Strength Training Program Design 101: Exercise Selection and Order

strength training program designThere is no such thing as a single “best” exercise.

There is no such thing as a single “best” training program.

And there is no such thing as a single “best” set & repetition scheme.

So what is there?

A set of overarching principles that make up the sum and substance of every successful training program ever created.

Recently I received an e-mail from an exercise physiology grad student, Laura, asking for me to explain my personal system for creating a safe and effective program.

She told me:

“My biggest flaw when it comes to understanding training or program design is the actual exercises to implement into a training regimen. I know that obviously it varies because programs are individual but do you have any suggested guidelines on exercises and placement of those exercises? 

Every book I read says 8-10 exercises but never says which. Again, I know everything with programming is individual but this is the area that I struggle with the most.”

Laura’s right. 

To my knowledge there isn’t a single resource that explicitly outlines what exercises to use and how to structure them to create a safe and effective strength training program.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

In this article I’m going to outline the overarching principles you need to know, show you exactly which exercises to choose, and how to use these exercises as part of an evidence based approach to strength training program design.

First things first. Let’s talk individual assessment.

Individual Assessmentstrength training program design

“Assessment” means different things to different coaches. Some coaches think of it as the FMS or another movement-based evaluation. Some think of it as the Par Q. Others think of it as basically evaluating their clients during a training session. And others don’t even think of it at all.

Aside from not evaluating at all, every method of assessment has value and works in some way, shape or form. So regardless of which method you choose, make sure you are assessing your clients in some fashion.

Important to note, part of being a good coach requires you to always be assessing your clients. Every repetition of every set of every training session is another opportunity for you to assess and correct.

All that being said, below I’ve provided 5 of the most important individual assessments. 

1. Goals

goalOne of the first questions you need to ask your client is, “what are your main goals you’d like to achieve through working with me?”

While they might come right out and say “look good naked,” or “get stronger in my squat,”…they probably won’t have any clue how to articulate what it is they truly want.

In such cases, it’s important for you to strategically lead them through the conversation until they find the “right” words and figure out exactly what it is they want to achieve.

Remember: without an established goal there’s no motivation to train. 

2. Injury History

strength training program designYou absolutely need to gain a comprehensive understanding of your clients injury and medical history before you even think about designing their training program.

If I need to explain why, odds are you shouldn’t be reading this article in the first place.

3. Training History

Programming can and does change based on where a lifter falls on the training continuum.

For example, rank beginners will get stronger with as little as 40% of their 1-repetition maximum (1RM) whereas more advanced lifters tend to need closer to 80-85% 1RM to elicit the same type of response.

This obviously falls under the always be assessing category but be prepared to change your clients program as they progress along the continuum and require a greater stimulus.

On the same token, if your client gets injured or takes an extended break from training, be sure to regress them when they first get back in the gym and don’t expect them to start where they left off.

4. Weaknesses

strength training program designThis could be anything including:

  • Specified muscular weaknesses such as weak low/mid traps relative to the upper traps.
  • Mobility restrictions such as insufficient thoracic extension or ankle dorsiflexion.
  • Motor control problems such as difficulty patterning certain movements like the squat or hip hinge.

And, believe it or not, this can also include things like:

  • Poor nutritional habits or excessively high body fat percentage.
  • Low self efficacy (confidence in their own ability to succeed). 
  • Insufficient and erratic sleep patterns which lead to a variety of negative health outcomes.

And a whole lot more.

Case in point?

Assess ALL aspects of your client and establish 1 or 2 of the ones you both agree must be changed first in order to positively affect their lifestyle.

5. Preferences

strength training program designYup.

Your client preferences count and they’re actually an incredibly important component of a well designed strength training program. 

Obviously they can’t (and shouldn’t) design the whole program but asking them what their favorite exercises are and including them within the program is a great way to make them a part of the process and get them more invested in their program.

Remember: more investment = more consistency = more progress.

Understanding the 9 Fundamental Movement Patterns

Now that we’ve discussed individual assessments it’s time to talk about movements. 

But not just random movements. I’m talking about movement categories.

