For most people, the term ‘exercise’ means aerobic activities like walking, jogging etc. The benefits of weight training (also commonly known as strength training or resistance training; the terms will be used interchangeably) are either overlooked or at best minimized to that of building muscles and improving sports performance. However, we now have a better understanding of the health-related benefits of strength training; the health benefits of enhancing muscular fitness are on par with aerobic fitness, if not more. In my post ‘Health Benefits of Exercise: a grossly underutilised therapy’, I have discussed the health benefits of muscular fitness. Keeping in view the health benefits of muscular fitness, strength training is now a popular form of exercise that is recommended by the World Health Organisation and the US national health organisations such as the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association, for most populations including adolescents, healthy adults, the elderly, and clinical populations (e.g. those individuals with cardiovascular disease, neuromuscular disease etc.).
The broad goals for a health-related weight training program:
- Augment and/or preserve muscle mass and function so as to make activities of daily living (ADL) less stressful.
- Manage, attenuate, and even prevent lifestyle diseases and health conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes and obesity.
WHO in its ‘Global Recommendation on Physical Activity for Health’ has recommended ‘muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, for all adults over the age of 18 years’. In its recommendations for physical activity for children and adolescents in the age group 5 – 17 years, it states that ‘vigorous-intensity activities should be incorporated including those that strengthen muscle and bone, at least 3 times per week’.
What is weight training?
As defined by the American College of Sports Medicine, ‘strength training is physical activity designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a specific muscle or muscle group against external resistance, including free-weights, weight machines, or your own bodyweight’.
What is muscular fitness?
The term ‘muscular fitness’ collectively refers to muscular strength, endurance, and power.
i. Muscular strength – it denotes the ability of a muscle to exert force.
ii. Muscular endurance – it denotes the ability of a muscle to continue to perform over a sufficient time period without fatigue.
iii. Muscular power – Simplistically speaking, muscular power denotes the ability of a muscle to exert a maximal force (i.e. strength) in as short a time as possible.
While strength is the maximal force you can apply against a load, power is proportional to the speed at which you can apply this maximal force. Power is explosiveness, as in taking start in a sprint, jumping or throwing an object. Each of these components of muscular fitness can be improved by an appropriately designed strength training program.
Weight Training Program Design
In young and middle-aged adults, muscular strength and endurance are often the foundation of a general training regimen, focussing on health and fitness; however, muscular power should be equally emphasized, especially in the older adults. With ageing, power declines rapidly and this increases the risk of accidental falls in older adults. Contrary to the general perception, older individuals can safely perform fast-velocity repetitions, that optimally develop power. In my next few posts I will be discussing the various aspects of weight training in the special population groups viz. the children and adolescents, elderly people and the women.
Engaging in weight training per se does not ensure optimal gains in muscular fitness. To gain optimum benefits from resistance training at any level of fitness or age, appropriate program design is of utmost importance. In my post ‘Exercise Prescription for Optimum Health Benefits,’ I had elaborated on the acute program variables FITT-VP used to formulate exercise prescription for optimal health benefits. In addition to these, program design for strength training entails some additional variables such as:
- Exercise selection
- Exercise order (i.e. sequence) and workout structure
- Rest interval between sets
Manipulation of any one or all of these acute program variables will alter the training stimuli, and hence the outcome, as well as provide variety, which takes care of the ‘staleness’ which can result from following the same program continuously. Before proceeding further, it will help to understand two common terms associated with a weight training program.
- Repetition – A repetition is one complete movement cycle, including a concentric (this involves the muscle shortening as it contracts to lift weight and is sometimes referred to as the ‘positive’ component of a repetition.) and eccentric (eccentric contractions are the opposite of concentric and involve the muscle lengthening [i.e returning to the original length], while it is under tension and is sometimes referred to as the ‘negative’ component of a repetition.) muscle action of an exercise. For example, during a biceps curl exercise, lifting the weight up (concentric muscle action) and lowering it down (eccentric muscle action) once, constitutes one repetition.
- Set – A set is a group of consecutive repetitions performed without stopping in between the repetitions. For example, doing 12 repetitions of biceps curl exercise continuously constitutes one set.
Weight Training Exercise prescription based on FITT-VP factors
The guidelines for weight training delineated here are aimed at improving physical fitness and health and are appropriate for an overall or general physical fitness program that includes, but does not necessarily emphasise muscle development.
Frequency of strength training program
Frequency includes the number of times each major muscle group is trained per week. For general muscular fitness, particularly among the novice or those engaged in recreational training, strength training exercises for each major muscle group (viz. muscle groups of the chest, back, shoulders, arms, abdomen, hips, thighs, and calves) should be performed on 2-3 days per week, with a gap of at least 48 hours between two workouts for the same muscle group.
Intensity for the weight training program
Intensity, also known as ‘load’, is the amount of weight lifted or the resistance one exercises with during weight training. It is one of the key variables in any strength training program. It is important to understand that different loads will have different outcomes. The load or the resistance used during a resistance training exercise affects the number of repetitions that a person can perform at a given load or intensity. Ultimately, as is evident from the ‘repetition-per-set continuum’ figure given below, the number of repetitions that a person can perform at a given intensity or load largely determines the outcome of a weight training program, i.e. changes observed in measures of muscle strength, power, endurance and hypertrophy.
