Everyone starts their journey by taking a pre-built training program and trying it out.
I made my first program choice after a three-minute perusal of my local supermarket’s magazine rack. That month’s copy of Men’s Health advertised a program promising 10 pounds of gains in 6 weeks, which was exactly what my 6’2, 149 lb, 16-year-old self needed. I took £35 of my £90 per month salary from the shelf filling work I did at the same Tesco supermarket and signed myself up for a gym membership around the corner.
I gained 9 lbs reasonably quickly as my appetite increased and then stalled. From that point, I program hopped from one thing to the next. This continued for years. I ‘knew’ that my problem was just that I had to find the right program because there were jacked bros at my gym who didn’t seem to be training any smarter than I. It took a long time to occur to me that their years of effort (and genetics) might be a factor and that my answers lay elsewhere.
I went down the rabbit hole of internet fitness industry BS, quickly finding the kings of it, and dutifully buying all the supplements bodybuilding.com told me to.
Every time I found a program which I was convinced was ‘the one’ I would hang out in online communities that fed my own confirmation bias and this somehow overpowered the reality of my stagnation which stared back at me in the mirror each day.
Perhaps this story has a familiar tone for you that echoes your own frustration. It’s a pattern that is repeated all too often.
At the time, reading up on training theory was not something that occurred to me to do in any serious way. Even if it had, I’m not sure I would have known where to look because most of the resources I have learned from and now recommend didn’t yet exist.
What is now clear to me that wasn’t back then is that there comes a time for everyone when in order to continue to progress, you need to learn how to build your own training program (or get a coach to manage that for you). The point at which this is necessary will differ from person to person — genetics, environment, circumstance, grit, luck with injuries, and the quality of the program and guidelines they initially stumble across all factor into this.
I don’t think I’d recommend that a rank novice read this article though.
If you are completely new to training, the motivational boost from getting some quick initial gains will help you build the training habit. This is arguably more important than the theory covered here because you won’t understand the value of it yet. My advice is to choose a training program (here’s my guide on how to do that), modify the exercise selection if you need to (here’s our guide on how to do that), and then run it, using these progression guidelines and this plateau troubleshooting guide, until you get stuck. With any luck, that will be well over a year.
For the rest of us, the need for an article on how to build your own program is abundantly clear. (When I put it to a vote on my Instagram account this was the winner by a long shot.) If you can learn how to do it right, you become the master of your strength and muscular potential.
I hope you enjoy this guide taken from The Muscle and Training Pyramid book I co-authored with Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez.
This is a sample chapter from our Muscle and Strength Pyramid Training book. It links the main points from each chapter, a six-part step by step guide to teach you how to build a training plan. We’ll take you through each level of The Pyramid, highlighting the main points and the subsequent decisions you’ll have to make from each as they relate to building a program.
Remember, this is a quick start guide, so it won’t include the full breadth or depth of knowledge or its explanation from the book’s previous chapters. Rather, it is designed to create an actionable plan to build from. As you gain more understanding of the principles, you can use the program you will build as the foundation to lay other concepts on top of.
While there is a lot to learn from Level 1, one of the best biggest practical applications of the information relates to how many days per week you train. Specifically, choose a realistic number of training days that would not put stress on your life or schedule. Truly, this value can be anywhere from 2–6 days per week.
Determine whether fewer, longer sessions fit better with your life, or more frequent, shorter sessions. Also, your training age interacts with this decision, as at a certain point it is next to impossible for most people to make progress without training at least three times per week. So, if you are a novice, you can make a two day per week program work, but after that, the decision boils down to whether you want to train 3–6 days per week as two days per week becomes infeasible with the often-requisite volumes (sessions become far too long, practically, and training quality will tend to degrade towards the latter half of the sessions).
Once you’ve come up with a number, this results in a number of possible microcycle-level setups (AKA ‘splits’) that could fulfill the frequency requirements of Level 2—training each movement/muscle group a minimum of twice per week), a maximum of every day.
In the chart below you will see sample options for hypertrophy or strength (setup for powerlifting). Find the number of days you can train in the left column and then you will see your training split options in the row to the right:
*S = Squat, B = Bench, D = Deadlift, “/” indicates performed in the same session, commas separate days.
Remember, your choice will dictate the volume per movement/muscle group per session, and subsequently the time it takes to complete each session.
If you were to choose six ‘full body’ days, for example, you’d end up with fewer exercises per muscle group, sets per exercise, and time spent in the gym per session. Likewise, if you were to choose two ‘full body’ days, you’d end up with more exercises per muscle group, sets per exercise, and time spent in the gym per session.
On the strength side, it is organized around how often you train the bench press, and how often you train squats and deadlifts combined (as there is significant overlap between the two in terms of stimulus and stress). If you choose a very high frequency, again, you end up doing very few working sets per exercise per session, and vice versa.
Either very-high or very-low frequencies can be problematic depending on the individual. Most obviously, you don’t want a session to be too overloaded for a given movement or muscle group or training quality degrades as the marathon session drones on. However, for some people, certain movements cause connective tissue stress somewhat independently of the total volume and/or load. Thus, high frequencies of any significant volume or load become problematic. Simply put, for 90% of people I’d recommend training 3-5 days per week with a muscle or movement frequency of 2-4 times per week, as this typically strikes the best balance between stimulus and recovery.
