Exercise Programming Basics: Things You Should Consider Before Your Next Workout

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OK, so I want to kick off this series for you with some great tips on how to go about setting up your training program for the absolute best results you can get, as you make your way through the jungle we call health and fitness. Now, I know that many of you know your way around the gym, but let me ask you this?


Do you typically PLAN your workouts ahead of time, or do you wing it? Do you follow a plan for a few weeks, or do you often switch things up week to week, day to day? Today I want to explore with you some exercise programming basics and tips that will REALLY help to take things to the next level. These same tips are all the things that I consider when designing plans for myself, our RoxStar clients, and the workouts in our Inner Circle database. Let’s jump into the in’s and out of exercise programming basics!


Training Should Be Progressive

How many times do you find yourself at the gym just “winging it”? Like, you have an idea of what you want to hit that day, but you go in the gym with no real game plan except to target that one, or two, specific muscle or muscles. You don’t even carry a notebook or any kind of training log to record your workout, so you just go by how you feel on that day, and what you can do in that moment.


Now what if I told you that there’s an even BETTER way of going about your training game? I suggest anyone serious about their workouts to consider taking a more progressive approach to their program design. When I use the word “progressive” I mean that you should consider building a plan that is based on a single foundation, and with each update to that plan, you are advancing that foundation accordingly.


In the training world, we call this progressive overload training. Progressive overload can be defined as taking an exercise or workout, and varying the difficulty of it over time by adding more reps, sets, playing with tempo, and other variables that make the body work harder (and adapt) over time.


Progressive overload is great for anyone, from the beginning trainee to the elite athlete. And for those serious about progress in the gym, it should be the cornerstone by which you build your program. The best way to approach this methodology of training is to design a program for yourself with a specific goal in mind. Let’s say you want to put on muscle, and get a bit leaner (which seems to be EVERYONE’S goals these days).


You design a plan for, oh let’s just say leg day for now. So for your leg day, you design a plan that hits up 5 to 6 exercises, one of which being a squat. With your squat, your goal is to complete 5 sets, with a rep range of between 10 to 15 reps per set. Week 1, you can only perform the squat (with perfect form) for about 135 at 15 reps for a set, and when you bumped things up for the next set, you can only do about 185 pounds for 10 reps.


Now, this is where the game can begin… The next session, you hit up that SAME workout. But this week it’s feeling a little stronger, so you add another 5 pounds to the bar, and you are now able to squat 140 pounds at 15 reps, and 190 pounds at 10 reps.


The following session, you notice that you cannot safely raise the weight, so instead you decide to add another rep or two to the current weight – still placing a demand on the body, still making it adapt to greater loads of training. This is all an example of progressive overload at work. It’s not always about putting on extra weight.


You can increase the intensity of a workout in a multitude of ways – all which coax the body to HAVE TO adapt. Here are a few examples to play with:


  • Increasing the weight you are lifting for a specific move or exercise
  • Performing more reps with the same amount of weight as a previous attempt or set
  • Performing an extra set or so with the same amount of weight
  • Increasing or decreasing speed and tempo (time under tension)
  • Increasing the amount of power used to perform a rep or set
  • If using duration for an exercise, performing more reps in less time
  • Using less rest time, speeding up the workout, forcing the body to recover faster
  • Increasing the volume and frequency of a particular muscle group
  • Focusing on various modalities of training: stabilization, endurance, strength/hypertrophy, and power
  • Using phases of training for each of the above – ie. spending 4 weeks on a program focusing on endurance and stabilization, then moving to 4 to 6 weeks of strength and hypertrophy for that same muscle group.


These are just examples of things you can play with to better tweak your workouts, and really make this game more of a challenge for you that will get you to your goal. There are so many things you can tweak and play with along this road to better physical fitness – and aesthetics, that having a game plan in place, that’s well planned and well thought out, can not only help you to see results faster, but also help you to stay motivated and focused on things well beyond just the physical.



Mixing Things Up Too Often Can Hold You Back

To piggyback on the above, just because you are using principles of progressive overload,, it doesn’t mean that you could or should be mixing things up too often. And to go further, many of you are doing just that WITHOUT a game plan in place.


You know one thing that boils my blood? This whole “muscle confusion” bull that’s been floating around for a better portion of the last decade. I’m not sure where it came from, but it had gotten really popular with the whole P90X thing, and the theory that one of the reasons why it works so well is BECAUSE of the muscle confusion it created. Um, newsflash… P90X was one of the first at home DVDs to actually use principles of progressive overload and high intensity training – and brought it to the masses. Brilliant marketing, but this whole muscle confusion thing has dumbed down the industry a notch.


Let’s get something straight…


Your body and muscles are NOT confused…


YOU might be confused, but after millions of years of evolution, your body knows what’s up. You simply can’t outsmart it, you CAN however apply scientifically proven methods and techniques that can greatly impact your physique, and bring about changes like you’ve never seen – or thought you can achieve on your own. You will see greater progress in strength, conditioning, and your aesthetic goals when you begin to be more patient with your training programs.


For instance, within the RoxStar brand, we typically will have clients follow the same plan for a period of about 2 to 4 weeks before progressing their workouts. Each time they hit the gym, they are asked to raise the bar in SOME way. So if that means extra weight, then GREAT! Sometimes that can mean pushing out a few more reps or sets than what’s listed on the program, or taking less rest and recovery. Little things like THAT which have an even greater impact on improving the physique than switching the entire workout around.


