Nowadays, cruising through google you can find an endless amount of lifting programs floating around, waiting for you to grab them. Free, paid, in spreadsheets, in apps, in books, in plain text, you can find it all.
But how do you choose the right training program? Surely you can’t give your golden seal of approval to all of these programs, you want the best one, the one that will give YOU the most gains.
This can be a drag and there are a few factors to consider, so let me help you make your choice a bit easier.
The right answer is choosing my programs, shoot me an email and I’ll fix you up, I gotchu.
Joking aside, if you are really serious about your progress in the gym, getting a coach and/or a custom training plan is the best thing you can do.
The next best thing would be learning to program yourself and to evaluate other programs so you can make a wise choice.
One of the worst feelings you can experience out there is getting a new training program, fresh out of the oven, and seeing that it has you doing jumping jacks for the calves, deadlifts for the back, and farmer’s walks for the biceps.
Yes, these exercises will work your target muscle to some extent but you definitely cannot expect to get jacked if these are your main movements for said muscle groups, you will only make a portion of the gains you could have made, which saddens me immensely.
When choosing which exercises to add to your training program, make sure to add at least one compound movement per major muscle group (eg bench press, squat, deadlift, pullups, rows, overhead presses) and that the muscle you want to train is the one that is targeted the most in your exercise.
For example, both the bench press and dips are compound movements that work the chest and the triceps, But that doesn’t mean they are equally good exercises for these muscles.
If you want to mainly work your chest, bench press would be the right choice, while if the triceps are your main focus, then you may be better off doing dips instead.
Body part training frequency
Ok, so you have decided to start hitting the gym, got your training program, checked that your exercise selection is decent and are on your merry way to the holy gains land. But before you give your golden seal of approval to your training program, you need to examine how frequently you train each body part, gone are the golden bro days where you would hit chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, arms on Wednesday etc etc.
Well, you could do that if you want, but it would be far from optimal. Like creating a bonfire to cook instead of using your stove.
In general, you would want to train each muscle group 2-3 times per week for optimal gainzzz. And I know what goes through your mind now, “why not train each muscle group 7 times per week and get ALL the gains?”, which is a valid question, bravo!
The issue is, to build muscle, you need first to tear the muscle down through training and then let it recover and rebuild itself with adequate rest and food. This means you should let each muscle group rest for at least one (1) day before you train it again. But you can train another muscle group in-between.
For example, if I train chest on Monday, I should not train chest on Tuesday again, but it’s ok to train legs instead (in the alternate universe where I do actually train legs at least).
So, when choosing a training program, more often than not, a split where you train each part 2-3 times per week, would yield the best results
Overall training frequency
Next, you should look into your overall training frequency, meaning how often you train in general. Again, “the more the merrier” does not apply here, you need adequate time off to rest and recover, you should train at most six (6) days per week, which still is too much for a lot of people.
On the other side, some cheeky lil’ fellas will come and tell me that since you only need to train each muscle group twice a week, they can hit the gym only two times and train everything each time.
A lot of people do that and while it can help you maintain the muscle mass you have already built, it is not optimal for building additional muscle, because there is too much work jammed together, making you unable to have quality sets after a certain point, so aim for 3-6 training days per week.
It’s getting pretty sciency with all these terminologies, innit? Training volume refers to how many working sets you are doing per muscle group per week and as per usual, there is a floor and a ceiling to that.
For most people, the ideal volume is around 10-20 sets for each big muscle group and 5-10 for the smaller ones, where big muscle groups are muscles like your chest, your back etc, while small muscle groups are muscles like your shoulders and your biceps.
So, for example, if I train chest twice a week, I could do 7 sets on the first day and then 7 more on the second day, for a grand total of 14 american sets.
Now, regarding the smaller muscle groups that get worked while you are doing a compound movement for another muscle (eg how triceps get worked when you are doing the bench press for the chest), you can count this as half a set for the smaller muscle group or don’t count it at all, it’s up to you and how you react to that volume
For another example, if I am doing 8 sets of bench press per week, I should count this as 8 sets for the chest and I could also count it as 4 sets for the triceps, again, it’s up to the idividual.
Dr. Mike Israetel has a great article on training volume which you can find here
In every training program, the goal is to get bigger and/or stronger. It’s natural then to expect to progress in your exercises in one way or another to create this growth adaptation. Different programs have different progression schemes, some more complex than others, with the most common progression scheme being “add weight once you can do all your sets on the upper side of the rep range”.
Which means that if I have to do 3 sets of 8-12 reps with 20kg, once I’m able to do 3 sets of 12, I should increase the weight to 21.25 or 22.5 and start again at 8 reps.
A good progression scheme is not necessarily a complex one, it depends on the structure of the training program and how advanced the trainee (aka the person that uses the program aka hopefully you) is.
Getting the right training program for you is also highly dependent on…uhhm…you.
You should get a training program that takes your own training experience into account. This is important because it could slow down or put a halt to your progression and your gains.
We usually split people and training programs into three (3) categories: novice, intermediate and advanced, where each category has its own needs in volume, frequency and progression scheme, so choose a training program that aligns with your experience level.
Training goals are simple. They are the goals of your training. As in what you want to achieve through your training, not as in your training being a sentient being and have its own goals and aspirations.
Depending on what you want to achieve, you will have to build your program accordingly. You can’t say you want to focus on your legs and start every session with bench press and bicep curls. You can’t say you want to focus on your legs in general because noone ever trains legs actually.
Or, you can’t say you want to gain size from your training program and do sets of 2, 3 or 4 reps, your program and your needs should align.
Enjoyability (aka fun)
I am leaving this for last but it is one of the most important things when it comes to choosing a training program. You need to have fun training with this program.
If you enjoy your program, you will find it effortless to come to the gym, you will push more during your sessions, you will be more consistent and you will have better results.
But if you run a program you hate, you will start skipping the gym, you will dread every minute of being there, you will be inconsistent and if you keep this for long enough, you might end up hating the gym.
This means that even the perfect program will not do you any good if it is not a program you enjoy. On the other hand, a program that is not optimal but you love, might give you the best results of your life.
Finding a good training program can feel hard and complicated, but with some experience and knowledge, you can assess a program and decide if it’s good for you or not.
If instead you want to avoid the hassle of finding a program, then checking if it’s good for you and then running it to see if it was indeed good, or if you are not yet confident enough on your judgement, I could help you out, send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org and we can create a program that will be great for your own, personal goals.
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And if you want to read more, I highly suggest reading this article on the 5 most important gym tips