Muscular strength/power, muscular hypertrophy, and muscular endurance lie on a continuum, as depicted in the ‘repetition-per-set continuum’; where the strength lies at one end of the spectrum, while muscle endurance lies at the other end. High intensity and low repetitions are most conducive to strength development. As you shift rightwards on the continuum, a decrease in intensity and an increase in the repetitions is more conducive for improving muscle endurance, with lower improvements in muscle strength. In the middle of the continuum, moderate-to-high intensity and a moderate number of repetitions primarily induce muscle hypertrophy, with relatively lower improvements in muscle strength.
Note: – The font size corresponds with the degree of effect on individual muscle attributes.
As is evident from the above discussion, when designing a weight training program, the load for the exercise must be carefully chosen. A basic test for this consists of determining the number of repetitions a person can perform to exhaustion in lifting a certain weight. This load is known as ‘repetition maximum’ (RM). Exercise prescription for weight training can now be done in terms of the load of a specified RM or percentage of the load of the one-repetition maximum. At this stage, before proceeding further, it would be pertinent to first understand the term ‘repetition-maximum’.
Repetition maximum – A repetition maximum or RM is the maximum number of repetitions per set that can be performed in succession with proper lifting technique using a given resistance. The heaviest load or resistance with which you can perform only one repetition of an exercise, with correct form and technique, before muscle fatigue prevents completion of another repetition (i.e. temporary muscle failure), is one-repetition maximum (often expressed as 1-RM). Similarly, a lighter load or resistance that can be lifted only 10 times, with correct form and technique, before muscle fatigue prevents completion of another repetition, is your 10 RM for that particular exercise, and so on.
Procedure for testing 1-RM – As one method of prescribing weight training exercises is based on the percentage of 1-RM, so it will be pertinent to describe the method for testing 1-RM. The 1-RM test can be conducted for all the major muscle groups, using a wide variety of exercises such as back squat, leg press, leg extension, leg curl, bench press, lat pull-down, and seated rowing to name just a few. However, while it is easy to test the 1-RM for the experienced athletes, in the novice lifter, who are not accustomed to weight training, lifting the maximal weight may induce large degrees of muscle soreness and increase the risk of a more serious injury.
Allow at least 24 hrs of rest time for a muscle before performing a 1-RM test.
- Perform general and then specific warm-up (discussed in my post ‘Exercise Prescription for Optimum Health Benefits’ referred to above), which includes two sets of the same exercise for which 1-RM is to be tested, with approx. 50% and 75% of the predicted 1-RM.
- After the warm-up, allow 3-5 minutes of rest.
- Select a weight based on previous efforts, which allows the performance of 3-repetitions.
- Take rest for 3-5 minutes.
- Now increase the load and begin attempting 1-RM. A series of single attempts should be completed until 1-RM is achieved.
- Between every single attempt, the same rest period should be allowed and load increment should be in the range of 5 to 10% for the upper body exercises and 10 to 20% for the lower body exercises. 1-RM should be achieved within 3 to 7 attempts.
- If multiple 1-RM tests are being administered (e.g. back squat, bench press, and lat pull-down), then it is recommended that all test exercises should be separated by a 3- to 5-minute rest period.
- As progressive strength training will lead to an increase in strength, to provide optimum training intensity, the 1-RM test should be repeated periodically to monitor training progress.
Prescription of intensity for the strength training program
Intensity for strength training is commonly expressed either as a specified number of repetition maximum (RM) or as a specified percentage of the one-repetition maximum (% 1-RM).
Prescribing training intensity based on % 1-RM
This method of determining resistance for an exercise involves using a percentage of 1-RM. For example, if your 1-RM for an exercise is 50 kg, lifting 80% of the 1-RM would mean lifting 40 kg. This method requires that the maximal strength (1-RM) in all exercises used in the training program must be evaluated regularly so that you can adjust the resistance appropriately, as you get stronger. However, if the 1-RM is not tested regularly (weekly), especially when beginning a strength training program (when rapid gains in strength take place), the resistance represented by the percentage of 1-RM that you use in training will decrease as your strength increases.
Recommended training intensity based on ‘% 1-RM’ to achieve specific goals
|Training goal||Intensity (% 1-RM)|
|Strength Endurance||< 65 %|
|Muscle hypertrophy||65% – 85%|
|Maximal strength||> 85%*|
| Power# |
For maximal strength
For fast force production
80% – 90%
30% – 60% for upper body exercises
0% – 60% for lower body exercises
* – In novice, untrained individuals, intensities of 45% to 50% of 1-RM, or maybe even less, increase strength.
