I’ve talked a lot about strength training here on the site. This is not by coincidence. Strength training has been one of my main interests for more than a decade. Not only have I done a lot of resistance training myself, but I’ve also set up strength training programs for hundreds of other people and worked with a diverse group of clients. Furthermore, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking and reading about the science and medical value of resistance exercise.
These days, I’m no longer as obsessed with strength training as I used to be, and I’m no longer in the gym lifting heavy 4-5 times a week; however, I’m still excited about resistance exercise and the effects it has on the human body and musculoskeletal system. Moreover, I still work as a coach. The strategy I follow when coaching clients over the web (which is mostly what I do these days) is not that different from the one I use when working with people in “real life”. Obviously, the process differs somewhat between the two types of coaching; however, the basic principles are the same.
Every now and then, I’m contacted by people who ask me questions about strength training. They want to know what kinds of exercises they should be doing, how often they should train, how many reps and sets they should do, and so on. In today’s article I thought I’d share my thoughts on these issues and describe my general approach to strength training. I’m not going to get into the details with regards to programming, progressive overload, etc.; rather, what I’ll do is to outline my approach to strength training as seen from a bird’s-eye view.
The question below, which I received quite recently, forms the basis of today’s article.
Hi Eirik. Can I ask you some questions? I’m a 38 year old woman who’s never trained actively; however, I walk at least 1 hour with my dog every day. I also do yoga every morning. I want to get stronger (especially in my upper body) and get more energy in my body. I “think” a lot and easily get tired; a vicious circle I think can be eliminated through exercise. I quickly lose weight. I’m 173 centimeters tall and weigh between 59 and 62 kgs. I eat mostly vegetarian and consume Turkish yoghurt containing 10% fat for breakfast and supper to maintain my weight. Do you have diet and exercise tips that can help me get more energy, maintain my weight, and get stronger?
It sounds to me like you want to get started with strength training. It also sounds like you need some help with your diet; however, in today’s article, I’d like to focus exclusively on your questions about exercise and strength development. I’ll first outline the general strategy I use when working with clients who are interested in building muscle and strength and then explain how you can use that information to create your training program.
Here’s what I generally do when I start working with a new client who looking to build a stronger, better-looking, and more muscular body.
1. Initial screening
After I’ve collected information about the client’s goals, health status, etc., I assess his – or hers (I’m guessing about 60-70% of the clients I’ve had over the years are women) – posture and have him do a variety of different exercises, stretches, and mobility drills, often including the air squat and some type of static hamstring stretch, in order to assess his mobility and determine how he moves his body.
Very few people have great musculoskeletal health and are able to perform exercises such as the squat and deadlift with perfect form. It’s very rare to come across someone who’s as flexible and gracious as the kid to the right.
A lot of contemporary humans have tight hip flexors, weak glutes, and poor posture. Moreover, they are incapable of performing movements such as the hip hinge with good form. This isn’t surprising, seeing as many factors associated with our modern way of life are known to cause muscular imbalances and bad posture, which set the stage for poor exercise form and compensation patterns.
Before I have the client do heavy strength training, I have him go through a reconditioning process. The nature of this process varies from client to client, depending on the client’s goals, health and fitness status, and the results of the initial screening. It often involves having the client learn and master the hip hinge movement and pelvic tilt movement and doing a variety of different exercises aimed at correcting muscle imbalance syndromes such as lower crossed syndrome and upper crossed syndrome.
3. Basic strength training
As the client goes through the reconditioning process, I gradually add more and more multi-joint exercises to his program. I only add exercises that he’s able to perform with good form. One of the goals of the reconditioning process is to change the workings of the client’s musculoskeletal system and brain in such a way that he’s able to perform movements such as the squat, deadlifts, and press with good form. In most cases, I pick one or two exercises from each category below that are appropriate for the client. These exercises form the basis of his program.
- Squatting movement: E.g., the barbell back squat, the box squat, the front squat
- Hip hinge movement: E.g., the deadlift, the sumo deadlift, the cable pull-through
- Pressing movement: E.g., the press, the dip, the push-up, the barbell bench press
- Pulling movement: E.g., the chin-up, the cable pulldown, the seated cable row
I typically have the client do 4-5 sets, 6-8 reps on each of these exercises, two or three times each week. When training beginners, I typically use the same weight on each set, whereas when I train more advanced clients, I often employ reverse pyramid loading. I’m a big proponent of whole body workouts, particularly in the context of coaching beginners to intermediates. If the client in question is eager to build a lot of strength and muscle, I’ll put a lot of emphasis on progressive overload, whereas if he’s not that interested in getting very strong or building a lot of muscle, but just wants to achieve overall good health, I’ll be more relaxed with regards to the progression in intensity.
