Programming for Strength: EVERYTHING You Need to Know

Programming for strength is a relatively simple task on paper; you take a a few proven exercises, work them in some logical fashion throughout the week and implement some pattern of progression. Easy peasy.

While that simple prescription is obvious in most programs you might pick apart, starting from scratch is anything but simple. It isn’t until you have to justify every step you take in constructing a strength program that you realize how many variables need to be addressed and how ill-equipped you are to address them.

You might get stuck in selecting between two exercises you really want to try. Should you pick one over the other? Implement them both on the same day? Different days? Should they be done with similar reps and effort or should that vary? Are all of these decisions arbitrary and you’ve been staring at your notebook for 2 hours over nothing?

I get it. I do this for a living and the amount of complexity that can creep in to putting a program together very often leaves me ‘stuck’. Part of the reason I started making these videos was to help myself walk through the process of decision making and sharpen my understanding of how this all fits together.

There’s a big point I want to make here and it’s something that doesn’t often get discussed: the straightest path to being highly competitive as a coach and athlete is to find one methodology and stick to it.

That seems antithetical to everything I’m doing here. Most of my content consists of comparisons of the inner workings of a bunch of different programs, almost as if they all have some unique experience to be offered and should all be sampled at some point. Make no mistake; training is not a buffet and there are no bonus points for trying all the programs. In fact, the impulse to try everything actual derails progress more than it helps it.

Every single program you run is going to have it’s own ‘flavor’. For example, some are known for being high frequency, which means you will repeat the same lifts multiple times per week. How much effort and work you put into each session of a high frequency split is going to be different than with a split that only features each exercise once per week.

It’s not that any one difference in approach makes one program better or worse, it’s simply that each change requires a different set of rules to be followed to make it work. The longer you stick to the same split and method of progression, the better equipped you are to make accurate predictions about your training in the future. That is absolutely vital for making effective decisions throughout a program.

Having said that, if you program hop every time progress gets stale or boredom sets in, you will find yourself making reactionary moves based on best guesses. You might as well just rub a rabbits foot and say a prayer every time you lift. If you can’t fill a two page essay with a rational defense of a particular training decision, that means you don’t have a handle on the type of program you’re running. You need to get one before you can write it off as being ineffective or ‘not for you’.

This video attempted to simplify the process of strength programming by covering the bare-bones of any made-from-scratch program. These are the biggest variables that might differ from program to program and you need to be aware of them at the start so you can form the rest of your decisions around them.

1.) Goals

You have to be EXTREMELY clear about why you are running a program. Many new lifters have a vague idea of what they want to do but will pair that with a conflicting goal or flip flop every few weeks altogether. If you want to put 100lbs on your bench while dropping to single-digit body fat, I get it. Those are great long-term goals. But a short-medium term program cannot do both and trying to deplete yourself in pursuit of grainy striations and paper-thin skin will hamper your immediate strength gains.

If you are putting together a strength program, your goals are strength and muscular size, in that order. It’s ok if you are training concurrently for speed or endurance for some other sport, just understand that your barbell training isn’t about speed or endurance. Plan your training with strength in mind.

2.) Lifts

If you haven’t come across this wisdom yet, we prioritize barbell lifts because they check the most boxes. Compound barbell exercises require effort from a ton of different muscles at once, creating a bigger training stress with each individual set. They train movement patterns instead of specific muscles, which leads to strength and athletic development that far out-paces other modes of training. They are simpler to program. They are easy to access. They are economical and scalable. Some of the world’s biggest and strongest legs, shoulders, backs and asses have been developed over years of dedication to little more than presses, squats, rows and pulls with a barbell.

If you are a busy person who has minimal time to dedicate to training, barbells fit the bill. If you are an athlete who needs to build strength while building other important athletic traits, barbells fit the bill. If you are interested in working towards competing in strength sports, barbells fit the bill. If you are limited in how much cash you can throw at exercise equipment, barbells fit the bill. If you actually like doing a dozen different exercises over 3 hour long workouts, barbells still fit the bill.

