The 7 Questions of Muscle and Strength

How to Train Yourself Like a Pro


While training principles are universal, training programs must be individualized. Why? Because when they're suited for the individual (you) they're safer, more effective, and sustainable. They're designed to fit your needs.

Great programming involves factoring in elements that'll increase the likelihood that you'll stick to it by blending universal training principles with your individual preferences. To accomplish the most with your training, you'll need to use those universal principles in a way that's sustainable and enjoyable in the long run. Best of both worlds.

Nail down the right training plan by asking yourself these seven questions:

As I said in The Most Effective Muscle-Building Strategies, the best type of training split is determined by how many days per week you're training.

However, how many days per week you want to train and how many days per week you actually DO train are two different things. That's why the second part of this question is so important, especially for those who are excited to start a new training program.

A 2006 study found that participants greatly overestimated the amount of times they would actually go to the gym. Although they expected to go an average of ten times per month, the average monthly attendance over was lower than five visits. So, many people end up going to gym about half as often as they expect.

Now, this study was focused on wasted membership fees, but the results are more about general human psychology and behavior when it comes to making time to exercise. And it all comes down to individual overconfidence.

According to the authors of the paper, "Overestimation of future self control or of future efficiency is at the root of all findings. These findings are also consistent with findings on consumer behavior in the credit card industry and employee choice of 401(k) plans." (1)

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. However, overconfidence leads many of us to consistently ignore this reality and overestimate how often we'll make time to exercise.

It's possibilities vs. probabilities. This overestimation of our future self control or of future efficiency causes us to confuse what we hope we'll (possibly) do with what we (probably) will do. Many have expectations based on wishful thinking instead of their previous behavior.

If you average going to the gym once per week and all of a sudden make it a goal to start going three to four times per week, it's very likely you'll revert back to your normal behavior. You'll feel like a failure because you didn't meet your expectations.

But you simply used the wrong strategy. So, be more realistic about your goals. Take an honest look at your past training-frequency behavior and create a realistic goal based upon that.

You may want to train four times per week, but if you've only been managing to do it once per week, it's smarter to making it a goal to train twice per week. Every month or so, add a day.

That's what gradual behavior changes – changes that are much more likely to become habits – is all about.

Training Injury

Exercises are general, but exercisers are individual.

Sure, everyone basically does some type of pushing, pulling, lower-body exercises, and core exercises. There's absolutely nothing individual about that aspect of exercise programming.

However, a great deal of what's individualized about training is what exercises you don't do based on your physical framework, current ability, and injury profile. So what causes you pain and what do you need to avoid?

Now, we're not talking about the sensation associated with muscle fatigue. We're talking about aches and pains that exist outside the gym or flare up when you do certain movements. Such problem areas may simply need time to heal through rest, or they may be injuries: compromised areas of your body that can no longer tolerate the same level of load and do not improve.

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

If an exercise hurts you – for whatever reason – you'll need to find a modification or an alternative that doesn't. Don't train through pain; train around it. Find exercises that fit you instead of trying to fit yourself to exercises.

So if, say, a certain pulling exercise hurts you, simply experiment with other pulling options in the same category until you find one that you can do without discomfort. When selecting exercises—whether you have limitations or not—use these two simple criteria to make effective choices.

  1. Comfort – The movement is pain free, feels natural, and works within your current physiology.
  2. Control – You can execute the proper technique and body positioning. For example, when squatting, you display good knee and spinal alignment throughout and use smooth, deliberate movement.

To allow for comfort and control, you may need to modify (shorten) the range of motion or adjust the hand or foot placement to fit your current ability. In some cases, you may just have to avoid certain exercises and use other options.

Where will you be training, and what equipment do you have access to?

This is obvious when you're training at home with limited equipment and space. However, when training at a big-box gym, we're also limited by our environment, but in a different way that's crucial to setting up your workouts.

Many people walk into the gym with a workout that looks great on paper, but falls short when they try to use it. If you're training at a big gym, you're essentially renting the equipment and space with a bunch of other people who couldn't care less about your workouts. So even though you've got access to a lot of different types of equipment, your workouts must be set up with that environment in mind.

For instance, circuits involving multiple pieces of equipment are a bad choice because people may be using the equipment you want to use. And taking up a bunch of equipment at once makes you an inconsiderate asshole.

It also means that certain exercise paired-sets are a bad choice due to logistical reasons. Lat pulldowns paired with squats are great if you're training at a private gym, but they're a problem in a busy gym.

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

If you're working out at home, you've got the convenience of pairing anything together that you want, but you may need to get creative with exercises based on what equipment you have available.

