Paralysis by analysis by a condition that many people suffer from, in various different aspects of their life, not just in their pursuit of an ideal physique.
But we’re not here to talk about your dead-end job or why you didn’t pull last weekend, we’re here to talk about losing fat and gaining some muscle.
So what is paralysis by analysis when it comes to choosing a resistance training program?
The amount of information available on this topic is overwhelming, even if you know what you’re doing, and I’m not just talking about the internet, I’m talking about that dusty copy of Flex magazine from 1998, the overly-friendly guy at the gym who dishes out advice whether you ask for it or not, or the guy who sites opposite you at work who seems to know everything there is to know about training despite looking like he’s never set foot in a gym.
So who do you listen to? Do you just make it up? Rock up at the gym and freestyle it? Well no, you should listen to me. I’m joking, of course, I’m just offering my humble opinion, but since you’re already reading this, you may as well carry on.
So What’s the Best Program?
There is no best program. Sorry.
If there were one training protocol that trumped everything else, we’d all know about it, and we’d all be doing it, and we’d all be 300lbs and ripped to shreds year round.
But we’re obviously not.
The best program is the one that you’ll stick to, because there is one aspect of training that DOES trump everything else, and that’s consistency. if you’re not consistent, no matter what program you’re on, you won’t achieve the best results – you may not even achieve ANY results, depending on how inconsistent you are.
So be mindful that, when chsoing a program, it needs to be one that you’re confident you can fullfill. If you’re a business owner who commutes 4 hours a day and has a wife and 17 kids then your time is probably going to be quite limited, so don’t pick a program where you’re training 7 days a week, twice a day. Simples.
With that in mind, here are some training programs to pick from, some of which I’ve done, some I haven’t;
Body part Split
This has to be the most famous and most popular split, mainly because it’s what most bodybuilders do, and therefore what they recommend in their Muscle & Fitness interviews. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best program for you, even if you want to look vaguely like a body builder.
This program essentially involves training one large body part and possibly one smaller body part per day over a seven-day cycle, for example;
Monday: Chest and Triceps
Friday: Back and Biceps
Example Day: Back and Biceps
Pullups – 8 sets
Bent Over Rows – 3 sets
Single Arm Rows – 3 sets
Lat Pulldown – 3 sets
EZ Bar Bar Bicep Curls – 4 sets
Spider Curls – 3 sets
Of course there are several different variations of this program, but the above is pretty typical.
You could of course train chest and back on their own separate days, and have a day where you combine biceps and triceps.
Another popular variation is training chest with shoulders – there are pros and cons of every variation.
Pros: The good thing about this program is that it’s easy to understand and plan, it also allows you to cram in a lot of volume for an individual body part. Because of the scope for large amounts of volume, it opens up opportunities for a wide variety of exercises and rep schemes.
Cons: The main disadvantage of this program is that people stick to it for so long, rather than mixing it up with other variations, of course this is true of any program, it’s just that it occurs much more commonly with the body part split than anything else.
The real main con of this program is that it doesn’t allow for a lot of frequency, you’re only training every body part once a week, and therefore, 4 times a month, and 52 times per year
Of course, if you have enough time in the day (and energy) you can get in a lot of volume. Because this is body part specific – it’s very much geared towards aesthetics, since it allows plenty of room for of isolation moves – hence why it’s popular with bodybuilders
Upper/Lower Body Spilt
From one extreme to the other – while the previous program divides the body into it’s constituent parts, this simply divides the body in half, so you’re only ever working your upper or lower body
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
Sunday: Upper Body
N.B. – this would work on a rolling cycle, so on the following Monday you’d hit lower body, then upper, then rest, etc, etc.
Example Day: Lower Body
Back Squats – 4 sets
Front Squats – 4 sets
Deadlifts – 4 sets
Dumbbell lunges – 3 sets
In complete contrast to the body part split, this is a great program for specific training – because the body is split into two parts there’s not much room for specialisation (or isolation moves), so it’ll force you focus on compound moves.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to focus on compounds – but it’d certainly be the best use of your time if you chose this program.
You could keep all your lower and upper days the same (e.g. upper could be flat bench, standing military press, dips, pull ups) or you could alternate compound days like the one just mentioned with isolation days, for upper body this might be flys, lateral raises, tricep pulldowns, lat pulldowns).
Pros: Frequency. Aside from a whole body workout – this will allow you get plenty of frequency in, since you’ll be training every body part every third day. If you play your cards right, this should allow you to quickly improve the big lifts.
For this reason, this is a great, simple program for beginners – who will most benefit from building a solid foundation
Cons: This is a program which could quickly get stale, since there’s not a huge amount of scope for variety
It’s probably not also a great for advanced trainers or people looking to bring up lagging body parts
This is the program that I’m currently on, and is definitely becoming more popular.
If you’ve been using a body part split for a while now, this is a good transition into a program that allows for more frequency.
This splits the upper body into movement patterns (push and pull), and keeps legs on for a separate day, much like the upper/lower split.
This is a great program for aesthetics, since it allows for more volume AND more frequency per body part.
Not only are you training every body part twice a week, could actually achieve more overall volume in a week than a body part split, if you do enough sets. For example, on a body part split you might do 20 sets in total for chest (e.g. 5 sets each of 4 different exercises), an push/pull/legs split might allow you to do 10 sets on Monday for chest, and 11 on Thursday, meaning that, over the course of a week you’ve done more volume. Phew.
