Learning to build your own strength training program empowers you to take control over your own fitness. In this article we give you some general guidelines and examples.
by Alexander Stone, DPT
No matter who you are or where you come from, you’ve probably tried strength training at some point. That’s because gyms all across the world work hard to make the right facilities and equipment available so that anyone can enjoy a good strength training workout now and then.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows where to start with their strength training program, and getting quality information on the internet can be a real challenge. Buckle up, because we’re about to cover everything you need to know about building a strength training workout.
In this article we’ll talk about the basics of strength training, what goes into building a great workout for your goals, and some examples to help get you started on the right foot.
Short on time? Here’s the bare bones of what you should know:
- Strength training is an incredibly effective way to increase muscle size, strength, and endurance.
- The right choice of compound and accessory exercises can make or break a good workout.
- The number of exercises, sets, and reps you do should be chosen based on your goals.
- Even the best workouts have their flaws - what’s important is finding what works for you!
- Consistency is always the key to progress!
What is Strength Training?
Strength training, also known as resistance training, is usually considered to be any resisted exercise done with the intention of improving muscular fitness (1). Many people describe strength training as “moving heavy things”, and this is a very easy way to think about what actually happens during a strength training workout. Some common examples of strength training are body weight exercises, free weight exercises such as barbells or kettlebells, weighted cables, and weight machines.
While many people choose strength training as a means to increase the size and strength of their muscles, your strength training goals should be unique to your lifestyle. For example, while a bodybuilder focuses more on the size and appearance of the muscles they’re training, a powerlifter’s main goal is to move as much weight as possible with good technique. Your goals may fall somewhere in the middle, and might even be based on your sports performance goals.
In many cases, strength training ultimately boils down to the SAID principle, which stands for specific adaptation to imposed demands. That’s a mouthful, but it basically means that your body will adapt to the specific stress it’s given - if you make your body work against resistance, it will gradually get stronger to become more efficient at moving the load. The SAID principle also means that the specific type of exercise you do, and the muscles you use for that exercise, will determine what adaptations are made (2).
Another important piece of the strength training puzzle is known as progressive overload. After your body adapts to a certain exercise intensity, that intensity will need to be increased by adding more volume - that is more weight, more sets, or more reps - to continue making strength gains (3). For example, if you’ve been doing bench press with 30-pound dumbbells for months, you shouldn’t expect to see any new progress until you reach for the 35-pound dumbbells and perform the same number of sets and reps. This is important to remember because it’s all too easy to get stagnant with your workout routine and leave potential strength gains on the table.
Now that you have an understanding of what strength training is, how the SAID principle works, and how to apply progressive overload in your workouts, let’s get into picking the right exercises.
How to Choose The Right Exercises
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with this step since there are hundreds of good exercises to choose from. Luckily, the list gets much smaller when you know what muscle groups you’re going to train. For example, you might choose a full-body, lower body, or upper body workout on a given day.
The way you arrange your specific workouts (what muscles you’re going to train on what days) is called a workout split. Many people follow what is called a bodybuilder or “bro” split, where a small number of muscle groups are worked during each workout. Unfortunately, this often results in only training each muscle group once per week, which isn’t ideal for strength and hypertrophy gains. Research shows that training each muscle group 2-3 times per week will result in the most optimal muscle gains (4), so many people will group their exercises into “upper” and “lower” workouts.
Another very common workout split is the “push, pull, legs” approach, which allows for training most muscle groups twice per week. This workout split is becoming increasingly popular and is supported by many bodybuilders and athletes.
Once you’ve decided which muscle groups are going to be trained in your workout, you can start to pick a combination of compound and accessory exercises.
Compound exercises are movements that involve multiple joints working together to move against resistance (5). Some common examples of compound exercises include squats, bench press, and rows. Compound exercises are typically done first in a strength training workout.
Accessory exercises, also called isolation exercises, are movements that only involve one joint moving against resistance (6). Some common examples of accessory exercises are biceps curls, knee extensions, and lateral raises. Accessory exercises are typically done after compound exercises in a strength training workout.
A good rule of thumb for a strength training workout is to pick one or two compound exercises and at least one accessory exercise for each major muscle group being trained. For example, for your lower body workout you might choose squats and lunges as compound exercises, then follow that up with knee extensions, knee curls, and calf raises for a total of five exercises.
Choosing the right exercises can be hard, but choosing how much to do is just as important.
How Many Sets and Reps?
Generally speaking, the number of sets and reps that you pick will depend on your goals, so let’s talk about each individually.
It can be very easy to think that more volume always translates to more strength gains, which is why you’ll find many people doing ten sets of one exercise in the gym - more is better, right? Luckily, there are some limitations to this rule that can save you time and effort. Research actually shows that strength gains start to diminish after about six working sets per muscle group (7), which translates to a few exercises with a few sets each. A good starting point for most people is two or three sets of each exercise.
