#1 Establish Your Personal Strength Training Goals
Check out my latest blog post about training goals:
It is important to establish whether you want to focus on getting bigger or getting stronger through strength training. Both can occur simultaneously, however, gains in strength must occur first before gains in muscular size. With altering training variables like intensity and volume, one can focus more on gaining strength or gaining size as they advance as a lifter. If you are more focused on aesthetics, training though ranges more optimal for hypertrophy (increasing muscular size) will be necessary. If you are more focused on lifting as heavy as possible, training in repetition ranges more optimal for increasing muscular strength will be ideal. If your primary goal is to lift weights to improve overall health and function, it may not be necessary to focus too much on increasing intensity or volume and it may be more beneficial for you to simply get into a lifting routine that works around your daily life. Blending both hypertrophy and strength training principles into your programming may also allow you to see submaximal increases to both strength and size and allow you to vary your programming to make it more enjoyable for you. Regardless, it is important to understand why you need to incorporate “x” amount of sets or “x” amount of repetitions into your training program as these are predicated on your training goals in the first place.
#2 Establish Where You Will Train & With What Training Tools
Next, you need to establish what training equipment and/or facilities are available to you. Are you able to train at a big-box gym? Private studio? At home? At the park? Knowing where you can train at and what equipment is available to you will determine how to structure your training to achieve your strength training goals. Most big box gyms have ample equipment to use to pursue strength, hypertrophy, and health and functional fitness goals. Most big box gyms will have free weights (i.e. barbells, dumbbells, bands, kettlebells, med balls), machines, and other equipment like steps, cardio machines and even a swimming pool and/or sauna. Private gyms tend to also have similar equipment in a more personal environment. You can also achieve your strength training goals at home with limited equipment. It is recommended to invest in things like dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, a pull up bar, and a bench to allow yourself to execute most exercises at home. Although it can be more challenging than at a gym facility, it is still possible to progressively overload your strength training exercises at home with body weight, bands, and free weights.
#3 Determine the Amount of Time You Have to Dedicate to Your Training Goals
One of the common misconceptions within the fitness industry is that you have to “grind” until your wheels fall off in order to achieve your fitness goals. This is absolutely not true. One scientific principle that exists is the minimum effective dose, this is the minimum amount that is required to see the adaptation response desired. In strength training, this is the minimum volume (total work accomplished; weight x sets x reps x days per week for each muscle group) required to produce strength and/or hypertrophy gains. You do not need to train 7 times per week to see strength and hypertrophy gains. In the next section, we will discuss the training principles that determine the total amount of volume, intensity, frequency, and duration of exercise required to see muscular strength and/or hypertrophy adaptations.
It is important to understand that for the recreational lifter especially, their training program must revolve around their lifestyle. Work obligations, social life, family obligations, and personal hobbies all factor into the total equation of your schedule and are oftentimes more of a priority than your training routine. If your life revolves around training, it will be hard to establish a balance between work, life, and fitness and will ultimately lead to burn out. You are completely in control of how dedicated you wish to be to your fitness journey. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise!
#4 Develop Your Training Plan According to These 6 General Training Principles
Intensity is how many repetitions you can accomplish of a given exercise based as a percentage of the maximum amount of weight you can lift in one repetition. This is visually expressed as % of 1RM (one rep max). Intensity is dependent on the muscles used in a given exercise. Multi-joint, big muscle group exercises typically allow you to perform more reps at a higher intensity (weight) than single-joint, small muscle group exercises. According to studies published by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, intensities as low as 40% 1RM and as high as 80% 1RM are most beneficial and practical for achieving hypertrophy gains. Intensities above 80-90% are more beneficial for strength gains but can be very taxing to the central nervous system and should be used more sparingly with hypertrophy training (especially in novice lifters). Intensity is one of the most important factors when progressing a strength training program. As long as you are lifting with proper form, you should not be afraid to lift heavy!
It is also important to address another common misconception in the fitness industry being how misrepresented intensity is in regards to strength training. Intensity is not determined by:
- How sweaty you are at the end of your workout
- How many calories you burned at the end of your workout
- How sore your muscles feel days following your workout
- Fitting in as much work as possible in a short amount of time in your workout
- How exhausted you feel after your workout
Intensity in the context of strength training simply means being able to lift a percentage of your maximum on a given lift. The closer you train to your maximum repetition weight, the higher the intensity of your workout. This does not mean that every workout should be done at 100% (1RM) intensity, %RM is simply used as an objective way to measure the intensity of your workout.
Other ways to measure the intensity of your workout include:
- Determining your reps in reserve (How many more reps you could’ve done following your set)
- RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion, How close to failure – not being able to execute another repetition with proper form – you perceive your set as being on a scale of 1-10, 1 being very easy, 10 being could not perform another rep = failure)
- Percent Rep Maximum – How much weight you can lift at a given repetition number or range (Lifting as heavy as possible in a 6-8 repetition range)
All of these methods listed above are proper ways to establish intensity in a strength training program. Typically, the most easy to employ methods are repetitions in reserve, percent rep maximum, and the RPE scale. Determining intensity via percent of one rep maximum is the most difficult to employ as it requires the lifter to first test for his/her rep max of an exercise which typically requires a lot of time to execute and a spotter to help with the dangers of lifting heavy loads.
Volume is determined by the total work accomplished typically in a given week of a training program. This can be mathematically expressed as weight x sets x reps x days per week for each muscle group. For example, if I performed 2 sets of a leg press this week w/ 100 pounds for 10 reps on 2 days this week it would equal 2 x 2 x 10 x 100 = 4,000 pounds lifted that week in leg press volume. I can calculate this next week and ideally place myself at a higher volume either through more weight lifted or more reps or sets accomplished in order to progress in my program. Volume and intensity go hand-in-hand in strength training and typically are the two most important aspects of strength training. At higher intensities, less volume is required to see strength training adaptations. At lower intensities, more volume in the form of sets, reps, or days per week would be necessary to see muscular strength and/or hypertrophy adaptations.
According to Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, a volume of 10 sets per muscle group per week is optimal for seeing hypertrophic muscular gains. This volume is typically best split between at least 2 days per week, however, the one muscle group per week split can also be used to achieve hypertrophy gains if enough volume is placed upon that muscle group on that given day. Volume is not fixed and can be highly dependent on the individual. Some adaptations were seen with higher volumes as well as lower volumes than the 10 sets per week amount. Ideally, start at a minimal volume that is tolerable to you and your body and progressively increase as necessary. Monitor your progress to determine if the volume you currently are employing is high enough to see the muscular adaptations you desire. Don’t employ weekly training volumes that compromise your ability to recover from your workouts otherwise you will start to see a decline in your training progress.
The frequency of your workouts is highly dependent on the volume and intensity of your workouts. At higher volumes, less frequency per muscle group is required to achieve muscular gains. At lower volumes, more frequency per muscle group is required to achieve muscular gains. For example, the “bro split” is a very popular training frequency that is employed by bodybuilders who seek to develop their musculature to the fullest extent possible. They typically split each major muscle group into one day per week and train with very high volume to “destroy” that muscle group on that particular day. That is an example of a very high volume program with a very low frequency per muscle group per week since they are only training each muscle group once per week. This training design is not very practical for people who have restrictive schedules and other commitments outside of the gym. For those with time constraints, training other frequencies are more ideal. Some other training frequencies to consider include:
- Upper/Lower Body Splits
- Full Body Splits
- Push/Pull/Legs Splits (Chest/Triceps/Shoulders, Back/Biceps, Quads/Hams/Calves/Tibialis)
- Chest and Arms, Back and Shoulders, Legs and Core
All of these training frequencies can be used to develop a well-rounded training program while allowing proper time for recovery and outside commitments. When determining your training frequency, it is important to know that placing major muscle groups at the start of the workout is important to not pre-exhaust the synergistic muscles that assist in the compound movements performed with major muscle groups. It is also important to structure your training frequency in a way to give each major muscle group ample time to recover between workouts.
