Hello! We’re on to week three of my Don’t Fear the Weight Room series.

If you are just stumbling upon this and want to catch up, here’s what you need to do:

Last week we talked a lot about the equipment, so this week we are going to chat more about the exercises you should be doing! At the onset of this series, many of you reached out to me to say that you want to get started, but simply aren’t sure how to structure a routine.

What exercises should I do?  

In what order should I do them? 

How do I know if I’m doing them correctly? 

I totally get this, you guys! Even when you become more comfortable navigating around the weight room and understand what the different equipment is for, it can still feel a bit confusing or intimidating when it comes to building a workout. As this post is called considerations for program design part one, this week we’ll focus on mainly what exercises to choose this week for an effective program. I am going to give you some of the basic components that will help you put some of the pieces together, and then next week we’ll get into some more detail for part two. Here we go!

Considerations for Program Design: Part 1

1. The Warm Up

I can’t say this enough: do not skip your warm-up! While it’s certainly okay to hop on a cardio machine for ten minutes to get your heart rate up and body temperature elevated, I actually recommend utilizing a different approach to get you fully prepared for your workout.

  • First, begin with some soft tissue work by rolling around on a foam roller (or tennis ball, medicine ball, etc.). Foam rolling is a great way to transition into your workout, as it breaks up knots in your muscles and gets you moving around a bit. When I foam roll, I always target my upper back, lats, glutes, IT bands, and quads.
  • After foam rolling, take some time to just breathe! The concept of diaphragmatic breathing is something I learned from the Modern Woman’s Guide to Strength Training program (the very program that helped me get started myself a few years ago!), and it’s designed to help you breathe properly through your workout, especially as you begin moving on to heavier lifts. The gist is to go through breath repetitions where you breathe in through your nose for 3-5 seconds and then breathe out through your month for 8-10 seconds until you feel like you have no air left to blow out.
  • Finally, the last piece of your warmup will be to incorporate some light dynamic exercises that will help with mobility and range of motion and get your body ready to work. Things like bodyweight glute bridges, clam shells, and bird dog are great choices. You can also include movement specific exercises to your warmup depending on what strength work you plan on doing. For example, if you are going to tackle barbell squats in the workout, you may want to include bodyweight squats as part of your warmup. For a bench press day, try doing some pushups first. You get the idea.

Foam Roll

2. The Main Movement Patterns

When it comes to choosing what exercises to include in your workouts, I recommend thinking in terms of movement patterns as opposed to muscle groups. The following is a breakdown of the main movement pattern categories that you want to keep in mind, along with sample exercises for each one:

Push
Your push movements include exercises that rely primarily on the anterior (front) muscles of the upper body to push a load away from you. All your pressing moves fall into this category. Sample horizontal push exercises include your bench press variations (ie dumbbell versus barbell, flat versus incline or decline), floor presses, and push up variations (ie incline, flat, decline, etc.). Sample vertical push exercises include your overhead press variations (ie seated versus standing, dumbbell versus barbell), push press variations, and corner presses.

Pull
Your pull movements include exercises that rely primarily on the posterior (back) muscles of the body to pull a load toward you. Sample horizontal pull moves include row variations (ie dumbbell, barbell, inverted on TRX, seated, band, etc.) and band pull aparts, while sample vertical pull moves include your chin ups, pull ups, and cable pulls like lateral pulldowns or split stance angled pulls.

Squat
Exercises that fall into the squat movement pattern are those that utilize a lot of flexion, or hip and knee bend. Some people refer to these as lower body push movement, but basically your squat exercises will rely primarily on the anterior (front) muscles of the lower body to push a load away from you. Sample flexion exercises include bodyweight squats, goblet squats, sumo squats, dumbbell front squats, barbell front squats, barbell back squats, box to squat, etc.

Hinge
Exercises that fall into the hinge movement pattern are those that utilize a lot of extension, more hip bend with less knee bend. Some people refer to hinge exercises as lower body pull movements because they rely primarily on the posterior (back) muscles of the lower body to pull a load toward you. Sample hinge exercises include deadlift variations (kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell, trap bar), glute bridge variations (bodyweight, stability ball, barbell), and hip thrusts.

