the joy of strength training


February 10th, 2008 at 1:39 am

Create your own programme

This is the sixth article in the series Getting into weight training: a female-friendly guide.

1. Why lift weights? 4. Exercise technique
2. Types of weight training 5. Training programmes
3. Starting out 6. Create your own programme

Create your own programme

Creating your own programme is very do-able even if you are new to weight lifting. It is not advisable for complete beginners who have never set foot in a gym before, but if you’ve already been training for a while (perhaps using the programme your gym gave you), and if you know the basic exercises and muscle groups, you are more than capable of constructing your own routine. Over time, you can experiment and learn more about how your body reacts to different training structures.

Choose your goal

A training programme must have a goal and it is best if it is as specific as possible, such as being able to squat 100% of your bodyweight for 5 reps. If your ultimate aim is not strength-related e.g. you want to lose body fat, the best way to achieve this is to focus on getting your diet right and make sure that you have a challenging, whole body, progressive strength programme. In other words, strength-related goals are still very useful as they keep your training on track while you are dieting.

Trying to drop body fat by focussing on cardio rather than strength training can be counter-productive. Instead of trying to burn off the extra calories, just don’t eat them in the first place. Use your diet to control your calorie intake and use strength training to build metabolically active muscle and look better.

Choose your exercises

You don’t need lots of complicated exercises to get leaner, fitter and stronger. You can build a perfectly decent programme simply using the big lifts that we have already discussed and a few supplementary exercises that improve your ability to perform the big lifts.

Big lifts

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Deadlift
  • Snatch
  • Clean
  • Jerk

Supplementary exercises

  • Pull up, chin up, pull down
  • Romanian deadlift, stiff legged deadlift
  • Good morning
  • Dip (narrow arm or wide arm)
  • Shrug
  • Overhead squat
  • Overhead press
  • Core work (e.g. plank, back extension)

You can perform the big lifts with other equipment, as in a dumbbell bench press or a kettlebell snatch, to obtain a different training effect. However, let’s say you wanted to build strength using the power lifts. Your initial programme could include the following big lifts and supplementary exercises:

  1. Squat
  2. Deadlift
  3. Bench press
  4. Romanian deadlift (to increase hamstring strength)
  5. Pull-up/pulldown (to increase vertical pulling strength)
  6. Narrow arm dip (to increase tricep/chest strength)
  7. Shoulder press (to increase pressing strength in a different plane from the bench)
  8. Back extensions (to train spinal erectors)

That’s a lot to do in one session, so it would be sensible here to split the exercises up into two full body sessions, for example:

Session A

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Pull up
  • Back extension

Session B

  • Deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Shoulder press
  • Dip

Each session trains the whole body and contains at least one pulling exercise, one pushing exercise and one bent-leg exercise. The routine is designed to get you stronger and improve performance in the three powerlifts.

Tweak your routines according to your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you are lacking in upper body strength, you might not introduce the deadlift immediately, since the deadlift does require a lot of pulling strength. You might add in some more back work, such as a barbell row, so that you could build up the necessary strength.

Load and volume

This is another way of referring to the amount of weight on the bar (load) and the number of sets and reps you do (volume). It sounds complicated but the concept is really quite simple.

The more weight you lift, the stronger you get. Your strength is measured by the amount of weight you can lift once. So if people want to get stronger, why don’t they just train with single reps? Why lift a lighter weight five times or ten times instead of a heavier weight just once? Well, very advanced trainees sometimes do train with single reps, but this is not effective for beginners and intermediates because the body doesn’t have sufficient opportunity to make the adaptations it needs to lift very big weights. It is not just your muscles that need to adapt, it is your nervous system, cardio-respiratory system, technique and proprioception that need training. Doing very heavy single reps right at the limit of your strength is just too tiring for the body. At the other end of the scale, doing high repetitions with a relatively low weight might be great for your technique, but won’t stress your body sufficiently to be able to lift heavy.

So for strength training, we are looking for a happy medium where you can lift enough times in a session for your body to adapt and your technique to improve, but not so many times that you can’t manage a heavy weight. That happy medium is anywhere from 3 reps to 10 reps. For new trainees, the higher numbers are more effective as you get more practice in. For intermediate trainees, 3-5 reps can be good for building strength once the technique is dialled in. You can also vary your volume and intensity (load) within the training week, for example, have a heavy day where you lift 3-5 reps in a set and a moderate day where you lift 6-8 reps in a set. One of the most popular set/rep combinations around at the moment for strength training, both for beginners and intermediates is 5×5. Five sets of five repetitions is an example of the happy medium we were talking about.

Warm up sets and work sets

A warm up set is a set with a light weight designed to raise your heart rate, raise the temperature of the muscles and practice technique. A work set is with the target weight for the session, the weight that will actually cause new adaptations to take place. A big lift like the squat might require 3 or 4 warm up sets followed by a couple of work sets. A lift later in the session like a barbell row may only need 1 or 2 warm up sets.

