The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

How to Design a Damn Good Program, Part 1


One of the great things about T-Nation is that it gives you the ability to interact directly with the major contributors via the Authors' Locker Rooms. Each author has a "room," where readers can ask questions about training, nutrition, life, the universe, and everything else. And most of the time, we authors even know the answers!

Without fail, the one question that people always ask me is, "Can you give me some feedback about this program I've designed?" It's a great question, and I'm always happy to give my evaluation. After all, following a ready-to-wear program is okay, but my hat is off to people with the imagination to take the training principles they've learned here on the site, and apply them to designing a program custom-tailored to their own goals.

Of course, not all of the programs I see are winners. Some of them, in fact, make me downright cringe. Bad exercise selection, illogical exercise placement within the workout, the wrong intensity for a given goal: you name it, I've seen it.

What I've also seen is people (typically beginning and intermediate lifters) trying to design the next Super Ultra Mega Total Body Blaster Program, which you'd need PhDs in kinesiology, exercise science, and maybe even rocket science in order to decipher.

Only Dave Barr was able to decipher the Super Ultra Mega Total Body Blaster Program.

Sure, advanced techniques and programs can be highly productive for advanced lifters, but let's not kid ourselves. Most people are simply not as "advanced" as they'd like to believe. It's far more effective to start with a sound and basic program, then gradually work in advanced techniques as required to keep your development going. And that's just what this article will teach you to do.

Of course, just reading this article won't turn you into the next Poliquin, Cressey, DeFranco or whoever. It won't even turn you into the next Thibaudeau. However, if you follow the steps outlined here, I guarantee you will cleverly avoid all of the idiotic goofs I've seen throughout my career, and you will never write another bad training program again.

And while your program probably won't make Westside obsolete (nor will Crossfit likely be calling to ask if they can use it once they give it a girly name), the program you design will work. It'll work better, in fact, than 90% of all the other programs out there.


Step 1: Determine your One Goal

Like the man says, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." In other words, unless you're absolutely clear about the one thingyou want to accomplish with your training, you'll end up selecting the wrong loading parameters and training methods, and you won't get to where you want to be.

Let me give you an example. I hear variations of this all the time: ''My goal is to become hyuuuuge, super strong, and ripped." Is this your goal? Well, sorry to piss in your cornflakes, pal, but that's not a goal, it's three goals, and conflicting ones to boot. You simply can't do three different things at the same time. For maximum progress in any of these areas you have to focus on one major goal.

Let's look at how these goals conflict.

Trying to get both big and ripped at the same time should be a no-brainer. Maximizing muscle growth requires a caloric surplus. How much of a surplus depends on factors such as your body type, metabolism and current condition, but the fact remains that you must consume more calories than you expend. On the other hand, losing fat requires the opposite: a caloric deficit. You must expend more energy than you consume.

The X-factor

Food is the X-factor in whatever training you do. You can have the best training regimen in the world, bolstered by the most precise and advanced supplement protocol known to man, but if your diet is wrong for your goals, you'll probably never attain them. Let's all say it together one more time: Increasing muscular size requires caloric surplus. Losing fat requires caloric deficit. It ain't rocket science.

I'll grudgingly admit that it's possible to gain some muscle while losing some fat, for a short period of time, if you do everything perfectly. I imagine it's also possible to masturbate while riding a bicycle. In either case, though, trying to do both at the same time only ensures that you'll do neither one very effectively.

Pursuing two conflicting goals at the same time is not effective.

Similarly, trying to gain a lot of strength while losing a ton of blubber is an uphill battle. Your strength is determined as much by your neural efficiency as by your muscular development, so this is actually a bit more reasonable than trying for the hyuuuuge/ripped combination, but still, it's not easy.

Elite powerlifters and Olympic lifters usually post higher totals when they move up a weight class, and lower totals when they move down a weight class. This should be telling you something. If you really want to make marked and rapid progress in the strength arena, don't expect to do so while slimming down.

Which leads us to our last combination, getting big and strong at the same time. Of the three, this is the most realistic. However, training to maximize hypertrophy is fundamentally different from training to maximize strength, which focuses on making the central nervous system more efficient through the use of heavy weights and low reps.

While strength training can lead to muscular growth, the point is that your gains will not be as pronounced as they would be if you had concentrated on training for size. Once again, you must decide what's mostimportant to you (ripped, strong, or hyuuuuge), then make that priority the backbone of your training plan.

