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Six ways to simplify designing a weight training program

If you are deciding to design your own weight training programs, you might be in for a surprise. Designing a program can be quite challenging because of the number of variables that you need to consider. But as strength and conditioning experts Thomas Baechle and Roger Earle discuss in the updated third edition of their best-selling book, Fitness Weight Training, you can simplify the process by breaking it down into six steps:

  1. Choose your training goal. Common weight training goals are increased muscular endurance, size, and strength; toning; and improved overall body shape or symmetry. However, as Baechle points out, “If you want your whole body to become bigger and stronger, the specificity principle recommends that you choose a program geared toward developing muscular size or muscular strength but not both.” On the other hand, you can choose different goals for different parts of the body, but deciding your primary goal is imperative before beginning.
  1. Determine training frequency. Before choosing your exercises, you need to decide how many days a week you will train. Most likely this decision is based on your personal or work schedule, how well trained you already are, and how many days a week you want to commit to doing other forms of exercise, such as cross-training. If you are a beginner, Baechle and Earle recommend performing two or three workouts a week that are spaced out evenly, eventually increasing the number of workouts a week to four after consistently following a weight training program for at least several months. If you are better trained, you should be able to handle training more than three days per week on consecutive days, but using a split routine that trains only one part of the body each day.
  1. Select exercises. Decide which body parts you will emphasize in the program and for what sport or activity you are training. “As you select each exercise, be sure to consider what equipment you need, which ones require a spotter, and how many you can complete in the time you have available to train,” Earle recommends. You also should make a list of the selected exercises and determine whether they involve free-weight barbells, machines, dumbbells, a stability ball, resistance bands, or kettlebells.
  1. Arrange exercises. This step is crucial because the arrangement of exercises affects the intensity of training. For example, performing the triceps extension immediately before the bench press will make the bench press more difficult, thus increasing the intensity of the program. Baechle says that several methods of arranging exercises exist, such as exercising large muscle groups first and small muscle groups last, alternating upper- and lower-body exercises, or alternating pushing exercises with pulling exercises. “No single method of ordering exercises will suit everyone,” he admits. “Sometimes the equipment available will help make your arrangement decisions.”
  1. Determine loads, sets, and repetitions. The process of determining the loads to use for each exercise will help you set the correct loads for your new program. Start with loads lighter than you think you can lift and add weight as needed to allow you to complete the desired number of repetitions. Earle points out that combining a body-shaping weight training program with sensible eating and aerobic workouts on other days of the week is an especially effective strategy for losing body fat and increasing muscle size for men, or sculpting the body for women, resulting in attractive changes to the body.
  1. Determine length of rest periods. Finally, before beginning, you need to decide on the length of your rest periods between sets and exercises. If you are a beginner, be conservative, allowing a little extra time between sets and exercises for the first several workouts in order to gradually become accustomed to working out.

As your training level improves, Baechle recommends experimenting with training approaches and finding what works best for you. “Although typically the more sets you perform of each exercise, the more or faster you will improve, the most important factor is to train within your ability—don't overdo it,” he stresses. “Make your training decisions carefully, based on your fitness level, experience, and training goals.”

Featuring 75 programs for muscle toning, body shaping, and pure strength training, Fitness Weight Training, Third Edition, uses color-coded workout zones—levels of difficulty and intensity—to help readers achieve weight training goals at their own pace.