Customizing Your Strength Training Program
There's a truism in strength training that will never change: "The best program is the one that works best for you." Nonetheless, there are some ground rules that I believe should apply to all lifters serious about building muscle, and the strength that goes along with it. After these ground rules have been applied properly, it's then when lifters need to make alterations to the program in order to accommodate for such things as age, years of training experience, and goals. This article is going to lay the groundwork for all successful strength programs, then explain how and when you need to make alterations to customize your strength routines.
First, let's discuss the things that I believe the most successful strength routines have in common.
Full Body Strength
If you've read any of my past articles, then you know my dislike of "split" training routines. I fully believe the best routines are ones in which you work your entire body at each session, or, at the most, split your body over two sessions (and no more). If you don't work all the major muscle groups at each session (the chest, back, and leg muscles), then you need to at least combine two of them. Do some type of pressing work for your chest and shoulders, followed by either heavy back work, or heavy leg work, if not both.
This type of training is critical for strength athletes. Unless you are some type of lift "specialist" (like the "powerlifter" who only competes in bench press competitions), then you compete in a sport in which you utilize most of your major muscles at your chosen activity. It is only logical that you would want to strengthen all of those muscles in the same session. Athletes who train this way will have no problem being in shape on competition day, since they've done enough work at each session to make their competition a breeze.
Your training needs to always be heavy. Don't succumb to the notion that to get in great "shape" you need high reps, even on your core exercises. If you're trying to lose bodyfat, then let your aerobic conditioning and, more importantly, diet, take care of that aspect.
If you compete in a strength sport, heavy training is a must. And when I say heavy, I mean heavy. We're talking sets of 5s, 3, doubles, or singles. Only rarely do I have any of my lifters utilize reps higher than five on their core lifts.
No matter your goals, some type of "speed" work needs to be performed. This is especially true if you're lifting as heavy as is necessary. The problem with ultra-heavy training is the fact it will make you slower at the lifts (Olympic movements withstanding) you are performing. This is where dynamic lifting comes in. Combine it with heavy training, and you'll become stronger, bigger, and faster.
Customizing Your Strength Program
Even when your training includes the above, there are plenty of changes you can make to customize the routine to your needs, your training age, etc. Keep in mind that any program published on this website (or in any magazine) is just an outline. It's one of the problems with written programs: the strength coach who writes it is not there to make changes as might be needed based on how your body is responding—or not responding—to the workouts.
Remember this: the reason it takes so long for lifters to achieve a great deal of success (in most cases) at their chosen sport is because it takes a lot of experimenting to find the routine which works best for them. In addition, as your strength progresses, the program which took you to that level of strength won't necessarily be the program which takes you to the next level of strength conditioning.
There are plenty of lifters (especially competitive powerlifters and Olympic lifters) who are perfectly satisfied with doing the same core exercises year around, while others need constant change to stay interested. I would have to put myself in the first group, but since I lift with three of the lifters I train, and since they need change to stay interested, I rotate exercises at least every two weeks.
One of my uncles holds the Master’s record in the deadlift in the state of Texas (or did at the time of writing this—records are always being broken), and he is happy doing the same core exercises all year (bench and deadlift). This works well for him because he doesn't have a consistent workout partner (and it brings him good results). He's been training this way for no telling how many years, and enjoys doing it, but most lifters would have to fit in the same group with my training partners.
Many lifters have to make changes in their routines or they will grow stale and hit sticking points. This is particularly true for advanced lifters. Many who fit in this category need to change their exercises every week (if you don't change your exercises, you need to change your reps).
The biggest problem I run into when lifters change exercises is they pick easier lifts instead of hard ones. The new exercise has to be equally demanding as the one you are trading it out for. Many who have read my articles understand that I use a heavy/light/medium system of training which is (basically) a combination of Russian and Eastern Bloc methods and a lot of the methods of strength coach Bill Starr, with a few extras thrown in. For advanced athletes, I usually recommend a switch to a new exercise on each day (instead of benching three times a week, squatting three times a week, etc.). And the more advanced the athlete, the more weeks of different workouts I have him or her use. The important thing, however, is that a "heavy" exercise has to be traded for a "heavy" exercise, a "medium" exercise has to be traded for a "medium" exercise, etc.
Another thing you have to decide is how many core exercises to do at each workout. If you are an athlete competing in football or basketball (the two most common athletes who seem to ask me for advice), then I recommend squatting at each session, followed by some type of bench work, and, finally, a core lift for the back muscles (deadlift, power clean, high pull, etc.).
If you compete in power events in which you do less than three lifts (push/pull competitors, for example), then it's perfectly fine to do only two core exercises—one for your chest and shoulder girdle, and one for your lower back, legs, and hips.
