week, then I would recommend using two full-body workouts (A and B) that you can alternate 2-3 times each week. The A-B split, as it is known, was popularized by Charles Staley (for a good article and sample training plan suited for intermediate and advanced trainees, see this article).

For the "A" workout, choose a leg exercise (squat variation), a horizontal push variation (bench) and a horizontal pull variation (rowing) as your three main exercises. Perform as a circuit moving from one exercise to the next with fairly short rest periods (sets/reps to come). Finish the "A" workout with some arm and ab exercises (keep it under 10 minutes total).

For the "B" workout, choose a leg exercise (deadlift variation), a vertical push variation (overhead presses) and a vertical pull variation (chins/lat pulldowns). Do them as a circuit like the A workout. Finish with some abs and arm or extra shoulder/upper back/rear delt exercises (keep it under 10 minutes).

For the sets and reps, try something like this:

Day 1: 4x6 or 5x5 (make this your heavy day)

Day 2: 3x8, 3x10 or 3x12 (this is your medium day)

Day 3: 2x20 or 2x15 (this is your light day)

The reason I like to use different sets and reps each day is because your body can only handle so much heavy lifting. By dividing your days into heavy, medium and light, it will help prevent potential overuse issues and joint pain and problems.

It also helps keep your body from adapting too quickly to the workouts while helping you train for strength, hypertrophy (muscle gain) and strength endurance (or speed strength) all in the same week. This is a term called undulating periodization and has been popularized by Alwyn Cosgrove (see this article for more information and tips).

Using the above sets and reps, you can alternate your "A" and "B" workouts like this:

Week 1

Day 1: "A" workout (sets/reps above, i.e. 4x6 or 5x5)

Day 2: "B" workout (sets/reps above, i.e. 3x12 or 3x10)

Day 3: "A" workout (sets/reps above, i.e. 2x20 or 2x15)

Week 2

Day 1: "B" workout (sets/reps above, i.e. 4x6 or 5x5)

Day 2: "A" workout (sets/reps above, i.e. 3x12 or 3x10)

Day 3: "B" workout (sets/reps above, i.e. 2x20 or 2x15)

Weeks 3 (same as week 1) and Week 4 (same as week 2).

At the end of week 4, you would change the exercises for your next four-week phase and change sets/reps so you don't perform the exact same set/reps as your previous training block.

You can continue to use this type of training template for a long time and make consistent gains (or losses if you are trying to lose fat)!

One benefit to the training template above is that you only repeat each workout every three weeks. This makes it hard for the body to adapt and also helps keep your motivation high knowing that you don't repeat the exact same workout too frequently while still seeing results.

You can perform your cardio or interval training after your resistance training workouts for conditioning and fat-loss benefits or on your "off" days depending on how much time you have available to train each week. You can easily adjust the above template to fit your time constraints.

If you only have 30 minutes to train, perform a general 5-minute warm-up and then perform one warm-up set for each of the three exercises in your circuit. Rest 1-2 minutes and then perform your work sets for each exercise for the amount of sets/reps required that day.

Since you will be using compound exercises that hit more muscles of the body, you will get a sufficient full-body workout using only three main exercises each workout requiring only about 30 minutes.

If you have more than 30 minutes, then you can add the extra arm, shoulder and ab exercises that I listed previously and also devote some time to a proper dynamic warm-up and any additional exercises or cardio that you may need to perform.

If you have questions about this type of training template, feel free to post some comments below. I can list suggested exercises to use and even a sample training program. With these basic program design tips, you'll be able to get more out of your training and continue seeing results!


Anonymous said...

Hey Nate,
Great advice. I have been training for 20 years, and I just started using an A,B split last year after reading a lot of stuff by Craig Ballantyne. It seems so simple, but that is the brilliance of it. People want to over complicate things, when simple is sometimes the best thing. I hope that some of your readers give it a go. They will not be dissapointed. On a another note, what is your training looking like these days?
Keep up the good work,

Nathan James said...

Thanks for the comments Dave! The A-B split works great.

Currently, I'm taking part in the Precision Nutrition Informal Training Research project that John Berardi put together with Alwyn Cosgrove.

It's an 8-week plan that consists of two full-body strength workouts and two interval-based workouts for a total of four workouts each week.

I'm in Study Group 2. There are a total of three groups. All groups are following the same strength training program, but we are all performing different cardio/energy systems training.

One group is using the TRX Suspension Training workouts. I'm not sure about the other group, but I think it's similar to mine but possibly different parameters for the intervals.

Once the 8 weeks is over, they will compile all our information (it was also based on age, weight and training experience) and then give us the results.

The idea behind the study is to find the best method for fat loss and conditioning while only training a total of four days per week and no other physical activity.

Once it's completed, members of Precision Nutrition will be able to follow the same workout plan.