Don’t Fear the Weight Room: Considerations for Program Design (Part 2)

This is the last post in my Don’t Fear the Weight Room series.It’s been so fun chatting about this topic this month with you guys! To recap, here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Looking Beyond Group Exercise and Cardio
In my intro post, we talked about why a group exercise or cardio setting might not be helping you get stronger (if strength is your goal).

Breaking the Bulky Myth
In this post, I gave you some of the science behind why it’s really hard to bulk up as a woman. We chatted about how you and only you get to determine what your physique goals should be, and I gave you some examples of the changes that my body went through after I started my strength training journey.

Let’s Go On Tour
In this post, I provided an overview of the typical strength training equipment you might find in the weight room. We discussed what some of the different equipment is typically used for the pros and cons of each (ie machines versus free weights), and I also provided some sample exercises to perform with the different equipment.

Considerations for Program Design: Part 1
Last week, we reviewed how to start putting some of the pieces together. I went over the key components for a good warm up, and I taught you how to choose exercises for your workouts based on the movement patterns that will get you the most bang for your buck.

Today we are going to wrap up with some additional considerations for program design beyond the types of movement we talked about last week. It’s one thing to have an understanding of what types of exercises you should be doing as part of a well-rounded strength training program, but there are some other considerations you’ll want to keep in mind for program design as well.

Considerations for Program Design: Part 2

Variations and Balance

Last week, I recommended that beginner strength trainers put a full body workout together by selecting one exercise that covers the push, pull, squat, and hinge movement patterns. This will give you a four exercise workout to start out with. Once comfortable with the main four, I also recommended adding in more exercises to cover the unilateral, rotary, and core components for a workout consisting of 5-8 total exercises. As you continue to advance, you might consider focusing your workouts around just one or two of the main movement patterns instead of trying to hit them all at once. For example, if focusing on hinge/lower body and pull movement patterns on Mondays, your workout might look like this:

  • Superset #1: Barbell deadlifts/chinups
  • Superset #2: Reverse lunges/inverted rows
  • Superset #3: Single leg glute bridges/single arm bent over rows

This will give you more variations of the same movement patterns to play with for a stronger focus in those areas on any given day. Then in your next workout, you can focus on the others (ie Wednesday might be a squat and push focused workout). Just remember that one of the most important thing to keep in mind when choosing exercises for your program is balance. If you are creating a push/pull focused workout and include a horizontal push exercise like a pushup, you should also include a horizontal pull exercise like a row in either the same workout or during the next one. If you have a vertical push exercise like an overhead press, you should include a vertical pull exercise like a lateral pulldown. Make sure your lower body work includes moves that have both an anterior(front) and posterior(back) focus. Doing this is so important to prevent overuse injuries. Make sense?

Chin Ups

Volume

At the onset of this series, you guys told me that while you want to start a strength training program, you simply aren’t sure about how many reps or sets of an exercise you should do. For those not familiar with the terminology, reps refer to the number of repetitions of an exercise to be performed before resting or moving on to another exercise, and your sets refer to the number of times you’ll perform the prescribed number of reps. I recommend that beginners begin somewhere in the middle of the road. Doing 3 sets of 8-12 reps is a great place to simply establish a starting point and a good foundation for your training. You can always adapt from there. Remember that different rep ranges and sets are prescribed for different fitness goals, so that is going to depend on what your personal fitness goals are. For example, if you’ve been lifting in the 8-12 range for a while and are looking to get a little stronger, try decreasing to 6-8 reps instead with a heavier weight selection.

Front Squats

Load

Another common question I’m asked is how much weight to use, or what the appropriate load is. I recommend choosing a load that allows you to feel challenged while performing the exercises, but doesn’t have you breaking down the quality of execution! At the beginning of any program, you will need to do a little testing to figure out if the weights you are using are heavy enough. For example, if your program calls for 8-12 repetitions of a barbell squat, I recommend you choose weight that you think you can manage all 12 reps with and then attempt to perform all 12 reps while keeping quality form. If you manage all 12 reps and think you could have easily performed at least 3-5 more, then you increase your weight slightly on your next set to try again. If you could only reach 8 reps with good form, then stick with that weight until you can consistently reach the higher number in your rep range (12) for the required number of sets. Finally, if you could only manage less than 8 reps in good form, you should lower your weight on your next set. Be honest with yourself here! It’s an iterative process, and it’s better to choose something too light at first and adjust by going up instead of getting too extreme right out of the gate.

Order and Flow

I recommend placing your biggest or most technical lifts first: things like your squats, deadlifts, bench presses, chin ups/pull-ups. This is to make sure your body can perform these lifts to its optimal capacity while fresh out of the gate at the beginning of your workout. For flow, there are many options out there for what format to use, but some of the more common ways to format a workout include:

  • Straight sets: Complete all reps for a certain exercise, rest, then complete all reps for your second set of the same exercise, etc.
  • Supersets: Choose two exercises and alternative one set of exercise A with another set of exercise B.
  • Circuit: A series of exercises, performed one after the other, with little to no rest in between.

Trap Bar

Progressions

Finally, another question I’m frequently asked is how to know when to change things up. After programming 2-3 workouts for yourself to complete over the course of one week, I recommend that you remain consistent with these same workouts for a 4-6 week block. Of course you can change up the reps and load slightly from week to week as mentioned above, but you want the exercises themselves to be the same. Many people think that variety is key and that you need to do something different every single week to keep your muscles guessing, but this is true only to an extent. You can’t become stronger in your bench press if you do 3 sets of 8 bench presses this week and then not do them again for two months. Your variety will come at the end of the 4-6 weeks when you regroup to swap out some of the original selection of exercises or you gauge where you can progress existing ones. Progressions/variety can come in the form of:

  • Equipment: What tools you are using, ie progressing squats from bodyweight to dumbbell or kettlebell goblet to barbell
  • Volume: Increased or decreased reps/sets
  • Load: Not only increasing or decreasing weight, but varying where the weight is placed, ie a front squat versus a back squat
  • Variations: Bilateral or unilateral exercises, incline or decline, underhand or overhand grip, etc.
  • Rest: Increased or decreased rest between sets
  • Tempo: How slow or quickly you perform the move, ie slowing down the concentric or working part of the exercise, or adding pauses. Consider holding at the bottom of your squats or the top of your glute bridges.
  • Range of motion: Squat or pushup depth, for example

Finally, don’t forget to track your progress! It’s fun to go out and buy a cute notebook to journal your progress and see yourself improve in any of the above areas. 🙂

Phew! I really hope this series helped clean up some confusion surrounding strength training and gave you at least a few tangible takeaways for getting started. Please know that once you simply begin, there are SO many places you can take your program and progress it so that you can continue to evolve your fitness levels. To anyone who might have any follow-up questions about anything in this series, I am happy to chat with you further at any time! Definitely leave me a comment below or shoot me an email.

Good luck in your strength training journeys! <3