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Strength Program | A Complete Guide

The blog banner to the complete guid to building a strength program. The image features racked Olympic barbell.

As with every health and fitness goal, there’s a right and a wrong to go about achieving it. For example, if you want to lose weight with exercise, you’d be wasting your time training resistance. When scientists compared the efficacy of different exercise modalities for promoting weight loss, cardio came out on top while resistance had no impact (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest, and Health).


The same can be said for strength. Of all the training methods available, resistance is by far the best for building stronger muscles. But increasing strength is not as simple as just lifting big weights. An effective strength-developing routine must feature certain factors.


6 tips for a successful strength program

This article aims to provide you with the knowledge and tools necessary to develop an effective strength program. The advice that follows has been sourced from strength training programs and leading professional practitioners.


For example, we’ll learn about the motivational power of documenting strength development from Arnold Schwarzenegger. In addition, we’ll discover from Performance Enhancement Specialist Nick Grantham the benefits of expanding our ‘movement vocabulary’ and incorporating ‘Movement Quality Training’ sessions into our workouts.


Below, we have compiled 6 tips for a successful strength training program. The tips can enable you to

  • Develop muscular strength more effectively

  • Improve the safety of your training

  • Improve your technical performance

  • Train with confidence

  • Understand the importance of rest and recovery

  • Learn how to maintain motivation through goal setting


Strength program 6 tip quick finder

Strength program tip #1: Observe the correct training phases
Strength program tip #2: Training technique
Strength program tip #3: Keep challenging yourself
Strength program tip #4: Set SMART Goals
Strength program tip #5: Consistency is the secret of strength
Strength program tip #6: Rest, recover, replenish and repeat!

Strength program tip #1: Observe the correct training phases

Strength program tip #1: Observe the correct training phases.

The warm-up is the single most important component of an exercise session. Mark Ansell, who is a fitness author and trainer of personal trainers, tells us that ‘a warm-up is essential to any programme’ and should never be skipped.


In a Harvard Health article on strength training, the authors recommend that we warm up for a minimum of five minutes before every workout. We are advised to observe this training phase because of the many benefits associated with warming up.


For example, in the highly researched book Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance, Watson states that ‘a warm-up of an appropriate nature enhances physical performance by producing a number of physiological changes in the body.’ These changes include:


  • Reduced injury risk

  • Increase in core and muscle temperature

  • Improved training performance

  • Improved exercise motivation

  • Increase in maximum power output

  • Increase in the economy of movement

  • Activates essential physiological systems – blood flow, heart rate, and respiration


Don’t forget to cool down and stretch

As well as warming up we should conclude our strength sessions with a five-minute cool-down and stretch. Both these training phases have been shown to deliver many desirable outcomes.


For example, as well as facilitating the removal of metabolic waste, the cool-down de-escalates elevated physiological systems. That is, gradually normalising heart rate and respiration and reducing blood pressure. The cool-down can also act as a preparatory precursor for the final phase of the workout.


In another article, we discuss at length the benefits of stretching after training. To summarise the key points in a single sentence, stretching can reduce post-exercise injury risk, attenuate the severity of the delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), and improve recovery.


For a more comprehensive outline of the main phases of a workout, see our article Essential Training Principles.


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Strength program tip #2: Training technique

Strength program tip #2: Training technique(h2)

Applying the correct technique is of paramount importance when performing strength movements. Anita Bean goes so far as to state that form is a ‘crucial’ factor in not just ‘avoiding injury’ but also ‘maximis[ing] results’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).


Of course, with greater loads, the risk of severe injury increases commensurately. Thus, before piling on the poundage, ensure that you can execute the exercise with near-perfect technique. To support the transition from amateur lifter to a seasoned pro, Bean outlines a list of useful tips.


Before we look at the list, it should be stated from the outset that beginners would be wise to start their strength program with little to no weight for the first week or two. Only when you can competently and safely perform a range of core compound exercises – deadlifts, squats, bench presses – would you begin gradually to increase the loads.


10 tips to perfect your lifting technique

Tip 1: Always warm up properly before starting your workout.

Tip 2: Select a weight that will allow you to complete the desired number of reps.

