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Strength Programing 101...basically the basics...

Updated: Jun 29, 2023


Resistance exercise is considered by many to be one of the most important (if not the most important) aspects of any exercise program, even edging out the ever so popular 'cardio' when it comes to building muscle and maintaining a healthy body weight. As a society we are definitely lacking in the exercise department in general, much less resistance training. A recent report showed that only 24% of adult Americans are meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines set by the American College of Sports Medicine for resistance training. Interestly 54% are meeting the guidelines for aerobic exercise.


A summary of the guidelines are as follows:

Activity

Moderate-intensity

Vigorous-intensity

Combination Moderate & Vigorous

Aerobic Exercise

150-300 minutes/wk

75-150 minutes/wk

75-150 minutes/wk

Resistance Exercise

2 or more days/wk

From a resistance perspective it is recommended that adults perform strengthening exercises of moderate or greater intensity that involves all major muscle groups. If you'd like more information regarding the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans you can find that here. Please note these guidelines don't go into too much more depth than this, with respect to 'how' to perform or program resistance exercise (or cardio for that matter), and we aren't necessarily advocating these guidelines one way or the other, except for the fact that movement and picking up resistance IS extremely important for our bodies.


So why are a majority of adults NOT performing resistance exercise? Well there are likely lots of reasons, but one of the major factors of whether or not a person will exercise on their own has to do with how confident they are in their ability to perform specific exercises (i.e., self-efficacy) on their own? We completely understand that it can be overwhelming to try and figure out a program much less what exercises to add to that program. That's where this post comes in, our goal is to give you some basic tools you can use to create your own resistance program. Consider this a jumping off point to become more confident in your ability to create your own resistance program.

Much of what we know about lifting weights is learned in a number of ways, from social media to magazines, to more intimate sources such as our friends and their opinions. Depending on your source, you'll likely hear a number of programs touted to be "THE way...". Please know that these methods may or may not be the best advice for you, nor are they always presented with the actual goal of meeting your needs (e.g., seeking likes, building a social media following, etc...). Often this is an attempt by the creator to plant a belief in your mind that you are lacking something and that they have what you're missing. But do they? Well...only you can decide based on your needs, wants and or desires.


Its from this vantage point we'd like to shed some light on the subject in the context of resistance programing basics. Resistance exercise doesn't have to be complicated, but it does have to be consistently performed to be effective. There are several underlying principles that lay the foundation for exercise. One of the most universal of these is the Principle of Specificity. This principle speaks to the idea that if you want to achieve a specific physiological change then you have to train a specific way. In other words, "how you train, is what you gain." Therefore in order to achieve specific results we must be specific in the types of stressors we use to promote change. This is often summed up in another principle considered to be the opposite side of the same coin as specificity, termed the S.A.I.D. Principle, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. As you apply specific stressors you will achieve specific changes. So if you want to increase strength, then you need to lift something heavy.


From a programing perspective individual exercises are pieces of a puzzle that when combined with other pieces can promote the whole of positive change. For this post we will focus on exercises used to improve performance. We understand the word performance is often used in the context of sport related activities; however, any activity we are able to 'perform' is able to be improved upon; therefore, it is our humble opinion that this term is very much applicable to the general population as well, especially in light of the Specificity and S.A.I.D. Principles. So then If you truly want to improve your overall performance then you must work on aspects of mobility that will actually increase your capacity to perform. Most resources referencing performance-based exercise related to lifting weights speak to several movements considered pivotal for increasing ones capacity to produce force as well as a person's potential for greater overall performance output throughout their activities. Depending on the individual source movements considered to be 'pivotal' may vary somewhat, but the more common movements include:

  1. Push

  2. Pull

  3. Squat

  4. Hinge

A push can be any movement where we are using our arms to push something away from our body. There are generally speaking two directions we may push, which is either vertically or horizontally. For instance we may perform a bench press with a barbell while lying on our back, this would be an example of a horizontal push movement. If we were then to sit up and press the dumbbells overhead, this would be an example of a push that is vertical in direction. A pull, on the other hand, is where we are pulling something toward our bodies. Again, this can be accomplished in one of two general directions, vertically or horizontally. An example of a vertical pull would be performing a pull up, whereas an example of a horizontal pull would be when bending over and pulling a dumbbell toward your chest as when performing a single arm bent over row. Hinging, though a bit more nuanced, refers to a motion where you bend over forward at your hips while trying to keep your back relatively flat. This occurs when you are bending over to pick something off the floor without allowing your back to bend (e.g., as pictured), of course for most folks this might also require a bit of a knee bend due to hamstring tightness that can develop; however, the majority of the movement will come from your hips. An exercise example would be performing a deadlift. A squat is a movement where you would allow much more bend in your knees as well as your hips to allow your bottom to move closer to your feet. An example of this would be performing a barbell squat (i.e., a squat with a bar on your back) where you start in a standing position and then lower your hips as low as you care to go and then return to a standing position. Taking these movements a step further, we may chose to perform them using one or both of our arms and or legs. As an example, we may perform a movement, such as a seated dumbbell overhead press, moving one arm overhead at a time. For our lower extremities, we may choose to perform a squat movement using only one leg at a time, such as when performing a standing single leg squat.


