Programming Step by Step

Programming Step by Step

When you find a type of programming you like (and more importantly get results from), you need to stick to that type of framework and only make changes if/when appropriate in order to continue progression. What I wanted to provide is an article that walks you through step by step on how to program your training from a limitless supply of options. I’m going to introduce a very simple template that doesn’t have anything set in stone. All anyone has to do is essentially fill in the blanks. Those blanks will be different for different people with different goals. All I offer to be successful is the framework.

Establish A Goal

Before you can begin programming your training, you have to have an established goal in mind. You can’t come up with a training routine without having a goal to base it around. For instance, let’s say that you want a nice mix of strength and mass. Your routine should be formulated with that overall goal in mind.

The first step is to rely on your past experience. If you’ve had a lot of past successes with training three days per week, by all means go back to the well. For others who don’t have the luxury of knowing what works from what doesn’t yet, they should always start with the least amount of training days and build off that. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Design A Template

Let’s start off with a base template. This is only an example for the purposes of this article. My goal is to provide quite a few options based off a myriad of different variables.

Upper

A1) Bench press variation

A2) Pull-ups variation (optional)

B1) Press variation

B2) Row variation (horizontal)

C1) Triceps extensions

D1) Deltoids

Lower

A) Squat variation

B) Deadlift/good morning variation

C1) Hamstrings

C2) Heavy abs

D1) Traps/Neck work

Upper

A1) Incline/OHP variation

A2) Pull-ups variation (optional)

B1) Press variation

B2) Pull variation (vertical)

C1) Triceps press

D1) Biceps

This template represents a perfect starting point. You can take this template and go in numerous directions. If you feel like your triceps are a weak point or if you want a stronger bench press, I recommend that you keep the triceps work. I prefer to break up my training into a triceps press (pin press, board press, reverse or close grip bench, and dips) and extensions (rolling dumbbell extensions, cable work with various handles, and skull crushers). Here again, put in whatever you need based upon your weaknesses. I’ll repeat—based on your weaknesses. All goals, whether they are strength, hypertrophy, or whatever, can only be achieved when targeting your weaknesses. If your triceps are a strong point, guess what? Get rid of the triceps on one of those days and substitute it with something else. If it sounds really easy and simple, that’s because it is. I won’t blow smoke up anyone’s behind and mystify training or any of that hocus pocus. My goal is to cut right through the fluff and offer you the ability to train yourselves.

If a trainee prefers to use more volume, my first recommendation is to consider adding more sets versus more exercises to this template. Why? Simply put, you don’t need four different angles of chest pressing and four more pulling variations for a “complete workout.” For the vast majority of trainees, that’s just unnecessary. Take a look at the first upper day. If a trainee was to pour all of his heart and soul into beating the living you know what out of those first three or four chest and back exercises, you would be completely covered in spades. I come from a DC mentality, which I feel applies to all different kinds of training and isn’t strictly limited to DC. Specifically, your exercise choices should be the three or four most result producing exercises in your arsenal. Pour 100 percent intensity and effort into those core exercises over time and you will find a lot more success compared to holding a little something back to complete ten different variations of exercises that all work the same muscle! My take on that is to either get decent strength gains with ten exercises or insane strength gains with just the best ones. Which would you prefer? The answer should be an obvious one at this point.

Typically, the first question people may have is why have two upper and only one lower? First of all, this is just an example. But with that said, generally speaking, trainees can recover at a much faster rate for their upper body versus their lower body day. Now that certainly doesn’t mean the option isn’t open to add in another lower day! What’s the theme here? All options are on the table.

Alterations

The template could certainly be altered to accommodate another lower day. A consideration could include something as simple as taking out the B exercise and moving it to the primary exercise on that fourth day. The first lower day could have a quad focus in regards to the accessory exercises and the newly created lower day (deadlift/good morning) could be hamstring focused.  Below is an example of just a few ideas that could work well. My goal is to provide some insight into the thought process and nothing more.