So, pencil in the split you’ve chosen for now, because in step two we’ll discuss some other potential considerations that might impact your decision.
As a reminder, these are the broad starting guidelines appropriate for most people:
Volume: 10–20 sets per muscle group/movement pattern per week
Frequency: 2+/week per muscle group or movement pattern.
These variables are how you ensure overload occurs, and how you organize it.
Frequency is already penciled in. Next, let’s choose an appropriate volume. In an ideal world, you’d have meticulous training records showing rates of progress and volume levels at each point of your career and you could make an educated start to what would be appropriate given the large individual variance in optimal volume. However, if you’re reading a quick start guide to program design, there is a strong possibility that’s not the case.
The appropriate volume might depend on a lot of factors, which could logically include: training history, training age, genetics, habitual sleep quantity and quality, biological age, total body mass, nutritional status, psychological resilience to stress, personality, and perhaps sex. Unfortunately, we don’t have the relationships of all these variables teased out, but there is good anecdotal evidence, a theoretical basis, and limited scientific evidence to suggest that on average, more experienced lifters need more volume to continue progressing. Thus, with all else being equal, here are some decent guidelines for establishing volume within the 10–20 set recommendation.
Note, the higher your volume, the more it makes sense to spread it over more sessions to prevent individual sessions from becoming too long and stressful. This maintains session quality. As you can see in the column on the right, there is a generally recommended weekly frequency at each volume step to better spread stress. If this doesn’t match up with your split choice from Step 1, consider a different amount of volume, or a different split.
With your volume level and frequency chosen, whether your goal is hypertrophy or strength, you will spread that volume for each muscle group, or each movement (bench, and split between squats and deadlift patterns), across the week. Once again, just pencil this in to get an idea of how your week is shaping up. For example, let’s say you are an intermediate doing 13–15 sets with a 4-day, two times per week muscle group frequency doing a 1: Legs, 2: Push, 3: Pull, 4: Full Body split. Spreading things out, you’d probably do 4–6 sets per muscle group on your Full Body day, leaving 9–11 sets per muscle group for your Legs, Push, and Pull days.
Lastly, you’d assign intensity; both the load and the effort. See the two charts below that show appropriate repetition ranges and RPE values for strength and hypertrophy based on exercise and microcycle organization.
As you can see, for hypertrophy, the higher the fatigue generated by the movement, and the greater the technical demand, it makes more sense to curtail the RPE and rep range. This avoids fatigue bleeding into the rest of a session, may reduce the risk of injury, and also ensures that the volume you perform is effective because as discussed in previous chapters, it’s harder to accurately rate RPE on high-rep, fatiguing movements. Therefore, compound movements are generally a better vehicle for doing the portion of your volume that is lower rep and thus heavier. Likewise, isolation exercises and machines are better vehicles for the higher-rep, lower-load portion of your volume.
For strength, rep and RPE ranges are largely dictated based on whether you are performing a main lift or accessory, and your goal with the movement. For main lifts and variants whether you are building specific strength in the lifts (or strength that easily transfers to them), specific hypertrophy and workload capacity with those lifts, or whether you are performing technique work which is heavy enough to be useful, but light enough to allow recovery, different RPE and rep ranges are appropriate. Likewise, rep range and RPE will change depending on whether you are performing compound accessory movements intended to build general strength (which are more taxing and technically demanding), or machine and isolation accessories (which are less taxing and technically demanding) for hypertrophy purposes.
When you combine this information with Step 3, you can really start to see how your program unfolds.
At this stage, the program really starts to take form, and we get to start assigning reps and sets across the week and the mesocycle. How this shapes up is dictated by the type of exercise (isolation or compound) and the rate of progress you can reasonably expect (training age).
As a quick recap, linear progression (linear load increases) is simply adding more weight to the exercise while keeping reps and sets the same each time you repeat a session.
Linear periodized progression is keeping sets the same, reducing reps each session, while increasing load.
Block periodized mesocycles are a sequential approach where you do an accumulation mesocycle of higher volume at a moderate RPE and higher rep ranges (but specific to your goal), followed by an intensification mesocycle of lower volume at a high RPE and lower rep ranges (but still specific to your goal), and then taper and test—or simply rinse and repeat after a deload if you can gauge your estimated strength in training (e.g. starting some days with a single at a 6–9 RPE).
For a novice, you would simply spread your 10–12 sets per muscle/movement across your days of training, and each week when you repeat a day’s session, try to increase load (typically the smallest increment available to extend progression longer).
For an intermediate, you’d spread 13-15 sets over your days, and follow a linear (load up reps down) approach week to week, and double progression for your isolation movements.
Finally, an advanced lifter could set up an accumulation cycle of building number of sets, followed by an intensification mesocycle similar to how an intermediate would progress, and then taper and test, or rinse and repeat.
To continue our example, sticking with our 4 days per week, 2/week muscle group training frequency setup as an intermediate with hypertrophy goals doing 13–15 sets per week, things start to take shape:
Showing how this plays out in a strength program is a little easier once we discuss exercise selection and break things into categories.
