When I first started hitting the gym, the very first thing I’d do is hit arms. What a better way to start a workout than with an arm pump, right?
From there, it was whatever workout I found in a muscle magazine or online that day. There wasn’t a rhyme or reason to it and it didn’t matter... I was working out, and it was only a matter of time before I would be jacked. Until I wasn’t.
I wasn’t getting stronger. I wasn’t gaining tons of muscle. I still felt like that small, weak, unconfident kid.
I spun my wheels like this for years before figuring out how to program a proper workout. Thankfully, I’ve refined my approach which is based on actual science and not just something I slap together at random. Once I figured that out, everything went up. More muscle. More strength. More confidence.
So rather than you spinning your wheels like I did, here’s how to program a proper workout.
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Pick Your Split
The first thing you need to do is ask yourself how many days you can consistently hit the gym every week.
This is not time for pie in the sky if everything goes right type consistency. This is every week, regardless of what is going on, how many days can you hit the gym?
The most optimal workout means nothing if you can’t do it consistently. Don’t overreach and think more is better. Better is better. Consistency is what is going to drive results so aim for that.
Once you figure out how many days you can consistently train here’s the most effective splits you can do:
- 2 Days: Full Body
- 3 Days: Full Body or Full Body/ Upper/ Lower
- 4 Days: Upper/Lower
- 5 Days: Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Legs or Upper/Lower/Vanity <- Basically a bro workout where you focus on the pump. Good for adherence.
- 6-7 Days: Go with the 4 day split and get a hobby outside of the gym
How to Structure Exercises in Your Workout
Back when I used to start with arms, everything I did after that suffered because my arms were fried. If there was a dumbber way to start a workout, I can’t think of one while I write this.
You should structure your workouts based on neural demand. Basically you want the heavy compound exercises or highly coordinated (think Olympic Lifts) in the beginning and the more muscle demanding isolation exercises at the end.
Here’s what that looks like:
- Warmup - Warm, limber muscles perform better. Light weight circuits of 2-4 exercises for 10-20 reps here.
- Explosive Movements - Jumps, sprints, plyometrics, Olympic Lifts. Technique and nervous system response is key here.You don’t want to be fatigued while doing these. Jumps and plyometric exercises can be combined into the warmup too. Keeps sets and reps low. A 3x3 would work.
- Heavy Strength Exercises - Heavy deadlifts, bench, overhead press, and squats. To get the most out of these your muscles and nervous systems needs to be warmed up and primed which we did in the previous two. Similar to the above, I like to keep reps heavy and in the 3-4 sets of 3-8 range. 1 exercise here.
After the big movements, you’ll have 2-4 exercises that focus on what you’re trying to grow. This way you can progress where you want to without spreading yourself too thin by doing everything.
- Multi-Joint Hypertrophy Exercises - Barbell bent over rows, pullups, and other multi-joint exercises. I like to keep these in the 3-4 sets of 8-12 rep range. 1-3 exercises here.
- Isolation Hypertrophy Exercises - Biceps curls, core exercises, cable flys, and lateral raises. These go a little higher in the 3-4 sets of 12-25 rep range. 1-3 exercises.
- **Optional** Cardio/finishers - Pick your poison as far as HIIT or steady state. I top out at 5-10 minutes of HIIT or 20 minutes of steady state. This is where I would also add loaded carries or Farmer’s walks.
Once you have this structure, it comes down to using your split to figure out what exercises go where.
Sample Upper Body Workout
If you were looking to make an upper body workout using this template it might look something like this:
|Band Pull Aparts||3||15|
|Clapping Push Ups||3||3|
|Heavy Strength Exercises||Barbell Bench Press||3||4-6|
|Multi-Joint Hypertrophy Exercises||Barbell Bent Over Row||3||8-10|
|a. Dumbbell Incline Bench||3||8-10|
|b. Lat Pulldown||3||10-12|
|Isolation Hypertrophy Exercises||Barbell Bent Over Row||3||15-20|
|a. Dumbbell Incline Bench||3||12-15|
|b. Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension||3||12-15|
|(Optional) Cardio/finishers||Stationary Bike||-||50 calories|
Benefits of This Workout Structure
Like I mentioned earlier, this structure is based on fatigue and neural demand. This way your body warms up, then you’re able to be your strongest (or most technical) for the big movements, and once the muscles start to fatigue, you hit’em with some higher rep work and bring it home with some cardio.
From a muscle building perspective this primes your nervous system to recruit more muscle in the beginning of the workout (increase muscle tension) so you are better able to recruit muscle (increase muscle stress and damage) in the back end of the workout. For instance, if your goal is to build up your chest, start with a barbell bench press for 4-6 reps (muscular tension) then later in the workout do dumbbell incline press or flyes for 8-20 reps (muscular stress and damage).
How to Make Progress
Once you have the workout hammered out, the next is making sure you have a way to progress. Nothing is more frustrating than looking back at the previous 6 months of training only to see you’re not any stronger or jacked. In order to build muscle, you’ll have to increase volume and weight. Personally, I like using a triple progression method. In this method you first increase the sets (from 3->4) while working on increasing reps with a weight, then finally weight once you hit the top of the rep range.
Here’s what that would look like if the rep range was 8-10:
- Week 1: 225 for 3 sets of 8 reps
- Week 2: 225 for 3 sets of 9 reps
- Week 3: 225 for 4 sets of 8-9 reps
- Week 4: 225 for 4 sets of 10 reps
- Week 5: 235 for 3 sets of 8 reps
- Week 6: 235 for 3 sets of 9 reps
Each week reps, sets (volume), or weight goes up. This way you’re always doing more and forcing your muscles to grow.
Related: Strategic Variation for Maximum Muscle Growth
Does This Work for Fat Loss?
Yes. Fat loss and strength/muscle building workouts don’t differ all that much from each other. The main component of a workout is to get or maintain strength regardless of your goal. Strength is the genesis of everything you want to do.
Fat loss? Strength allows you to lift progressively heavier weights which burns more calories than lighter weight.
Muscle gain? Strength allows you to lift progressively heavier weights which puts more stress on the muscle and forces it to grow.
Fat loss happens through your diet. No workout can take the place of a calorie deficit. So there’s no need to make every workout a cardio session. You aren’t doing yourself any favors. Focus on strength in the gym and leave fat loss for the other 23 hrs of the day. The workout structure I outlined would work for both because it focuses on strength.