See, when you design a strength training program it’s essential to have systems in place that allow you to understand the movements you’re prescribing. 

And not just how to perform the exercise but also…

  • What what muscles does the exercise train?
  • How does this exercise affect subsequent movements in the training program?
  • Why this exercise and not that one?

See what I’m getting at?

There’s more to exercise prescription than simply understanding the technique.

There’s a whole lot of who, why, what, how, and when that comes into play when designing a strength training program and that all starts with understanding the 9 types of movement listed below:

Upper Body Push

upper body pushThis section can be further subdivided into horizontal and vertical pressing movements for the upper body. 

Horizontal Upper Body Push includes all variations of bench press, push-ups, and similar exercises in the same plane of motion.

Vertical Upper Body Push includes all variations of overhead press, push press and similar exercises in the same plane of motion.

Upper Body Pull

chin-upThis section can be further subdivided into horizontal and vertical pulling movements for the upper body. 

Horizontal Upper Body Pull includes all variations of dumbbell rows, inverted rows, TRX rows and similar exercises in the same plane of motion.

Vertical Upper Body Pull includes all variations of chin-ups, lat pull downs and similar exercises in the same plane of motion.

Lower Body Push

strength training program designThese movements typically refer to lower body exercises that cause you to recruit more quads than hamstrings and subsequently result in a “pushing” force rather than “pulling.”  Examples include all variations of the squat, lunge, hip thrust, and step-up.

Lower Body Pull

strength training program designThese movements typically refer to lower body exercises that cause you to recruit more hamstrings than quads and subsequently result in a “pulling” force rather than “pushing.”  Examples include all variations of the deadlift, goodmorning, glute-ham raise, kettlebell swing, and cable pull through.

Knee Dominant

barbell lungeThese movements refer to lower body exercises that cause you to move from deep knee and hip flexion to extension. They typically result in more quad than hamstring recruitment and generally consist of exercises such as front squats, pistol squats, lunge variations and step-up variations.

Hip Dominant

strength training program designThese movements refer to lower body exercises that cause you to move from deep hip flexion to extension with little-to-no knee flexion. They typically result in more hamstring than quad recruitment and generally consist of exercises such as variations of the deadlift, single-leg deadlift, goodmorning, and kettlebell swing.

Rotational

strength training program designThese movements refer to exercises (upper, lower, and full body) that cause you to rotate through your torso in a manner that either establishes clear control of the movement (for strength) or exhibits speed and power (for explosive strength). Examples include a variety of drills including rotational med ball tosses, cable rotational chops, and turkish twists. 

Anti-Extension

strength training program designAnti-extension drills aren’t always “movements” as your body isn’t necessarily moving through space. Regardless, they’re an integral component of any well designed training program, the point of which is to train your core to resist lumbar hyperextension through a variety of isometric stablization exercises including planks, long lever planks, and body saws.

Anti-Rotation

strength training program designSimilar to above, anti-rotation drills are isometric stabilization exercises designed to train your core to resist rotational forces. Some of the best drills for improving overall strength, health, and performance, examples of these exercises include the pallof press and all variations of chops & lifts  (tall kneeling and half kneeling). 

Understanding the 4 Styles of Strength Training Programming Design

Here’s where the water starts to get a little murky.

Every coach has their own unique style of programming which, of course, they believe is best.

But despite their own unique variations, pretty much every style of programming can be broken down into one of the four categories below.

Upper/Lower

strength training program designAs simple as it sounds, this style of programming separates the weekly training cycle into days specifically devoted to the upper and lower body. Generally speaking, 2 days for upper body and 2 days for lower body (totaling 4 training days per week) is the best way to utilize upper/lower splits.

Abdominal/core strengthening exercises can be performed on any/all of the days so long as they’re programmed correctly.

My Opinion (for what it’s worth): this is my preferred style of programming for  people who can train 4x/week.

Body Part Splitstrength training program design

Usually reserved for higher level bodybuilders and figure competitors, body part splits separate the weekly training cycle into days specifically devoted to individual body parts.

