Now it’s time to start getting serious, putting some pencil to paper, and creating the best damn muscle-building, fat-burning program the world has ever seen.
Ok.Ok. Maybe not the best program the world has ever seen, but at least it will be one that’s actually built on science, not marketing garbage, will continue to get you results for years to come without resorting to steroids, and save you hundreds of dollars in paying a trainer for an identical program.
4 steps is all it takes… 4 steps to become the da Vinci of program creation.
Step 1 – How many days per week can you lift for 30-45 minutes?
Although you probably get nauseous every time I say this, I’m going to do it anyway. Grab the puke bucket. The key to creating an exercise program that gets results is consistency. A crappy program done consistently will produce far better results than a great program done inconsistently.
If Mr. Musclehead tells you that you have to exercise 4 times per week, but you can only lift three times per week, don’t follow his program. Missing that one day every single week could completely ruin that program and not get you the results you were hoping for.
Although there isn’t an exact numbers of sets needed to induce hypertrophy, the research has been able to give us a pretty good idea – anywhere from 12-20 sets per body part per week. So, when I create a program for someone, I attempt to spread out that volume over the course of a training week. If I put you on an upper body/lower body split 4 day per week program, missing one session essentially cuts the volume in half for either the upper body or lower body, thereby completing negating the benefits of the program. Knowing you could only exercise three times per week, I would have created 3 total body sessions, splitting the volume evenly each session thereby ensuring you hit the weekly volume needed to stimulate muscle growth.
And that’s a perfect segue into splits. It’s easily one of the most common questions lifters have. Should I do 1-2 muscle groups per training session like a traditional bodybuilding routine and lift 5 days per week? Should I lift lower body one session, upper body the next session, take a day off, and repeat? Should I lift total body every session? Help me. What should my training split be? I’m going crazy here man.
It doesn’t matter.
Your availability is going to determine your workout split (how you set up your lifting sessions throughout the week). If you can only train 3 times per week, you’re not going to be able to follow a traditional bodybuilding split of 1-2 muscle groups per training session, unless you plan on completely avoiding training a few muscle groups which I do not recommend. So, first, you’ll need to know how many days per week you can lift, and then the training split will become obvious.
Step 1 Question – How many days per week can you lift? Remember, the 90% rule. If you can’t be 90% compliant, decrease the number of training days. There is no magic training split that is superior in terms of building muscle mass beyond the one you can do consistently.
Step 2 – Fitting the volume in your availability
Now that you know how many days you can train, it comes down to basic math. Your goal is to hit each muscle group with 12-18 sets per week, utilizing 6-12 reps per set 75% of the time.
And to add a little more complexity to this step, you have to pay particular attention to crossover effects. For example, although the bench press may be traditionally classified as a chest exercise, it would also be counted as a tricep exercise when we start calculating the total volume for each muscle group. So if you did 4 sets of barbell bench press, you’d have 4 sets for chest and 4 sets for triceps counted toward your weekly volume.
Step 3 – Creating and categorizing a list of favorite exercises
Step two is slightly confusing. So, I make it easier by keeping a list of exercises for each body part that I enjoy doing. I categorize them into body parts first, and then I subcategorize them into primary (intensity- where the focus is on adding weight each workout), secondary (volume/mechanical stress – where the focus is on adding enough volume via mechanical stress to the workout) and isolation exercises (volume/metabolic stress – where the focus is on creating a metabolic disturbance and building volume).
Side note: For an in-depth explanation on the driving forces behind muscle hypertrophy, google Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, one of the leading researchers of hypertrophy in the world.
I then just plug and play, calculate up the weekly volume, and adjust accordingly. Often times it will take me 2-3 tries to get it just right.
For example, the following exercises are my 3 favorite primary chest exercises:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Close-Grip High Incline Barbell Bench Press
- Low Incline Barbell Bench Press
The follwing 4 exercises are my favorite secondary chest exercises:
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Decline Dumbbell Press
The following 6 exercises are my favorite isolation exercises for the chest:
- Incline Dumbbell Flyes
- Flat Dumbbell Flyes
- Standing Cable Crossover
- High Rep Pushups
- High Rep Dips
- Incline Cable Crossovers
You’ll need to do this for every major body part – chest, back, shoulders, quads, and hamstrings. The smaller body parts like calves, biceps, triceps, and abs are usually just trained with secondary and isolation exercises.
Dad Tip: If you’re really limited on time, you can just focus on the big body parts (chest, back, shoulders, quads, and hamstrings), and the carryover effect from training those body parts should be enough to make your arms and calves grow without any direct work, unless of course you want 24″ pythons
I suggest picking between 3-4 primary exercises, 4-6 secondary exercises, and 4-8 isolation exercises for each body part.
The primary exercises will be the big lifts, primarily barbell movements, that weight increases can be made week-to-week or every other week. These exercises hit multiple muscle groups and thus have a large carryover effect. Increasing the weight on your deadlift by 5lbs every week is manageable for most of us, while attempting to increase 5lbs on the dumbbell curl is tough. Thus, a deadlift would be a great primary exercise while a dumbbell curl will quickly hit a plateau and be a poor choice. We use these exercises as our quarterly benchmarks letting us know if we’re getting stronger. Moving as much weight from point A to point B in safe, controlled manner is the goal.
The secondary exercises, usually dumbbell or machine variations of the primary exercises, will still hit multiple groups, however increasing these lifts weekly will be tough for most of us. Thus, our focus is on controlling the weight throughout the exercise, attaining full range of motion, increasing time under tension, and instead of focusing on how much weight is on the bar, focusing on how much work the muscle is doing.
The isolation exercises, usually cable or dumbbell exercises, hit a single muscle group. Thus, our focus is on making the particular muscle group do as much work as possible in a controlled manner, really focusing on that mind-muscle connection. These exercises are usually associated with a burn/pump because we’re using higher reps resulting in a metabolic disturbance that’s causing the muscle to be flooded with oxygen and nutrients in the blood. Weight is of secondary importance, as we’re primarily chasing the pump.
Those exercises right there will provide me with enough variation to create a 12 month program.
Step 4 – Putting it all together
So once you’ve determined how many days you can train per week and created an exercise list for each body part, open an Excel spreadsheet and start playing around. When you’re just starting out, it’s easier if you put the body part in parenthesis after the exercise so you can easily calculate the total weekly volume when you’re done.
1A.Barbell Bench Press 3 sets of 6-8 reps (chest and triceps)
2A. Barbell Bent-Over Row 3 sets of 6-8 reps (back and biceps)
Viola… Now you’re a lean, mean workout creating machine. Of course, please remember the three fundamental truths to all effective exercise programs.