At some point, if you're really looking to see results in the gym, you're going to have to come up with some sort of a plan. Sure, you might know a lot about the ins and outs of a workout. However, are you aware of how all these variable interact in the grand scheme of things? Today, we'll cover the basics of weight training program design. By the end of this article, you'll know how to put all your knowledge together and customise an effective gym workout plan. I'll help you choose which rep, set and resistance options will work best for you. Additionally, I'll help you navigate through all the seemingly contradictory information you've no doubt come across before.
Oh, and if you don't know what a rep or set it, don't worry. I'll cover the basics of these terms too. That way, you can be sure you're making the most of your time spent in the gym.
Basic Steps For Designing a Weight Training Program
If you want your gym program to be truly successful, you have to start with some information about your goals and current training level. The basic steps for customising your own workout plan are:
Step 1 - Analyse Your Needs
In other words, what is your overall goal? What is it you're looking to achieve by training and working out? Once you know that, you're better equipped to create design your own effective weight training program.
For example, some common goals you might consider are:
Step 2 - Match Your Goals To The Correct Resistance Training System
No matter which weight training method you use, they all fit into the Resistance Training Specificity Chart in some way. You can use this chart to determine appropriate weight selections matched to your goals identified in Step 1.
A variety of factors influence which repetition range you should aim for. For example, some of these factors include your:
Once you've determined an appropriate repetition range target, we then need to line this up with a suitable weight.
Step 3 - Determine an Appropriate Training Load, or Level of Resistance
Specifically, we want to start off with a safe training load. For most people, this would be a weight that allows them to complete at least 12-20 repetitions. At this intensity level, i.e. more than 12 reps, we're looking at less than 70% of a one repetition maximum.
Essentially, your 'One Rep Max' (1RM) is the heaviest weight you could possibly lift for any given exercise. That is, the maximum resistance you could manage just one time. Conversely, a 6RM (6 Repetition Maximum) would represent a weight you could lift for a maximum of 6 reps. A 10RM you could manage for 10 reps, etc. Lifting in a 6 to 10RM intensity range seems necessary to maximise strength and muscle growth. However, you should progress to this level only in a safe and gradual manner.
How To Plan, Customise and Design Your Basic Weight Training Program
Firstly, let's cover a quick note about periodisation. In a nutshell, periodisation is simply a way of planning results. We look at an overall weight training program over a certain period of time and design it in terms of phases. In each phase, we might have different goals and aims. In effect, we manipulate the volume of work, resistance, training intensity and, ultimately, effort. By doing so, we strategically schedule rest, maintenance and recover phases in the overall plan.
It's impossible to remain at 100% performance 100% of the time. Instead, periodisation allows us to 'peak' at certain times. That is, we might look our best for a particular event or celebration. Alternatively, we might design our weight training program so that we are at our strongest when we have a competition scheduled.
Overall, you can transfer these concepts of periodisation to any fitness goal. You can break down any weight management, cardiovascular improvement or muscular strength program into phases or training block.
Key takeaway for periodisation when you design your own weight training program
Periodisation aims to provide adequate recovery while delivering maximum results at the same time. In doing so, we can help prevent detraining and/or overtraining.
A well-designed workout plan using periodisation looks at you short, mid and long term needs and goals. The planning process for a periodised training program considers:
- 1Individual workouts, daily or multiple times per week. In periodisation terms, we call these microcycles.
- 2An agenda, or schedule, that groups your workouts into blocks or specific phases. Generally these are made up of 4- to 6-weeks of planned training sessions. However, they could continue for up to 3 months, or even longer. The periodisation terminology for these phases are mesocycles.
- 3The overall plan, usually over the course of a training year is called the macrocycle. This is the planned progress over several months incorporating multiple training blocks or phases.
Do I need to consider periodisation when designing my own weight training program?
In a nutshell, no you don't.
Periodisation can be a useful tool when looking at long term progress and honing in on specific training goals throughout the year. However, it can be an intense process to plan out each independent phase. For this reason, many people forego the idea of periodising their plan and achieve great results just fine.
Ultimately, not everyone needs to go to the lengths required to incorporate periodisation into their own gym workout plan.
Personally, I'd say focus on an initial 8 to 12 week block. Pick one goal you want to achieve in that time. At the end of the 12 weeks, consider where you are at against where you'd like to be. Then design your next 12 week weight training program around that.
We can represent the essence of periodisation as:
- 1train with a variety of activity
- 2vary intensity and progress as appropriate
- 3incorporate active recovery after each block of progression
Everyone can benefit from these general guidelines.
The Resistance Training Specificity Chart - deciding on reps, sets and loads
Number of Reps
Number of Sets
Rest Between Sets
Increase muscle size (hypertrophy) and strength
Maximum strength and power
Note: In general, progress to a heavier weight as soon as you are able to complete the required number of reps listed.
