Strength & Hypertrophy: A Programming Guide

The very basics of strength/hypertrophy training and how to design an effective, research based weight training program.

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

Strength – a controlled display of force that’s specific to a task and to the person performing it. Hypertrophy – the growth of new muscle tissue that improves our size and functional capabilities.

To improve strength and hypertrophy, lifters beyond the beginner phase should follow a basic periodized program that allows each muscle group to be targeted 2-3 times per week with at least 48 hours of rest between same muscle stimulation, for a total of 4-6 workouts per week. This routine maximizes muscle protein synthesis throughout the week, stimulates the muscles with a consistent amount of stress/damage needed for growth, and allows for at least 24 hours of CNS rest between workouts.

For equipment, I recommend that your workouts utilize primarily barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension trainers, and your own bodyweight. These tools offer a wide variety of movement options and training styles while remaining constant in their availability and function from gym to gym. Learning to use these standard pieces of equipment will provide you with the best training foundation to scale your workouts as you progress in ability.

Within the suggested weekly workout frequency listed above, 6-12+ total sets for a single muscle/movement should be performed per week. 60-70% of these sets should focus on hypertrophy and the remaining 30-40% need to target strength. This split gives us enough hypertrophy volume to grow new tissue and while allowing for plenty of strength work to improve force output/neuromuscular coordination.

Inter-set rest times of 1.5-3 minutes should be used when training for hypertrophy and 3-5 minutes for strength. More rest allows us to lift more weight and more weight leads to greater progress. Improvements to work capacity due to smart cardiovascular training can keep rest times low – do cardio for more gains.

Regarding reps, studies show that strength gains are primarily made when we lift at or above 80-85% of our 1RM, while hypertrophy can occur within a broad spectrum of loads. These percentages correspond to rep ranges of roughly 1-6 for strength and 6-12+ for hypertrophy – I suggest capping your hypertrophy work at 12 reps.

In all rep ranges, set failure should be avoided when possible – leave 1 rep in reserve most of the time. Aim for a rep tempo of 1-2 seconds in the concentric phase and 2-3 seconds in the eccentric. Control every rep, don’t let them control you.

To keep both CNS and PNS fatigue from interfering with workout productivity, start with strength, transition into hypertrophy, and then end with cardiovascular conditioning. This setup places the most high volume and fatigue inducing exercises at the end and allows us to maximize our strength/hypertrophy training potential before we get too tired. If your workout contains any significant amount of power work, do it first. 

There’s so much more info in this guide than what’s contained in this summary. It would be most helpful if you read it all.

The Heavy Metal Healer

If you were to randomly survey 100 different people regarding their favorite exercise methods, you’d get a pretty wide range of answers. Yoga, bodybuilding, Pilates, CrossFit, running, powerlifting, and cycling would probably dominate the list but you’d also see more unconventional activities like Quidditch, free running/parkour, and LARPing – and that’s awesome. The lack of specificity under the general fitness umbrella is what allows us to simultaneously do what we love while improving our health. There’s no single best way to get in shape so you might as well enjoy every minute spent drenched in sweat and out of breath.

However, if you actually want to be good at the exercises you choose to participate in, things become much less open to interpretation – effective program structure is much more specific. Whether you’re navigating a new bouldering route, trying to perfect your alignment in vinyasa, or focused on a new deadlift PR, strong and well developed muscles are critical to your success.

From kids to the elderly, we all benefit from building muscle and being strong. As long as exercise selection, intensity, and overall program design are implemented correctly, resistance training is a safe and effective way to improve your health, achieve your dream physique, and help you thrive in the activities you love. If you’re a human being capable of physical activity, you should be lifting weights – this guide is for you.

Let’s talk about how to build muscle and get strong.

This guide covers the basics of strength/hypertrophy training and is written to help anyone design an effective, research based weight training program.

Resistance Training for Beginners

Before we really get rolling, it’s necessary to first establish that if you’re untrained (little to no exercise experience) you’re basically superhuman. As a newbie, you’ll make monstrous leaps in strength, muscular size, and cardiovascular endurance just about every week and many of the rules used in popular programs won’t apply to you. However, this phase of rapid growth doesn’t last forever so it’s best to take advantage of the time you have by implementing an effective routine and properly learning the basics from day one. Let’s quickly cover a few simple guidelines for new lifters that can help ensure maximum beginner gains are made before moving on to more traditional programs.

First, set a goal for yourself and have a clearly defined reason to train. Interested in bodybuilding? Great. Want to improve strength so you can kill it on the Pilates reformer? Fantastic. There’s no wrong answer here, just be sure you know what you’re working towards. Every program needs direction.

This might sound contradictory to what was just suggested, but regardless of your goals, a solid foundation of strength comes first. Strong muscles improve our running economy, climbing ability, dancing coordination, and overall growth potential. Strength training allows us to be better at the activities we love and luckily, is relatively easy to improve at the beginning.

For many untrained individuals, weakness isn’t caused entirely by a lack of muscle mass. Instead, their inability to lift heavier loads (up to a certain point) is usually more dependent on neuromuscular signaling. Meaning, you’ve got the muscle mass to lift heavy(ish) weights but your brain isn’t very good at coordinating with your muscles to work together and make it happen. Similar to playing a musical instrument, strength training is a skill with basic fundamentals that need to be practiced before you jam with emotion. You’re going to suck at playing the guitar on your first day no matter how hard you try that cover. It takes hours of learning before you can apply intensity.

The learning phase for strength is intentionally very simple. We want to focus on non-periodized, full body workouts that are performed 2-3 times per week with 3 working sets per exercise. Each set should contain 5-8 reps with a challenging weight but not heavy enough cause failure (1-2 reps in reserve). Aim to add a moderate amount of weight (5-10 lbs) to your lifts weekly – it won’t always be possible, but that’s your goal. These suggestions mean that you can basically do the same 2-3 workouts every week and only need to focus on adding small amounts of weight when possible. 

The Fitstra Beginner program follows this outline and the first two weeks of the learning phase are listed above. This sample section contains two different weeks, each with three workouts. In total, there are only 8 different primary movement patterns spread out over 6 sessions, making it a relatively easy routine to learn. The exercises listed are meant to be performed with a barbell, but the general movement labels allow for a variety of exercises and equipment possibilities (horizontal press = barbell bench, push ups, dumbbell bench, etc). 

