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?

If you don’t know what you want, any road will take you there

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

  1. Determine your weekly workout schedule (days/week)
  2. Plan your program around your goals (muscle gain/fat loss)
  3. Choose Exercises
  4. Choose Sets/Reps
  5. 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



Upper Body Push

Upper Body Pull


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:

Monday: Lower

  1. Squat

Tuesday: Upper

  1. Bench Press

Thursday: Lower

  1. Deadlift

Friday: Upper

  1. Barbell Overhead Press

Then will start filling things in, based on your goals:

Gain Strength:

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

Fat Loss:

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

Monday: Lower

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

Tuesday: Upper

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

Thursday: Lower

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

Friday: Upper

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, 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!

Andy Van Grinsven

About Andy Van Grinsven

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