Tip 3: Use controlled breathing to assist the lift – breathe out on the concentric phase and in on the eccentric phase. And remember, NEVER HOLD YOUR BREATH!

Tip 4: Transition through the full range of movement (ROM) for each exercise.

Tip 5: Always keep control of the weight and only use muscle contraction to assist the lift. Do not swing the weight or contort your body to generate momentum.

Tip 6: Focus on the distinct phases of the exercise. If it helps, break the exercise down into its constituent parts and practice them individually and with a lighter weight.

Tip 7: Consider counting as you lift the weight. For example, counting to three as you lower into a squat can improve control and focus.

Tip 8: Visualising the target muscle contracting and relaxing can help improve technique.

Tip 9: Practice the exercise technique with a light bar between sets. As well as keeping you warm practising your form during recovery breaks will enable you to iron out technical mistakes.

Tip 10: If you’ve got the cash, pay a professional to train you for a month or two. Alternatively, video yourself on each exercise and review your performance after each lift.


Strength program tip #3: Keep challenging yourself

Strength program tip #3: Keep challenging yourself.

To encourage strength gains you must continue to challenge your muscles. This doesn’t necessarily mean more weight though. While increasing loads is essential to trigger hypertrophic effects, other ways to promote strength could include:


Changing the number of sets and reps
Varying the exercises in your program
Performing partial reps
Including a plyometric element to your exercise (an explosive jump at the end of a squat)
And, yes, increasing the weight

Another method of challenging your muscles involves what the author of The Strength & Conditioning Bible, Nick Grantham, calls expanding your ‘movement vocabulary.’ This can be achieved through Movement Quality Training (MQT) which ‘is an excellent way of preparing the body so you can maximise the active ranges of motion required for fluid athletic movement.’


What is Movement Quality Training?

MQT is where we would dedicate time in our workouts to explore and develop our natural biomechanical pathways. It sounds quite complicated but all it entails is performing technical reinforcement rehearsals, flexibility training, slowing down and isolating specific phases of complex exercises.


For example, in your strength program, you might factor in a designated MQT session. During this low-intensity session, you would practice those exercises that feature in your workouts. Alternatively, you might use your MQT sessions to isolate a couple of movements that you are having trouble with. By doing so you will be able to focus on specific phases of the technique.


Grantham maintains that MQT and expanding our movement vocabulary can reinforce correct posture, facilitate the effective transfer of force, improve proprioception, and improve our control of complex exercises (The Strength & Conditioning Bible – pp55-56).


Other fitness and performance benefits of MQT include:


Improves motor patterns
Enhanced body control
Synchronisation to finely coordinate movement and motor function
Augmented kinaesthetic awareness
Improved technical application
Skill rehearsal

Strength program tip #4: Goal setting

Strength program tip #4: Goal setting.

The power of goal setting is well understood. Goals give us something to work towards, something to strive for. They can point us in the direction of a desired destination and fuel the motivation to make the journey. Pursuing a goal can provide that much needed impetus to overcome obstacles that stand between us and our fitness ambitions.


Regarding goal setting, Anita Bean says that it can reinforce positive behaviour and help you to succeed (The Guide To Strength Training). Norris maintains that establishing a goal is essential as it determines the design of your plan.


It’s for these reasons that goals should be factored into your strength program. In addition to promoting proactive behaviour, the goals that you select will also provide feedback on the effectiveness of your training. Reaching (or falling short of) a goal is highly informative.


Goal outcomes guide the way forward

For example, achieving a goal – such as surpassing a one-rep max PB – suggests that you are making progress. From this outcome, you know that your program is working. The objective now is to continue with the program to the next goal.


Falling short of a goal tells us that there might be something wrong with the program design or the way that we are approaching it. Perhaps we are not pushing ourselves enough and too much of our training time is being spent posing in front of the mirror. Though disheartening, this information is invaluable for a multitude of reasons. The main reason is that it requires that we question the efficacy of our program and look to make adaptations.


Setting goals using SMART

However, for goals to be effective they must meet certain criteria. A goal that is too challenging or unrealistic, Ansell reminds us, may knock our self-confidence. Conversely, one that is too simplistic can wither motivation and cause boredom.


