How to Choose the Most Effective Strength Training Program for YOU

The best bodies in the world were built with these basics at the core.

This article ties together the threads that link the training program suggestions on this site. It shows you the big picture: what routine is going to be most suitable for yourself and when, what to expect, and suggestions on when it’s suitable to modify things to chase progress. We start off by filling in the broad strokes that will apply to most, then we discuss some caveats. Take what is relevant to you now and ignore the rest, bookmark it then come back later.


Training Program Choice Depends on Training Level

The training program you choose will depend on your level of training advancement. This is best defined by your recovery ability, not how much you can actually lift.

We are all individuals. Someone that can squat 1.5x bodyweight might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another may need several days to recover. If we were to make recommendations on training frequency and volume based on relative strength, they would be appropriate for some, but woefully inappropriate for others. So, we’ll use recovery capacity to help us decide training program choice.

‘Recovery capacity’ may sound like a rather abstract concept, but a simple way to think about it is how complicated you need to make your training in order to progress.

  • Can you add weight or reps to your main exercises at nearly every training session? Excellent, this is called linear progression, it’s the simplest way to do things and you’ll make the fastest progress this way while you can still use it.
  • Do you need to alternate training intensities and volume, and split your training into blocks in order to still make progress? This is known as periodization. It comes in many forms but what we’ll discuss on this site for now, will be linear periodization. (The rest can be found in my book.)

To make the fastest gains: 1. Limit the number of exercises you perform,  2. Use linear progression while you can

1. Keep Exercise Variety Low, Initially

For reasons discussed in The Core Principles of Effective Training, I recommend a focus on the main compound exercises during this time in a lifter’s career. As practice is important for the learning of proper technique, we will use a high frequency and low variety of exercises to start with.

You will limit your long-term strength gains by loading heavy early on with shitty form. You want to ingrain the movements such that your body will naturally move in certain ways without you actively thinking about it.

If you take up many different exercises right from the start, you will have many different movements to ingrain and this will often slow down the learning process of each exercise.

Focus on learning the correct form with a limited number of exercises, you will develop your ability to keep proper lifting form under heavy load, and this will enable you to train safely and more effectively.

2. Use Linear Progression While You Can

When you can increase the weight lifted (or the number of reps performed) from session to session, this is called linear progression. If you can use linear progression for the majority of your exercises then I would consider you to be a novice trainee.

Don’t let the word ‘novice’ bruise your ego. If you can use linear progression then you should use linear progression as this is the fastest way to make progress. Don’t try an intermediate progression model (linear periodization) too early.

Choosing a program to start with

For the beginner, I would suggest that you start with The Big 3 Routine. This will have you performing the squat, bench press and deadlift every training session. As you gain more proficiency you will need to change things in order to recover sufficiently between sessions and to keep progressing linearly. Usually, a small reduction in the number of sets of deadlifts performed each session is sufficient for a first modification.

From there, splitting up your training so that you have more time between training the same compound exercises will give you enough time to recover while still progressing linearly.

If you have some experience and find you can still progress linearly with most of your exercises then consider a modified form of the big 3 routine, or a three-day split routine.

For the first six months of your barbell lifting career the modifications to your routine may run along this linear progression continuum:

‘Big 3’ Routine → ‘Big 3’ Modified → The A/B split → Three-Day Split

When you can no longer progress you will need to move onto something a little more complicated, but don’t worry, I have you covered.

Getting a little more advanced: Linear periodization

When you can no longer keep adding weights to your lifts after changing your routine in the way described above, you will have to add in elements of “periodization.” This is simply the process of organizing training into different periods, which you will often hear referred to as “training blocks.”

Periodization encompasses the manipulation of a wide range of training variables, most commonly: volume, intensity (of load and effort), frequency, rep range, exercise selection, exercise order and rest intervals.

You have two options at this point, you can choose to have a routine more focussed on the barbells

This sounds complicated, it can be complicated, and it is complicated when it comes to elite-level lifters, but I have simplified it for you. Just use this detailed set of progression rules in combination with one of these two sample training routines:

  1. The Intermediate Bodybuilding Program – Choose this is you would like to start using a greater variety of exercises.
  2. The Intermediate Powerlifting Program – Choose this if you would like to keep your focus on the main compound lifts but with a greater frequency and more variety of set and rep ranges.

The former is slightly more skewed towards aesthetics and the latter more towards strength, but don’t worry about the difference, just choose based on your preferences on how you would like to train. (See ‘Size vs strength is a false dichotomy,’ here.)