In addition to the basic exercises selected from the categories below I sometimes add in some additional work for the abs, biceps, and triceps. Also, perhaps needless to say, I instruct the client to continue with the reconditioning process, such as by doing exercises that target his weak muscle groups, until I feel it’s no longer required.
4. More advanced strength training
As I’ve pointed out many times here on the site in the past (e.g., here), I don’t think it’s wise or healthy to perform a lot of high-intensity, high volume strength training, like many bodybuilders and gym junkies do. The human body is poorly adapted to that type of training. Extreme bodybuilding-type training puts excessive stress on the musculoskeletal system and adversely affects general health. Moreover, it puts a lot of strain on the gastrointestinal system, in the sense that it dramatically raises your caloric needs. I should know, as I used to do a lot (too much) of heavy lifting. With that said, when kept within reason, strength training is great.
After the client has started progressing on the exercises I selected for him under step 2, I’ll gradually adjust his program based on what I observe with regards to his exercise form and progress. I may remove or add in some exercises. In most cases, I have the client do whole body workouts 3-4 times per week, or a 2 split, with each workout performed twice a week. I stay away from bodybuilding-type training splits.
My impression is that most people think that the more experienced a strength coach gets, the more advanced and complex the programs he prescribes to his client become. In other words, a lot of people seem to assume that inexperienced coaches mostly stick to the basics – squats, deadlifts, leg presses, chins, and the like – whereas more experienced coaches tend to prescribe more unorthodox and “special” exercises and workout programs to their clients.
In my experience, this is not necessarily correct. Actually, I’ve found that the opposite is often true: experienced strength coaches tend to focus heavily on fundamental, multi-joint lifts and movements, whereas inexperienced coaches experiment and play around with a wide diversity of exercises, some better than others. This is not only something I’ve observed, it’s something I’ve experienced myself. When looking back on my own coaching career, I can clearly see this pattern.
When I first started working as a trainer/coach many years ago, I was eager to experiment with a lot of different exercises and programs, and I often did unusual and unconventional exercises with my clients. I even “invented” a couple of exercises myself, some of which were actually pretty good. Back then, I was extremely excited and enthusiastic about what I was doing, and at times, I spent almost every waking moment thinking and reading about programming and human kinetics and physiology. I learned a lot during this first phase of my coaching career. One of the things I learned is that less is usually more when it comes to strength training. A “simple” strength training program composed of a few high-quality exercises is, in most instances, superior to a complex program that’s composed of a whole bunch of different exercises and drills.
As I got more and more experienced, I gravitated more and more towards the less is more approach to exercise selection. The fitness template that grew out of the experience and knowledge I acquired was largely composed of fundamental, multi-joint exercises, such as the squat, dip, chin-up, press, and deadlift. I often threw in a couple of unorthodox or special exercises as well when I was training clients, either to add some spice to the workouts or address specific musculoskeletal limitations or issues, but these exercises were merely the icing on the cake. If the rest of the cake hadn’t existed, their usefulness would have been limited.
Some people may think that it’s boring to rely and focus so heavily on just a limited number of exercises. In my experience, these people don’t understand how complex exercises such as the squat, deadlift, push-up, and press really are. It wasn’t until I had worked as a trainer for several years that I felt I really started to master these lifts and had assembled the tools and knowledge I needed to quickly address any technical issues I observed while coaching clients.
There is a lot more to these types of exercises than most people think; a lot of tiny details and technical aspects that matter. When you master multi-joint movements such as the squat, push-up, deadlift, and press, you master “everything”, seeing as they cover all the basic movements that you need to master in order to “rule” the gym. Even most experienced strength trainees have a lot of potential left in these types of exercises, typically because they’ve never focused on actually learning and getting strong in them.
Putting it all together
I know this answer was probably a lot broader and more general in nature than you’d hoped, but hopefully you got something out of it. My main advice would be to select one or two exercises from each exercise category under step 3, and make those exercises the foundation of your program. Do those exercises 1-3 times every week, 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps on each, and focus on getting stronger.
Don’t be like most gym goers who wander around the fitness center doing a variety of different random exercises. Stick to the basics. Also, don’t skip step 2. If you suffer from a muscle imbalance syndrome, have poor posture, and/or are not able to perform exercises such as squat and deadlift with good form, you should seek to remedy those problems before you move on to heavy strength training.
Another thing I’d like to point out, in case I didn’t fully get the message across in the last section, is that more isn’t necessarily better with regards to strength training. Instead of focusing solely on strength training and destroying each muscle group once or twice a week, I would recommend that you follow a balanced training program that’s composed of a variety of different types of activities and exercises, including a lot of outdoor activity and bodyweight exercises.
Perhaps needless to say, the recommendations in this article are general in nature. They are obviously not tailored specifically for you, seeing as I would need to know more about your current health status, fitness level, goals, etc. in order to design a customized program for you. With that said, this article should equip you with a basic template that you can use to build your training program.