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Strength Training Routines

by Gary F. Zeolla

Below are suggested strength training routines for beginner and intermediate lifters. Advanced lifters should see Powerlifting Training Routines.

The routines below focus on the powerlifts as that is my orientation, and I believe that a powerlifter's routine is one of the best ways to increase strength even for those who have no plans to compete. The three powerlifts (squats, bench presses, and deadlifts) with just a few additional exercises work every muscle in the body in a very effective manner.

Warm-Ups

It is imperative to warm-up before working out. This should consist first of 5-10 minutes of light aerobics. My favorite aerobics warm-up is the "Airdyne" exercise bike they have at the gym I work out at. This is the kind of exercise bike where you "peddle" with the arms as well as the legs. I like to use this for warm-up as it works the entire body. But a treadmill would work as well. The idea is to warm-up the entire body before progressing to lifting.

Then at least a couple of warm-up sets should be done for each major lift. The first warm-up should consist of a very light weight for about 15 reps, then each subsequent warm-up set[s] should use increasing greater weight and fewer reps. The number of warm-ups needed depend 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 ten reps, a warm-up would be something like: 15 reps with no weight (i.e. "free squats"), the bar (45 pounds) x 15,  135x10, 185x5. If the work set of 225 was only going to be for 5 reps, then I would also add a set of 2 reps with 205. 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 also being done on the same day, then a similar warm-up scheme as for squats will be needed since different muscle groups are being used. I would also suggest doing a warm-up set for additional lifts as needed.

At the end of the workout, it is also helpful to again do 5-10 minutes of light aerobics as a cool down. If you're doing an aerobics workout on the same day as lifting, lift first, then do the aerobics. This way, the aerobics won't tire you out for the lifting routine. Also studies show that doing aerobics after a lifting workout actually improves cardiovascular fitness better than doing the same amount of aerobics before a lifting workout. Just be sure to cool down at the end of the aerobics.

As for stretching, there is some controversy here. But I personally believe it is important to do some stretching. But one should never stretch while "cold." It should be done either at the end of the workout or at least only after the aerobics warm-up at the beginning of the workout.

Beginner's Workout

Squat
Deadlift with close (conventional) stance
Bench Press
Press
Cable Pulls or Rows
Lat. Pulldown or Curls
Crunches
Side Bends

This routine should be done three times/ week. Start with very light weights for all lifts. The most important thing when starting out is to be sure you are using correct form. Don't worry about how much weight is being lifted. This is no time to let one's ego get in the way of learning correct form. If you develop bad habits from the start, it will be hard to break them later. Better to learn to do the lifts properly from the start.

Strength gains will come in time. As they do, the weights should only be gradually increased. This type of routine that should be followed for at least several weeks. The idea here is to do a total body workout three items a week, utilizing a few major movements.

Start with one set of 12 reps for all lifts. After a few workouts, add a second set. A third set can be added later, or just stick with two sets. But never do more than two or three work sets per lift. Additional sets will just lead to overtraining and are really unnecessary.

If you access to cable machines, do the cable pulls and lat. pulldowns. If not, then do rows and curls. You can also all of these lifts with dumbbells rather than using a barbell if that's all you have access to. In fact, a dumbbell set might be cheapest way for someone to start lifting. all that is needed is a dumbbell set and maybe a study bench for doing dumbbell bench presses.

With dumbbells something like a picnic table bench if it is study enough will work. You won't need a bench with upright for setting the bar on as you would with barbell bench presses. Also, squats can be done by just lifting the dumbbells from the floor. They'll be no need for squat racks as would be needed with a barbell.

Note that this routine is only for the absolute beginner. The idea is to use very light weights and not work very hard. This gives time for the newbie to get used to the movement and to work on form. At the most, this program is to be followed for a month. As soon as heavier weights start to be used and more effort is put into the movement, then squats and DLs need to be done less often.

Intermediate Workout

At that point, move to the following intermediate routine. Still lift three times a week, but alternate between two workouts. So you’ll only be doing each workout every 4-5 days. Optional and variant exercises are given in parentheses.

The outline will be:
Day One: Squat, Bench, Upper Back, Forearms, Abs.
Day Two: Deadlift, Bench assistance, Biceps, Abs.

Day One:

1. Squat
2. (Calves)
3. Bench Press
4. Incline Bench Press
5. Pull-ups (or Lat. Pulldowns)
6. Reverse Curls
7. Crunches
8. Reverse Crunches

Day Two:

1. Deadlift
2. Leg Curls (or Low Back machine)
3. Decline Bench
4. Overhead Press
5. Dumbbell Bent-over Rows (or Cable Pulls)
6. Curls
7. Bicycle Ab Exercise

Follow this intermediate routine until doing lower body work three times a week is too much. This will vary from a few weeks to several months. When you feel it’s time for a change, it probably is.

Intermediate Workout

Eventually, one might want to switch to a a four times per week program, such as Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. Such a split will also enable more exercises to be done.

The same muscle groups will be worked on Monday and Thursday and different muscle groups on Tuesday and Saturday. This way, each muscle group is worked only twice per week. Continue to do two or three sets for each of the exercises. However, reduce the sets to ten reps for most reps. The only exceptions would be calf and ab exercises. Keep these at twelve reps as these body parts seem to respond to higher reps better.

The basic outline is:
Day One: Legs, lower back, upper back, biceps, and forearms (i.e. the legs and pulling muscles).
Day Two: Chest, shoulders, triceps (i.e. the pressing muscles), and abs.

Day One:
Squat
Deadlift
Cable Pulls (or Rows)
Curls
Standing Calf Raises

Day Two:
Bench Press
Incline Bench (or Close Grip Bench, or Dips)
Press
Tricep Pushdowns
Crunches
Reverse Crunches

At this point, it won't be possible to continue to just using dumbbells if that's what one has been doing. If this is one's only option, it would be best to continue doing the beginner's routine, only do it just twice/ week. Also, one could add one or two of the added exercises above.

It would be best to find a good gym to join. But if this is not an option, then I would suggest getting at least a bench with uprights for doing bench presses and a power rack or some kind of squat racks for doing doing squats. But for benches and if using squats racks, always be sure to have a spotter for safety.

The most important lift added here is deadlifts. These can be done with a "conventional" (close) stance or a "sumo" (wide) stance. The former works the lower back more while the latter works the hips more. One should experiment with both stances and see which is most comfortable. If using a sumo stance, then it is important to continue doing stiff-leg deadlifts since the sumo stance doesn't work the lower back as much as the conventional stance.

Eventually doing both squats and deadlifts on the same day might prove too grueling. So at this point I would suggest trying one of the routines listed at Powerlifting Training Routines.

Strength Training Routines. Copyright 2002 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above routines were posted on this site November 7, 2001
and last updated March 11, 2008.

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

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