Not all general strength-training programs are created equal. If you’re hunting for a great program or you’re wondering how your current program stacks up, you’ll want to be sure you have a few key components covered.
Here are four components to include in your strength-training program:
THE RIGHT FREQUENCY
If you want to make consistent progress, you have to lift often enough to keep challenging your muscles, but not so often that your muscles never get the chance to recover and grow back stronger.
For those following a general strength-training program, 3–4 days of strength training per week is the ideal frequency for a general strength program. If you’re a beginner — or you have limited time to train — you may want to start with three days per week and add a fourth day once you’ve built a good base.
If you’re following the three-day model, you may choose to structure your workouts in one of two different ways — either three full-body workouts per week or one full-body, one upper-body and one lower-body workout per week.
The benefit of the former approach is it’s often more enjoyable, as people typically prefer training one muscle group over the other, says Mark Schneider, a Minneapolis-based personal trainer and general manager of The Movement Minneapolis. When you stick to full-body workouts, you’re guaranteed every session will have at least one exercise you can look forward to.
Meanwhile, the benefit of splitting up your workouts according to focus (upper-body, lower-body, full-body) is you’re able to give your muscles more time to recover before hitting them again. “The upper- and lower-body split ends up being easier to build volume on,” Schneider says. In other words, you can typically add more sets and/or reps within a single lower- or upper-body-focused workout than you can during a full-body session, which may lead to faster strength and fitness gains over time.
EXERCISES THAT HIT EVERY MUSCLE GROUP
The ideal strength routine includes a balanced mix of exercises that work every major muscle group. After all, if you focus on only a couple muscle groups and neglect others, you’ll wind up with strength imbalances that ultimately limit your overall strength.
There are a few models for categorizing strength moves according to muscle group, but the easiest way to ensure you’ve got all your bases covered may be to follow the squat-hinge-push-pull model.
“It all comes down to basically pulling something toward you, pushing something away from you, standing up or coming down,” Schneider says.
Squat exercises primarily recruit your quadriceps, and include all your squat variations (e.g., goblet, front, back), while hinge exercises mainly work your hamstrings and include moves like Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, kettlebell swings and kettlebell snatches. Upper-body push exercises (Think: chest presses, pushups, triceps dips) hit your chest muscles, the fronts of your shoulders and triceps, while upper-body pull exercises like biceps curls, bent-over rows and pullups engage your lats, biceps and the backs of your shoulders.
Great add-on movements include lunges (e.g., reverse lunges, forward lunges, curtsey lunges), twists (e.g., woodchops, side-to-side medicine ball slams, landmine torso rotations) and carries (e.g., farmer’s walk, waiter carries, racked carries).
Pick at least one movement from the four primary categories (squat-hinge-push-pull) to focus on during each workout with heavier weights and lower reps (4 sets of 5 reps). Then, select three additional movements you’ll perform with lighter loads for higher reps (3 sets of 8–12 reps). For example, choose a goblet squat as your focus for a lower-body day and add in a lunge variation, a Romanian deadlift and a glute bridge.
You can also add in some ab-focused work, but we’ll cover this shortly.
Even if you have all the other components covered, your fitness results will stall unless you switch one or more workout variables (e.g., weight, exercise variations, volume, training intensity). This concept is known as progressive overload, and the idea is that to continue making progress toward any goal, you have to regularly challenge your body in new ways.
For example, if you’ve been squatting 65 pounds for 8 reps for the past few weeks and suddenly one day you notice your sets feel light, you can either add a bit more weight, or you can stick with 65 pounds and bump up your sets to 10–12 reps. Or, you could try a completely new squat variation.
Keep in mind that it’s best to make small, manageable increases and changes in your training workload. In other words, resist the urge to pile on more and more weight, reps or training days.
DIRECT AB WORK
Some experts might argue that doing direct ab work (e.g., planks and situps) is unnecessary. Their reasoning: Large, compound movements like squats and deadlifts strengthen your abs anyway, so there’s no need to do separate ab exercises in your workout.
However, while many of the bread-and-butter exercises that make up the bulk of your training program work your abs to some extent, they won’t teach you how to activate your ab muscles the way knee tucks, body saws and Pallof presses will. And if you don’t know how to activate your abs, your ability to squat, bench or deadlift heavier and heavier weight over time will be compromised. As Schneider notes, weak abs are often the reason people aren’t able to make significant progress toward their strength goals.
To activate your ab muscles for a compound exercise (e.g., squat, deadlift, chest press), perform an ab exercise and then move directly into your compound lift. You’ll repeat that ab exercise again before each set of the main compound exercise you have planned for the day. For example, if your main strength exercise of the day is a goblet squat, you’ll perform an ab exercise immediately before each set of goblet squats.
You may also choose to include ab exercises as accessory moves, but save any grueling ab work for the end of your session. This way, your ab muscles stay fresh for your heavy lifts.