Optional Theory: Why periodization becomes necessary

  • You continue to progress on a linear progression routine because the stress you put your body under with the training (represented by the flow from the tap) is enough to force adaptation but less than the maximal amount you can recover from.
  • You can’t continue to progress forever on a linear progression routine because it gets to the point where the stress from the training is too high for you to be able to recover from.
  • The thing bottlenecking progress is ‘work capacity’ (the size of the sink and the drain pipe) which is low due to the low volume of training. (Training volume = sets x reps x load)
  • To increase work capacity, instead of trying to increase the load you’re lifting, increase the amount of volume you handle each week or each session. Cut back on the load on the bar, start building up the volume (sets and reps) to build work capacity (your sink and drain size), before then cutting back on volume to push for PRs.

I had coach Greg Nuckols explain this concept more fully in this guest article.


The Difference Between Cutting and Bulking

When bulking the difference in your routine will be the amount of volume you can handle. You will have an energy surplus and so recovery capacity will be higher. As you switch from a cut to a bulk the addition of more sets to your current exercises or adding exercises (possibly one or two compound movements per session and an accessory movement or two), is a good idea. If you switch from a bulk to a cut then the reduction of training volume made in a similar way is a good idea.

All of the routines mentioned above will work for a cut. You may add volume to them for a bulk.

Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming.

If you are in calorie deficit circumstances and strength gains are no longer forthcoming, though you could pursue further strength gains by introducing more complicated programming elements like periodization, often it just needs to be accepted that further progression will need to wait until the cut ends. – The blockage to progress is the calorie deficit. Your goal in this situation is to maintain your training adaptations for the duration of the cut, until you have achieved your desired level of leanness and then start increasing calorie intake. A rough way to gauge this is to strive to maintain your strength in the main compound movements.

How much progress can be made while cutting?

On average, for someone let’s say cutting from 20% body fat to a stage shredded 5%, they’ll make progress during the first 1/3 of the cut, work to maintain their progress during the middle third, and then probably regress a little in the last 1/3 as they get below 9% body fat. Now, as the vast majority of clients aren’t destined for the stage, regressions don’t typically happen to any significant extent at all. They usually make progress until they get down to around 13-14% body fat, after which point the training is often mainly about maintaining what they have.

But this is just averages, and there aren’t any average cases.

  • It’s rare that people are equally experienced in all lifts, some will progress better than others. The bench tends to be one that suffers, but that’s the combination of people generally having more experience here, as well as the loss of fat from the back and chest meaning the bar has to travel further. Any new lift will expect good progress, but that won’t necessarily relate to muscle mass gain while base competency with the movement pattern is gained.
  • Some people are coming back to training from a period of time off so they make great progress.
  • Some people tell themselves they won’t make any progress in a deficit and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (the mind has a powerful effect on the body).
  • Some people have life stress come up that hampers how well they respond to the training.
  • Lastly, different people are just different. I’ve seen some guys make progress throughout the entirety of a cut. I’ve seen some people just get stuck without explanation. (Though in these latter cases I’m fairly convinced it’s just a lack of belief in themselves that holds them back – poor gym environment, etc. I try to weed these people out in the application process though and just tell them straight – get your arse to a proper gym – which means I rarely see this issue anymore.)
Higher body-fat percentages blur the boundary of what is possible on a cut

While an obese and a lean person may both be in calorie deficit circumstances, their energy availability is different. Fatter individuals have a larger pantry to dip into (their fat stores) when the food on the table isn’t enough, leaner individuals don’t. This blurs the lines of what is possible during a calorie deficit because the energy available for recovery is different.

Therefore, someone who starts off at a high body-fat percentage, and stalls out at the end of the linear progression training continuum, may benefit from moving from their novice routine and using some periodization principles, such as those discussed by Greg in his article. “You probably won’t have any issues increasing training volume, though the maximal amount you can handle would be less. It just means you have to monitor recovery more closely.”

What is the cut off point for this? – It comes down to the individual. “When you’re dealing with biology, you have to accept a little chaos and ambiguity,” says Greg. A little experimentation with this purposefully lower weight, higher volume method, as long as protein intake is sufficient and the calorie deficit within recommended limits, will be fine for preserving muscle mass even if it doesn’t eventually lead to the desired strength increases.

Don’t forget about the mechanical disadvantage to being leaner

The mechanical disadvantage of being leaner needs to be taken into account when comparing lifting stats.

Take your right arm, reach under your left armpit and grab the fat on your back at chest level. When chasing a fat loss goal it is important to remember that this fat will be burned off too, as will the fat on your arms and legs. When ripped you may look bigger due to the increased definition, but the chest and limb measurements will go down.

I’ve said that past a certain level of leanness the goal of simply maintaining strength as you cut is a good one, as that is a proxy for muscle retention. However it is important to note that there is a mechanical disadvantage of being leaner, so in fact, a drop in the lifting stats to a certain degree is to be expected and shouldn’t be confused with muscle loss.