# – Power training requires two loading strategies. Power is the product of force and velocity (i.e. the speed at which you lift the weight), so both components must be trained. For improving the force (i.e. maximal strength) component, moderately heavy load (80% – 90% of 1-RM) is required. However, higher loads are accompanied by a slower speed of movement such that performing heavy resistance training will potentially increase force production but not speed. Maximizing velocity is critical to power training. Thus, for increasing velocity (i.e. fast force production) training with very light to light load (30% – 60% of 1-RM for upper body exercises and 0% – 60% for lower body exercises [0% means exercises without external weight, e.g. jump squats or plyometrics]) is performed at an explosive lifting velocity. The specific warm-up sets before a training program for strength, if performed ‘explosively’, with the intent to move the weight as quickly as possible, can become effective power training activities.
Classification of intensity based on % 1-RM
|Intensity classification||% 1-RM|
|Very Heavy||95 – 100|
|Heavy||90 – 95|
|Moderately heavy||80 – 90|
|Moderate||70 – 80|
|Light||60 – 70|
|Very light||< 60|
Prescribing training intensity based on repetition maximum
Typically, to determine your RM, you can choose a ‘single training RM target’ (e.g. 10 RM or 12 RM) or choose an ‘RM target training zone’ (e.g. 3–5 RM or 8-10 RM). As your strength level changes over time for each exercise, you can accordingly adjust the resistance so that you stay at the specified RM target or within the RM target training zone you have chosen; thus developing the characteristics (i.e. muscle strength, endurance, and hypertrophy) associated with that portion of the repetition-per-set continuum, given above. For strength training progression, when a person can perform 1-2 repetitions over the RM target or upper range of RM training zone for a particular load, in two consecutive sessions, the load can be increased by 2% – 10% (lower per cent for small muscle exercises and higher per cent for large muscle exercises).
RM target method – One of the easiest methods for determining the right intensity for an exercise is to determine your RM – i.e. specific load or resistance that allows you to perform only a specified number of repetitions. In this method, the trainee trains with the heaviest load he or she can lift for the selected RM target. For example, if the trainee was to perform three sets at a 10 RM load, he or she would use the heaviest weight that allows them to perform three sets with no less or more than 10 repetitions.
RM target training zone – This method is similar to the RM target method, the only difference being that instead of a single training RM target, in RM training zone, the load is assigned as a range of typically three repetitions (e.g. 3-5, 8-10 RM). The trainee uses the heaviest load or resistance he or she can to perform the exercise for the number of repetitions within the range, preferably towards the upper end of the range. The goal of this method is to ensure staying within the specified repetition training zone while not necessarily going to muscle failure (i.e. muscle fatigue to the extent that it doesn’t allow any more repetition to be performed) or ‘squeezing out’ the last repetition (both of which increase compression on joints and can lead to injury to the joints involved) in each set. For example, using an 8-10 RM training zone, the individual can perform only 8 repetitions in some sets and in some sets/sessions he or she can do 10 repetitions. Now performing 8 repetitions is not training to failure; performing 10 repetitions may bring the person to temporary muscle failure or near to failure.
Recommended training intensity based on the RM methods to achieve specific goals
|Strength Endurance||12 – 15|
| Power# |
For maximal strength
For fast force production
1-2 reps with 3-5 RM loads
3-6 reps with 10-15 RM loads
Prescribing intensity based on a specified RM is thought to be superior to using a percentage of the 1-RM, because if the training intensity is prescribed based on the percentage of 1-RM, then there is a need to frequently monitor the 1-RM strength, especially in the novice, untrained individuals who tend to make rapid gains in the beginning. On the other hand, when intensity is prescribed based on the specified RM, trainee simply increases the load whenever they exceed the prescribed RM to stay within the specified RM target training zone. Within the RM method, RM target training zone method is preferable, as, in this method, the trainee is not required to train to muscle failure in every set, which, as stated above increases the risk of injury to the joints.
Time for a weight training program
No specific amount of time is laid down for a strength training program. Instead, the time or duration component of a strength training program is really determined by the number of exercises, sets per exercise and number of repetitions per set (i.e. volume) that you complete, and also the rest that you take between sets. Volume for strength training will be discussed below.
Type of exercises for a weight training program
A broad understanding of the type(s) of weight training exercises is important because it will be of considerable help when selecting exercises for a strength training program.
Classification based on the number of joints involved – Considering the number of joints involved in a movement, exercises can be broadly classified into two types:
- Single-joint (SJ) exercises
- Multiple-joint exercises
- Single joint exercises – As the name suggests, in single-joint exercises, also known as isolation exercises, movement takes place at only one joint and therefore only one major muscle or muscle group is worked out. Examples include biceps curl, triceps press-down, leg extension, leg curl etc.
- Multiple-joint exercises – As the name suggests, multiple-joint exercises, also known as compound exercises, are those that use more than one joint to perform the movement and thus stress more than one major muscle or muscle group. Examples include bench press, lat pull-down, military press (overhead shoulder press), bent-over rows, squat and leg press etc.
Multiple-joint exercises, by stressing large or multiple muscle groups at the same time have various inherent advantages.
- Firstly, larger muscle mass involvement elicits an increased output of hormones involved with the increase in muscle size and strength and therefore these exercises, are regarded as the most effective for increasing muscle strength and size.
