Strength Training Programming [Strength Skills Series]

Have you read our 7-part Strength Skills Series?

This article includes many of the skills we covered during the series, you can check out all the articles here: 

Intro to the Strength Skills Series

1: Body Scan

2: Breathing

3: Squat

4: Hip Hinge

5: Push

6: Pull

7: Rotation

Strength Training Programming

Now that you've learned all the strength training skills, it’s time to put it all together!

This is the part that gets to be a bit confusing if you’ve never encountered an exercise program before. Keep in mind that the best success I’ve seen with myself and my clients is when you start very simple, and very slow, then ramp up and add complexity and intensity over time.

There are three main variations in programming:

  1. The complexity of the exercises used: Basic squats versus Bulgarian splits squats. The more complex the exercise, the more specialized equipment, experience, and skills are needed.
  2. The duration (time) or volume of work: Number of repetitions of an exercise, multiplied by the number of sets or rounds, plus the overall number of exercises in a given workout.
  3. The intensity: Usually dictated by the duration of rest (or lack thereof) between exercises or sets.

If you are a beginner, or it’s been a while since you last worked out, it’s important to start with:

  • Simple exercises that you’re able to pick up the technique quickly.
  • Low volume workouts: 10 to 30 total reps of each exercise, 1 to 5 different exercises
  • Low intensity: 30 seconds to 2 minutes of rest in between each exercises and each set. If you need more than 2 minutes rest, it's a little bit too intense for you right now: Simplify the exercise and decrease the volume of reps.

As you advance, use the 10% rule: Change only one of the three variables (complexity, volume, or intensity) 10% week over week.

If you’re already fairly active, and you’re just incorporating strength training for the first time, you may be able to increase more than 10% week over week in the beginning. However, you will eventually hit a plateau where the 10% rule will apply.

To keep yourself moving forward, I’ve found these tips really helpful:

  • If you get easily bored, increase complexity first. Try different variations of the same exercise, or incorporate different kinds of resistance tools. This will make it fun and interesting for you.
  • If you are motivated by getting stronger, increase your resistance without changing the types of exercises you’re doing. 5 sets of 5 reps is a simple and effective way to increase strength. Also, keep a written journal or spreadsheet of your numbers - this can help you see how far you’ve come over time.
  • If you are motivated by improving your stamina, increase volume by adding more repetitions, more sets/rounds, or setting a timer and trying to fit in more reps during that finite amount of time over the course of a few weeks. You may also find that tracking the numbers is helpful.

The examples I gave above apply to strength training, but the same is true for other activities like dance, running, biking, rock climbing, yoga and more. If you’re not currently active, it’s not a great idea to jump into an advanced, 90 minute yoga class and attempt to do every single pose as taught. Instead, attending a shorter, beginner class and performing the basic versions of each pose are a safer, and more comfortable place to start.

Remember, it’s not just about whether you can do a workout: I could do back-to-back Soul Cycle classes - I have the strength and stamina to do that. But, because I never ride bikes, I’d be incredibly sore for a few days and possibly strain a muscle. What does that prove?

If I chose to get into spin (it’s super fun!) I’d go to a beginner class, or enter the class with the mindset of taking in slow. This can be very challenging, especially if I have an instructor yelling at me to speed up, try harder, or go faster. Instead, I’ll have to tune into my body (here’s where the body scan practice comes in handy!) and figure out what level of intensity and duration is actually most beneficial for me.

Sample Beginner Strength Program

3 sets of the following circuit, resting for 30 seconds to 2 minutes in between exercises):

10 Squats [choose a variation from the squat skills article]

10 Pulls  [choose a variation from the pull skills article]

10 Hip Hinges [choose a variation from the hip hinge skills article]

10 Pushes [choose a variation from the push skills article]

Week 1: Do the workout 1 time

Week 2: Do the workout 2 times

Week 3: Do the workout 3 times

Week 4: Do the workout 3 times; add 1 to 2 reps for each exercise

Week 5: Do the workout 3 times; add resistance to each exercise

Week 6: Do the workout 3 times; change the exercise variation (for example, instead of pushups, try overhead dumbbell presses; instead of squats, try step ups, etc)