In part 1 of Christian's article about program design, Thibs described realistic goals, proper training splits, the correct number of exercises per muscle group, and proper exercises.

Today, he'll finish off with explanations of exercise order, rest intervals, recovery, and special methods.

Step 7 – Select the Proper Exercise Pattern

Exercise distribution within a workout has two components:

  1. Basic structure (horizontal/straight sets, alternating, vertical/circuit)
  2. Exercise order within a chosen structure

The basic structure of the program is how you perform each exercise or set in relationship to the others.

This is your ''usual'' distribution pattern, whereby you perform all the sets of an exercise before moving on to the next. For example:

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Bench Press 4 10 90 sec.
B T-Bar Row 4 10 90 sec.

In this routine, you'd perform all four sets of the bench press (with 90 seconds of rest between sets) before moving on to the T-bar row.

This approach, popularized by coach Poliquin, has the advantage of letting you do more work with less rest, without sacrificing performance (I also like it because it lets me get out of the gym that much quicker!). In this distribution pattern, you alternate sets between a pair of exercises that target different muscle groups ideally an agonist/antagonist pair. For example:

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Bench Press 4 10 45 sec.
A2 T-Bar Row 4 10 45 sec.

In this case you'd perform one set of A1 (bench press), rest for 45 seconds, perform one set of A2 (T-bar row), rest for 45 seconds, then go back to A1 and repeat until you've performed 4 sets of each exercise. The actual rest intervals between two sets of bench press are about the same as with straight sets, even though you're only resting for 45 seconds.

Here you perform one set of three or more exercises one after another, in a circuit, then repeating the circuit if necessary. For example:

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Dumbbell Bench Press 2 12 30 sec.
A2 Dumbbell Squat 2 12 30 sec.
A3 Seated Row 2 12 30 sec.
A4 Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 2 12 30 sec.
A5 Preacher Curl 2 12 30 sec.

Note that a circuit doesn't have to be composed of all the exercises in your workout. You can perform a circuit of four exercises, for example, then two normal exercises performed in either an alternating or straight set fashion.

Circuits are best suited for body composition/fat loss training where you keep your intervals down to as little as 10 seconds between stations. But circuit training is also a highly efficient way to train for strength and power as well by increasing the intervals to as much as 2 or 3 minutes. This allows you to perform far more work in less time than it would take for straight or alternate sets, while still having plenty of recovery time between sets of the same exercise.

Once you've chosen your training structure you need to arrange the exercises you've chosen in a logical and effective order.

The most important rule to remember is the most neurally demanding exercises for a muscle group should be performed before the less demanding ones. For example, you should perform the squat earlier in the workout than a leg extension. There are few exceptions to this rule, one being when you want to pre-fatigue a hard-to-recruit muscle by isolating it before a compound movement.

Take all the exercises for one muscle group and arrange them in order of difficulty. For example, if you've selected the following exercises for your chest:

  • Cable Crossover
  • Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Incline Press

Then the correct order would become:

  • Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Incline Press
  • Cable Crossover

Rule of thumb: primary exercises before secondary, which go before auxiliary, which go before remedial ones. If you have two exercises from the same category (i.e. two primary or two secondary exercises), the exercise in which you use the most weight goes first.

Depending on the structure (horizontal, vertical, alternating) you use, the actual order of exercises might change.

If you're using straight sets you can either perform all exercises for the same muscle group one after the other, then move on to the next muscle group. In this case the order would be:

  • A. Chest primary
  • B. Chest secondary
  • C. Chest auxiliary
  • D. Triceps primary
  • E. Triceps secondary
  • F. Triceps auxiliary

This is okay if you're training one large muscle group (chest, back, or quads) and one or two small muscle groups in a workout. If you're training two large muscle groups (e.g. chest and back), it's not the best option, as the CNS will be fried by the time you get to the second muscle group.

If you're training two or more large muscle groups, or your whole body, then it's better to arrange all the exercises in order of difficulty, regardless of the muscle being trained. First group all of the exercises by category (primary, secondary etc.), and then order them so that the larger muscles are being worked first. In this example, you have chosen the following exercises for your full-body workout:

  • Bench Press
  • Military Press
  • Chin-Up
  • Front Squat
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Barbell Curl

All of these are primary exercises, so they should be ordered according to the size of the muscle involved, like so:

  • A. Front Squat
  • B. Romanian Deadlift
  • C. Chin-Up
  • D. Bench Press
  • E. Military Press
  • F. Barbell Curl

If you've also selected secondary exercises, the same rule applies: group by category (primary before secondary), then order the exercises in each category according to the size of the muscle group involved. For example, say you choose to use:

  • Bench Press (primary)
  • Leg Press (secondary)
  • Bent-Over Barbell Row (primary)
  • Seated Dumbbell Press (secondary)
  • Snatch-Grip Deadlift (primary)
  • Hammer Curl (secondary)