Intensity 'Rules' for Weight Training Program Design
Does completing reps until the muscle hurts mean the program is effective? Essentially, no not really. Hurt generally isn't a good indicator of how effective a training session is.
If you want to improve strength, it's best to complete a set number of repetitions for approximately 30 to 90 seconds. This should give an appropriate level of work and intensity to stimulate some change within the muscle.
What does weight training have to do with home improvement?
Here's a short little anecdote. If you know me on a personal level, you'll know that one of my other interests outside of health and fitness is interior design. I'll tackle most small home improvement jobs on my own and like to take my time to improve the space around me.
However, there is one DIY task that fills me with dread every time it comes up. I HATE painting!
Painting a room is, to me, a necessary evil. Sure, it's a relatively simple way to give the look and feel of a room a complete overhaul. But it's a pain. There's a whole lot of preparation involved before you even begin. Then, there's the mammoth task of painting itself. Repeat for as many coats as needed. Finally, you still have the clean up afterwards.
It's true to say that no one would ever classify painting a room as strength training. That might not be quite as dumb a statement as it sounds.
Think about it. It can become uncomfortable keeping your arms raised overhead over an extended period of time. Your back, neck and shoulders can take a considerable load over the course of a few hours. Painting can hurt - physically and emotionally (if you're like me).
So, if you hit the gym and perform a mind-blowing number of reps until it hurts, ask yourself this. Are you training effectively, or are you just painting the ceiling?
True strength training requires specific attention to the weight you lift, and how many times you lift it. Refer again to the Resistance Training Specificity Chart to determine where you should be aiming towards based on your goals.
In simple terms, I like to give my clients this basic rule:
If you can perform more than 20 reps with a given weight, the weight's probably not heavy enough.
Above all else, there is one key factor which determines the results you'll get from any resistance training program
Basically, it comes down to intensity.
Specifically, we manipulate intensity in a gym workout by paying attention to the exercise resistance, or weight we lift.
As a general rule, we don't generally see improvements in strength with a weight we lift for more than 15 repetitions. Ideally, we want to reach a point of failure before 20 reps.
By ensuring we are working at a sufficient intensity we can involve a greater amount of muscle mass. That is, by lifting the correct weight, we stimulate our muscle tissue the right way. Subsequently, this influences improvement in our resting metabolic rate, along with strength gains.
These improvements in our strength come about by both:
If we train with a light weight, we might only involve our slow-twitch Type I muscle fibres. Conversely, training with a heavy load will recruit all 3 types of muscle fibre.
Training at only a light to moderate level may mean we are only challenging around 50% of our muscle mass.
What we need to know about reps, sets and training load when we design our own weight training program
A lot of people ask "how much weight should I lift to get the best result?"
While it's the right idea, it's the wrong question to ask.
Instead, consider the number of repetitions you perform rather than the weight you lift.
Ideally, you need to work within a specific range of repetitions to work the muscle until fatigue.
Important workout design concept - training to muscle failure
Without doubt, there are many different ways to represent the idea of training until we can't perform another rep:
In essence, these all mean the same thing. The point at which you can't perform another repetition with good technique.
At some point during your training, it's important to incorporate some form of muscle failure.
Should everyone train to reach muscle failure?
Undeniably, yes. However this doesn't mean every workout, every exercise, in every set.
At some point, in every weight training program, the best gains are produced with muscular failure in mind.
So, is training to muscular failure too heavy for a beginner, or a frail older adult? Probably not. Remember, when we refer to muscular failure, we're talking about the point that we can't perform another rep. This point isn't in relation to an absolute amount of resistance or weight. Rather, it's a training load we identify that allows you to reach that moment of failure after a specific number of reps or length of time. This load could be 2kg, 50kg or 200kg. It depends on the individual and the particular exercise in question. A beginner might only lift a 'light' weight, however that term is relative. They should still aim to reach muscular failure at the pre-determined point, taking their rep range target and goals into consideration.
If you want to improve strength, it's best to complete a set number of repetitions for approximately 30 to 90 seconds.
What you need to know about reps and intensity
Number of reps
Intensity, i.e. How hard?
At which point?
Muscular endurance, strength, tone, and general health benefits
Enough resistance to cause fatigue at 15-20 reps
First 4-6 weeks, or longer, of training whether you are just starting or out of shape, regardless of age
Muscular endurance, strength, size, and general health benefits
Enough resistance to cause fatigue at 12-15 reps
After at least 4-6 weeks of training at 15-20 reps, if you want continued progress in your weight training program
Muscular strength and size (hypertrophy) and general health benefits
Enough resistance to cause fatigue at 6-12 reps
After at least 4-6 weeks of training at 12-15 reps to fatigue to maximise strength and muscular size response
Strength Training Equipment: Does it matter what I use?
