The best strength training program depends on your level of training advancement and whether you want to optimize for aesthetics or strength.
There are now six training programs on the site. This can be confusing, so I hope this article helps you choose between them.
In it, I argue that training program choice should depend on our level of training advancement, but that it is foolish to try to gauge this by how much we can lift.
Instead, it’s our familiarity with the lifts and how quickly we can recover and progress that should guide us in program selection.
Your Training Program Should Depend on Your Training Level
The training program you should choose depends on how advanced a trainee you are.
I’m sure you know this. But how can we define it and therefore make program selection easier?
First, let’s start with how not to define training level.
It’s not a good idea to define your training level based on how much you can lift.
I’m going to take an extreme example here to illustrate my point:
My friend Greg benched 275 lbs (125 kg) and deadlifted 425 (193 kg) on his first real day in a weight room. He was 14 years old and weighed ~170 lbs (~75 kg), a rank novice!
Greg then went on to squat mid 500s (~250 kg), bench 400 (~180 kg), and deadlift 600 (270 kg) not long after turning 16 at a bodyweight hovering around 195-205 (~90 kg). These are numbers that many of us dream of one day getting.
Yet, there is no argument; he was still an intermediate trainee at that time for he went on to set a few world records in his early 20s.
Now, if you were to look at his lifting numbers in isolation, many would conclude from the start that he was an advanced lifter and recommend him a program as such.
But this would have been dreadfully inappropriate.
How about defining lifting advancement by strength relative to body weight?
Well, this doesn’t work either.
Greg was benching and deadlifting 1.6x and 2.5x body weight on his first day and squatting close to 3x, benching 2x and deadlifting 3x within 2 years. — Something many of us will only achieve after many many years of grinding away, if ever.
This is the point where people say to me, “Hey, but Greg’s a clear outlier, stop using stupid examples. Bodyweight targets can be useful!”
While I don’t dispute that having a strength relative to bodyweight goal can be a great motivator, this is no way to prescribe a training program.
Just as Greg is a genetically gifted freak, what about all those that have been training hard, with good form, for years and are still below average?
Are you going to prescribe these ‘genetically un-gifted’ folks a novice program just because their relative strength pushes them into that arbitrary category, dooming them to further stagnation?
It just isn’t helpful to treat those struggling as average. Therefore prescribing training protocols based around average relative strength at each stage is a bad idea.
I think a far more instructive way of doing things is to categorize training advancement in terms of familiarity with the lifts, and then how quickly we can recover and progress with them.
How I Like to Think About Training Level
As you can tell from what I have written above, I’m not interested in any arbitrary distinctions of training advancement based on strength.
It just isn’t useful in any way.
Similarly, size doesn’t tell us how advanced of a trainee someone is either.
Sure, consistent effort, dedication, and avoiding injury play a significant role in what you can achieve, but there is absolutely no question that some people win the genetic lottery and others don’t.
(Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was probably born with bigger biceps than all of us.)
The fact is, you’re either as strong and jacked as you like, or you aren’t. And if you are not, you gotta figure out how to get yourself to the next level.
There are only two times I think about categorizing training advancement:
- Estimating how quickly someone can gain muscle when in a bulk phase, and
- Deciding on appropriate programming.
So how do I do that?
I like to do this by considering how competent people are with the basic lifts (whether they need more form practice), and then their ability to make progress (the less complication they need in their training, the less advanced they are).
This leads me to two pieces of advice that I believe are universally applicable whether you choose to use one of the training programs on this site or not.
Keep exercise variety low, initially
This means if you’re new to lifting, get some practice in with a few key movements and choose a novice program that allows you to do that.
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.
By focusing on 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.
Keep your progression method as simple as you need to
If you’re comfortable with your form, you can think about how well you are currently recovering.
A simple way to think about recovery is how complicated we need to make our training to progress.
If 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 class you as a novice trainee. The novice programs are likely a good place to start.
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.
If you need to alternate training intensities and volume, and split your training into blocks in order to still make progress (this is called periodization), I’d class you as an intermediate trainee.
You probably need a higher level of training volume, and the intermediate programs are likely a good place to start.
