The Basics of Programming for Strength Training

Math by Byron Barrett

Strength programming doesn’t have to be this complicated.

A problem I see repeatedly in people who begin a new fitness program – whether it’s strength training, bodybuilding, or something else – is what I call program paralysis.

Program paralysis is where a potential trainee spends so much time working on developing or finding the perfect training program that they either never actually manage to get started on it, or they over-complicate it to such a degree that they start it but then drop it after a few weeks because it’s too much for them.

It doesn’t have to be that complicated. If you’re a new lifter/trainee rather than stress over all the minute details just get these handful of things in line in your programming and you’ll be fine. These are mostly specific to strength training, but trainees focusing on bodybuilding and other aspects can take things away as well.

Practice What You Want to Improve

If you want to improve at a specific lift, you need to be performing that lift. Whether it’s a single lift or multiple, if you want to get better at them and be able to perform them more easily with heavier loads then they need to be included in your programming somewhere.

I realize this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.

This isn’t to say that the only way to improve at a specific lift is to perform it – accessory work can have a big impact but it should be done in conjunction with the lifts you’re aiming to improve at.

Perform Each Lift Between One and Four Times Per Week

Particularly for people starting out, there’s no real need to stress out too much over having X number of workouts per week. So long as you’re performing each lift at least once per week, you’ll see progress. Keeping it less than four helps allow for recovery and makes sure that you don’t start feeling overwhelmed or burnt out schedule-wise and wind up quitting.

If it works better for you this could be one single giant workout per week, or even seven different workouts per week – the point is more to find something you can stick with consistently. People stress out too much sometimes over feeling like they have to lift three times per week, or do a five day split because that’s what the forums told them, when they would make decent progress just getting a solid session in once per week.

It’s better to work each lift only once per week, then feel like you have to commit to more and have it fall apart because you can’t fit it into your schedule.

Keep the Volume Up

For your main lifts, the ones from the first part up there that you specifically want to improve on, you want to get the majority of your volume in the 70% to about 85% of one rep max (1RM for short) range. This range should keep providing you with returns for a while starting out. If you’re unsure of your 1RM in various lifts there are calculators online that can help you figure it out, or you can grab a spotter and just test things out.

On heavier workouts around or above that 85% of 1RM mark shoot for between ten to fifteen total reps per workout of those main lifts, and for lighter workouts closer to the 70% 1RM end you can dial it up to 25 to 40 total reps per workout. How you split those up into sets is up to you, and it matters more that you can get up to that total volume in the workout than it necessarily does that you can do however many in a single set.

Supplement those with accessory work that supports those main lifts or hit any areas where you seem to have specific weaknesses. The accessory lifts you can keep in the thirty to fifty reps per workout range. As for weight, for accessory lifts it’s generally easiest to follow the old bodybuilding stereotype and just pick a weight that allows you to do eight to twelve reps per set.

Things like periodization and other fancy programming schemes can help, but they’re not strictly necessary and they can very easily over-complicate things. The closest thing I generally recommend for beginners is changing up your accessory lifts every now and again and playing around with different set & rep schemes while keeping your total volume consistent – but that’s mostly to keep you and your body from getting bored with the workouts.

Continue to Follow a Progression

You won’t continue to improve if you never implement some kind of progression – if you only do the same thing over and over again you’re guaranteed to eventually stagnate.

Over time you should be adding weight, adding sets, adding reps, whatever it takes to progressively add volume over time. In a general sense any kind of progression will be helpful, although if your primary goal is increased strength you should start out prioritizing adding weight / load and if your primary goal is building muscle or bodybuilding you should start out prioritizing progressions that add volume – either additional reps, sets, or both.

Observe and Re-evaluate

It’s not necessary to have a ‘perfect’ program from the outset – but it is important to keep an eye on your progress and continue to re-evaluate things to make sure you aren’t continuing with something that’s not providing the results you’re after.

While over-training is generally not a problem for new lifters, it can happen. If you find that you’re not progressing and that you feel run down and beat all the time, then back off a little on the volume and do a little less until you feel good again and see yourself making concrete progress.

If you’re on the other end of the spectrum, where you aren’t making any progress but you feel perfectly fine all the time in regards to energy levels, then you probably aren’t doing quite enough and can increase your training volume and do a little more each week until you start seeing progress again.

I hope this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, if you’re seeing good progress keep doing what you’re doing! Seriously, don’t mess with things if you’re seeing progress. There’s no reason to tweak a good thing until it stops giving you some kind of return, then you can fix it.

If you keep these handful of criteria in mind you should be able to put together or select a good training program to start making progress. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that training volume is a huge predictor of results – if you want to get bigger and stronger more volume is almost always the answer.

Have any questions or something to add? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Byron Barrett

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com