If you’ve been reading my other blogs so far in this series of articles on "Where to start with exercise", then you’ll know that I think we should prioritise strength training over cardio training and that within that strength training there is 4 primary movement skills that we should be developing. The purpose of these previous articles was to develop a clear target for our time spent exercising: "What are we trying to do?" (Get Stronger)
and then "Stronger At What? (Push ups / Pull ups etc) So the next logical question is: “How do we put this all into practice?” Considering that we don’t actually get stronger while exercising but actually in the recovery days post-exercise then in order to make progress we need to keep returning to the same exercises on a frequent enough basis to have an opportunity to build on the progress made in the last session and compare the results.
Train too often and we haven’t fully recovered yet. Too rarely and our bodies regress, forgetting what it is we’re trying to do, forcing us to start over at square one again. The optimum time between sessions will vary depending on your training experience and the skills being worked on but it is important to have a plan so you know when you are ready to train again. Therefore it is important to have a consistent routine, usually on a weekly basis, of what you plan to do when. This is referred to as your “TRAINING SPLIT” and there are many different ways to break up your training depending on the amount of time you have available and your level of experience (as this affects the amount of recovery time you need and therefore how often you can train).
For the rest of the article I will look at how I would recommend splitting up your sessions based on the amount of time you have free to devote to your training,
1-2 days per week - If you only have time to workout once or twice a week then I would recommend doing FULL BODY workouts in both sessions. This involves working on all of the body parts / skills within one session, and then doing it again at another point in the week. If you are just starting out an example of this may be a circuit of working on the 4 main skills I detailed in my previous article. 3 days per week - If you have time to work out 3 days a week then I highly recommend it. This is the optimum amount of time that I recommend to most of my clients went starting out. It gives you enough training time in the week to get enough work in while still guaranteeing sufficient time for recovery (at least 48 hours between sessions). With this amount of time I would start out by doing FULL BODY workouts 3x a week, just like the twice weekly program above but with an extra session thrown in. Once your body is used to that then we can consider moving to a PUSH/PULL/LEGS Split. Under this regime you would only focus on one set area per session this allows you to spend more time on that one skill within a session meaning you can push yourself harder and incorporate more challenging exercises but as a result we require more recovery time before we do it again, waiting a full week before returning to the same challenge. Under this split I would combine both the leg skills into the same workout, training squats and deadlifts together.
4 days per week -
If you have a 4th day to train I would advise splitting the LEG session into a SQUAT day and a DEADLIFT day, so that you can focus your energy in each session to progressing on that one primary goal. Eventually you will be able to lift very heavy weights with both these two exercises and as result progress on one could affect performance on the other skill if trained one after another. Therefore it is best to know your primary objective of the session (“lift heavier on squats”) and give your all to that challenge. This effectively gives us a “lower body push” and a “lower body pull” focused day, Push and pull are not really the correct terms it is more about a focus on the anterior muscles of the leg versus the posterior muscles. I would order this split alternating upper and lower body and pushing and pulling in order to maximise recovery time for each area as there are some supporting muscles that will overlap and be worked in multiple sessions. Therefore I would do pair one upper body day (eg PUSH) with the lower body opposing side (“pull” so DEADLIFT”) and do these pair on two consecutive days. Then have a rest day before pairing up the other two remaining areas (also opposing sides, PULL and SQUAT) Example Pattern: PUSH/DEADLIFT/REST/PULL/SQUAT/REST/REST If you wanted to work on certain movements more frequently, in order to practice a skill or to get more volume in, then you could always treat these as alternating UPPER/LOWER body workouts but I would still have a primary focus in mind for each session. An example of this would be focusing on deadlifts in one leg session and still doing some squats afterwards, but then in the next lower body session the squats would be the primary focus and the deadlifts would come later with a lower priority to push yourself or break personal bests.
What if you have more time?
Disclaimer: From this point onwards, the determining factor is no longer about if you have the free time but more about can your body still recover effectively. You will have to assess progress and be the judge of that. Some people recover better than others. Experience level, diet quality, sleep amount and stress levels all make a big difference to recovery rates. Be aware that at this level onwards we are at risk of overtraining it the sessions are planned improperly or our bodies are not ready for it yet. 5 days per week If you have 5 days a week to train the I suggest you may want to start to break up the PUSH focus up into two goals: Horizontal pushing (such as bench press or push ups) and vertical pushing (such as overhead press or handstands). Taking 2 rest days a week.
Example Pattern: HORIZONTAL PUSH/DEADLIFT/REST/VERTICAL PUSH/PULL/SQUAT/REST
6 days per week If you are really serious about working on as many different skills as possible and have time for 6 sessions a week then I would also break up the pulling into horizontal and vertical plane focused goals such as ROWS and PULL UPS, and therefore return to the PUSH/PULL/LEGS pattern but getting through the cycle twice in a week before taking a rest day. I have designed this split below so that you are always alternating pushing and pulling (anterior vs posterior chain movements) allowing maximal rest time between sessions for any assisting muscle that may be involved in multiple days. While also spreading out the vertical plane movements throughout the week to increase mobility by frequently returning to the overhead arm position. Example Pattern: V.PULL/H.PUSH/DEADLIFT/V.PUSH/H.PULL/SQUAT/REST
7 days per week Don't train 7 days a week! You need a rest day! If you still have time to do something and want to be productive then this can still be “active rest” such as stretching or playing a sport you enjoy for fun, but you should not be pushing yourself to beat a record or progress every single day of the week. You will not recover adequately and fail to make progress the following week, so relax and focus on reducing your stress levels (to increase healing and recovery). maybe do some yoga?
Summary Whether you are just starting out or have years of experience in the gym, I hope you found this breakdown of the different training schedules useful in understanding your options based on the time you have available. In future articles I will goo into more depth on the content of these individual session types, such as how to progress or regress each skill to find exercises at the right level of difficulty for your abilities in order to progress.