How To Structure A Strength Training Session
So you’ve got a few exercises in your arsenal. You know a couple moves, but you still walk into the gym and just kind of bounce around from machine to machine, station to station, hoping you’re doing something right.
This is cool and all if you’re just interested in checking the gym off your to-do list, but if you want to do more than just say you went— if you want to really effectively and intentionally work out— it’s important to understand how to structure a workout for maximum results.
Think of learning to workout like learning a language. You’ve got to start by learning words (exercises) and this is great progress, but eventually there’s only so much you can get done by just stringing random words together. You need to learn some grammar (structure) in order to start forming sentences and communicating, which is the whole purpose of language in the first place, right?
Here are just a few ways I structure my own strength training sessions. There is no right or wrong way, but certain ways provide benefits that others don’t and vice versa.
For general training splits, begin by dividing your workouts simply into upper and lower body days, rather than trying to go into the gym and hit every body part every day.
Obviously, simply having a “leg day” and an “upper body” day is one way to do this, but further than that, consider having a “glute/hamstring day” and then a more “quad focused” leg day. And instead of saying, “I’m going to train my whole upper body!” think of training arms one day and then chest/back another day.
Probably one of the most common ways to structure a workout— certainly in the beginning— is by pairing complementary muscle groups together, like working out your back with your biceps your chest with your triceps. This is also sometimes referred to as “push/pull” workouts, where chest/triceps/shoulders = push and back/biceps = pull. Dividing your training into a push day and a pull day is a good way to effectively separate upper body workouts.
Some people prefer not to train this way and even recommend against it under the belief that if you’re already working your biceps while training back, why hit them again separately only for them to already be fatigued?
I encourage people to do what works and feels good for them, and it’s always fine to switch things up as you go along if you notice decreases in strength in some of your exercises.
Remember just a second ago when we talked about push/pull days? Well, another training structure is to create your routine around pairs of push/pull movements, rather than splitting your workout into entirely push & pull days.
For example, you would perform a“push” movement (like pectoral flies or bench press) and follow this exercise with a “pull” movement (like barbell rows or close-grip pull downs.)
I typically prefer to train like this simply because I enjoy doing all of my “big” moves on one day and saving smaller, more concentrated moves (like bicep curls, front delt raises, etc.) for other days.
Big to Little
We talked about splitting lower body workouts into splits like “glutes/hamstrings” or even “quads/glutes,” but even further into that split is what I refer to as a “big to little” structure.
This is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll start your workout with the big moves (think: squats, deadlifts, leg press) and work your way into what the experts call “auxiliary” movements. Fun fact: The latin root of the word “auxiliary” is “auxilium” which means “help,” so we can think of our auxiliary movements as “helping” moves.
Examples of auxiliary movements for legs might be bulgarian split squats, leg extensions, or lying hamstring curls.
Most people prefer this kind of structure because it allows for maximal strength to be devoted to the “big” lifts in the beginning. That being said, up next is…
Little to Big
You guessed it— little to big is my terminology for a workout that begins with the “little” (or auxiliary) movements and ends with the big moves.
People are against this structure because your muscles are pretty tired by the time you get to the big moves, which means squatting/deadlifting less, which is no fun, right?!
People are for this structure because it means that when it’s time to get to the big lifts, you’re pushing extra hard because your muscles are so depleted.
I say, if your goal is specifically to progressively lift heavier and heavier, stick with big to little, but if you’re simply headed in for tough session, try reversing your workout and see how it feels to finish with squats rather than begin with them!
I hope this gives you some ideas and direction in order to begin creating your own workout plans!
ANYONE can do this, guys. Research a few moves, watch what other people do, and then come back to these little outlines and fill in your own workouts!