Stick to this strength protocol or one like it for at least the first 2 months and limit high rep/high load exercises that emphasize hypertrophy. There’s a good chance that you won’t significantly increase muscle size during this 8 week period anyway. The increased volume may just cause damage (often mistaken for hypertrophy) and unnecessary fatigue, impeding growth. We’ll discuss this in greater detail later in the guide.

Finally, early equipment and exercise selection should mirror the program you’re going to follow. If you decide to work with the Fitstra Beginner program or one similar to it, you will be using a barbell for many of the exercises. You’ll feel more comfortable with this piece of equipment every time you use it, so start with the bar from day one or introduce it as soon as possible as you build up strength/coordination/confidence. In any fitness setting, learning to use the tool is just as important as learning to move the weight. For help with exercise progressions and movement modifications, check out the Beginner or the Casual program, they should have just about everything you need to get started. 

Because there’s no exact duration for the beginner/learning phase, it’s crucial to closely monitor your weekly progress to determine when you’ve reached an intermediate experience level. Typically, this point is defined by a strength plateau. When you’re comfortable with the primary pieces of equipment in your program and stop improving from the same basic workouts, it’s time to move on to bigger and better things. Some may reach this point after two months while others might continue progressing up to six.

Listen to your body, do what’s best for you, and move on when you’re ready – don’t rush things. An extra month spent solidifying your foundation with the possibility of minimal returns is much better than moving on 30 days too soon.

If you don’t recognize some of the terms in this opening section, don’t worry. We’re going to cover them all soon and hopefully clear up any lingering confusion. 

Defining Strength & Hypertrophy

Strength and hypertrophy can have inconsistent term interpretations within different coaching/training spheres. To make sure we’re all on the same page and working towards a common goal, let’s take a second to define these two facets of resistance training within the context of Fitstra programming.

Strength can be defined as the ability to overcome large opposing forces, resulting in the controlled movement of heavy things. In the weightroom, this Herculean trait is displayed in the form of repeatable, low velocity, high load, concentric contractions relative to a specific task – power is similar, but involves high velocity contractions of lighter loads. Because I don’t hold fitness competitions at Fitstra, a client’s individual strength level is gauged by measuring their unique personal progress and performance. It’s irrelevant how much more or less you can lift than your neighbor – their success doesn’t define your progress. Adding more weight to the bar or knocking out a few more reps means that you’re stronger than you were before and have made improvements relative to your previous abilities. Strength levels relative to your personal starting points and natural upper limit potential, not absolute strength compared to others, are what count in noncompetitive fitness settings and in Fitstra programming. Focus on being a stronger version of you.

Your individual level of strength may be unique to you but we all are limited by the same physiological factors. Two of the most significant variables to focus on are neuromuscular efficiency/coordination (learning to be strong as discussed earlier) and muscle cross-sectional area (the size of a muscle). From this perspective, if want to be really strong, we need to learn how to move well and increase our lean body mass through hypertrophy training – grow new tissue, teach it to be strong, grow more tissue, teach it to be strong, etc.

Hypertrophy is the growth of a muscle in both length and thickness (cross-sectional area). Differences in age and sex affect our growth rates and total lean mass capacity, but research shows that just about anyone can build a significant amount of muscle with resistance training. Similar to the same way I measure strength, hypertrophy progress should be compared to individual starting points and growth potential. There are a few different contributors to muscle size, but my emphasis is placed primarily on the addition of new physical structures called sarcomeres. 

As seen in the illustration above, our muscles are made up of fascicles that contain multiple muscle fibers/cells. Each cell consists of bundles of individual myofibril strands that are formed by individually linked segments called sarcomeres. Inside every sarcomere is an interlaced arrangement of the contractile proteins actin and myosin. Muscle contractions occur when myosin binds to actin and slides the two structures past one another, drawing each end of the sarcomere closer to the middle of the segment.

When we exercise hard enough to induce hypertrophy, our muscles get longer by adding new sarcomeres to the middle and/or ends of myofibrils (sarcomeres in series) and they get thicker typically by splitting existing myofibril strands lengthwise to form entirely new strands (sarcomeres in parallel)This growth of these new physical structures is called myofibrillar hypertrophy. As we’ll cover later, this occurs through a process called muscle protein synthesis and it’s what drives our growth and training progress. Sarcomeres aid in force generation and are the primary factors behind muscle mass content and strength output, but they’re not the only contributors to size.

We can also experience muscular hypertrophy through an increase in the size of the sarcoplasm of each muscle fiber – this is known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The sarcoplasm is a fluid/nutrient/fuel rich outer membrane of the fiber and provides structure to the cell by encasing all of the myofibrils within it. However, while our muscles can grow through sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and this adaptation offers some great benefits (increased glycogen storage, fuel delivery, and blood flow), it shouldn’t be the main focal point of our training. A well designed strength and hypertrophy program will inevitably induce sarcoplasm growth, but chasing ‘the pump’ with a high rep, high damage, inflammation causing, fluid retaining routine can negatively impact overall training progress, limiting strength and size development.

By prioritizing the addition of new physical structures over total muscle volume, our hypertrophy training results in long term functional benefits instead of acute aesthetic improvements. This just means that we should lift weights to increase our performance, not chase the pump. If we’re consistently improving our strength output and overall muscular size, we’ll be able to benefit from every point on the hypertrophy spectrum.

So, to summarize each definition – strength is a controlled display of force that’s specific to a task and to the person performing it, while hypertrophy is an increase in the overall size of our muscle tissue. 

Now that we’re hopefully all speaking the same lifting language, let’s talk about how we can improve each attribute along with the importance of strength and hypertrophy training being worked together. 

Motor Unit Recruitment & Mechanical Loading

Strength and hypertrophy training typically vary quite a bit in design but both modalities base their programming on the same basic principles – motor unit recruitment, mechanical loading, and the force-velocity relationship. A basic understanding of these three fundamentals will help ensure you’re making consistent progress and greater gains.

