Gains Made Simple

Constant Progress Without The Confusion

Have you ever been confused by a training program? If so, you're not alone.

Some can be so complex you almost need a PhD to figure out how they're supposed to work. But it doesn't have to be that complicated. You shouldn't have to solve equations for percentages of your rep maxes in order to know how much weight to use.

Do some people need to know percentages of their lifts and their one rep maxes? Yes, but these people compete in strength sports like powerlifting and Olympic lifting.

If you're just going to the gym to get stronger and feel good, you don't need an overly detailed and complex program. In fact, you can even change stuff up on a daily basis based on how you feel.

The great thing about strength training is that almost everything works as long as you're consistent and put serious effort into your workouts. I'm not telling you to just meander around the gym picking up a random weight here and there, but there is a way to progress without the hyper-controlled structure that turns a lot of people off from lifting.

Below is a simplified method of organizing your strength training program that'll deliver great results, variety, and put you in the driver's seat of your own training. Before we get to the nuts and bolts, here are a few basic things to know.

Breaking exercises down into movement patterns will be infinitely more helpful than thinking you have to perform specific exercises. Thinking of exercises in these terms will allow you to constantly vary your workouts while still getting stronger.

A "functional" person should have the ability to do all seven of these movements both bilaterally and unilaterally. Here they are:

  1. Squat
  2. Hinge
  3. Vertical Press
  4. Vertical Pull
  5. Horizontal Press
  6. Horizontal Pull
  7. Loaded Carry

For classification purposes, I'm counting a split squat (performed with feet stationary) or a lunge (performed while the feet move) as unilateral variations of the squat.

It doesn't matter if you're back squatting, or front squatting; you're still squatting. If you're getting stronger on one, then you're strengthening the squat pattern as a whole.

The same goes for the hinge pattern. Who cares if it's with a trap bar or straight bar? If the weight is going up on either, it means you're getting stronger overall. Do not get dogmatic and think that you MUST straight-bar deadlift (or do any particular exercise for that matter) to get stronger.

In general, 1-5 reps per set is what's recommended for strength training. Doing a big compound lift that you can only lift for 1-5 reps maximally stimulates your motor units and gets everything firing at once. Resting for about 2-5 minutes between sets will allow you to fully recover so you can go hard again during your next set.

However, you can build strength with any rep range depending on your level of training.

The typical rep range for hypertrophy is 8-12 with about 1 to 2 minutes of recovery between exercises. These midrange medium-weight reps will allow you to still lift relatively heavy loads while putting more time under tension on the muscle.

If you want to accelerate hypertrophy, focus on doing slow (about 3 second) eccentric/negative reps in the 8-12 range. This significantly increases the time under tension and will help you establish the mind-muscle connection required for growth.

Progressive overload is necessary to continue making progress. This can be done by adding weight to the bar, or by increasing the number of reps you do with a certain weight.

A general rule for adding weight is to go up by 5-10 pounds each week on your upper body movements, and 10 to 20 pounds each week on your lower body movements. (An already-strong experienced lifter won't make such big jumps, of course.) Below is a 3-week example of how to progress using weight as the primary form of overload.

Exercise: Back Squat

Sets & Reps Weight (Week 1) Weight (Week 2) Weight (Week 3)
4 x 5 100 110 120
4 x 5 110 120 130
4 x 5 120 130 140
4 x 5 130 140 150

The strength movement here is the back squat for 4 sets of 5 reps.

  • Week One: Our hypothetical lifter started with 100 pounds and ended with 130 pounds.
  • Week Two: He started with 110 pounds and ended with 140 pounds.
  • Week Three: He started with 120 pounds and ended with 150 pounds.

This is a very straightforward way of progressive overload and our lifter was able to progress his squat from 130 pounds to 150 in three weeks. Simple and to the point. No fancy equations involved, just gradual progress.

When doing your big lifts, stop at the point in which your form starts to break down – technical failure. This will keep you healthy in the long run and will keep you honest if you're tracking your weights.

Banging out a couple of extra reps when your form gets ugly will give you a false sense of what you're lifting and will teach bad habits. If your form begins to break down, reduce the weight.

