Unless you’re working with a very experienced trainer, it’s difficult to know what the optimal strength training program is. If you search online, you’ll see thousands of different conflicting opinions. To clear up some of the confusion, we read through hundred of studies on strength training to put together the following scientific strength training program.
- Amount of weight: One meta analysis found that untrained participants (lifting for less than a year) should lift an average of 60% of their 1 rep maximum (the maximum amount of weight they can lift for one repetition), or roughly 12 repetitions per set. Trained participants (lifting for more than a year) should lift an average of 80% of their 1 rep max, or roughly 8 repetitions per set. Another meta analysis found that college and professional athletes should train at least 85% of their 1 rep max (there wasn’t enough data to make recommendations above that number).
- Number of sets: One meta analysis found that both untrained (lifting for less than 1 year) and trained (lifting for more than 1 year) participants should lift an average of 4 sets per muscle group. Another meta analysis found that college and professional athletes should lift an average of 8 sets per muscle group.
- Exercise order: Even with sufficient rest, performance typically declines over the course of a workout. For that reason higher intensity, multi-joint exercises like the squat and bench press are typically performed early in a workout. You also may want to perform any new exercises (that you’re trying to learn) or exercises targeting an especially weak muscle early in the workout.
- Rest between sets: Studies have shown that 3-5 minutes of rest between sets is ideal.
- Supersets: The problem with resting 3-5 minutes between sets is that your workout can take a long time. One study found that training one muscle group at a time with 4 minutes rest between sets led to the same results as alternating opposing muscle groups (like biceps and triceps) with 2 minutes rest between sets. So instead of doing bicep set 1, bicep set 2, bicep set 3, tricep set 1, tricep set 2, tricep set 3 (with 4 minutes rest between each), you do bicep set 1, tricep set 1, biecep set 2, tricep set 2, bicep set 3, tricep set 3 (with 2 minutes rest between each). This allows you to finish your workout in almost half the time.
- Rep speed: the concentric part of a movement is when you’re fighting gravity (bringing the weight toward your chest when doing a curl), while the eccentric part of a movement is when you’re going with gravity (lowering the weight when doing a curl). Studies show that the concentric movement should be as fast as possible, while you should control the eccentric movements so that gravity isn’t doing all the work.
- Frequency: A meta analysis found that untrained participants (lifting for less than 1 year) gained additional strength when training each muscle group up to 3x a week. Trained participants (lifting for more than 1 year), however, achieved maximal strength gains by training each muscle group 2x a week. Another meta analysis found that college and professional athletes gained no additional strength from training each muscle group 3x a week (see below). To clarify, these numbers are days training each muscle group, not total days training. So, intermediates could spend 2 days a week on their upper body and 2 days a week on their lower body.
- Train to failure?: Training to failure is when you try and do one more repetition and you fail to complete it with proper form. Given the risk of overtraining and the small to nil benefits to training to failure, it’s best to stop a rep before failure.
- Periodization: Periodization simply means planned variation of the volume, frequency, intensity and/ or exercises performed. One study found that a 16 week periodized program significantly beat out 2 nonvaried programs.
One meta analysis confirmed that periodized programs, do in fact, beat out nonvaried programs even after controlling for volume and the amount of weight lifted. The most successful type of periodized program has been found to be nonlinear periodization. It might sound complicated, but all you have to do is vary your an element of your program on a daily basis. For example, you could alternate between 12- 15 repetitions, 8-10 repetitions and 4- 6 repetitions per exercise.
- Progressive overload: The most important concept in strength training is progressive overload. Progressive overload means that more stress needs to progressively be placed on muscles over time for them to continue to adapt. This is often accomplished by adding weight to each exercise as you get stronger.
Based on that data, beginners should do a total body workout 3x a week on non-consecutive days. Here’s an example program:
Find a weight that allows you to do 12 reps of each exercise (and no more with good form). When you’re able to do more that 12 reps, add more weight. Superset each pair of exercises with the same number in the chart above. Perform the concentric part of each exercise as fast as possible and control the eccentric movements. Finally, start with 1 set of each exercise and increase it up to 3 over time. Here’s how you could structure the program over the course of a week:
For intermediates, the data supports an upper body and lower body split so that you work each muscle group 2x a week. Here’s an example program:
A nonlinear periodization program for intermediates. So, the first time you do the upper body workout you pick a weight where you can do between 4 and 6 repetitions (and no more with good form). The second time you do the upper body workout later that week you pick a weight where you can do between 8 and 10 repetitions (and no more with good form). The third time you do the upper body workout the next week you pick a weight where you can do between 12 and 15 repetitions (and no more with good form). You continue to alternate those rep ranges for both the upper and lower body workouts. When you’re able to do more than 4-6, 8-10 or 12-15 weights on a given day, add more weight. Like the beginner workout, you alternate sets of exercises with the same number in the charts above. Perform the concentric part of each exercise as fast as possible and control the eccentric movements. Here’s how you could structure the program over the course of a week:
So pick either the beginner or intermediate program and get started. Obviously, feel free to tweak them to suit your goals/ schedule. If you’re able to stick with either one, you’ll see results. Good luck!
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