Lower

A) Squat variation

B1) Quads (back, leg press)

B2) Heavy abs

C) Unilateral work (split squat, front/reverse lunges)

D) Traps/neck work

Lower

A) Deadlift/good morning variation

B1) Hamstrings (glute ham curls, pull-throughs)

B2) Heavy abs

C1) Traps/neck work

D) GPP (sled drag, Prowler® push, hill sprints)

Really, the customization involved is limitless. The only real consideration pertains to recovery. In keeping recovery in the back of your mind when programming a routine, you will ensure success on some level. If you have a very good rate of recovery, perhaps you would prefer to keep it to a four-day routine. I’ve seen and experienced results with both. Your mileage may vary. Just be forewarned. There isn’t any “best” way to do things, only the best way to do things for you.

Here are two very good four-day schedules:

Option A

  • Upper
  • Lower
  • Off
  • Upper
  • Lower
  • Off
  • Off

Option B

  • Lower
  • Off
  • Upper
  • Off
  • Lower
  • Off
  • Upper

Now let’s say you decided that you only want to train three days per week but love the idea of that fourth lower day added to the rotation. There’s quite a few ways to achieve this. Here again, I’m just laying all options on the table here. No one way is superior to another because there are too many individual variables to account for.

Option A: This is the most recognizable out of the list and highly productive. Everything gets worked hard once every five days. I think if the vast majority of readers did this, the world would be a bigger place.

  • Upper 1
  • Off
  • Lower 1
  • Off
  • Upper 2
  • Off
  • Off
  • Lower 2
  • Off
  • Upper 1 (and so on)

Option B: All you do is alternate between each lower workout every other week. So for week one, you have the squat workout, and for week two, you have the deadlift/good morning workout.

  • Upper 1
  • Off
  • Lower 1 (week 1, 3, 5, 7) and lower 2 (week 2, 4, 6)
  • Off
  • Upper 2
  • Off, off, and so on.

One final idea I’d like to present is for trainees who need to focus more on the lower body workouts than the upper body workouts.

Option A: All you do here is switch around the three-day template from two upper/one lower to the reverse, which is two lower/one upper.

  • Lower
  • Off
  • Upper
  • Off
  • Lower
  • Off, off, and repeat

At this point, you’ve locked down a schedule (three- or four-day) and rotation that you need in order to gain again. After you’ve done so, reach into your bag of tricks and come up with the absolute best exercises that have worked for you in the past. Let’s complete step one—figuring out what the absolute best exercises are for you.

Here is the revised base template example with the exercises selected:

Upper

A1) Bench press

A2) Neutral grip chin-ups

B1) Paused dumbbell press

B2) V-bar rows

C1) Rolling dumbbell extensions

D1) Face pulls

Lower

A) Full squats

B) Deficit deadlifts

C1) Glute ham raises

C2) Spread eagle sit-ups

D1) Neck harness

Upper

A1) Incline bench

A2) Chin-ups

B1) Standing dumbbell press

B2) Pull-downs

C1) JM press

D1) Hammer curls

Training Volume

Once you have your base template created and you’ve selected your exercises, the next consideration is your training volume. Here again, you have to factor in what has worked for you in the past, your rate of recovery, and most importantly, what you want to achieve from your program. If you like the 5 X 5, go ahead and work it in there. It doesn’t have to always be the first exercise either. It can go anywhere. I really like the simplicity in Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, so I’ll work the percentages into my first exercise on one or all three days. Just keep in mind that everything needs to find a balance. For example, if you love intensification techniques such as rest pausing, you need to consider how that is going to affect the rest of your routine. Look at the second upper day for a moment. If I wanted to rest pause my incline bench, I would have to consider lowering my overall volume for the standing dumbbell press and possibly the JM presses on the second upper day. One will affect the other and vice versa. This is why I normally recommend that trainees run a new routine for a couple of weeks with normal intensity and volume before those additions are made.