Here’s an example;
Monday: Push (Chest/Shoulders Triceps)
Wednesday: Pull (Back/Biceps)
Example Day: Push
Flat Bench Press – 5 sets
Incline Dumbbell Flys – 5 sets
Barbell Military press – 5 sets
Lateral Raise – 3 sets
Skull Crushers – 4 sets
Rope Tricep Extensions – 3 sets
This is a great program if you’ve been training for a while, and you really want to take it to the next level, but be warned – you only get one rest day per week!
Despite the fact that the thought of having just one rest day a week is quite daunting, this is actually quite a ‘fun’ program, since you’re only doing a few sets (over maybe 2 exercises per body part) per session.
Now I know what you’re thinking ‘I DON’T WANT TO SQUAT TWICE A WEEK, ONCE IS BAD ENOUGH’. Well you don’t necessarily have to, what I do is a Quad dominant leg day (where I’ll do front squats) and a hamstring dominant leg day (where I’ll do back squats). Similarly, I’ll only deadlift on one of the back days per week.
Pros: Allows you to increase volume and frequency over a body part split. This is pretty big.
Cons: Training 6 days per week – you need to be prepared to dedicate quite a lot of time to the gym.
Does what it says on the tin – you train your whole body, every session.
Much like the upper lower split, this is great for sports specific training. Frequency will also be quite high, but the volume will be low, since you’re only going to have time to do a couple of sets per body part, unless of course you want to spend hours in the gym.
Scope for isolation exercises will also be limited if you want to get the best bang for your buck.
Monday: Full body (Heavy)
Wednesday: Full body (Light)
Friday: Full body (Moderate)
Squats – 4 sets
Deadlifts – 4 sets
Military press – 3 sets
Flat Barbell Bench Press – 3 sets
Pull ups – 3 sets
The best way to approach this would be to have a heavy, moderate and low day, since training squats or deadlifts repeatedly in any one of those rep ranges is going to be counter productive and unsustainable
Pros: Perfect for those that are short on time, and need the most bang for their buck, OR people that want to combine resistance training with cardio or another sport. It’s also good for complete beginners since it’ll help them learn the important movements quickly and build a base level of strength
Cons: Probably not the best for those looking for pure aesthetics, due to the lack of emphasis on isolation exercise exercises. Of course that’s not to say you won’t be able to achieve a great physique using this program
German Volume Training
I’ve no idea why this is German, maybe it’ something to do with the ruthless efficiency of this program, and it is pretty efficient.
No fancy exercises, not complicated set and rep schemes, just pure unadulterated volume.
The widely accepted way to perform this program is to do 10 sets of 10 for a compound exercise, then a few sets of an assistance exercise.
There’s no widely accepted scheme for GVT, but here’s how I’d set it up;
Example Day: Shoulders
Standing Barbell Military Press – 10 sets (10 reps)
Standing Dumbbell raises – 4 sets
I’ve only scheduled four training days per week in this program due to the amount of volume.
One thing you’ll need to carefully consider if you’re doing this is the weight you’re using, you want to use something you’ll be able to get 10 reps out of for 10 sets – so even if the few sets feel easy, the last few definitely won’t. I’d go for 60% of your 1RM – so if you can bench 100kg, use 60Kg.
Pros: Easy to program, since there are only a maximum of 2 exercises per body part
Cons: Can we mentally taxing due to the lack of variety. Also probably not a great program for beginners who don’t need this level of volume to spark adaptations.
Crossfit has been loosely termed the ‘sport of fitness’ and the people that ‘compete’ in it bestow it with a cult like status; they pretty much have their own language (boxes, paleo, kipping pullups anyone?). Although Crossfitters exist in their own little Under Amour-wearing, Rich Froning-worshiping world, Crossfit workouts can genuinely be good for muscle gain and fat loss.
N.B. Crossfit involves a lot of Olympic lifting so if you’ve never tried Clean and Jerks or Snatches before, learn the technique or you’ll probably end up snapping your spine.
Crossfit basically works on the premise that everyone does a given workout on a specific date (the WOD, or Workout of the Day), and the entire Crossfit community competes to complete this workout in the quickest time.
The workouts are given innocent-sounding women’s names, but many of the routines are anything but, with punishing compound exercises back-to-back with sprints or box jumps.
Example Workout: Linda
There are tons of other established, popular programs out there, some you might want to check out include – FST7, YT3, 5/3/1, DC and Mountain Dog (Google them), though these are probably more appropriate for advanced trainers.
As I said at the start, you can make progress with ANY of these programs, so your choice should be based on how often you can/want to train, and whether you prefer longer, infrequent workouts, or training more often with slightly less volume.
Whichever one you do choose, I certainly wouldn’t stick with it for the rest of your days, it’ll probably take you a good few weeks to really get stuck into a program, so I’d recommend doing a program for a minimum of four months before moving on to a different one.
When it comes down to it, the decisive factor in whether or not your workouts are successful will be consistency, I can’t stress how important that is. You need to stick it it out – if the program looks like too much of a commitment for you, choose another one. sure, you can take the odd unscheduled day off or move your workouts around, but 90% of the time you need to be hitting the gym on your scheduled days. No excuses.
If you need help picking the right program for you, or want to design one tailored for your exact needs/goals/lifestyle, get in contact with me.
Joe is an online coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose weight and build muscle.
Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.