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Monthly Archives: July 2010

We’d all like for our strength training programs to be effective and safe.  This allows us to make gains from training and avoid wasting our time.  To do that, strength training follows several fundamental principles.  This article is going to begin by describing those principles.  Then we will cover different approaches to organizing a strength training program.  Finally, we’ll explore how to put everything together and include several examples.

Principles of exercise

There are five fundamental principles of exercise that you need to be familiar with before designing an effect strength training program.  These are:

  1. Specificity
  2. Overload
  3. Progression
  4. Individualization
  5. Reversibility
  6. Exercise Order

The principle of specificity basically says that you get what you train for.  In more complicated terms, the body adapts to exercise in the manner in which it is exercised.  This applies to the muscles you train, the speed at which you train, the energy systems that you train, and the movements that you train.

The overload principle states that you have to make the exercise more difficult in order to make the body continue to adapt, doing the same thing every day will not enable you to make any gains from your training.  This is done (making sure that you observe specificity) by increasing the weight, increasing the number of repetitions, decreasing the rest, changing the order of the exercises, or by changing the exercises.

Exercise is safest and most effective when it is progressive, i.e. it is done over a series of steps.  This means developing fitness and good technique before progressing to more complicated workout schemes and exercises.

The principle of individualization is meant to remind you that everyone is different and this means that everyone responds to exercises and workouts differently.  This is why cookie cutter workouts don’t work.  For example, the length of your limbs, make-up of your muscles, insertion angles of your tendons, orientation of your muscle fibers, and the length of your muscle fibers are all things that impact how you experience exercises and workout programs – and you cannot do anything about many of the factors that I just listed.

The principle of reversibility states that the gains you make from exercise go away when you stop.  This is because it is expensive to maintain all that extra muscle mass, so when your body doesn’t need it anymore it sheds it quickly.  When you stop exercising your muscle fibers shrink, your energy stores dissipate, you lose bone mass, you gain fat, you lose flexibility, you lose speed, and all this takes about three days to begin!

There are a number of notable exceptions to the principle of exercise order.  In general, however, those exercises that involve speed, power, or multiple joints should be done towards the beginning of the workout.  Those exercises that are more isolation in nature should be done towards the end of the workout.  The idea being that the more complicated and difficult exercises should be done at the beginning when you are still fresh.

The principles of exercise listed above are crucial to a successful strength training program.  Programs are typically organized to accomplish one of three things; hypertrophy, strength, or power.  The next section of this article will discuss those approaches.

Approaches to training

If you are lifting weights you are probably focusing on one of the following approaches to training:

  • Hypertrophy
  • Strength
  • Power

When you train for hypertrophy, you are training for bigger muscles.  Hypertrophy also serves as the foundation for strength and power, so you’ll see this again when we discuss the other two approaches to training.  Bigger muscles are expensive for the body to maintain, so the body does everything possible to avoid developing them.  For this reason, it’s critical that the training be difficult enough, consistent enough, and be integrated with proper rest and nutrition for this to be successful.   Hypertrophy training should be focused around multi-joint exercises, with isolation exercises to supplement and address deficiencies.  Normally training is organized around body parts (for example, today is chest and triceps) or around a movement type (pushing, pulling, etc.).   In general you are looking at 3-5 sets per exercise at 6-15 repetitions per set.  There should be around 30-90 seconds of rest between each set.  This means training should be intense.  Your muscles should be exhausted each set, not given much time to recover, then hit again on the next set.

When training for strength, the focus is on exerting as much force one time as possible.  A number of factors that you can train influence strength.  These include the size of the muscles (bigger muscles are potentially stronger muscles), your ability to recruit muscle fibers (i.e. your nervous system), and your skill in performing the exercises (better technique gives you the ability to be stronger).  Strength-focused training is typically preceded by 4-12 weeks of hypertrophy training, to give you additional muscle mass to aid your strength.  When training for strength, you are looking at 3-5 sets per exercise at 1-8 repetitions per set.  Recovery is full in between each set.  Training focuses on multi-joint exercises and typically revolves around a specific lift (for example, today is squat day).

