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The perfect guide to putting together an effective training program Part 2

Der perfekte Ratgeber für die Zusammenstellung eines effektiven Trainingsprogramms Teil 2

Having covered basic split programs and whether a muscle group should be trained once or several times a week in the first part of this article series, in the second part of this article series I will look in more detail at the best exercises for building strength and muscle mass. I will then look at other things such as the best repetition ranges, the correct number of training sets and the length of rest intervals between sets.

The best exercises for building muscle and strength

There are two primary types of exercises performed with weights: Multi-joint or basic exercises and isolation exercises.

Multi-joint exercises involve several major muscle groups and require the most full-body strength and effort. Examples of multi-joint exercises are squats, deadlifts, bench presses and standing barbell shoulder presses.

Isolation exercises involve only one muscle group and require significantly less total body strength and effort. Examples of isolation exercises would be bicep curls, flying movements on the cable pulley and side raises.

The topic of multi-joint exercises vs. isolation exercises deserves its own article, but to make a long story short, the following applies:

If you want to build maximum amounts of strength and muscle mass, then you should focus on multi-joint exercises.

Isolation exercises can and should be used to develop smaller, more stubborn muscles such as shoulders and arms and support the growth of larger muscle groups, but they should never be the focus of the training session for steroid-free exercisers.

However, just knowing this is not enough to put together an effective training program, as there are a whole range of multi-joint exercises you can perform for each muscle group. Which specific exercises are best for building muscle and strength? Here's a useful list:

The best chest exercises:

  • Barbell incline bench press
  • Dumbbell incline bench press
  • Barbell flat bench press
  • Dumbbell flat bench press
  • Dips (the chest variation)

These are the exercises you need to master if you want to build an impressive chest. Forget for the moment training on the cable machine, flying movements with dumbbells, push-up variations, machines and every other type of chest exercise out there. These exercises are not nearly as effective as the basic exercises listed above. They are only for advanced bodybuilders who have already built large and strong pecs with heavy pressing.

The best back exercises

  • Barbell deadlift
  • Barbell rowing
  • One-arm dumbbell rowing
  • Pull-ups
  • Lat pulldowns (chest and close grip)
  • T-bar rowing
  • Seated rowing on cable (wide and narrow grip)
  • Shoulder raises with a barbell (barbell shrugs)

Deadlifts are by far the most effective back exercise you can use. It is simply unbeatable when it comes to comprehensive back and strength development, which is why I recommend you perform this exercise every week.

The best shoulder exercises

  • Barbell shoulder press sitting or standing
  • Dumbbell shoulder presses seated or Arnold presses
  • Dumbbell side raises or one-arm dumbbell side raises
  • Side raises bent over (standing or seated)
  • Face pulls
  • Barbell rowing for the rear shoulder muscles
  • Dumbbell front raises

As you can see, I'm a fan of pressing. And just like chest, heavy pressing is unbeatable for shoulder development. And as a natural trainee, you'll need as much help as you can get in this area.

However, if you only perform pressing exercises for the shoulders, you will soon find that the lateral and posterior muscle head of your shoulders will fall behind in their development. This is the reason why a good shoulder training session will train all three muscle heads of the shoulders by performing lateral raises and something for the posterior shoulder muscles alongside heavy pressing.

Just like any other muscle group, the shoulders can benefit from training with higher reps, but you need to emphasize training with heavy weights if you want to make them grow.

The best leg exercises

  • Classic squats
  • Front squats
  • Hackenschmidt squats (on the machine, not with the barbell)
  • Leg presses
  • Barbell lunges (walking or on the spot)
  • Dumbbell lunges
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Leg curls (seated or lying down)

Training your legs is simple:

  • Rule #1: Always perform squats
  • Rule #2: Always perform squats
  • Rule #3: You've understood what it's all about

The bottom line is that every leg training session should start with either classic squats or front squats, with the former focusing on the hamstrings and the latter on the quadriceps.

The best bicep exercises

- Barbell curls
- dumbbell curls
- dumbbell curls
- hammer curls
- pull-ups with an underhand grip

Short and painless - that's all we need to build big biceps.

The best tricep exercises

  • Bench press with close grip
  • Sitting tricep press
  • Dips (tricep variation)
  • Lying tricep presses (scull crusher)
  • Tricep presses on the cable pulley

Just like with the biceps, you don't need much variation in your choice of triceps exercises to develop impressive triceps.

