It’s a complete accurate statement that you can’t “outrun a poor diet” or that “abs are made in the kitchen”. You need a good nutrition plan with you eating plenty of food to support muscle growth and building strength. As a nutrition coach, first and foremost, I can’t reiterate enough the importance of a good nutrition plan.
You need to train. You need to move your body. You need an exercise program that is going to give you a reason to follow a nutrition plan in the first place. I can give you the best set of macros out there, but if you’re not putting your muscles to work, you’re not going to be reaching your full potential.
Cardio (running, biking, swimming, elliptical, spin class, stair master, walking, etc.) has its benefits (health, cardiovascular health, caloric expenditure, stress reliever, etc.) BUT will not build muscle because it doesn’t put the muscles under the full range of motion to create the stimulus to grow and build. Because of that, you need to lift weights at least twice a week...and honestly, I can almost guarantee (from experience) that once you start with 2x/week weight training that you’ll be hooked and sucked in and will slowly but surely trade out your cardio
Why? Because it’s fun to be strong. It’s fun to know you can go to the airport with your 50-lb. bag and know you can carry it no problem. It’s rewarding to know you can pick 100, 200, even 300 lbs. off the ground and maybe even put it overhead! Nothing feels better when you can help carry all of the heavy furniture when moving apartments or houses. Lifting weights does all of this.
Full body v split training?
There are a ton of debates over this and honestly the answer comes down to what you enjoy most. For today’s blog, I am going to dive most into full-body workouts simply because I know most of the people who do follow me have some CrossFit/athletic experience or are just getting out of the cardio world and entering the weight world. Full body training programs usually encompass most of these people. Does that mean a split program isn’t a good program? Definitely not. Split training is most effective for people with specific goals (i.e. bodybuilding is the best example) or with people who have phased out of full body training.
Pros of a full body program compared to a split?
Pro #1 – Work capacity
It’s more work within a smaller time frame. It’s dynamic. It’s great for people who mentally need to feel something after their workout. Something most people transitioning out of cardio and into lifting struggle with is feeling like they haven’t done enough. This is a perfect way out of this. You’re hitting every major muscle group, getting a lot done in a shorter time frame, and likely getting that heart rate up, which is enough to make sure you’re getting as much out of that workout as possible.
Pro #2 – Caloric expenditure
Because you’re hitting every major muscle group, you likely are having a slight elevation in caloric expenditure. Again...you’re doing more work in the same or even less amount of time compared to a split.
Studies comparing the two have shown a slightly increased loss in fat-free mass and body fat percentage in full body training programs as compared to split training programs. This is perfect for the individual looking to “build muscle” but lose fat in the process. More isolated split training programs focus to build muscle and often times, cardio is a needed add-on for fat loss (along with eating in a deficit).
Basically, to simplify it, in most cases, a full-body training program is more likely to help you reach your fat-loss goals
Pro #3 – Higher training frequency
You’re hitting muscle groups more frequently and therefore working the muscle more. This leads to hypertrophy (muscle growth/gain) if in a maintenance or surplus calories or muscle maintenance (if eating in a deficit).
This approach is really great for people eating in a deficit because it uses the muscles more frequently.
Now just to note that it needs to be in a controlled and methodical manner. Maxing out your squat everyday with 100 push ups and 100 pull ups will lead to fatigue and muscle degradation. So it is important to pay attention to avoiding overuse and injury.
Pro #4 – Timing and flexibility
Because you’re hitting more muscle groups in one training program, specificity of the movement and exercise isn’t as crucial. In split training, you’re splitting days between upper/lower, pull/press, dynamic/best effort, etc. so the movement and the exercise matters just a bit more. You will also need more specific movements for progressive overloading and building strength in split training. This requires more time (often), consistency (can’t miss days or make up days at random), and more equipment. Full body programs can be completed with dumbbells if that’s all you have or even if you have minimal equipment. This wouldn’t be ideal in the case of a more competitive or elite athlete (think powerlifter or bodybuilder) but it is effective for the general population who want to simply just look good naked.
Pro #5 – Better for beginners
Full body training programs are less likely to have complex movements and exercises. They offer a bit more room for modifications and progressions compared to a split program. In split programs, you could work anywhere from 5-10 different hinge exercises or pressing exercises because that’s the one focus for that day. In a full body program, the exercises and movements can be as simple as a deadlift and overhead press (rather than a good morning or Arnold press) for those who are relatively new and learning the basics. Work is still being done and the stimulus is being created, just with less complexity until you’ve become more familiar with the movements and exercises.
