Building an Exercise Program


Before you conceptualize your program you must understand your own goal sets.

In the gym, goals sets can range from improving strength, increasing muscle mass, decreasing fat mass, improving certain physical abilities, among other things.

Know what exactly you want to work towards. This is key- providing the intentions before you step foot in the gym will better align yourself with your desired self.

This works from any experience level- beginner to expert. All the experts have over beginners is the experience and knowledge implemented over a longer period of time. But, everyone started as a beginner. Remember that.

I implore you to write down your goal. Make it something tangible. Make it something relatable. “Gaining 25lbs of muscle in 3 months” is lofty even for the most experienced lifters. Honestly, natural lifters at a high experience level know the minimal increases over a long period of time are how sustainable results occur. Take this to heart when creating your goal/intention.

I also would further whittle down that goal. Let’s get away from a quantity of weight loss or weight gain. Let’s go beyond that- you deserve more from yourself. Let’s take a “qualitative approach” and figure out the feeling you’re searching for underneath it all.

Is it strength? Is it confidence? Or is it something else?

That is for you to decide, and once you have, you have found your true goal for the program.

Now for specifics.

Increasing strength

There are many techniques for improving strength. And there are many individuals who believe what they are doing are the absolute correct way. I have found some specifics through my own experience and the knowledge I have culminated to hold merit for improving strength overall.

But first, a couple things to break down.

Firstly, training for strength is completely different from training for muscle mass (hypertrophy) and weight loss. These things get blended in many programs, but there are clear differences.

Secondly, there are two main aspects to strength training- training your muscles and training your CNS (Central Nervous System).

Imagine your muscles as a valve and on the valve there is a wheel. The wheel opens and closes the valve to varying degrees. This wheel is our CNS.

We have a built in system within our bodies to monitor and control how much muscle mass can be utilized towards a certain purpose. Without this system in place, we truly do have the ability to push past our capabilities that our body can support. And in strength training, you’re looking to do exactly that- regimentally improve your ability to move heavier and heavier loads.

To make this wheel spin, and thusly opening the valve wider, takes time. Your CNS will not give it up easily. After all, it wants to protect itself. Your body is not adapted to the concept of strenuous movements regularly, and it will try to preserve itself throughout the process.

To better work with our modulator friend, we need to provide it with reassurance and restraint. The reassurance that this amount of stress inductive work is temporary and the restraint that, with the valve open, we will not do irreversible damage to ourselves. To provide these things, we need to create a system that pushes the envelope, but only minimally. If we go too far, we’ll teach our bodies a negative feedback loop (ie- this amount of weight causes damage to ourselves), and that does not benefit us.

How we generally do this is a heavier load, weight, for a shorter period of time, but increased quantity. That translates to a high set count (8-10) with a low rep count (1-3) with a heavy weight (80-85% 1RM).

Many strength training modalities function within those realms, but also venture outside them. I prefer to utilize this system on my main complex lifts (Deadlift, back squat, bench, snatch, clean and jerk, push press) that require immense effort to stay at a high intensity. That leaves a long list of complimentary exercises that can be completed afterwards at a high rep/low set/lower weight range.

A program I would create for my own goal set would consist of these set/weight/rep ranges:

  • 10 sets x 3 reps x 85% RM main lift (complex lifts)
  • 4 sets x 5-8 reps x 65-75% RM complimentary lifts

And they would be arranged thusly:

  • 1A- 10×3 Main lift
  • 2A- 4×8 Complimentary lift
  • 2B- 4×8 Complimentary lift

I have the most energy at the beginning of my sessions, and because of that, I put my most intense work then. Afterwards, I work into complimentary work.

Also, the high set/low rep scheme may not work for you, but it is a resourceful way to build strength.

Decrease Fat Mass

Conditioning. Next section.

Kidding, but seriously, there are a couple different methods to develop a program with the goal of decreasing body fat.

But they all revolve around one concept- intensity.

Intensity is dictated by a couple factors- rest time, weight used, cardiovascular output, and heart rate achieved. To make something more “intense” in a lifting sense, decreasing rest time between sets, using higher rep ranges with moderate weights, and done consistently for a generally uncomfortable period of time.

An example of a programming format for increasing intensity is an AMRAP or As Many Rounds As Possible. AMRAPs also have a time associated with them (ie- 5mins) for which you complete as many rounds of exercises within that time limit.

With this, the rest time is decreased. Rest time decreasing inversely increases the amount of time exercising during the time limit. This format dictates speed. It is not just about completing the exercises, but also pushing our abilities to complete them quickly. Remember, the goal is “as many rounds as possible”.

AMRAP is just one example of a conditioning format that can be focused on reduction of fat mass.

When relating to weight lifting, the main focal points to develop a program for fat reduction are- increasing intensity, reduce rest time, increase rep ranges, increase “time spent working”, and increase cardiovascular output.

Yes, technically, anaerobic properties actually utilized more fat mass as fuel than their aerobic counterparts. But that does not take away from highlighting the importance of intensity and conditioning for fat loss.

Muscle Size (Hypertrophy)

Now we’ve landed on what most consider “bodybuilding” training.

This combines many premises I have set earlier in this article. We’ll begin to culminate work.

Because muscle size is different than muscle density; they can be confused, but function very differently.

When training purely for muscle size, it’s all about utilization of “work done”. Work, defined in physics terms, equals force (in newtons) multiplied by distance traveled.

W= F *d

For muscle size, we want to optimize our ability to produce “work” at the highest level that is sustainable. Our “force” is the amount of force we need to produce muscularly to move the weight. The “distance” is the physical distance traveled by a weight. For example, in a back squat, the weight travels both down till you reach a 900 angle of your knees and up to the starting position. To make that weight move, we need to produce a couple different types of muscular forces derived from contractions. Optimizing that system can provided the size benefits we are looking for within this style.

More work done, and sustained, the more muscle fibers recruited, and with these muscle fibers being recruited for work, we can potentially obtain larger muscle mass.

These programs generally function at a moderate set range (3-5) with a larger rep range (10-15). With these ranges, we can also infer a general increase in intensity throughout. Also, a lot of these sets are done in a “superset” fashion (multiple exercises back to back without rest in between). Additionally, a program can function for hypertrophy, but can also be combined with strength training.

An example of a hypertrophy style super set is:

  • 1A- 5 sets x 12 reps
  • 1B- 5 sets x 12 reps

With these, we’ve increased our work by increasing the distance traveled (by combining all movement across all reps within the set) while attempting to keep the force constant throughout (not increasing or changing the weight used).

A Final Note

All these things can be combined. They do not need to function alone, and a program customized to your goals should reflect individual components of each of these styles.

Also, try new things. Be open to trying new formats of exercising because you may love strength training, but not know it yet.

These are examples are designed to help you design your own program, or further develop your current one. There are many different things to add to each of these subjects, and individuals spend their entire lives improving techniques to optimize each of these styles.

I create programs for clients that reflect their needs and goal sets, and truly everyone is different. Programs fluctuate from person to person; keep that in mind as you look at your own.

Contact me here when you want to step up your program.

Otherwise, until next time.

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