A no-nonsense guide to design your workouts, Part I
Ed Downs

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Don't miss Part II and Part III of "A No-Nonsense Guide to Design Your Workouts."

Everywhere you turn these days, weight training seems to be the focus. And why shouldn't it be? A proper weight training program produces many positive effects, including: increased muscle mass; reduced body fat; increased bone density; improved insulin sensitivity; improved self-esteem; and overall well-being. The list goes on. Yet with all the information available, why is it so hard for people to make progress? Because most of what is out there is BULLSHIT!!

Designing Your WorkoutI literally got so tired of seeing the garbage that is printed in most magazines and books that I stopped selling the majority of them in my gym. Those who are writing this garbage actually call themselves experts. Most of these so-called "experts" look like they couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. How can you listen to somebody telling you the best way to get lean, when they look like they need a trainer themselves? No, I'm not saying that to be a good trainer or a good strength coach you have to look like Mr. America, or bench press 400 pounds. However, I am saying that if they haven't had much success themselves, how can they possibly help you?

Helping people is what being a trainer and a coach is all about. Most publishers and editors are so hell-bent on selling magazines, they print things like this: "Put 2 inches on your arms in 21 days;" "Have a chest like Arnold's in just 6 weeks." People, just like you, purchase this type of trash in the hopes that it might work. These writers and editors rely on your ignorance.

Having the knowledge and ability to help somebody achieve their goals goes far beyond writing an article about workouts. Writing workouts is actually a pretty easy thing to do. Just about anyone with a little bit of knowledge can do it, and many – unfortunately -- do. The barriers to entry to become a personal trainer are so low, most certificates aren't worth the paper they're written on. In contrast, look at the barriers to entry to become a nurse. Several years of school filled with prerequisites, in which you need a 78 percent just to pass, coupled with many hours of hands-on clinicals. What education does a trainer need? Send away for some study guides, take a test, and "Bam!" you're a certified trainer.

I would never refer a client to most of the personal trainers I've met from around the country. I never allowed outside trainers to train their clients in my gym. We did all the training in-house. So where should you look for the right information? Look no further, because by reading this article, you're already way ahead of most. No, I'm not going to promise you two inches on your arms in 21 days. But, I will promise to give you no-nonsense information that you'll be able to use as long as you work out. This is the first in a three part series that will help you design your own workouts to keep them fresh and constantly moving toward your goals.

Program Design

The first component of a training program that should be given consideration is training frequency. How often can, or more importantly, should I train per week? Optimum recovery time between training sessions is essential if you are going to continue to make progress. Training frequency, which is determined by your recovery ability, is often a forgotten part of most training protocols.

You can never train too hard, but you can train too much. Training "too much" can actually be described in two ways. The first, and probably the most common way, is training too often. The average person, who is training with 100 percent intensity, will not be able to train a body part any more frequently than once every 6 to 8 days. In fact, many advanced lifters may need upwards of 9 or 10 days in between training sessions for the same body part.

In order for a training program to be productive, it must stimulate an appropriate adaptive response. A productive training program must also allow an adaptive response to occur. Notice the distinction between stimulating the adaptation and allowing it to occur. Many training programs are either too long in duration or they're repeated too frequently, depleting the body's restorative ability, hindering overcompensation.

Designing Your WorkoutLet it be understood that if you are still sore from a previous workout, then you are not recovered. Moreover, if you are feeling fatigued, or not feeling energetic about your scheduled workout, you are not recovered, and the best thing you could do is take another day off. Training stimulates your muscles to grow, but they don't grow during training. Proper nutrition and enough rest between sessions is what facilitates recovery and allows the muscles to adapt to the training stimulus. Training before the muscle is recovered can not only slow or even put a halt to your progress; you increase your risk of injury.

Don't be so concerned with how many training sessions you can handle per week. Be more concerned about the optimal amount. More is not always better. In fact, when somebody comes to me for advice because they've stopped making progress, usually I either reduce the workout volume or add days off. Many of the top strength coaches in the world point out that there is no reason to go to the gym if you're not going to make progress. In every workout, if you have fully recovered, and you come ready to work, you should have a productive workout.

How can anyone get stronger every workout? You can only bench press so much. Eventually, you have to hit a plateau. This is true. If you stay with the same exercises, the same number of reps and the same number of sets, progress may eventually stop. If the proper changes aren't made at the right time, eventually the body adapts to the stimulus. And this is where the "art" of being a coach comes in to play.

It's easy to write a workout. The real challenge is assuring the recovery from workout to workout: week to week, month to month, so that progress continues over a long period of time. Take the guesswork out of the equation by following the universal training principles, and start making progress.

Below you will see what I most often prescribe to my clients. Keep in mind, as stated earlier, training frequency is dependent on how you recover from workout to workout. Most people will need 7 to 8 days between training the same body part to fully recover. Some will need 5 to 6 days. You need to adjust your training frequency by how you're progressing. And remember, many of you will have to allow for your job and family. The daily bump and grind can take a toll on your workouts.


This is a total body workout designed for beginners. You'll perform 1 exercise per body part every other day. One should use this workout for a minimum of 6 months. If time is of the essence, train twice a week. As long as you are training with 100 percent intensity, twice will be more than enough for most.

Day 1: Total body
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Total body
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Total body
Day 6: Off
Day 7: Off
Designing Your Workout

The following workouts are for intermediate or advanced lifters.


2 days on, 1 day off, 1 day on, 2 days off. With this particular three day split workout, you will be hitting every body part once every 6 days. If time is of the essence, and you can only make it to the gym 3 days a week, simply add 1 more day off.

Day 1: Chest and back
Day 2: Quads, hams and abs
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Shoulders, arms and calves
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Off       


Day 1: Chest, shoulders and biceps
Day 2: Quads, hams and abs
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Back, triceps and calves
Day 5: Off


2 days on, 1 day off, 2 days on, 1 day off. This four-day split workout allows you to hit every body part once every 6 days. You can make it a once-every-7-day workout by adding another day off.

Day 1: Chest and triceps
Day 2: Back and calves
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Shoulders, biceps abs
Day 5: Quads and hams
Day 6: Off


Day 1: Quads and hams
Day 2: Off
Day 3: Back and calves
Day 4: Chest and biceps
Day 5: Off
Day 6: Shoulders, triceps and abs

Once you've found a workout schedule you like, stick with it for 3 to 6 weeks. It takes at least 3 weeks for you to reap the benefits of any particular workout. However, your workouts will start to lose their effectiveness right around the 6th week. So for most of you reading this article who haven't made gains in weeks, months or even years, be ready to reach new levels of strength and muscular development.

In Part II and Part III, we get into the meat and potatoes of program design. You're going to learn what exercises to choose for each body part. You're also going to learn the appropriate number of sets and repetitions for each exercise. But more importantly, after reading the next to parts you'll be able to change your programs in order to be most effective.

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