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Programming A Workout

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

One of the best ways to optimize your time in the gym is to have a plan of attack. Just winging it can be a major time waster, and you can run the risk of not training your body in its entirety. For example, if we do more pushing movements than pulling movements; our pushing muscles can become overactive, leading to muscle discomfort, joint discomfort, or performance decrements. Fortunately, it is not rocket science to come up with a well-balanced workout. It does, however, take a little bit of thought.

Movement Directions

When selecting exercises for myself or my clients, I start by making sure there is a balance between the following movements.

  1. Horizontal pushing (chest press variations)

  2. Horizontal pulling (back row variations)

  3. Vertical pushing (shoulder press variations)

  4. Vertical pulling (back pulldown variations)

  5. Hip dominant (hip hinge variations)

  6. Knee dominant (squatting variations)

  7. Lateral movement (side to side)

  8. Rotation (twisting)

These movements make up the core of the workout plan since they are predominately compound movements, recruiting large amounts of muscle, and multiple muscle groups. Each plan is different based on the individual, but this provides a good foundation to programming your workouts.

Bilateral or Unilateral

Humans by design are not symmetrical. Due to our organs, our weight is not distributed evenly which impacts how we move, breath, and perform. We can break the above movement classifications further to adhere to this. Each of these movements can be performed bilaterally (both sides of the body at the same time), or unilaterally (one side of the body being used at a time).

Image 1: Internal organs of the body. Source:

In order to make these switches, simply change the stance or the implement you are using. For example, a barbell bench press (bilateral, horizontal push) can become a dumbbell bench press or a split stance cable press (unilateral, horizontal pushing). Swapping out the lat pulldown rod for a pair of single hand cables can change a bilateral lat pulldown, into a unilateral vertical pull. A knee dominant bilateral squat can become a split squat or a reverse lunge, and a barbell hip hinging Romanian deadlift can become a single leg kettlebell variation.

This can help to provide variation in your workouts as well as reducing any bilateral deficits within your body, all while abiding by the body’s inherent asymmetries.


The frequency, or the amount of times you train should be based around not only your goal, but also your life. This is a point that often goes overlooked. You may want to train six days a week, but if you have a hectic schedule you may feel so drained after a day you may not be able to keep up. This may increase your chances of overtraining because the combined stressors of training and life are not being managed. Your training frequency will also determine which exercises you do each day. We want to make sure we give our muscles time to recover. The saying “you get stronger when you recover” is a true statement. The adaptation process takes place after the training sessions when the inflammatory, hormonal, and anabolic response are taking place. So, it is counter productive to do the same muscle groups two days in a row. Weight, Sets, Reps, & Rest

These four have their own relationship based upon what your goals are. As weight increases to near maximal intensities, less reps are performed. However, more sets are used to maintain a high enough total volume in order to trigger adaptations. In addition, the heavier the weight gets, the longer the rest periods. So, the more you lean towards training strength, the more you would use heavier weights with more sets and longer rests. Versus training muscle endurance, in which less weights are paired with more reps. Muscle building resides is between these two ends on the spectrum.

Is 15 repetitions per exercise set good? - Quora

Figure : Training reps based on goal. Source: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (Haff & Triplett, 2016)

Strength / Power Movements: Bilateral dominant, unilateral assistance and accessory work Frequency: 2-4 times per week Sets: 3-5 Reps: 1-5 Weight: at least 80% intensity Rest: 2-5 minutes

This breakdown uses a large amount of muscle and enhances their ability to produce high amounts of forces, that we transfer into strength. Pure strength will use lifts that have slow velocities to maximize muscle recruitment patterns. While power training uses exercises where weights can be moved at high velocities (cleans, swings, throws, & jumps). For most people who train with this goal, a majority of their program will consist of bilateral movements. Most of the strength and power lifts are bilateral by their nature. However, we can apply the same methods of exercise selection towards the accessory and assistance work that needs to be done.

Hypertrophy (muscle growth) Frequency: 2-6 times per week Sets: 3-4 Reps: 12-15 Intensity: 75% Rest: 30 seconds – 2 minutes

The biggest factor to building muscle is the amount of total volume accumulated over the training week. This scheme above allows us to have a high rep volume, maximizing mechanical tension within muscle, as well as increasing the build up of substances that may trigger our muscles to adapt and grow. Most of these exercises will be isolation exercises so that we focus even more volume per muscle group. This type of training should take full advantage of unilateral movements allowing single muscle group isolation to really provide a stimulus for growth.

Muscle endurance Frequency: 2-6 times per week Sets: 3-4 Reps: 15 and up Intensity: less than 75% Rest: 30 – 60 seconds

When it comes to muscle endurance, we want to increase our aerobic capacity and aerobic power within the muscle. To do this, we need to make sure that our sets and reps are long enough to trigger aerobic metabolism without diverting back to anaerobic metabolism. To accomplish this we need to have light enough weight so that we do not give our muscle a reason to maximally fatigue, which would result in the triggering of anaerobic metabolism, and no longer training aerobic capacity or power. This style of training promotes increased blood and oxygen delivery to the muscle and increasing the muscles ability to maintain contractions over long duration.

I hope this helps to make it easier when it comes to program your workouts. Remember to look at not only the training day but also your training weeks to balance out the training of muscle groups.

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