Structuring workouts is an art. A lot of factors have to be taken into account. Many people don’t take their training program seriously – the exercises are chaotically scattered and lack all manner of logic. I’ll take this opportunity to say that this is one of the reasons why it is wrong to follow ready-made training programs – the program works for someone and we copy it for ourselves. Everyone needs different exercises – tailored to their goals, physique and imbalances, strengths and weaknesses. That is why every program needs to be individualized – yes, the method may be the same, but we should adapt it to our needs. Today I will introduce you to my 10 commandments on how to structure a workout.
1.The limiting factor
An exercise is most effective, when the body part it trains is a limiting factor in the performance. This sounds complicated, but let me give you a couple of examples. Let’s say you use deadlifts as your main posterior chain exercise and more specifically for the back of your thighs, but your grip is weak. What happens? The back of your thigh and your butt can take quite a weight, but your grip is too loose and does not allow it. That automatically means you will be working out with a weight that is much lighter than the one you should actually be using in order to send a stimulus to the back of your thigh to grow strong, well-shaped and look sexy in jeans and on the beach.
That is why it is much more appropriate for you to use another exercise as your main one for the development of a strong posterior thigh and butt, for example hip thrusts. Your weak grip won’t be a limiting factor in those. That does not mean you should stop deadlifting – you will keep that up, but you will know that you’ve reached your limit. In the meantime you will also include a lot of farmer’s walk and hanging sessions in your workouts in order to train your weaker grip.
2.Compound exercises for your main course, isolation exercises for dessert
What does that mean? Compound and isolation exercises both belong in a well-structured training program. Nevertheless, compound exercises send a different stimulus than isolation exercises. Basic exercises (squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, lunges etc.) are a lot more demanding on the body, on the nervous system. They send a much stronger stimulus and mobilize more systems in the body. Compound exercises are representative of those exercises that result in more return on investment for less time invested. Compound exercises work the whole body, which means that it is not just a particular muscle group that is being trained. Even when an exercise predominantly targets one part of the body, a number of other muscles participate in the performance with an assisting function. At the end of the day, the body is not just a biceps or a quadriceps. Nothing in the body works in isolation – it always works synergistically and the most strength and the best results are achieved when all muscles fulfill their functions in a synchronized way.
Isolation exercises are an excellent addition to compound exercises. As all dessert, they are only intended to give you some taste and more pleasure – not to fill you up. Isolation exercises are very effective when you want to emphasize a certain muscle group which is lagging behind or a muscle group which is not being activated properly because of injury.
Compound exercises are much more than the sum of the isolation exercises that would work the body. Try training your legs by doing leg extensions and curls only. Then try training your legs by squatting and deadlifting – you will feel a world of difference.
3.Intensity gradation and prioritizing exercises
When structuring a workout, it is important to think about how you schedule your exercises. If you schedule deadlifts at the end of your workout, you will hardly ever reap the maximum benefit from them. If bench dips are always your last exercise, you have no idea what your strength-developing potential might be, if you schedule these at the beginning of your workout.
The way you arrange your exercises shows which exercises you prioritize. The earlier you schedule an exercise, the more you prioritize it and the more you can invest into it. That is why it is a good idea to start with the exercises that are most demanding on your body and the ones you find most difficult to perform. That way you are still fresh and can give your best. That does not mean that you cannot schedule the same exercise in the middle of your workout next week. But you must do so, keeping in mind that you probably won’t be able to lift as many kilograms, you will find it harder and won’t have the same strength – simply because the preceding exercises will have robbed you of some of your strength.
Every time I structure my workouts, I schedule the exercises that I find most exhausting and most difficult in general at the beginning. For example, my upper body is weaker and if I schedule military presses at the end of my workout, I will leave the gym disappointed. That is why I usually schedule them at the beginning.
It is also important how you structure the type of intensity. It is meaningless to schedule high-intensity interval training at the beginning of your workout and then try to do one rep maxes. HIIT or so-called metabolic conditioning is demanding on the body. It would be much better for you to do fewer repetitions and train with heavier weights at the beginning, and schedule a short finisher at the end which will also serve as a more effective cardio replacement.
4.Range of motion
The more range of motion you can achieve with an exercise, the more effective it is. As far as strength and shaping of the body is concerned, the fuller the range of motion is when performing the exercise, the better the results. Now stretching comes to mind. A lot of people stretch – aimlessly. More flexibility, when coupled with a lack of strength in the larger range of motion, will only increase the risk of injury. When performing weighted exercises with a full range of motion, you train your mobility and strength in this range of motion, i.e. you become more mobile, but this mobility is backed-up by strength and stabilization which is an advantage for the body.
Yes, it is true that you must leave your ego at the doorstep and that you can use a lighter weight for the full range of motion – it is a lot harder to squat all the way down with 60 kg than to half-squat with 60 kg. Nevertheless, the impact on the nervous system and the stimulus that is sent to the body is greater in the former case. Respectively, the result is better too.
A smaller range of motion strengthens your ego. A larger range of motion strengthens your body.
5.The more an exercise places your body in a particular, fixed position or movement pattern, the worse the exercise.
“Worse” is a strong word. Rather, the exercise is not optimal and should not be used very frequently. What do I mean? For example, the Smith machine – it has a fixed trajectory and the machine makes your body adjust its movement to the movement pattern of the machine. That doesn’t take into account the body’s needs and requirements. Every person has a different body size and anthropometric dimensions and a person who is two meters tall squats differently from one who is 160 cm tall. The Smith machine does not take that into account and everyone squats the same way.