Splits usually prioritize the “Big 3” (back squats, deadlifts and bench presses) and fit in other variations and accessories around them. Many will follow a 2 upper, 2 lower body day that throws in standing military presses to make the “Big 4”. The easiest arrangement for new programmers to follow is to dedicate time to the main lift, a close variation and then smaller isolation movements using dumbbells, cables or machines.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the main lifts and their most broadly useful variations:

  • Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Pause Squat
  • Box Squat
  • Narrow/Wide Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Deficit Deadlift
  • Block/Rack Deadlift
  • Stiff Leg/ Romanian Deadlift
  • Good Morning
  • Bench Press
  • Close Grip Bench
  • Wide Bench
  • Board Bench
  • Spoto/Pause Bench
  • Floor Press
  • Military Press
  • Behind-the-Neck Press
  • Push Press
  • Seated Military Press
  • Wide Press

New lifters (and most others, actually) should be getting plenty of weekly skill work with the main movement while also exposing themselves to some variations for the sake of it. Doing so promotes more well rounded development, increases coordination and prevents weak areas from developing. This is the same reason coaches like young athletes to play multiple sports. We are building a wide base here.

Once lifters become more developed, they will be more surgical with what variations they choose and why. This doesn’t apply to new lifters so don’t overthink this early on; obsessing over fixing weak points doesn’t make sense if you don’t have any strong points. Just commit to a handful of exercises and drill them until you get good.

3.) Frequency

There are a lot of ways this can go. Some elite lifters have taken a super-minimalist approach and based their training for each lift around one heavy workout every 7 to 10 days. Others handle crippling amounts of volume by drilling presses, squats and pulls on a daily basis. Both are extremes and are likely inappropriate for the average recreational lifts. High frequency programs especially, as they require much more advanced planning and autoregulation and, while extremely effective, often can lead to overuse issues from the consistent strain on the same structures.

My recommendation is to commit to a 3 or 4 day split that runs through each main lift once to twice per week.

Simple linear progressions like Starting Strength, Greyskull LP and Texas Method are often prescribed for their simplicity in exercise selection and progression scheme. They differ in a few small ways, but generally look something like this:

  • Squat
  • Bench
  • Row
  • Deadlift
  • Overhead
  • Chinups
  • Squat
  • Bench
  • Row

Once per week programs, like 5/3/1 or Juggernaut, follow a 4 day split that gives one day to each of the “Big 4”. Because there is more rest time in between similar workouts, more work can be done in each session. Those might look something like this:

  • Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Leg Press
  • Lunges
  • Bench Press
  • Close Grip Bench
  • Dumbbell Flys
  • Barbell Curls
  • Deadlifts
  • Romanian Deadlifts
  • Bent Rows
  • Pulldowns
  • Hamstring Curls
  • Military Press
  • Behind the Neck Press
  • Lateral Raise
  • Dips
  • Skull Crusher

My preferred approach (what I program for most lifters I work with) is to take this split and blend it as a way of increasing frequency. The upper body and lower body days already work many of the same muscles, so by having movement patterns repeated on each day, we can benefit from more frequent skill work without effecting recovery too much.

  • Squat
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Leg Press
  • Bent Row
  • Back Extension
  • Bench Press
  • Behind the Neck Press
  • Dips
  • Barbell Curls
  • Deadlifts
  • Front Squat
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Hamstring Curls
  • Military Press
  • Close Grip Bench
  • Dumbbell Flys
  • Lateral Raises
  • Skull Crusher

4.) Method of Progression

Once you’ve committed to a split, the last piece of the puzzle is to commit to a method of progression. The ways of progressing a workout are virtually unlimited; fixation on these is where overthinking takes over and ruins your ability to commit to a decision. I’m going to give you a few of the most commonly used and easiest to run progressions and give some insight as to why you might choose one over the other. Your job is to pick one and stick to it until the end.

-Linear Progression

LPs, for short, are the simplest and most straightforward methods. They work predictably well, especially for new lifters, but the sacrifice for that reliability is sexiness. The same exercises are done for the same sets and reps for months on end and the main driving force for growth is a mere 5lbs on the bar every workout. I can’t emphasize enough how proven this method is, especially with new lifters who need simple methods they can comply with. But damn if it doesn’t begin to feel like Chinese water torture.

The most simple iteration is something like Starting Strength, which is specifically for novices who want to blow past their newbie stage as fast as possible. 3×5 on each lift multiple times per week, add 5lbs each session until you simply can’t. See you in 18 months.

The good thing is that changes can be made to Linear Progressions to spice them up or to keep them working past the novice stage. Greyskull LP is one I’m a fan of because it finishes the last set of each workout with an AMRAP set (as many reps as possible), so it feels like Starting Strength but with the added challenge of trying to beat your last rep PR with 5 more lbs on the bar. The extra effort required for that set also increases the stress and, arguably, the rate of progress.