Generally speaking, each body part will be trained 2x/week for a total of anywhere between 4-6 training days per week.

My Opinion (for what it’s worth): most lifters have no business sticking solely to body part splits until they’ve reached an advanced stage in their training. 

Full Body

strength training program designRelatively long training sessions designed to hit the body as a whole rather than in separate parts, full body training is ideal for individuals who can only train 2-3x/week. 

Granted, each training session will likely be a bit longer than if you were doing some type of “split,” but full body training allows you to spend less total time in the gym on a weekly basis while still getting an effective workout.

My Opinion (for what it’s worth): this style of training is perfect for busy professionals and non-athletes who just don’t have the time to be in the gym more than 2-3x/week. If you really love training, though, and want to build up some serious strength or muscle, this method is not ideal.

Push/Pullstrength training program design

Rather than focus on individual body parts or upper/lower splits, this style of programming separates training sessions based on push and pull movement patterns.

“Push” workouts tend to emphasize the quads, glutes, pecs, triceps, and anterior deltoids as they focus on movements like squats, bench press, lunges, and shoulder presses.

“Pull” workouts, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the hamstrings, glutes, back, rear delts, and biceps as they focus on movements like deadlifts, rows, leg curl varitations (glute-ham raises), and chin-ups. 

My Opinion (for what it’s worth): in theory they sound great but in practice I honestly hate them. If your goal is powerlifting/max strength focused you’ll find splitting days up by push/pull will be too taxing (especially on the lower body) and you won’t get sufficient recovery between training days. For bodybuilding, on the other hand, it’s a much more viable strategy.

Toning Workouts

strength training programJust kidding.

Please don’t do this.


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Training Days per Week

Now that you have a solid understand of the 4 styles of programming, it’s time to start learning how to choose which style works best given your clients training schedule.

2-3 Training Days per Week

With such a limited time frame, full body workouts tend to be your best bet when your clients are only able to train 2-3 days per week. The standard template for this looks like:

That being said, sometimes training full body 3x/week can be a bit too stressful so I prefer this instead:

In this method, by the time you get to Day 3 your lower body is fully recovered and, depending on how hard you go on Day 2, your upper body should be ready as well.

Your Takeaway: different strokes for different folks. Some will respond better to the first method and others will respond better to the second. Don’t get attached to either one; just be aware they both exist and work very well.

4 Training Days per Week

My preferred training schedule, 4-days/week gives you countless programming options to choose from.

To list a few:

A standard upper/lower split, this is my personal favorite powerlifting and strength focused schedule.

A product of my own creation, I’m actually following this training split right now and loving it. A great split between maximum strength and hypertrophy focused goals, this is one of my favorite programs that I’ve ever used for more advanced lifters.

Definitely not my first choice, a push/pull training style like the one below tends to be better for bodybuilding or general health/fitness enthusiasts than it is for powerlifting and max strength focused lifters. 

Your Takeaway: training 4x/week is my personal favorite option and tends to be the most realistic for fitness enthusiasts, athletes, and coaches. You have tons of options within the 4x/week parameter and I encourage you try ’em all to see which works best for you and your clients.

5-6 Training Days per Week

As noted before, 5-6 training days per week tends to be better suited for body part split training which is best utilized by advanced body builders and figure competitors. 

Here’s a standard 6-day split routine:

A standard 5-day split looks like this:

Your Takeaway: You already know I’m not a huge fan of body part splits unless you’re a high level body builder or figure competitor. The reality is most [drug free] lifters just won’t see the results they want in the time frame they want with this type of routine. That being said, feel free to give ’em a shot and see how your body responds. 

Number of Exercises per Training Day

Now we’re digging deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole in which every coach has their own opinion of what’s the “best” number of exercises to use on any given day.

Seeing as I think body part splits are a waste of time for 95% of everyone, we’re going to exclude that as a programming option from this point forward.

Additionally, since I’m assuming you train more than 2x/week and have limited reason to learn that style of programming, that will also be excluded as a programming option.

Moving forward, the rest of this article will assume you’re training 3-4x/week using either a full body or upper/lower split. 