You first group the exercises by category:

Primary Movements:

  • Snatch-grip deadlift
  • Bent-over barbell row
  • Bench press

Secondary Movements:

  • Leg Press
  • Seated DB Press
  • Hammer Curl

Then arrange by muscle group size:

  • A. Snatch-Grip Deadlift
  • B. Bent-Over Barbell Row
  • C. Bench Press
  • D. Leg Press
  • E. Seated Dumbbell Press
  • F. Hammer Curl

If you're using the alternating structure (most often with an antagonist split), then your first step is to order the exercises for each muscle. For example, let's say that you're working chest and back and you select these exercises:


  • Decline Dumbbell Flies
  • Decline Bench Press
  • Incline Dumbbell Press


  • Lat Pulldown to Front
  • Bent-over Barbell row
  • Chest-supported Rear Deltoid Raise

The correct order for each muscle becomes:


  • A. Decline Bench Press
  • B. Incline Dumbbell Press
  • C. Decline Dumbbell Flies


  • A. Bent-Over Barbell Row
  • B. Lat Pulldown
  • C. Chest-Supported Rear Deltoid Raise

Since the workout calls for an alternating exercise structure, the workout looks like this:

First Exercise Pairing

  • A1. Decline Bench Press
  • A2. Bent-over Barbell Row

Second Exercise Pairing

  • B1. Incline DB Press
  • B2. lat Pulldown

Third Exercise Pairing

  • B1. Decline Dubbell Fly
  • C2. Chest-Supported Rear Deltoid Raise

Finally, if you're doing a circuit structure, you have a number of options depending on your goal.

In a strength, size, or power circuit with relatively long rest intervals between stations, the same rule applies as for straight sets: group by category, then order by muscle group.

In a lactate-inducing circuit aimed at fat loss, which jumps from one exercise to the next with very little rest in between, you're taxing your metabolic system rather than your nervous system, so exercise order is somewhat less critical.

However, you should be careful to arrange the exercises in such a way that they don't interfere with each other, alternating exercises to minimize the cross-over effect. For example, if your first exercise is a seated dumbbell shoulder press, following it with a bench press variation would not be a very good idea because this exercise hits the same muscle groups.

Priority exercises

The Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk) and their respective variations always precede every other exercise in your program.

The snatch
The clean

These exercises, involving the whole body in a complex movement pattern that rely heavily on the CNS, must be prioritized whenever they are included in your program. This may seem obvious, but I've seen programs for professional sports teams that prescribed snatches afterdeadlifts, squats, bench presses and rows! Ouch!

Remember: when you're using the Olympic lifts in a program, always put them first. If you perform more than one lift, snatches should come before cleans, which should come before jerks.

The amount of rest between sets is directly dependent on your One Goal. Remember these rules:

  1. The nervous system takes longer to recover than the muscles and metabolic processes.
  2. Incomplete recovery of the metabolic processes can increase growth hormone production and might have significant body composition effects. Incomplete recovery can also force the body to recruit more motor units, although they might be of the slow-twitch variety. If all you're after is size, though, this could be interesting.
  3. Complete CNS recovery is necessary for optimal strength performance. So if you're training for strength, you'll need to take longer rest periods to maximize the quality of your lifting efforts.

The right interval length depends on the intensity of your efforts, as well as on the exercise performed (you recover faster from a set of triceps kickbacks than from a set of squats). The following table illustrates the impact of various rest intervals:

Impact of the Length of the Rest Intervals on Recovery

Rest CNS Metabolic Key Points Best Suited For
20-30 sec. Negligible 30-50% Metabolite accumulation and oxygen debt, both of which can lead to the release of hGH and other growth factors Fat Loss
(strength-endurance zone)
30-60 sec. Small (30-40%) 50-75% Some significant metabolite accumulation. More metabolic rest = capacity to use more weight when training in hypertrophy zone Fat Loss and Muscle Gain
(strength-endurance and hypertrophy zones)
60-90 sec. 40-60% 75-90% Good compromise between metabolic accumulation and sufficient recovery to perform heavier work Muscle Gain
(hypertrophy zone)
90-120 sec. 60-75% 100% Allows you to maintain work capacity between hypertrophy-inducing sets Muscle and Strength Gains
(hypertrophy and functional hypertrophy zones)
2-4 min. 80-100% 100% Full neural recovery and strength potentiation, allowing maximal lifting Strength Gains
(absolute and limit strength zones)

Depending on your One Goal and the intensity zone you select, the ideal rest intervals would be:

  • Relative Strength Zone (1-3 reps): 3-4 min. between sets
  • Absolute Strength Zone (3-5 reps): 2-3 min. between sets
  • Functional Hypertrophy Zone (6-8 reps): 90-120 sec. between sets
  • Hypertrophy Zone I (9-10 reps): 60-90 sec. between sets
  • Hypertrophy Zone II (11-12 reps): 45-60 sec. between sets
  • Strength-Endurance Zone (13-20 reps): 30-45 sec. between sets
  • Endurance-Strength Zone (more than 20 reps): 30 sec. or less

Again, these are guidelines. Some people need less rest while others need more. For the great majority, this will work fine, so start there and adjust as needed.