You can take the LP one step further by changing the threshold of each workout in a week, as the Texas Method and Heavy/Light/Medium does. Instead of 3×5 three times per week for now until forever, these programs have one day for a heavy workout, one day for a recovery workout and one day for a volume workout with each one increasing by 5lbs every week instead of every few days. This is more appropriate for intermediates who have already built some strength.

My favorite approach is to use 3 week waves, the way 5/3/1 does, because each workout in those 3 weeks works a different threshold while keeping progress consistently linear.

A cheap example:

  • Week 1 – 75% x 5×5+
  • Week 2 – 80% x 3×5+
  • Week 3 – 85% x 1×5+
  • Repeat w/ 5 more lbs

The monotony is broken up while keeping the obvious pattern of stress increase. New lifters can still benefit, especially because they can include more variations with this low frequency split, while the recovery pattern is perfectly tailored to intermediates.

The thing these all have in common is that they are ‘forever programs’. The program arranges itself so that the consistent increase of stress can continue for as long as possible and that often means months or even years. It’s great if you want to shut your brain off or just get your feet wet with a simple and straighforward program. But more advanced/competitive lifters will need something more focused.

-Linear Periodization

There are a ton of resources on periodization that will do more justice to it than what I can cover here(“Base Strength” and “Peak Strength” both cover the topic in depth). The cliff notes is that more advanced athletes need A.) more direct and focused work on specific traits, B.) more time to recover between similar athletes and C.) an arrangement of training that logically builds towards competition. This is where periodization comes in.

The term ‘periodization’ just means breaking training into phases, or periods. Where a single generalized workout might include heavy sets of 3 reps, medium sets of 8 reps and all-out barn-burners of 10, 15 and 20+ reps, periodization spreads those thresholds across a longer training timeframe. The most common pattern is to follow the gradient of ‘specificity’, starting more broad and less similar to your contest performance and getting more focused and specific as time goes on.

For lifters, that means starting with A.) high volume, B.) light weights, C.) high reps, and D.) varied exercises. As time goes on, the weight gets heavier, the volume and reps drop and the exercises get more specific to the competition movements. Here’s an extremely simple example:

  • Week 1 – 5×10 @ 60%
  • Week 2 – 4×10 @ 65%
  • Week 3 – 4×8 @ 70%
  • Week 4 – 3×6 @ 75%
  • Week 5 – 3×6 @ 80%
  • Week 6 – 3×5 @ 85%
  • Week 7 – 3×3 @ 90%
  • Week 8 – 2×2 @ 95%
  • Week 9 – 1×1 @ 100%

The term ‘linear’ refers to the straight line action of weight getting heavier and volume getting lower. Examples like this are extremely smooth, which looks good on paper but isn’t entirely necessary or beneficial. Programs that ditch the smoothness to focus on the effectiveness of each individual ‘period’ is called Block periodization.

The key point of block periodization is that you are spending a few weeks at each threshold, focusing your efforts on that range of work before bumping up into a higher threshold and repeating. Periodization generally breaks into 3 phases which go by a host of different names, depending on the source, but ultimately do the same thing.

The first is hypertrophy, volume or accumulation (I call it a “Base” phase). Percentages are set around 60-75%, reps can be higher and volume is really high. The point here is to build fatigue over the block in order to grow new muscle and set you up for heavier phases to come.

The second phase is strength, intensity or transmutation. Percentages begin to climb, hovering in the 75-85% range, while reps drop considerably. The point here is to start to temper the new muscle built in the previous phase to heavier loads. The nervous system is challenged here and that is where strength specific adaptations come from.

The third phase is the peaking, or realization phase. This is what leads directly into a meet. Volume drops very low to allow recovery so that new strength can be demonstrated. Fluff work and high rep sets are dropped altogether and the percentages are upwards of 85%. The point is to maximize strength specific qualities by getting good at single rep sets.

If you are planning on committing to a periodized scheme, treat the percentages as the most important part of the program. Do not add weight and go for broke because you feel good; the point is to get good at those specific percentages and to resensitize yourself to heavy weight by staying away from them for a while. The rest you will tweak over time with each successful run through.

5.) Set a Baseline of Work and GO!

If you have your exercises, workout split and set/rep scheme, you have a program. All you have to do is commit to making each workout and following the rate of progression you committed to without making dumb impulse decisions. That’s really it.

Take notes and make a point to develop mastery with your approach before you arbitrarily ditch it because another shiny, new program caught your eye. If you can’t make the one you started with work, you won’t make any of them work.

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