How Planned Should Your Workouts Be?
by Bradley J. Steiner (1987)
While I have long been an advocate of carefully planned and balanced total-body workouts, there re those who contend that they can train 'instinctively' with good results. If it works for you, don't argue with success. However, most trainees benefit more in the long run from some semblance of structure.
According to my philosophy of training, planning your routine in advance is just good common sense -- assuring that one's workouts have balance, that the right exercises are done in a manner consistent with one's goals and to offer a sense of structure and guidance when one goes to the gym. For example, when one doesn't feel like doing squats -- but they are literally written in to your program, it becomes much more difficult to avoid them.
However, some caution is necessary, as planning a program can be taken to self-defeating extremes. At least this can be the case with trainees who have laid a foundation in their training and who have also progressed to the intermediate to advanced stage of development. [Worth noting here is that Mr. Steiner defines Intermediate and Advanced level trainees by their stage of development, not by the length of time they've been training.]
Allow me to explain. A complete beginner needs to plan his workouts carefully in order to avoid too much (or too little) training, as well as to ensure that balanced development be acquired. Actually, a beginner's course can be mapped out almost to the exact rep and half-pound weight increment per week. However, past that point a trainee needs to alter the way in which he structures his routine or he will not be able to develop and progress fully. A routine which becomes overly rigid or unrealistic will prove to be an unpleasant grind from time to time.
Once an individual has worked out regularly and long enough to have reached his "normal" level of development -- which is quite a bit different than one's "maximum" level of development -- the structure of his routine is somewhat different than when he was in the beginning stages. Now, experimentation comes into play. More specifically, there's a certain leeway that's permissible in altering one's scheduled set/rep/poundage schemes based upon daily fluctuations in drive, energy, strength, etc. -- as well as to accommodate the body's readiness to progress.
Frankly, there's a definite need for an absence of rigidity in the intermediate or advanced individual's program. However, it must be approached correctly. Obviously, the initial step in determining one's training structure is to decide what days will be set aside for working out. Be advised, though, that only in odd or extreme situations should workouts be done randomly. But there are no hard and fast rules concerning the scheduled time of each session. Morning, afternoon and evening workouts are equally effective. The only thing that should guide you is personal convenience and inclination.
Step two in a reasonable training plan is the series of exercises that one intends to follow. For most training purposes these ought to consist of the basic movements, such as squat, press, curl, row, deadlift, calf raise, abdominal work, etc. Don't load down a program with tons of extra work. Extra exercises only take up time that is better spent on the basics. Only the set/rep schemes vary, as of course, do the poundages. Athletes training for enhancement of a particular ability in a certain sport usually are advised to train on much shorter programs than bodybuilders.
When you set up your program be sure to keep it realistic. If you work full time or have a full class load in school, have a family and enjoy a generally normal existence, it just isn't feasible to train for two hours daily, six days a week -- regardless of how many "top men" may be doing this. You are concerned with your life, your schedule, your capabilities -- not with the routine reported as being Mr. America's.
If you follow an all-round bodybuilding program (and that is the best type to follow), then a routine of between five and 10 exercises is plenty. Don't laugh. I am very serious. [Again, if the routine seems too easy you're not working it hard enough]. Most men do too much, and there is no extra gain for the added time and energy they spend. A good workout should consist of enough exercise, not too much.
Stick with the basics, and if you employ a variation movement, be sure that it is a workable variation of a worthwhile movement -- i.e., use the seated dumbbell curl as a variation of the regular barbell curl and so forth. In other words, don't drop barbell curls for one-arm peak contraction dumbbell curls. Those lesser movements are strictly for polishing up an advanced physique prior to a contest.
When you've selected your training days and decided upon a routine, the next step is to arrange a workable set/rep scheme that will permit you to strive for the goals you have. If you are after power, primarily, then you want a plan that allows you to use heavy weights, and to frequently push to your limits. On he other hand, if you are a basic fitness buff you only need to use weights that thoroughly work -- without excessively taxing -- your entire muscular system. If you're after general bodybuilding, then you need a set/rep that allows for all-round development, balancing between power, shape and size.
Step four is the training itself. And here is where basic good sense must apply. I want every reader to make note, and take special care to understand this:
Regardless of the routine you're following, you must simply let a certain degree of "on the spot" flexibility and variation from the ideal structure take place. Thus, if you are on a strength and power type of program such as:
Power Clean 5 x 5
Squat 5 x 5
Bench Press 5 x 5
One-Arm Row 4 x 8
Press Behind Neck 5 x 5
you might find on any given training day that 5 sets of 4 reps suits you better on the Power Cleans . . . and similar minor alterations do you well in the other exercises. If so, that's just fine. Let your inclination for that day be your guide. Remember, the rep should not be the determining factor in how hard you work an exercise.
Or, let's suppose it's winter. Your body's a bit cold and stiff, and so you employ a couple of higher-rep warmup sets in your squats (or other exercises) before doing three final heavy sets. On paper this might look a lot like a pyramid layout. Such variations will never detract from the long range gains you can expect to make, or from the discipline and effectiveness of your workouts. [It's worth noting that your body can't read what's written in your training log. It doesn't use abstract symbols to describe itself or its actions. It can only do or not do.]
By allowing your daily inclinations and and preparedness to train guide you in tailoring a workout to suit your needs and readiness on any given training day, you will enjoy your workouts better and gain a lot more from them.
The point is that, at the advanced level, there is nothing to be gained by browbeating your body into a routine that it might not be prepared to follow on any given training day.
When working out for all-around development the goal should not be the execution of so-many-reps for so-many-set and so-much-weight, per se. The goal ought to be for a good, thorough, sanely done and adequately felt workout. The entire physique, of course, must be trained.
Time is another variable. Training too closely by the clock is counterproductive. A workout should normally be done well with a two-hour period. In fact, about an hour of steadily paced hard work is frequently quite enough. Always be aware of the need not to overwork! The best you'll achieve with overworking is a self-defeated psychological state of disgust and staleness . . . accompanied by zero progress.
Regardless of the general workout plan you have (e.g., 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps for power, 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps for general gains, etc.) never force yourself to follow the plan rigidly. If on any given training day you are charged with super-enthusiasm, high energy and plenty of drive and strength, then go ahead and add a little more weight (even if it's ahead of schedule), or do another set. Conversely, if you're having a "blah" day (and we all do sometimes), back off. Cut a rep or two from each set, take some weight off, rest a minute or two longer between exercises, etc.
Although man does not seem to be born with any "instincts" in the strict scientific meaning of the term, he certainly possesses a natural inclination to know what's a good approach based upon what his subconscious mind feeds to him in the way of guidance. Tennis players, painters, writers, etc. know this, as do soldiers and craftsmen of many types. Advanced bodybuilders and lifters should know it too.
The ancient philosophy of Taoism teaches: "Eat when hungry, sleep when tired, drink when thirsty" as a simple way of harmonizing oneself with natural law. It makes an awful lot of sense when applied to many things.
Should you plan your workouts? Yes. The important thing is do not plan them rigidly. And do not train as though you were a machine or a programmed robot. Benefit from the discipline and balance of sound structure, but do not be a slave to it. That's advanced, effective training.
Let it work for you!