- Secondly, as most sports and functional activities in everyday life depend on structural multiple- joint movements (for example, bending to pick up a child), multiple-joint exercises better improve functional fitness (training the muscles to work together and prepare them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work, or in sports) as they closely approximate to movements that you would use in daily life or sporting activities. By training your muscles in a way they work in everyday tasks, your body is better prepared to perform well in activities of daily living. For example, squat, a multiple-joint exercise is a functional exercise because it trains the muscles used when you get up and sit down on a chair and in other similar activities.
- Thirdly, training multiple muscles in a single exercise is a pretty efficient way, in terms of training time saved, to do a weight training program. The time economy achieved with multiple-joint exercises is an important consideration for an individual when there is a limited amount of training time and it is necessary to train more than one muscle group in a single weight training session.
Volume of exercise in a weight training program
Volume is a measure of the training performed and is the sum of the number of sets and repetitions performed during a weight training program.
Volume = Number of sets × Number of repetitions
Another measure of the total workload during a weight training program is ‘volume load’. Volume load is calculated by multiplying the load lifted in kg (i.e. intensity) by volume. It is a more pertinent measure of quantifying the total workload as it takes into consideration the amount of weight lifted. For instance, if two individuals are performing the same exercise for an equal number of sets and repetitions, but lift different amount of weights, then though both the individuals would have the same training volume (sets × repetitions) but will have markedly different volume loads; the individual lifting heavier weight will have greater volume load.
Recommendations for training volume
Training volume (i.e. High or low) will depend on the training status as well as training goals. In the novice, previously untrained subjects, even a single set per weight training program (i.e. session) may significantly improve muscle strength and size, in the beginning (i.e. initial 6 to 12 weeks). However, for higher rates of progression over the long-term, multiple-set exercise programs performed with systematic variation in volume (i.e. no of sets and repetitions) and intensity (i.e. load or weight) are needed. This planned, long-term systematic variation in a resistance training program is known as periodization and will be discussed briefly in the succeeding section.
Most novice, untrained individuals, training for general fitness and health will show significant improvements in muscle strength and size with 1 to 3 sets of resistance exercise performed per muscle group; 3 sets of exercise per muscle group yielding the highest effect. However, in trained individuals, a higher number of sets per muscle group will be needed to produce substantially higher effects; typically, 3 to 6 sets per muscle/muscle group are commonly used. The target number of sets per muscle group can be achieved with a single exercise or by using a combination of more than one exercise for the same muscle. Ideally, since no single exercise can target all the muscle fibres in a muscle, 2-3 different exercises should be performed for each muscle/muscle group. For example, to workout the biceps muscle, two sets of the biceps barbell curl, and one set of hammer curl can be performed to achieve a total of 3 sets. The same number of sets are not required to be performed for all the exercises.
Both single- and multiple-joint exercises have a role in improving muscular fitness. However, because of the various inherent advantages associated with the multiple-joint exercises, discussed above, greater emphasis should be placed on multiple-joint exercises. Single joint exercises should be used to target functionally important muscle groups such as biceps, triceps, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Core strengthening exercises, often neglected, form an important part of a well-rounded fitness program. In common parlance, core encompasses your entire torso. It broadly includes muscles of the pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen. The primary function of the core muscles is to stabilize the trunk while the arms and legs move during functional movements. In fact, most sports and activities of daily living need a stable core.
Exercise the opposing muscle groups on both sides of each joint (i.e. agonists and antagonists), as an imbalance between the agonists and antagonists predisposes to the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.
Exercise Order (i.e. sequence)
A cardinal principle to be followed for the selection of the order of the exercises in a workout session is that multiple-joint or large muscle group exercises should be performed before the single-joint or small muscle group exercises. The rationale for this exercise order is that the multiple-joint exercises involve the greatest amount of muscle mass and energy for optimal performance and should be performed when the trainee is fresh with minimal muscle fatigue. Performing single-joint, small muscle groups ahead of the multiple-joint exercises may unduly fatigue some of the smaller muscles that assist the major muscles during the multiple-joint exercise. For example, doing a triceps press-down exercise before a bench press exercise or leg extension before doing squats, will reduce the performance of the bench press and squats respectively.
Depending on the training status of the individual (i.e. novice or trained) and the time available for training, one of the following three basic workout structures can be followed:
- Total body workouts
- Upper/lower body split workouts
- Muscle group split routines
Total body workouts
This workout involves performing exercises for all major muscle groups in the body (1-2 exercises for each major muscle group) or several different exercises that stress the most major muscle groups, in a single workout session, 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days. This type of workout is most suited for the novice trainees beginning a weight training program.
Upper/lower body split workouts
This workout involves performing exercises for all the major muscle groups in the upper body during one workout session and for all the major groups of the lower body during the next workout session and the routine is repeated twice a week. For example, muscles of the upper body may be trained on Mondays and Thursdays, and lower-body muscles may be trained on Tuesdays and Fridays. This split workout routine entails 4 days per week to train each muscle group two times per week.
Muscle group split routines
This workout involves performing exercises for specific muscle groups during a workout session. This type of workout is mainly followed by advanced to elite level trainees. This split routine is broadly of two types:
Isolated split routines – involve training only one muscle group per workout session. For example, only muscles of the chest are worked out during a session. More often this routine is used within ‘double splits’ where the individual may train twice per day.
