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Designing your own resistance programme

Exercise selection, set & rep ranges, muscle groups, frequency and goals.

Written By Christopher Corden

1781 Words – 7 Minutes Read Time

This is a pretty long read, if you’re not interested in training you can probably safely give it a miss! Also please note that I definitely haven’t covered every single aspect when it comes to creating a training programme, just what I would consider the very basic aspects. 

Exercise selection, set & rep ranges, muscle groups, frequency and goals.

So, how do trainers do it? Well, it depends on the trainer, their level of education, personal preference from the trainer and the client, the style of training, your goals, your current weight, your goal weight, your physique goals (grow/shrink?/tone – awful term)

Lets put some context on this, let’s say you have no WEIGHT TRAINING experience, and you want to design a programme to lift weights. There are lots of other forms of training but this is specifically for resistance training. Now, your goal can be either strength or size, but they usually go together up to a certain point. Bodybuilders are pretty strong, and powerlifters are pretty big – but their training is quite different. Another difference is how they eat but we’ll save that for another post.

You want to write a weight training programme to get a bit stronger and build some muscle. Note, you can do both of these, and also lose weight. If you are in the 30+% body fat range, nutrition is key, but you can still gain a portion of muscle if you’re a beginner.

Exercise selection: There are two kinds of exercise (sort of), compound, and isolation. Compound exercises are those that involve multiple muscle groups and joints, a good example is a squat, done correctly, you’ll target your core muscles, your glutes and your quads. Whereas an isolation exercise specifically targets one muscle, sticking with the theme of legs, a leg extension (bending and flexing your leg) only targets your quad.

The majority of your workout should be made up of compound exercises like squats, pressing movements, hinge movements, deadlift variations, rowing variations and I also suggest adding in things like carries by the side and overhead. Some muscle may require isolation work to target key areas, but it should only make up a small portion of your workout. (If you don’t know some of those words google is your best option!)

So, let’s break it down. We have our goal, build muscle, get strong.

We’re going to train 4 times a week. How do we split up that training?

Here are some simple options:

Do upper body, then lower body. Split over four days that’s two upper body sessions and two lower body sessions.

Another good option is to do a full body workout, you can pick exercises randomly based on movements and directions, or by muscle groups that have certain functions like pushing or pulling. Some movements don’t fall into these categories though, like carries.

The key muscle groups we’re going to aim to train are as follows.

Lower body: Calfs, Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Hip Flexors.
Upper Body: Chest, Back (Traps/Lats), Shoulders, Arms (Biceps/Triceps/Forearms)

or if we’re going with Push/Pull & Movements, we would target movements which also cover muscle groups.

-Horizontal Push: Chest, Triceps, Shoulder (front portion mostly)
-Horizontal Pull: Back (elbow position determines most involved muscle), Biceps, Forearms
-Vertical Push: Shoulders, Triceps
-Vertical Pull: Back, Biceps, Forearms
-Squat: Glutes, Quads
-Hinge: Glutes, Hamstrings, Forearms
-Deadlift: Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Forearms

You can also add:
Weighted Carry (overhead / by the side) – this is one of those targets a little of everything movements.
Push (Pushing a sled) – Mostly Quads and Glutes, but you can also do a chest press with a sled too.
Pull/Drag (Pulling or dragging a sled) – Mostly Quads, but you can also do a row and target your back.

You might be questioning “squat” or “deadlift” as a movement, but a good way to look at it is as a core movement with many variations, like overhead squats, single leg squats, jumping squats, back squat, front squat, goblet squat, the action is mostly the same so think of it as a base movement. The same applies to each movement, there are so many variations of exercises but they mostly come down to these core movements.

This makes selecting exercises for a workout a lot more simple, you know if you’re doing upper body that you’ll need

Vertical & Horizontal Push and Pull, that’s it 🙂 You can select exercises that fall into that category from there, so it might be something like as follows:

Flat Bench Press – Horizontal Push
Pull-ups – Vertical Pull
Seated Cable Row – Horizontal Pull
Shoulder Press – Vertical Push

Theoretically, this will train everything upper body, excluding abs and specific muscles that usually need a more targeted approach like rear delts (back of the shoulder)

This is where isolation work comes into a programme.

Muscle Groups can also be split down further, as they have multiple actions depending on how many joints the cross. The tricep (back of your arm) for example, is primarily responsible for extending your elbow, but can also help to extend your arm, so training should incorporate both of those muscle actions.

If you have a question about any of the above, don’t be afraid to message me, if you’ve read this far, here’s a virtual pat on the back, now buckle up and put on your tin foil hat because we’re about to jump into the sets and reps rabbit hole.

