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Designing a Training Routine
Part Two

By Gary F. Zeolla

This article is continued from Designing a Training Routine: Part One.

Workout Frequency

How often should one workout? As indicated previously, beginners should generally train three times a week, but more experienced lifters will work out anywhere from two to six times a week.

Looking at the bottom end of this range, some lifters might only have time to work out twice a week. And if that is the case, don’t fret. It is possible to work out just twice a week and make really good progress. In fact, if one is finding that doing a total body workout three times a week is working the same muscle groups too often, then simply changing to only working out twice a week could solve the problem.

However, a twice a week program can have some drawbacks. First off, I have found that working out only twice a week is not often enough to keep me in “lifting shape.” Even with some aerobic exercise on in-between days, I end up dragging on the lifting days. And second, twice a week does not leave much time for a variety of exercises to be done.

But, as indicated above, a split routine does allow for more exercises to be done. But into how many days should one split up their routine?

I have worked out as much as 5-6 days a week in the past and made good progress doing so. But in retrospect, I think I would have been better off working out 3-4 days a week. The problem with 5-6 days a week is that not matter how much you spilt up the body parts, there is always some overlapping. So the various body parts never has time to fully recover. And over time, one could end up overtrained or even injured. And as I think back, probably some of my many injuries at the time were due to working out too often. So now I am using a four-day a week split routine

Workout Breaks

No matter how many days a week you work out, it can be beneficial to skip a workout every once in a while. This might sound counter-productive, but taking an “extra” day off can give your body a chance to “catch up” in terms of recovery. And it will give your psych a break as well. As a result, you’ll probably feel refreshed for your next workout.

So the next time your gym closes for a holiday, don’t take a fit or try to “squeeze in” a workout the day before or after. Just take the day off and enjoy the holiday. You’ll be better off for it. As for myself, I have it written into my workout plan to skip a workout about once every four weeks.

It is also beneficial to take a full week or two off at least once a year. Yes, you will lose some strength and have to cut back on the weights some when you return, but not as much as you might think. It will probably only a take a couple of weeks to get back to where you were before the break, and within a a couple of weeks after that you’ll probably find that you’re stronger than ever.

A good time to take such a break is at the end of a training cycle, after a contest, or while on vacation. So rather than trying to be “dedicated” and finding a gym while on vacation, just relax and enjoy your vacation. In the long run, you’ll be better off for it.

Workout Length

How long should a workout last? The most general answer is about an hour or so. One could make progress working out for less than an hour, but for me it just doesn’t seem to be enough. The only way to get in a decent number of exercises would be to use very little rest in-between sets. But, as indicated above, if one is focusing on strength then a several minute rest is required.

OTOH, working out for much more than an hour is just too long. It is difficult to keep up a high intensity for that period of time. Moreover, some studies have showed that testosterone levels drop after 60 minutes or so. This wouldn’t include time spent in warm-ups, but still once one gets much past an hour of hard work it can be counter-productive.

If workouts are taking much longer than an hour, then the lifter is probably doing too many exercises, too many sets, or taking too long of rests between sets. But all of these can be counter-productive. Of course, it is also possible the lifter is spending too much time talking! Socializing is nice, but one really is in the gym to workout. Save extended socializing for after the workout.

As for myself, I try to keep my workouts between an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.

Cardio and Stretching

Despite popular thoughts to the contrary, weightlifting workouts do produce cardiovascular benefits. This is especially the case if you keep up a decent pace through your workouts. But some will still want to do some specific cardio work for the additional heart and body fat benefits. However, too much cardio work or doing cardio at too high of an intensity can detract from the body’s ability to recover from weightlifting workouts. So if one's priority is muscular strength or size gains, then cardio work should be kept to a minimum.

So I would recommend that cardio work be kept to 30-90 minutes a week, split between three to six days. The cardio should be done at moderate not high intensity.

Also, if you're doing a cardio workout on the same day as lifting, do the cardio work afterward the lifting workout. This way, the cardio won't tire you out for the lifting routine. Also studies show that doing cardio after a weightlifting workout actually provides greater cardiovascular benefits than doing the same amount of cardio before a lifting workout or on a separate day. Doing cardio after lifting also increases the amount of calories and fat calories burned during the cardio work as the glycogen stores are already used up from the lifting.

Stretching is another important general fitness activity. And some studies have shown that being flexible can actually improve one’s weightlifting strength. But a few points are worth noting.

Static stretching is not a form of warm-up. Stretching when one is “cold” could lead to injury. Also, recent studies have shown that stretching before a workout does not reduce the risk of injury. And some studies have shown that stretching before a weightlifting workout reduces ones strength for the workout.

So stretching should be done either after the workout or on off days. If it is done on off days, then one should do at least few minutes of aerobic work before stretching to warm the body up. Another possibility is to stretch after a hot bath or shower.

As for myself, having been bothering with any cardio of late, but I do stretch for about 15-20 minutes after my workouts. As evidence that with powerlifting, cardio really is not that important, in January 2002, when I was at the worst of my health problems, my blood pressure was 135/90 and my resting heart rate was around 80. But I got my parents a blood pressure monitor for Christmas 2003. I've checked myself on it several times since then, and my blood pressure has ranged from 100/66 - 117/77 and resting heart rate from 47-49. It should also be noted that I am 43, and both of my parents and my brother are on high blood pressure medication. Of course, careful attention to diet also helps in this regard.

