Beginner's Guide To Program Design: Maximize Muscle-Building Potential (Part 2)!

Choosing the most effective exercises is essential to getting results. However, performing the right exercises in the wrong order will hamper your success. In part 2 I explain exercise order, intensities, and more.

Article Summary:
  • Performing the right exercises in the wrong order will hamper success.
  • Tempo will affect the number of reps you perform.
  • A balanced program is essential for continuous success.
  • Part 1 | Part 2

    Teenager's Guide to Program Design
    Part 2


    In part 1, we went over which exercises to choose and how to create a balanced program using those exercises. Choosing the most effective exercises is essential to getting results. However, performing the right exercises in the wrong order will hamper your success.

    One of the most common problems I see is people walking into the gym, stretching for a minute, cracking their neck, and heading to the mirror to do some biceps curls. If you do biceps curls AT ALL (which you wouldn't following the exercise selection listed in Part 1), you definitely shouldn't do them first!

    Exercise Order

    Exercise order is pretty straight forward.

    • Explosive movements first (Olympics lifts, jumping, etc.)
    • Large muscle group, heavily-loaded, multi-joint exercises next
    • Single-joint exercises last

    Most of the confusion will come with the second recommendation. Think of the amount of muscle mass involved in exercises like a squat, deadlift, chin-up, and bench press. All of them are multi-joint exercises that can be heavily loaded.

    Side Note:
    Keep in mind that heavily loaded is all relative. If you're a novice lifter, heavy may be 65 lbs.

    So which would you do first? Squats and deadlifts should precede benching and chin-ups because they require the use of more muscle mass, can be loaded with more external load, and are the most technically difficult, meaning you should do them when you're physically AND mentally fresh.

    So What Exercise Should You Do First?
    + Click To Enlarge.
    So What Exercise Should You Do First?


    Let's talk intensity. Intensity is typically expressed as a percentage of one-repetition maximum (1RM). Because not everyone knows their 1RM, intensity can also be expressed as other repetition-maximums.

    For instance, if you don't know your 1RM, it wouldn't make sense to write 3 sets of 6 with 80% 1RM. It may make more sense to write 3 sets till failure with your 6RM. This simply means that you're using as much weight as you can to perform 6 reps with perfect form, for 3 sets.

    Weight Lifted Reps
    1 RM
    90% 1 RM
    80% 1 RM
    70% 1 RM
    60% 1 RM
    50% 1 RM
    40% 1 RM
    30% 1 RM
    6 RM

    Some general intensity recommendations are presented below.

    Intensity Purpose
    50-59% Warm-Up
    60-69% Motor Development/Technique Work
    70-79% Speed/Strength
    80-89% Explosive Power
    90+% Maximum Recruitment/Strength

    It is important to remember that these are just recommendations. Some research has shown that mechanical power is maximized with loads around 35-40% 1RM. Furthermore, for some novice lifters, 50% 1RM may actually be LESS than their body weight, meaning some way to unload the individual would be needed. This is the case for individuals that can't do a push-up, chin-up, etc.


    Since the number of repetitions you can perform is largely determined by your working intensity, let's add that to the chart.

    Intensity Repetitions
    50-59% 15+
    60-69% < 12-15
    70-79% < 10-12
    80-89% < 6-8
    90+% < 3

    Again, these are just guidelines. In general, people can perform about 1 more rep for every 3% decrease in intensity. Following this basic formula, 3 reps could be performed at 90%, about 7 reps at 80%, about 10 reps at 70%, etc.

    I think this chart will give you a good starting base, but please don't confine yourself to it. Learn how your body works. Some people may only be able to perform 4 reps at 80% and others may be able to push out 12. It really depends on your neuromuscular system and the proportion of slow and fast twitch motor units (just think of this as the force producing capability of your muscles fibers).

    Sets of less than 6 reps are generally used to increase strength, and sets of more than 12 are generally used to improve muscular endurance. Although in new lifters, any lifting will likely improve both. Many new lifters are simply interested in hypertrophy, or increases in muscular size, which is typically developed in the 6-12 rep range.

    As for how many sets you should perform, a pretty good recommendation is to perform 3-5 sets of each exercise, with more sets of the first exercise (or first pair of exercises as discussed below), and less of subsequent exercises.

    Many New Lifters Are Simply Interested In Hypertrophy.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Many New Lifters Are Simply Interested In Hypertrophy.


    Intensity is not the only thing that will determine the number of repetitions you can perform. Tempo, or the speed of the movement, is also a large determinant.

    While performing any lifting movement, if the eccentric (or negative) phase is controlled and the concentric (positive) phase performed as rapidly as possible, the average rep will take about one second.

    A Primer On Eccentric Repetitions!
    [ Click here to learn more. ]
    A Primer On Eccentric Repetitions!
    Negatives are frequently touted as by far the most effective approach to muscle growth after having worked up to your 5RM with positives.
    Charles Ridgely

    Let's say you're working with a weight that will allow you perform 6 reps at this tempo. If you slowed the eccentric phase down to a 3 second negative, you may only be able to get 4 reps.