The number of reps you do in each set will depend heavily (pun intended) on your goals, and each range will lend itself to different types of muscle fitness. Here’s the breakdown (8):
- Power: 1-5 reps
- Strength: ≤ 6 reps
- Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps
- Endurance: ≥ 12 reps
It’s important to know that even though these rep ranges are backed by science, there are some assumptions made that won’t always apply to you. What really matters most is that you train your muscles hard, experiment with different rep ranges to find what works best for you, and avoid training injuries by giving yourself adequate rest.
How Long Should I Rest?
Scientifically speaking, it can take days for your muscles to completely recover from an all-out burst of activity. That’s not very practical for most people doing several sets per workout, but you can get most of that recovery in a fraction of the time (9). Generally speaking, rest periods are between thirty seconds and five minutes.
That’s still quite a wide range, so let’s get a little more specific. The amount of time you rest between sets will vary based on the amount of repetitions you’re performing (10):
- Strength (1-3 reps): 3-5 minutes
- Strength (3-5 reps): 2-3 minutes
- Hypertrophy (6-12 reps): 30-90 seconds
- Endurance (≥ 12 reps): ≤ 30 seconds
It’s especially important to listen to your body during a rest period. If it feels too soon to pick up the weights again, it probably is. Rest periods will also vary slightly depending on the intensity of your set and whether or not you’re performing special sets such as supersets or drop sets.
Generally speaking, your entire strength training workout should be around one hour including rest periods. There will be times in your training program where you may workout for significantly more or less time than this, but most people find one hour to be a good starting point.
How to Arrange Exercises
When it comes to strength training, the order of your exercises can be just as important as the exercises you choose to do. This is because certain exercises use several joints and muscle groups (compound exercises) while others focus on single joints or muscle groups (accessory exercises), and doing them in order can make a big difference on your overall performance.
Everyone has a unique workout style, and you should figure out what works best for you. That said, there is a set order that exercises should be done in to get the most benefit (11):
- Power or Agility
The bulk of your strength training workout will live in the middle, but if you’re planning to work on your power via explosive training or plyometrics, make sure that comes first since your nervous system will be the most primed and least fatigued. Likewise, if you’re planning to do some high-rep training or cardiovascular exercise that goes beyond a short warmup, save that for last since these can significantly fatigue your muscles and limit your strength performance.
Now that you have a good understanding of what goes into a sound strength training workout, let’s look at a few examples that take all of these variables into account at once.
Example Workout: Lower Body
Our first example is for a lower body workout with the main goal of building muscle strength and stimulating muscle hypertrophy. Accounting for all of the important factors that we’ve learned about so far, here’s what that workout might look like:
- Barbell Back Squat - 3 sets, 5 reps, 3 minutes rest
- Reverse Dumbbell Lunge - 3 sets, 8 reps, 2 minutes rest
- Knee Extension Machine - 3 sets, 8 reps, 2 minutes rest
- Knee Curl Machine - 3 sets, 8 reps, 2 minutes rest
- Seated Calf Raise - 3 sets, 10 reps, 1 minute rest
Let’s say you wanted to add a few core (abdominal) training exercises into your workout, here’s what those could look like:
- Abdominal Crunch - 3 sets, 15 reps, 30 seconds rest
- Cable Wood Chopper - 3 sets, 12 reps, 45 seconds rest
It’s important to know that core training exercises aren’t all that different from other strength training exercises, so try to keep the reps and sets in a similar range to get best results while understanding that your goals will usually be hypertrophy and endurance.
Now let’s take a look at another example.
Example Workout: Upper Body
Now let’s think about an upper body workout with the main goals of muscle strength and hypertrophy. After considering exercise selection, ordering, sets and reps, and rest periods, here’s what that workout could look like:
- Barbell Bench Press - 3 sets, 5 reps, 3 minutes rest
- Barbell Row - 3 sets, 5 reps, 3 minutes rest
- Dumbbell Incline Bench Press - 3 sets, 8 reps, 2 minutes rest
- Dumbbell Bent Over Row - 3 sets, 8 reps, 2 minutes rest
- Machine Shoulder Press - 3 sets, 8 reps, 90 seconds rest
- Triceps Skull Crusher - 3 sets, 10 reps, 1 minute rest
- Dumbbell Biceps Curl - 3 sets, 10 reps, 1 minute rest
Keep in mind that in this example we’ve decided to put both “push” muscle groups (chest, triceps, anterior shoulders) and “pull” muscle groups (back, biceps, posterior shoulders) into the same upper body workout, but many people will split these muscle groups into separate “push” and “pull” workouts on separate days - do what works best for you!
After you’ve built a few strength training workouts of your own, you can figure out what you like and adjust the details for future workouts.
Hopefully this answers some of the most common questions on how to build a strength training workout and gets you excited to build your own. After all, there’s no time like the present to take action on new information and breathe new life into your old exercise routines. By understanding the basic principles of strength training, knowing the standard approach to building a strength training workout, and being clear on what your personal goals are, you can get started on a plan to maximize your strength gains!
Alex Stone is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is experienced in orthopedics and sports medicine with an emphasis on performance optimization.
Alex creates educational content for apps, websites and social media (@dr.alexstone). He is passionate about health science education, exercise science, and general health/wellness optimization.
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