Most experts believe that it's the intensity of effort that matters when it comes to getting results. Ultimately, that's the key training variable we need to pay attention to.
You'll get results regardless of technique, training history or equipment if you lift enough weight.
Likewise, you could have perfect lifting technique and state of the art equipment. However, if you don't have enough resistance to stimulate your muscles to adapt, you won't get good results.
Ideally, we cant to combine the best of these approaches. That way, we can truly optimise our weight training results and design the best program possible.
We should use whichever equipment allows us to perform our optimal range of motion. That is, one that we can tailor towards our own specific body dimensions and capabilities. We want to work with our body, not against it.
Additionally, it's useful to use equipment where we can quickly and easily change the training load.
Key takeaway for incorporating equipment into your own weight training program design
When comparing physical conditioning benefits, no one type of resistance equipment is superior. We can classify any equipment as either safe or dangerous depending on how we use it or how appropriate it is for your body and program. There is a wide variety of strength equipment available in most gyms allowing you to effectively train your entire body. Choose equipment appropriate to your goals and skill level.
Correct lifting technique helps avoid injury
While it's true that intensity 'rules', ideally we want to combine it with proper lifting technique. The longer we go without injuring ourselves, the better the chances of us achieving the result we set out to reach. After all, consistency is a key part to attaining ANY result. We are what we repeatedly do.
Intensity 'rules' for certain, but the ideal combination would be to combine proper lifting mechanics and intensity to optimize training result. This combination, along with understanding joint mechanics, and how they do or do not contribute to injury, enhances compliance towards the program, as well as decreasing the risk for injury.
Safety and appropriate lifting technique
At this point, we need to cover a few points when we consider how we apply our training program.
When beginning any new exercise plan, the main focus of the first few sessions should always be on establishing correct technique in our exercises. We don't necessarily want to create muscle failure from the start, although this may well happen.
By emphasising good form, we give our muscles the chance to progressively adapt to the demand we place on them. In effect, we're building a 'muscle memory.' Our nervous system learns the correct motor pattern to perform the specific movement required. From here, we can build up to work against heavier resistance.
Important points to remember in every resistance training session:
General guidelines to help you design your own weight training program
Rather than thinking in terms of a right or wrong way to lift, how you lift relates more to how appropriate your technique is. Placing exercises into lists of "Do's and Don'ts" can create a few problems.
For example, an exercise that's inappropriate for a beginner might be absolutely necessary for an athlete training for their specific sport.
Thinking in terms of appropriateness is in contrast to giving an exercise a hard black and white, thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating.
It's hard to categorise many weights exercises. Some body positions and loads might be extremely risky in some people. For others, they're completely appropriate and safe. There probably isn't any exercise that can be classified as "safe for everyone."
If we truly want optimal health and fitness benefits, then we can't have a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to categorise for every training situation. For example, you might agree that it's a risk to excessively arch your back and hyper-extend your spine. Particularly under load. However, try telling that to a world-class gymnast who's practising he back walkover on the balance beam.
Alternatively, you might have come across information proclaiming that full, deep squats are extremely risky. Risky for who though? Certainly not for a competitive Olympic weightlifter. In fact, squatting below parallel is indeed safe for many people.
On the whole, it comes down to understanding the requirements of the exercise and how it fits in to the overall design of the weight training program.
Key takeaway when classifying good and bad exercises in your own gym workout plan
Fitness enthusiasts often want a clear cut black or white answer. It's simply not possibly to classify any exercise in a way that holds true in every situation. In reality, there are cases and situations where it simply comes down to assessing each movement on its own merit. Weight up the advantages against the risks and make a decision on whether it's appropriate.
Comparing different weight training program designs and concepts
Presently, there are literally thousands of gym workout plans out there that you could follow. Are any of these programs really that different from each other? No, not really.
Are these workout plans safe and effective, producing results efficiently? Probably not.
We can classify different strength programs under the term 'system'.
A weight training system is any combination of reps, sets and resistance you work against. For example, super sets, compound and pyramid sets are all different types of weight training systems.
Often, some systems out there are created and hyped up to sell some kind of useless product or service.
Of course, anyone can name a system and popularise an idiotic approach to weight training. Eventually, some social media influencer will promote it and make a fast buck. As a result, those who follow the system may end up tired, frustrated, or even hurt.
Not all types of training systems have sensible approaches or have sound evidence to support their claims. Therefore, we want a system we can stick with and get the results we are after.
Don't blindly adopt any training system or workout program simply because it was used by someone successful. Similarly, avoid jumping on the bandwagon or latest Tik Tok trend. Instead, make sure whichever system you choose meets your current situation, preferences, needs and goals.
Read this next: Manipulating workout variables such as weight, sets, reps and rest
Now that you know the basics of weight training program design, we can begin to look at individual workout variables. Manipulating individual variables allows us to truly customise our own gym plan specific to our individual goals.