Organizing Your Workouts!

Make use of all the tools you have at your disposal. The more diverse your approach the less likely you are to hit a plateau and burn out. Learn how to organize your workouts!
Throughout my years of reading everything I could get my hands on dealing with the sports sciences, I've noticed that most workout routines described in books and articles rely very heavily on the straight set method. This practice of finishing all sets for an exercise before moving on to the next exercise, finishing each one in order until all prescribed exercises are done, is by far the most common method for structuring a workout.

In fact, next time you're at the gym take a look around and odds are 75% or more of the people who are working out are using this method of organizing their workout routine. While the straight set method is a highly effective way to structure a workout, it is not the only way and, in my opinion, can get quite boring after a while.

There are literally dozens of different methods for program organization, yet most gym goers and trainers barely scratch the surface when it comes to actually using them. I think this is partly due to a lack of practical examples of how to actually use these alternative methods correctly and effectively. Trainees looking for maximum results in the least amount of time have used the following methods of structuring workouts for years. These techniques and their variations have stood the test of time. Most are now time-honored practices in the fitness field.

By making use of these different methods for organizing your workouts, you will keep your routines fresh, stimulate additional strength and experience muscle gains. Plateaus and burnout will be decreased. So let's take a look at what you may be missing.

Drop Sets

Drop sets are an excellent training method and, in my opinion, are somewhat under used. Many studies have demonstrated drop sets to be extremely effective for muscle and strength gains. The training method involves stimulating the high threshold motor units with high intensities and then, as these motor units exhaust, dropping the intensity to extend the time under tension.

An example using dumbbell curls would be curling 8 reps with 50 pounds, then immediately racking the weight. Without resting, pick up the 40-pound dumbbells and continue to curl for as many reps as you can. You can drop the weight down as many times as you like, but most trainees only drop down two to three times.

Another highly effective usage of drop sets is as follows. Pick a weight that you can do for 7 reps and perform 5 explosive reps with it. After the 5 reps, rack the weight and immediately strip off 10% (round up if you have to). Execute another 5 explosive reps. Rack the weight, strip off 10% and blast one last set of 5 reps.

While you still want to perform this last set explosively, by this time you should be quite fatigued. You will find that even though you are pushing as hard as you can, the weight will probably be moving slower than your previous two sets.

Drop sets are a great way to increase the intensity and hit a variety of motor units, but should be used sparingly for the following reason. Over reliance on drop sets can quickly lead to overtraining and eventually injury.

Circuit Sets

This method is perhaps the best known. Most fitness enthusiasts have done this type of training at some point in their life. With circuit training, instead of finishing all the prescribed sets for a particular exercise before moving on to the next exercise, the trainee will complete one set of an exercise and then move onto the next one. They will repeat this until they have finished one set of all prescribed exercises, or a "circuit", before moving on to the second set of the first exercise. This is repeated over and over until they have done all the prescribed sets for each exercise. An example of a circuit set is below.

Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday

Do 15-20 reps for each exercise in a circuit set fashion. Do 1-3 circuits depending on fitness level. Perform the circuit set 2-3 times per week.

While circuit sets are usually associated with a full body routine, many trainers are finding other ways to employ them. For example, if you planned performing 3 sets of bench, 3 sets of dumbbell presses, and 3 sets of curls, you would do one set of bench, followed by a set of dumbbell presses, and then a set of curls. This is one circuit.

You would then repeat this two more times. The rationale for this is that the exercises at the end of the workout will usually get a halfhearted effort. If you have given your all on the first couple of exercises, which you should, it is very difficult to give one hundred percent on the last couple of exercises, and these muscle groups and movements will not progress as fast they could.

Circuit training will also help you fit in more work in less time. Rest intervals can range from 0-90 seconds between sets. More rest than 90 seconds is likely to result in a less than effective circuit.


A close cousin to circuit training is supersets. Supersets are the practice of doing two exercises back to back in a sort of mini-circuit. They can be suited to fit almost any need, but are generally used for one of two purposes. The first is to increase the amount of work for a single muscle group. This is accomplished by dong two exercises for a particular muscle group back to back. Doing flat bench press followed by incline flyes is an example of a superset for this purpose.

Usually very little if any rest is prescribed between the two exercises, but allow enough recovery between supersets to complete the planned sets and reps. An example of a workout using this structure is below.

Training Day 1 Training Day 2 Training Day 3
Squat a1 Bench Press a1 Pull- ups a1
Sissy Squats a2 Incline Flyes a2 Incline Flyes a2
Stiff- Legged Deadlifts b1 Hammer Curls b1 French Press b1
Leg Curls b2 Incline Curls b2 Bench Dips b2

Do 8-12 reps for the a1 exercise followed immediately by 12-15 reps on the a2 exercise. Rest for 90-120 seconds and repeat this pattern until you have completed 3-4 super- sets and then move on to the b1 and b2 sets, done in the same way. Only do 2-3 sets of the b1 and b2 sets.