Compound split routines – involve training more than one muscle group per workout. There are three different strategies for combining/grouping muscle groups in a compound-split routine.
- Agonist/antagonist – Agonist and antagonist muscles often occur in pairs, called ‘antagonistic’ pairs. The agonist in any exercise is the muscle that provides the major force necessary to perform the movement; they create a normal range of movement in a joint by contracting. Agonists are also known as ‘prime movers’ since they are the muscles that are primarily responsible for generating the movement.
Antagonists, on the other hand, as the name suggests, are muscles that act in opposition to the movement generated by the agonists and are responsible for returning a limb to its initial position. Agonists and antagonists are often paired on opposite sides of a joint, with their agonist/antagonist roles reversing as the movement changes direction. A few common antagonistic pairs include biceps and triceps muscles, chest and back muscles, and quadriceps and hamstrings muscles.
- Synergist muscle groups – When a group of muscles work together to optimally perform a given motor task, this is known as muscle synergy. Synergists are muscles that assist the agonists (prime movers) in its role. A popular and practical way of designing workouts based on synergist muscle groups is to group the upper body muscle groups into ‘push’ and ‘pull’ groups; the lower body muscle groups are treated as one separate group. This concept is based on the fact that broadly most major movements, especially during the strength training workouts, involve either ‘pushing’ or a ‘pulling’ action. A major advantage of grouping muscles into ‘push’ and ‘pull’ groups is that all related muscle groups are trained together in the same workout. As a result, the muscle groups being trained together get an added benefit from this overlap. For example, when you train chest to say with the bench press, the pectorals, anterior deltoid muscle (a large triangular muscle occupying the upper arm and the shoulder giving it this rounded shape. The deltoid consists of three sets of fibres: anterior, middle and posterior) and triceps muscle, work in concert. And when you train your shoulders, you are again loading your triceps too. So it makes more sense to train these three muscle groups together in the same workout for maximum synergy and effectiveness. Similarly, when you train your back muscles, your biceps too get heavily loaded. So, it again makes sense to train the biceps in the same training session, immediately after the workout for the back muscles. Division of muscle groups into push and pull group is as under:
“Push” muscle group
“Pull” muscle group
Depending on the individual’s daily schedule, state of training and goals, and the time available, either of the split or whole-body workout routines could be effectively used as long as each muscle group is trained 2 to 3 days per week. This provides greater flexibility while designing your workout, and this, in turn, boosts adherence to a resistance training program.
Rest period between exercises/sets
The length of rest period between exercises and sets is influenced by various factors including the energy system involved, training intensity, training goals, muscle groups involved and the fitness level of the individual.
Performing weight training exercises with heavy loads requires maximal energy availability before the set, with minimal or no fatigue. Therefore, to enable adequate recovery of the muscles being exercised, for advanced strength and power training, long rest periods of at least 3 to 5 minutes are recommended for multiple-joint exercises involving large muscle groups, whereas shorter rest periods of 2 to 3 minutes may be needed for single-joint exercises involving smaller muscle groups. However, for novice and intermediate level trainees, short rest periods of 2 to 3 minutes for multiple-joint exercises and 1 to 2 minutes for single-joint exercises may be employed because of lower weight (load) and the number of sets used at this level of training.
For improving muscle endurance, and to some extent induce muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size), it is necessary to cause muscle fatigue; one way of doing this is to allow inadequate muscle recovery in between the sets. Therefore, for muscle hypertrophy, shorter rest intervals of 1 to 2 minutes or less are recommended between sets and for muscle endurance, rest periods of < 1 minute are recommended between sets and exercises.
Creating a workout structure for progression from novice to advanced level
Progression in a weight training program may be defined as “the act of moving forward or advancing toward a specific goal over time until the target goal has been achieved.”Ultimately, the goal of a strength training program is to improve some component of muscular fitness (such as muscle strength, power, endurance, and size) for the purpose of improving general health or for a sport.
A basic strength training exercise prescription for the novice untrained individuals calls for strength training exercises to be performed on 2 to 3 (preferably 3) non-consecutive days per week using a single set of 8 to 10 different exercises for the whole body, and at moderate levels of intensity that allow 10 to 15 repetitions per set (i.e. 10–15 RM). However, resistance training exercises can place a large stress on the body and certain exercises predispose to the risk of injury, if not performed properly. Therefore, the most important aspect of training for beginners, starting on a strength training program is learning proper exercise technique. The first few weeks should be all about attaining weight training familiarity. The familiarization period involves very low dosage training (i.e. minimal sets and intensity) performed 1 – 2 times per week; the primary focus is on learning the correct exercise technique. During this phase, the trainee experiments to find the right weight for each exercise. At the end of the 3rd week, perform a 10-RM (or any RM as per your goal and training status) test for the main exercises. This is when you really begin to train.
