You won’t see many non-trainers who think it’s “difficult” to create a workout. After all, when you look at the exercises in a program, it doesn’t appear complicated: Take some movements, make sure they’re balanced and work all your muscle groups, throw them together in an order that works the bigger muscles first, and there you have it: A completed workout.
Exercise science isn’t rocket science, but it’s still a science. And there’s a reason that some workouts—while apparently similarly—offer very different results. People who design programs for a living understand what works, and it’s oftentimes not what you think. There are many relationships—such as fatigue, force coupling factors, recovery, total work capacity, and many more (such as your performance goals)—that play an under-appreciated role in great workout design.
That’s why I turned to Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S., author of the 101 Best Workouts of All Time. As the title would suggest, Sean has quite a bit of experience working with people who are known for designing incredible workouts. And as Fitness Director of Men’s Fitness, he’s seen a bit of everything. He identified some of the most common errors people make when creating workouts. -AB
Everybody wants to be his own personal trainer. You feel like nobody knows your body better than you do, so who better to figure out how to make it bigger, stronger, and leaner? The problem is that you are your own worst enemy, and your own ego, imagination, and preconceived notions of what it takes to change your body can hold back your progress (despite your “insider knowledge”). But eventually, we all want to take the reins of our own training, so if you’re going to do so, or already have, at least know the pitfalls to avoid.
This is easily the most prevalent and destructive problem among beginners and experts. Sometimes you just can’t imagine doing fewer than five sets for an exercise, when in reality (and especially for beginners) two or three is usually enough. The problem stems from the sport of bodybuilding, and the workout routines its champions—who are always genetically gifted and often steroid-enhanced—have made famous. Through magazines, other media, and pop culture, we’re led to believe that if we want bigger arms, we need to do four different types of curls as a bodybuilder would do, using drop sets, taking each set to failure with a five-second negative, or some other advanced technique.
The truth is, thankfully, building muscle is not that complicated. At least not for people in the early stages of their training or who have no plans to use performance-enhancing drugs. Look at how many sets, on average, some of today’s most popular strength and physique coaches prescribe in a workout.
Here’s a quick primer on some popular styles of training:
Whole Body: If you’re training your whole body in one session, one compound exercise per muscle group is enough; two to three sets each.
Upper/Lower Split: Hit one main lift (such as a bench press or a squat), follow it up with two assistance exercises that train the same muscles and the opposing ones for balance, and then finish with some work for the abs/arms/calves/forearms (or any area you deem to be a weak point).
Body Part Split: Three to four sets of about five different lifts ought to do it.
Doing more work than necessary can lead to overtraining and injury, not to mention time-consuming workouts. As with medicine, you want to find the minimum effective dose that nets results. Train hard and you’ll see that you don’t need to train for too long.
Whenever we set a goal, we tend to gear our training toward only that one thing, and forget about all the other little things that aren’t a priority. The only trouble is that those “little things” count. For instance, many guys start lifting weights because they want to build a bigger chest. They start doing all kinds of presses, flyes, and pushups in their workouts, because they’re eager to see their pecs grow. Unfortunately, they’re not thinking about their shoulders and upper backs, and how all that extra work is going to affect them.
Remember this line, which in the fitness world is akin to the golden rule: “Whatever you do on one side of a joint, you need to do an equal amount on the other side.” While a certain amount of imbalanced training is helpful for bringing up a lagging muscle group (when it’s a major weak point), most of the time, including when you’re a beginner, you’ll make faster progress when you keep things even. If you’re going to do 20 sets for chest on chest day, do at least that many for back on back day.
Balance is especially important for chest training because of the action the shoulders take. Pressing motions draw the arms in front of the body, lengthening the muscles on the back of the shoulders and tightening the front delts and pecs. Without rowing movements to counteract this motion, over time, you’ll develop a tight chest and rounded shoulders, setting you up for shoulder injury in addition to bad posture.
Try supersetting push and pull movements so you can always be sure you’ve done enough back work. Also, write your workouts down. Keeping a log helps you keep track of balance.
This is an extension of the last tip but warrants its own entry. While all you may want out of training is a big chest, ripped abs, or a stronger bench press, you have to pay attention to the small details that make them possible. Every workout, no matter what kind, needs to begin with a warmup. Part of that warmup should include foam rolling and stretching to promote blood flow and loosen tight muscle groups.
You should also work stretches and exercises that specifically target muscle imbalances into your training from time to time. These include a piriformis stretch (what strength coach Eric Cressey calls the seated 90/90 stretch) for the hips, and facepulls to protect the shoulders. Get used to the idea that not every exercise you do will be glamorous, fun, or immediately evident as a step that brings you closer to your goal. A good program strikes a balance between what you want to do—so you’ll stay motivated to train and enjoy the process—and what you need to do, so you can keep training pain-free years into the future.
Another misconception that bodybuilding culture has injected into mainstream thinking is that the body is just a collection of disparate parts. Many people think that if they squat on Monday they can still do a full back workout on Tuesday, complete with back extensions or, incredibly, even deadlifts. As if the lower back isn’t getting enough work from squatting.
It’s true that the deadlift trains the entire back hard and it is often categorized as a “back exercise”, but it’s also murder on the legs. Just because you don’t happen to be sore in your legs after squatting (hey, it can happen) doesn’t mean your body is ready for some heavy pulls only a day or so later. This kind of thinking shows a lack of understanding of how these exercises work, and while your training doesn’t need to be ultra-scientific to be effective, it does have to respect some rules.
Rule #1: Never train shoulders the day after a chest session
Rule #2: Limit your direct lower-back training to days you squat and/or deadlift.
Rule #3: Don’t superset exercises that demand a lot of your grip, such as rows and chinups.
Rule #4: Unless you’re dead-set on body-part training, consider breaking up your workouts according to movement patterns. It’s easier to understand which exercises should be done on which day when you think of your routine as consisting of push and pull movements, rather than chest day, shoulder day, and so on.
Hopefully, this article hasn’t thrown you into a panic, making you second-guess everything you do in the gym. Because more important than doing things correctly is that you actually do something consistently.
Thanks to the Internet, there’s more fitness information available today—right now—than there ever has been in history. With that much to look at, it’s no wonder you’re confused about what to do. The solution is to pick one thing and block the rest out of your mind, at least for a few months. (Don’t worry, it will still be here when you get back.) You’ll never make progress if you doubt what you’re doing or continually hop aboard the latest trend. A flawed program—and ALL of them are, to some degree—that you commit to is better than a superbly designed one that you’re unsure about or want to tamper with.
The best way to become your own trainer is to do what real trainers do—apply one program for a while and see how it goes, learn from it, and make changes only as needed. The key is making sure that you’re following the best workouts that follow the principles we know work. When you’ve given something a proper chance, only then will you know what does and doesn’t work for you, and you can stop getting in your own way on the path to building the body you want.
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