Supersets can also be used to get more work done in a shorter time frame. Picking an exercise for two antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups does this. An example of this would be doing flat bench press followed by pull-ups. Working a muscle group while another is resting will effectively double the work capacity and actually help increase the recovery ability of the resting muscle group. Resting from 1 to 3 minutes between exercises and supersets is usually the most productive rest interval. Remember that the higher the reps, the shorter the rest interval that is necessary. See the below example:

Training Day 1 Training Day 2 Training Day 3
Bench Press a1 Squat a1 DB Curls a1
Pull- up a2 Stiff- Legged Deadlift a2 French Press a2
Lateral Raise b1 Calf Raises b1 Shoulder Press b1
Crunches b2 Back Extensions b2 Russian Twist b2

Do 6-12 reps for each exercise. Do a1, rest for 1 minute, and then do a2. Rest for a minute and then do a1 again. Repeat this pattern until you have done 4 super-sets and then move on to the b1 and b2 sets, done in the same way. Only do 2-3 sets of the b1 and b2 sets.


Another popular way to add variety and intensity to workouts is to use pyramids. With this technique you "pyramid" the weights either up or down, from set to set, while changing the reps correspondingly. Ascending pyramids start at a lower weight and work their way up while decreasing the reps. For example:


    150lbs for 10 reps
    160lbs for 8 reps
    170lbs for 6 reps
    180lbs for 4 reps

Descending pyramids are the opposite usage of this technique. They consist of lowering the weight from set to set while increasing the reps. A sample workout using the squat would be:


    180lbs for 4 reps
    170lbs for 6 reps
    160lbs for 8 reps
    150lbs for 10 reps

Pyramids are used to work a variety of muscle fibers. Fast twitch muscle fibers have the most potential for strength and respond best to high weight, low rep sets. Alternatively, moderate weight and rep sets are best for growth. Pyramids allow you to train both qualities in the same workout.

Rest between sets should be long enough to allow completion of the desired reps for the upcoming set, and will normally be dependent on that. For example, rest between a 10 rep and 8 rep set will usually be shorter than the rest period between a 6 rep and 4 rep set.

German Volume Training

German Volume Training is an old program reintroduced by Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin. German Volume Training consists of picking an exercise for two antagonistic (opposite) bodyparts and performing supersets. Nothing special there, but the catch is that the trainee will be doing 10 sets of 10 reps for each exercise. The recommendation is that you use around 60% of their 1RM for the weight.

This usually translates to a weight they can do 20 reps to failure. They may feel that this is too light at first, but by the fifth or sixth set, they will be pushing hard to get the 10 reps for remaining sets. Only allow 90 seconds rest between sets.

This will result in a workout that has a tremendous amount of volume, and volume is an important factor for muscle growth. It is also great for getting the most out of a workout if you are limited by how much weight you have access to. German Volume Training is very stressful and should be used for no more than 6 weeks in a row, and should be followed by at least a 4-6 week period using a lower volume program. In addition, you should allow a bodypart at least 5 days rest before working it again when using this program.

High Intensity Training (H.I.T.)

The opposite end of the training program spectrum is High Intensity Training. Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame and later Mike Mentzer are generally credited with bringing this training style to the fitness world. High Intensity Training is just that, highly intense. It consists of performing a couple of warm-up sets before doing one all out set of an exercise to absolute concentric failure. The all-out set also terminates when the trainee is no longer able to lift the weight in good form on their own.

They are then done with that exercise and may move on to the next one. If the next exercise is for the same bodypart, a warm-up is usually not necessary, and they can go right into their working set to failure. Progression is very straightforward with this program. Usually, you will find a weight that allows them to complete 6 reps for an exercise and try to add 1 rep each workout. When they can complete 12 reps in good form on that exercise, you will increase the weight 5-10 pounds and decrease the reps back to 6.

The rationale for HIT is that that it allows a true 100% max effort on an exercise. If you are facing several working sets for each exercise, you more than likely will hold back a little to allow yourself to make it through all of the sets. But if you only have to do one working set for that same exercise, you are more apt to let your inhibitions go. Most people can either lift more weight or get more reps using HIT than using a more traditional multiple set method.

High Intensity Training is also great for fitting a quality workout into a very short amount of time, as most workouts are less than 30 minutes long. Rest between sets is usually moderate, in the 2-3 minute range, and bodyparts are usually worked out once a week. It takes a lot of energy to sustain the kind of intensity that is necessary to get the most out of a High Intensity Training program. Therefore, it is recommend that you follow one for no more than 8 weeks before using a higher volume, lower intensity approach.

Your options when organizing a workout are numerous to say the least. However, subtle changes such as the use of a super-set or drop set can make a huge impact on your training program's effectiveness, not to mention keeping you from getting bored with your routine. Make use of all the tools you have at your disposal. The more diverse your approach the less likely you are to hit a plateau and burn out.

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