This template starts off with the heaviest compound exercises first as your primary strength component. This isn’t any different than most other routines out there. How you utilize those exercises are up to you. You could keep a 5/3/1 for the main exercises and that would work great. Another approach to the 5/3/1 is to do the powerlifting template Jim laid out in his book. It simply changes the order around and adds singles to two of the workouts. I won’t go into specifics, but I highly recommend picking that book up! Another interesting book that came out was the Juggernaut Method by Chad Wesley Smith. The idea behind it is sound, but it just isn’t my cup of tea. Your mileage may vary. There are plenty of ways to work something like that into our program design.

One thing that has always been the case with me is that my legs always respond to higher reps and volume. You may or may not be the same case. So here’s a few options you could use for squats. You could keep the squats set at something like 5 X 10 and wave the percentages versus what Chad described with each phase during the 10 block. For some trainees with poor conditioning, you could wave the percentages from 50 percent and do something like this:

  • Week :1 5 X 10 at 50%
  • Week 2: 5 X 10 at 55%
  • Week 3: 5 X 10 at 60%

For trainees with a high level of conditioning, you could modify that and jump up 2.5 percent per week starting at 55 percent. Yet another effective addition to your template could be to keep the squats in line with the full Juggernaut method while leaving your upper body presses set in 5/3/1 style. As you can see, anything can work provided that you’re smart with it. By that I mean if you decide to squat five sets of 10 reps, you need to scale back on the supplemental work that you do because it could potentially be overkill, especially at the higher percentage. However, also consider that you’re only working your legs once per week, depending on which template design you chose. All things must be considered.

So now we have the main exercises set in place. Here are some ideas on how to approach your supplemental and accessory exercises:

Option A: You could wave your volume from week to week.

Dumbbell press superset with rows

  • Week 1: 3 X 10
  • Week 2: 4 X 10
  • Week 3: 5 X 10

From here, you could hold that volume static and start adding weight until you can’t make the required reps. Another very effective option is to do the reverse—increase your intensity each week.

  • Week 1: 5 X 10
  • Week 2: 4 X 10
  • Week 3: 3 X 10

Option B: The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) method of progression is another very effective option, especially for body weight exercises such as dips and pull-ups.

  • Week 1: Dips, body weight + 50 lbs X 8, 8, 8, 8 (RPE 7; too easy)
  • Week 2: Dips, body weight + 50 lbs X 12, 12, 12, 12 (RPE 9; last rep tough, maybe one more in tank)
  • Week 3: Dips, body weight + 50 lbs X 13, 13, 13, 11 (RPE 10; maximal effort)
  • Week 4: Dips, body weight + 65 lbs X 7, 7, 7, 7 (RPE ; 2–4 reps left in tank)

Option C: Just pick the number of sets and reps that you want to do for each exercise and keep it static for as long as you can progress.

Triceps extensions, 4 X 12*
* Stays the same for all weeks.

Here’s the second revised version of our standard template:

UPPER

A1) Bench press , 5/3/1 protocol

A2) Neutral grip chin-ups, 3 X 8 (body weight)

B1) Paused dumbbell press, 5 X 10

B2) V-bar rows, 5 X 10

C1) Rolling dumbbell extensions, 3 X 12

D1) Face pulls, 3 X 15

LOWER

A) Full squats, 5 X 10 (cycling percentages)

B) Deficit deadlifts, 3 X 6

C1) Glute ham raises, 5 X 6

C2) Spread eagle sit-ups, 5 X 10

D1) Neck harness, 5 X 15

UPPER

A1) Incline bench, 5/3/1 protocol

A2) Chin-ups, 3 X 5 (weighted)

B1) Standing dumbbell press, 3 X 10

B2) Pull-downs, 3 X 12

C1) JM press, 5 X 6

D1) Hammer curls, triple drop set

The last step in creating your training program is to factor in your rest periods. You must keep track of your rest periods! As with everything else, this is highly individual. If your conditioning sucks, you may want to consider keeping longer rest periods. Honestly though, I recommend challenging yourself. If three minutes rest is just right for you, try dropping 15–30 seconds off your time.