Before we discuss how many exercises are appropriate to use per day, though, we need to differentiate between the 3 different types of exercises.

1. Strength Focused Exercises

deadliftStrength focused exercises are full body, compound movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press, chin-ups, etc) that challenge you within a relatively low repetition range.

But the movements themselves aren’t inherently stressful or “strength focused.”

Rather, the total amount of weight you can use and load through these movements is relatively high which allows them to become “strength focused.”

Squats, for example, are a strength focused exercise but can also be hypertrophy focused if the external load isn’t high enough. On the same token, squats may also be considered “corrective” depending on the context within which they are utilized.

Generally speaking, a strength focused exercise will be highly challenging within the range of 1-6 repetitions per set. Anymore than 6-repetitions and you’re breaking into the hypertrophy focused range. 

2. Hypertrophy Focused Exercises

arnoldHypertrophy focused exercises can either be fully body, compound movements OR isolation exercises targeting 1 muscle group at a time.

The major difference between hypertrophy and strength focused exercises is the load you’re using and the point at which the exercise becomes challenging.

Generally speaking, hypertrophy focused exercises will become challenging somewhere between 7-15 repetitions per set. Granted, you can achieve hypertrophic benefits in repetition ranges both lower and higher than 7 and 15 repetitions respectively, but those tend to be the “sweet” spot where muscle growth is optimized.

3. Corrective Focused Exercises

correctiveCorrective focused exercises are an entirely separate entity from both strength and hypertrophy focused drills. 

Generally speaking, corrective exercises are designed to help you and your clients address specific weaknesses (mobility, stability, etc) that could be affecting your movement and performance. 

For example, if your hamstrings are truly tight and you need to work on hamstring mobility, using the supine single-leg hamstring stretch (pictured above) is a great corrective exercise to include within your training programs. 

Seated scapular wall slides are another phenomenal corrective exercise you can use to improve thoracic mobility and scapular stability. 

From a programming perspective, corrective exercises function as great “supersets” or “active recovery sets” to do in between sets of strength and/or hypertrophy focused exercises. 

So How Many Exercises per Training Day?

Below are my general guidelines for how many exercises to use per training day.

Key points to consider

  • 2-4 strength focused exercises (i.e. HEAVY movements) is more than sufficient. Any more than that and you’ll burn yourself out.
  • 2-4 hypertrophy focused exercises (on top of 2-4 strength focused drills) is VERY effective and you probably don’t need any extra. 
  • For what it’s worth, 2 strength focused exercises followed by 3-4 hypertrophy focused exercises is my personal favorite combination. 
  • Corrective exercises take up VERY little time and can/should be used within your warm-up as well as during active recovery sets. Even if you use the absolute maximum number of corrective exercises per session, they should add no more than 10-15 minutes to your training session.
  • Very rarely do I ever recommend either extreme on the total number of exercises per day. If I had to give an average or “optimal” number of exercises it would be 5-8 exercises per training session.

How Do You Know Which Exercise to Program?

strength training program designShould you program a push or a pull?

Horizontal or vertical?

What about knee dominant or hip dominant?

How do you know what exercises to choose, when to choose them, and why?

Practice.

I know it sucks to hear but the only way you’re going to get better at programming and understanding the “what, when, why” of strength training program design is by actually writing programs for real people and tracking their progress.

Of course, there are some general programming principles (discussed below) that are important to understand and be aware of but, by and large, you just need to dive in head first and start writing programs.

Strive for “Balance”…But Don’t Obsess Over It

strength training program designFor every time you push, you should also pull.

For every time you do a knee dominant exercise, you should do a hip dominant one as well.

For every vertical action, you should also do a horizontal.

See what I’m getting at?

The concept and principle of balance within your training programs is an important one to keep in mind.

However…

You do NOT need a 100% perfectly “balanced” program.

No such program exists.

And trying to meticulously balance every set of every repetition of every exercise is waste of your time, energy, and productivity. 

That being said, keeping the general concept of balance in mind will help you build a better, safer training regimen.