For a muscle to contract and produce force, the brain needs to first send a signal down through the central nervous system to a motor neuron. Once the neuron has received the message, it flips an On/Off switch, creates an action potential, and all of the fibers controlled by that one nerve cell contract. This linked system of neuron and fibers is called a motor unit (MU).

Depending on exercise intensity, a corresponding number of MUs are cumulatively recruited in an ascending order of size, with size being determined by the number of muscle fibers a single neuron innervates. The smallest MUs are activated first and primarily contain slow twitch/highly oxidative type 1 fibers while the largest units consist of fast twitch/anaerobic type 2 fibers and are recruited last as intensity/workload demand peaks. Due to the fiber innervation properties of motor units, most of our muscles have a significantly greater number of small MUs than large MUs – fewer large MUs but they innervate many more fibers per unit, making up for the quantity difference. This progressive increase in mixed muscle fiber activation is one of the methods that allows us to control force production.

All muscles have a mixture of fiber types, but type 2 fibers have the greatest growth and strength potential by a pretty wide margin, so their activation is our number one priority during resistance training. However, because these fast twitch fibers are recruited last and only in response to high output demands, if exercise intensity isn’t dialed in correctly, we’ll be missing out on growth. We need to make sure we’re consistently surpassing the recruitment threshold for the largest motor units and activating their growth hungry type 2 fibers.

A motor unit’s recruitment threshold (MURT) is the minimum amount of stimulation needed to flip the contraction switch from Off to On, with the largest MUs having the highest MURT. Due to the ascending and cumulative activation order of motor units, if we stimulate the largest MU, every smaller unit ‘below’ it will also be active. This makes our focus pretty simple from a strength and hypertrophy standpoint – activate the largest motor units. Luckily, there are two pretty straightforward ways to reach high threshold MUs and the type 2 fibers they control – perform fast/explosive movements or lift heavy loads. Both of these options can activate 100% of the fibers in a muscle and are incredibly beneficial within our programming, but they produce very different results. (Spoiler: Lift heavy)

ForceVelocityCurve

The graph above illustrates what’s known as the force-velocity relationship and it’s a major determining factor in programming. In both concentric and eccentric contractions, high levels of force produce consistent and predictable movement velocities.

This principle states that when we concentrically (muscle shortens) contract against a heavy weight, the movement can’t be fast and if we move fast, the resistance must be low. As seen on the right half of the graph, as concentric velocity increases, the total force experienced is required to decrease. 

For example, if you can do a max of 2 concentric reps of a bicep curl with a 40 lb dumbbell before failure, you’re placing an incredibly high amount of force on the fibers in your biceps relative to their total strength levels. The weight has to move slowly because the maximum amount of curl strength you possess is just barely greater than the resistance of the weight. If you were stronger, you could curl it much faster, but that would result in less load on the fibers relative to their max strength potential. See the pattern? Appropriately heavy weight requires us to move slowly – we don’t choose the speed.

Conversely, to produce high levels of force on a muscle during an eccentric (muscle lengthens) contraction, the movement must be fast. You might only be able to curl up 40 lb for 2 reps, but you can probably lower 60 lbs for 2 reps at a controlled speed. 70 lbs would be lowered a bit faster and 80 lbs even more. The heavier the weight, the faster a muscle is required to lengthen. Eccentric contractions can apply more force to a muscle, but they recruit fewer motor units despite heavier loads. 

Why does all of this matter?

Although we can achieve 100% MU activation through explosive concentric exercises, we don’t get big or strong by exclusively moving fast. High velocity concentric movements contract sarcomeres too quickly for enough mechanical loading to impact any individual fiber (right side of force-velocity relationship graph).

In contrast, heavy weights slow us down, extend the rep duration (time under tension), achieve peak MU recruitment during the concentric phase, and load every single fiber with the required mechanical stress needed to stimulate the signaling pathways responsible for hypertrophy. When chasing hypertrophy and strength gains, recruiting all of our motor units is a much less significant feat if it’s not accompanied by high levels of force. It’s this application of stress/weight on the fiber over a longer period of time that stimulates growth of new structures, not just fiber activation. That’s why it’s important to emphasize heavy lifting.

However, speed/power based movements are far from useless in strength and hypertrophy training. They don’t necessarily directly contribute to growth, but they do have a significant effect on both our size and performance capacity. Through the correct application of power based training, we can lower our motor unit recruitment threshold (MURT) and increase the frequency of fiber contractions (rate coding). This leads to improved strength, greater power output, and more work performed per set (gains). We’ll cover this in greater detail later, because it’s super freaking useful and just a really neat training response.

Before moving on, let’s recap. 

The main takeaways here are, to get big and/or strong we need to stimulate as many of the type 2 fibers in a single muscle as possible. These fibers have a high motor unit recruitment threshold and require a significant level of exercise intensity to become active. By lifting heavy weights, we stimulate all the MUs and load every fiber with enough force and time under tension to grow new physical structures. These new sarcomeres make us stronger and increase the size of our muscles. 

We now (hopefully) have a very basic understanding of motor units, mechanical loading, the force-velocity relationship, and their application to resistance training. When we combine these general principles with current exercise research, we can finally start the programming discussion.

To maintain some order in all of these details, let’s start with macro subjects like periodization and then work our way down to micro subjects like reps and rest time between sets.

Periodization & Progressive Overload

We can’t max out daily or improvise each workout and expect to make any progress, we need a plan that maps out our gym sessions. Fortunately, periodization is a great systematic organizer of gains.

Periodization is an exercise structuring method that helps us target specific goals through the application of cyclic, predetermined variety, progressive overloading techniques, and planned rest within a set time frame.

Cool… What does that actually mean? Basically, periodization is just an exercise plan that gives our workouts structure and purpose over time with enough added rest to properly recover from the demands of training. This plan is comprised of easy to follow, skill specific checkpoints that gradually add intensity and variety as we move towards long term goals.

‘Cyclic, predetermined variety’ means that we change up variables like volume and load over time at regular intervals. These modifications follow a sequential pattern that’s often repeated after a series is completed. A single cycle can be run multiple times to further improve one skill or shifted to emphasize another. Exercise details can seem chaotic and cover a wide range of intensities week to week, but they aren’t random. We want to employ predictable alterations with distinct purpose designed to promote specific skill adaptations. Variety is important, but the order is key.