The best way to ‘stress test’ a goal, to ensure that it’s not too hard but not too easy, is to run it through the SMART principle. All goals should be:


S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable (or agreed)
R – Realistic
T – Time bound (or targeted)

In some variations of the SMART acronym, you might find the additional letters ‘E’ and ‘R’ bolted on the end. They stand for empowering and revisable respectively. It’s entirely up to you if you feel you need to make your goal smarter.


The outline that follows will cover the core constituents of the principle. Each component is accompanied by a strength-related example. This serves to illustrate how to tailor a goal so that they are optimally shaped. From this, you will see how to mould and modify your goal so that it is SMART.


Strength training SMART goal setting

S = Specific

The first component of SMART can be applied to several different goal formation factors. For example, the fitness goal that you select should be specifically defined and not generalised. A goal to increase your one-repetition max (1RM) by 10% in 6 weeks is specific. In contrast, a goal to ‘improve fitness’ or ‘get in shape’ is generalised.


The concept of specificity can also prompt us to consider the exercises and training methods we select. Staying with the example above, if your goal was to enhance maximal strength, you would populate your program with compound exercises and apply ‘basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).


M = Measurable

How do we know if our fitness levels are improving if we cannot measure progress? Of course, we can’t – which is why all goals must be measurable. But how do you make a goal conform to this component of the SMART principle?


To know where you’re going, and if progress is being made, you must first know where you are.


The goal above (to increase your 1RM by 10%) is specific but it’s not measurable. Why? Because you have yet to ascertain your current 1RM. When you know that you can deadlift 100 kilograms now and that, in 6 weeks, you aim to increase that by 10 kilograms, progress can be measured.


A = Achievable

Sometimes enthusiasm can get the better of us and result in an unobtainable goal. Setting a challenging goal is good for us because it can encourage us to push beyond our present limitations. In addition, achieving a tough goal strengthens our confidence and self-efficacy.


However, if a goal is too difficult, it could work the other way. That is, weakens confidence and self-efficacy. Also, overly challenging goals could increase injury risk by compelling us to push far beyond our current capacity.


On the other hand, a goal that is too easy can lead to boredom and a failure to realise our true potential. Striking the right balance between the two extremes is not easy. It’s for this reason that it can be helpful to factor into your goals a degree of flexibility. What might this look like?


Let’s say that you set your sights on a very ambitious goal of increasing your 1RM deadlift by 50% in 6-weeks. From your current start point of 100 kg, you would have to set weekly milestones of 8 kg to get close to your projected target of 150 kg. What happens when you struggle to increase by 2 kg after the first week?


Instead of pursuing an unobtainable goal, you could reduce it by 75% – which is the difference between your weekly milestone (8.3kg) and what you actually achieved. This would bring your overall goal down to an achievable level while still presenting a challenge.


R = Realistic

This component of SMART is often confused with its predecessor. Isn’t a realistic goal also achievable? In a sense, yes. However, the subtle difference has to do with whether your lifestyle, motivation levels, and general attitude to exercises can accommodate a fitness goal.


In The Complete Guide to Sports Training, Shepherd reminds us that ‘goals must fit’ our ‘lifestyle and those whose lives are affected’ by our training commitments. For example, a parent or caregiver may not be able to accommodate the extra exercise demands that a fitness goal typically requires.


So, when we resolve on a goal, we must ask ourselves, ‘Can I commit to this, or is there too much going on for me at this time?’


T = Time bound

Unlike other goals, such as writing an essay, physical development is limited by the rate at which biological adaptations take place. You could, for example, shirk all other duties and dedicate every minute of the day to writing that essay. Yes, you’d be boggle-eyed, and your composition would require a ruddy good Grammarlying. But progress would proceed far faster than before.


The same method wouldn’t work for a fitness goal. Trying to cram, say, 6-weeks of strength training into two will likely result in fatigue, injury and reversal.


In contrast, a goal unbounded by a time constraint is unlikely to be achieved. Giving yourself a year to increase that deadlifting PB by 10% may lead to apathy and training boredom. Thus, the time horizon that we work within should be tailored to suit the scope of the goal and our training commitments.


