Beginner's Guide To Program Design: Maximize Muscle-Building Potential (Part 1)!

The #1 problem I've found while consulting with novice and experienced lifters is that they don't know how to design an effective program. Fight stagnation and failure with this valuable program design guide!

Article Summary:
  • Body Part Splits are an ineffective design program.
  • Balancing movement types is very important for program design.
  • Paretto's principle says that 80% of results come from 20% of exercises.
  • Part 1 | Part 2

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    Beginner's Guide To Program Design
    Part 1

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    The #1 problem I've found while consulting with novice lifters (and many experienced lifters for that matter) is that they don't know how to design an effective program.

    The most common practice is to default to a body part split, typically resulting in a chest day, legs day, back day, arms and abs day, and calves and shoulders day. I suspect that a number of you are reading that and saying, "So? What's wrong with that?" Glad you asked.

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    1. Reinforcing Specific Movement Patterns:
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      The most important thing for a beginner to do is reinforce specific movement patterns. By using a body part split, each movement can be emphasized only once during any given week.

      This reinforcement is referred to as motor learning, and results in significant strength gains in new movements (which most lifting movements are for beginners). Also, the emphasis on individual muscles doesn't replicate the way your body actually works. NO muscles work in isolation EVER. Let me say that again, NO muscles work in isolation... EVER!

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    [ Click here to learn more. ]

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    2. Unnecessary Overload:
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    3. Undue Stress:
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      The emphasis on single-joint movements results in undue stress to certain muscles and joints that would get equally as strong from using multi-joint movements (e.g. cut out the biceps curls and do chin-ups).

    undue stress
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    The Emphasis On Single-Joint Movements
    Results In Undue Stress.

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    4. Core Training:
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      I hate the idea of abs training. I prefer core training. The core refers to all the muscles that attach to your hip or spine, NOT just the rectus abdominis, external oblique, and internal oblique. Your core muscles influence every movement you perform; it's ludicrous to train these muscles once a week. Yes, ludicrous!

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    5. Shoulder Days Not Needed:
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      You don't need a shoulder day! When you perform any horizontal pushing movement (push-ups, bench press, etc.) you use your anterior deltoid. When you perform any horizontal pulling movement (seated row, dumbbell row, etc.), you use your posterior deltoid.

    posterior deltoid
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    When You Perform Any Horizontal Pulling Movement
    You Use Your Posterior Deltoid.

      The middle deltoid is also active in these movements, although not to as large of an extent. Throwing in a vertical pressing movement (push press, standing shoulder press, etc.) is all you need to overload your deltoids, not an entire day of 10 different exercises.


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    Barbell Shoulder Press.
    Video: Windows Media - MPEG - Video iPod

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    6. Short-Term Efficiency:
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    My goal wasn't to write an article telling you why everything you're doing is wrong. There's too much of that floating around already. Instead, I'd like to teach you how to design an effective training program without years of schooling and reading. I'll make it so simple, a caveman could do it.

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    Understanding Balance
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    Let's start at planning a microcycle. Typically these last around a week, but that's mostly for convenience. Microcycles can last 5 days, 7 days, 10 days, 14 days, whatever. The important thing is there is a balanced program within each microcycle. What do I mean by balance?

    Essentially, it is important to balance:

    1. Lower Body: Knee-dominant and hip-dominant movements
    2. Upper Body: Vertical pulling and vertical pressing movements
    3. Upper Body: Horizontal pulling and horizontal pressing movements
    4. This is not necessarily a balance issue as much as an inclusion issue, but remember to utilize single-leg exercises (stationary and dynamic/moving), and dumbbell exercises.

    Since this terminology may be new to you, here's a list of effective exercises that would fit into each category.

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    arrow Knee-Dominant Exercises:
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    • Back squats
    • Front squats
    • Back leg raised 1-leg squat
    • 1-leg squat
    • Sumo squat
    • Lateral squat
    • Lunge* (forward, lateral, reverse, and walking)
    • Step-ups* (forward, lateral, and crossover)
    • *Lunges and step-ups are really a gray area between knee- and hip-dominant movements, as both the knee and hip go through a large range-of-motion. If you're program is balanced with knee- and hip-dominant movements already, throwing in some lunges or step-ups won't knock it out of balance either way.


