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The Building Blocks of Weight Training Routines

By Alan Frost, updated March, 2014

barbell squatIn this article I am going to tie up everything discussed in this section thus far, so as to give you the tools to design, modify, or assess weight training routines.

I will begin with a summary of the previously discussed points, then I will look at training cycles, and finally I will discuss how routines should be setup relative to the general goals introduced in Weight Training Introduction and Goals. This will include some simple routines, with more examples to be added in future articles.

Summary of Previous Key Points

In the previous articles, I raised a number of important points. I will summarize them here briefly, but I encourage the reader to check out those articles.

  1. Your goals are the first and most important determining factor when it comes to your routine. Most beginners to not have clear goals and this is a problem.
  2. Not all goals are compatible. You cannot be the best marathon runner and the best bodybuilder. You cannot even be the best bodybuilder and the best powerlifter, because size and strength are not the same (see Strength vs Size). Similarly, you can also not effectively lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time – the body does not function in a way where it can lose one kind of weight while gaining another. For the latter, you need distinct training periods with different programs.
  3. For the most part (and please do see the article on Free Weights vs Machines for a full discussion), the most effective exercises you can do, in terms of muscle/strength building and/or functional strength, are free weight, compound movements. This means using dumbbells, barbells, cables, etc. (I will count bodyweight exercises here too) in conjunction with multiple joint movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, power cleans, rows, pull ups/pull downs, etc. These exercises are also more effective at boosting your natural testosterone and growth hormone, and among them the squat and deadlift reign supreme. I realize that women in particular sometimes get scared when they hear those words, but it is in fact nothing to be scared of. You will simply see faster results; you will not wake up looking like a pro female bodybuilder – those kinds of results take many years and often involve steroid use.
  4. Form is always important but it is absolutely vital when dealing with free-weight exercises.
  5. There are a set of tried and tested principles that determine how your routine should be set up. Some key points from Weight Lifting Principles include:
    1. We are all different, so what works on one may not work on the other
    2. To make progress you need above normal stress. The same stress levels lead to a plateau. However, constantly increasing stress also leads to overtraining. Therefore, as you improve you need to cycle between periods of lower and higher intensity.
    3. Your training must be specific to your goals. You cannot jog your way to becoming a sprinter.
    4. Use it or lose it.

The Different Types of Training

These are the basic building blocks of your weight training routine:

Core & flexibility training: Before you can lift heavy, you need to have a sound foundation so as to avoid injury and help you perform the exercises correctly. This foundation must be then maintained and improved throughout your lifting "career".

crunches

Your core muscles are the muscles running along the trunk and torso. They stabilize you when you lift. A weak core can not only compromise your ability to lift, but it may also lead to injuries. A strong core improves performance and also leads to a good posture. Beginners are advised to follow a core-intensive routine for the first weeks of training. More advanced lifters may or may not need to emphasize this type of training to the same degree (depending upon their training routine), but a certain amount of core training is still useful. Core exercises include exercises for your abdominals, lower back, glutes, hips, erector spinae, and hip adductors. Apart from common exercises like crunches and planks, performing exercises on the medicine ball also taxes the core, as do compound free-weight exercises like the squat and deadlift. Sports are also an excellent way to train your core muscles, in particular very dynamic sports that use varied movements, like soccer and basketball.

Flexibility is a bit of a trickier issue. Some people regard flexibility as a goal unto itself, however from a weight training perspective, flexibility should always only be at the level that you need to perform the lift or to perform at the activity for which you are training (e.g. your sport). So what does this mean exactly? Well, if you are too flexible, you will literally bend into a position where you lack strength – i.e. it will make the lift harder and potentially more dangerous. However, if you lack flexibility you may not be able to perform the lift correctly, and you may risk injury and/or poor performance. Similarly, over time lifting will reduce your natural flexibility (particularly if you do not stretch adequately) and this can compromise your ability to function in everyday life. So, you need to incorporate a stretching routine to match your needs, to either maintain what you have, fix problem areas, or generally increase your flexibility. I will write more on stretching in future articles.

man rides mountain-bikeHypertrophy (muscle growth): Everyone will be interested in muscle growth to some degree, however for some people (e.g. bodybuilders) muscle size is the ultimate goal.

Training for muscle growth and size typically involves higher rep ranges than for strength or power – i.e. anywhere between 6 and 20, but most often falling within 8 and 12. Breaks between sets should also be shorter, normally about a minute. Many bodybuilders also use more sets than strength athletes, and they may use techniques like supersets, triple drop sets, etc. to exhaust the muscles and get that infamous "burn".

It is possible to use full body workouts, 2 day splits, 3 day splits, etc.