The easiest way to visualize this effect is with the bench press, the leaner you are, the further the bar has to travel, thus more ‘work’ has to be done for the same load. (Recall your high school physics class: work = force x distance)

  • A 5-10% drop is not uncommon (depending on just how much weight is lost).
  • The pressing movements are usually affected more than the deadlift and the squat, and how much the latter is affected depends on limb length ratios.
  • This also means that for a guy that has dropped, say, 25lbs, maintenance of lifts can be indicative of muscle mass gain.

Key point: experienced trainees shouldn’t panic if their lifts go down a little.


Strength Numbers Do NOT Determine When You Need To Change Your Routine

As covered at the start of the article, strength numbers don’t determine what routine you should use, nor do they determine when you need to change your routine.

You’ll see a lot of strength numbers thrown around on the internet as to whether you can consider yourself a novice, intermediate, advanced or elite trainee. These are just milestones, and they should not be confused as determining points for when you should switch up your training program.

How far you can progress with a novice routine comes down to the individual. Some people will progress on a linear routine and squat past 500lbs before they need to change things up, others will stall at 200lbs. Once you have the controllable elements in your favor (good sleep, low stress, high quality of diet, great gym environment, etc.) it’s largely down to luck (age and genetics). Make the most of what you have, don’t worry about others.

What strength numbers relative to body weight can offer however is a rough way of determining how likely you are to be happy with your physique when you get down to a shredded state at your current strength level. This is because strength stats of strength focused trainees are going to be highly correlated with muscle mass.

If we are going by Martin Berkhan’s strength standards, my guess on how happy most people will be is summarized in the following table:

Training status
(per Berkhan’s strength standards)
Happiness scale when shredded
(in smileys)
Novice/ beginner  🙁
Intermediate :/ or 🙂
Advanced 🙂 or 😀
Highly advanced 😀 or :p

Happiness should not be confused with satisfaction. It is very rare that anyone is satisfied, we merely set the bar higher for ourselves when we reach our sets of goals.

*******

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of the highly-acclaimed 'Muscle and Strength Pyramid' books and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)

182 Comments

  1. Brandon says:

    Hello Andy,

    I have been following your work for a few months now and definitely want to follow one of your programs. I’ve read a lot of the content on your site, but was wondering if I could get some advice on my situation to go along with the info.

    I am a 22-year-old male with a couple of years of training experience, though I have been bad about program hopping and what not. I have been very inconsistent for the past six months or so and feel I have lost a lot of my strength and I have gained a good bit of fat. I figure I should start with a novice program to build back up, but am not sure whether to fo with something such as the Novice Bodybuilding Routine, the Big 3 routine, or Novice Powerlifting Routine.

    Any advice is greatly appreciated!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Unless you like to keep things super simple, go with either of the others. Read the introduction paragraph to each and choose which excited you more.

      1. Brandon says:

        Thank you so much for the quick response! When you go with either of the others, do you mean besides the Big 3? As in pick either the novice bodybuilding or powerlifting depending on which sounds most exciting?

        Thanks again so much for the response and awesome content!

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Yes, exactly. Sorry for the lack of clarity and thank you for confirming.
          Most welcome, Brandon!

  2. Sebastian says:

    I’m 31 I’ve been going to gyms for 5 years now, before all i did was outdoor stuff (rock climb, mountain bike, kayak, surf, skate, etc…) when i started i had no idea what i was doing so I’ve hopped around trying many different programs from mass builders to CrossFit and HIIT, and always find myself in an overtraining situation and I think it comes from two things; initially i felt guilty if i wasn’t constantly training to get better for a navy SO contract I was chasing and now I just really enjoy exercise and working out so I tend to over do it. This program is very simple and short which i know is by design but I’m worried I’ll get bored. Is it okay to do yoga or something in addition?

    My goal is a better physique I’m fine with strength levels currently. My diet is trash but I’m changing it.
    6’1” 223lbs ~15-18% bf
    315 bench (bad shoulder)
    430 squat
    520 deadlift

    P.s. as someone with two very bad shoulders. I️ can’t agree more with avoiding dips and kipping pull ups. I️ even have trouble with my bench and push ups because of it.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Sebastian,
      Just think about it in terms of recovery. Yoga, while fun and with great views of girls in Lulu Lemon pants, is not going to provide a progressive overload for you as an experienced trainee, and thus the recovery demands are minimal. You can consider it active stretching and yes it is absolutely fine to include.

  3. Glenn says:

    I’ve been training for 1.5 years now, gained 27lbs by doing a full body routine and lately an upper/lower split. But due to my upcoming exams I can only train 2 times a week.