- Duration + Rest Time (Within the Workout)
The duration of your workout is completely dependent on the frequency of your training as well as the intensity and volume of your workouts. Most strength training workouts conclude after approximately 45-60 minutes with a 5-10 minute general warm up and/or cool down. A general warm up can include 5-10 minutes of light intensity cardio training like walking or cycling to increase your muscle temperature, decrease the viscosity of your blood, and increase blood flow. All of these variables are likely to help improve your workout and decrease your risk of injury (although not yet directly proven through research).
Rest in between sets is also an important factor to consider when developing your training program as it will determine how much effort and intensity you can exhibit throughout your workout session. Without adequate rest between sets, your overall volume and intensity will be compromised and in effect your muscular gains as well. According to studies published by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, it is recommended to take at least 3 minutes of rest between sets of compound, multi-joint exercises to allow enough time for recovery. When lifting even heavier, in a more strength development range of 2-5 reps, it may be necessary to rest for even longer (approximately 4-5+ minutes between sets). For single-joint, small muscle groups, it may only be necessary to rest for 60-90 seconds between sets as these exercises are not as taxing to the central nervous system.
- Mode of Exercise
Mode of exercise is determined by the type of equipment used during your workout. This is highly variable and can be accomplished with free weights, body weight, machines, bands, kettlebells, really anything that can provide enough resistance to overcome to generate muscular adaptations. Different modes of exercise have different benefits and drawbacks associated with them.
With free weights, barbells and dumbbells provide a greater challenge to your stabilizing muscles that help with posture and balance control. This is great for general fitness, athleticism, and core strength and stability but can pose a challenge for increasing intensity (weight lifted) beyond a certain point. In order to progress exercises with the goal of hypertrophy (increasing muscle size), it is necessary to choose exercises that allow for a high degree of stability and connection to the floor or workout apparatus as the more unstable the exercise, the harder it is to generate high force. The less force that can be generated, the less of a challenge imposed on the target muscle group which is not beneficial for hypertrophy. High stability is the reason why machines can be a great tool to use to increase strength and hypertrophy due to the high stability of the machine. Machines are great for stability, however, they are only one-size-fits-all limiting its use for those who do not fit its limitations. Ultimately, it is your decision to make on which mode of exercise to use to achieve your training goals. Neither free weights nor machines are objectively better than the other. Choose modalities that are fun, easy to learn and progress with, and allow you to achieve your training goals.
- Recovery + Nutrition
The topic of recovery and nutrition is often overlooked in the fitness community despite being a huge determining factor in whether or not you will achieve your training goals. Recovery happens in the form of sleep, nutrition, stress management, and social interactions with the people around you. It is important to get enough sleep to help your muscles recover from the strenuous work of lifting weights. Muscle growth happens in the recovery phase and not during the actual training phase when muscle is being broken down. It is only through sleep and nutrition that muscle building can occur. It is recommended to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night to see optimal recovery between workouts. Different people vary in regards to how much sleep is necessary to fully recover from their workouts so it is important to make a mental or physical note of how you feel following your sleep schedule. Is your current sleep schedule leaving you feeling drowsy? Tired? Foggy? It is probably necessary to get more sleep than you are currently getting.
The second most important part of recovery is nutrition. It is not within my scope of practice as a personal trainer to recommend or give direct meal plans, however, I can share the general guidelines from research for people who wish to see strength training results. There are a few very important variables to consider in regard to nutrition being: macronutrients, micronutrients, water, and (in some cases) supplements. Macronutrients are the three fuel nutrients that supply us with energy to complete our workouts. These include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. All of these macronutrients are important for muscle recovery, energy, and hormonal regulation. It is not recommended to cut out ANY macronutrients from your diet unless advised to by a registered dietitian. Doing so can wreck your health for the long term and also completely ruin any chance of seeing strength or physique gains.