Power involves applying strength quickly.  A number of factors that you can train influence power; your strength (you have to be strong to apply strength quickly), your ability to recruit muscle fibers quickly, and your skill in being explosive (i.e. you have to practice being explosive).  Power-focused training is typically preceded by weeks of hypertrophy training followed by weeks of strength training.  When training for power, you are looking at 3-5 sets per exercise with a mixture of strength-focused exercises (maintain your strength levels) and explosive exercises such as the variations of the Olympic lifts or plyometrics.  The variations of the Olympic lifts are usually done for sets of 3-6 repetitions (the focus is on perfect technique, being explosive, and avoiding fatigue) with full recovery in between each set.

Realize that the three approaches to training aren’t exclusive, you can do all three within a training session or during a week.  In fact, organizing them into the week is how I approach the training of collegiate and post-collegiate track and field athletes.  It’s not unusual for me to put a workout week that looks like:

  • Monday: Maximal strength
  • Tuesday: Power
  • Wednesday: Hypertrophy
  • Thursday: Power
  • Friday: Hypertrophy

All three could also be organized into a training session.  For example, the following workout incorporates all three approaches:

Power Clean, 5x3x60% (power)

Back Squats, 5×2-6×90% (strength)

Leg Press, 3×12-15 (Hypertrophy)

Leg Extensions, 3×12-15 (Hypertrophy)

Standing Calf Raises, 3×12-15 (Hypertrophy)

So far this article has covered the principles behind exercise as well as discuss the three major approaches to training.  The rest of this article will discuss how to put all this information together.

Putting it all together

Now that we’ve done some of the foundational work, it’s time to jump into the nuts and bolts of putting a program together.  When you are getting ready to put your strength training program together, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Determine what is most important: What is the most important thing to you?  Is it bigger arms?  A bigger squat?  Figure that out and plan it first, plan everything else around the most important thing.
  • Observe specificity: Once you know what is most important, put your workout together, deliberately, so that you can achieve your goals.  Success isn’t accidental.
  • Observe exercise order: The fastest and most complicated exercises should be done first, when you are freshest.
  • Build in progression: Set your program up so that as you move through it things gradually become more complicated and more demanding.  Build your base first!
  • Build in overload: Yesterday should be the only easy day, your program has to become more difficult over time or you will not make gains.
  • Remember you are an individual: You respond differently to training than everyone else, discover what works for you.
  • Get enough rest and recovery: There are exceptions, but in general you want to get 48 hours of rest before training a muscle group again.

With the above in mind, there are several ways to organize your strength and conditioning program:

  • By body part: This is pretty self-explanatory, normally this is organized to provide enough rest between sessions.  The table below shows an example of doing this using chest, shoulders, and triceps in one workout.
  • Around movements: The most common approach for this is a three-day split where one day involves pushing movements, one involves pulling movements, and one involves lower body training (usually squatting or deadlifting as the foundation exercise).  The table below shows this type of workout organized around a pushing workout.
  • Around exercises: With this approach, each workout is organized around the idea of improving performance on specific exercises (for example, bench press, deadlift, squat).  Usually the main exercise is first, followed by the supplemental exercises that are designed to improve the main exercise.  The table below shows an example of this type of workout with a bench press focus.

Body Part Movements Exercises
Workout Chest: 

Bench Press, 3×6-10×80%

Incline Dumbbell Press, 3×12-15

Dumbbell Flies, 3×12-15


Seated Military Press, 3×6-10

3-in-1 Shoulders, 3×10 each


Dips, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15


Bench Press, 3×6-10×80%

Dumbbell Bench Press, 3×6-10

Superset: Dips & Push-Ups, 3xMax each

Seated Military Press, 3×6-10

Close Grip Bench Press, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Bench Press Focus: 

Bench Press, 5×4-8×85%

Eccentric Bench Press, 3x4x70%

Dumbbell Front Raises, 3×12-15

Floor Press, 3×12-15

Seated Rows, Bench Press Grip, 3×6-10

When looking at the above table, notice that all three workouts involve the bench press, yet they are all very different.  The body part workout has a higher volume (i.e. more exercises and more repetitions), the bench press focused workout at the end has a lower volume but is more clearly geared towards increasing your bench press.  The one in the middle does a little bit of everything.  Truthfully, the body part and movement workouts could be identical.  The workout focused on the bench press is designed to address deficiencies on the lift.

