Program Design

In almost any domain, for every answer you get from one expert, you can find another contradictory answer from another expert. Strength training is no exception.

At the gym there are many discussions over bodypart splits and full body training routines, the merits and disadvantages of each system are thrown back and forth. It’s hard to argue with a big strong guy who’s used a typical bodybuilding split routine to build his physique. It’s also hard to argue with a big strong guy who can clean and jerk two+ times his bodyweight.

Both styles of training seem to produce dramatic results. So how do you know which style of training is best for you? I will provide sample programs later in the article.

There are a number of factors to consider. The first is what type of physique do you want. If you want the bodybuilder look, a bodybuilding style training routine will help you shape your body more since you directly train all areas of the body. However, only people with excellent genetics for growth and appealing muscle shape will make significant long-term progress with this style of training. People without the best genetics for growth from bodybuilding training routines, will fare better with trying to build a significant strength base first, concentrating on the big three lifts, Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press, and their supplemental and accessory lifts.

Powerlifting methods involve straining against significant loads, which makes the training far more (CNS) central nervous system intensive. Adaptations such as increased tendon size and strength are stimulated better through this style of training, and those who seek larger muscle size who are smaller to begin with will fare better by first developing the framework which includes stronger connective tissues. Later, higher volume bodybuilding methods will be more effective when larger loads can be used.

Planning your training can be confusing without some guidance. An important rule to consider is the frequency of training. Many bodybuilding style routines have users splitting their bodyparts over four to five days, training each area just once every five to seven days. While this may be beneficial for a very advanced athlete, for beginners and even intermediate trainees a higher training frequency will facilitate perfecting of technique. I can’t say enough about the importance of good technique, so I am definitely in favour of the higher training frequency. Additionally, the training intensities required for building significant strength and muscle mass are difficult for beginners and intermediate athletes, so a higher frequency of training allows for a greater training volume, which can help produce results at lower intensities.

A novice trainee would be best starting out with a very basic routine just focusing on technique of the main three lifts, plus a few accessory lifts. Their program might look something like this:

WEEK 1
Monday
Box Squats 5×5 x40%-60%
Bench Press 5×6 x40%-50%
Deadlifts 5×3 x40%-60%
Plank 2×30 seconds

Wednesday
Box Squats 5×5 x40%-60%
Bench Press 5×6 x40%-50%
Deadlifts 5×3 x40%-60%
Plank 3×20 seconds

Friday
Box Squats 5×5 x40%-60%
Bench Press 5×6 x40%-50%
Deadlifts 6×3 x40%-60%
Plank 4×20 seconds

WEEK 2
Monday
Box Squats 5×5 x50%-60%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-60%
Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows 3×10
Plank 3×30 seconds

Wednesday
Deadlifts 5×3 x50%-60%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-60%
Reverse Grip Pulldowns 3×10
Side Plank 3×15 seconds

Friday
Box Squats 5×5 x50%-60%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-60%
Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows 3×10
Plank 5×20 seconds


WEEK 3
Monday
Deadlifts 5×3 x50%-65%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-
65%
Rope Face Pulls 3×12
Plank 3×30 seconds


Wednesday

Box Squats 5×5 x50%-65%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-65%
Reverse Grip Pulldowns 3×10
Side Plank 4×20 seconds


Friday
Deadlifts 5×3 x50%-65%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-65%
Seated Cable Rows 3×10
Plank 3×30 seconds

Week 4
Monday
Box Squats 5×5 x50%-70%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-70%
DB Step-ups 3×10
Parallel Grip Pulldowns 3×10
Plank 5×20 seconds

Wednesday
Deadlifts 5×3 x50%-70%
Military Press 5×4
Rope Face Pulls 3×10
Flat Dumbbell Press 3×10
Side Plank 3×25 seconds

Friday
Box Squats 5×5 x50%-70%
Bench Press 5×5 x50%-70%
Romanian Deadlifts (RDL) 3×10
Reverse Grip Pulldowns 3×10
Band/Tube Sideways Walking 3×10 steps
Plank 4×20 seconds

In this routine, percentages are given as a percent of a 1RM. A true 1RM test should only be performed by subjects with adequate training experience who have learned correct exercise technique and can maintain it under fatigued conditions.

An estimate of a 1RM can be made using the results of a 3RM-6RM test. Protocols for testing can be found HERE.

Once an approximate 1RM is known, all percents in the above program can be applies safely.

In this program, percentage ranges are given, and it is suggested that trainees start with the lower percentage on their first set, and progress upward in small incremements through each set towards the higher percentage in the range. Often novice trainees will be excited to try to push heavier weights soon in a program, but it is important to learn and practice proper technique with low weights during the initial 4 weeks of training. This reduces the occurrence of technical breakdown of exercise technique during subsequent loading in later training phases.

Rest periods between sets should be sufficient to prevent accumulation of fatigue which impairs motor co-ordination and limits outcomes of successful technique practice.

This sample exercise program will not produce much in the way of visual changes to the body, but it will provide significant motor pathway learning which lays the basis for further muscular strength and hypertrophic adaptation.

There has been much discussion concerning the merits of frequent bench pressing. Much of the lay press has jumped on the “don’t train bench press to frequently” wagon, which is unfounded. Correct technique of the bench press requires frequent practice, and so long as loads do not exceed the 70%-85% range on a regular basis, the bench press can be safely practiced with a high frequency. When attempts at heavier loading are desired, training frequency can be reduced as well as loading at subsequent practice sessions.

Squats and Deadlifts carry similar nervous system fatigue characteristics, so they are usually not done in the same workout. During initial stages of learning technique they may be practiced in the same training session as the loads and repetition ranges are kept very low.

Upper back work is important to help build strength of the main parascapular stabilizers (rhomboids, trapezius, serratus anterior) which are required to be strong enough to stabilize the scapula during loading of the shoulder girdle which occurs during pressing movements. Seated rows, Bent-over dumbbell rows, and Rope face pulls all significantly involve this muscularture. Pulldowns do not involve the scapula to the same degree as the lats do not attach on the scapula, however pulldows are a beneficial back strengthening exercise that should be included in a balanced program. During squats and deadlifts, the lats are strongly recruited to help maintain a tight arch in the low back.

Dumbbell Step-ups and Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts are both accessory exercises that can help hypertrophy the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, all which are intimately involved with producing force during the squat and deadlift.

As a basic start for abdominal strength, the plank and side plank are excellent exercises that strongly recruit all four muscles of the abdominal region.

For more information on program design, please contact shane@spectrumfitness.ca

Hopefully I’ve been able to shed some light on basic program design. I will be posting future articles on evolving a novice program into a good beginner program. Check back frequently for updates!

Just lift it!
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Shane


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