    Would a full body (A/B) style still be effective?

    Also, my TDEE is around 2400 calories, should I lower this to 2200 now that I’m only working out 2 times a week instead of 3-4?

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Glenn, thanks for the questions.
      1. ‘Effective’ depends on your goal and thus how you define that. Your exams are temporary, thus your goal should be physique maintenance. To maintain, you need less volume than to grow, so, twice a week may be enough, but you might consider putting three days of volume in those two if you can recover from that.

      2. Your energy expenditure and needs will be slightly lower, so it makes sense to bump things down a little if you were maintaining weight at the current caloric intake.

  4. David says:

    Hi Andy,

    How do you tell if you have sufficient recovery? I’m 190lbs, 45yo, with a 4×5 of 200 bench, 215 squat, and 280 dead about 6 months in using an ABAB weekly split. (I tried a Big 3 type AAA weekly and my lifts quickly cratered at my age). I’ve stopped progressing, and can’t tell if I should add sets or decrease volume to an ABA split. BTW I naturally have a big chest and long thin legs so the bench and squat numbers being so close doesn’t really surprise me.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi David. There are multiple ways to define it, but in this situation gauge it by whether you are able to progress. As a rule of thumb:

    2. If you’re not sore and not progressing – increase volume.
    3. If you are sore and not progressing – decrease volume.
  • Elton says:

    Great stuff thanks Andy – you answered a couple of questions already 🙂

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Good to hear, Elton. 🙂

  • Jon says:

    Hi Andy, do you have any information on training resources catered specifically to women?

    I have a sister that is in the process of trying to improve her physique. She has gotten her dietary lifestyle locked in and has been shedding a lot of body fat. Now she is in a position where she wants to increase the intensity of her training. Like most women, she has the phobia of getting “too big/bulky.” I have tried to dispel these worries to an extent, telling her that at this point she still just needs to focus on weight/fat loss, but admittedly my knowledge regarding training is pretty much exclusive to men. While I believe wholly in the training approaches you espouse on the site, I would like to provide her some more specialized resources regarding training approaches for women. Any resources you would recommend? Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Girlsgonestrong.com

  • oliver hinojosa says:

    hi my name is oliver, i was wondering if you offer any time up of training program, As in work out program or service that i could maybe get to follow . I am not so good at setting up a program to do my self. i am currently trying to prep for a novice bodybuilding and want to try the methods you teach and try a workout program if you offer it of course

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Oliver, thanks for the question.

      Currently I offer full on monthly nutrition and training coaching, only. There’s no pleasure (or education) for me in setting up a program and not guiding people through it. The key to success is tweaking things to keep people progressing. If you think that may interest you, please have a read of the coaching page.

      The other option if you would like to teach yourself if to get a copy of The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book. This will teach you the principles of how to develop a program for yourself and adjust it to keep progressing.

  • Andrew Colucci says:

    Hey Andy. I’ve been lifting for about 5 years but never really followed a solid training program. My strength numbers would leave me still at the beginner level. I always followed a bodybuilding style routine, 5-6 days per week. Would I benefit from using a 3 day split and focusing on building strength with RPT?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Sure try it, see if you enjoy this style of training Andrew. You will have a base from your years of lifting that you won’t be able to use to the fullest potential at the start. The initial phase will be skill acquisition and neurological adaptation, building up to the point where you start to push the limits of what you’ve got and building new muscle.

  • Gabe says:

    Love your site and articles, Andy. I was just wondering, if alright with you, that i can have some suggestions to further study this? Do you have textbooks i can look up or literature to search on this articles topic. I am not challenging you or doubting the information provided, i just want to learn and further research this (weight training while on a deficit, cardio, stress, and dieting). Thanks in advance 🙂

  • David says:

    Hi Andy,

    First of all, thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise – it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’m on here most days.

    I’m currently coming to the end of my cutting phase – 12%BF and lower abs almost visible – and began planning my bulking routine after a two week stabilisation period (I feel more a sign of enjoying the journey/thinking than rushing to the next step)

    However, I’ve found that using kettlebells at home to the form of training I can stick to most – routine, cost and general enjoyment wise. 5×5 has helped me make well above expected progress towards my cutting goal along side your nutritional advice.

    Would you have any kettlebell routine recommendations for the bulking phase?

    I’m considering German Volume Training with front squats and military presses – however, reading of their potential detrimental effects on strength go against your advice to focus on strength and size will come.

    I’d consider myself begginer-intermedieted.

    Kindest regards,
    David

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi David. Not personally no. The principles will be the same but I haven’t played around with Kettlebells much (they aren’t a thing in Japan) so it’s really not my area to make suggestions I’m afraid.

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