For a novice trainee starting with a strength training program, total-body workouts, involving the performance of exercises that work all the major muscle groups, is the most effective and time-efficient way to start on a strength training program. Compared to advanced or elite level athletes, beginners require less volume and intensity in their training program, but often greater frequency than an advanced trainee. This is because the nervous system (Brain) plays a significant role in the strength increases observed in the early stages of adaptations to training. In the early stages of starting on a weight training program, you teach your body to activate and utilize more muscle fibres in a more synchronised manner rather than realising physical gains in muscle fibre size and strength.
These adaptations in the nervous system result in improvements in better muscle activation and coordination, leading to significant gains in muscle strength in the early stages of a strength training regimen. As a result, overall training volume is not critical during the first 6 to 12 weeks; instead, greater frequency is critical. Since the training volume is quite low, training frequency of 3 days per week is desirable in the novice trainees for optimal neural adaptations to take place. As highlighted earlier, these workouts should be done on non-consecutive days, i.e. have a rest day between two workouts, to ensure proper recovery. However, long gaps between workouts, say for instance missing workout for a whole week, is not desirable as you will miss the advantage of the ‘cumulative effect’ accrued when workouts are done at regular intervals.
As training progresses, adaptations to a training program occur, and the trainee will hit a plateau (i.e. there will be no further improvement) if the same program is followed. Therefore ‘variety’ in training program is very critical for long-term progress in muscular fitness. The variety in weight program can be achieved by variation in the various training variables discussed above. The variation in the training program provides a new stimulus to the working muscles to grow.
Total-body workout for a beginner – Total-body workout is by far the most effective, and at the same time, time-efficient workout for the novice trainee starting on a weight training program. All the major muscles can be worked out in a single total-body workout session either by choosing 1 to 2 exercises (to begin with choose a single exercise per muscle group) for each major muscle group or several multiple-joint exercises that work most major muscle groups. However, keeping in view the advantages of multiple-joint exercises discussed above, it is recommended that the bulk of the workout should comprise of multiple-joint exercises, with only limited amount of single-joint exercises, if any at all.
Now the moot point is whether you will be doing the same workout on all three days of the week, or you will be doing different workouts over the course of those 3 days. Though both options are feasible, altering the program offers certain advantages. Even though, unlike advanced and elite trainees, variety is not critical for physiological adaptations in the novice trainee (they respond to ‘any’ training program in the beginning), however, variety provides a great psychological advantage by staving off staleness and boredom which can result from following the same program repeatedly.
Alternating ‘ABABAB’ format is a popular total-body workout routine recommended for beginners. In this format, two workouts, nicknamed as ‘A’ and ‘B’ are used alternatively over the course of time. This is how an ‘ABABAB’ format looks like:
- Monday: Workout A
- Tuesday: Day off
- Wednesday: Workout B
- Thursday: Day off
- Friday: Workout A
- Saturday: Day off
- Sunday: Day off
- Monday: Workout B
- Tuesday: Day off
- Wednesday: Workout A
- Thursday: Day off
- Friday: Workout B
- Saturday: Day off
- Sunday: Day off
As is evident from the above layout, when you alternate between the two workouts, you end up doing ‘ABA’ sequence one week and then the ‘BAB’ sequence the next week, which gives it the name alternating ‘ABABAB’ format. Days of the week you choose for each particular workout doesn’t really matter as long as you alternate the workouts with at least 1 day off between two workouts, for recovery.
While selecting exercises for each workout, select a combination of exercises that train the most major muscle groups in a single workout session. Combining a push, pull and leg exercise is a great way of doing a total-body workout. Based on this combination, two sample A and B workouts are as under:
- Squat (Though squat is the preferred exercise, in case squats cannot be performed for some reasons, leg press could be performed alternatively) – Leg exercise
- Bench press – Push exercise
- Rowing (Either bent-over barbell row, dumbbell row, or seated cable row exercise can be performed, based on individual preference) – Pull exercise.
- Deadlift (Conventional deadlift is recommended for beginners; however, Romanian deadlift could be used instead, based on individual preference) – Total body exercise.
- Overhead shoulder press (seated barbell press or seated dumbbell press could be performed) – Push exercise
- Pull-ups (If unable to do pull-ups, either assisted pull-ups using external assistance or lat pull-down could be performed alternatively) – Pull exercise.
Though smaller muscles like biceps and triceps and the ‘core’ muscles get worked during the above multiple joint exercises – all ‘pull’ exercises stress your biceps, all ‘push’ exercises stress your triceps, and squat and deadlift stress your core muscles, after the initial few months of training, exercises that directly stress these muscles could be added to the training program; direct exercise for the calf muscles could also be added to the training program. With the inclusion of these exercises, the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sample workouts will look like this:
- Bench press
- Triceps press-down/Triceps extension
- Calf raises
- Abdominal crunches
- Overhead shoulder press
- Biceps curls (biceps barbell or dumbbell curls)
- Planks (3 sets of 15-30 sec duration; progressively increasing the duration to 45–60 sec)
Next important issue is the intensity, the number of sets and the number of repetitions recommended to be performed for each exercise. As highlighted earlier, the volume of training for a beginner is kept low; therefore, a single set of 10 to 12 repetitions for all these exercises suffices for a beginner. DeLorme’s technique, being discussed here is the recommended method for performing the various exercises. DeLorme’s technique is based on a 10 RM load Therefore, the subject is first tested to determine the 10 RM for that muscle group. One of DeLorme’s hypothesis is that the muscle should be warmed up by the time 10 RM is reached. Therefore, once the 10 RM has been established during testing, the subject begins sets of training by performing the first set of 10 reps with 50% load of 10 RM, the second set of 10 reps at 75% load of 10 RM, and the third and final set of 10 reps (or as many as it takes to reach fatigue) with the 10 RM load. The first two sets act as warm-up sets because the weight is relatively light, and the third set is the workload set.