The bottom line on the best exercises with weights

Simply put, these are the only exercises you'll ever need to develop a strong, great looking body. Trust me, I used to think a lot of other exercises were the key to making gains and that didn't really get me very far.

One of the most important training lessons I've learned is that progression with the right exercises, not variety in exercise selection, is the key to a strong and muscular body.

Ditch all the faddish, "functional" junk and focus on barbell and dumbbell training and you'll take a big step towards the body you've always wanted.

What about core and calves?

Many training programs neglect training for the core and calves and the authors of these programs claim that you don't need to train these areas directly if you're doing everything right.

I disagree with this view. If you already have a great core and calves, this may be true - you don't need to train these areas directly to maintain what you already have. However, if you want to achieve better development of your core or calves, then you need to include exercises for these muscle groups in your training program.

Which repetition range is best?

The topic of the ideal repetition range is even fuzzier than the topic of the ideal training frequency. Most people stick to the default of using 8 to 10 or 10 to 12 repetitions for building muscle mass and lower repetition ranges for building strength...and there's a reason most people fail to build impressive amounts of muscle mass and strength.

Repetition ranges should be viewed as a strength-endurance continuum (1). Heavier weights mean fewer repetitions, which is ideal for building strength, while lighter weights mean higher repetitions, which is ideal for building muscle endurance.

In other words, if you want to be able to move 220 kilos in squats, you better train heavy. And if you want to be able to do 50 repetitions with 100 kilos, then you should train with lighter weights.

You may now be wondering how muscle growth fits in with this. The simple explanation is this:

  1. If you want to build bigger muscles, then you need to continually increase the weight on the bar over time, resulting in progressive overloading of the trained muscles.
  2. If you want to consistently put more weight on the bar over time, then you need to consistently get stronger.
  3. If you want to consistently get stronger, then you need to consistently emphasize the strength-endurance continuum with lower reps in your training.

Sure, we could go deeper into the technical details here and talk about things like myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, but the above 3 points are a quick summary of what we're really interested in at this point.

There's a good reason why the most muscular guys in your gym are always the strongest - and why most people stop building muscle when they stop building strength.

But let's get down to some concrete numbers.

The best repetition ranges for men

Men who are just starting to train with weights should emphasize the 4 to 6 repetition range in their training. This means using weights in the range of 80 to 85% of 1RM weight.

Men who are more experienced and advanced exercisers may benefit from incorporating lower and higher repetition training into their workouts (known as periodizing their workouts).

The best repetition ranges for women

Women who are just starting to train with weights should emphasize the 8 to 10 repetition range in their workouts. This means using weights in the 70 to 75% of 1RM weight range. I recommend that women who are just starting resistance training emphasize this repetition range rather than the 4 to 6 repetition range because they need to build a solid strength base before they can safely and effectively work with heavier weights.

What works very well for women, in my experience, is to start with training in the 8 to 10 repetition range and then after 6 to 8 months of training, incorporate heavier training into their program in the form of training in the 4 to 6 repetition range.

I would have them start their training sessions with 3 sets of a multi-joint exercise such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses or shoulder presses in a repetition range of 4 to 6 repetitions and have them train the rest of their training in a repetition range of 8 to 10 repetitions.

How many sets and repetitions per training session?

We've already touched on the topic of the optimal number of repetitions per week and muscle group earlier in this article, but we haven't gone into the specifics yet.

The most important thing to know at this point is that volume must decrease as intensity increases (2). At this point, the term intensity refers to the amount of weight you are moving, while the term volume refers to the number of repetitions performed.

In plain language, this means that the heavier the weights you move, the fewer repetitions you should perform per week. And since I'm telling you to emphasize training with heavy weights in your workouts, you'll be doing significantly fewer sets per week in the gym than most.

Finding scientific help on the topic of optimal training volume is difficult due to the variables involved, but part of the answer can be found in a study review conducted by scientists at Gothenburg University (3).

I'll cut straight to the chase and quote the scientists:

"All in all, a moderate volume (around 30 to 60 repetitions per training session (in dynamic resistance training) seems to elicit the strongest response."

Even though my experience with numerous clients has shown me that this range can be extended somewhat - which is especially true for experienced strength athletes - there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for the scientists' statement and this range is also usually recommended by experienced strength athletes and bodybuilders.

