When I think of the sources of information trainees seek to help them in their pursuit of becoming bigger and stronger, I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness as the information often used is from sources that are next to worthless. Trainees either follow what the biggest guy in the gym does, without questioning its worth or practicality to their own individual needs, or what the champs recommend in the glossy muscle magazines, or is that glorified supplement catalogs. Sure, these might seem admirable role models, if only because they possess the kind of muscle mass the trainee seeks, but the answers they so desperately desire reside in better places, more reliable sources closer to the heart.
Personalization is by far the best source of training information any trainee can use when designing their routine. Forget the glossy muscle magazines and what the champs do, the only person capable of designing a routine suitable to your needs is YOU! No two trainees are exactly alike, and individual variation dictates your own routine. While benches may suit your training partner because he possesses short arms and a barrel chest, you might receive little to no chest stimulation because you're built differently, making it useless for you. Never use an exercise just because others enjoy it or because of legend surrounding its reputation. If benches aren't suited to your body then something better is, and your mission is to find that exercise.
One of the best moves I've made in my lifelong pursuit of reaching my genetic potential has been listening to what my body tells me. Possessing such knowledge dictates exactly what exercises I perform and how often I train. I don't care if others train more often or use movements that are the opposite from mine, that is their prerogative based on their needs. I'm my own instructor, only I know what I need to use for me. This type of understanding doesn't happen overnight, it's the accumulation of many years of lifting and becoming in tune with my body. Some people are born with this instinct while others have to hone it over years of careful listening; either way it's an invaluable trait worth its weight in gold when designing a routine suitable to achieve your goals.
If you settle for a LOT less than what you are truly capable of then you only have yourself to blame, as progress can be a regular occurrence. Genetics aside, why accept less when a little trial and error can take you that much further? It usually takes a while to become in tune with your body, knowing which movements suit you, but that discovery is well worth the effort and dedication as you eventually possess your most powerful guidance, personalization. Weight training is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, so concentrate on gradually building up your poundages, enjoy the small steps of progress, as these are the steps that will eventually accumulate to provide the results you are training for.
Four factors determine whether the routine we presently use is right for us; these factors are based on our individual need. So while there might be similarities between two trainees' routines, there's often enough variation to make each one unique. These differences dictate, (1) exercise choice, (2) rep allotment, (3) workout volume, and (4) workout frequency. Let's examine each one to see how personalization shapes our individual needs. Let's examine each one.
The first step in designing your own routine is discovering which movements suit you. Some exercises deliver better results than others and without dispute, the foundation of every exercise routine revolves around the basics. The basics are the "beasts" of exercises, as they require the heaviest poundages demanding the most amount of effort to perform. These factors alone explain why they provide the best stimulation, but even within the handful of basic movements there's enough variation to choose from to personalize your routine. The basics deliver worthwhile and noticeable results, and trainees could easily forego isolation movements the whole of their training career safe in the knowledge that they never missed a thing.
Keep in mind that we all possess personal differences, which is why each trainee needs to use only those basic movements that suit them. That is an ongoing process, as movement suitability changes as one grows older and stronger. For example, I was able to perform presses behind neck for most of my training life' this was THE exercise of choice for coconut delts and I wanted those jutting caps as much as anything. But as I grew bigger, pressing behind my neck was no longer practical. The joints in my delts began to suffer more strain and stress than stimulation, and my neck also began to feel the effects. I promptly dropped them rather than continue out of habit or because of the champs' endorsements. I tried a myriad of exercises in search of something better, requiring a lot of trial and effort before I eventually settled on front presses. I knew my body well enough to detect what didn't feel right and wisely avoided injury, which was inevitable had I persisted with presses behind neck just because "The Barbarians" swore to its worth.
Knowing your exercise suitability is only part of the battle, as without knowing how many reps you should do on each one, you can't proceed confidently in designing an effective routine. Your muscle fibre make-up determines your rep allotment, and like your choice of exercises, it's something you have to decide on by listening to your body. Certain people excel at different sports for a variety of reasons, most related to genetic heredity. Long distance runners possess a different muscle fibre make-up than do sprinters, which is why they excel in their chosen sport. I knew early in my training that medium and high reps didn't suit me. I'm made for short bursts of effort, which is why my rep allotment rarely exceeds 5 reps of any movement.
In the 80's I tested this theory on two separate occasions using Ellington Darden's methods from one of his books. As predicted, I failed on a handful of reps using 80% of my maximal weight. This confirmed my feeling that low reps suited me best. That isn't too say I've never used high reps for variety or to see what they could do, but each time they never felt right and I lost size and strength. I know I possess a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, where my former training partner had a higher proportion of slow twitch fibres. He once accused me of being "lazy," as I would only do a handful of reps and I was spent. What he overlooked was that was how I HAD to train for my body; his required many more reps than mine did. Knowing my muscle fibre make-up determines my rep allotment. I'm a low repper, so that's what I use. High reps aren't my style.
Having a solid grasp of which exercises and reps suit you leads to the task of deciding how much exercise should be included in each workout. Like your muscle fibre make-up, your personal tolerance levels determine how much volume you can take each trip to the gym, and this has to be carefully monitored to avoid over-training. Over-training is by far the worst mistake I see trainees repeatedly make in their haste to become bigger and stronger, as when weight-training is overdone it hampers gains at best, ceasing gains altogether at worst, so it's always a precarious balancing act to get it just right. This becomes more probable the stronger you become; as strength levels increase, so does the toll it takes on the whole body. Advanced trainees are capable of generating extremely high levels of intensity, which is why their workout volume is only a fraction of what it is for the beginner. Even intermediate trainees generate enough intensity to cause enough depletion to warrant a severe reduction on what they used in their initial stages of training. If in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of being conservative, as that way you will be able to get bigger and stronger without fear of over-training.