Thus, even though one performs three sets, but workload set is only one, the other two being warm-up sets, this technique is actually applicable for single-set regimens. The subject is re-tested weekly to determine a new 10 RM. Specific warm-up is in-built in the DeLorme’s technique; however, a general warm-up should be performed before starting with resistance training. A rest period of 2 to 3 minutes between sets and exercises is recommended for the multiple-joint exercises; however, for single-joint exercises, a rest period of 1 to 2 minutes is recommended. For core muscles, including abdominal muscle exercises, rest periods of < 1 minute is recommended between the sets.
As the trainee progresses past the initial few months of training, from beginner to intermediate level of training, depending on the training goal, the next step can be to perform two exercises per muscle group. As no single exercise, especially for the large muscles, can work all the muscle fibres of the muscle, by adding an exercise to each muscle group, you can now work a muscle from more than one angle while increasing the intensity of your training. It appears that progression from novice to intermediate level of training does not necessitate a change in frequency for training each muscle, but maybe more dependent upon alterations in other variables such as exercise selection, volume, and intensity. As now the training volume increases, due to the addition of an exercise for each muscle/muscle group, it would be desirable to split the increased volume into more number of workouts. Upper- and lower-body workout i.e. the upper/lower-body split routine is most suited for this level of exercise volume. Each workout will be repeated twice a week, thus maintaining the frequency of working out each muscle twice a week. Distribution of various muscle groups into upper- and lower-body workouts will be as under:
Upper body – Chest, back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps
Lower body – Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteal (buttock), and calf muscles.
A typical 4-day version of upper/lower-body split routine will be as under:
- Monday: Upper body
- Tuesday: Lower body
- Wednesday: Day off
- Thursday: Upper body
- Friday: Lower body
- Saturday: Day off
- Sunday: Day off
As training on back-to-back days is a bit more taxing on the body than training on non-consecutive days, so in case recovery is an issue, one can inter-change the day off on Saturday with the lower-body workout on Friday; this potentially improves your ability to recover. If further progression is desired, then the number of sets per exercise could be gradually increased to 2 to 3. As discussed in the preceding sections, when following a multiple set regimen, it is important to determine the set structure. Keeping in view the various advantages and disadvantages, the ascending pyramid set structure is recommended for most people at this level of training. Ascending pyramid is a popular technique for multiple-set exercises; it starts with a lightweight and high repetitions for the first set and then gradually weight is added to successive sets, resulting in fewer repetitions, until the top of the pyramid is reached. Unlike DeLorme’s technique, there is no fixed load assigned in ascending pyramid technique. By manipulating the intensity and volume, ascending pyramids can be used to target any of the muscular fitness components viz. strength, endurance or hypertrophy.
The main advantage of the ascending pyramid technique is that, like DeLorme’s technique, it has a built-in warm-up. The second major advantage of this program is that, unlike DeLorme’s technique, where the number of sets is limited to three, the ascending pyramid is extremely versatile and the number of sets can be adapted to your training goals. A word of caution – warm-up sets should not be taken to muscle failure, as that will compromise the performance of workload sets. Exercises for the core muscles and calves can be tagged alternatively at the end of your workouts.
As you gain experience, based on the training goals, if further progression is desired, adding a third exercise per muscle group is the easiest way to add volume. This further enables to work the muscles from a different angle for more complete development. As the training volume increases further, it would now be desirable to distribute this training volume between a greater number of workouts, each stressing specific muscle group. Muscle group split routine discussed earlier is a great way to perform exercises for specific muscle group wise. Although various different methods for grouping muscle groups have been discussed earlier, however, one of the most popular ways to group muscles for workout purposes is the push-pull-leg combination. You can do this workout twice over the course of the week, i.e. six workouts per week, as shown below:
- Monday: ‘Push’ muscle group (chest, shoulder and triceps)
- Tuesday: ‘Pull’ muscle group (back and biceps)
- Wednesday: Leg muscles
- Thursday: Push muscle group
- Friday: Pull muscle group
- Saturday: Leg muscles
- Sunday: Day off
Depending on the individual need for recovery, rest day can be added at the end of every push-pull-leg workout cycle, i.e. every fourth day. So, now technically you are doing the three-day split twice over the course of eight days, not seven. As a result, your workout routine will vary from week to week. As regards the set structure, the ascending pyramid is recommended for this workout regimen too. However, as highlighted earlier, as the number of exercises for each muscle group increases, it is not necessary to perform the same number of sets for each exercise. Exercises for the core muscles and calves can be tagged at the end of each workout alternatively.