When a program bumps up weight or increases rep count (adding variety), it’s slowly introducing higher levels of stress to the body with the expectation that it will respond to these demands by becoming stronger. This incremental addition of training intensity designed to force an adaptation is known as progressive overloading (PO) and it’s what determines our variety. Progressive overloading is necessary in any periodized resistance training program because as we add new muscle and become stronger, motor unit recruitment goes down if placed under the same load. 

Similar to how periodization provides us with overall program focus and structure, progressive overloading lays the foundation for an orderly implementation of variety and the timeline for segment transitions. Like steps in a staircase, it’s how we travel through the periodization process and increase our abilities. We load to a certain point, peak, rest, then switch things up by adding a little more weight and/or volume to the cycle we just ran. Rinse and repeat.

The two most popular progression styles we’re going to look at are linear and undulating. These methods are normally referred to as individual periodization options, but I’m going to refer to them as progressive overload techniques instead. This is mainly due to their function and role in program design. A ‘complete’ program will most likely utilize both linear and undulating PO as training components, but these pieces of the puzzle can’t stand on their own and form a whole program. They’re critical parts of the plan, not the entire plan.

Linear PO is the easiest to implement and is simply the increase of one variable while another decreases, both at a constant rate. When graphed over time, the primary variable is an upward sloping straight line traveling towards infinity. It’s important to note that a linear progressive overload can be applied to any variable in any exercise setting, but in strength training we normally increase load and decrease volume.

Undulating PO is the steady rise and fall of two variables that have an inverse relationship. When this overload style is graphed, you get two horizontal waves with opposite peaks that intersect at regular intervals. Similar to linear progression, these two lines perpetually dance along the X-axis as they travel towards infinity. Undulating, just like linear, can apply to any two variables but is most commonly used with load and volume. 

Looking at the graphs above and their descriptions, you might notice some potential limitations within each style. The linear progression implies that we’ll eventually lift all the weight for no reps and undulating just has us stuck in an oscillating limbo doing the same thing forever. In these forms, both options suck. If only we had a way to define the beginning and endpoints for these PO techniques so that they could be repeatable but not continue on for eternity…

Periodization!

Adding time parameters to these progressive overloading methods allows us to increase a particular stressor for a certain duration, reset it, recover from it, then reapply it later at a greater intensity. Segment deadlines combined with progressive overloads give us the cyclic pattern of improvement discussed earlier.

Most periodization timelines utilize a macro>meso>micro structure, meaning they have long term goals, intermediate points of emphasis, and short term methods (goals for the year/priorities of the quarter/workouts of the week).

Periodization was originally developed for sports that compete around an annual competition cycle. As a result, recreational fitness has been heavily influenced by popular sports periodization models to follow a yearly schedule, but there’s no set rule for time. Meaning, you could have a complete periodized program that lasts just 3 months or one that extends to a 4 year Olympic schedule. It all depends on your goals and training experience. However, the longer a mesocycle lasts, the more time you have to improve a skill. So, longer is usually better.

Before moving on to some examples, let’s make sure we’re all together. 

The main concept to take away from this section (so far) is that our goal oriented workouts need to follow a long term plan that incorporates variety through the application of progressive overloading techniques and rest. Be critical of your progress and frequently reevaluate your needs so that you can build a simple plan that changes often enough to force growth when you plateau, but lasts long enough to allow for adaptation. There’s a ton of wiggle room here for experimentation – have fun with it.

Now let’s throw all of this potentially confusing stuff together and look at two examples of periodization using different linear and undulating PO styles. Keep in mind that these are overly simplified, one dimensional routines that highlight only two approaches to training. They’re visual aids to make periodization easier to understand, not full programs.

In this first example, we have a 5 month long macrocycle that consists of 4 mesocycles. Each mesocycle lasts for 5 weeks with a rest week (could be swapped for a deload), and alternates between strength and hypertrophy for bench press.

While there are 4 mesocycles in total, there are only two sections of unique programming. Month 3 is a copy of month 1 and 4 is a duplicate of 2. The workouts in months 1 and 3 might be the same, but the loads used should go up each cycle – month 3 lifts should be heavier than 1. Because the load variable is constantly increasing, each cycle makes us better at a particular skill and allows us to apply a greater level of intensity the next time we run through it.

When we look at the microcycles of each month, we can see the two PO techniques in action. The hypertrophy segments follow a basic linear PO pattern with the weight increasing weekly and the volume dropping in response. In contrast, the strength portions steadily change the load and reps each day. Daily changes in a variable are known as daily undulation.

This alternating pattern of segments places an equal emphasis on both traditional strength and hypertrophy training methods. It’s really easy to implement and can be incredibly effective for many lifters. Straightforward and uncomplicated.

The second example mixes things up a little bit, but doesn’t really deviate too far.

Just like the first routine, this ~4 month long macrocycle targets both strength and hypertrophy with bench press. However, this schedule places a greater emphasis on hypertrophy by drawing out the load peak time in the hypertrophy phase to 2 months. Instead of cycling back and forth evenly, we spend one mesocycle on strength and then two in row trying to grow with hypertrophy.

As shown in the weekly breakdown, the load for strength still follows a daily undulating PO that peaks twice a month, but the specific day to day changes are different. As long as a variable is changing daily and progressing towards a certain target, the transition doesn’t have to be linear (daily undulating rep changes – 8/6/4/2 vs 8/4/6/2). Both options take us to the same place, they just follow different routes. More room for you to experiment.

The changes in the hypertrophy mesocycles are really simple – a longer skill improvement duration for more volume and more growth. We’re still advancing one variable (load) with a linear PO style, but we’re now spreading that transition out over 8 weeks instead of 4, doubling the time we spend on a single rep range from 1 week to 2. This 1:2 strength to hypertrophy ratio is a great example of how we can allocate our time to target multiple goals throughout a periodization cycle but still place an emphasis on the attribute we care about most.