Don’t try an intermediate progression model such as linear periodization too early.
Train As Much As You Need, Not As Much As You Can
The programs you’re about to see may or may not be less volume than what you are already doing, what you like to do, what ‘feels’ right or compared to other popular programs or what your favorite athlete or influencer does or suggests.
But, unless you are an experienced lifter who knows from well-recorded observations over years what your specific volume needs are, I’d advise at least trying to progress using similar volumes to what we recommend first, before deciding it’s too low.
If you don’t make progress and it’s too easy… fantastic, just do more volume and now you know more about your body’s needs. But in my experience as a coach, it’s just as likely (if not more likely) that you could progress just as well, if not faster, with a lower volume.
Let’s put this all together.
Choosing a Training Program
For the beginner, I would suggest that you start with The Big 3 Routine. It is similar to Stronglifts and Starting Strength but will have you performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift every training session.
(As you gain more proficiency, you will need to tweak things in order to recover sufficiently between sessions. I have guidelines for this covered in that program’s article.)
When you are confident in your form, consider moving on to one of the following programs.
If you are proficient with the compound lifts, I would suggest you start with either,
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 as ‘size vs. strength’ is mostly a false dichotomy at this stage.)
If you find that you can’t progress from session to session, one of the following may be your appropriate start point:
However, only if you are:
- sleeping well;
- keeping stress low;
- eating a caloric surplus (If you’re dieting, more in the next section);
- consuming enough protein, defined as at least 0.7 g/lb+ (1.6 g/kg) of body weight;
- not constantly training too close to failure or too far from it (aka. minding your ‘RPE targets’, which you’ll see I’ve talked about in the training program articles); and
- confident that your lifting technique is solid.
Otherwise, concluding you need an intermediate training program could be the wrong decision and put you further in the recovery hole. Fix these first.
(An aside, if you lack confidence in your form and don’t have anyone local you can trust, consider this excellent video guide by my co-authors on The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books and their colleagues).
Advice On Program Selection When Cutting
So then, this leads the obvious question for some people:
“If I am cutting phase, how do I know whether the intermediate training programs are more appropriate than the novice ones, or if my lack of progress session to session is due to the lack of a caloric surplus?”
This is a very good question.
To answer this, I want you to think of your training volume as the number of sets per body part (or movement) that you do per week.
Count the number of sets you are performing each week per body part or movement and choose the program — novice or intermediate — that is the closest match to this.
(The novice programs are around 10 sets and the intermediate programs around ~15 sets per week.)
Consider also that when we’re bulking (in a caloric surplus), our training volume needs to be sufficient to drive growth (or we’ll just get fat), but not so high that we fail to recover.
When we’re cutting (in a caloric deficit), our training volume needs to sufficient to maintain muscle mass, while allowing growth if possible, ideally, without any regression.
Needless to say, the amount of volume we can handle when bulking is greater than when cutting. But your personal need depends on what you are adapted to.
This means that it is not possible to say that a routine is for cutting or bulking — what might be an appropriate volume level while cutting for one person might be too much for another.
What we can say in general though is as follows:
- As you switch from a cut to a bulk, the addition of a set or two to your current exercises (or adding exercises) may be a good idea.
- When you start cutting, if you find yourself failing to recover, consider reducing the number of sets (or exercises) performed.
Best Strength Training Program FAQ
How much progress can I expect to make when cutting?
This used to be a section of this original article five years ago, but I decided to expand on the content and published it as its own article here: What is Realistic Strength Progress While Cutting.
What about classifying training level by the amount of training volume needed?
This is one of those good ideas in principle but in practice, it falls flat.
The amount of training volume we need to progress will go up over the course of our training careers.
The weight of current evidence suggests 10–20 hard sets per muscle/group or movement is an appropriate volume to prescribe when no foreknowledge of individual needs/tolerance/genetics exist.
So, should we say that if you’re currently progressing on the low, mid, or upper end of that range that you’re a novice, intermediate, or advanced trainee?
The problem is that on average people train with more volume than needed, and while they might be making progress, they’ll likely progress better with less.
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.