One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is, “How can I fit all the exercises I want to do into my program?” Sometimes their lists take up most of the page. If they did all those movements in a week their workouts would last three hours or more, which is certainly not a wise approach.
I have a couple of suggestions. One way to resolve the problem is to select a reasonable number of exercises from your list, do them diligently for a specific period of time – say, six weeks – and then change your routine and do the other exercises. That works well for many people because they thrive on frequent change.
Another effective method is to organize two separate programs and do them on alternate weeks. I simply call one routine A and the other routine B. I always make one a bit more difficult than the other, which gives me a heavy weekly workload alternated with a medium one. That’s the best arrangement. Otherwise you’re putting two heavy workouts back to back, and you don’t want that. It doesn’t matter which program is which, but it does help you to know the total amount of work you’re doing in each of the programs. So you’ll have to take the time to do some figuring – or you’ll just be guessing. Figuring workload doesn’t take that much time. You can do the math during the commercials while you’re watching TV.
Setting up two different workouts offers many advantages. The most obvious is that it gives you lots of variety. That’s a good thing, as variety increases motivation. Doing many exercises rather than a few also helps you build more balanced strength and lets you spend more time on the weaker and smaller groups. For example, you may want to include good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts, but it’s difficult to do both during the same week, especially if you’re doing many other movements that involve the lower back. With two programs, however, you can do good mornings one week and stiff-legs the next and get the benefit of both. For some inexplicable reason the body seems to forget how miserable an exercise is after two weeks. So you don’t dread good mornings or those heavy deadlifts if you only do them every other week. In fact, you start looking forward to them.
Those who want to include some Olympic lifting in their routines find that having two different workouts helps a great deal. If lifters work clean and jerks hard along with heavy squats on Monday and come back the following day and do snatches, the snatches won’t be as productive as the clean and jerks. With a two-week plan, however, they can do snatches every other Monday and the two quick lifts will stay in balance. When gains come consistently, motivation soars.
Whenever people ask me to set up a program for their specific needs, the first thing I have them do is list all the exercises they want to do. Often, the number of exercises is extreme, and I eliminate some, but usually I can deal with them. Recently, I received a request that was a bit unusual in the lifter wanted to do Olympic lifts but also many other strength movements, including benches, inclines, deadlifts and a host of auxiliary work.
It was an extensive list, including bench presses, incline presses, overhead presses, push presses, front squats, back squats, good mornings, stiff-legged deadlifts, clean and jerks, power cleans, clean high pulls, hang cleans, power snatches, snatches, snatch high pulls, hang snatches, shrugs, calf raises, pullovers, triceps pushdowns, weighted dips and curls.
The only exercise I nixed was curls. Adding biceps size isn’t a good idea for anyone who wants to do heavy cleans. A large biceps will interfere with racking the weight properly. Besides, with all the pulling exercises in the program, the trainee’s biceps would get plenty of work. I told him that if he absolutely had to include a specific exercise for his biceps, he should substitute chins for curls. Chins also strengthen the back, so they’re useful to any lifter. Note that I put them at the tail end of the routine. I told him that the only way he could get all the exercises in would be to train four days a week. He agreed, since he was, in fact, a rather advanced strength athlete.
Clean and jerks
Clean high pulls
Snatch high pulls
Hang clean or Hang snatch
Hang clean or Hang snatch
Snatch high pulls
Clean high pulls
Jerks from the rack
It is, indeed, a great deal of work, but I’ve had many athletes who could carry this load and recover. Obviously, some lifts, such as the deadlift, which I have him doing at the end of the week, won’t move up as fast as those performed earlier. In that case, however, he does the deadlift to benefit his clean and snatch. People who are more interested in improving their deadlift will have to move it into a more prominent position in the week.
Since this person’s primary interest is in improving the two Olympic lifts, he must regard the bench press differently from the way he’d look at it if he wanted to make gains on it. The bench press is often troublesome to people who do overhead exercises such as jerks because they tend to tighten the shoulders. There are two ways to keep that from happening. One is to stretch your shoulders after every set of bench presses and do more stretching at the end of the workout. The other is to avoid high reps. You don’t want to stimulate your pecs as much as hit the attachments, so do triples, doubles and even singles.
I recommend that Olympic lifters shun the flat-bench press altogether, but that doesn’t sit well with collegiate athletes because they’re always tested on the bench at the end of their off-season program. Using low reps and doing lots of stretching will prevent problems.
In the program listed here, I kept the auxiliary exercises in the same order in both workouts. That works out fine, since none of them are high-skill movements. Also, as you would use relatively light poundages on them, they don’t require the same mental concentration as the core exercises.