Micronutrients are the non-fuel nutrients that are within the foods we eat. These include vitamins and minerals and are necessary for regulating hormones, immune function, blood clotting and so many other important bodily functions that keep us healthy and thriving every day. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to use supplementation to get the necessary nutrients in your diet that you may not be getting via food. This should be discussed with a registered dietitian or doctor to avoid toxicity and other dangerous side effects from overconsuming supplements.
#5 Record your workouts
Lastly, record your workouts in a notebook or on a phone app to see how you are progressing on a week-to-week and month-to-month basis. Record whatever you want in these logs and don’t feel limited to only including the amount of weight, sets, and reps accomplished. Feel free to include your mood, how close to your workout you ate, your menstrual cycle phase (for people with periods), and other factors that may affect your workout quality. Having these variables listed in your workout log will help you see how your workouts are progressing and factor out any off-days that may affect your overall motivation.
Also consider recording your workout with your phone, camera, or other device like a tablet or gopro to do form checks during and after your workouts. Watching your own videos helps tremendously with seeing your progress over time and adjusting your form during the workout. It will also be a great way to motivate yourself in the long term when you see your strength, physique, and technique improving over time.
Example of a Strength Training Workout:
30-Year-Old Woman, Novice Lifter
Schedule: 9-5 Job & Mom of 2 (7 & 9 Years Old)
Wants to lose fat and get stronger. Wants to gain size in butt and shoulders
Upper Lower Split 3x / Week
Monday – Lower Body (Glute Focus)
Warm Up: 5 Min Walk on Treadmill (3 Incline, 3 MPH)
1st Exercise: Glute Bridges w/ Barbell ( _ weight, 2 Sets of 10-12)
2nd Exercise: Goblet Squat w/ DB ( _ weight, 2 Sets of 8-10)
3rd Exercise: Glute Hyperextensions w/ Body Weight (2 Sets of 10-12)
4th Exercise: Glute Kickback w/ Body Weight (3 Sets of 12-15)
Wednesday – Upper Body Focus
Warm Up: 5 Min Walk on Treadmill (3 Incline, 3 MPH)
1st Exercise: Shoulder Press ( _ weight, 2 Sets of 10-12)
2nd Exercise: Inverted Row w/ Body Weight (2 Sets of 8-10)
3rd Exercise: DB Press ( _ weight, 2 Sets of 6-8)
4th Exercise: Shoulder Lateral Raise ( __ weight, 3 Sets of 12-15)
Friday – Lower Body Balanced Focus
Warm Up: 5 Min Walk on Treadmill (3 Incline, 3 MPH)
1st Exercise: Split Squat w/ Body Weight (3 Sets of 10-15)
2nd Exercise: Romanian Deadlift ( _ weight, 2 Sets of 8-12)
3rd Exercise: Glute Bridge w/ Body Weight (3 Sets of 10-15)
4th Exercise: Walking Lunges w/ Body Weight (2 Sets of 15-20)
This program can be progressed weekly through different training variables. It is likely easier to increase volume before increasing intensity (weight lifted) depending on the trainee. If lifting more weight is practical, it is recommended to increase the weight lifted on a weekly basis. If this is not possible in any given week, volume can be increased by adding more sets, reps, or days per week. You can also add more exercises in a training program similar to this that starts out with low weekly volume. It is important to design your training program to your personal needs and capabilities and not to someone else’s preferences. Listen to your body and track your progress to find your balance between strength gains, health, and work/social life balance.
Sources and Additional Research Articles:
The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and their Application to Resistance Training
Strength & Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men
International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise
Muscle Hypertrophy and Muscle Strength: Dependent or Independent variables? A Provocative Review
Sleeping hours: what is the ideal number and how does age impact this?