More advanced and elite athletes who train for competition have designed many more advanced training techniques. However, these advanced resistance training programs are much more complex and require great variation with specific training goals in mind to maintain the progression and so are beyond the scope of this post.
Many people performing resistance training, whether they are professional athletes or fitness enthusiasts, often hit a plateau in their training where exercise no longer seems to have an effect and the individual shows little or no improvement in muscle size, power or strength. This plateau in training occurs even though they regularly train intensely. A most common reason for this plateau in training is the lack of variety in the training program. Doing the same exercises with the same weight for the same number of repetitions will not provide enough stimulus to the muscles to initiate any physiological changes. In addition to the training plateau, following the same program continually over time also leads to psychological staleness and boredom and increases the risk of overuse injuries. To overcome these, an organised approach to training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specified period of time is required. The systematic process of planned long-term variations in a resistance training program, over a specified training cycle, is known as periodization. Less commonly, it is also known as cycling or chronic program manipulation.
One of the concepts of periodized training is ‘training variation’ – the training program needs to provide variation in both the psychological and physiological stress of physical conditioning. As part of a periodized training plan, variations in the resistance training can be accomplished by planned changes in any of the acute program variables, viz. choice of exercise, exercise order, number of sets, number of repetitions per set, the velocity of training (speed of movement during repetitions, i.e. slow, moderate or explosive), length of rest periods between sets and exercises, training intensity (load), training volume, and the number of training sessions per day/week. However, changes in training volume (i.e. the number of sets, number of repetitions per set, training sessions per day/week) and the training intensity (i.e. per cent of 1-RM or specified number of RM) are more commonly used for the periodization of a training program.
A detailed discussion on periodization is beyond the scope of this post. However, very simplistic guidelines will be discussed here for the purpose of people engaging in a weight training program for general fitness. Typically, the various RM training zones are rotated at various intervals, depending on the type of periodization.
- Muscle Endurance phase: 12 – 15 RM sets
- Muscle hypertrophy phase: 6 – 12 RM sets
- Muscle strength/power phase: 1 – 6 RM sets
In the traditional model of periodization, also known as classic or linear periodization, each phase typically lasts 4 to 6 weeks. However, depending on the individual goal, the duration of each phase can be varied. For e.g., if the main goal of training is muscle hypertrophy, a relatively greater amount of training is devoted to 6–12 RM and less training is devoted to muscle endurance and muscle strength training. After the strength/power training phase, if the training is further continued, after a rest period of 1 to 3 weeks, the cycle is again repeated.
In the daily nonlinear periodization, as the name suggests, in this type of periodization RM training zones are changed in successive training sessions. In the simplest pattern of daily nonlinear periodization, the three RM training zones for muscle endurance, muscle hypertrophy and muscle strength are used for one training session each per week, for a total of three training sessions per week. In the weekly or biweekly nonlinear periodization, as the name suggests, in this type of periodization, a particular training zone is utilised for one- or two-week periods before a change in the training volume and intensity is made. An example of a weekly nonlinear periodized plan is as under:
Week 1: 12-15 RM sets
Week 2: 6-12 RM sets
Weeks 3: 1-6 RM sets
At the end of the third week, the rotation is again begun with lighter workout i.e. 12-15 RM training zone. This sequence is carried on for three months. At the end of the 3-month cycle give a break of 1 to 3 weeks and thereafter start the sequence of workouts again.
A relatively newer type of periodization, known as flexible nonlinear periodization, is gaining popularity. In this, the workout routine is the same as daily nonlinear periodization, however, it is flexible to allow changes in training based upon the readiness of a trainee to perform training in a specific training zone. For instance, if the trainee is required to perform strength training in the 1-6 RM training zone on a particular day; but if the trainee is fatigued due to any reason, or has muscle soreness due to previous training session, then he can perform the workout in a lighter training zone on that day. However, he must do the training in the 1-6 RM zone in the next session. Similarly, if it is the turn for a lighter workout on a particular day, but the trainee is in a good shape, he can perform heavier workout that day and do the missed lighter workout in the next training session. The readiness of a trainee on a particular day is determined by some physical tests or the number of repetitions in the first few sets of a training session. In brief, do not get stuck with the same weight training program for weeks or months together; keep varying your training program at regular intervals, based on individual preference, by varying any of the acute program variables, discussed above.
If the individual has attained the desired goal and now simply seeks to maintain that level of muscular fitness, then there is no need to further increase the training stimulus (i.e. load, training frequency etc.); instead, he or she can now start the maintenance program. Also, if the weight training needs to be curtailed for various reasons, for a certain time period, then the muscular fitness can be maintained for that period by switching over to the maintenance program. Cessation of training or a substantial reduction in frequency, volume or intensity, known as detraining, leads to loss of some of the beneficial physiological adaptations associated with training i.e. gain in muscle size and strength. In maintenance training phase, the muscular fitness can be maintained by training the muscle groups as little as training once a week, provided the training intensity or the weight lifted is kept same. However, it needs to be emphasised that maintenance training programs can only be temporary in nature; in the long-term, detraining effects will ensue in the presence of reduced training volume, frequency, and intensity.