Once you've selected your One Goal, you need to stick with it long enough to make decent progress. If, for example, you concentrate on gaining mass for four weeks, then shift gears and focus on fat loss for another four weeks, guess what? You have an excellent chance of going nowhere.

Building muscle is a slow process. You will realistically gain between 0.25 and 0.5 pounds of lean mass per week, which means that by the end of your four-week "mass cycle" you will have "packed on beef" totaling a pitiful two pounds at the most. At least you won't have to go shopping for new clothes.

Be prepared to commit to your One Goal for a minimum of eight weeks, and preferably twelve. This doesn't mean that you have to stick to the same program for that length of time, but all programs you design for those 8 to 12 weeks must be geared toward achieving your selected goal.


Step 2. Select the right training split

Your training frequency and bodypart split is determined by your One Goal, your recovery capacity, and of course your schedule. In the table below, notice that the dominant structure (the system that plays the biggest role during your training) is different for each goal.

Proper training frequency and split for your One Goal

One Goal

Strength

Size

Fat loss

Dominant structure

Neural (CNS)

Muscular

Metabolic

Frequency of training each bodypart or movement pattern

High (2-3 sessions per week)

Medium (1-2 session per week)

Low (1 session per week)

Recovery requirement

High (3-4 non-intensive days per week)

Medium (2-3 non-intensive days per week)

High (3-4 non-intensive days per week)


Splits for Strength

Training for strength or power primarily involves the central nervous system. The CNS is the slowest of the three structures to recover from intensive training, so the more CNS-dominant a program is, the more recovery days you'll need to maintain an optimum rate of progress.

However, there's more to it than that. Strength is a learned skill. It is the process of learning how to make the most of the muscles you already have. The more you use your muscles, the better you will become at recruiting them, and the more rapid your strength gains will be.

So when training for strength, you need to train each muscle group or movement pattern more often, while including more rest days (3 to 4) during the week. You can maximize your strength gains by using one of these splits:

A: Whole Body

Day 1: Whole body
Day 2: Recovery
Day 3: Whole body
Day 4: Recovery
Day 5: Whole body
Day 6: Recovery
Day 7: Recovery

B: Upper/Lower

Day 1: Lower body
Day 2: Upper body
Day 3: Recovery
Day 4: Lower body
Day 5: Recovery
Day 6: Upper body
Day 7: Recovery

C: Lower/Upper/Whole

Day 1: Lower body
Day 2: Recovery
Day 3: Upper body
Day 4: Recovery
Day 5: Whole body
Day 6: Recovery
Day 7: Recovery

D: Push/Pull

Day 1: Hamstrings + Pull
Day 2: Quads + Push
Day 3: Recovery
Day 4: Hamstrings + Pull
Day 5: Recovery
Day 6: Quads + Push
Day 7: Recovery


Splits for Size

When training for size, obviously the dominant structure is the muscular system. Because motor learning (learning to use your muscles) isn't as important here as it is for strength training, frequency per muscle group doesn't need to be as high, although each muscle can be hit twice a week. And because muscles recover faster than the CNS, you can get away with fewer recovery days: 2 to 3 per week is enough, provided that you carefully plan your training volume. The following splits are effective toward this aim:

E: Antagonist

Day 1: Chest/Back
Day 2: Recovery
Day 3: Biceps/Triceps
Day 4: Quads/Hamstrings
Day 5: Recovery
Day 6: Anterior and lateral delts/Rear delts
Day 7: Recovery

F: Pattern

Day 1: Quads dominant
Day 2: Horizontal push and pull
Day 3: Recovery
Day 4: Hips dominant
Day 5: Recovery
Day 6: Vertical push and pull
Day 7: Recovery

G: Synergistic

Day 1: Quads dominant
Day 2: Pull (back, biceps, rear deltoids)
Day 3: Recovery
Day 4: Hips dominant
Day 5: Recovery
Day 6: Push (chest, triceps, deltoids)
Day 7: Recovery

H: Upper/Lower

Day 1: Lower body
Day 2: Upper body
Day 3: Recovery
Day 4: Lower body
Day 5: Recovery
Day 6: Upper body
Day 7: Recovery


Splits for Fat Loss

When training for fat loss, you have much more leeway. Because you'll be including more metabolic work (lactate training like circuits, complexes, GPP work etc.), you won't need as much recovery time between training sessions. The tradeoff here is that you'll be consuming a caloric deficit, which impairs your ability to recover.