When you plan how many sets you are going to do, include both warm up sets and work sets in the total. Do as much warm up as you need to feel ready to lift heavy, but not so much that you fatigue yourself before your target lifts.

Put it all together – example

Taking the exercises we chose above for session A and applying a suitable volume we might come up with:

Session A
Absolute beginner
(sets x reps)
(sets x reps)
Squat 3×10 5×5
Bench press 3×10 5×5
Pull-up (or pull down) 2 sets max attempts 2 or 3 sets
Back extension 2×10 2×10

For the big lifts, we have chosen either 3×10 or 5×5. If you are an absolute beginner who has never done these lifts before, you are doing more reps but with a lighter weight. If you are a novice, new to this type of training but with some experience in these exercises, you are doing slightly fewer reps but with a heavier weight. You are also doing more sets, so the routine is more challenging. For the supplementary lifts, aim for less volume than with the big lifts.

If you were to add in the deadlift so that you were doing all three powerlifts in the same session, you ought to balance it out by doing fewer sets in the bench press or the deadlift. Remember to look at your routine as a whole and think about the effect it will have on your body. You want to do a routine that allows you to do quality work whenever you train. You need to work hard, but not be constantly tired.


In strength training, rest is as important as work. Your system needs adequate time to re-build itself after the stresses of the weights session so try to keep lifting sessions a couple of days apart. When you first start training or you do a new exercise, you will initially feel a lot of muscle ache for a couple of days afterwards. This is a normal reaction and will disappear when your body adapts to the exercise.

Common mistakes

  • Doing too much in one session – go for quality over quantity.
  • Overworking smaller muscles like biceps and not doing enough work on the big muscle groups like legs and back
  • Not allowing your body time to recover
  • Chasing too many different goals simultaneously. Keep it simple!


To summarise, when you create your own programme you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my training goal(s)?
  • What exercises do I need to do to achieve my goal?
  • Do I have any weaknesses that need work?
  • How shall I split my sessions over the week?
  • How many sets and reps shall I do for each exercise?
  • Am I getting adequate recovery between sessions?

Don’t be afraid to experiment and tweak the programme if you find there is a problem with it (e.g. it takes too long). The best way to learn is by trying things out for yourself, keeping track of your progress and changing things around if you are not making progress.

Good luck!

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  • 1

    Nice post, and thank you very much for that tip
    Im gonna try that, rather than the basics that I am doing in the weight room.

    Would you say that those supplementary exercises can be done at any time of the day? And wouldnt burpees be one too?

    If you wouldnt mind looking at my site, it would be nice from a seemingly pro-bloggers perspective, and just a person with a trainer’s mind.

    Have a good sunday,

    rriparetti on February 10th, 2008
  • 2

    Hi Ryan,

    It doesn’t matter what time of day you do your exercises. Hopefully you don’t mean doing them all day long, which would not be a good idea as it would tire you out and probably injure you.

    Although burpees are a great exercise, in the context of this article they are not a supplementary exercise. Burpees are great for conditioning (cardio fitness) rather than strength. They are a really good tool if you want to get fitter but probably won’t help with your deadlift 😉

    gubernatrix on February 10th, 2008
  • 3

    Dear Gubernatrix,

    Aside from complimenting you on your Asterixesque name, I wonder if you could let me know which gym you were using when you were in London. I am also a climber who trains in functional/HIT strenth training, but it looks like you found a good gym with lots of olympic bars and power racks etc.

    Kind regards,


    Piers on August 29th, 2008
  • 4

    Hi Piers,

    I used to be a member of the Armoury in Hampstead, which is owned by Jubilee Hall Clubs. They also have a gym in Covent Garden. They are bodybuilding oriented but do have plenty of free weights. The Covent Garden gym even has some kettlebells.

    For olympic weightlifting and other Crossfit stuff, I go to Crossfit London when I am in town. See for details.

    gubernatrix on September 10th, 2008
  • 5

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  • 6

    I liked your site and style. What do you think of Hyper Trophy Specific? I have tried it but… not fully. Muscle mass aside I agree with the idea of creating an ‘environment’ of growth and strength. what say you?

    thedistracted1 on September 21st, 2008
  • 7

    I think the basic principles apply for hypertrophy as well as strength. Lift heavy and get your diet right and you will grow.

    gubernatrix on September 21st, 2008
  • 8

    […] 6. Create your own programme […]

  • 9

    body building weightlifting…

    Your topic one man blogs ” Blog Archive ” Why you should watch the Olympics was interesting when I found it on Tuesday searching for body building weightlifting…

    body building weightlifting on September 22nd, 2009


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