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Designing a Training Routine
Part One

by Gary F. Zeolla

This two-part article will look at various factors to consider in designing weightlifting workout routines, with a focus on powerlifting.

Warm-Ups

It is imperative to warm-up before working out. Some suggest starting with 5-10 minutes of aerobics, but others feel this is not necessary. But if done,  the intensity should be low to moderate. The idea is to warm-up the body not to put in a cardiovascular workout. I walk on a treadmill for 1/4 mile, starting slowly and then gradually increasing to 3 mph.

Then at least a couple of warm-up sets should be done for each major lift. If you're not doing any cardio before the workout, I would suggest first doing about 15 reps without any weight. This will serve as a general warm-up. Then the first weighted warm-up should consist of a very light weight (like just the bar) for 10-12 reps, then each subsequent warm-up set should use increasing greater weight and fewer reps.

The number of warm-up sets needed depends on the amount of weight being lifted for the first work set and the number of reps. The higher the weight and the lower the reps the greater number of warm-up sets needed.

So, for instance, for a squat workout consisting of two work sets of 225 pounds for eight reps, a warm-up would be something like: 15 reps with no weight (i.e. "free squats"), the bar (45 pounds) x 10, 135x8, 170x5, 200/3.

If the work set is for a higher weight and lower reps, say 275 for 3 reps, then add a set of a single rep with 245. The idea is to not only warm-up the body but to slowly prepare the body and mind for the heavier weight to come.

If deadlifts are being done after squats then a fewer number of warm-up sets will be needed as the muscles being worked are similar. But if benches are following squats, then a similar warm-up scheme as for squats will be needed since different muscle groups are being used.

Subsequent lifts may or may not need a warm-up set. If one is moving say from benches to presses, the muscles being used are similar enough that a warm-up set might not be needed. But some might find a warm-up set or two is beneficial.

Sets

Opinions vary widely on the best number of sets to do. Some advocate doing only one work set per lift, usually done to failure, while others advocate 4-5 sets, usually done to less than failure.

But most find that one set is not enough. Progress can be made with one set, but usually only for a while. Eventually the progress stalls. But going the other way, 4-5 sets can be too much. That many sets can easily lead to overtraining. Also, it is hard to keep up a high intensity for that many sets. So I generally recommend 2-3 sets. As for myself, I have found that two sets work best.

Reps

How many reps one should do depends on ones goals in lifting. The chart below summarizes the best rep ranges for different goals:

Goal  Reps
Strength Development 3-8
Muscular Endurance 8-20
Muscular Size 3-8 and 8-20
General Fitness 8-12
Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters 3-8 and 1-2

An important point to note is that lower reps should not be done unless someone has been lifting for at least a year. The tendons and ligaments need time to strengthen before doing lower reps. So for safety sake, for the first year or two of training reps should be kept in the 8-12 range. 

It should also be noted that the 1-5 rep range is only for major compound movements like the powerlifts. Somewhat higher reps (6-12) should be used for isolation movements, especially exercises for small muscles like calves, forearms, and abs.

That said, there are several different methods to incorporate different ranges of reps into a training routine. The first is to use a cycle. Start with higher reps and gradually lower the reps over a period of ideally 3-4 months. So one could do say 8 reps for three weeks, then 5 reps, then 3 reps, then 1-2 reps. Such a program is a very good way for a powerlifter to prepare for a contest.

The second method is to use a pyramid system. Do three sets, dropping reps with each set. So a pyramid could be something like 8,5,3. Or, to focus more on strength, you could do the lower rep sets first then do a "back-off set of higher reps. So the workout be be something like: 5,3,8.

The third method would be to alternative using higher reps for a particular lift one day with lower reps the next. So if one is benching twice a week, then day one could be for 8 reps and day two for 4 reps.

And finally, one could use lower reps for the powerlifts and somewhat higher reps for major assistance exercises. So one could use 4 reps for benches on day one and 8 reps for close grips benches on day two.

Now, the above examples assume the lifter is going for a specific number of reps for each set. But if the lifter is training to failure then a range of reps is generally required, like 6-8. But there is much controversy in regards to this training method. My approach, which also uses a range of reps, would best be described as training to almost failure. See Training to Almost Failure for a discussion of these different training methods.

Rest Between Sets

How long of a rest should a lifter take between sets? The answer again depends on ones goals in working out. Taking a short rest, say less than a minute, would be best for developing muscular endurance and even some cardiovascular endurance. And a short rest would also cause the muscles to become very “pumped,” and many think that getting a pump aids in developing muscular size.

However, for those focusing on developing strength, it would be better to take longer rests. If one is not fully rested from the previous set or exercise then a full effort cannot be put into the coming set. But the lifter has to be careful not to rest too much and end up “cooling down” too much. Moreover, too long of rests could cause a workout to drag on for too long.

As for me, I usually take 6-8 minutes of rest between works sets for squats and deadlifts and major assistance exercises for these two lifts. I take about 4-6 minutes rest between work sets for benches and major bench assistance exercises. I take about 2-4 minutes rest between work sets of minor exercises. I take about half these time periods between warm-up sets and between warm-up sets and work sets. But each person needs to experiment to see what works best for you.

Core Exercises

Squats, deadlifts, benches, presses, and rows. These are the core weightlifting exercises. Any sound strength training program should be centered around them. Throw in a few “curls for the girls” and some ab work, and nothing else is required as together these exercises work every muscle in the body.

Many variations of these five core exercise are possible. The most notable is to use dumbbells instead of barbells for the last three. Also, using different foot stances and hand grips will alter somewhat the muscles used. And benches can be done at various angles. See Powerlift Assistance Exercises for descriptions of such variations.

However, what I do not recommend are machine equivalents of these exercises. Machines simply do not provide the same degree of muscular involvement as free weight exercises do. Take, for instance, bench presses.

When doing benches with a barbell, your own muscles must keep the weight from veering upwards, downwards, to the sides, twisting, or from coming up uneven. And dumbbells provide even greater muscular involvement, as dumbbell can move in even greater ways than a barbell. But all such movements are prevented with a machine, and so the machine is doing the work not your muscles. But in “real life” you will not have a machine preventing such movements. So free weights provide greater real world application than machines.

The only machines I really like are cable machines. The reason for this is that with cable machines your range of motion is not restricted as it is with most other machines. So lat. pulldown and cable pulls are very good exercises. There are other good exercises as well, such dips and pull-ups. But the above core exercises are a good place to start in designing a routine.

Workout Splits

Beginners should generally train three times a week, working the entire body each workout. But as lifters progress, it is very common to split up different body parts onto different days.

A common split is to work the lower body twice a week (like Monday and Thursday) and the upper body twice a week (say Tuesday and Saturday). So this has the lifter working out four times a week. But some will split the body parts up even more so the lifter can lift 5-6 days a week.

There are a couple reasons why routines are split up in such a fashion. The first is that as a lifter progresses working the same body part three times a week is just too much. Most will need to reduce to twice per week, and some even less often than this. The second reason for splitting the routine up is so the lifter can do more exercises or sets per body part.

This article is continued at Designing a Training Routine: Part Two.

The above article was posted on this site October 10, 2002.
It was last updated May 29, 2004.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

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