Updated: Sep 25
Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS
Simply putting carrying some weight in the gym and doing a few exercises here and there without knowing what you are doing is not only ineffective, it could potentially put you at risk of injury.
How heavy should I carry?
How much should I do?
How often should I do it?
Should I do the exercises consecutively?
The process of designing a resistance training program can be confusing for non-professionals, especially for someone new to weight training. The effectiveness of a training program to achieve a specific training outcome such as muscular endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength, or power, depends on the manipulation of these training variables. The relationship between the training variables such as volume (reps x sets x weight), intensity, frequency, recovery time (between sets), and order of the exercises, and how they influenced each other can have a profound effect on the results you get.
Therefore, depending on what you want to achieve from your training, the first step is to establish your training goal (based on your needs) before prescribing training variables. For example, if you want to improve on your maximal strength, high intensity, low volume, and longer recovery between sets are recommended as opposed to low intensity, high volume, and shorter recovery between sets. Depending on the training goal, the training variables assigned for the program will vary accordingly.
Training volume, the answer to the question, “How much are you training?”, can be quantified by multiplying reps, weight, sets, and summing up the values. This gives you the total volume over a training session and it can be referred to as total ‘load-volume’ (7,10). The total number of repetitions performed in the training session, namely, rep-volume can also be another way to measure training volume (3,5,8).
Training volume is one of the most important factors when it comes to performance. Without an increase in overall training volume, the body will not be able to adapt and improve further. However, doing too much too quickly can increase the risk of overtraining. This is why it is highly recommended to track and monitor your training volume while increasing it progressively.
In general, intensity refers to how hard you exercise. Intensity may vary from very low to a very high level. The more work you perform in a given amount of time, the higher the intensity of the exercise. The “work” is commonly referred to as “load” (at least in Olympic weightlifting) and it is related to the resistance/ weight used. There are a couple of ways to measure intensity in resistance training; percentage of the maximum effort (%1RM) and the average load carried per repetition in a training session (more on this later).
1RM indicates the weight that can be lifted with 1 repetition and therefore, it is your 100% effort. If you want to lift for 6 repetitions, the recommended weight would be 85% effort of 1RM (Table 2 - %1RM-Rep relationship, Chapter 15) (NSCA). As mentioned, you can quantify the total training volume in a training session (load-volume). However, this does not reflect the intensity value (how much effort you put in). For example, take a look at the 2 different training sessions as followed:
Total volume: 3660 kg
Total volume: 3315 kg
Based on the figures shown in the table, session 1 definitely has more work done than session 2 due to the higher total volume. However, if you divide the load-volume by the total number of repetitions (rep-volume) done in session 1 (66 reps) and 2 (49 reps), it works out to 55.5kg/ rep and 67.7kg/ rep, respectively. Well, what do you know! Even though session 1 had a higher amount of work volume, the effort level in session 2 was more intense because the load lifted per rep was heavier. This shows that doing more does not translate to higher intensity. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between volume and intensity. Increasing both volume and intensity are commonly a recipe for injury. Monitoring the average weight lifted per rep in a workout session provides a good estimation of the exercise intensity and if you have a sudden spike in intensity, it is best to take it down a notch to prevent injury.
Training frequency refers to the number of training sessions in a week. To determine the frequency, there are a few things to consider such as the training status, sports season (if any), training intensity, exercise type, and other concurrent training (if any).
Traditionally, it is recommended to do at least 3x/week of workouts, as it allows adequate recovery between sessions (1,4). As the trainee or athlete gets fitter, it will be good to consider increasing the frequency. Although it might seem to contradict the recommendation for recovery, highly resistance-trained trainees or athletes manage their training by adopting a split training routine that trains different muscle groups (e.g., upper body or lower body) on different days, allowing 2-3 days of recovery between each session. For a competitive athlete, training frequency in the weight room will depend on the sports season. During in-season when the emphasis on practicing the sport skill and technique increases, the frequency of weights training will decrease due to time constraints. Generally, athletes or trainees who train at 100% or near maximal effort level require more time to recover before the next training session (5,9). Hence, the number of the training session in a week will be lesser to allow recovery.
It has also been shown that upper body muscles and single-joint exercises recover quicker from heavy training sessions compared to lower body muscles (6) and multi-joint exercises (11), respectively. Therefore, depending on the types of exercise and the muscle group, training frequency will have to be adjusted accordingly.
If a training program consists of cardiovascular, speed, power, sports practice, or any combination of these components, naturally the frequency of weights training may need to be reduced.
The time for recovery between sets/ exercises is called the ‘rest period’ and the length of it is highly dependent on the training goal, the training load/intensity, the amount of muscle mass involved, and the physical condition of the athlete/ trainee.
Training for strength and power generally requires maximal or near maximal effort and therefore there is a need for longer rest periods between sets (5,9). Even though a strength or power training program tends to have a longer rest period, it is important to consider the amount of muscle mass involved in each exercise. For example, a 12RM load squat exercise that is programmed in a strength training program would require only a 30-60 seconds rest period, compared to a 6RM load squat exercise which would require up to 4 minutes of recovery between sets. Lastly, consider prescribing longer rest periods than usual if the athlete/ trainee has a poorer physical condition.
Order of the Exercises
The last training variable, exercise order, refers to the sequence of exercises performed during the training session. Usually, exercises are arranged based on the interaction of the exercises and more importantly, how they affect the quality or the technique of each other. 4 of the most common methods of arranging resistance exercises are by the number of joints involved in the exercise, alternating upper and lower body exercises, alternating ‘push’ and ‘pull’ exercises, and supersets and compound sets.
It is recommended that multi-joint exercises should be performed first followed by single-joint exercises. Multi-joint exercises involved more muscles, resulting in a higher amount of energy expenditure compared to single-joint exercises. Athletes who are fatigued are prone to perform an exercise with poor technique, and as a result, are at higher risk of injury. Especially power exercises, which require a high level of skill and mental concentration, are most affected by fatigue (5). Therefore, if there are any power exercises in a training program, they should always be performed first.
Alternating upper and lower body exercises can be useful for untrained individuals as this arrangement allows back-to-back exercises, yet provides an opportunity for a body area to recover before the next set (less strenuous). This can also reduce the overall training time as it minimizes the rest periods between exercises (if there is limited training time). Another method that is similar to alternating between upper and lower body exercises will be to alternate between ‘push’ (e.g., chest press, shoulder press, triceps extension) and ‘pull’ (e.g., bend-over row, lats pull down, biceps curl) exercises (2). This is to reduce fatigue in the involved muscles, making sure that they will not be used in 2 exercises in succession.
There are methods of exercise order that involve the athlete performing a pair of exercises back-to-back with little to no rest between them. 2 of the most common examples are the supersets and compound sets. A superset involves arranging exercises that stress opposing muscles (e.g., agonist and antagonist) or muscle areas (e.g., upper back and lower back legs) (2). On the contrary, a compound set involves performing 2 different exercises in succession for the same muscle group (e.g., biceps curl followed by hammer curl) (2). Although this method might be time efficient, it may not be suitable for unconditioned athletes/ trainees as the stress on the same muscle is compounded because both exercises recruit the same muscle area (in this example, the biceps brachii).
Well-designed programs are based on the application of sound principles. Based on your desired training outcomes, appropriate exercises are selected and training frequency is established. Understanding the rationale and how the training variables interact with each other, intensity, volume, and rest periods can then be assigned. The process is to ensure that our training is optimized to achieve a specific outcome, safely and efficiently.
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