To summarize take a look at the following chart:

Movement

Direction

Variation

1. Push

Vertical/Horizontal

Single/Double Arm

2. Pull

Vertical/Horizontal

Single/Double Arm

3. Squat

Vertical

Single/Double Leg

4. Hinge

Vertical

Single/Double Leg

Now that we've covered some of the pivotal movements considered instrumental in improving one's capacity to perform, let's turn our attention to some specific exercise choices that you may consider within each category. The chart below is by no means an exhaustive list, nor a statement of priority, but rather an example of some of the most common exercises often classified within these categories.

Movement

Vertical Exercises

Horizontal Exercises

Push

1) barbell shoulder press; 2) dumbbell press; 3) kettlebell shoulder press; 4) pike press; 5) landmine press

1) supine barbell bench press, 2) supine dumbbell chest press, 3) prone push-ups; 4) TrX push up; 5) cable press

Pull

1) cable lat pulldown, 2) pull ups; 3) chin-ups; 4) cable vertical row; 5) banded vertical row

1) barbell bent over row; 2) dumbbell bent over row; 3) seated row; 4) TrX supine pulls; 5) cable row

Squat

1) standing barbell squat, 2) standing split squat, 3) stationary reverse lunge, 4) stationary forward lunge, 5) step ups

1) sled push; 2) sled pull; 3) cable forward walkouts; 4) cable reverse walkouts; 5) iso arm squat press

Hinge

​1) barbell deadlift; 2) trap bar deadlift; 3) kettlebell romanian deadlift; 4) 45 degree angled hip extension; 5) good mornings

Remember that each of these movements may also emphasize one or both extremities. Some exercises themselves, depending on the equipment utilized, may require you to use both extremities, for example if you are performing a supine barbell bench press then you must use both arms to perform the exercise. However, if you have them available, you may use hand held (e.g., dumbbells, kettlebells, elastic band/tubing, etc...) or cable/machine-based resistance to emphasize one extremity at a time. For example, if you perform a supine chest press using dumbbells you may hold one arm straight out in front of you while performing the pressing movement with one arm at a time.

One final resistance programing consideration worth discussing is that of trunk specific exercises. Most movements in daily life require a transfer of force. This force is transmitted from one region of the body to another through the various links (joints) of the body with the vertebral column being the major link from top to bottom or from bottom to top. Therefore, trunk exercises are believed to be very important to incorporate into any resistance-based program. These movements may entail a variety of motions or lack thereof in the case of 'anti-rotation' exercises.


Regarding 'anti-rotation' exercises, it's been suggested that certain joints (e.g., lumbar spine) should be a point of stability whereas others (e.g., thoracic spine) should be a point of greater mobility to establish true movement efficiency. Along this line of reasoning some would consider exercises where the individual moves their extremities (one or both) while keeping their trunk from moving as being more beneficial than if the trunk moved during the movement. On the other hand, others believe the spine to be a very integral part of the movement process and therefore must be allowed to move throughout it's available range of motion during activity. Regardless of which side you land, there are exercises to accomplish either approach. Take a look at the following table for some common examples of rotation and 'anti-rotation' exercises.