    Now instead of each rep taking one second (6 reps x 1 second = 6 second set), the reps take a little over 3 seconds (4 reps x 3 seconds = 12 second set).

    This is just an example, but it illustrates how tempo will affect the number of reps you perform and the total amount of time it takes to perform a set.

    While it is natural for beginners to want to perform movements as fast as possible in order to complete as many reps as possible, it may be more beneficial to slow the eccentric phase down to 2-3 seconds. This will allow the lifter to focus on performing the movement perfectly and under control.

    While eccentric contractions produce more muscle damage and soreness, I think the benefits far outweigh the concerns. Again, the emphasis should be placed on learning the new movements with PERFECT form.

    Trying to rapidly bang out repetitions does not allow for a form emphasis in inexperienced lifters. I do, however, recommend that the concentric phase is performed as rapidly as possible. If a controlled eccentric phase is followed, usually lifters can explode through the concentric phase without form concerns. Naturally, if you find your form falling apart following this technique, slow it down a bit.

    Tempo & Tension Maximization For Advanced Bodybuilders!
    [ Click here to learn more. ]
    Tempo & Tension Maximization!
    While you may not be hungry first thing in the morning, forcing yourself to eat or drink something is one of the most beneficial things you can do...
    Tom Venuto

    The only part of the movement left is the transition point from eccentric to concentric. A pause in this transition point is another effective tactic to slow down the movement and emphasize form. It also increases the amount of time spent producing force at a difficult range of the exercise. For instance, the bottom of a bench press and squat are typically the most difficult part of the movement for lifters.

    Pausing at the transition point may improve the lifter's strength in these difficult ranges. It is important to consider the exercise when deciding whether or not to use this pause.

    It may be more appropriate to use this technique for exercises like squats and horizontal pushing movements, but probably not in deadlifts or upper body pulling movements, the latter of which are initiated with a concentric movement (concentric-transition-eccentric pattern), opposed to following an eccentric-transition-concentric movement pattern like the former movements.


    What Are Negative Reps?

    This technique focuses on the negative portion of muscle contraction (the eccentric or lowering phase).

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    Final Thoughts

    I prefer to pair exercises, which builds a rest interval into the session. This is a pretty simple concept.

    Let's say you were going to perform a full-body workout with a back squat, stiff-legged deadlift, bench press, and chin-up. Instead of performing all of your back squats, then moving to the stiff-legged deadlift, then the bench press, etc., you'd pair the exercises.

    In order to maximize performance, it's best to pair non-competing exercises. Since back squats largely work the anterior musculature of the lower body and don't necessitate some grip work, it'd be best to pair the back squat with the chin-up. Since stiff-legged deadlifts largely target the posterior musculature of the entire body and do require some grip work, it'd be best to pair this exercise with the bench press.

    This would leave you with a scheme that looks like:

    Following this scheme, you'd perform your first set of back squats, rest about 30 seconds, perform your first set of chin-ups, rest about 30 seconds, and return to back squats for your second set.

    + Click To Enlarge.
    Barbell Squat.
    Video: Windows Media - Real Player

    After you complete all your sets (moving back and forth) of the back squat and chin-ups, you'd move to the next pair of exercises, B1 and B2, and work through those in the same fashion. Although there is only 30 seconds between exercises, there is about 1.5-2 minutes between each set of the same exercise (e.g. back squat to back squat).

    + Click To Enlarge.
    Video: Windows Media - MPEG - Video iPod

    Not only does this strategy cut down on some of your time in the gym, but it also maximizes the metabolic effect of training, maintaining a higher heart rate and degree of blood flow, stimulating more fat loss.

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    Stiff-Legged Deadlift.
    Video: Windows Media - Real Player - Video iPod

    Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to perform each set to failure. I know that may upset the lifters out there that gauge the effectiveness of their program by the extremeness of their soreness the next day, but it's simply not true. In fact, going to failure significantly decreases your ability to perform optimally on all subsequent lifts due to the taxation on the nervous system, which drives your muscles. As a very bad analogy, think of your muscles as a truck.

    + Click To Enlarge.
    Bench Press.
    Video: Windows Media - Real Player

    Going to failure every set is like giving the truck driver a bottle of Nyquil and telling him/her to drive as fast as possible. It just won't work, and someone will likely get hurt! Focus on maximizing your performance on each one of your lifts and not the pain you experience on each lift.

    In general, stopping a rep or two before failure on every set will allow you to go through an entire lifting session with a high level of proficiency.

    Focus On Maximizing Your Performance.
    + Click To Enlarge.
    Focus On Maximizing Your Performance.

    You now have all the tools and information to get yourself started. Remember that a balanced program is essential for continuous success. The common mistake of overemphasizing muscles that are easily admired in a mirror inevitably leads to dysfunction of the hips and shoulders. Focus on getting bigger and stronger in light pursuing optimal health, and you'll be progressing while others are rehabbing nagging injuries.

    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 or through his company's website at