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    Front Squats.
    Video: Windows Media - Real Player

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    arrow Hip Dominant Exercises:
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    Deadlift.
    Video: Windows Media

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    arrow Vertical Pulling Exercises:
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    • Chin-up/pull-up (grip-underhand, overhand, neutral, alternating, rotating/supinating, wide/narrow)
    • Lat pulldown (with all the grip variations used with a chin-up/pull-up)


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    Chin-Up.
    Video: Windows Media - MPEG - Video iPod

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    arrow Vertical Pressing Exercises:
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    Push-Press.
    Video: Windows Media - MPEG - Video iPod

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    arrow Horizontal Pulling Exercises:
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    Bent Over Row.
    Video: Windows Media

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    arrow Horizontal Pressing Exercises:
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    Bench Press.
    Video: Windows Media - Real Player

    There is some obvious overlap between these exercises, so be smart in your selection. For instance, back squats involve the glutes and hamstrings, which are typically utilized in more hip-dominant movements. The front squat uses these muscles to a lesser extent because the torso remains more upright.

    Deadlifts involve the quadriceps, which are typically utilized in more knee-dominant movements. Stiff-legged deadlifts do not utilize the quadriceps to a large extent because knee angle doesn't change. Consequently it may make more sense to balance a squat with a stiff-legged deadlift, and a front squat with a deadlift, opposed to a squat and a deadlift. Make sense?

    bodybuilding.com
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    Deadlifts Involve The Quadriceps,
    Which Are Typically Utilized In More Knee-Dominant Movements.

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    Individual Workouts
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    Designing your individual workouts is going to depend on how you set up your microcycle so let's discuss that next. We'll use a 7-day microcycle for our example. The biggest consideration is how many days you'd like to train during that period. I usually don't recommend lifting more than 4 days a week, especially for beginners.

    Here are a few options:

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    1. 4 Days/Week:
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    • Day 1: Lower Body
    • Day 2: Upper Body
    • Day 3: Lower Body
    • Day 4: Upper Body

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    2. 3 Days/Week:
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    • Day 1: Full Body
    • Day 2: Full Body
    • Day 1: Lower Body
    • Day 2: Upper Body
    • Day 3: Full Body
    • Day 1: Full Body
    • Day 2: Full Body
    • Day 3: Full Body

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    3. 2 Days/Week:
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    • Day 1: Full Body
    • Day 2: Full Body

    It is important to understand that all full-body days won't necessarily be the same exercises. For example, a 3-day full body routine could look like:

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    arrow 3-Day Full Body Routine Example 1:
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      Day 1:

        Lower Body:

        • Two-Legged Hip-Dominant Movement
        Upper Body:
        • Dumbbell Horizontal Pressing Movement
        • Vertical Pulling Movement

        print

      Day 2:

      Day 3:

        Lower Body:

        • Two Single-Leg Dynamic Lower Body Movements, One linear, one lateral (e.g. Walking Lunge and Lateral Step-Up)
        Upper Body:
        • Incline Pressing Movement
        • Dumbbell Horizontal Pulling Movement

        print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Day 3.

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    arrow 3-Day Full Body Routine Example 2:
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    Conclusion
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    Obviously these are just examples. As you can imagine, your creativity is the only limitation on how you design your program. The possibilities are endless, as there are dozens of simple variations on each movement that will allow you to continually progress without drastically changing the nature of your program (e.g. switching from a wide grip chin-up to a narrow or mixed grip chin-up).

    There are hundreds, if not thousands of other exercises that aren't included here. I would never mean to imply that the exercises I haven't included aren't effective or even necessary for some lifters, but the goal is to get the most bang for your buck.

    Creativity Is The Only Limitation
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    Your Creativity Is The Only Limitation
    On How You Design Your Program.

    I come back to the idea of Paretto's principle, which loosely applied to lifting says that you'll get 80% of the results from 20% of your exercises. For that reason, I've listed the 20% exercises above. I've left out the arm work, calf raises, etc.

    The above exercises will more than suffice to improve the strength and size of your arms and lower legs. Soak this all in. In part 2 I'll go over exercise order, intensities, rep ranges, tempo, and more. Stay tuned.

    About The Author:

      Kevin Neeld, CSCS has helped athletes of all ages fulfill their athletic potential. Through the application of functional anatomy, biomechanics, and neural control, Kevin specializes in guiding athletes to optimal health and performance. He can be reached by email at kn@prodigyperformancetraining.com or through his company's website at www.ProdigyPerformanceTraining.com.