This is a template that I use (more or less — I do deviate from it on a case-by-case basis) with my clients to get them started in strength training. On average, it works really well, giving significant improvements in performance while building up technique safely. Add in some half-decent nutrition, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for being stronger, leaner and better-looking in a few months time.
We’re going to start with two alternating workouts. Ideally we want to perform 3 workouts per week, but that isn’t always viable. If you can do 2 workouts a week, you’ll still get good results. If you can only do 1 per week, that’s when we really need to start deviating and blending the two alternating workouts into one.
Each workout will consist of a squat, push, pull and hinge exercise. Workout A will use a heavy squat, push and pull variation with a light hinge. Workout B will use a light squat, push and pull variation with a heavy hinge. Beyond those staples, we will use assistance exercises to develop technique and/or muscles that aren’t worked sufficiently through the above movements. So, the workouts will look like this:
- Heavy squat
- Heavy push
- Heavy pull
- Light hinge
- Assistance work
- Light squat
- Light push
- Light pull
- Heavy hinge
On the four main movements of the day, we will periodise progression as follows by starting out with 2×15. The starting weight should be so light that at the end of the second set you feel like you could still do more reps. The focus will always be on technique and form ahead of weight and volume. We won’t increase the weight unless form and technique are passable, and the goal will be to continually improve form and technique.
Form is the positions you get into throughout the range of motion. You always want to be in a safe and mechanically advantageous position when training. Technique is how you get into those positions, and includes issues such as appropriate tightness vs suppleness, which muscles are working, speed, and what you are mentally trying to do with each rep.
After a few weeks, we will decrease the volume to 2×12. Ideally we will have added weight each session until this point, but if not we will definitely add weight now. The first session at 2×12 must be heavier than the first session at 2×15. This pattern will continue will each incremental decrease in reps. When the reps go down, the weight must go up.
This will continue into 3×10, then 3×8. If max strength is a priority, then we might peak, starting with sets of 5 and working towards a 1RM, which we like to put up on the leader board. But that isn’t always the goal.
There’s no exact time period for each rep range, but we will usually aim to be there for at least 2 weeks. So, conservatively, the plan looks like this:
Periodised Rep Range
- Week 1-2: 2×15
- Week 3-4: 2×12
- Week 5-6: 3×10
- Week 7-8: 3×8
Often we’ll spend longer than that in a given rep range, but, doing 2-3 workouts a week, this guarantees at least some improvements in each rep range before moving into the next one.
Sometimes we will have to deviate from these rep ranges. For example, when doing pull ups/chin ups, we normally just do 1 set for every set of the push exercise performed in that session. That set might only be 1 rep. Or it might be 10. It might be assisted. It might be weighted. But as a tough bodyweight movement, it’s pretty obvious why no one will be doing 2×15 in their first workout.
On assistance exercises, rep ranges aren’t so strict. Typically we’ll work between 10 and 20 reps, but it depends on the exercise and its purpose. Single-rep and 50-rep assistance exercises are less common but far from rare.
Heavy vs Light Exercises
What defines an exercise as heavy or light for our purposes isn’t how hard you go on the exercise. Each exercise should be performed with a load that is challenging but manageable, with an eye on progressive overload (adding weight whenever you safely can, especially when rep ranges drop). But there are some exercises that you can load up more than others. Invariably, the “heavy” exercise choice will be one which you can load up more than the “light” exercise choice.
So, for heavy squats we might work on back squats, and for light squats we might work on front squats. If someone has an interest in powerlifting, the heavy squat might be low bar, while the light squat might be high bar. For someone who has bad leverages for back squats, the front squat might be “heavy,” and the light squat might be goblet squats, split squats, step ups or lunges. Nothing is set in stone here, it all comes down to the individual’s abilities and needs.
For heavy pushes, we will usually be looking at a bench press variation, while light pushes will usually be an overhead press variation. For a particular individual, it might be a bench press variation for both heavy and light pushes. For another individual, it might be overhead all the way. One person might do push press as a heavy push and push ups as a light push. But most of the time heavy means bench, light means overhead.
For heavy pulls, we will usually be working on pull ups or chin ups, whereas light pulls will usually be some form of row. For people who aren’t ready to start learning chin ups, it’s likely to be a heavy and a light row (eg dead rows and 1-arm rows).
For heavy hinges, we will typically be looking at deadlifts, including conventional, sumo, block/rack and deficit. Light hinges are more likely to be RDL’s, SLDL’s, goodmornings, bridges and hip thrusts.
The most important thing to know about assistance exercises is that they’re assistance exercises. They might take up as much effort as one of the main exercises, but they shouldn’t take up more than that. Especially not with beginners.
Again, rep ranges aren’t as strict here. We might periodise our assistance exercise rep ranges, but that isn’t always the case.
When it comes to developing muscles, the most common areas we’ll work on with assistance exercises are: calves, shoulders, arms, abs and glutes. Thighs and the upper torso don’t tend to need much added help. When focusing on a muscle, we’ll typically go with an exercise that is easy on technique, making it easier to get right into working the muscle (which, in turn, is hard and grueling). Normally we will only work on one body part through assistance training, with 1-2 exercises.
For calves, calf raises are the obvious choice, with an emphasis on actually using your calves rather than your Achilles tendon. For shoulders, we often work on the lateral or posterior deltoid — added attention to the front of the shoulder is almost never needed. Lateral raises, upright rows, reverse flies and face pulls are all common choices. For the arms, broseph knows what he must do, but we will tighten up technique, and often make a point of limiting the work here (no, Mr Beginner, you do not need 4 difference biceps exercises). For abs, we will often work more on the deeper transverse abdominus than the visible rectus abdominus (AKA your 6-pack), because that has greater carry-over to technique on everything else and does more for trunk health. But if a 6-pack is what you want, we’ll work on that, too. Lastly, for glutes, having already worked on them through extension in squats and hinges, we will often focus on lateral movements like clams and banded hip abductions.
When it comes to more direct technique training, we will often use a variation of one of the main exercises, but with something modified to work on a specific point you need to improve on. This could be as simple as adding a pause into the main exercise, which forces you to learn how to maintain form and technique in a tough spot.
If you like the look of this template, I encourage you to give it a try. Always train responsibly, make technique a priority and seek coaching if it will allow you to do more safely (which it usually will). There’s a not-so-subtle plug here for you to come train with me to develop a program that specifically targets your needs and makes the most use of this template. But I am legitimately happy to see this method help anyone, anywhere, so if you use it and get good results, I’d absolutely love to hear from you. Likewise, if you have any questions about how you can make this work for you, comment below or ask me on facebook, and I will do my absolute best to answer you ASAP.