Here’s a sign of the times: You can actually hire people to come to your house and organize your closets. They’ll also do your garage, your attic, and the shed in your backyard. These people are tough on pack rats. They ask questions like “Why do you have this box of dog leashes, but no dog?”
My job isn’t all that different. As a trainer, if I see something in a client’s workout-or my own-that doesn’t belong there, I get rid of it. If I see a redundant exercise, it’s gone. Disorganized workout? I organize it. And if I see a client doing a program he got out of some old bodybuilding magazine, I throw the whole thing out and start over.
I can’t come to your gym and fix your workout (or organize your closets). But I can tell you what you need to know to organize your own regimen, based on your goals, your available time, and your experience. I’ll even throw in six sample workouts for beginner through advanced lifters. Now, about those closets . . .
I assume the closet lady would start by asking, “What do you need this closet to do for you?” Me, I’d ask the same question, substituting the word “workout” for “closet.” Usually, these goals fall into three categories:
Lose weight: If you’re a beginner, start with a circuit routine in which you do 10 to 12 exercises one after the other, 10 to 15 repetitions per set, with little or no rest in between. Do two or three circuits.
If you’re more advanced, try supersets. In these, you do two exercises back-to-back, rest 60 seconds, and then repeat once or twice. There are many ways to do supersets, but for fat loss, I’d like to see you use as much muscle as possible. One way is to pair exercises that work completely different muscles, such as squats and seated rows.
Build muscle: For most men, I recommend exercises that allow you to do eight to 12 repetitions per set. You can do them as straight sets-complete a set, rest about 60 seconds, do the next set of the same thing, and keep going that way until you’ve finished all your sets and are ready to move on to the next exercise.
If you have more experience, try supersets, but not the way you did them for fat loss. Pair synergistic exercises-two moves that work the same muscles. Usually, the first is a compound move to work a lot of muscles, the second a single-joint exercise to focus on one large muscle. So barbell bench presses might be followed by dumbbell flies. Shoulder presses could lead in to lateral raises.
Gain strength: There’s no secret here-heavy weights, low repetitions (usually three to five per set for the most important moves, such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses), and longer rest (up to 4 minutes) between sets. You don’t have to do every exercise this way, of course. Start with low reps on your main moves, then do more repetitions with lighter weights and shorter rest periods on less important ones.
This is akin to the closet lady saying, “What’s your budget?” Before I design a program, I need to know how much time you’re going to put in. I’m going to assume everyone is willing to work out 40 to 60 minutes per session.
To me, that’s a finite window, just as your closet is a finite size. If you want to do longer workouts, great, but I usually don’t go in that direction. If I can’t give you a system that gets it done in an hour or less, there’s something wrong with my program. To me, the big variable here is how many days a week you’re able and willing to work out.
Two days a week: No matter your level or goals, do total-body workouts. You want to hit your major muscles twice a week; otherwise, they’ll be completely rested between workouts and will have no reason to grow.
If you’re a beginner, stick to circuits, as I recommended above for fat loss. But if you’re more interested in building muscle than in losing fat, I suggest doing sets of eight to 12 reps, with perhaps a little more rest in between exercises.
Another option for saving time is to do antagonistic supersets. These pair up movements that involve opposite muscle actions, such as situps and back extensions.
Three days a week: If you’re not a beginner, you can adopt a split routine. The easiest to remember is the upper-body/ lower-body split. You alternate between them, so if you’re training three times a week, you’ll do upper-lower-upper 1 week, then lower-upper-lower the next.
If you’re working out four times a week, you’ll do upper on Monday and Thursday, and lower on Tuesday and Friday.
What you do during those split routines depends on your goals (explained above) and your experience (explained below).
Beginners make gains with just about any type of program, so it’s best to keep it simple and safe-fairly high repetitions, basic exercises, total-body workouts. The more experience you have, the more you’ll benefit from heavier weights and lower repetitions, more advanced exercises and techniques, and split routines.
Another issue is recovery. A beginner can recover in 48 hours and do fine with three total-body workouts a week. A more advanced lifter needs to give his muscles more time to recover, since he’s hitting them harder.
Also, the more experienced you are, the less time you should spend on a program before moving on. A beginner can do the same program for 6 to 10 weeks without hitting a plateau. Grizzled iron vets may need to move on every 2 or 3 weeks. You probably fall somewhere in between.