These two examples barely even scratch the surface of programming options, but hopefully they’ve provided you with enough clarity to get the very basics of periodization and progressive overloading to start constructing your own routine. To see more examples of periodization and full programs, check out the Programs page – a lot of fun stuff there. 

So, the big question – what’s the best periodization strategy? And the even bigger, more disappointing answer – it completely depends on the individual.

The way you respond to stress and recover from intensity dictate how quickly you’ll progress and how long a particular program will remain effective. To dial in the absolute, most effective exercise strategy for any one person, a program has to be incredibly specific. And the more specific a program is, the fewer people it can help. Meaning, there is no one size fits all outline that can perfectly maximize results. However, I can make general recommendations that work really well for most people.

Regarding cycle length, I like to build programs around 1 week microcycles and 3-5 week mesos, with the macro duration being dependent on the number of goals a client is interested in working towards. For most people in the beginner to intermediate stages of lifting, 4-6 month programs tend to be best. While you have the option to deload in your rest week between mesocycles and continue lifting, I prefer that you spend this recovery week outside of the gym. Focus on other aspects of fitness (hiking, yoga, pilates, climbing, competitive dog walking, etc) and just take a break from weight training. Kill it for 4 weeks straight, then embrace your well deserved time off.

Linear vs undulating? There’s a decent amount of research comparing linear to undulating PO and most of data points towards equal performance, with undulation having a slightly greater effect on highly trained individuals interested in strength. So, unless you’re an elite competitive athlete or have been training intensely for 5-10+ years, both options will be super effective in your programming. I suggest that you use a mixture of linear and undulating PO.

Alright. We’ve got the basic outline. Now let’s fill it in.

Weekly Training Frequency & Recovery

Based on the periodization framework established above, we know that our macrocycle needs to focus on specific, long term goals (strength/hypertrophy) and incorporate some type of cyclic variety and progressive overloading during each mesocycle. But in order to effectively and safely traverse through a month long meso, our weekly microcycles need to be constructed so that they maximize growth, minimize the risk of injury, and allow for proper recovery.

In this section we’ll briefly cover how muscle protein synthesis, muscular damage, and nervous system fatigue affect our weekly training schedules. We’ll then look at what research suggests for workout frequency. When combined, these factors will hopefully provide clear guidance as well as some basic background information that explains the ‘why’ behind the ‘how.’ 

As previously discussed, heavy weights load each of our muscle fibers with high levels of force. This mechanical loading is then translated into various chemical signals that instruct our bodies to change physically in preparation for future demands. One of these adaptations is the growth of new muscle tissue through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS) – specifically the production of myofibrillar proteins that form new sarcomeres. These new contractile proteins created through MPS are deposited into our muscle fibers and slowly increase sarcomere count and total muscle size over time. MPS is how we grow and it’s a training variable that we can easily influence.

After exercising, MPS rates increase drastically each time we eat protein rich meals as our bodies attempt to form new muscle mass and other amino acid dependent structures/tissues. The mechanical forces we experience during a strenuous weight training session make our muscles more sensitive to presence of amino acids (AA) in our blood. This increased sensitivity to changes in AA concentrations, specifically leucine, results in much higher protein synthesis activity than normal. Muscle protein synthesis occurs to some degree every time we eat protein, but without the catalyst of resistance training to kick into overdrive, ‘normal’ MPS levels tend to result in the maintenance of lean tissue, rather than growth. If it’s not obvious already, your diet is really important to your training success.

For beginners, this state of significantly elevated MPS can last over 2 days while highly trained lifters typically see MPS levels return to pre-exercise baselines after roughly 24 hours. Meaning, most of us are passively building new muscle tissue 1-3 days after an effective workout as long as our diet is dialed in correctly. 

Adapted from - Damas, F., Phillips, S., Vechin, F. C., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2015). A Review of Resistance Training-Induced Changes in Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Their Contribution to Hypertrophy. Sports Medicine, 45(6), 801–807.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is the deconstruction of existing muscle tissue into amino acids for use in various metabolic process throughout the body. Like MPS, muscle protein breakdown rates also rise after exercise relative to fitness experience (untrained = greater MPB). Although beginners see massive spikes in the formation of new proteins after heavy lifting, they also have to deal with greater levels of muscle loss. Luckily, this breakdown of lean mass is less concerning than it may sound.

MPB is an inevitable bodily process but changes in MPS are generally much greater than MPB. We can’t completely stop muscle protein breakdown from occurring (and it’s very possible that we don’t want to), but we can significantly minimize it with a great diet. As long as we’re regularly consuming protein rich meals, incorporating resistance exercise into our schedules, and staying properly hydrated, muscle protein synthesis should easily exceed the rate of breakdown, resulting in growth. MPB isn’t an insignificant factor in our training, but it’s one that we don’t need to stress about. Eat smart and keep the lean tissue you have. 

The post workout anabolic equation shown above combined with MPS activity gives us enough basic information to start forming a rough weekly training outline. The overall plan is pretty simple, we want to stimulate MPS with resistance training as synthesis rates start to drop back down close to resting levels but not too soon before. This allows us to take full advantage of the entire synthesis duration and promote a constant state of growth. Because MPS activity for beginners lasts nearly twice as long as trained lifters, we can conclude that the more fit someone is, the more often they need to exercise to increase hypertrophy and improve strength. 

While this general bit of advice effectively points us in the right direction, saying that someone with a high level of fitness needs to lift ‘more’ and a beginner should exercise ‘less’ doesn’t really give us any helpful details. Taking MPS data alone also implies that there are no impedances to our growth potential. Eventually, ‘more’ would turn into draining, full body workouts performed every day, repeated forever. No thanks. To realistically quantify these frequencies, we need to factor in recovery times by looking at muscular damage and fatigue.

First, what exactly is muscle damage?

Within the context of fitness, muscle damage can be defined as an exercise induced muscular injury that results in pain, swelling, and a loss of function. Symptoms can range from minor to severe but are usually always present following an intense session. Damage is typically caused by unfamiliar physical activity and can be exacerbated by high load eccentric contractions and large repetition volumes (why low volume strength training is emphasized for beginners). When exercise is put on hold and the body is allowed to recover, most damage is fully repaired after 5-7 days.