Notice that I say "between sets of a single exercise." This means that if, for example, you're working in the hypertrophy zone you'd need to take 60 to 90 seconds of rest before performing a second set of the same exercise. For straight sets, this is quite straightforward:

  • A. Bench Press: 4 x 10 reps, 90 sec. rest interval

Four sets of ten reps each, resting 90 seconds between each set. Piece of cake (or steak, if you prefer).

If you're doing alternating sets, it's a bit more complicated, but not much. Let's alternate bench press with T-bar row:

  • A1. Bench Press: 4 x 10
  • A2. T-Bar Row: 4 x 10

We still need 90 seconds of rest (time spent not exercising) before starting a second set of the same exercise. We can get this by putting a 45 sec. rest interval between exercises.

  • A1. Bench Press: 4 x 10, 45 sec.
  • A2. T-Bar Row: 4 x 10, 45 sec.

Now we have 90 seconds between each set of bench press, and 90 seconds between each set of rows. But our workout density is higher, which gives the session a more profound metabolic (fat loss and body composition) effect.

If you're circuit training for fat loss, you'll be working in the strength-endurance zone. If so, simply use the interval length specified above 10-45 seconds) between each station. Lactate-inducing circuit training should be considered energy system work (cardio) with weights, rather than "weight lifting."

I don't care how tough you think you are, or how hardcore you fancy yourself to be. The basic rules of physiology still apply to you. One of those rules is that muscular growth does not occur in the gym. In the history of mankind, nobody has ever packed on a pound of beef while training.

When you stagger home from the gym after your workout, you're actually worse off then you were before you started: you damaged your muscles, depleted your energy stores, and fatigued your nervous system. It's only when you let your body recover that progress of any kind starts to happen.

During the recovery period, your body will rebuild its muscle tissue bigger and stronger (muscle hypertrophy or tissue remodeling), it will restore and even over-replenish its energy stores (surcompensation) and the nervous system will become more efficient at recruiting motor units (neural efficiency). In other words, all the good stuff happens when you're not training.

However, a lot of people don't give their bodies enough recovery days to let that progress set in.

I have a theory about why this is, and once again, it goes back to the fact that training is an emotionally-charged activity. We can be so impatient when it comes to building the body of our dreams. We want to be big and ripped with superhuman strength, and we want it now!

The more passionate we are about our dream, the more irrational we become, and the more work we're willing to do in the gym. We can't help it, we were raised to believe that the more time we spend on something, and the harder we work on it, the better the results will be.

Our parents and teachers exhorted us to exert ourselves at our studies until exhausted. Our coaches filled our ears with pithy slogans like, "success only comes before work in the dictionary!" And when we went off to work, we soon learned that the longer hours we put in, the fatter our paychecks became. Who can blame us for thinking that the same would apply to training?

Well, stop thinking it right now, because it's wrong, wrong, wrong. The cold fact is, no matter how long or hard you train, without proper recovery you will never optimize your progress. In fact, you may even begin to regress, if you work out so much that you exceed your recovery capacity.

The sad thing is, when people see their hard-earned gains slipping away through over-work and under-recovery, what's the first thing they do? They do even morefrigging work! They think their problem is that they just weren't training hard enough. I'll say it one more time. You must get rid of the notion that "lack of results = lack of work." In most cases, especially among highly motivated individuals, lack of results = improper work/recovery ratio.

The point of this diatribe is to give you a forceful reminder that when designing a program, you should always include enough recovery days to allow your body to adapt, rebuild and improve.

Understand, however, that "recovery day" is not always just a day off. There are three levels of recovery. Let's look at each.

In most cases the following applies:

  • Active Recovery: Use mainly when you are focusing on CNS-based training (heavy weights, explosive movements with relatively low volume); with this type of training the muscles and metabolic processes are not severely taxed but the CNS takes a beating. Low-intensity work (not neurally demanding) can thus be successfully used without fear of over-stressing the metabolic processes. Do not use when undergoing a high-volume phase as the muscles and metabolic processes are already severely taxed.
  • Passive Recovery: These days can be used with all types of training.
  • Assisted Recovery: You may be tempted to use these methods all the time, to become a "recovery machine." However, as with training, the body adapts to recovery methods and if you use them all the time they lose their effectiveness. They are better kept for when your body is under severe stress. They are especially useful when the muscles are under tremendous strain (high volume of relatively intense work).

