How to Make a Strength Training Plan (and Keep It!)

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barbellVenturing into the weight room can be overwhelming at times. People grunting in the corner while heaving heavy dumbbells, weights clanking together on a barbell; and to top it all off, there’s a sea of machines with multiple moving parts and levers. Toss in choosing the right exercises and number of sets and reps, and strength training can seem overly complex (calculator anyone?)

But there is a method to the madness. When done effectively, lifting weights offers amazing benefits, not only for building bigger muscles and achieving that desired physique, but also boosting your resting metabolism (translation: burn more calories outside the gym!) Regular strength training can even improve mood and confidence levels.

Ready to find that perfect training plan? To get us started (and keep us motivated along the way), we enlisted the help of Greatist Experts Dan Trink, Director of Personal Training Operations at Peak Performance, and Kelvin Gary, personal trainer and owner of Body Space Fitness. Check out their helpful tips, plus sample programs to hit the ground (err…gym floor) running!

Pump Some Iron—Getting Started

Starting a strength training program is a little more complicated than just grabbing some dumbbells and your favorite gym tee and hoisting away—it requires a set program. Before hitting the weights, check out these tips to get started on the right foot:

  • Set goals! Goals should be the driving force of any strength training program. Follow the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time bound) and make sure to set both short and long-term targets.
  • Start small. Three days a week (on non-consecutive days) for 45-minute sessions should be enough for most individuals to see big gains starting out, says Trink. Any longer and the chance of injury skyrockets.
  • Focus on compound lifts. Gary advocates multi-joint exercises (think squats and deadlifts) as the backbone of any strength training program. By using big moves, lifters can get more done in less time. Plus, it always pays to focus on (and master!) the basics before moving on.
  • Prioritize Lifts. Put the most important exercises first. That way, fatigue won’t compromise form on the biggest lifts . In general, compound lifts should go first with more isolated exercises (finally, a spot for curls) towards the end of the workout.
  • Watch the clock. Limit rest periods between sets to maximize efficiency in the gym. Trink uses the following guidelines:
    • 6 reps or less = rest 2-3 minutes
    • Above 6 reps = rest 75 seconds or less
  • Combine cardio and strength. Gary recommends performing exercises back-to-back (referred to as supersets in the fitness realm) to get the benefits of strength and cardio. By supersetting compound lifts, you’ll get your heart rate up andget a great cardio workout on the weight room floor.
  • Log all workouts. Keeping track of sets, reps, and exercises is crucial for noting progress and identifying when it’s time to up the intensity. Write down sets, reps, and weights used for all workouts. Keeping a log also acts as a motivator!
  • Vary the program. Avoid sticking to the same routine for more than six weeks, Trink advises. Lifters should switch up their program to avoid getting bored and plateauing (going a few weeks without seeing any results).
  • Don’t skip the extras. Make time for foam rolling and stretching to help prevent muscles from tightening up and to stay injury-free!

3, 2, 1… Lift Off!—Your Action Plan

Ready to get started? Whether you’ve got three, four, or five days to devote to training, these programs will help you make the most out of hitting the gym.

I Have… 3 Days a Week

Your plan: Total Body Routine

Why it works: This program hits all major muscle groups during each workout, yielding maximum gains in minimum time.

What to do: Complete 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps of the following exercises. Note: Perform A and B exercises back-to-back as supersets. Rest 60 seconds between each exercise.

Monday (Day One)

1A) Barbell Deadlift
1B) Dumbbell Bench Press

2A) Lunge (bodyweight or using dumbbells)
2B) Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press

3A) Leg Press
3B) Plank (Hold for 30-45 seconds)

Wednesday (Day Two)

1A) Barbell Back Squat
1B) Chin-up (bodyweight or assisted)

2A) Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
2B) Singe-Leg Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

3A) Side Lunges (bodyweight or using dumbbells)
3B) Reverse Crunch

Friday (Day Three)

1A) Barbell Front Squat
1B) Inverted Row

2A) Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlift
2B) Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

3A) Reverse Lunge (bodyweight or using dumbbells)
3B) Side Plank (Hold for 30-45 seconds)

I Have… 4 Days a Week

Your plan: Upper/Lower Body Split

Why it works: Dedicating focused time to upper and lower body workouts means more specificity and detail for each workout leading to fast progress and big gains.

What to do: Complete 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps of the following exercises. Note: Perform A and B (or A, B, and C) exercises back-to-back as supersets. Rest 60 seconds between exercises.

Monday (Day 1 – Lower Body)

1) Barbell Back Squat

2A) Walking Lunge (bodyweight or use dumbbells)
2B) Lying Hamstring Curl

3A) Leg Press
3B) Calf Raise
3C) Plank (Hold for 30-45 seconds)

Tuesday (Day 2 – Upper Body)

1) Chin-up (bodyweight or assisted)

2A) Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
2B) Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

3A) Cable Chest Fly
3B) Barbell Bicep Curl
3C) Reverse Crunch

Take Wednesday off, then on repeat the same Upper/Lower Split on Thursday and Friday.

I Have… 5 Days a Week

Your Plan: Body Part Split

Why it works: Devoting specific days to each body part allows for a targeted approach to building muscle and seeing results.

What to do: Complete 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps of the following exercises. Note: Perform A and B (or A, B, and C) exercises back-to-back as supersets. Rest 60 seconds between exercises.

Monday (Day 1 – Chest/Triceps)

1) Dumbbell Bench Press

2A) Incline Dumbbell Press
2B) Dips

3A) Cable Chest Fly
3B) Tricep Pushdown
3C) Plank

Tuesday (Day 2 – Lower Body)

1) Barbell Squats

2A) Single-Leg Deadlift
2B) Lunges

3A) Leg Press
3B) Glute Hamstring Raise
3C) Calf Raise

Wednesday (Day 3 – Back/Biceps)

1) Pull-Up

2A) Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
2B) Dumbbell Reverse Fly

3A) Dumbbell Pullover
3B) Cable Bicep Curl
3C) Face Pull

Friday (Day 4 – Lower Body)

1) Barbell Deadlift

2A) Single-Leg Squat
2B) Lunges

3A) Leg Press
3B) Calf Raise
3C) Plank

Saturday (Day 5 – Shoulders/Abs)

1) Barbell Push Press

2A) Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
2B) Dumbbell Lateral Raise

3A) Farmer’s Walk (walk 50 feet)
3B) Roll-Out
3C) Overhead Waiter’s Carry (walk 50 feet)

Remember, exercise is just part of the fitness equation. Getting quality sleep and proper nutrition can maximize all of the sweat sessions (especially post-workout). Vary the reps/sets every few weeks to prevent boredom and keep the body guessing. Keep progressing workouts to avoid hitting the wall and transform into a lean strength training machine!

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