While muscle damage is far from a one dimensional process, the ultimate cause of our problems seems to be the structural compromise of sarcomeres. These essential building blocks of muscle can warp in shape, form tears in their segment links, or even completely rupture depending on the grade of injury. Damaged sarcomeres produce weaker contractions, experience less force due to lower load tolerances, and can ultimately hinder growth if not given enough time to recover. It’s also highly likely that existing damaged tissue needs to be completely repaired before new sarcomeres can be formed. Research investigating the link between MPS and muscle damage suggests that the products of muscle protein synthesis will prioritize fixing a broken foundation over adding new structures if damage is present. Meaning, you might be doing a great job of regularly spiking MPS rates, but you’ll wind up going nowhere if you’re simultaneously deteriorating existing tissue to the same degree.

However, muscle damage is not some purely evil opponent to gains, plotting to undermine our weight training progress at every rep. In fact, the potentially destructive force of intense exercise can be controlled and directed to make us better, as seen in the basic periodization principle of progressive overloading.

One of the most immediately noticeable benefits of muscle damage is its ability to shorten our recovery time due to the repeated bout effect (RBE). The repeated bout effect is a concept that basically says we adapt to stressors the more often we do them. As mentioned earlier, unfamiliar exercises can be the most damaging and may require a week of repair between sessions. But based on what we know about MPS activity, we’d be missing out on significant growth opportunities if we wait that long. By introducing appropriate amounts damage at regular intervals, RBE results in neural and muscular adaptations that drastically help beginners ramp up their training frequency and provide consistent gains for more experienced lifters. The success of progressive overloading is primarily due to the repeated bout effect and the way it forces our bodies to grow when exposed to the demands of intense physical exercise.

When implemented at manageable levels, muscular damage can also be a catalyst for the addition of new sarcomeres as well as two structures we have yet to cover – costameres and satellite cells. Costameres contribute to contraction forces and the overall structural integrity of a fiber by serving as anchor points that connect myofibrils to the cell membrane and assist in lateral force transmission across the muscle – increasing costameres can improve strength. Satellite cells are localized stem cells in the muscle that assist in the repair and growth of new fibers by either synthesizing new contractile proteins or by fusing themselves to a fiber, increasing that fiber’s total number of nuclei. More satellite cells can mean greater rates of MPS and allows us to regain muscle faster if we’ve taken extended time off. 

Both of these elements are increased in number following a damaging workout and can significantly impact our training in very positive way. But if we want to harness the power of damage and use it for good, we need to be able to identify its presence and severity.

There are quite a few ways to determine if we’re damaged goods, but many of them require invasive and specialized techniques that aren’t even close to practical for everyday use. Most people probably don’t have a clue what segmental fiber necrosis is, have never even heard of Z-band streaming, are grossed out by the mention of protein leakage, and have absolutely no way to test for any of these markers. But just about all of us have experienced a delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) following a brutal workout. This post exercise pain is our marker for damage.

A soreness self-assessment isn’t exactly a perfectly precise measurement method, so there’s really no need to over complicate things. Just use a basic 10 point scale, with 1 representing the absence of pain. This method gives us a simple and intuitive way to assess our recovery status. It’s subjective and definitely has flaws, but its ease of use and reliability make it a great tool to help us dial in frequency and intensity.

Alright. We’re now aware of what damage is, understand its impact on our training progress, and have a straightforward method for identifying it. Let’s combine all of this information with what we know about MPS activity to see a little more of the big picture.

Starting with beginners, we know that MPS can last over two days and muscular damage can take up to seven to heal if we do nothing to expedite it. That 2-7 day rest window can then be narrowed down even further by adding in the concept of RBE and our DOMS self-assessment. To capitalize on the benefits of the repeated bout effect, we know that we need to exercise a muscle more than once. If our time parameters for ‘bouts’ are one week microcycles, we can conclude that beginners need to exercise at least 2 times per week. From there, the soreness scale helps us determine how many days of rest should separate these two sessions as well as their estimated levels of intensity.

For example, if a beginner were to perform a full body workout on Monday, they could use the DOMS scale on Wednesday to determine whether their next session should occur Thursday or Friday. If they choose Thursday but are still really sore (7/10 or higher on the DOMS scale), simply backing off on weight and volume would allow them to benefit from MPS stimulation without significantly compounding existing damage. As mentioned in the Beginner Training section, programming for untrained lifters is more about becoming familiar with movements (neural adaptations) and developing strength than it is about hypertrophy. Embrace the power of the heavy metal healer.

Things are a bit more simple on the experienced lifter side, but the basic concepts still apply. MPS activity dies down after roughly 24 hours for highly trained individuals, but most non-beginners still need at least 48 hours of rest to recover properly from intense sessions. So, 2 days of rest are still needed. However, unlike newbies, that 2 day minimum can actually be taken advantage of if DOMS isn’t a limiting factor. Meaning, experienced lifters could safely target a single muscle up to 4 times a week. Working the same muscle group every other day is definitely on the high end, but it can be a safe and effective method if our final frequency factor is kept in check.

The last piece of the microcycle frequency puzzle is nervous system fatigue and it can be separated into two forms – central and peripheral. 

Peripheral nervous system (PNS) fatigue is a localized decrease in contractile force primarily due to the depletion of energy sources (ATP and glycogen) and build up of metabolites (lactate, ammonia, and hydrogen ions) within a muscle following an intense exercise bout. Basically, the muscular failure that we all experience towards the end of a difficult working set. During PNS fatigue, the brain can communicate just fine with motor neurons, but the muscles are too ‘tired’ to function. Peripheral fatigue is sudden in onset and debilitating, but also incredibly brief, with recovery requiring only a few minutes of downtime.

While peripheral fatigue may sound terrible, it’s actually incredibly important for muscle activation. The accumulation of PNS fatigue is primarily what causes our higher threshold motor units to be recruited towards the end of a difficult working set. The first rep of an 80% 1RM load won’t require full fiber activation, but the sixth rep most likely will due to the loss in force output from lower threshold, type 1 fibers.

PNS fatigue limits our intraset work capabilities but because it’s so short lived, common, and useful that it’s not a weekly frequency factor worth worrying about. Central nervous system (CNS) fatigue on the other hand, is a major programming component that can really screw up our gains if not accounted for correctly.