This is where barbell and dumbbell exercises come in handy. Barbells are a wonderful tool, but only for advanced trainees and for people with a good mobility – otherwise they do nothing but harm the trainee and a person has to compromise with the results and shape they can achieve.
Let’s take military presses for example. When performed with a barbell, they have sort of a fixed trajectory too. A lot of people have mobility issues in their shoulders and back. Usually military presses look ridiculous when performed with a barbell and the limited mobility does not allow for correct movement. The person tries to compensate – by sticking out their chest, bending from the back, knees and arms. That is additional stress. Give that person dumbbells and everything changes. Then the grip position and the movement trajectory can change, which is often key to the correct performance of the movement. Most people perform military presses better with a dumbbell than with a barbell. And speaking of military presses, people with limited mobility should try to use pushing exercises which are performed in different angles and degrees, so they can work around the problem, for example the landmine push. In the meantime, don’t forget to do mobility exercises and test your progress with military presses from time to time.
When structuring your workouts and selecting exercises and weights, it is important to be able to scale. The more an exercise can be split into progressions and then the smaller the steps you can take to increase the intensity, the better the exercise. What do I mean?
For example, handstand presses and one-legged squats. Handstand presses are a much harder and demanding exercise than military presses. Still, how many people can start with handstand presses? Even if you use some kind of progression, it would not allow you to work out with the same intensity and achieve the same progress. You would find it much easier to build your strength with other exercises and then add handstand presses, than trying to become stronger by doing these.
The same goes for the one-legged squat. It is much more demanding than, say, lunges and Bulgarian squats (when performed with body weight only), but how many people can do a one-legged squat? It would be far better to build your strength with unilateral exercises with weights and then use this strength for the pistol squats.
It is important that you track your progress and initiate it yourselves. When you’re past the beginner stage and have mastered the technique, you must try to increase the weights in your advanced workouts. Every week you should try a slightly heavier weight. That does not mean piling on 5-10 kg more. Sometimes even 0.5 – 1 kg makes a difference. Think about the progress you can accomplish, if you increase your weight by 1 kg every week. In 5 weeks’ time that will be 5 more kilograms and you will be a lot stronger.
Let me give one more example here. Because of my shoulder injuries, my upper body has always been weaker. There are a lot of exercises I would like to master and in the past I tried to do them right away, for example a handstand walk progression, a handstand press progression etc. My progress was slower. Then I decided to focus on strengthening my shoulders with other exercises – some isolation and stabilization exercises. In just two months of using this approach, my progress in all other exercises has been huge.
7.Stop doing behind-the-neck lat pulldowns or military presses
The body is not structured to push objects that are situated behind it. That’s unnecessary stress, especially for the shoulders. Not to mention that a lot of people have limited mobility and behind-the-neck lat pulldowns or military presses do nothing but push their body to compensate, for example by sticking out the chest which automatically puts the spine in a bad position and stresses it. What is more, the shoulder position implies a rather high risk of injury. The body is strongest, when performing movements in the trajectory, in which it is designed to move. Nowhere in nature do we have to push something behind our necks or pull it that way. Add some weight and the situation gets even more risky. Besides, what are the upsides of pulling and pushing something behind out necks? What is the advantage, compared to doing front lap pulldowns or military presses where the barbell goes in front?
8.If it hurts, it needs to change
If an exercise causes you pain, it means you are not doing it properly. If you are doing it properly and still feel pain, then you should not insist on doing it. First of all, find out what the reason for the pain is – an injury, lack of mobility, overtraining etc.
Then find a replacement for the exercise – pick an exercise that would work the same body part, but in a different way, not provoking pain. For example, if you feel pain or weakness in the small of your back when deadlifting (let’s assume your form is correct), then you could do one-legged deadlifts for a while – there the weight used is less, the stress put on the body is less, but you work the back of your thigh pretty well.
Sometimes people who find it uncomfortable to perform straight-legged deadlifts do excellently with good-mornings. Both exercises work the back of the thigh in a similar way, but the weight is distributed differently which gets rid of the discomfort.
Just don’t train THROUGH your injuries, but AROUND them. Meanwhile make sure to find the original cause and remedy it.
9.Closed kinetic chain exercises are better than open kinetic chain ones.
What does that mean? When you apply force to an object, either you move it or it moves on its own. If you move the object, the chain is closed. If the object moves on its own, the kinetic chain is open. For example push-ups and floor presses. In push-ups we move our body (closed), while in floor presses the dumbbells move (open). In closed kinetic chain exercises the structure of the body determines which joints move and how much. That makes closed kinetic chain exercises better for the joints and muscles. That is also why bodyweight exercises and their weighted equivalents (weighted squats, push-ups, pull-ups etc.) are better exercises than leg presses, lat pulldowns and different kinds of dumbbell presses. That does not mean that you should do closed kinetic chain exercises only. Nevertheless, don’t forget that it is these exercises that are the true strength and athletic performance test.
10.Pay attention to the details, but don’t forget you should also enjoy your workouts. If you like doing an exercise or training by a certain method, albeit not the most effective one… just do it.
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And my latest accomplishment – hip thrusts with 104kg – 3 sets of 8 reps 🙂