When I first started lifting, the only way I could gauge if a program was good or not is how popular it was. If thousands of people swear by this program, it obviously works - at least for more people. The point of this post is to help you create/tweak your program by answering the following questions:
I'm sure you are like me and don't want to cut yourself short - you want to make sure you're not just spending time in the gym to spend time in the gym. You want to see gains in strength and muscle and reap the benefits as much as possible.
Ben Greenfield, Mike Matthews, and Greg Nuckols suggest weightlifting programs that maximize full-body improvements. These programs include three different types:
Do My Workouts Include the Right Exercises?
This is an important question to ask. If you aren't following a program and you simply "wing it" when you get into the gym, I strongly advise finding a program with a variety of good exercises. Programs have been made to ensure that you are hitting the right muscle groups enough and to show you how you should be splitting up your days to make sure you recover enough to build strength and muscle in the parts you want to.
Ben Greenfield specifically coaches endurance athletes but in his book, Beyond Training, he suggests building muscle with multi-joint exercises like the overhead press, squat, deadlifts, cleans, and pull-ups (p. 103-104 - Beyond Training).
Mike Matthews' programs, Bigger Leaner Stronger for men and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women, are both Push, Pull, Legs programs. Mike states that the Barbell Bench Press, Barbell Deadlift, Barbell Back Squat, and Overhead Press are the most important exercise in each workout session. Each week, your major focus is trying to progress on those lifts. You warm up and start out with those major lifts and then move on to accessory exercises like the Inclined Barbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Rows, Dumbbell Lateral Raises, Dumbbell Hammer Curls, and the Leg Press. In his BLS and TLS books, he provides plenty of variety for quality accessory exercises like these and categorizes the "best chest, back, shoulder, arms, core, and legs exercises you can do." Most of his programs' workouts end with a core or calf exercise (p. 257-267, 353-360 - Bigger Leaner Stronger).
Greg Nuckols, as far as I know, does not have a named program but he has coached hundreds of people both in-person and online and he has broken multiple powerlifting world records himself. Through his research, Greg has shared plenty of articles and has spoken in multiple podcasts about what makes a good program. He usually gives specifics on Upper Body,Lower Body and Push, Pull, Legs programs. As a powerlifter, he normally programs with the same major lifts as Mike - Barbell Bench Press, Barbell Deadlift, and Barbell Back Squat. He also gives plenty of alternatives to these exercises. I have described this in a large section of a recent post where I went into depth on an episode of the Stronger By Science Podcast. Check that out here. Romanian Deadlifts, resisted push-ups, and front squats are some of the other exercises that he recommends (Stronger By Science Podcast - Q&A: Keto, Rapid Fat Loss, Deadlifts, and Faulty Movement Patterns).
How Often Should I be Exercising Each Major Muscle Group?
This question is not a very easy one because, from what I have read, it is very individual. Each person has different goals and each person's body reacts to lifts differently. Some people may need to do 30 hard sets with a specific muscle group to make any gains while some may only need 15. That being said, Ben, Mike, and Greg all go into specifics on this to describe what ranges work best for most people...
Ben Greenfield, again, keep in mind that this is advice for endurance athletes, suggests strength training between 1-3 times per week. This is enough for you to enhance your coordination, motor-unit recruitment, and build some muscle (p. 103 - Beyond Training).
Mike Matthews suggests training most major muscle groups once every 3-5 days but states that "when it comes to gaining muscle and strength, research shows that training frequency isn't nearly as important as how heavy the weights generally are and how many hard sets you generally perform each week (p. 232 - Bigger Leaner Stronger)."
Greg Nuckols suggests anywhere between 15-25 sets per muscle group per week. If you are a beginner, you may want to start on the low side and see how you recover/progress and increase as needed. He goes further by recommending Push, Pull, Legs repeated twice per week (cycled push, pull legs, push, pull, legs) or an Upper Body, Lower Body three times per week, assuming your sets go pretty close to failure. If you want to maximize your strength gains in the main lifts, these are the specifics he gives:
Are My Workout Sessions Long Enough?
I, personally, favor shorter workouts because I squeeze them into my busy schedule, usually before I leave for work. So do we need to be spending multiple hours in the gym or can we get by with a 30-45 minute workout? Here's what the experts I follow suggest...
Ben Greenfield suggests either doing shorter, more frequent workouts or longer, less frequent workouts. If you prefer shorter, more frequent, he suggests somewhere in the range of 20-45 minutes per workout. If you prefer longer, less frequent, he suggests 50-70 minutes per workout (p. 106 - Beyond Training).
Mike Matthews suggests 9-15 hard sets per workout with 2-4 minutes between sets, depending on the exercise. I am currently running my own verison of this program, using these recommendations, and workouts normally range from 35-65 minutes (p. 230 - Bigger Leaner Stronger).
Greg Nuckols, I have not heard him give specifics regarding this question. He does state that he believes it depends on the intensity of your training. With lighter weights, you can get more volume in each session without getting tired but you will need to train longer to match muscle and strength gains compared to if you were working with heavier weights (p. 27-30 The Art of Lifting).
Although there is a lot of individuality, I believe what these experts have to share provides a lot of insight on the keys to a good weightlifting program. Greg Nuckols states that there is really one big question you should be asking yourself - "Am I making progress?" If you are progressing (adding weight to the bar on one lift or another each week), then you cannot say that the program you are on isn't working. Only when you plateau with about a month of no progression, should you make major adjustments. For minor adjustments, work inside the suggested ranges or try different exercises.
I trust these experts because of the experience they have coaching and researching. There are plenty of other great experts and programs that may not focus on the same major lifts or suggest the same things but the program may still work well for you. Don't discount what works best for yourself.
I strongly recommend Ben Greenfield's Beyond Training, Mike Matthew's Bigger Leaner Stronger/Thinner Leaner Stronger, and Greg Nuckols' The Art & Science of Lifting. Each book has an audience they would help more than the other depending on your goals and what tips you are looking for.
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