So, an intermediate bodybuilder's chest/shoulder/triceps day might look like:

Warm-up consisting of 3 minutes cardio, dynamic movements, and 2 warm-up sets of 8 reps at 50% of your 1 rep max for the bench press, then 1 warm-up set for the DB shoulder press

  1. Bench press 3 x 8-10
  2. Incline DB press 3 x 8-10
  3. Cable flye 3 x 8-10
  4. DB shoulder press 3 x 8-10
  5. Bent over lateral raise 3 x 8-10
  6. Shrugs 3 x 12-15
  7. Skullcrushers 3 x 8-10
  8. Single arm triceps extensions 3 x 8-10

To the workout, the bodybuilder should incorporate some degree of core and strength training. Strength training can be incorporated in blocks (e.g by taking a couple of weeks of strength training every few months) or it can be added into the routine (e.g. by adding a day of strength training for each major muscle group every few weeks). Core training can be added after the normal routine, on specific days, or it can be focused on during certain periods (usually after a longer break).

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Strength: Strength training taxes the central nervous system and it conditions it to be able to lift more. Training for strength requires lower rep ranges (typically 1-5). Longer breaks are also taken between sets since the goal is to lift as much as possible. Breaks of 5 minutes (sometimes more) between sets are not uncommon for powerlifters. The idea is simply to rest as long as it takes until you are fully recovered. At the same time, strength sets take a huge toll on the body, so training in this range must be limited so as to avoid over-training and injury. Longer specific warm-ups are also recommended.

A strength program will typically build its way up week by week for the key lifts, increasing the weight lifted and lowering the rep range. To this, a certain degree of auxiliary work in the hypertrophy range will be added depending on program. The same applies to core training.

So, a strength day for chest/triceps might be:

Warm-up consisting of 3 minutes light cardio, dynamic movements, and 4 sets of 3 reps (at 30%, 40%, 50%, and 60% of your 1 rep max).

  1. Bench press 5x5 with 5 minute breaks. Pick a weight that is too heavy to do 5 sets of 5 reps (so you might do 5, 5, 4, 3, 2). Continue each week until you do the full 5 x 5. Then increase the weight and start over.
  2. Skullcrushers 3 x 8-10
  3. For a program like this there would be much debate as to whether additional sets of chest work are necessary. Some argue that adding more decreases your ability to improve, some argue the opposite. It may also vary by body type, where fast gainers react better to shorter intensive programs while slow gainers need more load. Personally, I find that a 5x5 program is more than enough on its own.

Power: Power involves speed and acceleration, which are crucial elements in most sports and it also gives you functional strength (when in life do you ever need to push or pull something in a very slow and controlled way?). Even a strength sport like powerlifting benefits greatly from incorporating power/explosive training.

Training for power may involve:

  1. Performing compound lifts like the squat and bench press explosively or where you accelerate the weight uniformly throughout the lift, i.e. applying more force than you need to throughout the entire movement (this is a technique developed by Fred Hatfield Ph.d. who called it compensatory acceleration).
  2. Exercises performed by Olympic lifters (a pure power sport) are also great options for incorporating multiple muscle groups explosively. These consist of the snatch and the clean and jerk.
  3. Plyometrics: These are explosive movements like squat jumps, box jumps, explosive push-ups, etc. designed to increase power and speed.
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Power training resembles strength training in terms of sets and rest periods, with the exception that the starting weight is lower since the lift must be performed with velocity.

Offering a sample power program is difficult since goals vary greatly. Westside Barbell (the greatest gym in the world when it comes to Powerlifting) uses heavy days and speed days each week for the squat, deadlift, and bench press. The speed days may involve the use of bands and chains, and the lifter performs many low rep sets with low weight and maximum speed.

Athletes training for sports, who are experienced with weight lifting, might incorporate plyometrics (e.g. different jumps), squats performed with compensatory acceleration, and power cleans (i.e. the clean and jerk without the final overhead lift).

Deload/Active Rest: You can read more about this in the article on active rest. However, the idea is that very intense periods must be followed by less intense periods so as to avoid over-training and improve recovery of your muscles, joints, tendons, central nervous system, etc. Deloading may include light weight lifting with low weights, light cardio & sports, and normal rest.

In particular, training with heavy weights in the low rep ranges requires frequent deload periods. E.g. Wendler's 5-3-1 system (one of the most popular strength programs out there) uses cycles of 4 weeks, consisting of 3 weeks where the intensity is increased followed by 1 deload week where you only train a few light sets with high reps.

If you train higher reps, e.g. for bodybuilding, you do not need such frequent deloads, but it is still not uncommon to take a deload week every 1-2 months.

These are the building blocks of your weight training program. If training seems more confusing than ever, I will endeavor to fix that by presenting a number of routines in future articles. I will choose routines with different goals, incorporating the elements discussed above so that you can see how other athletes and coaches have combined these building blocks.

References:

Hatfield FC (2004), Fitness The Complete Guide edition 8.6.6, International Sports Science Association’s Certified Fitness Trainer Program

Giandonato J. and Bryant J. (2010), "Maximal Strength Training for Muscle Mass", tnation.com, accessed February 2012 from: https://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/maximal_strength_training_for_muscle_mass

Smith C. (2012), "Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength", tnation.com, accessed February 2014 from: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/nonlinear_periodization_for_size_and_strength

Snideman, K (2002), "Periodization for Bodybuilders", bodybuilding.com, accessed February 2014 from: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/keats2.htm

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