Here’s the final revision with rest periods factored in:

UPPER

A1) Bench press , 5/3/1 protocol, 3–4 minutes rest

A2) Neutral grip chin-ups, 3 X 8, 3–4 minutes rest

B1) Paused dumbbell press, 5 X 10, 90 seconds rest

B2) V-bar rows, 5 X 10, 90 seconds rest

C1) Rolling dumbbell extensions, 3 X 12, 60 seconds rest

D1) Face pulls, 3 X 15, 30 seconds rest

LOWER

A) Full squats, 5 X 10 (cycling percentages), 3–4 minutes rest

B) Deficit deadlifts, 3 X 6

C1) Glute ham raises, 5 X 6, 3 minutes rest

C2) Spread eagle sit-ups, 5 X 10, 120 seconds rest

D1) Neck harness, 5 X 15, 60 seconds rest

UPPER

A1) Incline bench, 5/3/1 protocol, 3–4 minutes rest

A2) Chin-ups, 3 X 5, 3–4 minutes rest

B1) Standing dumbbell press, 3 X 10, 90 seconds rest

B2) Pull-downs, 3 X 12, 90 seconds rest

C1) JM press, 5 X 6, 120 seconds rest

D1) Hammer curls, triple drop set

If your goal is a conditioning focus, anything goes. That’s why I personally love this method of training. Using that same base template (final revision), write in a GPP exercise at the end of the training day.

UPPER

A1) Bench press , 5/3/1 protocol, 3–4 minutes rest

A2) Neutral grip chin-ups, 3 X 8, 3–4 minutes rest

B1) Paused dumbbell press, 5 X 10, 90 seconds rest

B2) V-bar rows, 5 X 10, 90 seconds rest

C1) Rolling dumbbell extensions, 3 X 12, 60 seconds rest

D1) Face pulls, 3 X 15, 30 seconds rest

E) Barbell circuit, 3 trips, 120 seconds rest

LOWER

A) Full squats, 5 X 10 (cycling percentages), 3–4 minutes rest

B) Deficit deadlifts, 3 X 6

C1) Glute ham raises, 5 X 6, 3 minutes rest

C2) Spread eagle sit-ups, 5 X 10, 120 seconds rest

D1) Neck harness, 5 X 15, 60 seconds rest

E) Prowler push, 6 trips (3 low/3 high), 60 seconds rest

UPPER

A1) Incline bench, 5/3/1 protocol, 3–4 minutes rest

A2) Chin-ups, 3 X 5, 3–4 minutes rest

B1) Standing dumbbell press, 3 X 10, 90 seconds rest

B2) Pull-downs, 3 X 12, 90 seconds rest

C1) JM press, 5 X 6, 120 seconds rest

D1) Hammer curls, triple drop set

E) Jump rope (60 seconds on/15 seconds off), 5 cycles

So there you have it. If you require more volume, your first thought should be to do more sets of what is already written down instead of adding more exercises. As I stated earlier, you don’t need three different rowing exercises to work your back thickness. Just pick the most effective one(s) and go to war with it. If you still feel like you want more exercises, that’s perfectly fine, too. Just add them into the base template on top of what’s already written down. If you’re a trainee who prefers a chest/shoulders/triceps and back/biceps/legs split (which is the other split I’m very fond of), you shouldn’t have any problems creating one if you apply what you have learned in this first installment.

Progression

I hope this article gets everyone thinking in very simple terms and approaching programming your training with this step by step approach. Once you dial yourself into the training program, stick with it for as long as humanly possible. Once things stall, make small, sustainable changes to your routine to keep the progression going. When I write routines for trainees, this is how I approach things. I always start writing from scratch based largely off their feedback and past successes and failures. I never write four workouts and say run it until it fails. Instead, I like to incorporate things such as wave loading the volume and percentages. Doing so requires that I write every routine in four-week blocks where everything is mapped out. Four weeks is usually a good length of time to reevaluate and readjust. I start off writing a base template (step one) and follow each step systematically.

Keep it simple, follow the steps, and above all else, progression, progression, progression!

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About the Author

Dan is a USMC combat veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has trained under some of the best trainers in the business and has close to 12 years training experience. Dan and his friend Scott are co-owners of the blog www.lucharilla.com that dispenses their thoughts on everything from training and programming to men’s health.