Central nervous system fatigue is the exhaustion of our brain and spinal cord due to repeated overstimulation, resulting in altered levels of neurotransmitters and impaired neuromuscular signalling efficiency. Unlike PNS fatigue, central fatigue can slowly sneak up on us and become a chronic issue if it’s ignored and allowed to accumulate (not to be confused with overtraining syndrome which is a serious medical condition that requires a professional diagnosis). In this tired state, our muscles are ready lift all the heavy things, but motor neurons can’t produce the action potentials required to stimulate high threshold MUs. Inactive and underworked type 2 fibers result in less mechanical loading, decreased motor unit recruitment, and fewer gains. Fortunately, this problem is avoidable with proper recovery.

The total neural toll that a single workout takes on a person depends on their individual training experience and conditioning level. CNS fatigue from some exercises (low volume strength/power) can be cleared up within minutes for more trained lifters, while other more demanding activities (high volume hypertrophy/endurance cardio) can affect performance up to 48-72 hours. Like MPS activity and muscle damage, there seems to be a correlation between training status and the degree of neural exhaustion. To be safe, if the upper end of the CNS recovery range is 48-72 hours, it may be best for untrained lifters to rest that long between really draining sessions to ensure they stay mentally energized.

This basic understanding of nervous system fatigue combined with what we know about MPS activity and muscle damage gives us just about all the pieces needed to build a really solid microcycle. But to tie it all together and support our conclusions, we need to look at some research trends observed in studies that specifically investigate weekly training frequency. The majority of the data point to the same common conclusions:

  • There’s a positive dose-response relationship between training frequency and strength/hypertrophy gains, but hypertrophy seems to be affected to a greater degree than strength.
  • It’s possible that strength gains for beginners and intermediate lifters are more dependent on total weekly training volume than frequency. Reaching that volume threshold in one session is possible but may result in significant CNS fatigue and damage.
  • To see regular progress, trained lifters probably require more frequent stimulation than beginners.
  • There’s a point of diminishing returns in hypertrophy and strength as frequency grows. Some data shows an upper limit for strength at 3x/wk and hypertrophy at 4x/wk.  

When this research information is factored in with MPS activity, muscle damage repair, and CNS fatigue, these microcycle frequency variables harmonize together to create a clear and unified message. To increase both hypertrophy and strength, I recommend that –

Beginners should perform full body workouts 2-3 times per week with at least 48 hours of rest between sessions, for a total of 2-3 workouts per week. This routine promotes MPS activity for up to six days, takes advantage of the repeated bout effect to help repair muscle damage, and provides enough rest time to help CNS fatigue dissipate.

In contrast, trained lifters should aim to target each muscle group 2-3 times per week with at least 48 hours of rest between same muscle stimulation, for a total of 4-6 workouts per week. This routine maximizes MPS activity throughout the week, stimulates the muscles with a consistent amount of stress/damage needed for growth, and allows for at least 24 hours of CNS rest between workouts.

Easy and very doable for most people. The hardest part will be assessing your own level of fitness on the untrained-trained spectrum – dialing in an optimal frequency will most likely take a little trial and error. If you’re new and unsure of your abilities, it’s probably best to start on the conservative side (low end of beginner) and progressively increase your weekly session count as you adapt. The two examples listed above should hopefully provide you with enough freedom to dial in exactly what’s best for your training needs. If you need help, let me know.

Alright. We’ve now got the outline for our week. Let’s move on to the details of a single workout, starting with exercise order.

Exercise Order & Concurrent Training

Exercise order within a single workout is a relatively simple problem to solve compared to other aspects of program design. For the most part, this sequence is controlled by just two factors – fatigue and training goals. If we understand how nervous system fatigue affects our performance and have a clear purpose for our sessions, we’ll consistently be able to build effective and orderly workouts.

Fundamentally complete programs aimed at improving both strength and hypertrophy should incorporate some mixture of strength, hypertrophy, aerobic cardio, anaerobic cardio, and power. However, 3/5 of these modalities are new styles we have yet to cover. So before we dive into exercise order, we need to quickly discuss the importance of cardiovascular conditioning and power based training within a strength/hypertrophy program. These two modalities are often overlooked when pursuing gains, but they can have a major impact on our progress if implemented correctly. 

To start things off, let’s take a deep breath and embrace the idea of cardio.

Cardiovascular conditioning is associated with an impressively long list of general health benefits, making it an essential part of any fitness program. Within the context of resistance training, aerobic and anaerobic cardio give us one major advantage over those that skip it – greater work capacity. Work capacity is basically the amount of exercise volume we can complete in a set amount of time (per set or per day) and how quickly we can recover from it.

Cardiovascular exercise stimulates protein synthesis similar to lifting weights, but primarily results in mitochondrial proteins instead of myofibrillar proteins. An increase in muscular mitochondrial density to help with various metabolic processes throughout the body means our ability to store, produce, and break down energy (ATP, creatine phosphate, & glycogen) is increased, the efficiency of all three energy systems (ATP-CP, glycolytic, and aerobic) is improved, and recovery times between sets/workouts are decreased. More muscular energy and faster activity turnaround times due to an improved work capacity result in greater total workload density.

For example, if you have a really busy schedule and only one hour to lift per day, you definitely want that hour to be as productive as possible. A low work capacity may require you to wait 3-4 minutes between sets to perform your best and may still leave you pretty fatigued at the end of the session. That fatigue could then possibly carry over to the next day and impact that workout as well. In contrast, a high work capacity could drop your inter-set rest times to 2 minutes, allow you to knock out an extra rep or two per set, and keep you from feeling dead as you walk out the door. In the high work capacity scenario, volume/intensity is greater and carryover fatigue is basically eliminated, allowing for peak productivity in the next session.

Program design for cardiovascular conditioning is a complex exercise topic and deserves more attention than the two paragraphs I’ve got here. For a more detailed breakdown of cardio programming and my recommended routine, check out the Fat Loss Programming guide. The emphasis of that article is weight loss, but the methods used directly improve general cardiovascular efficiency as well. It should have just about all the tools and information you need to build a great cardio program and boost work capacity.

