I'm going to give you some of the principles I feel are most often overlooked or misunderstood when creating an effective exercise program. Think of this information as a cheat sheet to my basic training principles. After the eight principles, I'll provide you with a basic training program using all of them!

Waterbury's Basic Essentials

1 – Frequency

Each body part should be trained twice per week. I've learned that anyone, regardless of recovery ability or experience, can benefit from upping the training frequency of each body part to twice every week. See my previously published articles here at T-mag for full programs or check out the sample program at the end of this very article!

2 – Weekly Workout Plan

The breakdowns I feel are most effective for devising weekly training cycles are:

Plan #1

  • Day 1: Train
  • Day 2: Train
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Train
  • Day 5: Train
  • Day 6: Off
  • Day 7: Off

Plan #2

  • Day 1: Train
  • Day 2: Off
  • Day 3: Train
  • Day 4: Off
  • Day 5: Train
  • Day 6: Train
  • Day 7: Off

Plan #3

  • Day 1: Train
  • Day 2: Train
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Train
  • Day 5: Off
  • Day 6: Train
  • Day 7: Off

Plan #4

  • Day 1: Off
  • Day 2: Train
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Train
  • Day 5: Off
  • Day 6: Train
  • Day 7: Train

Any of the above breakdowns will work great. Many people favor the first example since it allows for weekends off. Others try to train as much as possible on the weekends due to standard work-week time restraints. For them, plan #4 is ideal.

Regardless of the breakdown, I always alternate upper and lower body workouts throughout the week.

3 – Exercise Selection

Compound, multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows should make up at least 75% of your total exercises. If not, you're wasting your time on isolation exercises that aren't demanding enough on your neuromuscular system to have any real physique-enhancing benefits. I must stress that 75% is an absolute minimum. Spending 100% of your time on compound exercises is an excellent idea!

4 – Set/Rep Volume

As a general rule of thumb for inexperienced trainees, I like to use a set/rep volume in the 24 to 30 range. For example, 8 x 3 or 3 x 8 per body part works well for the lower end of the range. A set/rep scheme of 10 x 3 or 3 x 10 works well for the upper end range. I recommend you start with a volume of around 24 and increase from there if you feel your recovery allows for it. (Just multiply the sets by the reps to get your number.)

5 – Training Intensity

The only time you should flirt with failure is on the last rep of the last set for each body part. If you reach failure before that time, decrease the load by 5% for the next workout (using the same method) the following week. If you don't feel like you're approaching failure on the last rep of the last set, increase the load 5% for the next workout the following week.

6 – Method Cycling

The simplest way to alternate training methods (sets and reps) without driving yourself into a frenzy is to simply switch the set/rep scheme for the subsequent workout for the same upper or lower body training day. In other words, if you performed 8 x 3 on day one for upper body, switch to 3 x 8 for the next upper body workout of the week.

7 – Antagonist Exercise Selection

Antagonist refers to opposing exercises. In other words, an upper back exercise is an antagonist to a chest exercise, and a biceps exercise is an antagonist to a triceps exercise. When creating a program, I like to use exact antagonist exercises.

What in the hell does that mean, you ask? For example, if you choose the barbell bench press as your chest exercise for your upper body workout, I recommend a rowing movement with the exact same hand spacing/position as the bench press. So if your index fingers are 24 inches apart when bench pressing, the rowing movement should consist of a palms-down hand position with exactly 24 inches between your index fingers.

Another example would be with pull-ups (or pulldowns depending on your strength levels). If you execute a pull-up with your palms semi-supinated (facing each other) and 18 inch spacing hand position, then your antagonist exercise would consist of standing dumbbell shoulder presses with a semi-supinated hand position that's 18 inches apart throughout the movement. Got it? This is actually much simpler than it sounds if you think about it. Just remember to press and pull with the exact same hand positions.

Note: For various reasons that I don't want to discuss in this article, this doesn't apply to lower body training. (It's not that it can't be done, it's just more complicated). But what about leg extensions and leg curls? Aren't those perfectly opposing antagonist exercises? Yep, but that particular pairing sucks. In regard to lower body training, just remember to alternate quad-dominant exercises like squats with hip-dominant exercises such as deadlifts.

8 – Lifting Tempo

Don't worry about it. As long as you use proper form and control the lifting and lowering phase, you'll be fine. Focus your mental energy on moving the load instead of counting the rep tempo.

Sample Program: Big and Basic

So, based on those guidelines, here's a sample beginner routine for a trainee who prefers to have the weekends off. Obviously, this same program can be used for the other recommended weekly breakdowns too.

Day 1 (Upper Body)

  Exercise Sets Reps Load Rest
A Exercise: Barbell Bench Press 8 3 5RM 1 mi.n
24" hand spacing
B Seated or Chest-Supported Row 8 3 5RM 1 min.
24" hand spacing
C Pull-Up or Pulldown 8 3 5RM 1 min.
Semi-supinated 18" grip
D Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press 8 3 5RM 1 min.
Semi-supinated 18" grip

Day 2 (Lower Body)

  Exercise Sets Reps Load Rest
A Barbell Squat 3 8 10RM 90 sec.
High bar position, feet shoulder-width apart
B Leg Raise 3 8 10RM 1 min.
Perform hanging or on a leg raise apparatus.
C Dumbbell Deadlift 3 8 10RM 90 sec.
Hold dumbbells at your sides; squat down until dumbbells are just below knee level.
D Decline Bench Sit-Up 3 8 10RM 1 min.
Hold a dumbbell or plate on your chest to increase the load.
E Standing Calf Raise 3 8 10RM 1 min.

Day 3 (Off)

Perform 15-20 minutes of moderate intensity cardio.

Day 4 (Upper Body)

  Exercise Sets Reps Load Rest
A 45° Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 3 8 10RM 90 sec.
Perform in a traditional fashion with the palms facing away from you as if holding a barbell.
B 45° Dumbbell Row 3 8 10RM 90 sec.
Lay face down on the bench with the same hand position as the incline presses.
C Standing Barbell Curl 3 8 10RM 60 sec.
Perform with pinky fingers 18" apart.
D Standing Reverse Grip Triceps Pressdown 3 8 10RM 60 sec.
Perform with the same 18" hand position as the barbell curls.

Day 5 (Lower Body)

  Exercise Sets Reps Load Rest
A Hack Squat 8 3 5RM 1 min.
Hold a barbell or two dumbbells behind your legs. Squat down until your knuckles touch the top of your calves.
B Lying Leg Curls 8 3 5RM 1 min.
Don't let the feet rotate outward.
C Lying Leg Raise 8 3 5RM 1 min.
Hold a dumbbell between your feet to increase the load.
D Seated Calf Raise 8 3 5RM 30 sec.

Days 6 and 7 (Off)

Perform 15-20 minutes of moderate intensity cardio if desired.

Conclusion

That's everything you need to know to design an effective workout program for anyone who's been lost in a sea of misinformation. Now get to it!