Now for the fun part...the program design.
Movements & Body Parts/Muscle Groups
An effective training program focuses on 5 key movements and training patterns.
Push (chest, shoulders, triceps)
Pull (traps, delts, lats, biceps)
Hip Hinge (posterior chain – glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae)
Knee Flexion – i.e. squat (quads, hip flexors)
Spinal movement – i.e. rotation & flexion (abs – rectus abdominis, obliques, etc.)
Hopefully, just in this explanation of movements and their corresponding body parts and muscle groups, you can see how simple OR complex the program can be. Beginners would start with more functional movements, such as the deadlift for hip hinge or back squat for knee flexion. As experience progresses, the more isolated the movement patterns can be. There’s no need to introduce good mornings, lateral raises, curls, cyclist squats, etc. until 1. a good a foundation is achieved and 2. you've started with the functional movements corresponding to the major muscle groups.
Function first, then comes isolation.
Build a foundation FIRST
Building a foundation matters first. Why? Because of progressive overload. Progressive overload is the basis for building strength and muscle. It’s the progressive overloading of movement/volume/intensity to improve and increase the intended stimulus of a given movement. To improve on anything, you need to make small additions and build off of a foundation.
Think of building a house. You can’t throw the giant frame on the ground without a foundation. Even if you have the foundation set, you add piece by piece, building slowly but surely until the house is built. Take my situation of preparing for an Ironman. I can’t just hop on a bike and ride 60 miles. I physically could, as I am in pretty decent shape and have the mental willpower to do it...but I wouldn’t improve if all I did was ride 60 miles at a time. My form would falter because my muscles aren’t trained yet, and I would injure myself.
Same goes with lifting. To progressively overload, you add ~10% at a time. Week 1 you do 4x5 back squats. Next week, you either bump weight up 5-10lbs or add a rep in each set. The next week you repeat. You’re slowly building strength and size. If you don’t learn the foundational movements and you don’t take the time to figure out which exercise variation works best for you (i.e. sumo v. conventional deadlift or front v. back squat), you can’t progressively overload. Each week, you’re essentially moving a different way. Say you don’t know how to properly deadlift. The first week, you lift more with your back than driving heels into the ground and moving shoulders at the same rate as your hips. This leads to significant soreness and discomfort. The next week, you have it a bit more figured out, but now you start more back on your heels with your hips closer to the ground thinking it’ll save your back. Well now you’re doing a completely different lift and using different muscle groups. Minute difference, yes...but still significant. By week 3, you’ve maybe added 20-30lbs to your deadlift weight and still lifting a different way and therefore not progressively overloading properly.
Exercise selection matters. There are three basic components to each lift/movement:
Compound lift (what will be the heaviest – deadlift, squat, bench, press, clean/snatch for oly lifters, etc.)
Activation exercises (what will prime your muscle groups for the compound lifts – medball wall tosses for bench press)
Accessory exercises (what will compliment muscle groups and compound lift – lateral raises, calf raises, cyclist squats, rows)
These will vary less. These will consist of your squat, deadlift, bench, and overhead press. Note that you’re not limited to barbell versions of these, but typically using a barbell allows you to build more effectively in weight and building strength. The movement pattern, however, is most crucial.
For an effective full-body training program, you’ll have a compound lift in each session (4 total weekly sessions). You can add in a 5th day if you enjoy a 5-day training program. In this 5th day, I would make it a “fun day” and train in a way that you enjoy. For me, my Saturdays are my fun days. They are less methodical and more just fun for me to go in and do what feels good. This improves adherence and enjoyment in your program. Think if it like a treat day 😉
These movements rarely change. What changes most often is accessory work.
It’s most recommended to work in cycles, either in 4-week cycles or 6-week cycles with a deload in between cycles. It would look like this:
As you can see, you’re progressively increasing weight on the bar, while decreasing reps. For muscle growth, I’d stick to that 5-10 rep range. Each block ends with a 1-week deload at an 8-10 rep range.
Not sure where to start weight-wise? Have a “test” week where you go through each compound lift and build to a heavy single or double. Start your first week at 50-60% of that weight. If you go through the first block and didn’t feel challenged, then you simply would start at 60-70% the next cycle. There is a bit of trial and error so make notes and document the process!