Paired sets must be designed with the big-box gym member in mind. For instance, pair exercises requiring immobile equipment (squat rack or machine) with exercises using mobile equipment (dumbbells, resistance bands).

This mixture allows you to bring the mobile equipment to the immobile equipment and remain there without having to walk all over the gym and lose the equipment to another member.


It's a mistake to have a "balanced" training program that dedicates roughly the same amount of volume and training days to your weaker, less-developed muscle groups as it does to your stronger, well-developed muscle groups.

A good workout plan isn't about balance. It's about addressing individual needs and helping you reach your particular goals. Your training program should be imbalanced to some degree in order for you to dedicate more overall training to the areas you're trying to develop most.

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

Select exercises based on the muscle groups (or lifts) you want to develop the most and give them more overall work volume each week. And make sure you're not spending too much time hitting muscle groups or lifts that need the least amount of volume.

Now, if performance is your main goal and you want to be proficient at a little of everything – but not to excel in any one particular thing – then balance may be just the thing for you. But not for everyone.

Since you'll get excited to do exercises you love, it's important to make those exercises staples in your programs. For people to work hard, they first have to want to come to work.

By the same token, it's important to either eliminate or at least minimize the use of any exercises you hate. Unless you're training to compete in some form of lifting competition, there's no single lift you must do to improve because no exercise has magical powers.

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

Reject the idea that you should emphasize exercises you hate. Contrary to popular belief, hating certain exercises doesn't mean they're what you need the most. There's probably a good reason you hate them and it doesn't necessarily mean you're lazy. It means you need alternatives.

To make progress, you just need to create mechanical tension across tissues and joints – that's all strength training is – and do so with intensity, specificity, and consistency.

There's no reason to force yourself to do an exercise when there are plenty of other viable pushing, pulling, lower-body, arm, shoulder, etc. exercise variations you can choose from.

If your goal is to participate in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or strongman, you certainly need to be consistent with the lifts you must perform in competition. Those require mastery.

But what about the rest of us who are in the gym for athletic performance, muscle growth, and general fitness? I provided the exact answers in my article, Training Variety Vs. Consistency: Final Word.

That said, something I didn't address in that article was how exercise consistency and variety aren't mutually exclusive; they can be done together to individualize your programming.

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

So let's say you prefer variety, but you also have a few lifts you'd like to improve. In this case, you'd begin each workout with one of those lifts, and you'd do certain lifts consistently on a schedule throughout the week.

The rest of your workout can be varied. This can be done by designing yourself about 6 to 10 different workouts, making sure each workout covers the bases. Now simply rotate through those workouts.

If you're not focusing on any certain lifts, simply follow the workout rotation strategy I just covered without doing any specific lifts consistently throughout the week.

Now, there's a big difference between exercise variety and randomness. Randomness is failing to plan, which means you're likely to leave a lot of gaps in your programming when you fly by the seat of your pants.

On the other hand, what I'm talking about above is planned variety to ensure you cover all of the mandatory lifting movements. You get the exercises you need while also getting the variety you crave.

A good ongoing training program should have enough consistency to allow you to see progress while also having enough variety to prevent staleness and boredom. This means using the same basic exercises but in different ways.

KB Swing

Some people like to stay moving during their workouts, while others may prefer some downtime between sets. This also depends on how much time you have available to train. Your busy life may require you to have faster-paced workouts because you're simply trying to get a lot done in 30 or 40 minutes.

Here's What to Do With Your Answer

If you like faster-paced workouts, but also have a few lifts you've got your heart set on improving, you can blend these two elements together.

Begin each workout with one of those lifts you're wanting to improve and take several minutes (3-5) rest between sets. Then, for the rest of the workout, ramp up the pace by doing paired-sets and tri-sets.

Both keeping a faster-paced workout and allowing ample rest between sets of the same muscle groups can be accomplished by using paired-sets and tri-sets. That is, as long as you group non-competing exercises together, which means each exercise within a given paired-set of tri-set hits different muscle groups. For example, pairing up a chest exercise with a back exercise, or doing a tri-set involving a lower-body exercise with an ab exercise and an arm exercise.

Paired sets and tri-sets allow you to do a faster-paced workout while also resting longer between sets of the same muscle group, while maximizing your overall training time by doing a set targeting a different muscle group. And when training for muscle gains, getting ample rest between sets hitting the same muscle group is important for getting the most out of each set.

  1. DellaVigna S et al. Paying Not to Go to the Gym. American Economic Review. 2006 Jun;96(3):694-719.