This means performing some physical activity that isn't stressful on the system. It could be playing a sport, taking a walk, doing some low-intensity cardio or even low-intensity weight training. This type of recovery can be helpful as it increases blood flow to the muscles and keeps the metabolism running high.

Just resist the temptation to overdo it. Many people are stimulus junkies who turn even a light recovery session into an intense workout! This is especially true if weight training is used as an active recovery tool. Let me repeat myself: active recovery work must not constitute a stress on the system.

So when recovering with weights, we're talking high reps (12-20 or even more), not going anywhere near failure. Some people will also make the mistake of performing a high-intensity activity like intervals training of sprints on their recovery days. Intervals, sprints, plyos and such represent a pretty considerable stress on the body, either on the CNS or on the metabolic processes. As a result they do not allow the body to recover optimally from training.

Bottom line: any activity that is physically demanding should not be done on an active recovery day.

This is your "day off," meaning that you avoid physical activity. But let's not be stupid about this. You're allowed to walk, climb stairs and carry things. You don't have to ride around on one of those little electric carts that fat people use, and if your wife asks you to take out the trash, don't try to dodge it by saying, "But Thibs said no physical activity." A passive recovery day is nothing more or less than a day on which you don't train. And that's all I have to say about that.

This third level involves using methods that enhance the body's capacity to recover from training stress. It may take the form of massages, epsom salt baths, contrast showers, and other such techniques. I suggest that you read my article 7 Secrets to Rapid Recovery for more information.

This type of recovery day is especially useful if for some reason (too much stress, excessive training, improper recovery, etc.) you find yourself starting to accumulate fatigue and have problems recovering from your workouts.

As I said before, training is a highly emotional endeavor.

In our frenzy to transform ourselves, we want maximum results in minimum time, so when we read about a special training method (e.g. Cluster sets, rest/pause, pre-fatigue supersets, post-fatigue supersets, drop sets, chains, bands, weight releasers, etc.), our first irrational instinct is to throw them right into our training programs, expecting them to work miracles for us.

Yes,these methods will help stimulate more gains. No, they shouldn't be used all the time. Most people actually don't need these methods at all to progress optimally: beginners and most intermediate lifters can maximize their progress simply by focusing on the basics performed with effort and dedication.

It is those more advanced individuals, those for whom every micron of progress seems to take eons to occur, that really need these methods. The more advanced you are, the better adapted your body is to physical stress. As a result, it takes a much bigger physiological stimulus to trigger appreciable gains.

This is where advanced methods really shine. You should include them in your program onlywhen they are needed, to keep your progress going at a satisfactory rate. Using these methods too soon (when you don't really need them) can actually impair your long-term progress.

  1. While advanced individuals need advanced techniques and techniques for optimal growth, beginning and intermediate trainees do not.
  2. The body is very adaptable, and can get used to any training method. Once this happens, the effectiveness of the technique is greatly diminished.
  3. By using your most advanced techniques from the beginning, when you don't need them, you can limit your long term progress by rendering these techniques ineffective when you do need them.

I'm not saying you have to include advanced techniques in your program. Start by learning how to plan the basics. When you're good at that, you can gradually add in more advanced stuff. But do it gradually, first to avoid overloading the system, second to be able to assess the individual effect of each method; if you throw in 3 or 4 advanced methods at a time, it'll be hard to tell for sure which one was responsible for your gains.

If you have carefully read this entire article, then right now you're probably thinking, "Damn, that was a long article!"

But hopefully you weren't overwhelmed, and are just raring to give this method of program design an honest go. After you've written a few programs "by the numbers," the steps will become second nature for you, and writing new programs will be a breeze.

One caveat, however, before we close. I imagine that one or two of you are just chomping at the bit to look up every training program I (or Chad, or Coach Poliquin, or any of the other Testosterone coaches) have written, and gleefully post in the forums somewhere, "ah-ha!! I found a program that isn't exactly like the one that Thibs' Program Design article recommends!

Well, duh.

This article shows you how to design basic and effective programs. The coaches here at Testosterone tend to present you with slightly more advanced programs, and in order to do that, we sometimes bend the rules a bit.

Realize, though, that in order to bend the rules (without ruining the efficacy of the program), you must first understandthe rules. If you want to write advanced programs, do what we all had to do: put in the time and effort to become really efficient at designing basic programs, then learn to add in more advanced techniques as needed.

In other words, you really need to graduate from high school before thinking about writing your doctoral dissertation. Just take it slowly, progress step by step, and before you know it you'll be designing your own sound, efficient and effective training programs.

And if you post those programs in the Locker Room for my evaluation, the chances are excellent that I will not cringe.

Happy designing!

Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders. Check out the Christian Thibaudeau Coaching Forum.