How to program for strength and muscle gain – an expansion

Ok… so ever since I wrote my Idiots Guide to Programming piece, I’ve had people come and ask about sets and reps, and exercise selection. Which is kind of annoying because I left it out of the original post on purpose because I genuinely feel it’s too broad an area to get specific in a blog post about, and because someone is DEFINITELY going to take something I say here, apply it poorly and then blame me because they’ve been an idiot.

But I’m a complete whore and people have been asking, so I’ll deliver – but with the express qualifier of – don’t blame me for your stupidity.

Now that that’s out of the way, allow me to remain ambiguous. What follows are some general guidelines on reps/sets and exercise choice, but first, some general points about general things, generally speaking.

General Points
-when you see “A1” and “A2” or any variation of that, it means do one set of the first exercise, rest until sufficiently recovered, then do one set of the second exercise and repeat until all sets are done, then move on to “B”
-“sufficient recovery” is when you feel good to go again, around 1-3 minutes depending, if you’re looking for a conditioning effect, do some conditioning workuts
-progressive overload is the key to any successful training program – you need to do more than you have done previously in some way, shape or form. That could be more volume (reps and sets), higher tonnage (more weight), higher intensity (working towards higher %’s of 1rm) or decreased recovery periods

Exercise Selection
-generally it’s preferable to select big compound movements
-if you can’t do something for whatever reason, your best option is to get coached in the lift so you can use it, resolve the underlying issue that is preventing your from using it, and if all  else fails, ditch it and select the next best alternative
-try to avoid heavy spinal loading 2x in one session – so don’t squat and deadlift hard and heavy on the same day – split squat and DL, or, squat and good morning, but keep the GMs lighter and higher rep (12-15’s).
-if you’re not strong enough to use big bodyweight compound exercises like pull ups and dips, use something else and train the previous 2 on other days or at the start/end of the session using the progression I outlined in training bodyweight exercises
-if you’re using the template on a 3-4x per week basis, I think you should have at least one single leg squat and single leg deadlift variation in there, 2 of each would probably be better

Sets & Reps
This one is going to break my heart so I’m ditching the bullet points so I can super-qualify everything I say. Generally speaking, with the “big” barbell exercises like squats, front squats, benching and deadlifts, I think a set and rep range of 3-5 x 3-10 is about right. It’s a very wide range for quite a specific reason (hint: remember my point above about progressive overload?). And I don’t think regularly pulling 8+ reps on deadlifts is the smartest idea, but may be appropriate from time to time.

For bodyweight and dumbbell exercises, and for single leg work, I think 3-5 x 8-15 is a good range. Again it’s wide, but I’m not writing specific programs here. There’s an online you give me money and I do it for you option available there. I’m just trying to get some usable information out there for now. If you’re struggling with bodyweight stuff, again I’ll say, use the progression outlined in training bodyweight exercises.]

For hypertrophy purposes ONLY, I think timing each set so that it last 45-60 seconds and selecting a rep range to get you in that zone might be worthwhile. Louie Simmons at Westside barbell and Charles Poliquin are both big fans of that approach. Louie specifically talks about timed sets, and Poliquin uses tempo and time under tension (TUT) but both usually come in around the 45-60 second range.

Ya know, after writing all of this, I think it may be an idea to revisit the progressive overload concept. It’s one of the most simple training principles out there and really is the key to progress, but peoples lack of knowledge about it, the lack of planned progression in training and just hoping they’ll improve genuinely makes me feel a bit ill. I hate seeing so much time being wasted when a simple plan is so easy to implement and put in place. But since this is technically only the second date of this series – I’m not putting out yet. Stay tuned for more…

If there’s anything else you’d like to see specifically covered, please get in touch through the site, or via facebook. Actually, “like” my facebook page anyway because I’ll be posting more quick tips and interesting links/articles to there and I’d hate for people to miss out.


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