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Programming for Optimal Results in the Gym

September 18, 2015


Learning and understanding how to program your own workouts to meet and exceed your own personal goals is arguably the most important aspect to determining the magnitude of your training effect in the gym. Whether you are going for an intense macrocycle or a short mesocycle, the same rules will still apply. It makes no difference if you are trying to be a world class athlete, bodybuilder, looking to increase your overall strength or just trying to look good naked. Learning how to design your own program is the key that will ultimately decide your results. This will not be a step by step write up on how to pick your exercise sequences or the proper ratio of volume to frequency, this is simply a way to give you the basic information needed to understand all the aspects and give you an idea on how to build your own template for your individual goals.

Let’s start at the top and go over the three major guidelines that you must adhere to and understand how all three work together sequentially when trying to set up a workout program. The general adaptation rules are easy to remember and the base for any successful program which consists of three major points that need to work hand in hand to reach maximal results.


  • Stress
  • Recovery
  • Adaptation

The ultimate goal for any program is to create maximal adaptation to the stress or stressors created in the gym. Creating an adaptation is a measurable way to determine results. Looking at the general adaptation syndrome steps above; the stress would represent your workout, the recovery would represent the time it takes your body to recover from the workout and the adaptation is your body’s response to building more strength or hypertrophy. We can all easily identify with how the sun works to give our bodies a tan, so let’s use this example to further explain this general adaptation.

Sun = Stressor

Burn = Stress

Skin Repair = Recovery

Tan = Adaptation

Sitting in direct sunlight will cause the body’s skin to burn. You’re body then has to begin its recovery and repair the damaged and burned layers of skin. The body’s response to the burn is to create an adaptation to the burn in the form of a tan which is the body’s way to help prevent the skin from burning in the future. This is the same response our bodies must go through while we workout. Create the damage to the muscles in the form of microscopic muscle fiber tears which in turn, through proper recovery, will cause our bodies to adapt by rebuilding stronger and denser muscle fibers.

Now that we’ve covered the basic template for creating a successful plan of attack, we need to cover the next major hurdle many forget about, which is specificity. Specificity is simply programming and designing your workouts for your own specific goals. If you are a marathon runner you need to run. If you are a power lifter you need to squat, bench and deadlift at a high level of intensity. If you are an elite level athlete you need to program exercises that mimic your specific sport movement patterns all while building maximal strength and explosiveness. I see it far too often, guys who plan to compete at their first local powerlifting meet and fail to train at an intensity level high enough to their near maximal weights, which fails to elicit enough of an adaptation to be able to lift heavy weights come the time of the meet. This is where our next step comes into play, which is creating an overload to optimize the stress needed on the body to create a change.

Overload is simply defined as providing the body with a high enough external stress to elicit an adaptation response. The entire point of the general adaptation syndrome is to make and teach your body to adapt to an outside stressor so that the same or similar stressor will not have the same impact on the body in the future.

Going to the gym and doing the same weights, sets and reps for a given exercise over and over will not produce a high enough stress on the muscles after the first recovery and adaptation cycle to elicit any muscular or strength gains. The more advanced you become as a lifter, the greater the stress or overload needs to be to continue making progress. You need to continually be pushing the body to higher extremes in order to continue progress. Far too many end up in what they like to call a “plateau.” To me this is just a word that means that you didn’t properly program your workouts. One or more of the three major rules of the general adaptation syndrome is not being met. Either the overload of stress was not sufficient to force an adaptation response, the stress has already been adapted to and is no longer enough of an overload to create that adaptation response or your recovery time is not adequate.

Recovery Management is the most understated step in making an effective workout program. The larger the overload of stress relative to an athlete’s recovery capacity, the longer it will take that athlete to recover. Learning how to time your next dose of stress relative to your recovery periods and at the peak of your adaptation response is the key to making consistent progress. Timing your volume and intensity of stress to work synergistically with your recovery is how you will produce maximal results. If the frequency of your workout is introduced too soon after your last overload workout, the body will not have had sufficient time to reach its full recovery which in turn will not allow the body to adapt to the stressor properly. Recovery is an important part of the chain that allows an adaptation. If that chain is broken, then the body has no way to reach its maximal potential. Many forget that real progress is made out of the gym during the recovery, not actually IN the gym.

Now that we’ve covered the major points, let’s dig a little deeper and find out the keys to making each step of the adaptation process possible. The Intensity of one’s workout is defined as the amount of energy that must be expended to complete a specific exercise workload. You need to look at intensity as a relative percentage of maximal effort for a given individual. Don’t be confused between someone whose training style is high intensity for someone who is describing their workouts as “intense.” You know, that guy who screams at the top of every rep…he just had too much caffeine and sugar before his workout, that’s not the intensity we are referring to.

Rep ranges are an easy guideline to follow in terms of how high the relative intensity of the workout is. Lower reps, as long as they are maximal effort, will be defined as higher intensity, while higher reps will generally be done with less weight and thus be considered lower intensity.

1-3 Rep Range (100-88% of 1RM) – Strength

4-12 Rep Range (85-60% of 1RM) – Hypertrophy

15+ Rep Range – Muscular Endurance

One can easily dictate and determine workload and reps based off ones intensity level. Each percentage is represented as a lifters percent of maximal weight, or in other words, the highest possible weight at which the lifter could complete one single rep.