So while the number of recovery days you'll need is higher (3 to 4 per week), recovery in this case just means, "don't work too hard." You can still do some cardio or other low-intensity physical activity such as walking, to help your fat loss effort along.

As I said, it's hard to gain much strength when training to lose fat. However, you should still include 1 or 2 strength sessions per week during your fat-loss stage, just to hold onto as much muscular mass and strength as you can. Read my Destroying Fat article for more on designing a fat-loss program.


Step 3. Select the proper training zone

One of the key factors in stimulating the kind of gains you want is selecting the proper training intensity zone.

Your body adapts to the demands you place upon it. As long as you attempt to progressively add more weight to the bar, practically any training zone or method you use will lead to gains in both strength and size. However, because you want to concentrate only on size or strength, you need to select the training zone that will give you the most gains for your chosen goal. If your goal is strength, for example, you would select sets of 1-3 reps rather than sets of 12-15 reps.

Use the following table to select the proper training zone for each exercise, according to your One Goal. A properly designed fat loss program needs to include different approaches, which again are covered in Destroying Fat.

Training zones for your One Goal

One Goal

Strength

Size

Fat loss

First exercise for each muscle group

Relative or absolute strength zone

1-3 reps/set

3-5 reps/set

3/2/1 wave

5/1 contrast sets

5x1 cluster

Functional or total hypertrophy zone

6-8 reps/set

8-10 reps/set

10-12 reps/set

VARIABLE

Second exercise

Absolute strength or functional hypertrophy zone

3-5 reps/set

6-8 reps/set

6/4/2 wave

7/5/3 wave

Hypertrophy zone

8-10 reps/set

10-12 reps/set

Third exercise (if you have one)

Same as second

Hypertrophy or strength-endurance zone

8-10 reps/set

10-12 reps/set

12-20 reps/set

Fourth exercise (if you have one)

Same as second

Same as third


Step 4. Select the number of sets for each muscle group

The total number of sets in your program will vary depending on your work capacity, lifestyle, diet, and other factors. Generally speaking, you should be doing between 6 and 16 sets per muscle group, and in fact most trainees make good progress keeping to a range of 9 to 12 sets. If you're doing that many sets and still not properly stimulating your muscles, it may just mean that you're being a pussy, and should increase your intensity and effort.

You disagree? You say that you can bust your ass for more than 12 sets, and still recover from that volume? Well, maybe, maybe not. Some people can, but these folks are the rare exceptions, and you'd do well to assume that you're not one of them. I know, this can be a blow to your ego. We all like to believe that we are special and tough. Remember, though, that it's one thing to survive a brutal workout, and another thing to recover and grow from it.

Start in the 9 to 12 set range, stick with it for a while, and really give it all you've got in every set. Once you've given that volume an honest chance, evaluate how your body is responding. If you're positive that you can handle more volume, then you have my permission to increase it.

Remember, too, that 9 to 12 sets for each muscle group is a general guideline. If you have a low work capacity, or a busy schedule, you may need to adjust this range downward to between 6 and 9 sets. On full body days, you should be doing even fewer sets per muscle group (as low as 4 to 6), because of the hefty demands such a workout places on your body.


Step 5. Select the right number of exercises for each muscle group

You can train hard, or you can train long. To gain as much strength or size as possible, you need to emphasize the quality of your training rather than the quantity, which means eliminating excess volume.

Of course you need a certain level of volume to stimulate growth and strength, but more is not always better. Training beyond your body's capacity to recover in a session, or continuing to exercise even when your fatigue level makes further training redundant and counterproductive: these are the fastest ways to halt your progress in its tracks.

Transforming your body is a highly emotional issue. Your gut feeling is that the more you train, the better you'll get. If you just add one more exercise, or two or three, then you can be sure to hit every area of every muscle in your body, and success is guaranteed. Nothing could be more wrong. Being driven to succeed is great, but if you are being driven by your emotions, you are on the high road to zero results.

Do between 4 to 6 exercises total per training session. If you're training two muscle groups in a session, this means you can do up to 3 movements for each muscle group. If you are training three muscle groups, you do 1 or 2 movements each, and if you are training the whole body, only one exercise per muscle group is allowed. Pretty simple math, right?

In some sessions you may need to perform more than 6 exercises (in circuit training, for example), and in some sessions you will perform as few as 2 or 3. But 90% of the time, between 4 and 6 exercises is the place you want to be.

When training for strength, you do more sets of each exercise to maximize neural adaptation. Conversely, when training for size and aesthetics you perform more exercises for balanced muscular development.

Remember that we only have between 9 and 12 sets to spend on each muscle group. Use the table below to find the number of sets and exercises to use for your goal and training split. For example, if your goal is strength, and you're on a push/pull split training three muscle groups per session, then you would do 2 exercises per muscle group, for 4 to 6 sets per exercise. 

Number of sets and exercises for each goal and training split*

One Goal

Strength

Size

6 muscles per session (whole body)

1 exercise per muscle, 4-6 sets per exercise

 

4 muscles per session (upper or lower)

1-2 exercises per muscle (as long as you do not go above 6 total), 4-9 sets per exercise

 

3 muscles per session (push or pull)

2 exercises per muscle, 4-6 sets per exercise

2 exercises per muscle, 4-6 sets per exercise

2 muscles per session (antagonist, pattern split)

 

3 exercises per muscle, 3-4 sets per exercise

1 muscle per session (body part split)

 

4 exercises per muscle, 2-3 sets per exercise

2 exercises per muscle group, 10 sets total:

First exercise: 5 sets
Second exercise: 5 sets
First exercise: 6 sets
Second exercise: 4 sets
First exercise: 7 sets
Second exercise: 3 sets

The first exercise should always have the same or higher volume as the other movements.


Step 6. Select the proper exercises

Exercises fall into one of four categories. You select exercises from each category, according to the training effect you want.

Primary exercises: This category includes a small number of multi-joint, multi-muscle, free-weight and preferably multi-plane movements. These movements allow you to use the most weight for each muscle group, and place the highest demand on the body and nervous system.

Back squats: a primary (money) exercise

Secondary exercises: Similar to the above, except that the exercises in this category place a slightly lower demand on the body and CNS.

Auxiliary exercises: This very broad category includes the isolation movements and most machine exercises. These exercises allow the use of considerably less weight than exercises in the first two categories, and so place far less demand on the nervous system.

Remedial exercises: This category contains movements, mostly isolation, whose purpose is to correct problems such as muscle imbalances or a very specific weak points. Rotator cuff work, balance and proprioception drills also fall into this category.

Quadriceps

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Olympic back squat (hip width stance, upright torso), power squat (wide stance, moderate torso lean), front squat

Secondary

Lunge variations, split squat variations, leg press, barbell hack squat, dumbbell squat

Auxiliary

Machine hack squat, step-up variations, leg extension variations, sissy squat

Remedial

Terminal knee extension (with band), band leg extension

Hamstrings/Glutes

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Romanian deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift, sumo deadlift, snatch grip deadlift

Secondary

Good morning variations, glute-ham raises, leg press (feet high on pad)

Auxiliary

Reverse hyper, pull through, leg curl variations, cable hip extension

Remedial

X-band walks, Cook lift, Swiss ball leg curl, band leg curl

Pectorals

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Decline bench press, bench press, Gironda dips

Secondary

Incline bench press, DB bench press, DB incline press, neck press

Auxiliary

Cable cross-over, flies variations, pec deck machine, chest press machine

Remedial

Swiss ball push ups, wobble board push-ups

Upper back and rear deltoids

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Chin-ups variations, pull-ups variations, chest-supported rowing, bent over barbell rowing, T-bar row

Secondary

One-arm dumbbell row, lat pulldown variations, cable seated rowing variations, corner rows, fatman pullups (reverse bar row), seated rope row to neck

Auxilary

Straight-arms pulldown, cable pullover, high pulley cross-rowing, low-pulley cross-row, machine seated row, machine lat pulldown, bent-over rear delt raise, machine rear delt, chest-supported incline rear delt raise,

Remedial

Chest-supported incline DB shrugs, seated cable shrugs (scapular retraction), traps 3 raise

Shoulders

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Muscle clean and press, military press, push press, seated barbell shoulder press

Secondary

Seated/standing DB press variations, Arnold press, Scott/Thib press, muscle snatch

Auxiliary

Machine shoulder press, lateral raise variations, front raise variations, lateral raise machine