Another reason why we should time-bound our goal is that it enables us to set milestones. This was alluded to above in the discussion on the Achievability of goals. Milestones are sub-goals that are intermittently spaced along a program. Reaching a milestone suggests that we are on target for achieving the main goal.


Strength program tip #5: Consistency is the secret of strength

Strength program tip #5: Consistency is the secret of strength.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The same can be said for building stronger muscles. ‘Remember,’ strength and conditioning coach Anita Bean remonstrates, ‘achieving your goals will not happen overnight. It comes after weeks and months of committed effort,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training). Thus, the secret ingredient of any strength training program is consistency.


Typically, strength (and muscle mass) gains can take several weeks of dedicated training before progress is noticed. This can be discouraging and, for those that are impatient, even result in the cessation of the program. There are a couple of simple ways of avoiding these unfortunate outcomes.


First, remind yourself that the body is slow to respond. And slower still for those that have little to no prior training under their belt. But, with committed effort, perseverance, and the right training program in place, progress will happen.


Second, make notes of your start points. For example, document in a training diary your sets, reps and loads for each exercise. Additionally, take circumferential measurements of targeted areas – biceps, chest, quads, and calves. After every two to four weeks repeat the process. Then compare the results and highlight the progress.


Strength performance monitoring methods from the pros

In his epic The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger maintains that logging his performance measures was instrumental in his success. ‘Continuing to keep a training diary over long periods,’ he says, ‘helped my development tremendously.’


Unbeknownst to Schwarzenegger at the time, this method taps into the part of our psychology that seeks rewards. ‘Human beings work best and learn best when they are given the right kind of feedback.’ Tracking performance in a diary provides that feedback which can fuel training motivation.


After all, few things are more rewarding than the sense of accomplishment we derive from the evidence of personal improvement.


Anita Bean suggests a simpler and more direct way of monitoring progress. She recommends taking photographs ‘before you start a new programme and then at intervals throughout your training.’ As well as providing instant feedback on how our musculature is responding to a strength program, a photograph is ‘more objective than looking in the mirror.’


Strength program tip #6: Rest & recover

Strength program tip #6: Rest & recover.

To echo Watson, ‘Weight-lifting produces considerable stress on the musculo-skeletal system,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance). It’s for this reason that post-exercise rest, recovery, and nutrition are crucial aspects of any strength training program.


A pervasive misunderstanding is that more training, more sets, more reps, and more weight will lead to greater strength gains. Grantham identifies this ‘results by volume’ mentality as ‘a common mistake, based on the belief that if you simply do more work you’ll become better,’ (The Strength & Conditioning Bible).


But the reality is the opposite can happen if we train our bodies too frequently. Studies have reported that ‘prolonged duration training’ can result in an ‘incomplete restoration of muscle glycogen,’ (Watson – p119). Muscles that lack sufficient glycogen stores will fatigue quicker which will impair performance.


Worse still, the ‘results by volume’ approach can also lead to ‘reversibility.’ The dread of all dedicated exercise enthusiasts and athletes, reversibility refers to the reversal of fitness gains and muscle tissue. ‘Training before you have fully recovered can lead to a net protein (muscle) breakdown,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training). Over time, the breakdown of protein can result in a decline in performance and strength development.


Rest, recovery & nutrition

When we exercise, whether it’s running, circuit training, or weightlifting, muscles are damaged. Physical activity essentially causes microscopic tears in the muscle fibres. (This in part explains why we sometimes suffer soreness after a strenuous session – aka the DOMS).


Failure to consider this natural process when developing a strength program can lead to depleted muscles and, ultimately, the reversal of gains. To avoid these undesirable outcomes, follow the rest, recovery, and nutrition recommendations below.


Strength program recovery recommendations

  1. Alternate intensive workouts with reduced-intensity recovery workouts. Watson, the author of Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance, recommends this method as means of avoiding the depletion of muscle glycogen levels. During those easier workouts you could engage in Movement Quality Training (MQT) – practicing techniques with lighter loads. Other recovery workout alternatives might involve a low-intensity circuit followed by a gentle paddle in the pool or a 20-minute sauna. You could always scrap the circuit and instead go for the swim and the sauna.