For a bodybuilder or hypertrophy-focused trainee, you can slot in various exercises to fill the weekly muscle group volume goals. If you view the table below you can see which muscle groups a given exercise “counts” for.
As it currently stands, we know an exercise that trains a muscle group indirectly (secondary) probably doesn’t provide quite as much stimulus to the muscle as something that trains it directly (primary), but the scientific data up to this point has counted secondary and primary muscle group volume the same. So, count everything on a one to one basis for each muscle group, just be aware that you don’t want all your volume for a given muscle group coming from indirect work.
For a powerlifter, however, things are little easier to categorize. As almost the entire body is trained and utilized in the performance of the big 3, but we aren’t necessarily looking for complete muscular development everywhere. Thus, you can view things as seen below:
Understanding the above, here’s how the same intermediate choosing a 4-day per week, 2/week movement pattern training frequency might set up a powerlifting program with the S, B, D, B split (see the training split matrix for strength) doing 13–15 sets per week:
This example meets the guideline of having 13–15 sets for Upper Body Push, Upper Body Pull, and Lower body from a muscle group perspective, as there are 9 sets of bench, and 6 sets of non-bench upper body pushing (for a total of 15), 10 sets combined between squat and deadlift, and 3 sets of lower body accessories (for a total of 13), and 5 sets of deadlift and 8 sets of upper body pulling (for a total of 13).
Globally, we also meet the guideline of having 50–75% of volume from the main lifts, as out of a total of 36 sets, more than half (19 sets) come from the big three. As a reminder, here are the guidelines for how to distribute volume over exercises for strength and hypertrophy.
At this stage, you don’t have much left to do. If you’d like, you can set up your upper body push and pull exercises with antagonist paired sets (APS). Likewise, if your goal is hypertrophy you can set up APS for leg extension and leg curl, and biceps and triceps as well.
Also if you are time-pressed and your current setup is pushing the limits of what you think you can reasonably accomplish, you can perform some of your accessories or single-joint movements for hypertrophy as drop sets or rest pause sets.
Beyond this, just make sure you rest appropriately, control the eccentric to some degree, and perform forceful concentric contractions and you’ve made your way through The Pyramid. All that remains is making it more flexible and a bit more specific to your needs.
Now that you’ve got the basic structure, there are some things you can do to better match this program to your specific needs.
If you recall from the Adherence chapter, training hard when you are most recovered, and matching easier sessions with days you are less recovered has been shown to benefit strength and adherence. So, you can apply this by not having fixed training days (e.g. Monday, Wed, Fri) within the week, or by having floating off days when you feel you need them the most. This helps with not only your life schedule but may aid performance.
The former strategy, flexible training days, works best when training 2–3 time per week, as you have more off days than training days. The latter strategy, flexible off days, works best when training 4 or more days as you have fewer off days than training days.
I’d advise programming with both percentage 1RM and RPE on exercises you test or determine an actual or estimated 1RM on. You can program with percentage 1RM, say 3x8x70% but also provide an RPE range, like 6–8, and then if the first set at 70% wasn’t in that range, increase or decrease load to something that you think will be.
For exercises you don’t estimate or test your 1RM on, you can just use RPE. For novices who don’t yet have the training experience to accurately gauge RPE, just track it for now without using it to set or modify load. Give it a few months at least to develop competency with RPE before doing so.
After each mesocycle of training (for intermediates when you’ve completed a progression cycle, for advanced when you’ve completed a block), use the chart from Level 3 to assess whether a deload (or a high-rep week maybe with BFR) might be beneficial:
Make sure to do this just in case every third mesocycle no matter what if you haven’t run one yet. See Level 3 for specifics on how to implement a deload.
Giving yourself more choice in exercise selection may allow you to enhance your enjoyment, pay heed to any current aches and pains, and subsequently improve performance as discussed earlier in the book.
For those interested in hypertrophy, you can change to a different ‘horizontal pull’ or ‘vertical push’ or ‘hip hinge’ (etc.) mesocycle to mesocycle (so long as you come back to it every few mesocycles) instead of sticking with one all the time. Likewise, for isolation movements, you can even give yourself the choice to change session to session. If you do so, just make sure to record your training loads. This allows you to know where you left off so you can pick back up with the appropriate load upon returning to it.
Similarly, those who want to gain strength can choose a different variant on the main lift when they are far from a competition (closer to the competition you should choose the competition lift). Additionally, strength focused trainees can switch between variations of accessory movements session to session (so long as it trains the same movement pattern or muscle group) like a hypertrophy focused trainee does on isolation movements.
A final consideration for your training plan is how to modify it if you are cutting. If it is a brief or non-aggressive cut to sustainable levels of leanness, you probably don’t need to modify training at all. However, if you are going on a longer-term or more aggressive cut, as is typical when dropping a weight class, or certainly if you are dieting for a show, changes should probably occur.
Some very general guidelines are (you can modify the sample programs from the next chapter using this information as well):
If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from our Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 2019.
Join 17,000+ other readers, get your copies here.
Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.
– Eric, Andy, and Andrea