the joy of strength training

Gubernatrix

February 10th, 2008 at 1:39 am

Training programmes

This is the fifth 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

Training programmes

A training programme arranges exercises into individual gym sessions or routines, so that you know what you are going to do every time you go to the gym. The sessions are designed to build towards a particular goal over a few weeks or months.

There are three ways to acquire a programme:

  1. Use a programme from a book or website
  2. Get a coach, personal trainer or experienced friend to create one for you
  3. Create one yourself

The last option is not as daunting as you might think. Although the internet, magazines and books are full of esoteric discussions about programming, it really doesn’t have to be that complicated. Once you know a few basic principles you can apply them to your own situation.

There are four key aspects to strength training that should be accounted for in any programme:

1. Progressive resistance

This is probably the single most important concept to grasp in strength training. If you want to get stronger, you need to lift progressively heavier weights. Or, as Coach Mark Rippetoe says, “To get stronger, you must do something that requires that you be stronger to do it”. If you lift the same weight week after week, your body will quickly adapt to lifting that weight, but will not adapt any more than it needs to.

This doesn’t mean that you need to add weight to your bar every time you work out. Sometimes you will have technique issues that you need to work on. Other times you might be backing off for a week or two. However, your general aim should be to increase the weight when you can and have a goal to aim for. Check the rules of thumb in the article on Starting out to see what percentage of bodyweight you should be aiming for in each of the big lifts as a beginner.

2. Full body or compound exercises

The best exercises for strength are those that work as many muscle groups as possible and involve the whole body as a system. Squat, deadlift and snatch are examples of full body exercises: they involve the whole body in executing the movement. Overhead press and pull-up are examples of compound exercises, which involve multiple muscle groups even if the entire body is not involved.

You can, for instance, work every muscle group in the body with just the deadlift and the bench press. This is a different approach to that of bodybuilding, which tends to isolate individual muscles or body parts and focus on aesthetics rather than function.

3. Balance

It’s important for the long term to train every part of the body and not over-emphasise one muscle group or body part. A classic mistake made by many novice male trainees is training the t-shirt muscles – the chest and arms – more than everything else. This creates strength imbalances and major weaknesses in the body. When you only train the aforementioned t-shirt muscles, you are training what you can see in the mirror. But what about all the big muscles that you can’t see in the mirror, the muscles of the back, and the back of the legs, arms and shoulders? These posterior chain muscles are vital to the body’s ability to function well in daily life.

Most movements involve either pushing or pulling. Most of our pulling we do with our back muscles, and our pushing with our chest muscles. It is useful to know what all the major muscle groups are and how they correspond, but one of the best ways to ensure balance is simply to use do most of your training using whole body exercises.

4. Periodisation

This just means varying the stress you put on your body over the weeks and months of training. A simple type of periodisation would be to focus on maximal strength by training with relatively heavy weights and low reps for a few weeks, then switch to strength endurance by training with lighter weights and higher reps for a few weeks. The exotically-termed ‘conjugate periodisation’ simply means doing both types of training in the same week.

Training periods can follow a natural pattern dictated by how you feel, what events or competitions you have coming up and what kind of progress you are making. Very few people can train the same way at the same pace all the time. If you have stopped progressing, this could be a sign that you need to switch to a different mode of training for a while.

Choose a routine

If you want to have a go at creating your own training programme, read the next article, Create your own programme.

A good strength training book is a wise investment. If you are interested in buying a book, check out my recommendations in this post.

There are also some good programmes available online:

Next article: Create your own programme

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