Cool Down

It is generally a good idea to “cool down” after a workout. This can involve doing a few light sets or a few minutes of light aerobics or stretching. This helps to reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles and lessen post-workout soreness. As for myself, my 15-20 minutes of stretching serves as my cool-down.

Individual Variability and Adaptation

There is no such thing as a “perfect’ routine. No workout will work for everyone. So just because some top-level lifter uses a particular routine, it doesn’t mean it will be right for you. Everyone has to experiment to see what works best. But I have tried above to provide some suggestions to narrow the experimentation period. But as the saying goes, YMMV (“your mileage may vary”).

Also, no matter how well a routine seems to be working, if you follow it for too long the body will adapt to it. And when this happens, progress will slow or come to a halt altogether. So it is important to periodically change something in your routine. And you can change most any of the factors discussed above.

OTOH, a routine should not be changed too often. Constantly changing a routine could cause one to end up always being sore from doing something “new.” It is also difficult and even unwise to put full effort into a new exercise or routine. Some degree of adaptation is needed to be comfortable with it and for it to be safe to put in an all out effort. Also some consistency is needed to gauge one’s progress.

But how often should a routine be changed? Most obviously, if you're stagnating, it's time to change something. And if you’re getting bored with a current routine, change it. But it would be good to change a routine before such things happen. This would differ from person to person, but overhauling the routine every 2-4 months would probably be a good idea, so the routine is changed 3-6 times per year.

It is also possible to build minor changes into a routine from the start. This was seen, for instance, in the rep cycle discussed above. Decreasing the number of reps every 2-6 weeks is a change. Also, mention was made of working the same muscle group with different exercises on different days, and this is a form of change as well. At the very least, such tactics would delay the adaptation process.

Training and Other Logs

One final point is worth mentioning; it is very important to keep a training log. Record every rep, every set, every exercise, for every workout. It also helps if you record your bodyweight, at least on occasion. You might also want to include notes about how you were feeling during each workout, and any other pertinent data.

Having a record of what you have been doing is the only way to be able to track what works and what doesn't work. You might think you are making progress, but by checking the log you might see that what you are not doing as well as you think you are. Moreover, if you have a complicated routine or do many different exercises each week, it can be difficult simply to remember what exercises are to be done on an given day. And even more difficult is remembering exactly  what weights were used and how many reps you got for with that weight in your last workout and thus what weights should be used for that day's workout.

As for myself, after each set, I immediately write down exactly how many reps I got for the set. And after my workout, I sit down and write out what weights I plan on using the next time I do that particular workout. I base my weights for my next workout on how many reps I got for the weights used in that day's workout. With my current routine, I am alternating through four different workouts. So there is no way I could remember what weights I used and how many reps I got for each exercise at my last workout, and thus how much weight to use for that day's workout. So for me, a workout log is absolutely essential.

Along these lines, I would also suggest keeping a diet log, a supplements log, a bodyweight log, and a body measurements log. For the diet log, at the very least, it would be wise to on occasion evaluate your diet for levels of protein, fat, carbs, and other nutrients. An example of my last such evaluation is located at Diet Evaluation. An easy way to do such an evaluation is with a software program like DietPower.

Keeping track of what supplements you are currently taking and what supplements you tried in the past, including when you started and stopped them and what amounts you used, can also be helpful. A bodyweight log would simply be a record of your weight changes over time. If it is possible for you to evaluate your body fat percentage, this would be useful as well. An easy way to do so is with a body fat scale, which are also available from Diet Power. It's also a good idea to keep track of other body measurements as well, like chest, biceps, thighs, calves, etc. By comparing all of these logs, you can get a very good idea of the progress you are making, and again, what is working and what is not working.

As for myself, I have separate files stored on my handheld PC for all of these types of logs.

Workout Examples

See Powerlifting Training Routines for examples of workouts that incorporate the above suggestions. And see My Training Routines for how I am incorporating the above principles into my own workouts.

“Grafftti: Aerobics can limit your strength gains.” Physical. November 2001, p. 22.
“Ask the Trainer.” Monster Muscle. September, 2002, p. 30.
“Best rest period for bench press performance.” Physical. June 2002, p. 28.
“Intense warm-ups boost strength.” Physical. May 2001, p. 19.
“Limit your aerobics.” Physical. January 2001, p. 80.
"The Body Your Want." Men's Health. November 2003, p. 130.
“Pre-workout stretching reduces muscular endurance.” Physical. May 2002, p. 24.
“Starting Out.” Powerlifting USA, November 2000, p.16.
“Stretch Marks.” The Walking Magazine.” Jan/ Feb. 2001, p. 20.
“Vary your workouts for improved results.” Physical. June 2001, p. 18.

Designing a Training Routine. Copyright 2002-2003 By Gary F. Zeolla.

Powerlifting and Back Pain

    The first book is geared towards the beginner to intermediate powerlifter. It presents sound training, competition, dietary, and supplement advice to aid the reader in starting and progressing in the sport of powerlifting. The second book details how I overcame years of crippling low back and was able to return to the sport of powerlifting.

Starting and Progressing in Powerlifting: A Comprehensive Guide to the World's Strongest Sport

Overcoming Back Pain: A Mind-body Solution (Second Edition)

See also this series on Amazon (#ad).

The above article was posted on this site October 10, 2002.
It was last updated September 1, 2008.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

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