The point of an activation exercise is to activate the muscle groups that will help you execute the movement. The point isn’t to overfatigue. A hip thrust would be a poor activation for the deadlift (too physically demanding) but a broad jump or elevated glute bridge would be a great activation exercise.
Perform 1-2 sets of 1-2 of these movements. You can do all of them if you would like and enjoy them, but I would vary these every cycle to keep things varied, fun, and interesting. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. You’re also not limited to these. A banded monster walk would be a great activation exercise for the deadlift. If you have a good activation exercise, include it!
This is where most of your variety and individualization in your program is going to come into play. Accessory work aims to provide most of the isolation exercises to help both function and hypertrophy.
For your accessory work, I recommend sticking to them on a 2-4 week block. It can get repetitive to always do the same exercises. You also will likely adapt and lose some of the intended stimulus if you’re constantly doing the same exercise week after week. You do, however, need an effective stimulus. This is why I recommend sticking to the exercises at least for 2 weeks and no more than 4. You also will see less progression on these accessory movements, so you don’t need to spend as long on them as you would a compound lift.
For rep ranges, you don’t have to always stick to the 8-12 rep range, although typically that is what we see. It’s usually enough to create demand, but not so much that it creates injury and overuse. One way to do this is in escalating fashion. Typically, accessory work goes as follows: 6-8 reps for the starting accessory movements, then 8-12 in the middle accessory/isolation exercises, then 12-15 for the finishing isolating exercises. As you progress through the accessory movements, fatigue will build so you’ll be less likely to lift heavier loads and will need to increase the reps for the finishing movements.
Below are my favorite accessory movements for each compound lift. Remember that accessory work should be supplemental to your compound lift. There’s no one size fits all and easily can vary. Choose 3-4 to try on 2-4 week blocks and then switch it up. Figure out which accessory movements work best for you. Maybe you’re trying to fix imbalances, improve your compound lift, or build the muscles to achieve aesthetic goals.
Putting it all together
You have two ways of putting it all together.
Option 1 – down the list (do the compound, then your 3 sets of accessory lift #1, then 3 sets of accessory lift #2, and so on) with the same accessories for same compound lifts.
Option 2 – using supersets and circuits...even with opposing or complimentary movement patterns
Each have their benefit and it’s going to vary and depend, but the biggest benefit with option #2 is the sake of time and maximizing on volume and intensity.
Another benefit with option #2 is that you can use supersets and circuits to put movements together from different muscle groups. For example, on a squat day, you could have a superset or circuit including a Bulgarian split squat with a TRX face pull or a push up/pull up accessory set (two opposite movement patterns.)
I’m not going to tell you exactly how to do this. Use yourself as a guinea pig. Play around with it and see how it changes your training program and workout. You know the compound lifts and you now have an extensive set of accessory work. Throw in an accessory movement for your overhead press on a squat day, for example.
There you have it.
This to date is my longest article I’ve ever written...and I could go on for 3 more hours likely. I didn’t even cover the more extensive isolation exercises (lateral raises, curls, etc.), machines (tbh I don’t even use which is why they’re not thrown in here), or metabolic finishers (HIIT exercises). So this will not be my last article on training design!
My last finishing thought is this: don’t be afraid of the gym or the people in it. You are learning and that is okay. I spent most of my life (until finding CrossFit) afraid of the weight room and fear for people trying to come up and correct me. I’m now pretty good at this stuff and probably STILL would have people approach me and correct my form. If someone does approach you at the gym and is offering advice you don’t want, simply nod and say you appreciate the help but you’ve got it covered. You’ve got Google and can search the exercises if you need help. Film yourself to see if you’re doing the movement correctly. You’re not going to hurt yourself until you’re doing too much and you will know. If you truly have no idea what you’re doing, hire a coach or a trainer to teach you the basics and offer feedback and coaching before attempting on your own.
You won’t design the perfect workout the first time or the second. Simply doing something is better than nothing. Start simple and easy and progress with each cycle and you’ll be a pro in no time.
And if you have questions, this is your personal invitation to email me, DM me, comment on a post, whatever it is, and ask me your question. Whether it’s how to squat properly or even see if you are squatting correctly, I will be more than happy to assist you (free of charge, no strings attached). I want everyone in the gym and I can only do that by helping any one and everyone!
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.