Remedial

Cuban press, external shoulder rotation

Arm flexors (biceps, brachialis)

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Standing barbell curl, Scott bench barbell curl

Secondary

Hammer curl, seated DB curl variations, Scott bench dumbbell curl, reverse barbell curl (standing or Scott bench), Zottman curl

Auxiliary

Machine curl, cable curl variations, concentration curl

Remedial

Upper arm supination with sledgehammer or Thor's hammer (elbow tucked in to your side and bent at a 90 degrees angle, hold the low position of the hammer/bar with your hand. The starting position has the hand in a pronated position/palm facing down and thumb facing in. You perform the exercise by rotating the forearm while keeping the elbow tucked in and bent at 90 degrees. At the end of the rep, the palm of the hand should be facing up and the thumb facing out)

Triceps

Category

Sample exercises

Primary

Close grip bench press, close-grip decline press, triceps dips

Secondary

Close-grip incline press, reverse-grip bench press, JM press, decline barbell triceps extension, decline DB triceps extension, flat barbell triceps extension, flat DB triceps extension

Auxilary

Overhead DB triceps extension, overhead bar triceps extension, cable triceps extension variations, triceps extension machines

Remedial

Close-grip push up on Swiss ball, close-grip push-up on wobble board

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but it should be a good starting point for your exercise selection.

When your One Goal is strength, you should stick mostly to primary and secondary exercises in your program: they will give you the most bang for your buck. You can include two primary movements per muscle in a training session, but I don't recommend it, as it can wreak havoc on the nervous system when working in the low rep/heavy weight zones. You would be better off with one primary and one secondary.

The downside of these big compound exercises is that they tend to play to your strengths, bypassing your weaknesses. When performing a movement involving several muscle groups, your body will find the most economical solution, shifting most of the workload onto the stronger, more dominant muscles.

The classic example is the bench press: if your shoulders are dominant, the bench press likely won't do much for your chest because your body will thriftily bypass your wimpy pectorals, shifting most of the workload onto the stronger front deltoids and triceps.

If you are training to build a good looking, complete physique, then you should be using plenty of auxiliary exercises to make sure that the targeted muscles have been fully stimulated. Still, be sure to include a primary and at least one secondary exercise in your program.

For example:

Exercise selection for your One Goal and number of exercises

One Goal

Strength

Size

1 exercise/muscle

1 primary

N/A

2 exercises/muscle

1 primary + 1 secondary

1 primary + 1 primary

1 primary + 1 secondary

1 primary + 1 auxilary

1 secondary + 1 auxilary

3 exercises/muscle

N/A

1 prim. + 1 sec. + 1 aux.

1 prim. + 2 aux.

1 sec. + 2 aux

2 sec. + 1 aux

4 exercises/muscle

N/A

Same as 3 with an added auxilary or remedial

If you are training for strength, and have a specific weakness such as a rotator cuff problem, feel free to add a remedial exercise. Because its intensity will be low, you don't have to count it in your total.

The most important consideration in exercise selection is to avoid exercise redundancy. Your body has a limited capacity to recover from physical stress, so it would be stupid to piss away your precious recovery capacity on a redundant exercise.

Redundant exercises are those that work the same muscle group, using the same movement pattern, with the same grip. For example, the bench press, flat dumbbell press, flat machine bench press and Smith machine bench press are all just superficial variations of the same exercise. So are the standing barbell curl, standing supinated (palms up) dumbbell curl and standing cable curl. You get the idea, right? If you're going to select a number of exercises for one muscle group, then pick the ones that complement — not copy — one another.

One last point about exercise selection: avoid indirect overload. I see a lot of people designing lower body routines like this one:

On paper this looks fine. All are pretty good movements and it seems that the emphasis is placed on the money exercises. However, this is a pretty stupid combination. Why? Because with the exception of the leg extension, every single one of these movements will significantly overload the lower back.

Now, there's nothing wrong with having a strong lower back. But think about what condition your lower back is going to be in once you've done your squats and good mornings. Completely fried, and it'll be nearly impossible to do the rest of the workout with any sort of quality. You won't be able to perform your front squats with an upright torso, and your Romanian deadlift and reverse hyper will both be crap, because the prime mover is dead tired.

A word to the wise should be enough. Choose your exercises carefully, with as little cross-over as possible, and maximize performance throughout your workout.

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