The body part or movement approach to organizing your workouts is going to be more effective for pure hypertrophy training.  The exercise and movement approaches are going to be more effective for pure strength and for power training.

So how do we do this, step by step?  We’re going to build three sample programs around three very different goals.  Each goal is going to assume that we’re going to train four times a week.  The first goal will look at gaining muscle mass, the second at improving our deadlift, the third at becoming more explosive.

Goal #1: Gaining muscle mass

When trying to gain muscle mass, either the body part or movement approach is going to be most effective.  Since we’re going to be training over four days a week, we’re going to take the bodypart approach.  The goal is to gain muscle mass all over, so we don’t need to prioritize any particular areas.  As a result, the program is going to be organized as follows:

Day One: Legs

Day Two: Chest, triceps

Day Three: Off

Day Four: Back, biceps

Day Five: Shoulder

The next table shows the individual workouts.

Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five
Workout: Back Squats, 3×8-12×80% 

Leg Press, 3×8-12

Leg Extensions, 3×12-15

Romanian Deadlifts, 3×8-12

Leg Curls, 3×12-15

Calves, 5×12-15

Bench Press, 3×6-10×80% 

Incline Dumbbell Press, 3×8-12

Dumbbell Flies, 3×12-15

Dips, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Off Pull-Ups, 3×8-12 

Seated Rows, 3×8-12

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows, 3×8-12

Barbell Curls, 3×12-15

Concentration Curls, 3×12-15

Seated Dumbbell Press, 3×8-12 

Superset: Front and Standing Side Raises, 3×12-15 each

Superset:  Seated Side Raises and Bent Over Rear Delts, 3×12-15 each

Shrugs, 5×6-10

Each workout has a moderate volume (6-15 repetitions per set).  The focus is on multi-joint exercises with some notable exceptions (leg extensions, leg curls, calves, biceps, triceps, and shoulders).  An important consideration is that the overload principle must be obeyed.  This means that over the 4-12 weeks that you would stay on this program, you would need to increase the weights and the number of repetitions staying within that 6-15 rep range.

Goal #2: Increase the deadlift

There are a number of areas that are potential limits to deadlift strength.  These include grip strength, ability to lift the weight off the floor (i.e. leg strength), or the ability to extend and stand upright (i.e. lower back, hamstring, and glute strength).  Knowing that, a workout program will need to address those areas.  Since our priority is the deadlift, it is done first.  We’re going to blend the approaches to training here:

Day One: Deadlift

Day Two: Pushing

Day Three: Off

Day Four: Squat

Day Five: Pulling

The next table shows the individual workouts.  Keep in mind that overload has to be applied over time to keep these workouts effective.

Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five
Workout: Deadlift, 5×3-6×80-85% 

Deadlift, Bar Above Knees, 3×3-6×80%

Romanian Deadlift, 3×8-12

Reverse Hyperextensions, 3×12-15

Calves, 3×12-15

Bench Press, 3×6-10×80% 

Dumbbell Bench Press, 3×6-10

Superset: Dips & Push-Ups, 3xMax each

Seated Military Press, 3×6-10

Close Grip Bench Press, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Off Back Squat, 5×3-6×80-90% 

Eccentric Squat, 3×3-6×60-70%

Glute/Ham Raises, 3×12-15

Calves, 3×12-15

Pull-Ups, 3×8-12 

Seated Rows, 3×8-12

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows, 3×8-12

Barbell Curls, 3×12-15

Concentration Curls, 3×12-15

Goal #3: Increase explosiveness

When trying to increase explosiveness, we need to train that quality while maintaining or increasing strength.  This will involve a combination of variations of the Olympic lifts, plyometrics, and strength-focused training.  Done over four days, our training will look like this:

Day One: Power

Day Two: Strength

Day Three: Off

Day Four: Power

Day Five: Strength

The next table shows the individual workouts.  Remember to apply the principles of overload and specificity over the weeks that you may use this workout.

To be effective, strength training programs must observe certain fundamental principles and they must be organized deliberately.  Failure to do these things will result in programs that (at best) are ineffective wastes of time and energy and (at worst) are dangerous.

Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five
Workout: Power Clean, 3x4x70% 

Clean Pulls, 3x6x75%

Push Press, 3x4x60%

Vertical Jumps, 3×10

Medicine Ball Throw, 3×10

Back Squats, 3×4-8×80-90% 

Romanian Deadlifts, 3×4-8

Incline Press, 3×4-8×80-90%

Bent Over Barbell Rows, 3×4-8

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press, 3×6-10

Off Power Snatch, 3x4x70% 

Snatch Pulls, 3x6x75%

Push Press, 3x4x60%

Standing Long Jump, 3×10

Medicine Ball Throw, 3×10

Deadlifts, 3×3-6×80-90% 

Front Squats, 3×3-6×70-80%

Bench Press, 3×4-8×80-90%

Pull-Ups, 3×4-8

Military Press, 3×6-10


I was asked about setting up an anaerobic conditioning program for a group of high school basketball players. With this population you cannot make assumptions in terms of fitness level, skill, or technique. Also at that level you are able to be a little more general in terms of work:rest intervals (in college or pro you’d be much more game specific).

What I suggested was three types of workouts: sprinting intervals, agility drills, and circuits. The idea being to do these 2-3 times per week until you have the desired conditioning level, then cut back to 1x per week to maintain. The workouts would be alternated (intervals on the first workout, agility on the second, circuits on the third, etc.).

Intervals: Pretty straightforward, the athlete has x amount of time to run a given distance. The coach is not going to share that time with the athlete so that the athlete is running with their best effort. In between each distance there is a certain amount of recovery time. If the athlete runs the distance under the time they have been given to run it, they have more time to recover. If they don’t then things become really difficult. The coach will not give the athlete the specifics of the workout. A workout like this might look like:

a. 200 yards, 1’ to run, 1’ recovery, 2x

b. 100 yards, 30” to run, 1’ recovery, 2x

c. 50 yards, 15” to run, 30” recovery, 2x

d. 25 yards, 10” to run, 15” recovery, 2x

e. 10 yards, 5” to run, 10” recovery, 2x

f. Total Volume: 770 yards, takes 7 ½ minutes; when they get good repeat this a few times or add reps

Agility drills: focus on skills they can translate to the court that will be really exhausting. For example, put a cone every five yards for 50 yards. Have the athletes sprint forward 2 cones (i.e. 10 yards), have them backpedal one cone (5 yards), then sprint forward 2 cones, then backpedal 1, etc. They have to work on acceleration, starting, stopping, and reversing, and learn to do all this while tired and without falling down. Woe to any athlete that falls down…

Circuits: Total body stuff. Again, the coach should not tell the athlete how many, how long, etc. Basically set up stations, sprint between each station (so make them 10 yards apart). If you have pull-up and dip bars then this can get interesting… If not, I’d do something stations like this:

a. Jumping jacks

b. Burpees

c. Wheelbarrows

d. Bear crawls

e. You see where I’m going with this. Do each station for 30 seconds, repeat the circuit as often as you like… Better yet, do several circuits. One focuses on total body, one on core, one on lower body, etc…

This type of approach is a lot more useful to a basketball athlete than lots of slow distance aerobic training and a lot more interesting as well!

Opus meum fecit cogitare hodie de superbia. Multus auctores de superbia scribunt. In “urbs dei,” St. Augustine dicit illam superbia malae res accidunt cur est. While I’m paraphrasing, he essentially ascribes all the evil in the world, one way or the other, to man’s pride. Why did something bad to happen you? Because on some level you had too much pride. Origen, in “in prima principa,” dicit illam spuerbia casui ducit.  His argument is that pride and conceit stem from unearned grace, leading to one’s downfall. Metaphysics aside, overwhelming, overweening pride can help one take actions and make decisions that cause real damage.

This should not be confused with being irresolute or with needing to lack dignity. These qualities are both actually important for a leader.

In “The Prince,” Machiavelli discusses irresolution. He states that: “Irresolute princes, to avoid present dangers, usually follow the way of neutrality and are mostly ruined by it.” So decisiveness is necessary in leadership, but it should be tempered by a sober assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, make fewer mistakes than your opponent. Pride gets in the way of this.