Strength Training

Once you know your movement patterns, rep ranges, and how to progressively overload, putting together your own program gets pretty simple. First outline your movement patterns, then plug in your exercises.

I recommend beginners stay with the same exercises for three to six weeks to get comfortable with movements before switching them out.

If you're currently familiar with multiple variations of the squat, hinge, press, and pull patterns, feel free to change things out on a weekly basis. Just track your weights and try to follow the progressive overload guidelines above.

Below is a three-day per week sample plan so you can see how all of this comes together.

3 Day Per Week Full-Body Plan

Day 1 – Movement Patterns: Squat Focus

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Squat (Bilateral) 4 5
A2 Horizontal Press (Bilateral) 4 5
A3 Horizontal Pull (Bilateral) 4 8
B1 Squat (Unilateral) 3 8 each
B2 Vertical Press (Unilateral) 3 8 each
B3 Vertical Pull (Unilateral) 3 8 each
C1 Loaded Carry 2 30 yards
C2 Anti-Rotation Core Movement 2 10

Once you have the movement patterns laid out, coming up with your weekly program is as simple as plugging in the exercises. For exercises, here's what each training day could look like:

Day 1: Order and Exercise Sets/Reps

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Back Squat 4 5
A2 Dumbbell Bench Press 4 5
A3 Chest Supported Row 4 8
B1 Barbell Split Squat 3 8 each
B2 One-Arm Dumbbell Press 3 8 each
B3 One-Arm Lat Pulldown 3 8 each
C1 Suitcase Carry 2 30 yards
C2 Pallof Press 2 10 each

Day 2 – Movement Patterns: Press Focus

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Horizontal Press (Bilateral) 4 5
A2 Vertical Pull (Bilateral) 4 8
A3 Squat (Bilateral) 4 10
B1 Vertical Press (Unilateral) 3 8 each
B2 Horizontal Pull (Unilateral) 3 8 each
B3 Hinge (Unilateral) 3 8 each
C1 Loaded Carry 2 30 yards
C2 Anti-Extension Core Movement 2 10 each

Day 2: Exercises

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Bench Press 4 5
A2 Weighted Pull-Up 4 8
A3 Goblet Squat 4 10
B1 One-Arm Dumbbell Incline Press 3 8 each
B2 One-Arm Dumbbell Row 3 8 each
B3 One-Arm One-Leg Kettlebell RDL 3 8 each
C1 Waiter's Carry 2 30 yards
C2 Stir the Pot 2 10 each

Day 3 – Movement Patterns: Hinge Focus

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Hinge (Bilateral) 4 5
A2 Vertical Press (Bilateral) 4 5
A3 Vertical Pull (Bilateral) 4 8
B1 Squat (Unilateral) 3 8 each
B2 Horizontal Press (Unilateral) 3 8 each
B3 Horizontal Pull (Unilateral) 3 8 each
C1 Loaded Carry 2 30 yards
C2 Rotational Core Movement 2 10 each

Day 3: Exercises

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Trap Bar Deadlift 4 5
A2 Standing Barbell Press 4 5
A3 Weighted Chin-Ups 4 8
B1 Bulgarian Split Squat 3 8 each
B2 One-Arm Cable Chest Press 3 8 each
B3 Kettlebell Gorilla Row 3 8 each
C1 Farmer's Walk 2 30 yards
C2 Cable Chop 2 10 each
  • You'll notice the program contains all seven movement patterns with various exercises. Each day has a bilateral strength focus to stimulate motor unit recruitment and build true strength.
  • Unilateral "assistant" movements followed our strength series in the hypertrophy range to promote muscle growth and minimize muscle imbalances.
  • Weighted carries are done each day at the end along with some type of movement to increase endurance of the core musculature.

This same template can be applied to upper/lower splits, push/pull splits, or body part splits. Just know what movements you want to train that day and pick the exercises you feel like doing.

On any given week, if you don't feel like doing a particular exercise, swap it out for something with the same movement pattern that gets you excited to train.

This adds variety and fun to your workouts. If you don't enjoy your program, you won't stick to it for long. Find exercises you like to do, but organize your training in a way that makes sense.

TJ Kuster is a certified athletic trainer (ATC) and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), specializing in mobility and injury prevention. He coaches at Method Sports Performance in Bloomington, IL.