When it comes to designing a workout program, you already know the basics: you need to squat and deadlift; you need to do heavy rows, bench presses, and chin-ups; and you need good technique. But are you structuring your workouts correctly for maximum results? Are you including the little things that could take your program to the next level?
Just as “great minds think alike,” great workout programs look alike, too. From elite level athletes to local strength and conditioning coaches, all good training plans share similar features.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll avoid the doubt, frustration, and possible injuries that come from poor workout programs; instead, you’ll maximize your muscle growth, prevent injuries, and achieve your goals.
1) Change Your Reps Every Few Weeks
Your repetitions are the most important part of your workout program; they control everything from your strength and size gains to how your muscles develop and look.
Here is a general guideline of what each rep range does:
- 1 – 3 reps: Maximal Strength
- 4 – 6 reps: Strength
- 8 – 12 reps: Size Gains (Hypertrophy)
- 15+ reps: Endurance
If you always do 15 or more reps, for example, you’ll develop thinner muscles with better endurance. But if you never change your reps, you’ll ignore your maximum strength and explosive power and you’ll lose out on size gains.
Instead, organize your workout program into phases lasting a few weeks each, choose the rep range you want for each phase (ex. 4 – 6), and do that for all your main exercises. Then, in the next phase, choose a different rep range.
Here’s a sample workout program with four, month-long phases:
- Month One: 8 reps
- Month Two: 15 reps
- Month Three: 6 reps
- Month Four: 12 reps
Now, you’ll build all aspects of endurance, power, strength, and size in just a few months.
2) Always Do The Most Important Exercises First
The more muscles an exercise hits, the earlier you should do it in a workout. Exercises that blast every muscle in your body and demand tremendous strength and focus always come first.
Heavy squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and jerks require the most energy and muscle mass—if you wait until you’re tired to do these, you’ll rob your strength, shortchange your muscle growth, and compromise your technique.
After your big, heavy lifts, do the exercises that target two or more muscles at the same time like overhead presses, bench presses, rows, pull-ups, and glute-ham raises. Finally, add the exercises that focus on individual muscles: this is when you’ll hammer your biceps, pump your delts, and blast your calves.
By doing the hardest exercises first, you’ll save your strength for when you really need it.
3) Move In All Directions
Most of your favorite gym exercises move in just one direction.
Treadmills, stationary bikes, squats, deadlifts, lunges, bench presses, sit-ups, bicep curls, and rows all move front-to-back. In all these exercises, the primary movement is flexing your muscles forward and backward without moving side to side or twisting (called the “sagittal plane”).
But there’s more to fitness than just one plane. Watch any sport: we twist, turn, lean, shuffle, and constantly and rapidly change directions. These movements all fall into three different planes of motion: the sagittal plane, frontal plane, and transverse plane.
The sagittal plane moves front to back (which you already do plenty of); the frontal plane moves side-to-side, like with a lateral raise or lateral squat; and the transverse plane contains rotational movements like chops and Russian twists.
To build an athletic body and prevent injuries, however, include exercises from all planes. Start by adding one from each column below to your workout:
- Lateral squats
- Lateral step ups
- Ice skaters
- Side sled drags
- Russian twists
- Medicine ball rotational throws
4) Stay Balanced
A great workout program focuses on symmetry: making sure nothing is neglected and that nothing is too weak—or too strong—in proportion with the rest of your body.
Is your chest much stronger than on your back? This builds bad posture because your pecs pull your shoulders forward and leads to injury. Are your quads stronger than your hamstrings? This develops an uneven pull at your knee joint which could cause pain.
Keep your body in equilibrium. For every exercise that hammers your chest, include at least one back exercise. For every exercise that hits your quads, include at least one exercise to target your hamstrings and glutes.
Also, balance your body between left and right sides by adding exercises that target each leg or arm separately: include single-leg exercises or use dumbbells instead of barbells for your upper-body exercises.