If you look at many of the popular and proven training programs out there, you'll see that the training volume generally falls somewhere in the range of 30 to 60 reps per 5 to 7 days and that the training volume rarely exceeds 100 reps per session

For example, in one of my training programs for men, my clients perform 9 to 12 sets of 4 to 6 reps per major muscle group. Once they complete 6 reps, they increase the weight (which usually reduces the number of reps on the next set to 4) so that these workouts are in the range of 45 to 60 high-intensity sets. And people achieve fantastic strength and mass gains with this program.

One of my programs for women includes 9 to 12 sets of 8 to 10 reps and uses the same progression model. This means that most training sessions are in the range of 80 to 100 moderately intensive repetitions.

My program for experienced strength athletes includes 60 to 75 repetitions per training session, combining very high-intensity, high-intensity and moderate-intensity sets.

These approaches to volume and intensity of a training session are supported by both scientific research and anecdotal observations - in short, they work.

How long should you rest between sets?

Most people are in the gym to move and sweat, so sitting around between sets may seem counterproductive. For this reason, they keep their rest intervals as short as possible or even eliminate them more or less completely with supersets, descending sets, metabolic conditioning training and other methods that allow them to keep moving.

However, if their goal is to build muscle and strength, then they are going about things the wrong way. As you know, building muscle and strength requires heavy training - and when you move heavy weights, you're pushing your muscles to the limits of their capacity. Adequate recovery time between sets is what allows you to repeat this process in a way that allows you to achieve an optimal amount of muscle overload to stimulate and force new growth.

If you are training with weights to build muscle and strength, then adequate rest between sets is crucial!

Basically, the whole point of resting between sets is to prepare your muscles to be able to move maximum weights again during the next set. And this isn't just gray theory - clinical research has found a correlation between rest times between sets and gains in strength and muscle mass.

For example, a study conducted by researchers at the Federal University of Parana in Brazil found that when subjects performed bench presses and squats with 2 minutes rest between sets, these subjects were able to perform significantly more repetitions per training session than subjects whose rest intervals were shortened in 15 second increments (1:45, 1:30, 1:15, etc.) (4).

This is significant because the total volume of the training session (the total number of repetitions performed during each training session) is a primary factor in achieving overload and stimulating muscle growth.

Thus, it is not surprising that a study conducted by researchers at Kennesaw State University found that subjects with 2.5 minute rest intervals gained more muscle mass than those with 1 minute rest intervals when training to muscle failure (5).

In addition, an extensive study review of strength training studies conducted by researchers at the State University of Rio de Janeiro came to the following conclusions (6):

"Regarding the acute response, a key finding is the observation that when training with loads between 50 and 90% of 1RM weight, rest intervals in the range of 3 to 5 minutes between sets allowed more repetitions in the course of multiple sets."

"In terms of chronic adaptations, rests of 3 to 5 minutes between sets produced a greater increase in absolute strength due to higher intensities and a higher volume of training. Similarly, higher levels of speed strength were observed with multiple sets of 3 to 5 minute rest intervals compared to one minute rest intervals."

These results were confirmed by another study conducted by scientists at Eastern Illinois University with experienced strength athletes (7):

"The results of the present study suggest that the greatest strength gains in squats can be achieved with a minimum of 2 minutes rest between sets, and only small additional gains are achievable by increasing the rest between sets to 4 minutes."

In another paper, the same team of scientists studied bench press performance with the same subjects and came to the following conclusion (8):

"If the training goal is maximal strength development, rests of 3 minutes duration should be taken between sets to avoid a significant decrease in the number of repetitions. The ability to maintain the number of repetitions while keeping the intensity constant could result in a higher training volume and consequently greater gains in muscle strength."

So the research is pretty clear: if you're moving heavy weights and you want to maximize strength gains, then rest intervals of 2.5 to 4 minutes between sets are the way to go.

However, it's worth noting that rest intervals can be shortened without negatively impacting performance if lighter weights are used (9). If you are training in a repetition range of 8 to 10 or 10 to 12 repetitions, then you can reduce your rest intervals to 60 to 90 seconds.

The third and final part of this series of articles will focus on putting all the knowledge you have gained in parts one and two into practice. This will include specific examples of all the training splits described in part 1.


By Michael Matthews

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