For most full powerlifters, I recommend three core lifts—some type of squatting, followed by chest and back work. However, I have worked with guys who get better results by alternating a back exercise and a squatting exercise. Usually, these are wide-stance squatters who work the same muscles when they deadlift as when they squat.
Sets And Reps
Despite some of my talk about Awakened training, strength training is not just an art, it's also a science, and, therefore, there are optimum numbers of sets and reps that need to be utilized. For building muscle mass and strength, three to six sets of three to six reps is best. For building "dynamic" strength, six to ten sets of one to three reps is best, and for building maximal strength, one to three sets of one to three reps is best.
For the lifters just starting out, I recommend four to five sets of four to five reps. The math is very easy this way, and it's also the best way to train a large group of people (high school coaches pay attention!). I discovered this a few years back when I was asked to teach a strength training class at a local university. I had so many students (almost all of which were not athletes), and such a short time in which to train them, that I had to find a system which would produce results across the board. I stuck with the four to six sets of four to six reps rule, and everyone who adhered to it made good gains within only one semester. It was also a very easy concept for the students to understand, and take with them once they left to train on their own.
As you get more advanced, of course, you can add sets and reps. All of the guys who lift with me train competitively, and have at least a couple of years training under their belts. After performing whatever sets and reps are the order of the day (five sets of five, six sets of three, etc.) I almost always have us perform at least one or two back-off sets for anywhere between eight and twenty reps. One or two sets is usually all that is needed, and any more cuts too much into recovery.
If you are interested solely in building muscle and don't give one whit about strength (I know there are some of you out there) and are not an advanced bodybuilder, then more reps and less sets will suit your needs better. I would start off with four sets of ten as your base, and switch to another set/rep combination after about three weeks of training (such as 3 sets of 12, 5 sets of 8).
This is, no doubt, one of the most confusing aspects for a number of lifters, and the reason is because weight progression is different for everyone. There are some basic guidelines, however.
Never use a pyramid-style of weight progression, where you add weight and subsequently drop reps on each set. I understand this is quite popular, and has been for a number of years, with bodybuilders, but it's an awful way to build strength. As you add weight, keep your reps the same. In other words, if fives are the order of the day, start off with fives and stick with them until your last set. After you're finished with your final set, then you can drop weight and do the higher repetition work.
The exception is when your goal is heavy doubles or singles. In this case, do two to three progressive sets of five, then start with the doubles or singles.
Make sure that your jumps in weight are as balanced as possible from the first set to the last. For instance, if your goal on squats is to beat your previous week's five-rep record (which was 315), then your jumps should look like this: 135x5, 185x5, 225x5, 275x5, and 325x5. If you were to make all five reps on the final set, then you could add one more, or quit where you're at, and try to beat the record the next time you use fives.
I have a couple of lifters who prefer to take a fourth set closer to their final set. For instance, they might use 300 for their fourth set (in the above scenario) before jumping to 325. Conversely, I have some lifters (usually more advanced ones), who prefer for their fourth set to be lower than the above scenario. They might go from 225 on their third, to 250 on their fourth, and then jump all the way to 325 on their fifth. You'll have to do some trial and error before you find which works best for your muscles and nervous system.
Workload of Each Workout
No matter how you respond to different levels of volume, every lifter needs to consistently up their volume (to a certain point). The starting point for volume, however, is different for various individuals. Even though you lift with someone of the same age, training age, strength, and bodyweight, you still might need a varying amount of volume from that of your partner. Some thrive on a lot of volume, while others at the same level get burned out quickly with the same amount of workload.
I discovered a long time ago that I need less total volume than that of others at my same level, and with the same goals in mind. I still respond well to about seven to ten sets per lift (even after fifteen years of training), and that includes warm-ups. In fact, there are many days when I only do five sets per lift, even on my heavy days.
One of my lifters who trains with me almost always adds an extra two to three sets per lift compared to the rest of our training partners. Every time he drops the extra volume, his lifts begin to regress.
The same goes for speed work. Myself, I usually stick with seven to nine sets per exercise on speed work, whereas other lifters I work with do better with ten to fifteen. This is not to say—for those who respond well to lower total workloads—extra work can't be added occasionally—it can—but its use needs to be tempered with the wisdom of knowing what works best for your body. If you respond well to lower workloads, then learn to cut back on weeks following higher workload weeks.
Summing It Up
I hope this article has helped to clarify many of the questions I am asked about training. And one more thing: make sure you enjoy your training. The best program might be the one that's best for you, but it's also the one you like doing the best.