Recently, research has shown that when it comes to growing muscle, you can grow at any rep range. so, from 1 to 20+… which is a positive for you. It means you can work in rep ranges you enjoy. This may vary from muscle to muscle and also your goal though. If you’re more focused on strength, you may want to aim for less than 10 reps most of the time.

The most important aspect of your training is progression or more specifically progressive overload. To continue growing or getting stronger, you need to be either adding weight to your lifts or adding more reps (oversimplified, you could lift the same weight faster, it could feel easier, there’s lots of indicators that you are improving but these are simple), you can do this week to week, which is known as periodisation, it gets a little complicated here, as there are multiple forms of periodisation and this doesn’t even do it justice, here’s a good way to break it down!

Also “Sets” are a block of “Reps” so, if I have 3×6, I’m doing 3 block of 6 squats, once I’m done, I’ll have a total of 18 squat reps completed.
We’ll take one exercise, let’s say the squat. Over the space of 4 weeks.

Week 1 – Sets 3 – Reps 8 – Weight 20kg (total 480kg <- Named as Volume)
Week 2 – Sets 3 – Reps 9 – Weight 20kg (total 540kg)
Week 3 – Sets 3 – Reps 10 – Weight 20kg (total 600kg)
Week 4 – Sets 3 – Reps 11 – Weight 20kg (Total 660kg)

So, over the 4 weeks, by adding a single rep to each block of 3 sets, you’ve gone from squatting a total weight of 480kg to 660kg in total, a lot more total work, meaning I have gotten stronger and potentially grew some muscle.

The other option is to add another set, so week one is 3 sets, week two is 4 sets, week 3 is 5 and so on, in terms of total sets, I wouldn’t go past 6 personally. Adding an extra set adds A LOT of extra volume very quickly, this isn’t an ideal way to progress.

The most common method is adding weight to the bar, it looks similar to the above:

Week 1 – Sets 3 – Reps 8 – Weight 20kg (total 480kg)
Week 2 – Sets 3 – Reps 8 – Weight 22.5kg (total 540kg)
Week 3 – Sets 3 – Reps 8 – Weight 25kg (total 600kg)
Week 4 – Sets 3 – Reps 8 – Weight 27.5kg (Total 660kg)

Notice the “volume” increases exactly the same? Mind blown. At least with is example of adding 2.5kg each week.

What do you do after 4 weeks?
A good option is to decrease the volume and work back up and then past but from a higher starting point.

Week 5 – sets 3 – reps 8 – 25kg
week 6 – sets 3 – reps 8 – 27.5
week 7 – sets 3 – reps 8 – 30kg
week 8 – sets 3 – reps 8 – 32.5kg

This gives your body a chance to recover from the work you’ve done, and to progress, it isn’t always necessary as a beginner, but it’s a good option and a good habit to have from the start.

Compound exercises tend to be done in lower rep ranges and isolation exercises tend to be done on the mid to high rep range.

You might do 5-12 squats, but 12-20 curls. This isn’t a rule though like I mentioned above, rep range is very independent.

Sometimes you may not get all 8 reps in your 3 sets. What do you do then?

So, lets say you got 8/8/6. Ouch, missed two reps! That’s okay though, the following week, or the next time you do that exercise, you may get 8/8/7, stick with the same weight and once you get 8/8/8, you can move up from there. The same applied is you’re going from 8/8/8 to 9/9/9, at first you probably won’t get 9/9/9, it may be more like 9/7/5, which is still fine. Just keep working on it, reach your rep range, then increase the weight. You can alter between these two methods as well, let’s say you do this over 6 weeks.

Week 1 – 3 sets – 8 reps – 20 kg
week 2 – 3 sets – 8 reps – 22.5kg
week 3 – 3 sets – 9 reps – 22.5kg
week 4 – 3 sets – 8 reps – 25kg
week 5 – 3 sets – 9 reps – 25kg
week 6 – 3 sets – 8 reps – 27.5kg

Will you achieve this steady of an increase? Maybe at the beginning, but once you get a bit stronger, this kind of periodisation takes a much longer time. Hence why the decreased volume on the 5th or 6th week can help massively to keep progressing.

There are a lot more factors that come into programming, but this should be enough to give you an idea of how to plan by first picking your training days, followed by exercises whether you go by movements, actions or upper/lower body, from there, it takes some tweaking to get your sets and reps right.

If you’d like a lot more detail from someone with a lot more knowledge, here’s an awesome group of videos from Eric Helms: I highly recommend watching at least the video on “Rest”

The information will give you a really strong foundation.

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