The body will always adapt, and transform based on the stimuli you give it. It can take a period of a few weeks for your body to successfully be able to acclimate to the demands placed on it. So the need to switch things up on the true physiological level isn’t there. For many it’s more a thing of boredom. And for those of you, I say to consider the things I’ve written above, because if you truly focus on the bigger picture of what you’re trying to do, and raising the bar in the gym, being bored truly becomes a thing of the past.



Consider Your Overall Goals

So what are you REALLY training for? What’s REALLY the driving factor behind why you do what you do? You know that old adage, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”, well it definitely applies here! I’m a big fan of goal setting, for anything one wishes to accomplish. In fact, without goal setting, you are putting yourself in a position to lose focus, fall off track, and simply not get the job done. It’s important for anyone with an idea in mind to transform their body to have a game plan set in place, as far as knowing what they wish to accomplish. I did an excellent webinar all about goal setting for your training and nutrition desires, and that can be found here. Your goals need to have 5 elements to make tangible your desires and visions for where you wish to be.


Goals need need to be S.M.A.R.T. This is what that breaks down tto: Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Time Bound. Take a moment to view my webinar to see how to apply these elements to your fitness program RIGHT NOW – and watch how things start to suddenly take off for you.



Cardio is a Tool, Not The Basis Upon Which A Plan Is Built

I consistently find myself repeating this mantra as of late because a lot of folks are still adhering the the belief that cardio is the driving factor behind fat loss. Now, don’t get me wrong, cardio can and does indeed play a large role in seeing results, but many people are abusing it and not being intelligent about how they program their cardio. More often than not, they are relying on it far too much, moreso than their diet and other aspects of their training.


The result, a body that is simply a smaller version of where they started – as opposed to the lean and athletic look they are striving for. In the RoxStar Fitness approach to cardio, our goal is to do the least amount that one PERSONALLY needs to do to see positive change. Now, that amount can differ from person to person and is dictated largely by genetics, metabolism, lifestyle, and fitness level. A person who is naturally on the thinner side, who has a high metabolism, and loses weight or fat quickly and easily will have to do FAR LESS cardio than someone who is the exact opposite. So considering specific factors about your body, your lifestyle, and your goals is crucial.


Many folks are out there hitting up hours upon hours of cardio a day, and unnecessarily so. I’m all for steady state cardio, when done properly. What you should think about instead of how long you perform your cardio is HOW HARD you are going with intensity. Higher intensity cardio has been found to be far more effective when it comes to overall fat loss than slower, longer duration cardio. Incorporating HIIT, longer intervals of 2:1 or 1:1 work to rest ratios, metabolic circuits, tabatas, and more, can all have a HUGE impact on fat loss than simply doing more cardio for longer durations ever can.


So when you’re sitting down to work on your next program, consider taking down the amount you do per session, replacing it with focusing on how hard you’re working instead. I can guarantee that you’ll start seeing amazing results a lot faster than you may be seeing right now.



Remember To Deload

One of the biggest parts of programming that gets missed by most (even if it’s one of the MOST important aspects) is deloading. So what is deloading, you might wonder – and how do you apply this to YOUR training program?


Welp, glad you asked! Deloading is basically a fancy word for scheduled training breaks. And not breaks as in rest days on your current plan, I’m talking about a full week or two (or FOUR), where you reduce training frequency, intensity, and overall volume in order to give your body a MUCH need period of rest and full recovery. What we often fail to realize is that progress doesn’t happen IN the gym… It happens in the days in which we allow ourselves to rest and recovery. It’s at THAT point that the body is repairing tissue and growing. But even then, there’s only so much that your body can do, and the constant training day in and day out can start to take its toll on you.


You might find that it’s taking longer for you to recover, that you might be losing a little motivation, your energy levels are lower in the gym and you can’t quite set new PRs or push harder, maybe your joints are starting to feel little sore, and you’re just not on top of your game… This is where a scheduled break can do you some good. And even if you DON’T feel these things, a scheduled break every 12 to 16 week can help to make sure you continually progress – and avoid stalls.


When we deload our RoxStar Fitness clients, we typically do so for a period of 2 weeks. During that time, training frequency will be reduced, as well as overall volume and intensitiy. So in the gym, our client may be doing 3 days a week as opposed to 5 days. Cardio may be taken to 15 minutes, or even NONE, for some trainees. Workout intensity will decrease with the client focusing on keeping within a particular rest range (10 to 20 reps depending on the exercise), and fewer exercises on plan. Training volume will decrease by including less sets, and focusing on hitting body parts about once week or so. We might give them a program that focuses on total body work in one session, and then a quick upper body in one, and a quick lower body in the other. So there are different ways to set up a deload that doesn’t have to mean a FULL training break – and no days in the gym.


The simple goal is to take down the total amount of time you spend in there, and to do so until you feel somewhat recovered. So, depending on your typical training intensity, that time off can be different for everyone. I would say to start with a simple plan for 2 weeks, and if you get to the end of that two week cycle, and feel you may need a little more, then go for it! Add on an additional week of deloading, see how your feel, then progress from there.


For most, up to a 4 week deload is far more than enough time to fully recover and start back on your regular training schedule full of gusto and tons of energy! Remembering to do this at least every 3 to 4 months can see you progressing in ways you can’t even comprehend now, it’s something you have to try for yourself to see! Your body will thank you for it – with even more impressive gains.


So now it’s your turn? Do you apply any of these principles to your program design? And if so, how has it helped you now vs. when you didn’t? Share your comments below!

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