Trunk Movement

Rotation Exercises

Anti-rotation Exercises

Twist

trunk twists; Cable trunk twists

​Paloff press; Chops; Lifts

Flexion

Crunch; Curl ups; Hanging knee ups

Cable Rows; Ball slams; 45 degree angled hip extension; Romanian deadlift

Extension

​Jefferson Curls; 45 degree angled back extension

Dying bugs; Plank; Bear crawls

Side bending

Dumbbell lateral flexion; cable lateral flexion pushdowns

Side plank; Suitcase carries

Again, we'd like to reiterate that these lists are in NO WAY meant to be an exhaustive list nor are they prioritized as THE exercises for each category. These are simply examples for you to more fully grasp the concept of each category. The next step is to consider the basics of dosage. Dosage encompasses a number of factors, but essentially refers to the amount of a given stress applied to the body. For our purposes the acronym F.I.T.T. will cover the dosage aspects we will consider:

  1. Frequency

  2. Intensity

  3. Time

  4. Type

Let's take a minute to elaborate a bit on these parameters, starting with type. Type refers to the type of exercise you will be performing during your workout. Type may refer to resistance, cardiovascular, flexibility or neuromotor exercise. Time refers to how long we perform an exercise session. This will be based on a number of factors, but some of the more common factors are related to the type of exercise you're performing, total exercise volume, and the amount of rest you take during your exercise session...to name a few. Intensity will be directly related to how hard you are working in your exercise session. Intensity refers to the amount of weight you're lifting as well as how hard you push yourself (i.e., intensity of effort) during each working set of a given exercise. Frequency is how many times you exercise in a given week. These factors are, or will be, directly related to the overall goal of your exercise program.


Generally speaking, for resistance exercise, the most important dosage parameter is intensity which will take into account the amount of resistance you are using as well as the number of sets and repetitions you will perform during each training session. For a given week you may consider 10 working sets as a 'middle of the road' number, so to speak. In other words, if you perform more than 10 sets per week this would be considered a higher volume, whereas if you performed less than 10 sets that would be a lower volume. Any time we build a program using these parameters the goal is to perform the least amount to effect the greatest amount of change. In the case of repetitions you may perform anywhere from 2-30 reps per set, depending on whether your trying to improve strength, or endurance (lower number of repetitions + higher weight = strength; greater number of repetitions + less weight = endurance). In between each set a rest period should also be used lasting anywhere from 1 min to 3 mins. shorter rest periods are more favorable for building endurance with longer rest periods being better suited for developing strength.


With that out of the way, lets now turn our attention to how to add exercises into your program for the week. To start with choose one exercise from each movement category above. Remember, you can certainly use any exercise you'd like (doesn't have to be one listed) as long as it fits within the category. When making your choice choose only a vertical or a horizontal movement, but not both. This will amount to four exercises total. Now that you have those exercises, how often do you want to exercise per week? Per the guidelines discussed above it is recommended that resistance exercise be performed at least two days per week, which is up to you and the time you have available. As an example, let's say you want to work out three days a week. If we perform three sets of each exercise three days per week that's a total nine sets for each movement per week, which is pretty close to the 'middle of the road' number of sets we discussed. Now, don't forget to add one or two different trunk motions during each training day. Per week your training schedule might look a bit like the following breakdown, especially considering at least a 48 hour rest period between training sessions.

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

5-6 exercises; 3 sets per exercise


5-6 exercises; 3 sets per exercise


5-6 exercises; 3 sets per exercise

For this program to be effective you'll need to use a resistance that you are able to perform a total of 4-6 times (i.e., repetitions) before you aren't able to lift that weight any more without resting. This would be training to failure, which has been shown to greatly improve strength. If you're concerned about working to failure with each set then consider working to the point where you feel as though you have 1 or 2 repetitions 'left in the tank'. Technically this is termed 'reps in reserve' and has also been shown to be effective in increasing an individual's strength, especially in those with a bit more life under their belt.


As you progress over the next 3-4 weeks you'll be able to perform more repetitions with the same load. So you'll want to add more resistance as you are able to continue making those strength gains (i.e., progressive overload). When you are able to perform 3 sets of 8 repetitions of the same load add resistance until you are back to performing 4-6 reps for 3 sets. Continue this same routine for 3-4 weeks and then change exercises. This time use either the vertical or horizontal movements you didn't use the first time. Perform this another 3-4 weeks and repeat. With this process you can make a number of unique exercise programs that when applied correctly can definitely provide progressive overload.


4th Corner being a fitness forward practice, we FIRMLY believe in the benefits of exercise. If you have questions about this information or about ways you can become more active in your lifestyle, please don't hesitate to reach out. We'd love the opportunity to be in your corner!


Until then, seek out opportunities to be intentionally AND habitually active!!!

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2 Comments


Loved reading this blog post, I have loved training for the 6 years that I have and feel like I still have so much to learn, especially on putting together my own workouts.

Fantastic information and explained so well.

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Tim Pendergrass
Tim Pendergrass
Mar 17, 2023
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Thank you very much for the feedback! So glad you enjoyed the information.

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