In “The Discourses,” Machiavelli is discussing dignity. He states that: “A ruler should never forget his dignity.” On the surface this would seem to contradict what we have been discussing up until now, but in reality it doesn’t. A leader must maintain an external persona; calm, decisive, ethical. Failing to maintain these qualities externally will lead everyone to doubt your decisions and question your judgment. To borrow a well-used phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

I have just finished writing an article for Strength and Conditioning Journal on the effectiveness of core training in terms of improving performance, preventing injuries, and treating injuries. It will be interesting to see how the article is received by the reviewers, there’s definitely a professional split on this issue.

The article was spurred by one that I myself reviewed for the Journal, which essentially said that everyone needs their core muscle functions screened prior to being allowed to move because moving to inherently dangerous for the lower back.

For the article, I did a lot of research both in the strength and conditioning literature but also in the medical literature and the results are really fascinating, and not at all what you would expect.

Performance Improvement:
At least with how it has been studied, core training does not really impact athletic performance. It does not affect running mechanics and it does not affect rowing performance. Core fitness also has a minimal impact on the performance of strength and power tests (i.e. it is a factor, but an extremely small one).

Now, performing an exhausting 30+ minute core training session prior to performing a graded cycling maximal oxygen consumption impacts cycling mechanics – but you can argue that any 30 minute exhausting workout prior to that session would have an impact.

Injury Prevention:
This one is really hard to prove. One of the reasons it is so hard to prove is that the medical literature divides lower back injuries into two types: specific and nonspecific. Specific low back pain is caused by a discernable event (for example, herniating a disc while deadlifting) and can be seen on imaging. This type of LBP on impacts about 10% of people with LBP, so while it exists it’s not all that prevalent. The other type, nonspecific low back pain (NSLBP) impacts 90% of the people with LBP. This is not tied to an incident and cannot be found on MRIs or other images.

When we say that core training prevents injuries, what type of injury are we trying to prevent? This is an important question because researchers do not have a consensus on what causes NSLBP. Researchers think that an “event” related to loading causes SLBP, but some feel there is a gradual and insidious period of deterioration leading up to that event while others do not agree.

The thinking in medical research seems to be that muscular fitness may help to prevent NSLBP, but has little impact on SLBP. This is logical, but the research attempting to demonstrate this is very weak.

Injury Treatment:
Core training is used to treat individuals with LBP, both SLBP and NSLBP. Research examining the effectiveness has mixed results. Some find a positive impact in terms of level of pain, function, and quality of life. Others find that all treatments for LBP are as effective as no treatment. Some researchers question the clinical significance and applicability of the research findings and note that they are scarcely more effective than placebo.

One researcher, in an editorial, essentially said that LBP is the price of walking upright and there isn’t a lot that we can do about it.

It will be interesting to see how the reviewers handle the submission.


Two esoteric German military books make interesting points about leadership that are relevant in the 21st Century.

In his “Power of Personality in War,” von Freytag-Loringhoven is talking about the qualities necessary for a good leader.  To paraphrase, one of his points is that “successus potem est ubi audacia librum regnum habet.”

All too often, we make a process out of leadership.  Whether it is in the business world, in coaching, or in the military.  We feel that the process makes it a teachable quality, which is often not the case.  We also tend to focus too much on the process and this can diminish the outcome.  To quote von Freytag-Loringhoven explicitly (talking about military leadership, but relevant elsewhere): “We must take care that the mass of minutia required in modern-day planning does not overshadow the spirit of the operation itself, and cause us to judge the operation by the excellence or insufficiency of its staff work, rather than by its scope and daring, as he should.”

On the surface, focusing on the process seems like a good idea.  It builds in controls, checks, balances against mistakes that are too costly or that take an organization in a direction the organization doesn’t want to go.  However, it breeds inefficiency, is costly in terms of overhead, squashes initiative, and may result in the loss of valuable opportunities.  In his book, “Surprise”, General Waldemar Erfurth quoted Thucydides (and I’m paraphrasing here): “bonae occasiones non manent.”

How do we focus on the outcome rather than the process?  Often by simplifying.  This can be done by flattening an organizational chart, this tends to make an organization faster, more responsive, and more accountable.  Also by empowering individuals to make decisions and act on opportunities, which can be uncomfortable.  nos hunc timemus quia nemo bonas sententias potest facere aut sic cogitamus.

perditis occasionibus saepe manere aget.