100% – 1 rep

95% – 1-2 reps

90% – 2 reps

85% – 3-5 reps

80% – 5-6 reps

75% – 6-8 reps

70% – 8-10 reps

65% – 10-12 reps

60% – 12-15 reps

These rep ranges and intensity levels are not set in stone. Each lifter will vary slightly in terms of the amount of reps they can hit for a specific percent of their own one rep max, but this is a good starting point to help determine the correct weights and reps to use.

Training in the different rep ranges produces different results. For example lifting in the 1-3 rep range has you training at a high intensity level of 95-88% of your one rep max; this will make the workout mainly neuromuscular and strength based by nature. It requires your body to recruit maximal muscle fibers to complete the given complex movement pattern. While you may still experience some level of hypertrophy in the lower rep ranges, this is not the primary goal or outcome. Limiting factors in the higher intensity levels will be neuromuscular force production, while limiting factors in the higher rep ranges tend to be muscular fatigue. If your main goal is muscular hypertrophy, you will want to focus mainly on the “mid-range intensity” between the 65-80% (5-12 rep range). If your main goal is explosive power and strength you will want to train mainly in the “higher range intensity levels (85-95%). Again, these are not set in stone, but they will help you to determine the rep ranges you want to build your program around depending on your personal goals. This is where training for specificity is important for learning how to design your own programming.

The next major point of emphasis would be volume. Volume is the main focus of determining your sets and reps to use for a given intensity level. The volume of your workout is simply the amount of exposure to stress you place on your muscles during a given workout. Volume is determined by the relative intensity and number of sets/reps for each workout.

Reps x sets x weight = volume

So for an example, if we were using the deadlift as a way to determine volume and our lifter did 5 sets of 5 reps at 500 pounds, his tonnage for that exercise was 12,500 pounds. While this overall tonnage number doesn’t play a huge role in determining your programming, it does help you to identify what volume consists of.

Let’s go back quickly to the example we used earlier with the sun as the stressor and a burn caused from the sun as the stress. Volume would be represented by the amount of time you sat out in the direct sunlight. To optimize the perfect tan (adaptation) you would need the correct amount of time exposed to direct sunlight (volume). Too little time spent in the sun and your body would not have enough exposure to create any change. Too much time spent in direct sunlight and your body would simply burn badly, which wouldn’t allow you to return to the sunlight for a few days while you recovered. Spend the optimal amount of time in direct sunlight and your body would have been exposed to enough sunlight to create a slight burn (stress) and still allow your body to recover fast enough to adapt (tan) and allow you to return out into the sunlight the next day.

The higher the volume is, ultimately will dictate the magnitude of the training effect. While this may sound like a win/win for the highest volume possible for the greatest training effect, you must go back and remember the most important factor to creating an adaptation is recovery. While training magnitude is a direct correlation of the amount of volume used, the higher the volume of stress on the body, the longer the recovery time will be needed to create an adaptation to the stressor. Exposing a novice lifter to huge amounts of high volume will only create a much harder to progress intermediate/advanced lifter. If a novice lifter will make steady progress at a baseline volume, overdoing that volume to try and create faster progress will only make it harder down the road to keep the overload high enough to elicit a change. Along with that, if insufficient recovery time is given and the lifter returns to the gym too soon, he will be creating a snowball effect of insufficient recovery time which ultimately can lead to a loss of strength and that dreaded “plateau.”

This is where the last part to the puzzle comes into play, and that is frequency. Frequency is simply the number of days a week a certain exercise is programmed. Frequency will rely heavily on volume and volume will in turn, rely on frequency. Generally speaking, the higher the volume, the lower the frequency and vice versa. The relationship between the two will ultimately decide your recovery time needed and your results. Wait too long between training sessions and you risk under training. Program in the same lift too soon and you interrupt your recovery. Remember, for optimal frequency you want to time your next dose of stress at the peak of the adaptation to your last training session. Once you have determined the correct amount of volume for yourself, then you can decide the proper amount of frequency.

Once you understand each part of the equation, you then have to throw it all together. You should never use the same overload you’ve used in a previous workout. In other words, don’t program the same exercise with the same reps, sets or resistance that you have already used before without changing at least one aspect. It might be something as simple as creating more speed through the concentric portion of the lift, shorter rest periods, increasing the resistance for the same amount of reps, or using the same resistance for higher volume by adding in more sets. Something needs to change and or increase in order to keep the body under enough of an overload to continue making progress.

I don’t want to dive into the pros and cons of all the different forms of programming in this article. Trying to distinguish between the benefits of Block Periodization vs Complex Parallel Periodization vs simple Linear Progression Periodization would take this article way over the simplistic views and ideas that I wanted to focus on and will be saved for the next article. The most important aspect to take away from this article is understanding how the body responds to stress and how to optimally program each part of the puzzle to work synergistically together to create an effective program.

Good Luck!

Aaron Fondry, B.S. Exercise Science, CPT, CSCS
Atlas Training Systems
Strength and Conditioning Specialist

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