It may appear that there are far too many exercises on some days – Tuesdays, for example – but the power cleans and power snatches are warmups for the full movements. And since you do the power snatches in sets of threes and power cleans in fives, you can do them quickly. The few warmup sets add to the total volume for the day, help warm the body and set the correct line of pull for the more complicated full clean and full snatch.
All the workouts take an hour and a half or less. On week A you have the choice of doing either hang cleans or hang snatches. Which of the two quick lifts you choose will depend on which needs more work. If they’re balanced, alternate them each time they come up.
I didn’t list the sets and reps because they’ll change every time on most of the exercises, like the clean and jerks, snatches, high pulls, front squats, push presses and jerks from the rack. You’ll do 3 cleans and 2 jerks and do all the rest for 3 reps – although you can do warmup sets of 5. You can also vary the sets and reps on the good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts, but the change will be slight: 4 sets of 10 to 5 sets of 8. It’s not much of a difference, but it does stimulate the lumbars in a different way.
For the power cleans, inclines, overhead presses, push presses and deadlifts I recommend alternating the sets and reps on a three-week cycle:
1) 5 sets of 5
2) 3 sets of 5 plus 3 sets of 3
3) 3 sets of 5 followed by 3 singles
It’s not a good idea to end up doing singles on all of those exercises in the same week, unless it happens to be a test week, so juggle the cycles around.
I’ve already addressed how trainees wanting to do the Olympic lifts should deal with the bench press, but if you aren’t interested in overhead lifting, use this three week cycle for your bench. If you bench twice a week, do the cycle on your heavy day and perform 2 sets of 8 and 2 heavy doubles on your other bench day.
I use this for the back squats: 5 sets of 5 followed by a back-off set of 8. If you handle 350 for 5, at the next workout you use 360 for your final set – and so on.
Another subtle change that helps overall progress is to alter the order of the exercises. I generally encourage people who are trying to get stronger to go to the squat rack first, but if I see one of their other primary exercises falling behind, I have them do the weaker lifts first. So if your squats have moved way ahead of your pulls, do power cleans or deadlifts first for a while.
The two exceptions to that idea are good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts. If you work your lumbars first, you can kiss your squat goodbye for that day. Lower-back exercises fit best right after squats. If you feel you need more upper-body strength, though, you can do inclines, squats and good mornings.
It’s also important to remember not to tax the smaller muscles before moving on to the larger ones. That would seem to be common sense, but many people don’t comprehend it. On numerous occasions I’ve noticed athletes doing their calf raises before squatting. When I asked them why, they said they wanted to get their calves out of the way. That’s understandable, but if your calves are fatigued, the core lift will suffer. I’ve also stopped others who were doing lots of triceps work before going to the incline or bench. Big muscle, then small muscle – a basic rule when you’re creating a routine.
Speaking of small muscles, you can vary the sets and reps on the auxiliary movements as well. As a general rule I stay with high reps on calf raises – 30s for 3 sets – but it’s beneficial to change that every so often. Do 5 sets of 15, for example, and there’s really no reason why you can’t do low reps once in a blue moon, providing you warm up properly before the work sets. See if doing 10 sets of 5 makes you sore.
Weighted dips are excellent for enhancing the upper-body power, and they thrive on change.
I like this schedule for dips:
1) 4 sets of 8
2) 5 sets of 5
3) 2 sets of 5, and then
4) Max out with a single about once a month
Although I adhere to the 40-rep rule on most auxiliary movements, that’s a guideline and not carved in stone. So for curls, pullovers, pushdowns, incline dumbbell presses and seated dumbbell presses, periodically change the sets and reps. Instead of 2 sets of 20, do 3 sets of 15 or 4 sets of 12. The slight variation is enough to stimulate growth and enthusiasm.
Another option is to revamp your current routine completely, changing from a pure strength program to one that emphasizes higher reps. That’s certainly not a new idea. It was a common practice among the top bodybuilders when I first started lifting weights. They’d spend several months packing on weight and doing a pure strength routine. Some even entered weightlifting competitions. Then they’d switch their routines and start doing higher reps as they dropped the extra bodyweight. The strength they gained enabled them to run the reps way up and also work longer and faster.
You might try doing basic exercises like squats, deadlifts and bench presses in sets of 20 and see what happens. Be creative. If the new routine doesn’t bring the results you desire, you can always go back to the old one. But you’ll never know unless you try something different. You may just stumble on a program that works wonderfully for you.