Don't Fear the Weight Room: Movement Patterns

Remember that you really want to master the exercises that fall into these four foundational movement pattern categories before you start getting too fancy or carried away. Remember that basic does not equal easy! The suggested exercises mentioned throughout this section are all your basic compound movement patterns that allow you to train several muscles groups at once instead of isolating one muscle of the body at a time. For example, why should you train only the muscles in your arms in a training session with biceps and triceps work when you can train your entire body (including your arms!) in less time with full body exercises like squats and chin ups? There isn’t anything inherently WRONG or unsafe about incorporating bicep curls or triceps dips into your training regimen, but choosing compound exercises where you get more bang for your buck is not only going to burn more calories, but it’s going to get you more efficient and effective training.

Standing Cable Rows I stopped doing dedicated bicep and triceps work all together two years ago, and I have never loved my arms more in my life!

3. The Supplemental Movement Focuses

Aside from your main movement patterns, your program should also include a focus on core strength, stability/balance, and rotation. For example, for stability and balance, consider adding unilateral work where you work one leg at a time.

  • Sample lower body unilateral exercises include lunge variations (walking lunges, reverse lunges, split squats), step ups, sit to stands, and single leg deadlifts. Doing exercises like these, with the goal of safely adding load, is going to be far more beneficial for your core than doing something like bosu squats (how can you ever get stronger safely on that unstable surface?). Again, remember to stick with the basics instead of getting flashy. You can work in upper body unilateral exercises to your main movement patterns as well, with things like the one-armed version of rows or presses.
  • Rotary work is important because just like we move around in real life on one leg at a time, when in real life do you only move forward to backward or side to side? We function in all different planes, so it’s important that you incorporate exercises that allow you to do the same, such as woodchops or horizontal medicine ball throws.
  • Finally, for additional core work to what you will already inherently be doing as you strength train, I recommend focusing on anti-extension to encourage more posterior pelvic tilt (ie dead bugs, RKC planks), anti-rotation to resist rotation in the lumbar spine (ie pallof presses), as well as anti lateral flexion to resist side bending (farmer’s carry, suitcase carry, etc.). I’m sorry, but there’s just no need to do 15 minutes of crunches at the end of your workouts anymore! Again, nothing inherently wrong with doing crunches if you enjoy them, but if you are looking for what’s the most efficient and effective, crunches be gone.

RKC Planks

4. The Cool Down 

There’s a lot of debate in the fitness industry on the benefits of stretching, but I always like to finish a strength workout with some stretching on the mat. It just feels good and gives me some time to just be with my thoughts. You can also add in some concluding breath work here before hitting the locker room or heading home.

Give program design a try! 

For beginner strength trainers, a great place to start to create a full body workout is to simply pick one exercise from each of the main movement categories and put them together. Just plug and play to come up with two different versions if you have two days a week to strength train or three different versions if you have three days. Just make sure your selection is balanced, especially when it comes to including both horizontal and vertical push and pull exercises throughout the week. For a rep scheme, I recommend starting with a basic format of three sets of 8-10 reps in a circuit or superset format. Stick with this routine for about a month to establish your basic foundation of strength, and then once you become acclimated and feel more comfortable with the basics, you can then start adding in more variety and intensity. For more intermediate fitness levels, feel free to create a lengthier workout with 4-8 exercises by adding these supplemental pieces to your main movement exercises of choice.

Hopefully this post helped shed some light for any of you who simply weren’t sure where to begin! Again, start slow and focus on quality form before moving on to more advanced progressions. Good luck!

  1. Thanks for this great post, Athena! While I’m generally not afraid of the weight room, it was cool to see the breakdown of how to attack a weight circuit and the differences between push, pull, squat, and hinge exercises. Thanks!

  2. I think this is a very helpful post for people who are just looking to get into weights! For me, breaking a workout down into the 4 major categories always helps to make sure I’m creating a balanced workout, especially when I am teaching! For my own workouts, I tend to pick 2 of the categories and add in more variations to them for a stronger squat/pull/push/hinge focused workout.

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