Beginners tolerate greater exercise volumes than advanced trainees can, because they can't generate enough levels of intensity to cause substantial damage and depletion to their system. But as a trainee advances, growing larger and lifting increasingly heavier poundages, something has to be adjusted to compensate. With each progressive workout the trainee's system becomes less tolerable to the volume of workload it endures, which is why it's paramount that adjustments are made to compensate. This is a fact of nature, along with strength and size increases the strain on the system increases also, so to accommodate for these increases workout volume and frequency have to be adjusted in accordance, requiring careful monitoring.
No one is a single entity, as we all possess the same human traits we need to obey for optimal progress. For our bodies to continue progressing at the fastest rate, we must closely monitor what our bodies tell us, as they are our most reliable sources of training information we could have. This feedback is invaluable, and if we choose to ignore it or never bother to pay attention at all then progress will never be what we hoped it would be. Our energy stores aren't indefinite, neither are our tolerance levels for exercise, so the smart trainee is continually monitoring his frequency as required.
Possessing a 22-year training history, I know my limits, which is why I use a handful of exercises each workout, and stop just short of failure. I love training, which is evident by by stable training history, and would dearly love to be able to train more often than three times every two weeks, but that wouldn't be practical for my body's needs. My weights are so heavy and my ability to apply myself to each exercise at a regularity that I would otherwise like. Regardless, I'm progressing every week, so that satisfies the criteria of why I train in the first place, as progress is where gains are at, not training for the sake of training. It's these small steps that add up to long term gains.
Each of us has our own tolerance to exercise and recuperation periods we have to abide by to allow weekly progress. It's your mission to analyze each workout, writing down every aspect in a training diary, so you have tangible evidence to draw upon when deciding your workout volume and frequency. In my opinion, the equation is quite simple: you either perform a single set to failure, or perform two sets just shy of failure, the effect achieved is virtually the same. Which ever you choose is based upon your own unique traits, as some trainees progress better (if only for a limited period) training at maximum intensity, while others progress better by avoiding the last rep of each set. This isn't a mystery, and as you become better at knowing your body, you will be aware of which suits you better. You must become your own trainer to know how to proceed, compare the effects of sub-maximal sets versus sets taken to failure. Try both, monitoring their effects, before you decide.
As mentioned above, workout frequency shouldn't be chosen out of the blue. It's much more complex than that, but when you have it right progress should be an expected weekly occurrence. When training is first commenced, most get away with daily training training if we choose, due to the low poundages we handled and the minor effects placed upon our recuperative abilities. But as we become stronger, able to handle heavier poundages and train harder, deeper inroads are made, taxing our precious recuperative abilities much more. These greater demands require extended periods of rest to rebound from. It's a two-part process, which most overlook and at best they only pay attention to the initial process of recuperating from the workout. In addition to the initial recuperation time to repair the damage we inflicted in our workouts, there's extra time to overcompensate (which is where gains are produced). This two-part process dictates what we get out of our workouts, but it's here where most trainees go off tangent, training when the mood hits them, which severely short-circuits the gains they were capable of had they rested a little longer.
If possible, I would love to train at least three times a week, but know that isn't practical due to the drain on my energy levels to complete and recover from each workout. In addition to this, the mental drain involved to psyche up for such high levels of output is monumental, which is why I have little option than to abide by my personal needs and rest 3-4 days between workouts. This frequency is appropriate for my needs, as I am able to add 1-2 pounds to most exercises every time I train, and without progress why bother to train in the first place? I expect progress at least every second workout, and if it isn't forthcoming then I know it's time to make another adjustment to compensate for my continual strength improvements. My first adjustment is usually the volume of each workout, or the frequency when needed, whatever it takes to ensure continual progress.
Once a trainee passes the beginner stage they need to rest according to personal needs, allowing at least 2-3 days or longer between workouts. If progress is sporadic then lengthen the rest days until you see regular progress at least every second workout. Don't fall into the trap that just because Monday is your normal training day, you have to be in the gym, as maybe Tuesday or Wednesday would have been more appropriate. Far too many trainees fear that if they rest for more than a day or two between workouts they will shrink and become weaker. This is pure fallacy, as the body takes a long time to acquire size and strength it isn't logical that it would lose something in a matter of days that takes so long to rebuild. Recuperation is a complex process requiring periods of complete rest to complete according to lifestyle influxes. No week is the same, so be prepared to adjust your rest periods in accordance. Overcompensation (size and strength increases) takes even longer, so never fear resting as long as your body needs, as both your body and mind deserve time off so that the next time around it can push that much harder.
Train in accordance to your own needs, and never train to someone else's. You have your own criteria for choosing the exercises you perform, based on your unique body structure, which is arrived at after periods of trial and error. As with all other aspects of your workouts, either reps, volume or frequency, each has to be assessed against the other to ensure optimum progress. We must be patient in our journey of discovery, as very few people possess the traits to make their best decisions overnight. The rewards you will receive will be well worth the effort though, as you you will be saved the frustration of searching endlessly for answers, you will know exactly what to do at every stage of your training life. There will be no need to frantically search the internet or magazines in the desperate hope the answers to all your training queries will be revealed. Because your body possesses all the knowledge you'll need if you are simply willing to listen.
Enjoy Your Lifting!