There are two problems I'm confronted with when designing programs. First, no matter how meticulously and carefully I design a program, it may not work for everyone. Second, when a program does work, it will only work for so long -- knowing when and how to change a program is the key for optimum results.
Many self-proclaimed experts would lead you to believe that there is only one "perfect" training program. (A one size fits all, if you will.) Others would like you to believe that there is no need to plan workouts, and that you should train instinctively. (Do whatever you feel like doing.) Both beliefs are incredibly ridiculous. Some of us recover very quickly and can use a high volume of training. Most of us recover slowly and need to use a low volume approach. Our inherent differences make designing programs a challenge. However, despite these differences, there are universal principles that govern whether or not we make the most rapid gains possible for our genetic ability.
Whether you're 20, 30 or over 40, universal training principles need to be followed in order for progress to be made, no matter what program you follow. In Part 1, I discussed not only how and why my training has changed as I've aged, I also explained training principles that somebody approaching 40 has no business using. These include: "Do not cheat while performing an exercise;" "Avoid using negative-only training;" "No forced reps;" and "Form over all." The "don'ts" of program design, if you will. Conversely, this part will give you the "dos" for designing a program at any age.
The first component of a training program that should be considered is training frequency. How often can -- or more importantly, should -- I train per week? Optimum recovery time between training sessions is essential if you are going to continue to make progress. Training frequency, which is determined by your recovery ability, is often a forgotten part of most training protocols.
You can never train too hard, but you can train too much. Training "too much" can actually be described in two ways. The first, and probably the most common way, is training too often. The average person, training with 100 percent intensity, will not be able to train a body part any more frequently than once every 6 to 8 days. In fact, many advanced lifters may need upward of 9 or 10 days in between training sessions for the same body part.
In order for a training program to be productive, it must stimulate an appropriate adaptive response. A productive training program must also allow an adaptive response to occur. Notice the distinction between stimulating the adaptation and allowing it to occur. Many training programs are either too long in duration, or they are repeated too frequently, thus depleting the body's restorative ability, hindering overcompensation.
If a body part is still sore from a previous workout, then you are not recovered. Moreover, if you are feeling fatigued, or not feeling energetic about your scheduled workout, you are not recovered, and the best thing you could do is take another day off. Training stimulates your muscles to grow, but they don't grow during training. Proper nutrition and enough rest between sessions is what facilitates recovery and allows muscles to adapt to the training stimulus. Training before the muscle is recovered can not only slow or even halt to your progress, you also increase your risk of injury.
Don't be overly concerned with how many training sessions you can handle per week. Be more concerned about the optimal amount. More is not always better. In fact, when someone comes to me for advice because they've stopped making progress, I either reduce the workout volume or add days off. There is no reason to go to the gym if you're not going to make progress. In every workout, if you have fully recovered, and you come ready to work, you should have a productive workout.
What about training plateaus? Eventually, if you train long enough, you have to hit a plateau and progress naturally stops. If you stay with the same exercises, do the same number of reps, and the same number of sets, progress may eventually stop. If the proper changes aren't made at the right time, eventually the body adapts to the stimulus. And this is where the "art" of designing a program comes into play.
It's easy to write a workout. The real challenge is assuring the recovery from workout to workout, week to week, month to month, so that progress continues over a long period of time. Another challenge is to remain injury free while performing to your maximum ability, especially as you age.
Keep in mind, as stated earlier, training frequency is dependent on how you recover from workout to workout. Most people will need 7 to 8 days between training the same body part to fully recover, but some will need only 5 to 6 days. You need to adjust your training frequency by how you're progressing. Many of you will have to allow for your job and family. The daily bump and grind can take a toll on your workouts.
Rest intervals are simply the amount of time you take between sets. How much rest do you need between sets? I know this is another subject that isn't given much attention, but it is imperative for making the most rapid gains.
So how much rest do you need between sets? To understand how much, let's first talk about why. Your body has different energy systems that it uses for different tasks. The energy system we're concerned with is the phosphagen system. This system provides Adenosine-5'-triphosphate (ATP) for a source of energy. ATP primarily fuels short term, explosive activities (like weight training, sprinting, throwing, etc.). This is why creatine monohydrate works so well -- creatine facilitates the storage of ATP in the muscle cells. The higher your levels of ATP, the stronger you are.
Repletion of phosphagens like ATP is why rest intervals are so important. Without adequate rest, you will deplete the muscle cells of these important substrates and hinder your training performance. In order for the proper stimulus to occur, you must perform reps as explosively as possible with a maximum amount of weight. Rest intervals, like other facets of training, have to be individualized. However, there are a few basic ideas that can point you in the right direction.
Size does matter
There is a definite correlation between a person's size and the amount of rest needed between sets. The bigger and stronger you are, the longer your rest intervals need to be. This is due to the fact that the stronger a person is, the greater the amount of tension they can exert on their muscles. A stronger person can simply stress their body to a greater degree than a weaker one.
Muscle size matters
There is a linear relationship between the size of the muscle group you're training, and the amount of rest you'll need between your sets. For instance, you'll need more time between sets training your quads, than when you're training your biceps.
Training with high levels of intensity is learned through years of experience and adaptation. Beginners do not have the ability to put as much tension on their muscles as advanced athletes. So, rest intervals for a beginner should be shorter than someone who's been training for a long time.
In Part III we'll get into the "Over 40 Program." How many sets should you perform per exercise? How many repetitions should you perform for each set? These questions will be answered, and I will also outline one of the most productive workouts you'll ever try.