Walk into ANY gym on the planet, observe how people train for a bit, and I guarantee that you’ll see one thing most people have in common:
They aren’t structuring their workouts properly.
This is a big problem because, like anything else, with training, you need to follow a series of steps, each designed to move you forward. Think of it as trying to build a skyscraper:
You don’t start from the top and work down to the foundation.
And the same should be with your workouts:
You need a strong foundation first before you can ever hope to build a strong and effective training program on top of it.
What’s the foundation? Well, this is what we’ll cover today.
This is where it all begins, and it concerns me how a lot of people are oblivious to this aspect of effective training.
To understand why this is important, we first need to go over the two main types of exercises: compound (multi-joint) and isolation (single-joint).
Compound movements work a range of different muscle groups where isolation exercises target a single muscle.
A compound exercise like the deadlift is going to work a range of muscles, and because of that, it’s going to allow you to use a lot of weight and progress more steadily.
A compound exercise like the dumbbell bicep curl is going to train a single muscle, it won’t allow you to use much weight, and progress will be much slower.
With this explanation, you’re probably thinking that compound exercises deliver more bang for your training buck. And you’re right.
But, both isolation and compound exercises have their place in a well-structured program. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.
For example, since compound exercises allow you to use heavier weights, you can more effectively train them in the lower repetition ranges with good form. This is going to help you build more strength over time.
Now, before you barrage me with the “What if I don’t care about strength?” question, understand that the strength you gain is going to carry over to your training as a whole. If you build a strong bench press, you’ll have a stronger overhead press, more strength for dips, and tricep movements.
Not to mention the fact that compound lifts are going to get you jacked.
Don’t believe me?
Show me one person who can bench press 315 pounds and doesn’t have an impressive chest and triceps. Or someone who can deadlift 500 pounds and doesn’t look swole.
The drawback of compound lifts is that they are both mentally and physically taxing. If you train with nothing but multi-joint exercises, you either need to scale down your training volume or suffer overtraining.
Because of this exact reason, compound exercises should be prioritized into your training, while you are still fresh. They’ll be the foundation.
After you’re done with them, it’s where isolation exercises come in:
They are relatively low-effort movements that allow you to target a single muscle group and make it grow further.
While a heavy overhead press is going to train your deltoids well, you still need to put the finishing touches with simpler exercises like the lateral raise.
And it’s important to keep in mind that if you’re not progressing with your training over time, you won’t grow much, if at all. Because of that reason alone, you need to pay attention to compound lifts early in your workouts, aim for progressive overload and put the remainder of your energy into isolation exercises.
If compound exercises are the foundation of your training, isolation movements are going to be the beautiful skyscraper built on top.
But what if I just want to get strong as hell?
This is another concern some people have. Here’s the deal:
While it ABSOLUTELY is possible to get decently strong without also getting jacked, it would be much more difficult, and it would take you a lot more time.
On the other hand, if you were also to put on muscle mass, your strength would increase much quicker. This is because a bigger muscle has a greater potential for strength.
A quick side note:
Many competitive powerlifters who refuse to go up in weight class often plateau for years, where those who aren’t afraid to get bigger often find themselves much stronger as their training age increases.
How to Structure Each Workout, Step-by-Step
We went over the why, and now it’s time to get in the how.
Step 1: Pick one major movement for each muscle group
This is going to be the exercise you’ll be putting your attention on. Examples include:
- The flat barbell bench press for your chest;
- The high-bar back squat for your legs;
- The conventional or sumo deadlift for your back (and legs);
- The standing barbell shoulder press for your delts;
You’re not restricted to these alone, but they are great options to consider.
Step 2: Place these movements as first for each workout
Depending on what you’re training on a specific day, start with that exercise: for chest – do bench first, for legs – do squats first, etc.
Step 3: Include an assistance exercise for your main movement
This is where adding a close variation of your main exercise is going to work great. It will allow you to practice the movement more, increase your training volume and avoid overuse injuries.
For example, if your main chest movement is the flat barbell bench press, you can do incline dumbbell press as assistance.
For the deadlift, you can go for barbell rows or pull-ups.
For the squat, you can go for a lunge variation or the leg press
Step 4: Add more assistance/isolation movements
At this point, you can continue adding exercises for a given muscle group or move onto something else.
If you’re training legs, do some hamstring and calves work.
If you’re training shoulders, do some side and rear delt isolation work.
If you’re training back, include shrugs for your traps or some lat isolation work.
Here is an example of a chest workout following these steps:
Exercise 1: Flat barbell bench press – 4 sets, 4-6 repetitions
Exercise 2: Include dumbbell press – 3 sets, 6-10 repetitions
Exercise 3: Cable chest flys – 3 sets, 12-20 repetitions
Exercise 4: Push-ups – 3 sets, as many as you can
This sample workout also includes elements of reverse pyramid training. You start with more weight and fewer repetitions and gradually decrease the intensity in favor of more repetitions to stimulate muscle growth.