Program Design 101: 5 Steps to Kick Ass in the Gym
So you’re ready to hit the gym! Good for you, and best of luck moving forward. But that creeping feeling comes in:
What the fuck am I supposed to do in the gym?
I don’t blame you: there’s a dude over there pumping his biceps feverishly in the corner; a bunch of high school kids busy crowding the bench press and taking selfies; there’s a bajillion (+/- one million) cardio machines…
It can be overwhelming. I’m here to help straighten things out a bit. Because the last thing I want you to do is back the fuck up and hit up Edley’s BBQ on your way out the door. As much as I love Edley’s BBQ (and I’m a fiend for it), let’s get you comfortable making, and sticking, to your workout plan.
Check it out:
Step 1: What do you want?
Know your why: why do you want “x” goal? What would it mean to you to achieve it? What are you willing to do to achieve it?
Determine your goals:
- Fat Loss = caloric deficit + strength training
- Muscle Gain = caloric surplus + strength training
- General health = Strength training + cardio
Once you know what you want, and, more importantly, why you want that goal, it will be easier to navigate this massive gym and all the gym rats who populate it.
Just as an example, let’s say you want to lose some belly fat before a beach trip. You’ll first need to get your diet in check. You can’t out-train a bad diet, so your first priority will be righting the diet ship. Next, hit the weights!
Step 2: Make a Plan
- Determine your weekly workout schedule (days/week)
- Plan your program around your goals (muscle gain/fat loss)
- Choose Exercises
- Choose Sets/Reps
- Get to Work!
*Weight training for 2-3 days/week, opt for a full body workout: Upper AND lower body in the same workout
*Weight training 4-6 or 7 days per week (7 is excessive); opt for body part splits; for example, with a 4-day split routine, work out upper body 2x/week, and lower body 2x week
Step 3: Prioritize Big, Compound Movements from the Following Movement Patterns:
Train movements, not muscles
- Squat: barbell back squat; front squat; goblet squat; split squat
- Lunge: walking lunge; reverse lunge; lateral lunge
- Deadlift: conventional deadlift; sumo deadlift; Trap Bar Deadlift
- Assistance: Romanian Deadlifts; rack pulls
- Accessory: pull throughs; kettlebell swings; single leg RDLs
Upper Body Push
- Horizontal: push-ups; DB bench press; Incline DB Bench press; Barbell Bench/Incline Bench
- Vertical: Overhead press; DB overhead press; landmine press
Upper Body Pull
- Horizontal: Barbell bentover rows; DB rows; TRX Rows; Inverted Rows; Cable Rows
- Vertical: Chin-ups; Pull-ups; Lat Pulldown
- Anti-extension: planks; ab wheel rollouts; swiss ball rollouts
- Anti-lateral flexion: side planks; suitcase carry; farmer’s walk
- Anti-rotation: Pallof Press; Cable Chops
Why: the big, compound movements incorporate more muscle mass, stimulate more growth, and cause a cascading of hormonal events that help improve strength, build muscle, and strip bodyfat better than isolation exercises can (think bicep curls; leg extensions; etc.) Not that these exercises have *no* place; their importance is just lesser than the compound movements
Step 4: Organize your Program
*This is both an art and science; much of this will depend on You and Your Needs
Let’s say you work out 4 days per week, on an Upper-Lower-Upper-Lower split routine:
- Bench Press
- Barbell Overhead Press
Then will start filling things in, based on your goals:
Stick with compound movements, in the lower rep-range: 1-5 reps
Sets? For simplicity, we’ll say 3-5 sets for strength movements
Gain Muscle Mass:
Stick with compound movements, and utilize ALL rep ranges: 1-5, 6-10, 10-15, 15+ all have their place in a muscle-building program; how you assign them will depend on your abilities and training experience
Use compound movements, and use ALL rep ranges; the objective, however, should be a focus on diet, specifically a caloric deficit; training can incorporate circuits, finishers, and the like
**Note: Below, you’ll see A1 and A2, B1 and B2, etc. This means the two exercises are performed in a superset: one set of A1, then one set of A2, then back to A1 until all sets in A1 and A2 are complete. Do the same with B
A1) Squat 3×5
A2) Ab wheel Rollout 3×8
B1) DB Walking Lunge 3×8-10 ea
B2) Single Leg Hip Thrust 3×10 ea side
C1) Cable Pullthrough 3×10-15
C2) Farmer’s Walk 3x30yards
A1) Bench Press 3×5
A2) 1-DB Row 3×8 ea arm
B1) DB Incline Bench Press 3×8-10
B2) Chest Supported Rows 3×15
C1) Pullups 2xAs many as possible
C2) Pallof Press 3×10
A1) Deadlift 4×3
A2) Deadbug (anti-extension “ab” exercise) 3×5 ea side
B1) BB Romanian Deadlift 3×8-10
B2) Goblet Squat 3×10
C1) Lateral Lunge 3×8 ea side
C2) Cable Chop 3×10/side
A1) Barbell Overhead Press 3×6
A2) Chin-ups 3×8-10
B1) DB Bench Press 3×10
B2) Cable Rows 3×12-15
C1) DB Seated Shoulder Press 3×15
C2) DB Reverse Fly 3×15
Step 5: Monitoring/Making Progress
Strive to add 5-10 lbs to the bar on each of your compound exercises each week
If you meet the rep target (for example, 10), increase the weight until you hit the target again
Add weight when appropriate, but ALWAYS maintain good form
Assess your progress: is it working? Keep going! If it’s not working, or if you stall in your progress, it may be time to assess other factors (sleep, recovery, nutrition, etc.) or change your program
What about Arm workouts?
For beginners and intermediate lifters, arm workouts are mostly useless. The additional time could be better spent mastering the compound movements, recovering from the workout, or focusing on your nutrition. IF you have more time at the end of the workout, after your other work is complete, adding some bicep curls and triceps extensions may be appropriate. However, as a beginner or intermediate lifter, very little, if any, time should be devoted to direct arm work. Forget “arm days.” You’re better off doing literally anything else.
The same can be said for crunches: there’s really no place for traditional crunches. Research from Dr. Stu McGill has indicated that repeated spinal flexion (i.e. crunches) could be damaging to the disks in your lower back. Abs are better revealed through proper nutrition and compound movements anyway.
Could you get away with a few? Sure. And your back wouldn’t explode. However, I would heavily suggest you focus more on your nutrition and stabilizing the core (spine) through the above-suggested Core exercises. You’re going to be way better off that way than with traditional crunches. Seriously, ditch them.
Have additional questions? Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through this site, and I’ll be happy to help you design your fitness program from top to bottom! Check out my online training option as well, where I can get you to your goals faster!