  2. Avoid training the same muscle or muscle group on consecutive days. Muscles must be given adequate time to recover between workouts. Overtraining a muscle can impair performance and increase injury risk. As a basic rule of thumb, if you trained legs on Monday, say, you should give them at least 48 hours before their next workout.

  3. Muscle group scheduling is an important factor when designing a strength program. An example of poor scheduling would be to frontload your week with back and biceps. Because back exercises engage the biceps, this will deplete the biceps for the following workout. Even in the same session ‘performing two consecutive exercises that both stimulate the same muscle group reduces the effort you can put into the second one,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training). A simple way to avoid this is to interlace pulling muscle groups (back, biceps) with pushing muscle groups (chest, deltoids, triceps). (The same outcome would be achieved by alternating agonists with antagonists.) Alternatively, upper-body training days could be followed by lower-body, MQT, or fitness conditioning training days.

  4. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. If you want to develop quality muscles, then you need to provide them with quality nutrition. Remember, the foods that you eat will provide the raw materials for your body to repair damaged tissue and rebuild new fibres. Somewhat analogous to a house built from shoddy timbres and brittle bricks, a body constructed from poor nutrition is liable to be weak and prone to damage and decay. A diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (basically what T. Collin Campbell calls Whole Food Plant-Based eating) will enable you to enhance your strength while also reducing the risk of illnesses and diseases.


The 6 tips to an effective strength program summarised

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. The useful tips above embody the strength training wisdom of many leading professionals past and present. In addition, decades of research into the principles of strength training have been distilled into a few thousand words.


Thus, there’s a considerable amount of information to digest and implement. One word of advice. Don’t try to factor all that information into your strength training program. This task alone would be more daunting than undertaking the program itself.


Accept that you will make mistakes and get things wrong. But that’s part of learning and it usually results in a more knowledgeable practitioner. I’d rather take strength training advice from a person that’s been there and got the t-shirt than a book-smart nerd that’s never picked up a barbell in their life.


However, to make the tips accessible, for those that may need to dip in and out of this article, the key points have been summarised below.


Strength training program essentials

  1. Never neglect the warm-up, cool-down and stretch (try this 10-minute daily stretching routine).

  2. Strength exercises should be performed slowly and under control.

  3. In your strength workouts train the largest muscle groups before the smaller ones. Typically, this means frontloading your exercise plan with compound exercises – deadlifts, squats, and bench presses. This approach is adopted ‘because compound exercises require the most effort and concentration and are very difficult to perform correctly and safely if your muscles are fatigued,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).

  4. Always leave plenty of time for your workouts so that you do not have to rush through your plan. Your mind should be focused entirely on the exercise.

  5. Some strength experts advise beginners to count slowly when performing an exercise.

  6. Another method of modulating the tempo of your lifts is to synchronise your breathing with concentric and eccentric contractions.

  7. To avoid becoming discouraged, document your performance metrics – weights lifted, sets/reps performed, and circumferential measurements.

  8. When trying to build strength and size, ‘you need to train according to basic power principles – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).

  9. Set SMART goals and be determined to achieve them.

  10. Rest, recover, replenish, repeat!


Related: Get start with these Strength Workouts

 

Need strength and conditioning training ideas?

Never be without a workout again with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2!

This strength program complete guide concludes with the hungry4fitness book of circuits and workouts volume 2.

 


 

References

Ansell, M (2008) Personal Training. Learning Matters. UK.

Bean. A (2008) Strength Training: The Complete Guide To. A&C Black. London.

Grantham, N (2015) The Strength & Conditioning Bible. Bloomsbury. USA.

Harvard Health: 7 Tips for a Safe and Successful Strength Training Program: https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/7-tips-for-a-safe-and-successful-strength-training-program

Schwarzenegger. A (1998) The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon& Schuster. New York.

Shepherd, J (2006) The Complete Guide To Sports Training. A&C Black. London.

Watson A. W. S (1995) Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance. Longman. England.

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