Your Guide to Exercise Programming
Have you ever walked into the gym, not really sure what to do? You hop on the treadmill for 5-10 minutes without really working up a sweat, then maybe you head to the loop of machines they have set up, not really pushing yourself, but hey, you went to the gym right? Well programming is just as, if not more important, than actually getting to the gym. If you’re not progressively making each workout harder than the last, and forcing your body to adapt to the increasing intensities, then you’re going to be very dissatisfied with your results.
Working at a commercial gym you see a lot of ill training practices, but one of the worst is coming to the gym and doing the exact same thing over and over again. In the immortal words of Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. The fact of the matter is that your body simply won’t change without giving it a reason to. If you do the same reps, sets and weights every time you hit the gym, then your body will not see a need to grow.
Same goes for cardio, if you’re doing the same machine, for the same amount of time, at the same pace your body will adapt and you will plateau. In order to build muscle or lose fat we need to consistently make things harder so the body sees a need for change. This doesn’t mean that each workout needs to be the hardest workout you’ve ever done, it just means we need to try and improve on some aspect of our previous session - and we can do that in a magnitude of ways!
There a couple different ways you can make your workout harder so that you’re constantly challenging your body. For strength, the 3 main factors are LOAD (amount of weight used), REPS (how many times we do the movement) and SETS (how many times the exercise is completed). Remember, there needs to be progression. You don’t just want to randomly bring up sets or weights when you feel like it. You have to structure it. For example we can take an exercise like a Dumbbell chest press:
Example of increasing LOAD: 3x10 @20lbs 3x10 @25lbs 3x10 @30lbs 3x10 @35lbs
Example of increasing REPS: 3x10 @20lbs 3x11 @20lbs 3x12 @20lbs 3x10 @25lbs
Example of increasing SETS: 3x10 @20lbs 4x10 @20lbs 5x10 @20lbs 3x10@25lbs
Cardio progression is a little less complicated. The 3 main ways to increase your cardio are TIME (how long you work), INTENSITY (how hard you work) and REST (how frequently, and how long you rest between sets). Make sure you are incorporating all of these factors into your program, and working each on a separate day. You could pick a long steady state cardio to work on increasing your time, and then the next day could be intervals, either decreasing rest times or increasing your intensity. This way your body is constantly trying to adapt to the work.
How to program
First you need to figure out your priorities! Do you want to build muscle? Lose fat? Maybe just maintain? Once you have a goal in mind things become a whole lot easier. For building muscle (hypertrophy) it is best to stay around the 10-15 rep range, progressively adding more weight and possibly more sets. Building strength (the maximal force you can apply against the load) is a little different; we want to work in the 3-6 rep range adding weight while adding sets, potentially decreasing reps depending how the weight is feeling week to week. Building muscular endurance is a similar rep range as building muscle, maybe a little higher, around the 15-20 rep range while increasing sets and decreasing your rest time between sets. If you’re looking to lose weight you should stick with higher rep ranges (like an endurance program) to maximize your caloric burn.
Cardio isn’t the end all be all of losing body fat. One could actually lose weight doing no cardio if their calories are kept in check and they have a solid weight lifting program. Cardio is a great way to increase your calorie burn throughout week so you don’t have to eat like a rabbit. It’s also a vital part of heart health and therefore a great addition to your program.
For picking your exercises you should stick with the basics. I won’t go over all of the basic movements for each body part because I would be writing a long list. Stick with big compound movements that involve multiple muscles, giving you the most bang for your buck. For lower body, you’re going to want to stick with squats, deadlift, lunges, stiff leg deadlifts and bridge. For upper body, choose things like bench press, push ups, barbell row and lat pulldowns. Don’t go crazy and pick 10 different exercises, this will take way too long and your nervous system will probably be shot after the first hour. Choose 4-6 exercises and focus on those movements.
For cardio, if you’re doing steady state just pick an exercise like running, swimming or biking and start moving, pretty simple. For your more intense cardio sessions you could do a circuit, picking 3-6 exercises, complete each with little to no rest and repeat 2-4 times after a minute or two of rest. Alternatively you could do intervals of one specific movement. Choose a work to rest ratio (I really enjoy 40:20) and repeat 6-8 times.
Now I’m sure you’re feeling like I’m missing a key component, core. I am a strong believer in having a good strong core, but that doesn’t mean we need to sit there doing crunches for hours. In fact, the best ab work you can do is to hold your core strong during your big compound lifts (like squats and deadlifts). If you want to add some additional core work, try 2-3 sets of plank at the end of your workout.
You’re going to want to stick with a program for 4-6 weeks. Once we have gotten to the end of the program it’s time to make a new one! You don’t have to go to crazy though, you can keep a lot of the same exercises, maybe changing up some of the reps and weights. Or, keep the same reps and weights but change up the exercises so that your body will desensitize from the movements you have been doing, increasing your potential for growth.
Creating a program for yourself can seem overwhelming but is extremely rewarding as well. I hope this insight into the world of periodization has given you a better appreciation for what goes on in the weight room, and most importantly inside your body!