Workout Design 101

One of the biggest knocks against Strength Coaches and Personal Trainers is that we continually need our clients to come back in order to make money.  My answer?  Well,'s called capitalism, folks.

But, the argument goes, in order to keep our clients coming back, we teach exercises where people come to depend on us.  Then, with Bosu and Stability balls abound, we'll constantly change the movements ensuring that no one truly masters our "functional" exercises.

If you've ever met me, you know nothing could be further from the truth.

 This image is the epitome of our negative stereotype....yet, still hilarious.

This image is the epitome of our negative stereotype....yet, still hilarious.

Instead, one of the biggest compliments I can receive is when someone believes they are strong enough - and knows enough about training - that they feel confident to go it alone.  One of my favorite proverbs is, "Teach a man to deadlift, and he'll get strong for a lifetime."

........or something like that.

Clients of mine will be among the first to tell you that we don't do a lot of "sexy" exercises.  And, we often do the same handful of exercises every single time they come in.  Variety might be the spice of life, but not if you want to get strong.  Mastering the basics and continually honing technique is what will get you to your strength and physique goals.

So, on the heels of this post a few weeks ago, I received some great feedback suggesting a post on how to actually design your own workout.  As you'll see, some of these lessons may seem like common sense, but I learned many of them the hard way (so you don't have to!):

Lesson #1: Compliment, don't compete.

The majority of mistakes that new trainees make when designing their program is not taking into account all of the smaller details.  Sure, that "all chest all day" routine may look good on the interwebz, but it's not going to work in real life.

By pairing exercises together, you'll be more more efficient in your workouts, allowing you to keep your heart rate higher and fit in more actual work.  But, it's crucial that if you DO pair exercises together (which, let me be clear, I highly suggest), that they don't draw upon similar qualities.  Grip strength, muscle groups, and compression on your joints are all factors that need to be taken into account.

Some pairings I really like to use together are:

  • Turkish Get-ups and Pullups
  • Deadlifts and Pushups
  • Squats and Rows
  • Kettlebell Swings and Planks

Pairings can always be tricky in a commercial gym, mostly due to bros performing bicep curls in the squat rack.  But, try a few of the pairs above and watch your progress and bad-assitude grow!

Lesson #2: For strength goals, volume is king.

There's a saying in kettlebell circles that I really love: "If you want to press, you must press!"  The bonus?  This saying can be used for pretty much any exercise.

The word "volume" is just a not-too-fancy way of saying that you're performing more reps than you normally would.  However, this doesn't mean all of those extra reps need to be at the highest weight you've ever performed....far from it!  Instead, take 70-80% of your highest weight on something like a press, deadlift or squat, and add on the repetitions from there. Volume allows you to kill two birds with one stone -practicing your technique with lighter weights, and increasing your strength base which will allow you to reach higher peaks.  If you can lift 135 for 5, you're not going to be as strong as if you could lift 135 for 8-10.

 This............may not end well.

This............may not end well.

To break this advice out into a more practical way, let's say you normally do 3 sets of 5 on a squat.  If you were looking to build volume, I'd suggest switching to 5 sets of 5, or even playing with 4 sets of 8 at a lighter weight.  All approaches can work in programming - sticking with the same weight for all sets, or going heavier/lighter as you go -  as long as you actually stick to the plan.

On an anecdotal note, I've noticed my best results when I alternate a six week volume block by a six week cycle with less volume.

Lesson #3: Start with your "core" work.

I know, I read in Men's Health or Shape magazine that you should always save your core work for the end.  However, I'd like to suggest that by doing your core work first, you don't have to worry about your spine shooting out of your butt due to a "fatigued" core.  Instead, it'll actually help you on your more important lifts.

The reason is simple: most people don't warm up before they start working out.  By performing your core work at the beginning, it serves as a great way to start sweating and helps us "turn" our abs on.  Many of us simply forget how to use our abs or glutes after sitting in chairs all day, and by doing a few sets of planks or dead bugs, our body remembers how to move and get tight.

Lesson #4: Focus on your goals.

One of my greatest traits, as well as greatest faults, is my ability to focus solely on one task. Whether that's attempting to finish all the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, squeezing in as many episodes of The Walking Dead as I can, or attempting to deadlift 500 pounds, I continually keep my goal as the goal.  But, I've realized that it can be easy to get sidetracked, and get caught up in what you're NOT doing.  You know, flipping tires, swinging sledehammers, more cardio, or thinking that exercise you saw on YouTube is the key to making you look better nekkid (hint: you don't need any of them).

If your goal is "I want to deadlift X pounds," or just a simple pushup or pullup, you need to remember to keep the goal, the goal!  That means work on some aspect of the exercise every time you hit the gym.  It may get boring, but that's the only way you're going to see improvement.  It sounds simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy.