The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength

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Key Takeaways

  1. The single best way to gain muscle and whole-body strength is to follow a strength training program that’s based on the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.
  2. The best strength training program for you depends on your goals, how long you’ve been lifting weights, and what gets you most excited to train.
  3. If you follow one of the strength training programs below, chances are good that you’ll be setting PRs again in 3 to 6 months.

You’re stuck.

 

You’ve been busting your butt in the gym, sticking to your workout routine, and maybe even tracking your workouts, but you just aren’t gaining strength or muscle.

Should you eat more protein?

Should you try “fancy” training methods like rest-pause sets, supersets, or “muscle confusion” workouts?

Or, should you just accept that you’ve played your genetic hand as best you could, and now you have to make do with what you’ve got?

Chances are good the answer is “no.”

With the right program, you can get stronger, and I’m going to show you how in this article. If you follow the advice below, in 3 to 6 months you could be throwing around weights that make current you cringe.

The key is picking the right program, although that’s easier said than done.

Every option has its own bells and whistles, and you aren’t sure which one is right for you.

This program has light days and heavy days, that program doesn’t.

This program starts with squats, that one starts with deadlifts.

This program is 4 days per week, that one is 2.

The second you think you know which strength training plan you want to follow, you stumble upon some forum post that says it’s garbage. No no no, the keyboard warrior cries, THIS plan is what you need. Then someone else chimes in and the whole cycle repeats itself.

How are you supposed to choose?

Well, here’s the short answer:

All of the best strength training programs have a few simple principles in common. As long as you get these right, then you can make excellent progress on almost any plan, and which one you choose comes down to 3 factors:

  1. How many years you’ve been training.
  2. What you want to improve the most.
  3. What gets you most fired up to go to the gym.

I’ll help you decide exactly what plan to follow based on those three criteria.

The long answer?

Read on to find out.

Let’s start by defining exactly what strength training is.

What Is Strength Training?

what is strength training

Strength training involves lifting weights with the goal of increasing your whole-body strength as much as possible.

The terms “weightlifting,” “resistance training,” and “strength training” are often used interchangeably, but there are a few key features that make strength training unique.

Strength training…

Emphasizes sets of lower reps (4 to 6) over sets of higher reps (6 to 15+). This is because lower rep ranges allow you to move the most weight, which is the fastest and most effective way to gain strength.

Revolves around a handful of compound exercises. This is because compound exercises lend themselves best to moving heavy weights for low reps.

A compound exercise is one that involves moving multiple joints and muscle groups through a full range of motion, and some of the best examples include the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up/pull-up.

Prioritizes weight over reps and sets. This is because if you want to get stronger, the most important factor is increasing how much weight you lift over time. Eventually you’ll need to do more volume (sets, reps, exercises) to keep the needle moving, but the focus should always be on pushing, pulling, and squatting more weight over time.

Allows for rest periods that are long enough to recover before each set. This is because longer rest periods allow you to lift more weight for more reps and sets, which is the best way to get bigger and stronger. They also allow you to maintain better form during your workouts, which reduces your risk of injury and improves your performance when using heavy weights.

At bottom, strength training is all about trying to make sure that future you can lift more weight than present you.

That’s it.

Everything else you read, hear, and listen to is designed to help you accomplish that goal.

Many people also think of “powerlifting” and “strength training” as more or less the same, but there are a few key differences here as well.

Powerlifting is a sport based around squatting, benching, and deadlifting as much as possible relative to your body weight, all on the same day (during a “meet”). There are very specific rules about how the lifts are to be performed, in what order the lifts are performed, and who your lifts are compared to.

Strength training, on the other hand, can involve many of the same exercises, but the goal isn’t solely to get as strong as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Instead, you’re trying to increase your strength on every exercise over time, and usually you aren’t on a deadline or trying to stay at a certain body weight, as you are when powerlifting.

Another way to look at it is that powerlifting is a sport based around strength training.

Now, what if your goal is to get stronger and build muscle? Does this kind of training work for that, too?

Yes, and quite well.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Why Strength Training?

Many people think strength training is for getting strong but not necessarily big.

Oh how wrong they are.

Sadly, this idea is one of the most common mistakes that keeps people stuck in strength and muscle gain purgatory—never getting any bigger or stronger despite huffing and puffing away for years.

To understand why this happens and why strength training is the solution, we need to look at the physiology of muscle growth.

There are three primary ways to stimulate muscle growth:

  • Progressive tension overload
  • Muscle damage
  • Cellular fatigue

Progressive tension overload (or just “progressive overload”) is the most important of the three.

It refers to progressively increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers, and the most effective way to do this is to add weight to the bar over time.

Muscle damage refers to just that—microscopic damage caused to the muscle fibers by high levels of tension.

This damage necessitates repair, and if the body is provided with proper nutrition and rest, it will grow the muscle fibers to better deal with future workouts. (It’s not entirely clear if muscle damage actually stimulates muscle growth on its own or if it’s just a side effect of progressive tension overload, but we can let the scientists sort that question out for now).

Cellular fatigue refers to a host of chemical changes that occur inside and outside of muscle fibers when they contract repeatedly.

When you repeat the same movement over and over again to the point of near muscular failure, this causes high amounts of cellular fatigue.

Now, you can think of these three factors as separate muscle growth “pathways.” Each stimulate muscle growth but not equally.

They also relate to what scientists call the “strength-endurance continuum,” which works like this:

  • Heavy, low-rep weightlifting primarily builds strength and results in higher amounts of mechanical tension and muscle damage, but less cellular fatigue.
  • Lighter, higher-rep weightlifting primarily increases muscle endurance and results in lower amounts of mechanical tension and muscle damage, but more cellular fatigue.

There are benefits to both kinds of training, but if your goal is to get as strong as possible, you want to emphasize heavy, compound strength training in your workouts.

What surprises many people, though, is that heavy strength training is also very effective for building muscle.

In fact, if you want to achieve your genetic potential for muscle growth, you’re going to have to prioritize strength training over more traditional “bodybuilding” workouts. That’s not to say that higher reps have no place in your training plan, but they should usually play second fiddle to heavy lifting.

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his workouts and has an amazing physique … What gives?”

If only you had his #dedication. All 2 grams of it that he injects every week.

“Heretic!” you say?

It sounds cynical, but when the right steroids enter the picture, achieving rapid muscle and strength gains is mind-numbingly simple:

Sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing rep after rep after rep, exercise after exercise, and muscles get bigger and bigger.

In fact, when steroids are involved, focusing on high-rep training is often recommended.

It’s not that heavy strength training stops working when you’re on steroids (it also works better), but it becomes riskier with less reward. If you can grow muscle just as effectively doing more sets and reps, why bother lifting as much as possible?

Add to that the fact that high volumes of heavy strength training are harder on your joints, and it becomes clear why most people who are on steroids focus on higher reps: it allows you to accumulate much more volume without screwing up your joints.

Anyway, when us “chemically handicapped” folks do the same types of traditional bodybuilding routines—high-volume, high-rep training, with all the fancy drop sets, supersets, and the like—we just don’t see anywhere near the gains.

We’re inducing large amounts of cellular fatigue but, as you know, this is a weaker stimulus for muscle growth than progressive overload. And this means very slow results.

Don’t worry, though.

You don’t need to be on drugs to get stronger or build an impressive physique. You do have to be smarter about how your plan or “program” your workouts, though.

That’s what you’re going to learn next. To start, let’s look at what the key common denominators are between all good strength training programs.

What Makes a Good Strength Training Program?

best chest workouts

This question has sparked endless debates, discussions, and disputes, but there are a few things most everyone can agree on.

If you want to get as strong as possible, your program needs to abide by the following principles.

It needs to include progressive overload.

Progressive tension overload is the most powerful stimulus for muscle growth and strength gains, and if you fail include this in your program, you’re going to see mediocre results.

You can take this too far, though.

You don’t need to squat so hard you give yourself a nosebleed every time you step into the gym or set a new one-rep max every workout.

Over time, though, you do need to be adding weight to the bar. If you’re lifting the same weight 3 months from now that you were last week, you probably haven’t gained any muscle and you definitely haven’t gained any strength.

Although the following strength programs all include progressive overload in different ways, it’s the defining feature of each plan.

In other words, if your strength training program doesn’t include progressive overload, it’s not really a strength training program. It’s just a bunch of workouts.

It needs to have the right amount of volume (in the right places).

If you just want to move as much weight as possible, then all you have to do is get as strong as possible on the lifts you’re best at.

For example, if you’re great at bench press, then get as strong as possible on bench press and let your other lifts fall to the wayside.

You probably won’t like the results, though.

This is because many strength training programs include more volume for one body part than another, and this can lead to muscle imbalances over time.

For example, many strength training program include far more volume for the lower body, and not as much for the upper body. That’s fine if your legs are a weak link in your physique, but it’s going to make building an impressive upper body much more difficult.

Likewise, many guys find they naturally have a good deadlift, so they let their squat, bench, overhead press, and pull-up and chin-up languish. They wind up with a decent back, butt, and hamstrings, but nothing else.

This is especially true for guys, who want to see their chest, biceps, triceps, and shoulders grow more than Patrick Bateman wants a new business card …

I’ve made the same mistake, and while I’m happy with my squat, my physique looks more like a centaur than the statue of David. I’m now repenting with more upper body volume, but that’s what happens when you train quads and hamstrings three times as much as your upper body…

Adoy.

The lesson:

If your goal is to gain strength and build a well-rounded physique, you need to include enough volume to grow all of the major muscle groups in your body, not just your legs, chest, or back.

It needs to include the right frequency.

You’ll often hear that full-body workouts are best.

Or body-part routines.

Or upper/lower routines.

Or push pull legs.

Or maybe you should train some muscle groups every day because … muh arms.

The truth is that almost any workout “split” can work as long as you get your frequency and volume right.

As you now know, the primary driver of muscle growth is progressive overload. And the best way to accomplish progressive overload is to lift heavier and heavier weights.

This kind of training takes a lot out of you, though, which is why recovery becomes more and more important the stronger you get.

You’ll notice that most of the best strength programs look austere compared to what you’ll see in bodybuilding magazines. That’s not an accident.

A well-designed strength training program not only emphasizes progressive overload for each major muscle group; it gives your muscles enough time to rest, repair, and recoup their strength before taking another beating.

There’s no hard and fast rule on how much time you should leave between your workouts, though a good rule of thumb is to train each muscle group at least twice a week, and include at least one day of rest between training each muscle group.

All of the strength training programs on this list more or less fall within those guidelines.

It needs to include enough rest between sets.

There are many reasons to use short rest periods.

  • You can finish workouts faster.
  • You feel like you’re working harder.
  • Your muscles “burn,” which must be doing something good(?!).

You know what’s missing from that list?

Oh, yeah, progressive overload, which should be your first, second, and third priority.

In fact, cutting your rest periods too short forces you to use lighter weights or do fewer total sets, which stunts progress over time. This is why studies show that people who rest longer between sets are able to gain more strength and muscle than those that rest less.

How long should you rest?

One answer comes from a review paper published in 2014 by Menno Henselmans, who just so happens to be on the Scientific Advisory Board of Legion Athletics.

After combing through all of the research on how rest periods affect strength and muscle gain, the results confirmed what many experienced lifters have done for years:

You should rest as long as you need to feel fully prepared for the next set. This usually works out to around three minutes between your heaviest sets and two minutes between your lighter sets or less important exercises, although on some days you may need even longer than this.

The bottom line is that if you want to gain muscle and strength, you want to lift heavy weights. And if you want to lift heavy weights, you need to rest long enough between sets to handle heavier and heavier weights.

It’s that simple.

It needs to be fun.

Here’s something really annoying:

When you ask someone, “What’s the best [movie, car, chicken recipe, strength training program, etc.]” and they respond, “You can’t go wrong with any of them!”

The annoying part is that it’s often the only true answer.

Whether you’re picking a movie (Braveheart), car, chicken recipe, or strength training program, once you’ve separated the wheat from the chaff, which one you chose mostly boils down to personal preference.

This is particularly important when it comes to picking a strength training program, because you’re only going to show up and give it your best if you enjoy it.

Let’s say you’ve narrowed down your choice of programs to two options, but you aren’t sure which one to pick.

Here’s how to choose:

Look at each program, and ask yourself:

“Will this workout plan make me excited to go to the gym?”

Whichever one gets a stronger “yes,” is your new strength training program (at least for a while).

Remember, when you pick a program you aren’t signing away your soul to Mephistopheles. Once you’ve given one strength training program a fair shot, you can always try something different. I recommend you stick with whatever plan you pick for at least three months, though. That’s enough time to really see how the program works for you.

With that out of the way, here are the best strength training programs for gaining muscle and strength …

How to Decide Which Strength Training Program Is for You

There’s no clear-cut way to decide what program is best for you, but you can make a good guess by following these pointers from powerlifter, writer, and coach Greg Nuckols:

  1. If you’re still setting PRs at least once every 1 to 2 weeks, don’t change anything. Keep following your current strength training program until you haven’t set a PR in at least a month.
  2. If you haven’t made any noticeable progress on any lift in over a month, pick a new program. Choose one that has slightly more volume than your current plan, if possible. This could be in the form of more days in the gym per week, more sets, more exercises, or some combination of all of those variables.
  3. If you constantly feel weak, worn down, and unmotivated to train, make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. If you aren’t getting enough sleep you won’t make much progress to speak of regardless of what program you follow.
  4. If you’re getting enough sleep, you feel good, and you’ve still been plateaued for more than a month, pick a new program. Choose one that has slightly more volume than your current plan. This could be in the form of more days in the gym per week, more sets, more exercises, or some combination of all of those variables.
  5. If you’re getting enough sleep but you feel weak, worn down, and unmotivated to train, then pick a new program. Choose one that has slightly less volume than your current plan. This could be in the form of fewer days in the gym per week, fewer sets, fewer exercises, or some combination of all of those variables.

If you have any questions about which strength training program to choose, let me know in the comments and I’ll help you decide.

Before we get to the strength training programs, there’s just one more thing we need to cover: one-rep maxes.

Why You Need to Know Your One-Rep Maxes

A one-rep max (1RM) is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise through a full range of motion with proper technique.

The first thing you need to know about the 1RM is that it’s good for more than bragging rights.

Sure, it’s fun to know how you stack up against other guys and gals, but there’s a better reason to care:

Knowing your 1RM helps you maintain optimal workout intensity (and thereby achieve optimal results).

It allows you to train hard enough to get the maximum muscle-building stimulus out of every workout, without training so hard that you increase the risk of getting injured or running into symptoms related to overtraining.

This is particularly important if you’re serious about getting stronger on the “big lifts” like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and military press, where you’re moving the heaviest weights.

This is why every program on this list uses your 1RM (or some version of it) to dictate how much weight you should use in your workouts, and why it’s important for you to know to get the most out of whatever strength training program you follow.

Most of the time, your weights are based on a percentage of your 1RM. For example, in The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program below, you’ll use a weight that’s 80% of your one-rep max for most of your sets.

Now, the only 100%-accurate way to know how much weight you can lift for a single rep is to actually do it, but that comes at a cost.

A true 1RM attempt is time-consuming, risky, and exhausting.

It’s also unnecessary, unless you’re preparing for a powerlifting competition.

This is why most people rarely do true 1RM tests. Instead, they use equations to predict their 1RM based on how many reps they can get with a lighter weight.

For example, if you bench press a weight that allows you to get 5 reps before reaching failure, you can then plug the weight and reps into a calculator to estimate your 1RM.

These equations can predict your 1RM very accurately, especially if you use a weight that allows you to get 10 or fewer reps.

To use one of these equations, you first need to test your “rep max,” which is is the amount of weight you can lift for a given number of reps.

For example, if you can bench press 225 pounds for 5 reps, that’s your “5-rep max” (5RM).

You can learn exactly how to do a rep-max test in this article, but you can get a good estimate of your 1RM simply by reviewing your training logs from the past few weeks, finding the most weight you lifted for an exercise and for how many reps, and then plugging those numbers into the calculator below.

Once you’ve found those numbers, enter them into this calculator to find your estimated 1RM:

Estimated Reps and Weight Based on One-Rep Max
Reps 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 15 20
Brzycki
Baechle
dos Remedios

Remember, you’ll want to do this for each of the big lifts: the squat, bench press, deadlift, and military press.

Now that you know your 1RMs, let’s look at the programs.

The Best Strength Training Program #1: The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program

strength training program

The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program is a push pull legs (PPL) routine created for men by Mike Matthews (and found in the book of the same name) that’s modified to include more volume for the chest, arms, and shoulders.

It’s designed for men who are completely new to strength training or have never followed a structured strength training program before. It can also work well if you’re an intermediate lifter who’s been following a more minimalist training program, because the added volume should help you build muscle faster.

The program is based on seven key principles:

  1. Train 1 to 2 muscle groups per day that you lift.
  2. Do sets of 4 to 6 reps for nearly all exercises.
  3. Do 9 to 12 heavy sets per workout.
  4. Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between sets.
  5. Train for 60 to 65 minutes per workout.
  6. Train each muscle group 1 to 2 times every 5 to 7 days.
  7. Dial it back every 8 to 10 weeks with a deload.

Each workout is built around 2 or 3 heavy compound exercises, followed by several isolation exercises to add volume to muscle groups that tend to need more attention.

For your heavy compound exercises, you’ll do sets with 80% of your 1RM, which works out to 4 to 6 reps per set.

For your accessory exercises, you’ll do sets with 70% of your 1RM, or 8 to 10 reps per set.

An accessory exercise is an exercise that’s meant to help train muscles that aren’t adequately targeted by your heavy compound lifts. For example, although squats do train your hamstrings some, they don’t activate them enough for optimal results. That’s why this program includes Romanian deadlifts as a hamstring accessory exercise after squats.

The exercise selection is slightly different than most PPL routines in that it emphasizes incline and overhead pressing more than horizontal pressing. This means it’s particularly good for people who want to emphasize their shoulder development (i.e. us natty lifters).

The crux of the program, though, is all about how you progress on the exercises. In The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program, your goal is to add weight or reps to every exercise every time you train. You keep adding reps until you hit the top end of your prescribed rep range, then you add weight and start at the bottom end of your prescribed rep range, and rinse and repeat (more on this below).

This kind of “autoregulated” training is a highly effective, simple, and reliable way to get stronger over time.

You’ll see the fastest progress if you follow the 5-day routine, but you can still see excellent results following the 3 and 4 day routines, too. I’ll include all 3 versions below.

Here’s what the 5-day routine looks like:

The 5-Day Bigger Leaner Stronger Workout Routine

The following routine is the one Mike Matthews recommends for any guy who wants to gain muscle and strength as fast as possible.

It’s designed to hit every muscle group about 1 to 2 times per week, ensure progressive overload on the big compound lifts, and allow plenty of time for recovery so you can keep adding weight. It also fits nicely into the typical 5-day workweek.

Day 1

Push and Abs

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Face Pull

3 sets of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

Alternate every set of face pulls with one ab circuit.

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 2

Pull and Calves

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

(Optional) Close-Grip Lat Pulldown

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

(Optional) Barbell Shrugs

3 sets of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout A

(Standing Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 3

Push and Abs

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 4

Legs and Calves

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Leg Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout B

(Leg Press Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

Day 5

Push and Abs

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Close-Grip Bench Press

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Seated Triceps Press

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

The 4-Day Bigger Leaner Stronger Workout Routine

The following routine works well for guys who don’t want to spend quite as much time in the gym, but still make consistent strength and muscle gains.

It’s designed to hit every muscle group about 1 to 2 times per week, ensure progressive overload on the big compound lifts, and allow plenty of time for recovery so you can keep adding weight. It also works well if you want to schedule something else during your workweek instead of a workout (like a yoga class, cardio, date night, etc.).

Day 1

Push, Arms, and Calves

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Dip (Chest Variation, weighted if possible)

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Seated Triceps Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout A

(Standing Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 2

Pull, Arms, and Abs

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 3

Push and Calves

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

8 to 10 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout B

(Leg Press Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

Day 4

Legs and Abs

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Leg Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

The 3-Day Bigger Leaner Stronger Workout Routine

The following routine works well if you want to make slow but consistent muscle and strength gains or maintain your gains when you can’t get to the gym as often as you’d like.

It’s designed to hit every muscle group once per week, ensure progressive overload on the big compound lifts, and allow plenty of time for recovery so you can keep adding weight. It also works well if you often have to move workouts around during the week, because even if you have to bump a workout to a different day, you can still usually get at least one day of recovery between workouts.

Day 1

Pull and Abs

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 85% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 2

Push and Calves

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

8 to 10 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

(Optional) Close-Grip Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout A

(Standing Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 3

Legs and Abs

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Leg Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

When and How to Add Weight

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.

For example, if it’s Day 1 and you get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your incline bench press, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.

Repeat that process for every exercise, alternating between increasing weight and reps each workout.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

Most people find they like to work out every day during the workweek and take the weekends completely off. This serves as a physical and mental “reset” and gives your joints a break from the heavy loads.

Here’s how it would look if you followed the 5-day per week routine:

Monday

Day 1: Push and Abs

Tuesday

Day 2: Pull and Calves

Wednesday

Day 3: Push and Abs

Thursday

Day 4: Legs and Calves

Friday

Day 5: Push and Abs

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

Here’s how it would look if you follow the 4-day per week routine:

Monday

Day 1: Push, Arms, and Calves

Tuesday

Day 2: Pull, Arms, and Abs

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Day 3: Push and Calves

Friday

Day 4: Legs and Abs

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

And here’s how it would look if you follow the 3-day per week routine:

Monday

Day 1: Pull and Abs

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Day 2: Push and Calves

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Day 3: Legs and Abs

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

If you’re trying to lose fat, you can also do some cardio on the same days as your strength training workouts or on your rest days.

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It has more upper body volume than most of the other programs on this list, especially for the upper chest and shoulders, which is perfect for what most guys want—a bigger, wider upper body.
  • It fits most people’s work schedules perfectly if you follow the 5-day plan, and the 4 and 3-day plans are fine alternatives that look more like traditional PPL routines.
  • It includes more exercise variety than some of the other strength training plans on this list, giving you something different to look forward to in each workout.
  • Its progression system is drop-dead simple. You don’t have to plan far into the future, chart your workouts in Excel, or keep detailed records of your 1RMs. You just stay within the given rep ranges and try to beat your numbers from last week.
  • It gives each body part its own day, plus some additional volume on at least one other day per week. If you’re the kind of person who likes to really hammer a particular body part in one workout, this is perfect for you.

Cons

  • It doesn’t include as much volume for your lower body. If you’re happy with your upper body development but your legs are woefully undersized, then the single leg workout per week probably won’t be enough for you. Instead, you’re better off following one of the programs from Lyle McDonald, Eric Helms, or Greg Nuckols below, which include more leg volume.
  • It might cause problems if you have shoulder or elbow issues due to the focus on incline and overhead pressing. Consider swapping those exercises for more horizontal pressing or leg work, or using slightly higher reps and lighter weights on those exercises.
  • It may not be structured enough for you if you’re the kind of person who likes having every aspect of your training planned out ahead of time.
  • It doesn’t put the bench press first on every pressing day, so if you want to improve your bench press as much as possible, choose a different program.
  • It probably isn’t enough volume to keep gaining strength and muscle if you’ve been following a structured strength training program for more than 2 to 3 years.

The Bottom Line

The Bigger Leaner Stronger Workout Routine is one of the best strength training programs for men who are new to structured strength training who want to focus on gaining upper body strength and muscle mass (while giving their legs enough volume to develop some muscle definition).

The Best Strength Training Program #2: The Thinner Leaner Stronger Training Program

strength training plan woman

The Thinner Leaner Stronger Training Program is a push pull legs (PPL) routine created for women by Mike Matthews (and found in the book of the same name) that’s modified to include more volume for the legs, butt, and arms.

It’s designed for women who are completely new to strength training or have never followed a structured strength training program before. It can also work well if you’re an intermediate lifter who’s been following a more minimalist training program, because the added volume should help you build muscle faster.

The program is based on seven key principles:

  1. Train 1 to 2 muscle groups per day that you train.
  2. Do sets of 8 to 10 (progressing to 4 to 6 reps) for nearly all exercises.
  3. Do 9 to 12 heavy sets per workout.
  4. Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between sets.
  5. Train for 60 to 65 minutes per workout.
  6. Train each muscle group 1 to 2 times every 5 to 7 days.
  7. Dial it back every 8 to 10 weeks with a deload.

Each workout is built around 2 or 3 heavy compound exercises, followed by several isolation exercises to add volume to muscle groups that tend to need more attention.

For your heavy compound exercises, you’ll do sets with 80% of your 1RM, which works out to 4 to 6 reps per set.

If you’re new to strength training, though, start by doing all of your sets with 70% of your 1RM, which is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise. This works out to 8 to 10 reps per set.

For your accessory exercises, you’ll continue to do sets with 70% of your 1RM, or 8 to 10 reps per set.

An accessory exercise is an exercise that’s meant to help train muscles that aren’t adequately targeted by your heavy compound lifts. For example, although squats do train your hamstrings some, they don’t activate them enough for optimal results. That’s why this program includes Romanian deadlifts as a hamstring accessory exercise after squats.

The exercise selection is slightly different than most PPL routines in that it emphasizes incline and overhead pressing more than horizontal pressing. This means it’s particularly good for people who want to emphasize their shoulder development (i.e. us natty lifters).

The crux of the program, though, is all about how you progress on the exercises. In The Thinner Leaner Stronger Training Program, your goal is to add weight or reps to every exercise every time you train. You keep adding reps until you hit the top end of your prescribed rep range, then you add weight and start at the bottom end of your prescribed rep range, and rinse and repeat (more on this below).

This kind of “autoregulated” training is a highly effective, simple, and reliable way to get stronger over time.

You probably noticed that this program is almost identical to The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program.

This is because, although men and women are different in many ways, the mechanisms that drive muscle growth are more or less the same in both sexes.

That doesn’t mean men and women should train exactly the same, though, because men and women often have slightly different goals when it comes to what they want to work on. There are also a few physiological differences worth taking into account.

That’s why there are three key differences between The Thinner Leaner Stronger Training Program and The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program:

  1. You’ll do more volume for your butt and legs, which are muscle groups that most women want to grow more than men.
  2. You’ll do less volume for the abs and arms, which are muscle groups that most women aren’t as concerned with as men.
  3. You’ll do sets of 8 to 10 reps for your compound exercises at the beginning of the program. This is because women often tolerate higher reps better than men. As you get stronger, you’ll progress to sets of 4 to 6 reps. If you already have experience lifting heavy weights, you can start doing sets of 4 to 6 reps right away.

You’ll see the fastest progress if you follow the 5-day routine, but you can still see excellent results following the 3 and 4 day routines, too. I’ll include all 3 versions below.

Here’s what the 5-day routine looks like:

The 5-Day Thinner Leaner Stronger Workout Routine

The following routine is the one Mike Matthews recommends for any woman who wants to gain muscle and strength as fast as possible.

It’s designed to hit every muscle group about 1 to 2 times per week, ensure progressive overload on the big compound lifts, and allow plenty of time for recovery so you can keep adding weight. It also fits nicely into the typical 5-day workweek.

Day 1

Push and Calves

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

(Optional) Dip

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout A

(Standing Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 2

Pull, Butt, and Abs

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Back Squat

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 to 6 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 3

Push and Calves

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout B

(Leg Press Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

Day 4

Arms and Abs

Barbell Curl

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Close-Grip Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Seated Triceps Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 to 6 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 5

Legs, Butt, and Calves

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Leg  Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Hip Thrust

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout B

(Leg Press Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

The 4-Day Thinner Leaner Stronger Workout Routine

The following routine works well for women who don’t want to spend quite as much time in the gym, but still make consistent strength and muscle gains.

It’s designed to hit every muscle group about 1 to 2 times per week, ensure progressive overload on the big compound lifts, and allow plenty of time for recovery so you can keep adding weight. It also works well if you want to schedule something else during your workweek instead of a workout (like a yoga class, cardio, date night, etc.).

Day 1

Push, Arms, and Calves

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Close-Grip Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout A

(Standing Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 2

Pull, Butt, Arms, and Abs

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Back Squat

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 to 6 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 3

Push and Calves

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of…

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout B

(Leg Press Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

Day 4

Legs, Butt, and Abs

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Leg Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 to 6 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

The 3-Day Thinner Leaner Stronger Workout Routine

The following routine works well if you want to make slow but consistent muscle and strength gains or maintain your gains when you can’t get to the gym as often as you’d like.

It’s designed to hit every muscle group once per week, ensure progressive overload on the big compound lifts, and allow plenty of time for recovery so you can keep adding weight. It also works well if you often have to move workouts around during the week, because even if you have to bump a workout to a different day, you can still usually get at least one day of recovery between workouts.

Day 1

Push, Butt, and Calves

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Flat Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Seated or Standing Barbell Military Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Side Lateral Raise

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Hip Thrust

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout A

(Standing Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets

Day 2

Pull and Abs

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Barbell Curl

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

3 Ab Circuits

(A weighted ab exercise, followed by two unweighted ab exercises)

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps until 1 to 2 reps shy of to failure

Rest 2 to 3 minutes

Day 3

Legs, Butt, and Calves

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and 3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Leg Press

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Hip Thrust

3 sets of …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Rest 3 minutes between sets

Calf Workout B

(Leg Press Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise)

3 sets each of …

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets

When and How to Add Weight

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.

For example, if it’s Day 1 and you get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your incline bench press, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.

Repeat that process for every exercise, alternating between increasing weight and reps each workout.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

Most people find they like to work out every day during the workweek, and take the weekends completely off. This serves as a physical and mental “reset” and gives your joints a break from the heavy loads.

Here’s how it would look if you followed the 5-day per week routine:

Monday

Day 1: Push and Calves

Tuesday

Day 2: Pull, Butt, and Abs

Wednesday

Day 3: Push and Calves

Thursday

Day 4: Arms and Abs

Friday

Day 5: Legs, Butt, and Calves

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

Here’s how it would look if you follow the 4-day per week routine:

Monday

Day 1: Push, Arms, and Calves

Tuesday

Day 2: Pull, Butt, Arms, and Abs

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Day 3: Push and Calves

Friday

Day 4: Legs, Butt, and Abs

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

And here’s how it would look if you follow the 3-day per week routine:

Monday

Day 1: Push, Butt, and Calves

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Day 2: Pull and Abs

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Day 3: Legs, Butt, and Calves

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

If you’re trying to lose fat, you can also do some cardio on the same days as your strength training workouts or on your rest days.

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It has more volume for the legs, butt, and calves than most of the other programs on this list, which is perfect for what most women want.
  • It fits most people’s work schedules perfectly if you follow the 5-day plan, and the 4 and 3-day plans are fine alternatives that look more like traditional PPL routines.
  • It includes more exercise variety than some of the other strength training plans on this list, giving you something different to look forward to in each workout.
  • Its progression system is drop-dead simple. You don’t have to plan far into the future, chart your workouts in Excel, or keep detailed records of your 1RMs. You just stay within the given rep ranges and try to beat your numbers from last week.
  • It gives each body part gets its own day, plus some additional volume on at least one other day per week. If you’re the kind of person who likes to really hammer a particular body part in one workout, this is perfect for you.

Cons

  • It might cause problems if you have shoulder or elbow issues due to the focus on incline and overhead pressing. Consider swapping those exercises for more horizontal pressing or leg work, or using slightly higher reps and lighter weights on those exercises.
  • It may not be structured enough for you if you’re the kind of person who likes having every aspect of your training planned out ahead of time.
  • It doesn’t put the bench press first on every pressing day, so if you want to improve your bench press as much as possible, choose a different program.
  • It probably isn’t enough volume to keep gaining strength and muscle if you’ve been following a structured strength training program for more than 2 to 3 years.
  • It has more direct arm volume than most of the other programs on this list, which could a pro or a con depending on whether or not you want bigger arms.

The Bottom Line

The Thinner Leaner Stronger Workout Routine is one of the best strength training programs for women who are new to structured strength training who want to focus on gaining lower body strength and muscle mass (while giving their upper body enough volume to develop some muscle definition).

The Best Strength Training Program #3: Starting Strength

starting strength strength training program

 

Starting Strength is one of the most popular strength training programs out there, and for good reason.

Written by Mark Rippetoe and first published in 2005, and now in its third edition, the eponymous book has become a staple of bodybuilding literature.

If you’re serious about strength training, then you want to read Starting Strength. Even if you don’t plan on following the program.

The reason Starting Strength is so attractive to so many people—and especially to people new to weightlifting—is it’s simple, effective, and suited to a wide variety of goals.

  • If you want to get strong … Starting Strength can help.
  • If you want to add muscle … Starting Strength can do that too.
  • If you want to improve athleticism … Starting Strength will get the job done.

The bottom line is if you’re new to heavy barbell training or strength training in general, you can’t go wrong starting with Starting Strength.

The program revolves around just 6 compound exercises with no accessory exercises and the focus of the program is achieving the biggest possible lifts by the end of it.

You’ll do 3 full-body workouts per week, rotating between 2 different workouts every time you train. Each full-body workout is build around just 3 compound exercises.

For every exercise, you’ll do 3 sets of 5 reps, except for deadlifts, which only get 1 set of 5 reps.

Progression on this routine is simple: You add 5 to 10 pounds every single workout. It’s worth keeping in mind that this program is designed for people who want to get as strong as possible, and who aren’t worried about getting lean. You can still use this program while cutting, but you’ll probably only manage to add 5 pounds every week or every other week instead of every workout.

Here’s what the Starting Strength workout routine looks like:

The Starting Strength Workout Routine

Here are the 2 workouts you’ll be rotating between:

WORKOUT A
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Squat 3 5
Overhead Barbell Press 3 5
Deadlift 1 5
WORKOUT B
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Squat 3 5
Bench Press 3 5
Deadlift 1 5

That’s it.

Just 4 total exercises, 3 exercises per workout, and 3 sets of 5 reps for each (except for deadlift).

Here’s how to warm-up:

You do your first warm-up set with the empty bar and then evenly progress up to your working weight (the most weight you’ll use for that exercise in that workout) over the course of several additional sets.

For example, if you can squat 275 pounds for 5 reps, your warm-up routine would look like this:

Empty Bar (45 pounds)

2 sets of 5 reps

135 Pounds

2 sets of 5 reps

185 Pounds

1 set of 3 reps

235 Pounds

1 set of 2 reps

275 Pounds (Working Sets)

3 sets of 5 reps

If that sounds complicated to you, you can always use this handy little app.

After you’re warmed up, you get to your heavy lifting.

You’ll rest 2 to 5 minutes in between sets. When you go to do your next set, you shouldn’t be breathing heavy or feel fatigued from your previous one. When in doubt, give yourself another minute of rest just to be safe.

When and How to Add Weight

If you successfully perform your 3 sets of 5 reps in a workout, you add 5 pounds to the weight the next time you do that exercise.

So, for instance, if you successfully squat 200 pounds for 5 reps in Workout A, you squat 205 pounds in Workout B.

If you’re not able to get your sets—if you get, let’s say, 5, 4, and 3 reps—then you stick with that current weight until you can get 5,5,5.

If you can get 5 reps on your first set but can only get 2 or 3 reps on your second and third sets, the weight is too high.

When you reach a point where you haven’t been able to increase weight for two workouts in a row, it’s time to reset on both workouts. You do this by doing your warm ups and then doing 1 set at 90% of your best 5-rep lift for each exercise.

Do that for an entire week, and then continue trying to add weight the next week.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

With only 3 workouts per week, you have a lot of options as to how you organize your weekly workout schedule.

Most people default to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation, which looks like this:

Monday

Train

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Train

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

This leaves your weekends free while allowing one day of complete rest between training days.

Or, you could do something like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Train

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Train

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Rest

Or, if life doesn’t allow much training during the week, you could set up your weekly workout schedule like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Train

This means you won’t be able to lift as much on your Sunday workout, but it still gets the job done.

And finally, here’s how your first month would look on the program:

WEEK 1
DAY WORKOUT
1 A
2 Rest
3 B
4 Rest
5 A
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 2
DAY WORKOUT
1 B
2 Rest
3 A
4 Rest
5 B
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 3
DAY WORKOUT
1 A
2 Rest
3 B
4 Rest
5 A
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 4
DAY WORKOUT
1 B
2 Rest
3 A
4 Rest
5 B
6 Rest
7 Rest

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It’s the best “bang for your buck” strength training program for beginners, period.
  • It only requires you to learn a handful of exercises.
  • It usually takes no more than 45 minutes to finish the workouts.
  • It’s flexible enough that you can almost always fit in your 3 workouts per week, even if you have to move one or two of them around.
  • It’s almost impossible to mess up the workouts, because you’re doing the same reps and sets for almost every exercise.

Cons

  • It includes twice as much volume for your lower body than upper body, which isn’t ideal if your upper body is lagging.
  • It involves much more pushing than pulling. While that’s not a big deal if you’re new to strength training, over time that could lead to muscle imbalances.
  • It doesn’t include much volume for your arms and back, which might be a problem if those are lagging muscle groups for you.
  • It can get boring to only do two workouts and the same reps and sets in every workout.
  • It probably isn’t enough volume to keep gaining strength and muscle if you’ve been following a structured strength training program for more than 1 to 2 years.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve never touched a barbell before and don’t know where to start or get overwhelmed with other training programs, stop what you’re doing, buy the book, read it, and follow the program for three to six months. You’ll be glad you did. If you’ve been lifting for more than 1 year, though, you’ll make better progress following a different plan.

The Best Strength Training Program #4: StrongLifts 5×5

stronglifts strength training

StrongLifts 5×5 is a variation of an older strength training program that was created by … a dude … named Mehdi.

To understand where this program comes from, we need to look at the history of the original program it’s based on: Bill Starr’s 5×5.

In 1976, Starr published a book that changed strength training sports forever.

It was called The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football and its philosophy was very simple.

To quote the book’s author, the legendary Olympian and strength coach Bill Starr:

“The football player (and you can insert Martial Artist, Fighter, whatever there) must work for overall body strength as opposed to specific strengthening exercise.

“In other words the athlete should be building total leg strength rather than just stronger hamstrings. He should be seeking overall strength in his shoulder girdle rather than just stronger deltoids.”

The program was originally meant to improve overall athleticism, but it wasn’t long before it became a staple program for developing whole-body strength and muscularity, too.

Accordingly, Starr’s 5×5 program shared in the book focused on three lifts: the bench press, squat, and power clean.

The original program involved 3 workouts per week with a heavy, light, and medium day. Each workout also rotated through the power clean, bench press, squat, incline bench press, and overhead press, and also rotated each exercise through different rep ranges.

It’s an effective program, but figuring out your weights each week requires more math than most people want to do, and some also balk at the lack of deadlifting or other back exercises.

StrongLifts is a simplified “beginner” version of Starr’s original routine, and the weekly schedule and exercise selection is almost identical to Starting Strength.

The main differences are that you replace the deadlifts in Workout A with barbell rows and you do 5 sets of each exercise instead of 3 (except deadlift, which gets 1 set just like Starting Strength).

Here’s what the StrongLifts 5×5 workout routine looks like:

The StrongLifts 5×5 Workout Routine

WORKOUT A
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Squat 5 5
Bench Press 5 5
Barbell Row 5 5
WORKOUT B
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Squat 5 5
Overhead Press 5 5
Deadlift 1 5

5 total exercises, 3 exercises per workout, and 5 sets of 5 reps for each (except for deadlift).

Here’s how Mehdi explains the warm-up procedure:

Start with two sets of five reps with the empty bar on Squats, Bench and Overhead Press. Then add 10-20kg (25-45lb) and do 2-3 reps. Keep adding 10-20kg, doing 2-3 reps on each set, until you’ve reached your 5×5 weight. Don’t rest between these warmup sets to keep your workout short.

Empty bar warmup sets don’t work for Barbell Row and Deadlift. The bar has to start at mid-shin level for proper form, you can’t hold it in the air. Plus, since you’re doing compound exercises, your whole body is warmed up already by the time you have to Barbell Row or Deadlift. So you can start heavier here.

Never do a heavy 5×5 weight without doing lighter warmup sets first. The 5×5 weight will feel heavier, you can miss reps and could get hurt. Start with the bar and work your way up so you warmup your muscles and can practice proper form. This will make the 5×5 weight easier and you’re less likely to get hurt.

Cardio pre-workout is not enough and can work against you. It’s not specific to Squatting, doesn’t let you practice proper form. So you still have to warmup with the bar. Worse, too much cardio pre-workout will pre-exhaust your legs and make it hard to Squat heavy. So warm up with the bar.

Once you’re warmed up, you’re ready to do your heavy, 5-rep sets. Each set should be done with 100% of your 5-rep-max weights (you don’t progress to 100% like Starr’s program).

Like Starting Strength, you rest 2 to 5 minutes between each set.

If you fail to get your reps in a workout, Mehdi recommends that you deload.

When and How to Add Weight

Progression is simple and linear: you add 5 pounds to each exercise each time you do it.

And yes, that means adding 15 pounds to your squat each week, which is very aggressive, but doable for someone new to weightlifting.

If you’re an experienced weightlifter, however, you know that adding 15 pounds per week is impossible.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

As with the other 3-day per week strength training plans on this list, you can schedule your StrongLifts 5×5 workouts in a number of ways:

Most people default to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation, which looks like this:

Monday

Train

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Train

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

This leaves your weekends free while allowing one day of complete rest between training days.

Or, you could do something like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Train

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Train

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Rest

Or, if life doesn’t allow much training during the week, you could set up your weekly workout schedule like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Train

This means you won’t be able to lift as much on your Sunday workout, but it still gets the job done.

And finally, here’s how your first month would look on the program:

WEEK 1
DAY WORKOUT
1 A
2 Rest
3 B
4 Rest
5 A
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 2
DAY WORKOUT
1 B
2 Rest
3 A
4 Rest
5 B
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 3
DAY WORKOUT
1 A
2 Rest
3 B
4 Rest
5 A
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 4
DAY WORKOUT
1 B
2 Rest
3 A
4 Rest
5 B
6 Rest
7 Rest

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It’s one of the best “bang for your buck” strength training programs for beginners, and the higher volume (and time commitment) will probably lead to slightly more muscle growth than Starting Strength.
  • It only requires you to learn a handful of exercises.
  • It usually takes no more than 45 to 60 minutes to finish the workouts.
  • It’s flexible enough that you can almost always fit in your 3 workouts per week, even if you have to move one or two of them around.
  • It’s almost impossible to mess up the workouts, because you’re doing the same reps and sets for almost every exercise.

Cons

  • It includes twice as much volume for your lower body than upper body, which isn’t ideal if your upper body is lagging.
  • It might beat up your joints if you keep doing 5 sets of 5 reps of the same exercises once you progress to heavy weights. After about a year, you’ll probably want to include some more variety to reduce your risk of injury, stay excited for your workouts, and further stimulate muscle growth.
  • It doesn’t include much volume for your arms and shoulders, which might be a problem if those are lagging muscle groups for you.
  • It doesn’t include as much volume as the 3-day per week Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs, which means it probably won’t cause as much muscle growth.
  • It can get boring to only do two workouts and the same reps and sets in every workout.

The Bottom Line

The StrongLifts 5×5 Training Program is perfect for highly committed beginners who are willing to spend a little more time in the gym for slightly better results than Starting Strength. If you’ve been lifting for more than 1 year, though, or you want to focus on building your upper body more than your lower body, you’ll make better progress following a different plan.

The Best Strength Training Program #5: The Classic Push Pull Legs Routine

strength training push pull legs

Push pull legs” routines have been popular for decades now.

In fact, just about every strength training program on this list more or less fits this mold, and that’s not likely to change.

The primary reasons push pull legs routines have stood the test of time are they train all major muscle groups, allow plenty of time for recovery, and can be tailored to fit different training goals, schedules, and preferences.

They’re easy to understand, too.

At bottom, a push pull legs routine separates your major muscle groups into three different workouts:

  1. Chest, shoulders, and triceps
  2. Back and biceps (with a bit of hamstrings as well if you’re deadlifting)
  3. Legs

And it has you train anywhere from 3 to 6 times per week, depending on how much abuse you’re willing to take, what you’re looking to achieve with your physique, and how much time you can spend in the gym each week.

So, if you’re looking to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, and if you’re not afraid of a bit of heavy compound weightlifting, then push pull legs might be your golden ticket.

The push pull legs routine, or “PPL split,” is a weightlifting program that has you do three kinds of workouts:

  1. Push workout
  2. Pull workout
  3. Legs workout

Your push workouts focus on the muscles involved in your upper body pushing motions, with the major ones being your pecs, triceps, and shoulders.

Thus, it’s similar to most “chest and triceps” workouts that you find in other bodybuilding splits.

In a well-designed PPL program, your push workouts will generally revolve around barbell and dumbbell bench pressing, overhead (military) pressing, dipping, and doing isolation exercises for your triceps and possibly shoulders.

Your pull workouts focus on the muscles involved in your upper body pulling motions, with the major ones being your back muscles and biceps.

Thus, it’s really just a “back and biceps” workout.

These workouts generally revolve around deadlifting, barbell and dumbbell rowing, pulldowns, pullups and chinups, and doing isolation exercises for your biceps.

And last, your leg workouts focus on training your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

These workouts generally revolve around squatting, squat variations, lunging, and doing various isolation exercises for each major muscle group noted above.

Within that basic layout you have a lot of room to play around with different exercises, training frequencies and set and rep ranges.

Thus, push pull legs is more of a general workout template than a set routine.

To make things simple, though, I’m going to share with you one of the most common and time-tested versions for getting as strong as possible.

I’ll also show you how to program a push pull legs routine whether you’re training 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 day per week.

Here’s what The Classic Push Pull Legs routine looks like:

The Classic Push Pull Legs Workout Routine

You can create an infinite variety of push pull routine workouts, but here are a few of my favorites.

As you’ll see, they involve a lot of heavy, compound weightlifting, supplemented with moderately heavy accessory work.

Push Day 1

Flat Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Standing Military Press

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Close-Grip Bench Press

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Push Day 2

Incline Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Seated Military Press

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Dumbbell Triceps Press

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Pull Day 1

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Row

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Wide-Grip Pull-Up or Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

Pull Day 2

Barbell or T-Bar Row

Warm-up and …

4 sets of 4 to 6 reps

Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps

One-Arm Dumbbell Row or Cable Row

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

Barbell Biceps Curl

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Legs Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warmup and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Front Squat

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Bulgarian Split Squat

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

(Optional) Seated Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Legs Day 2

Barbell Front Squat

Warmup and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Back Squat

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Leg Curl

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Seated Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

(Optional) Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

When and How to Add Weight

You can progress in a number of ways on the classic push pull legs routine, but here’s the simplest and most common method:

Add 5 pounds to every compound exercise and 1 to 2 reps or 5 pounds to every accessory exercise every time you do it.

If you’re following one of the higher frequency plans (more than 3 times per week), then you may only be able to add 5 pounds per week instead of each workout.

For example, if you have do both Push Day 1 and Push Day 2 in the same week, you might add 5 pounds on military press the first day, and then use the same weight on the second day.

Add as much weight as you can for 4 to 6 weeks, then deload, and repeat as long as you can until you reach a true plateau. Then it’s time to change your strength training program.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

Another major benefit of the push pull legs routine is it can be easily customized to fit your needs and circumstances.

With just three basic workouts to choose from, it’s easy to grasp and think with on the fly and add, subtract, or shift around workouts each week as needed.

That’s why I’m going to give you 7 different routines to choose from, ranging from training 2 to 6 times per week.

The 2-Day Push Pull Legs Routine

You can do well training just twice per week.

More would be better if you’re trying to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, but when circumstances won’t allow for more gym time, this is a solid 2-day routine that you can always fall back on to at least maintain what you’ve got.

Here it is:

Monday

Push 1 & Pull 1

Thursday

Legs 1

The 3-Day Push Pull Legs Routine

This 3-day routine is your basic PPL program, and it’s my personal favorite setup for training 3 days per week with minimal time.

Again, more training is best for maximizing gains, but this 3-day split is a time-proven program for getting big and strong.

Here’s the routine:

Monday

Push 1

Wednesday

Pull 1

Friday

Legs 1

The 4-Day Push Pull Legs Routines

The major benefit of adding a fourth day is it allows you to work more on whichever major muscle groups are most lagging in your physique or that you just want to focus most on.

Thus, I’m going to provide two 4-day routines: one for people that want to focus more on their upper bodies, and one for focusing more on the lower body.

Here they are:

Upper Body Focus

Monday

Push 1

Tuesday

Pull 1

Thursday

Legs 1

Friday

Push 2 or Pull 2

Lower Body Focus

Monday

Push 1

Tuesday

Leg Day 1

Thursday

Pull 1

Friday

Legs 2

The 5-Day Push Pull Legs Routines

This is my preferred PPL split because it allows you to push the limits in terms of volume and intensity while also allowing a couple days for recovery.

Again, I’m going to provide two routines here, one for emphasizing the upper body, and one for the lower body.

Here you go:

Upper Body Focus

Monday

Push 1

Tuesday

Pull 1

Wednesday

Legs 1

Thursday

Push 2

Friday

Pull 2

Lower Body Focus

Monday

Legs 1

Tuesday

Push 1

Wednesday

Pull 1

Thursday

Legs 2

Friday

Push 2

The 6-Day Push Pull Legs Routine

If you’re bulking or just feeling masochistic, then this might be for you.

Seriously though, a 6-day PPL split is about the most a natural weightlifter can get away with until progress stagnates and injuries become much more likely.

I don’t recommend it if you’re in a calorie deficit or if you don’t generally feel rested and fresh. Instead, it’s best suited to when you’re in a calorie surplus and feeling completely up to the challenge physically.

Here’s the routine:

Monday

Push 1

Tuesday

Pull 1

Wednesday

Legs 1

Thursday

Push 2

Friday

Pull 2

Saturday

Legs 2

A common variation of the push pull legs routine is the push legs pull routine.

This setup gives your upper body more time to recover in between workouts but your lower body less time, which means that it’s best suited to people that are more concerned with upper body development than lower body.

Personally, I prefer this method if I’m training 3 days per week. You can read more about how to set up this routine in this article:

The Definitive Guide to the “Push Pull Legs” Routine

The Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

  • It’s difficult to program your workouts to target a specific muscle group while sticking to the traditional PPL layout. For example, if you want to focus on your arms, you’ll need to do a “pull” day several times per week or add arm exercises to some of your push and leg workouts.
  • It can be overwhelming to pick which plan is right for you if you’re new to strength training.
  • It only includes one leg workout in the standard 3-day workout routine, which may not be enough for you if your lower body is lagging. In that case,  you’re better off following one of the programs from Lyle McDonald, Eric Helms, or Greg Nuckols below, which include more leg volume.
  • It can be tricky to modify unless you’re following one of the templates above.
  • It may not provide enough volume for your shoulders, biceps, and triceps if you’re a guy or your legs, butt, and calves if you’re a woman.

The Bottom Line

At bottom, The Classic Push Pull Legs Routine is one of the most reliable, adaptable, and simple strength training programs you can find. It trains every major muscle group, allows for plenty of time for recovery, and can fit almost any schedule.

The Best Strength Training Program #6: The Texas Method

strength training texas method

The Texas Method is a hugely popular strength training program and is particularly suited to intermediate lifters.

It was developed kind of accidentally by the esteemed Olympic weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, and it’s more of a training template than a fixed routine.

It’s not an “advanced” program, per se, but it’s ideal for someone who’s squeezed as much progress as they can out of a minimal routine like Starting Strength or StrongLifts 5×5, and needs to break through a plateau.

Why?

When you first start lifting, you’ll be able to set PRs in every workout. This will continue for 3 to 6 months or so, until you’ll only be able to set a new PR every week. Then it will be every other week.

As you become an intermediate lifter, you’ll only be able to PR every 4 weeks, then every 8, and then maybe once every 6 to 12 months.

Thus, your training plan needs to change along the way. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but your first step should be planning your training around setting PRs every week or so instead of every workout.

That’s what The Texas Method does for you.

The basic layout is simple:

  • You do 3 full-body workouts per week.
  • You do 3 compound exercises per workout.
  • You focus on just 6 compound exercises in total.
  • You vary the number of sets from workout to workout.
  • You rotate the order of exercises from week to week.

Those last 2 points are what makes the Texas Method unique. Instead of doing the same reps and sets in every workout, you alternate between high volume, light, and high intensity workouts. This is a very simple form of what’s known as “daily undulating periodization,” where you rotate between different rep ranges throughout the week.

We don’t need to get into the specifics of how or why this works, but the long and short of it is that exposing your muscles to different rep ranges throughout the week is a good way to keep stimulating strength and muscle gains over time.

Here’s what The Texas Method routine looks like:

The Texas Method Workout Routine

You’re going to do 3 workouts per week on The Texas Method.

Mondays are Volume Days, where you focus on sets of 5 reps at a moderately heavy weight.

Wednesdays are Light Days, where you focus on fewer sets of 5 reps at a lighter weight.

Fridays are Heavy Days where you aim for 1 set of 5 reps for each exercise, with the goal of setting a new PR.

For example, here’s a well-rounded Texas Method workout routine that many people follow:

Week A

MONDAY (VOLUME)
EXERCISE SETS REPS % OF 5RM
Squat 5 5 90
Bench Press 5 5 90
Deadlift 1 5 90

 

WEDNESDAY (LIGHT)
EXERCISE SETS REPS % OF 5RM
Squat 2 5 70
Overhead Press 3 5 70
Chin-Up 3 Fail Bodyweight
Hyperextension 5 10 N/A

 

FRIDAY (INTENSITY)
EXERCISE SETS REPS % OF 5RM
Squat 1 5 PR
Bench Press 1 5 PR
Deadlift 1 5 PR

Week B

MONDAY (VOLUME)
EXERCISE SETS REPS % OF 5RM
Squat 5 5 90
Overhead Press 5 5 90
Deadlift 1 5 90

 

WEDNESDAY (LIGHT)
EXERCISE SETS REPS % OF 5RM
Squat 2 5 70
Bench Press 3 5 70
Chin-Up 3 Fail Bodyweight
Hyperextension 5 10 N/A

 

FRIDAY (INTENSITY)
EXERCISE SETS REPS % OF 5RM
Squat 1 5 PR
Overhead Press 1 5 PR
Deadlift 1 5 PR

You alternate between weeks A and B, giving you a chance to repeatedly PR both your bench and overhead press.

Now, as you can see, the Volume and Light Days are pretty straightforward. Before each exercise, you warm-up (more on that in a moment) and then do your prescribed sets.

Fridays are personal record (PR) days—days where you dig deep to lift highest-ever weights.

Specifically, you start each exercise with a warmup routine and then do your one 5-rep PR set, which should be 5 to 10 pounds heavier than your previous 5-rep max.

For example, if your predicted 5-rep max for the squat is 275, then on Friday you will go for 5 reps with 280 or 285 pounds.

You can use the same warm-up routine as Starting Strength:

You do your first warm-up set with the empty bar and then evenly progress up to your working weight over the course of several additional sets.

For example, if you can squat 275 pounds for 5 reps, your warm-up routine would look like this:

Empty Bar (45 pounds)

2 sets of 5 reps

135 Pounds

2 sets of 5 reps

185 Pounds

1 set of 3 reps

235 Pounds

1 set of 2 reps

275 Pounds (Working Sets)

3 sets of 5 reps

If that sounds complicated to you, you can always use this handy little app.

You’ll rest 2 to 5 minutes between sets, or until you feel ready to give the next set your best effort.

When and How to Add Weight

The goal with the Texas Method isn’t workout-to-workout progress—it’s weekly progress.

And progression is very simple: you add 5 pounds to each Friday’s single 5-rep set.

This gives you a new 5-rep max with which you calculate your next week’s Monday and Wednesday workouts, and Friday is PR day again.

In this way the weights you lift in every workout move up over time.

If you’re unable to get through Monday’s workout (you can’t get all of your reps with good form), it’s recommended that you cut down the volume on your Mondays to 3 sets of 5 with 90% of your 5-rep max on your squats and bench presses or reduce the load by 10%, to 80% of your 5-rep max. The bottom line is you need more recovery.

If you can get through Monday’s workout but can’t hit your PRs on Friday, it’s recommended that you change your Monday workout by increasing volume (total number of reps) or intensity (amount of weight lifted).

For example, increasing volume is simple: instead of doing 5 sets of 5 reps with 90% of your 5-rep max on your first two exercises, you might do 5 sets of 8 reps with 80%.

When you’re increasing load, you want to keep your number of total reps the same. When you squat 5 sets of 5 reps with 90% of your 5-rep max, that’s 25 reps. You could increase this load by squatting 8 sets of 3 reps (24 reps) with 95%.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

As with the other 3-day per week strength training plans on this list, you can schedule your Texas Method workouts in a number of ways.

Most people default to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation, which looks like this:

Monday

Train

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Train

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

This leaves your weekends free while allowing one day of complete rest between training days.

Or, you could do something like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Train

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Train

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Rest

Or, if life doesn’t allow much training during the week, you could set up your weekly workout schedule like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Train

This means you won’t be able to lift as much on your Sunday workout, but it still gets the job done.

And finally, here’s how your first month would look on the program:

WEEK 1
DAY WORKOUT
1 A
2 Rest
3 B
4 Rest
5 A
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 2
DAY WORKOUT
1 B
2 Rest
3 A
4 Rest
5 B
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 3
DAY WORKOUT
1 A
2 Rest
3 B
4 Rest
5 A
6 Rest
7 Rest
WEEK 4
DAY WORKOUT
1 B
2 Rest
3 A
4 Rest
5 B
6 Rest
7 Rest

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It’s one of the best ways to start playing around with more advanced training techniques like daily undulating periodization.
  • It’s one of the best ways to keep setting PRs after your newbie gains are gone.
  • It only requires you to learn a handful of exercises.
  • It usually takes no more than 45 to 60 minutes to finish the workouts.
  • It includes more sets than most other beginner plans, which will aid in muscle and strength gains.

Cons

  • It gives your lower body significantly more volume than your upper body. It partially makes up for this by including chin-ups, but that may not be enough if you want your upper body to grow significantly.
  • It can get boring doing the same number of reps in (almost) every workout.
  • It may not provide enough volume for your shoulders, biceps, and triceps if you’re a guy or your legs, butt, and calves if you’re a woman.
  • It can be annoying to follow the meticulous progression system.
  • It may not provide enough volume to grow as fast as possible as an intermediate lifter. If you have more than 2 years of lifting experience, you’ll make faster progress training more than 3 times per week (the next option on the list might be just what you need).

The Bottom Line

The Texas Method is one of the best strength training programs for people who’ve graduated from Starting Strength or 5×5, but who can still set PRs about once a week, and it’s a good introduction to more advanced training methods that will come in handy as you progress as a lifter.

The Best Strength Training Program #7: Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1

strength training wendler

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 routine has developed something of a cult following, and for good reason.

It’s one of the first periodized strength training programs to “go mainstream,” largely because it helps bridge the gap between hardcore powerlifting programs and simple, barebones programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5.

The creator of the program, Jim Wendler, also has an impressive story.

After a successful college football career, Wendler went on to squat over 1,000 pounds, bench 675 pounds, and deadlift 700 pounds. That came at a cost, though.

He was tired of being overweight, feeling overtrained, and following programs that he felt were more complex, demanding, and time-consuming than necessary.

He took what he’d learned after following different programs for over a decade and distilled the best parts into what’s become known as “Wendler 5/3/1,” or just “5/3/1.”

The result is one of the best all-around strength training programs for beginners who are hell-bent on getting as strong as possible, or intermediate lifters who want to take a break from higher volume programs and focus on strength for a few months.

You can think of 5/3/1 as the older, more sophisticated brother of The Texas Method. Instead of going for new PRs every week, you’re aiming for new PRs every 3 weeks, and the way you progress is also more structured.

Like the other programs on this list, 5/3/1, revolves around a handful of compound exercises, with a few more accessory exercises thrown in to work on lagging muscle groups. All you have to do is 3 to 4 workouts per week that last 45 to 60 minutes apiece.

All in all, 5/3/1 is a great way to dip your toe in the waters of more advanced programming when you hit a plateau following a simpler program.

Here’s what the 5/3/1 routine looks like:

The 5/3/1 Workout Routine

You train 3 or 4 times per week, depending on which routine you want to follow.

5/3/1 has you do 1 of 4 workouts on your training days:

  1. Squat and assistance work.
  2. Bench press and assistance work.
  3. Deadlift and assistance work.
  4. Overhead press and assistance work.

As the name implies, you rotate between sets of 5, 3, and 1 reps for your heavy compound lifts, depending on the phase of the program.

In this case, “assistance work” includes exercises that target roughly the same muscle groups as your primary lifts, though in slightly different ways. You do 10 to 15 reps per set for all of your assistance work, stopping a few reps shy of failure.

The standard set up for assistance work is to do two exercises after your core lift.

For example, you could do leg press and leg curls as “assistance work” after your squats.

If you want to look at the other variations, including a popular one for building muscle called “Boring But Big,” you can find them in Wendler’s book.

After deciding what assistance exercises you want to do, you perform each of these workouts once to complete what’s called a “wave.”

Here’s how it’s commonly laid out:

DAY 1 DAY 2
Warm-Up Warm-Up
Overhead Press Deadlift
Assistance Work Assistance Work
DAY 3 DAY 4
Warm-Up Warm-Up
Bench Press Squat
Assistance Work Assistance Work

Each “mesocycle” (a fancy term for a training phase that lasts 2 to 6 weeks) of 5/3/1 consists of 4 waves.

That is, you will do each of the workouts 4 times to complete a mesocycle, at which point you will start over again from the beginning.

Here’s how the mesocycle works:

WAVE 1
SET % OF 90% OF 1RM REPS
1 65% 5
2 75% 5
3 85% 5+
WAVE 2
SET % OF 90% OF 1RM REPS
1 70% 3
2 80% 3
3 90% 3+
WAVE 3
SET % OF 90% OF 1RM REPS
1 75% 5
2 85% 3
3 95% 1+
WAVE 4
SET % OF 90% OF 1RM REPS
1 40% 5
2 50% 5
3 60% 5

Note that 5/3/1 works with a percentage of 90% of your 1RM, not a percentage of your true 1RM like other strength programs.

In other words, to decide what weights to use, you subtract 10% from your 1RM and then make all of your calculations.

Wendler explains his reasoning for this as follows:

“Start too light” refers to my insistence that the prescribed loads are calculated off of 90% of the lifter’s 1RM. If your 1RM in the bench is 315, why calculate loads off a 1RM of 285?

My response? People who freak out about the 90% thing are usually weak in the first place. You don’t need to operate at your max to increase your max. Why people get so bent out of shape about taking two steps back if it means they’ll be taking 10 steps forward is beyond me.

Also, the sets with + sign indicate that you should get as many reps as you can.

One major facet of this program is Wendler’s insistence on having a specific goal for every workout, particularly the days you’re trying to set PR. As he says:

I highly recommend having a goal in mind for these last sets. Sit down the night before, or the week before, and think of the number of reps you’d like to hit. See yourself doing it. Write it down and visualize the bar in your hands or on your back. When it’s time, let yourself go and attack the weight.

I’ve always thought of doing the prescribed reps as simply testing your strength. Anything over and above that builds strength, muscle and character. Doing the prescribed reps shows you and your body that you’re strong enough for the workout. The extra reps are your way of dominating the workout and getting better.

That’s good advice for every program on this list, by the way.

Assuming you follow the 4-day per week routine for your big lifts and what Wendler calls “The Triumvirate” routine for your assistance work, here’s what your workouts would look like for the first week of the program:

Day 1

Barbell Overhead Press

Warm up and 3 sets as …

5 reps at 65% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 75% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 85% of 90% of 1RM

Dips

5 sets of 15 reps

Chin-Up

5 sets of 10 reps

Day 2

Barbell Deadlift

Warm up and 3 sets as …

5 reps at 65% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 75% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 85% of 90% of 1RM

Barbell Good Morning

5 sets of 12 reps

Hanging Leg Raise

5 sets of 15 reps

Day 3

Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and 3 sets as …

5 reps at 65% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 75% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 85% of 90% of 1RM

Dumbbell Chest Press

5 sets of 15 reps

Dumbbell Row

5 sets of 10 reps

Day 4

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and 3 sets as …

5 reps at 65% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 75% of 90% of 1RM

5 reps at 85% of 90% of 1RM

Leg Press

5 sets of 15 reps

Leg Curl

5 sets of 10 reps

When and How to Add Weight

Slow, steady progression is the name of the game with 5/3/1, and Wendler keeps progression very simple.

You begin each new mesocycle by increasing your 1RM weights by 5 pounds for upper-body lifts, and 10 pounds for lower-body lifts.

Note that I said “your 1RM weights,” not your weights in the gym.

That is, you’re increasing the numbers that you’re using to calculate your 1RM, not the amounts of weight you’re actually lifting.

Yes, that means you’re progressing very slowly.

This is something that can be hard to accept, but it’s a common piece of advice you’ll hear from just about everyone who’s gotten exceptionally strong:

It’s much better to make miniuscle increases over months or years than big increases for a few weeks and then plateauing.

And that’s what Wendler 5/3/1 is all about—slow, steady, inexorable progress.

For example, let’s say you used the following 1RM numbers to calculate the mesocycle you just finished:

Overhead Press: 225

Deadlift: 405

Bench Press: 315

Squat: 405

For your next mesocycle, you would calculate your lifts using the following 1RM numbers:

Overhead Press: 230

Deadlift: 415

Bench Press: 320

Squat: 415

You keep on increasing weights this way until you get stuck, which Wendler says will happen.

When you finally do stall, Wendler recommends that you drop your current 1RM for that exercise by 10%, re-calculate your working weights, and keep going.

For example, if, over the course of several months, you’ve increased your squat 1RM from 400 to 430 pounds and now you’re stuck, you simply recalculate your next mesocycle using 90% of 430 (390) instead of trying to move up to 440.

By following this “two steps forward, one step back” approach, you’re able to keep your weights moving up over time and avoid the dreaded long-term plateau.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

Seeing as 5/3/1 only involves 3 to 4 workouts per week, you can schedule them in a number of different ways.

Wendler recommends you abide by these 2 rules, though:

  1. Do the workouts in order. Making changes, whether it’s swapping exercises, increasing or decreasing sets, or scrambling the order of the workouts is verboten on this plan.
  2. Space the workouts in such a way that you have as much rest as possible between them.

Wendler recommends 3 possible workout schedules (assuming you follow the 4-day per week plan):

Monday

Day 1

Tuesday

Day 2

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Day 3

Friday

Day 4

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

This one gives you even more recovery between workouts (at the price of training on Sunday):

Monday

Day 2

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Day 3

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Day 4

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Day 1

And finally, you can follow this schedule if you’d rather keep your Friday’s open:

Monday

Day 2

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Day 3

Thursday

Day 4

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Day 1

The Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

  • It isn’t ideal for someone who also wants to add a significant amount of muscle due to the relatively low volumes.
  • It can be frustrating to calculate your weights for every workout if you want a paint-by-numbers program that requires zero thought.
  • It’s not suited for impatient people. If you want to set PRs every time you step in the gym (until you plateau), this program isn’t for you.
  • It doesn’t include much volume for your arms and back, which might be a problem if those are lagging muscle groups for you.
  • It’s not ideal for complete beginners because you can make faster progress at that stage by adding weight every workout.

The Bottom Line

Wendler 5/3/1 is one of the best strength training programs for people who’ve graduated from Starting Strength or 5×5, but who want to focus on getting as strong as possible more than building muscle. It can also work well for intermediate or advanced lifters who want to focus on getting as strong as possible on their big lifts for a few months before returning to a higher volume strength training program.

The Best Strength Training Program #8: Lyle McDonald’s Generic Bulking Routine

strength training lyle mcdonald bulking

This program is the brainchild of fitness writer, researcher, and coach Lyle McDonald.

In case you don’t know him, Lyle was one of the first people to start explaining fitness research online in a way that lay people could understand.

Like so many other great things (IIFYM, Jordan Peterson’s new book, and reaction gifs) his generic bulking routine began on an Internet messaging board and soon developed a following.

As Lyle says, this program isn’t for beginners.

It’s for people who have at least 6 to 12 months of proper training experience, who want to gain muscle and strength.

This program isn’t specifically designed for gaining strength, either, although it includes a good mix of high intensity, low-rep workouts and low intensity, high-rep workouts, which is ideal for people who’ve outgrown Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, or other minimalist strength training plans and who want to bulk.

All in all, it’s a great introduction to higher volume bodybuilding training plans.

Here’s the rationale behind the program, in Lyle’s words:

I generically like to see a body part hit about 2X/week with slightly lowered intensity… I recommend about a rep short of failure so that the volume (which is higher per workout than either DC or HST) can be accomplished. I’m trying to strike a volume between the issues of frequency (for gene expression and protein synthesis), recovery (failure training can burn people out) and progression (I want to see the poundages going up consistently over the cycle).

Here’s the gist of the program:

  • You alternate between an upper body and a lower body workout.
  • You train 4 times per week (doing each workout twice).
  • Each workout includes 3 to 4 compound exercises followed by 3 to 4 accessory exercises.
  • You do 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 or 10 to 12 reps for your compound exercises
  • You do 1 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps for your accessory exercises.
  • You take it easy for the first 2 weeks, then add as much weight as possible for the next 4 to 6 weeks.
  • You take a deload every 6 to 8 weeks.

As the name suggests, Lyle recommends this for bulking—not cutting. As a general rule, you won’t be able to handle as much volume while cutting, which means following this program is more likely to lead to burnout. Make sure you’re eating plenty of calories, enough protein, and getting enough sleep if you want to follow this routine.

Here’s what The Lyle McDonald Generic Bulking Routine looks like:

The Lyle McDonald Generic Bulking Workout Routine

You’ll do 2 workouts following Lyle’s Generic Bulking Workout Routine:

  1. A lower body workout
  2. An upper body workout

Here’s what they look like:

Lower Body Workout

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and …

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Stiff-Leg Deadlift or Leg Curl

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Leg Press

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Leg Curl (or a different hamstring accessory exercise)

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Standing Calf Raise

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Seated Calf Raise

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Upper Body Workout

Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and …

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Barbell or Dumbbell Row

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Incline Bench Press or Shoulder Press

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Pull-Down or Chin-Up

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Triceps Accessory Exercise

1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Biceps Accessory Exercise

1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps

You can either repeat these exact same workouts again during the week, or you can make a few substitutions.

Here’s what Lyle says about making these changes:

For the Thu/Fri workouts either repeat the first two or make some slight exercise substitutions. Can do deadlift/leg press combo on Thu, switch incline/pulldown to first exercises on upper body day. A lot depends on volume tolerance, if the above is too much, go to 2-3X6-8 [for your compound lifts] and 1-2X10-12 [for your accessory lifts].

How many sets you do for each exercise depends on how you feel.

For example, let’s say you finish 3 sets of squats, and you’ve finished each set feeling like you could still have done 1 to 2 more reps. In that case, you should do another set.

If the first 3 sets left you in a huffing, puffing, sweating mess, then stop after 3 and try again next time.

As you can see, you’ll need to play around with different exercises and numbers of sets to find what you can handle.

When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to start conservatively.

  • If you aren’t sure if you should add 5 pounds or 10, add 5.
  • If you aren’t sure if you should to 2 sets or 3, do 2.
  • If you aren’t sure if you should choose a harder accessory, like Romanian deadlifts, or an easier one, like leg curls, choose the easier one.

You can always add more weight, sets, or harder exercises later if you want to.

To make things as simple as possible, here’s a version of Lyle’s Generic Bulking Routine you can follow that’s set up according to those guidelines:

Lower Body Workout A

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and …

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Leg Press

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Leg Curl

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Seated Calf Raise

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Upper Body Workout A

Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and …

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Dumbbell Row

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Incline Bench Press

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Pull-Down

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

DB Triceps Press

1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Barbell Biceps Curl

1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Lower Body Workout B

Barbell Front Squat

Warm up and …

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Leg Press

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Leg Curl

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Seated Calf Raise

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Upper Body Workout B

Incline Bench Press or Shoulder Press

Warm up and …

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Pull-Down or Chin-Up

2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Barbell or Dumbbell Row

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Triceps Accessory Exercise

1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Biceps Accessory Exercise

1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps

There are many other variations you can make on this plan, but the above is a good starting place.

Rest 2 to 4 minutes between all of your compound exercises, and 1 to 3 minutes between all of your accessory exercises.

Start each workout with a thorough warm-up of your choice. After you warm up for the first exercise, you don’t have to warm up for the rest (as you’ll already be prepared).

When and How to Add Weight

For the first 2 weeks of this program you’re going to use lighter weights.

Specifically, you’re going to train with 80 to 95% of your previous working weights to familiarize yourself with the exercises and the greater number of sets and reps than most other plans.

Note, this doesn’t mean you’re using 80 to 95% of your one-rep max. You’re using 80 to 95% of your typical working weights, which is the highest weight you typically use for that exercise in your workouts.

For example, if you’ve benched 225 for your last few workouts, you’d start with 180 pounds (80%) for the first week.

After the first 2 weeks, your goal is to add weight and/or reps to every lift, every workout, for 4 to 6 weeks, or until you plateau.

Here’s what the first two weeks of your training should look like:

Week 1

80 to 85% of your previous working weight

Week 2

90 to 95% of your previous working weight

Weeks 3 to 6 or 8

Add as much weight as you can while staying 1 to 2 reps shy of failure

Using the same example of a 225 pound bench press, here’s what your first 3 weeks of lifting would look like:

Week 1

180 to 190 pounds for 5 reps

Week 2

200 to 210 pounds for 5 reps

Weeks 3 to 6 or 8

210+ pounds for 5 reps

After week 2, you progress the same way you do on the Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs.

You keep adding reps until you hit the top end of your prescribed rep range, then you add weight and start at the bottom end of your prescribed rep range, and rinse and repeat. Do that for every exercise in every workout, trying to add as much weight as possible for 4 to 6 weeks.

After 4 to 6 weeks you take a break. As Lyle cautions:

After the 6-8 weeks is up, you MUST backcycle [deload]. If you want to change exercises, do it during the two week submaximal runup. Even if you want to keep the same exercises, you MUST backcycle to 80-85% of your previous best and runup at to numbers again. You MUST listen to me about this, if you try to keep hammering past that point, you will burn out and start backsliding.

In other words, play it safe and take a deload after 6 to 8 weeks of this kind of training. If you don’t, you’re asking for injury, overtraining, or burnout.

Together, this 2-week buildup and a 4-to-6 week period of adding weights is one “cycle” of training.

Once you finish one complete cycle of this program, you can change some of the exercises and rep ranges, then rinse and repeat. Don’t change any of the exercises or rep ranges within a 6-to-8 week cycle, though.

Here’s one way Lyle suggests you could plan out your training across several cycles:

Cycle 1 (Weeks 1 to 8)

6 to 8 reps for compound lifts

10 to 12 reps for accessory lifts

Cycle 2 (Weeks 9 to 17)

5 reps for compound lifts

8 to 10 reps for accessory lifts

Cycle 2 (Weeks 18 to 26)

3 reps for compound lifts

6 to 8 reps for accessory lifts

After 26 weeks of bulking, it’s a good idea to transition back to cutting again.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

There are two popular ways of scheduling this program throughout the week.

Here’s option 1:

Monday

Lower A

Tuesday

Upper A

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Lower B

Friday

Upper B

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

And option 2:

Monday

Lower A

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Upper A

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Lower B

Saturday

Upper B

Sunday

Rest

Most people go with the first routine because it allows you to get all of your workouts done during the work week, leaving the weekend free.

As Lyle says, though, the second might be slightly better because it gives you 1 day of rest between 3 of the workouts instead of just 2.

You can also modify this routine to train 3 days per week by spreading the workouts over 2 weeks instead of 1. Here’s what this would look like:

Week 1

Monday

Lower A

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Upper A

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Lower B

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

Monday

Upper B

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Upper A

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Lower A

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

Then you continue that pattern for the full length of the training cycle.

The Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

  • It’s not for beginners. If you’re brand new to strength training or have never followed a structured program before, pick a different program from this list.
  • It might be more volume than you need if you aren’t very strong yet. If you still haven’t reached some bare minimum strength standards, you may want to focus on getting stronger first.
  • It doesn’t call for any traditional barbell deadlifting. If you want to build a big deadlift, pick a different program from this list.
  • It takes longer to finish the workouts than the other plans on this list.
  • It may be more convenient to spread the volume in these workouts over 5 days per week (like Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger) instead of 4.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve been following a structured strength training program for at least 6 months, and you’re ready to focus on building muscle (while continuing to get much stronger), this is one of the best programs you can do.

The Best Strength Training Program #9: The Classic Upper Lower Training Program

strength training upper lower

The classic upper lower routine is one of the most common, proven, and simple strength training programs you can find.

It’s also one of the first routines people turn to after their newbie gains are gone, and for good reason:

The classic upper lower routine divides your training into upper and lower body workouts.

By alternating between these workouts, you can ensure that you almost always have at least 1 to 2 days of rest before training a muscle group again.

The upper body workouts typically include:

Like the classic push pull legs routine, it’s more of a template than a specific plan. You can use a variety of different exercises, frequencies, and sets and reps while staying within the basic framework.

That said, most upper lower training programs stick to the same exercises, rep ranges, and number of sets as the other programs on this list:

  • You’ll start each upper or lower workout with 2 to 3 compound exercises followed by 2 to 3 accessory exercises for supporting muscle groups.
  • You’ll do 2 to 4 sets for your compound exercises.
  • You’ll do 2 to 3 sets for your accessory exercises.
  • You’ll do 4 to 6 reps for your compound exercises.
  • You’ll do 6 to 10 reps for your accessory exercises.

Here’s what The Classic Upper Lower routine looks like:

The Classic Upper Lower Workout Routine

The classic upper lower workout routine involves 4 workouts per week, with two workouts for the upper body and 2 workouts for the lower body.

This is ideal for people who want to get more training volume than a minimalist strength routine without training more than 4 days per week.

Here are the workouts:

Upper 1

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Lat Pulldown or Pull-Up

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Overhead Press

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

2 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

Barbell Curl

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Dumbbell Side Raise

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Upper 2

Barbell Overhead Press

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Row or Seated Cable Row

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Bench Press

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Dumbbell Triceps Press

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Lower 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Barbell Front Squat

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Standing Calf Raise

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

(Optional) Weighted Cable Crunches

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps until failure

Lower 2

Barbell Front Squat

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Bulgarian Split Squat

3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

Leg Press

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Seated Calf Raise

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

(Optional) Hanging Leg Raises

2 sets of 8 to 10 reps until failure

Rest 3 minutes between your compound exercises and 2 minutes between your accessory exercises.

When and How to Add Weight

Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.

For example, if you’re doing the Upper 1 workout and you get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your bench press, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can press it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.

Repeat that process for every exercise, alternating between increasing weight and reps each workout.

Add as much weight as you can for 4 to 6 weeks, then deload, and repeat as long as you can until you reach a true plateau. Then it’s time to change your strength training program.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

There are two popular ways of scheduling this program throughout the week:

4-Day Per Week Upper Lower Workout Routine Option 1

Monday

Upper 1

Tuesday

Lower 1

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Upper 2

Friday

Lower 2

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

4-Day Per Week Upper Lower Workout Routine Option 2

Monday

Lower 1

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Upper 1

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Lower 2

Saturday

Upper 2

Sunday

Rest

Most people go with the first routine because it allows you to get all of your workouts done during the work week, leaving the weekend free.

The second option may be slightly better, though, because you have at least 1 day of rest between 3 of the workouts instead of only 2 of them. The second option also allows slightly more recovery before your lower body workouts, which makes it a better choice if you want to focus on building your leg size and strength.

You can also modify this routine to train 3 days per week. All you have to do is spread the workouts over 2 weeks instead of 1. Here’s what this would look like:

3-Day Per Week Upper Lower Workout Routine

Week 1

Monday

Lower 1

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Upper 1

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Lower 2

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

Week 2

Monday

Upper 2

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Lower 1

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Upper 1

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It includes more volume than other 4-day per week strength training plans, which makes it ideal for people who want to gain size and strength without spending more than 4 days per week in the gym.
  • It’s simple and easy to follow, with enough variety to keep you interested.
  • It allows plenty of time for recovery between workouts.
  • It gives your upper and lower bodies roughly equal volume.
  • It can be easily adapted to different schedules.

Cons

The Bottom Line

The Classic Upper Lower Training Program is one of the best strength training programs for people who have at least 1 year of strength training experience and who want to build muscle and strength as fast as possible, without training more than 4 times per week.

The Best Strength Training Program #10: The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program

strength training eric helms

The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program is a 4-day per week strength training program focused on the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press with a few accessory exercises thrown in to work on supporting muscle groups.

It’s for people who are new to strength training or who’ve never followed a structure strength training program before who want to build muscle and strength.

Although it’s a “bodybuilding” program, you do enough sets in the 5-to-8-rep range to significantly increase your strength as well.

The program is one of several that you can find in The Muscle & Strength Pyramids book set, written by Dr. Eric Helms, PhD, Andrea Valdez, and Andy Morgan.

Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez are coaches for 3D Muscle Journey, one of the premier natural bodybuilding coaching agencies around. They’re also both competitive bodybuilders and powerlifters. Eric is also one of the most respected researchers in fitness and a member of the Legion Athletics Scientific Advisory Board.

Andy Morgan is a well-known fitness coach and writer, and between the 3 of them, they’ve designed strength training programs for thousands of bodybuilders, powerlifters, and average guys and gals trying to get in better shape.

The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program is based on a model Eric put together that he refers to as “the muscle and strength pyramid.” Here’s what it looks like:

muscle and strength pyramid

The idea is to organize the different elements of a training program in order of most (bottom) to least (top) important.

In the authors’ words:

“There are two key components of successful programming – putting first that which is

most important, and learning how to adjust each training variable while maintaining the

order of things.”

Regardless of what program you follow, that same template more or less holds true. When it comes to someone relatively new to bodybuilding, here’s how Eric recommends you apply these principles:

  • You alternate between 2 upper and lower body workouts for a total of 4 workouts per week.
  • You rotate between 3 to 4 compound exercises with 1 to 3 accessory exercises for supporting muscle groups.
  • You do 10 to 12 sets for each major muscle group per week.
  • You do sets of 5, 8, 10, 12, and 15 reps, depending on the exercise and the workout.
  • You use weights that are ~65 to 85% of your 1RM, depending on the exercise and the workout.
  • You should take each set of your compound exercises 1 to 3 reps from failure, and your accessory exercises 2 to 4 reps from failure.

One feature of this program that makes it unique, is that it gives you numerical guidelines for how hard each exercise should feel. These numbers are known as ratings of perceived exertion (RPE), and they represent how hard a set feels on a scale of 1 to 10.

For example, if a set calls for an RPE of 8 to 9, you should feel like you’re at about an “8” or “9” out of 10 on the last rep of your set.

Another way to think of RPE is how many reps you could complete if you pushed yourself to muscular failure, or the point where you couldn’t complete another rep. This number is known as your repetitions in reserve (RIR).

Here’s a chart that shows what this looks like:

rpe scale chart

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. These are both just different ways to measure how hard each set feels to you, in addition to or in place of a percent of 1RM.

The main benefit of tracking your RPE/RIR is that it helps keep you from pushing too hard on days where you should probably take it a little easier. For example, let’s say your workout calls for 3 sets of 5 reps of squats at 82.5% of your 1RM.

Normally you could do that at about 8 RPE, or with 2 RIR. Last night, though, you didn’t sleep well, and thus knocking out the first set feels like a 10 RPE, or 0 RER. In that case, you’d be better off ignoring the numbers in your training plan and dropping the weight enough to stick within your RPE/RIR guidelines.

It takes a few weeks to get used to using RPE/RIR, and months before you can get the most out of them, but they’re good tools to start using as a beginner.

The other benefit of using RPE/RIR, is that it’s a more convenient way to track the intensity of your accessory exercises. Most of the time, you’re going to take your accessory exercises close to failure anyway, so you might as well use that as a measurement of how hard you’re working instead of your 1RM.

It’s also annoying to program your 1RM for every accessory exercise, so it’s easier to use RPE/RIR instead.

That’s why Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program includes RPE/RIR guidelines in addition to or in place of a percent of your 1RM.

All in all, The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program is very similar to The Classic Upper Lower Training Program, except with slightly more volume and different exercises.

The main difference is that this program is more of a workout template. The book doesn’t tell you exactly what exercises to do, because it’s meant to be an example of how you could set up a beginner bodybuilding program.

That said, turning the template into a specific plan is straightforward if you follow the guidelines in the book (or the suggestions below). Set up according to Helm’s guidelines, it will help you get stronger and build muscle in areas that more minimal strength training programs tend to neglect (like the shoulders, arms, and calves).

Here’s what The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding routine looks like:

The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Workout Routine

The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Workout Routine involves 4 workouts per week, with 2 workouts for the upper body and 2 workouts for the lower body.

This is ideal for people who want to get more training volume than a minimalist strength training program without training more than 4 days per week.

You can see exactly how many reps you’re doing for each muscle group and at what intensity per week in this chart from the book:

eric helms bodybuilding workout routine

Here’s what the workout template looks like:

Day 1

Squat Variant

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 5 reps at 82.5% of 1RM / 8 to 9 RPE

Hip Hinge Variant

3 sets of 5 reps at 82.5% of 1RM / 8 to 9 RPE

Single Leg Variant

2 set of 8 reps at 6 to 7 RPE

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Day 2

Horizontal Push

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 5 reps at 82.5% of 1RM / 8 to 9 RPE

Horizontal Pull

3 sets of 5 reps at 8 to 9 RPE

Vertical Push

2 sets of 8 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Vertical Pull

2 sets of 8 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Flyes

3 sets of 15 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Day 3

Deadlift Variant

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 8 reps at 6 to 7 RPE

Leg Press Variant

3 sets of 8 reps at 6 to 7 RPE

Leg Extension

3 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Leg Curl

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Seated Calf Raise

3 sets of 15 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Day 4

Horizontal Push

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 10 reps at 67.5% of 1RM / 7 to 8 RPE

Horizontal Pull

3 sets of 10 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Vertical Push

2 sets of 12 reps at 62.5% of 1RM / 7 to 8 RPE

Vertical Pull

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Triceps

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Biceps

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Now, as you can see, the templates tell you what kind of exercises you should do, but they don’t tell you exactly what exercises to pick.

That’s both a pro and a con.

It’s a pro because not everyone can do all of the same exercises with proper form, pain-free, and with a full range of motion, so you can custom tailor the workouts to your unique needs, limitations, and preferences.

It’s a con because unless you have some experience lifting weights, though, you probably aren’t sure what exercises you should try.

That’s something you’ll just have to learn through practice.

If you aren’t sure where to start, though, here’s one way you could set this up, based on the recommendations in the book:

Day 1

Low-Bar Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 5 reps at 82.5% of 1RM / 8 to 9 RPE

Romanian Deadlift

3 sets of 5 reps at 82.5% of 1RM / 8 to 9 RPE

Bulgarian Split Squat

2 set of 8 reps at 6 to 7 RPE

Standing Calf Raise

3 sets of 8 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Day 2

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 5 reps at 82.5% of 1RM / 8 to 9 RPE

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

3 sets of 5 reps at 8 to 9 RPE

Barbell Overhead Press

2 sets of 8 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Lat Pull-Down

2 sets of 8 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Flyes

3 sets of 15 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Day 3

Deadlift

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 8 reps at 6 to 7 RPE

Leg Press

3 sets of 8 reps at 6 to 7 RPE

Leg Extension

3 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Leg Curl

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Seated Calf Raise

3 sets of 15 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Day 4

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

3 sets of 10 reps at 67.5% of 1RM / 7 to 8 RPE

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

3 sets of 10 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Barbell Overhead Press

2 sets of 12 reps at 62.5% of 1RM / 7 to 8 RPE

Lat Pull-Down

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Dumbbell Triceps Overhead Press

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

Barbell Biceps Curls

2 sets of 12 reps at 7 to 8 RPE

In terms of rest periods, this program uses what are known as antagonist paired sets.

As Eric Helms explains:

“… an antagonist paired set (APS), is performing one set on an exercise, and then instead of performing a second set on that exercise after resting, you perform a set on an exercise that is the “antagonist” of the muscle group trained on the first set.”

You still rest several minutes between each set, but you’re able to reduce the amount of time you rest between each set by alternating between different muscle groups.

For example, on Day 2, you could alternate between sets for bench press and single-arm dumbbell rows, resting 2 minutes between each set. Then, once you’ve completed all of your sets for both exercises, you’d switch to alternating between sets of barbell overhead press and lat pull-down.

There’s one caveat to this, though. Eric recommends against doing antagonist paired sets for any full-body exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, because these lifts rely on enough muscle groups that doing almost any other exercise between sets will likely interfere with your strength.

You don’t have to use antagonist paired sets if you don’t want to, but they’re a great way to save time and either don’t hurt or may even help your performance on some exercises. I recommend you give them a shot.

When and How to Add Weight

The system for progressing on this program is also unique.

There are a few parts to this:

  • Try to increase the weight on each exercise every week.
  • Only increase the weight to the point that your last set of an exercise is no more than 1 RPE higher than the first. For example, let’s say you add 5 pounds to your squat from last week. If your first set feels like 8 RPE, your last set should feel no harder than 9 RPE.
  • Increase the weights for each workout independently. That is, if you add 5 pounds to your bench press on day 1, you don’t necessarily add 5 pounds to your bench press on day 2. This ensures you stay within the right RPE range.
  • If you can’t complete your planned number of reps for an exercise, use the same weight for that exercise next week.
  • If you can’t complete your planned number of reps again, then reduce the load by 10% and complete the same sets and reps. The next time you do that workout, try to hit your target reps with the weight tried to use before.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

You can schedule your workouts however you like, as long as you stick to these guidelines:

  • Do the workouts in order. Don’t do both upper body days, then both lower body days, or mix and match your workouts at random.
  • Don’t do more than 2 workouts in a row without a rest day. This ensures you get adequate recovery between workouts so you can continue to progress.

Here are 2 popular ways of scheduling this program throughout the week:

Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program Option 1

Monday

Upper 1

Tuesday

Lower 1

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Upper 2

Friday

Lower 2

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program Option 2

Monday

Lower 1

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Upper 1

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Lower 2

Saturday

Upper 2

Sunday

Rest

The Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

  • It requires you to familiarize yourself with RPE/RIR, which can take several weeks if you’re new to lifting.
  • It might not give you enough practice with the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press if you just want to get strong. In that case, you’re better off following a different program on this list.
  • It may provide more lower body volume than you need if your upper body is lagging.
  • It requires you to experiment with different exercises if you want to get the most out of the program (or you can follow the guidelines above).
  • It may not be enough volume if you’ve been training more than 1 to 2 years. In that case, you’re better off following Eric’s Intermediate Bodybuilding Program (found in the same book).

The Bottom Line

The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program is one of the best strength training programs for people are new to strength training or who’ve never followed a structured strength training program before, who want to build muscle and strength as fast as possible, without following a higher frequency workout routine.

The Best Strength Training Program #11: Reverse Pyramid Training

strength training reverse pyramid training

Many people who are new to strength training do what’s called “ascending pyramid training.”

It works like this:

After you finish warming up, you start your work sets with low weight and high reps, and increase the weight and decrease the reps with each subsequent set, finishing with your heaviest weight.

Let’s say your 1RM on bench press is 200 pounds. Here’s what a typical ascending pyramid workout might look like:

Set 1

140 pounds for 10 reps (70% of 1RM)

Set 2

160 pounds for 6 reps (80% of 1RM)

Set 3

180 pounds for 2 reps (90% of 1RM)

The original idea behind this kind of training was to use the lighter, higher-rep sets to get in a little more volume while preparing you for the heavier, lower-rep sets. And as long as you don’t push the weights too hard on your first few sets, it can work.

There’s a problem with this method, though. It forces you to do your heaviest and arguably most important sets when you’re most fatigued. This makes it much harder to ensure you keep adding weight every week.

Plus, you should be fully prepared to push heavy weights after a proper (non-fatiguing) warm-up, so why not do your heaviest sets first, when you’re fresh?

That’s the thinking behind reverse pyramid training.

With reverse pyramid training, you start your workout with your heaviest weights, and decrease the weight and increase the reps on each subsequent set.

The main advantage of this kind of training is that it’s a great way to make sure you’re can keep increasing the weights while you’re in a calorie deficit. You only have to do one truly heavy set, and it’s at the beginning of your workout. After knocking that out, you can focus on some slightly easier, higher rep sets to help maintain muscle mass without interfering too much with recovery.

This approach has been around for some time, but it was largely popularized by fitness coach, writer, and intermittent fasting aficionado, Martin Berkhan.

Here’s one way you could do it:

Set 1

180 pounds for 2 reps (90% of 1RM)

Set 2

160 pounds for 6 reps (80% of 1RM)

Set 3

140 pounds for 10 reps (70% of 1RM)

As you can see, it’s the mirror image of ascending pyramid training.

The downside of this approach is that it also generally means you can’t train with as much volume as you might otherwise. If your number one goal is to get stronger, though, and you just want to maintain or slowly gain muscle, then this program can work quite well.

Most reverse pyramid training programs involve …

  • 3 workouts per week, depending on how they’re set up.
  • 1 or 2 heavy compound exercises in each workout, followed by 2 or 3 accessory exercises for lagging muscle groups.
  • 2 to 3 sets for heavy compound exercises, and 6 to 10 reps for accessory exercises.
  • Reverse pyramid sets for your compound exercises, and traditional sets for your accessory exercises (you’ll see what this looks like below).
  • Rest 3 to 4 minutes between your heaviest sets, and 2 to 3 minutes between your lighter sets and accessory exercises.

Here’s what The Reverse Pyramid Training routine looks like:

The Reverse Pyramid Training Workout Routine

There are other ways to set this up, but the following is one of the most common, simple, and reliable ways to get into reverse pyramid training.

Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Barbell Bench Press

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Pull-Up or Lat Pulldown

8 to 10 reps at 75% of 1RM

Seated Calf Raise

10 to 12 reps at 70% of 1RM

Day 2

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Barbell Overhead Press

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Barbell or One-Arm Dumbbell Row

8 to 10 reps at 75% of 1RM

Dumbbell Side Raise

10 to 12 reps at 70% of 1RM

Day 3

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and …

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Barbell Overhead Press

4 to 6 reps at 80% of 1RM

6 to 8 reps at 75% of 1RM

8 to 10 reps at 70% of 1RM

Chin-Up or Pull-Up (Weighted if Possible)

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps taking each set 1 to 2 reps shy of failure

Barbell Curl

10 to 12 reps at 70% of 1RM

When and How to Add Weight

Try to add weight every week to your first set of your first 2 exercises.

Once you hit the top of your rep range for that set, add 10 pounds to your lower body exercises and 5 pounds to your upper body exercises.

For example, if it’s Day 1 and you get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your squat, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.

If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can squat it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) next week and work with that until you can squat it for 6 reps.

Whether or not you add weight to your second set depends on whether or not you were able to hit your weight and rep targets in your first set.

If you were able to add weight and stay within your target rep range (4 to 6 reps), then you add 5 pounds to your second set. If you aren’t able to add weight while staying within your target rep range, then you use the same weight on your second set that you did the week before and try to get 1 more rep.

Whether or not you add weight to your third set works the same way.

Add weight to your second set? Then up the weights.

Fail to add weight to your second set? Stick to the same weights and shoot for more reps.

Repeat that process for every exercise, alternating between increasing weight and reps each workout.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

With only 3 workouts per week, you have a lot of options as to how you organize your weekly workout schedule.

Most people default to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation, which looks like this:

Monday

Train

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Train

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

This leaves your weekends free while allowing one day of complete rest between training days.

Or, you could do something like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Train

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Train

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Rest

Or, if life doesn’t allow much training during the week, you could set up your weekly workout schedule like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Train

This means you won’t be able to lift as much on your Sunday workout, but it still gets the job done.

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It’s one of the most efficient ways to keep getting stronger while in a calorie deficit.
  • It only requires you to learn a handful of exercises.
  • It usually takes no more than 45 minutes to finish the workouts.
  • It’s flexible enough that you can almost always fit in your 3 workouts per week, even if you have to move one or two of them around.
  • It adjusts how fast you add weight based on how recovered you are on a day-to-day basis.

Cons

The Bottom Line

If you want to maintain or slowly gain strength and muscle mass while losing fat, this is the program for you. It’s easy to learn and follow, adjustable based on how you’re feeling on a day-to-day basis, and only requires a little over 2 hours of time in the gym per week.

The Best Strength Training Program #12: The Greg Nuckols General Beginner Strength Training Program

greg nuckols strength training program

Greg Nuckols has made a name for himself as “the thinking man’s lifter,” and it’s a well-deserved reputation.

He has a knack for taking complicated training programs that are often used exclusively by high-level athletes, pulling out the most important principles, and turning them into practical training advice for the rest of us.

And that’s exactly what his General Beginner Strength Training Program is all about.

It incorporates several advanced training concepts such as …

  • Linear periodization. You increase weights over 4 weeks then try to PR at the end of the last week.
  • Daily undulating periodization. You rotate between different rep ranges from workout to workout.
  • Autoregulation. You add weight to exercises based on how many reps you got in the previous workout.

Here are the Cliff Notes on the program:

  • You’ll do 3 full-body workouts per week.
  • You’ll rotate between just 3 compound exercises: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  • You’ll squat and bench press 3 times per week and deadlift twice per week.
  • You’ll do 2 to 3 compound exercises along with 2 to 4 accessory exercises in each workout.
  • You’ll do 2 to 6 sets for each exercise, depending on the workout.
  • You’ll rotate between 3 different kinds of workouts each week: weights with 70% of your training max, weights with 75% of your training max, and weights with 80% of your training max.
  • You’ll do as many reps as possible on your last set of each compound exercise.

As you can tell, there’s a lot more going on in this program than the others on this list.

Your “training max” is your estimated 1RM based on your current week of training. It’s the same thing as a 1RM, except you adjust your training max for the next week of training based on how much you were able to lift in the previous week of training.

That last bullet point is one of the key features of the program, so it’s worth going over in more detail.

After finishing the first few sets of each compound exercise, you’re going to do as many reps as possible (AMAP) with the same weight. This is known as an “AMAP set,” and it’s used as a test to see whether or not you should use heavier weights for the same workout next week. If you get enough reps with a certain percentage of your training max, then you increase your weight in the next workout. If you don’t hit your target reps, then you stick with the same weight until you do.

I’ll explain exactly how this works below.

At the end of each week, you’ll need to do a little math to figure out how much to lift the next week. And you’ll need to do this for the squat, bench, and deadlift.

Personally, I think it’s worth the effort.

If you like knowing exactly how much to lift in every workout, being more systematic, and constantly tweaking your training program, then you’re going to love this program.

If you just want a paint-by-numbers routine that you can follow, then pick a different program. This isn’t for you.

To use this program, you’ll need to download it from Greg’s website. It’s a free spreadsheet that includes 28 different training programs for the bench press, deadlift and squat that you can mix and match depending on which exercises you want to improve the most, how many times per week you want to train, and how advanced you are as a lifter, and it comes with a guide that shows you how to use each program.

It’s one of the best ways to start experimenting with advanced strength training methods, and if you’re serious about getting as strong as possible, it’s worth taking 30 minutes to peruse the programs and see how they’re laid out.

In the free guide that comes with the programs, Greg also shares some timeless wisdom on training, like this nugget:

Training is about getting stronger, not seeing what you can endure. If there’s any doubt in your mind when choosing between two programs, choose the easier one. It’s a lot easier to find out something is too easy to make progress and then do more than to jump into something too hard, get burned out and/or injured, and rebuild.

To that point, the program outlined below is based on Greg’s recommendations for a beginner that wants to progress as fast as possible.

By “beginner,” he means someone who’s either completely new to strength training or someone who’s platteaued on a simpler program like Starting Strength or StrongLifts 5×5.

One key difference between Greg’s beginner programs and most of the other ones you’ll find is that he has you training the big lifts much more often, typically at least 2 to 3 times per week.

His rationale for this is as follows:

Generally, training each lift 2-4 times per week will give you the best bang for your buck.

Why?  Two reasons:  1.) You need enough opportunities to practice the movements.  Practice is key for learning anything new. 2.) You can simply do more! You’d have to really crush yourself to get in as much work on a lift in one day as you could in three fairly challenging days.

So why cap it at 4?  Quite frankly, for a new lifter, you’re probably not going to benefit from doing much more than that.  You could practice the movements a *bit* more frequently, but probably not enough to make a tremendous difference.

Here’s what The Greg Nuckols Beginner Strength Training routine looks like:

The Greg Nuckols Beginner Strength Training Workout Routine

You’ll rotate between the following 3 workouts every week for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks you start over at week 1 with slightly heavier weights, and rinse and repeat.

Week 1

Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Deadlift (Conventional Stance)

Warm-up and …

1 set of 10 reps

3 sets of 5 reps

Day 2

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Day 3

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Week 2

Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Deadlift (Conventional Stance)

Warm-up and …

1 set of 8 reps

3 sets of 4 reps

Day 2

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Day 3

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Week 3

Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Deadlift (Conventional Stance)

Warm-up and …

1 set of 5 reps

3 sets of 2 reps

Day 2

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Day 3

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Week 4

Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 8 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Deadlift (Conventional Stance)

Warm-up and …

1 set of 3 reps

3 sets of 1 rep

Day 2

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 6 reps

1 set of AMAP

Day 3

Barbell Back Squat

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and …

2 sets of 4 reps

1 set of AMAP

As you can see, the sets and reps stay about the same for the squat and bench press, but you gradually add more and more sets to the deadlift to get more practice.

Rest as long as you need to between each set to feel rested and prepared for the next one. A good rule of thumb is 3 to 5 minutes between your compound exercises, and 2 to 3 minutes between your accessory exercises.

It’s also a good idea to do at least 1 or 2 warm up sets before every exercise to help further practice your technique.

When and How to Add Weight

On this plan, how fast you progress depends on how many reps you’re able to get with a percentage of your training max.

Here’s the how it works:

If you get as many reps as planned, keep the weight the same next week.

If you get slightly more reps than planned, then increase the weight slightly next week.

If you get many more reps than planned, then increase the weight by 10 pounds next week

Here’s a chart that breaks it down:

% of Training Max 8 or fewer reps 9 or 10 reps 11 or 12 reps 13+ reps
70% (Workout 1) Use the same weight next week. Increase training max by 5 pounds. Increase training max by 10 pounds. Increase training max by 15 pounds.

 

% of Training Max 6 or fewer reps 7 or 8 reps 9 or 10 reps 11+ reps
75% (Workout 2) Use the same weight next week. Increase training max by 5 pounds. Increase training max by 10 pounds. Increase training max by 15 pounds.

 

% of Training Max 4 or fewer reps 5 or 6 reps 7 or 8 reps 9+ reps
80% (Workout 3) Use the same weight next week. Increase training max by 5 pounds. Increase training max by 10 pounds. Increase training max by 15 pounds.

Instead of using the same 1RM for several weeks, you update your training max.

Your training max will increase over the course of several weeks or months (or at least it should), so you’ll have to adjust it as you go.

This also means that some of your exercises might progress faster than others.

For example, you may be able to add 10 pounds every week to your squat, but only 5 pounds or less to your bench press.

You’re going to use this system for progressing on both your squat and your bench press.

On your deadlift progressing is a little simpler. On every set, you’re going to use enough weight that you finish each set with only 1 to 2 reps left in the tank. In other words, you know for certain that if you wanted to, you could pull the same weight for 1 or 2 more reps.

This doesn’t mean you might be able to pull one more rep if you had a gun to your head. It means you know that you could have done 1 to 2 more reps if you felt like it. If you’re unsure, err on the side of using a slightly lighter weight.

Keep adding weight this way for as long as you can, then deload and start back over.

Here’s how 4 weeks of training might look for your squat or bench press. Let’s say your current training max is 225 pounds.

Week 1 Workout Set % of Training Max Weight Reps
1 1 70% 155 8
2 70% 155 8
3 70% 155 AMAP
2 1 75% 165 6
2 75% 165 6
3 75% 165 AMAP
3 1 80% 180 4
2 80% 180 4
3 80% 180 AMAP

After doing all of your workouts for the week, it’s time to do some math to figure out how much weight you should use in each workout next week.

Remember, how much weight you add depends on how many reps you’re able to get in your AMAP sets in each workout.

If you get the same number of reps as your previous 2 sets, then you’ll use the same weight next week.

If you get slightly more reps than the previous 2 sets, then you increase your training max by 5 pounds.

If you get many more reps than the previous 2 sets, then you increase your training max by 10 pounds.

Let’s say this is how many reps you got on your AMAP sets in each workout:

Workout 1: 11 reps, which is 3 reps more than the previous 2 sets in the workout. Nicely done.

Workout 2: 8 reps, which is also 2 reps more than the previous 2 sets in the workout. Also nicely done.

Workout 3: 4 reps, which is the same number of reps in the previous 2 sets in the workout. Decent, but not great.

Next, you have to recalculate your training max for each workout.

For Workout 1 of next week, you’ll increase your training max by 10 pounds.

For Workout 2 of next week, you’ll increase your training max by 5 pounds.

For Workout 3 of next week, you won’t increase your training max (you’ll use the same weight and try to get more reps).

How do you adjust your training maxes, though?

First, you need to open the spreadsheet that includes all of the training programs. If you haven’t done that already, do it now.

Enter your 1RMs on the “Maxes” tab:

training maxes

Navigate to the “Bench 3x Beg” tab:

training maxes bench

Here’s how to adjust your workouts for Workout 1 next week.

Your current training max is 225 pounds, and you need to add 10 pounds.

225 + 10 = 235

Your new training max is 235 pounds.

Enter that number in the calculator on the right. Your new working weights for next week will automatically be updated in the spreadsheet.

greg nuckols strength training routine

Next week, you’re going to do the same workout with 160 pounds instead of 155.

Repeat the same process with each workout. Then, repeat it for each lift, and you’ll know exactly how much to lift in each workout next week.

How to Schedule Your Workouts

As with the other 3-day per week strength training plans on this list, you can schedule The Greg Nuckols Beginner Strength Routine workouts in a number of ways.

Most people default to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation, which looks like this:

Monday

Train

Tuesday

Rest

Wednesday

Train

Thursday

Rest

Friday

Train

Saturday

Rest

Sunday

Rest

This leaves your weekends free while allowing one day of complete rest between training days.

Or, you could do something like this:

Monday

Rest

Tuesday

Train

Wednesday

Rest

Thursday

Train

Friday

Rest

Saturday

Train

Sunday

Rest

I recommend you always keep at least one day of rest between each workout. You’re going to be moving some seriously heavy weights, and you need to give yourself plenty of time for recovery.

The Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It tells you exactly how much weight to add to each workout every week.
  • It helps you quickly master the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  • It introduces you to advanced training techniques without beating you to a pulp with super high volumes.
  • It gives you something different to look forward to in every workout.
  • It allows plenty of time for recovery between heavy workouts.

Cons

The Bottom Line

The Greg Nuckols Beginner Strength Training Program is one of the best programs for people who are either completely new to strength training or people who’ve plateaued on simpler programs like Starting Strength or StrongLifts 5×5, who want to get as strong as possible as fast as possible, and who are willing to do a little more math to reach their goal faster.

The Bottom Line on the Best Strength Training Programs

If you want to gain muscle and strength as efficiently as possible, then you need to follow a strength training program.

There are a zillion programs out there, but the one you choose needs to fulfill these 5 criteria:

  1. It needs to include progressive overload.
  2. It needs to have the right amount of volume (in the right places).
  3. It needs to include the right frequency.
  4. It needs to include enough rest between sets.
  5. It needs to be fun.

If you’re still making consistent gains on your current strength training program, then don’t change a thing—stay the course and try something new when you hit a plateau.

If you’re stuck, though, and you’re taking care of everything outside the gym (sleeping enough, eating right, keeping stress under control, etc.), then it’s time to change your training program.

And if that’s the case, chances are good you’ll start setting PR’s by following one of these 12 strength training programs:

  1. The Bigger Leaner Stronger Training Program
  2. The Thinner Leaner Stronger Training Program
  3. Starting Strength
  4. StrongLifts 5×5
  5. The Classic Push Pull Legs Routine
  6. The Texas Method
  7. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1
  8. Lyle McDonald’s Generic Bulking Routine
  9. The Classic Upper Lower Training Program
  10. The Eric Helms Novice Bodybuilding Program
  11. Reverse Pyramid Training
  12. The Greg Nuckols General Beginner Strength Training Program

If you have any questions about which strength training plan to choose, let me know in the comments and I’ll help you decide.

Happy lifting!

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What’s your take on the best strength training programs? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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