Lifestyle and Individual Needs Influence “Balance”

strength training program designDoes your client sit hunched over at a desk all day and severely lack mobility?

Are they a yoga junkie, incredibly hypermobile, and lack even the slightest sign of stability?

Are they a powerlifter and only care about getting stronger in the squat, bench press, and deadlift?

See my point?

Each of these people are remarkably different from one another and subsequently require drastically different training programs.

Taking that a step further, what may constitute a “balanced” training program for the desk jockey would likely be a highly “unbalanced” program for the gymnast and powerlifter.

Your Takeaway: When designing strength training programs, it’s essential for you to consider your clients lifestyle and individual needs as all of the associated factors markedly impact the constituents of “balance” within their training regimen.


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Practically Applying Daily Exercise Sequence

Finally, it’s time to put all of this information to good use and understand which exercises are appropriate and at what times throughout the training session.

Considering the vast range of possibilities we discussed above, I’m going to write the rest of this article on the premise that your training programs will include 6 exercises per session.

Of course, as you’ll see, with the help of my guidelines below it’s very easy to extrapolate and understand how to design programs including more or less exercises per training session.

The 1st Exercise of the Day

heavy deadliftGeneral Description: Strength focused, full body compound movement

Sets and Reps: 3-5 sets of 1-6 reps

Rest Periods: 2-5 minutes 

Examples include all variations of the squat, deadlift, split squats, bench press, overhead press, rows, and chin-ups. 

Major Programming Exception: Sometimes the first exercise of the day will use relatively light weight to focus on speed, power, and rate of force development. Examples of this include box jumps, speed squats, speed deadlifts, and plyo push-ups. Keep in mind, these methods tend to be reserved for high level lifters and not general fitness enthusiasts. 

The 2nd Exercise of the Day

heavy benchGeneral Description: Strength focused, full body compound movement

Sets and Reps: 2-4 sets of 3-6 reps

Rest Periods: 2-5 minutes 

Examples include all variations of the squat, deadlift, split squats, bench press, overhead press, rows, and chin-ups. 

The 3rd Exercise of the Day

heavy squatGeneral Description: Strength focused OR  hypertrophy focused

Sets and Reps: 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps

Rest Periods: 1-3 minutes

Examples include all variations of the squat, deadlift, split squats, bench press, overhead press, rows, and chin-ups. 

The 4th Exercise of the Day

incline pressGeneral Description: Strength focused OR  hypertrophy focused

Sets and Reps: 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps

Rest Periods: 1-3 minutes

Examples include all variations of the squat, deadlift, split squats, bench press, overhead press, rows, and chin-ups. 

The 5th Exercise of the Day

lateral shoulder raiseGeneral Description: Hypertrophy focused

Sets and Reps: 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps

Rest Periods: 30-90sec

Examples include all variations of the romanian deadlift, split squat, lunge, glute-ham raise, bench press, push-up, shoulder presses, rows, chin-ups, bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder raises, face pulls, etc.

The 6th Exercise of the Day

bicep curlGeneral Description: Hypertrophy focused

Sets and Reps: 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps

Rest Periods: 30-90sec

Examples include all variations of the romanian deadlift, split squat, lunge, glute-ham raise, bench press, push-up, shoulder presses, rows, chin-ups, bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder raises, face pulls, etc.

Sample Upper Body and Lower Body 

Training Programs

To tie everything together with a couple practical examples, below I’ve provided 1 sample strength training program for the upper body and lower body respectively.

Click Image for Clear View

Click Image for Clear View

The Final Word

gavelIf you take anything away from this article let it be the overarching principles. 

As you continue to learn and grow as a performance coach you’ll realize that principles are the guiding light to success. 

  • There isn’t a single “best” exercise.
  • There isn’t a single “best” set & rep scheme.
  • There isn’t a single “best” training program.

So what is there?

A set of tried and tested principles that make up the sum and substance of every successful training program ever created.

If you want to be a great coach – a coach who can effectively help anyone and everyone that walks through your door – it’s essential for you to understand and apply the principles of program design rather than any single set of ideals. 

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