It’s power time.

As we briefly covered before, power based training has an important role in neuromuscular activity. Within Fitstra training programs, high velocity movements are added to decrease motor unit recruitment thresholds and increase rate coding.

We can attempt to decrease MU recruitment thresholds by taking advantage of an acute phenomenon called post activation potentiation (PAP). PAP is a theory that basically states our muscles remember how much fiber activation was recently required and will be more prone to recruit at least the same amount of motor units during subsequent activities. Post activation potentiation can result in increased fiber recruitment towards the beginning of a set, greater strength output, and more volume completed under heavy loads.

For example, a max effort squat jump doesn’t load our muscles with a ton of weight, but it does require 100% motor unit recruitment. When performed before a heavy barbell squat, the jumps prime our neuromuscular pathways, create a short term contractile history, and make the motor neurons involved more easily excitable due to their recent activation. Performing one exercise that mimics the MU recruitment requirements of another essentially lowers MU thresholds by decreasing the stimulation needed to create action potentials. Studies have shown that this muscular response works with both high speed/low resistance (clap push up to improve bench press) and low speed/high resistance (heavy squat to improve sprint time) efforts. Post activation potentiation is what makes moderate weight feel extra light when performed after a much heavier set.

More research needs to be done on PAP to fully understand it, but enough studies point to its effectiveness to ignore it completely.

On the other side of this powerful discussion, we have rate coding. Rate coding is a measurement of how frequently motor neurons generate action potentials per second and is just as important to force production as MU recruitment. When contracting at slower speeds or against lower opposing forces, rate coding is typically low. In contrast, rate coding is noticeably higher when moving fast or lifting heavy weights. Through the application of high velocity exercises as a supplement to strength training, we can increase our baseline rate coding frequency, improving our strength and growth potential.

There are endless ways to add supplemental power training into your program, but I like it in warm ups (mainly for PAP) and mixed into HIIT circuits, in minimal to moderate volumes. To read more about the implementation of high velocity exercise in these two settings, check out the Warming Up: Why & How and Fat Loss Programming guides.

Alright. We’ve now got a basic appreciation for the roles of both cardio and power in strength and hypertrophy training. Let’s talk about exercise order.

As seen in the image above, exercise style/emphasis ordering is our first and most important determining factor.

Fatigue is half of the ordering equation, but it has the most influence over daily structure. Because effective resistance training programs require some form of cardio, we need to make sure that our sessions support concurrent (targeting more than one exercise style – resistance and cardio in most cases) training while avoiding unnecessary amounts of fatigue. To keep both CNS and PNS fatigue from interfering with our workout productivity, we start with strength, transition into hypertrophy, and then end with cardiovascular conditioning. This setup places the most high volume and fatigue inducing exercises at the end and allows us to maximize our strength/hypertrophy training potential before we get too tired. Untrained lifters will be able to get away with any random order they want for 2-3 months, but that will fade along with the beginner gains – do things the right way from the start. 

While not pictured, power training would occur before strength for competitive athletes (football, CrossFit, weightlifting, etc). Fitstra programs put power in the warm up and in the cardio because most people aren’t competing in a sport and don’t need to prioritize the development of explosive exercises to a great degree. But if movements like the snatch, clean, and jerk are important to you, do them first. They require a lot of neuromuscular coordination and explosive energy but also produce very little fatigue if volume is kept in check.

The second line in ordering structure addresses the arrangement of multi-joint vs single-joint exercises and is also primarily influenced by fatigue. While multi-joint movements can feel more tiring than their single-joint counterparts, isolating individual muscles with single-joint exercises actually leads to greater levels of localized peripheral fatigue. If performed first, single-joint movements can compromise the overall integrity of multi-joint movements. If one muscle in a kinetic chain is weakened, the loading potential for that exercise will be decreased. While this multi to single-joint transition is best in most scenarios, there are instances where that order could be reversed (pre-exhaustion).

The last exercise ordering guideline relies on personal preferences and individual program goals. If your daily concurrent structure progresses from resistance training to cardiovascular conditioning and places multi-joint before single-joint movements, any remaining sequence uncertainties should be determined by what’s most important to you and your programming/periodization focus. This is especially true for untrained lifters.

For example, let’s say you’re doing a lower body routine that is focused on beginner/intermediate strength and involves barbell squat, barbell deadlift, hamstring curls, and an easy one mile jog. The hamstring curls and cardio would be performed last, but the order of squats and deadlifts would be your decision to make. If squats are a weak point, it would be best to do them first. If you hate deadlifts and want to get them out of the way as soon as possible, go for it. As long as the first two points in the exercise order checklist are marked off (concurrent style and joint order), the final tweaks can be adjusted to suit your needs. With that said, in this hypothetical scenario we would ideally want to alternate between squats and deadlifts in our periodization variety to ensure an equal emphasis of strength and hypertophy work is placed on both exercises.

To maximize your progress with any training style, perform them in isolation in the order listed above. Don’t blend things together. Circuit training is a great exercise method, but not for directly targeting maximum gains in strength/hypertrophy. Save your circuits for HIIT/anaerobic conditioning.

These exercise order guidelines don’t cover every possible scenario, but they should give you a helpful foundation to start structuring your daily sessions. With the general order established, we can move on to exercise selection.

Exercise Selection

With a seemingly endless variety of machines and movement patterns to choose from, exercise selection has the potential to be an overwhelming roadblock in any program. Luckily, it’s easily passable. To solve this problem, I suggest that you stick to the most common and versatile pieces of equipment and focus on specific movement patterns that emphasize strength, muscular balance, and injury prevention. These factors combine to give us a simple list of effective exercises that target both strength and hypertrophy and can be performed in nearly any gym.

To start things off, let’s look at my recommended list of minimal equipment. If you follow any of the Fitstra programs, these are the only tools you’ll need.

  • Barbell + Plates
  • Dumbbells
  • Lifting Rack
  • Pull Up Bar
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Hamstring Curl
  • Heart Rate Monitor + Watch
  • Strength Bands
  • Foam Roller
  • Parallel Dip Bars
  • Suspension Trainer
  • Ab Mat

Within Fitstra programs, exercise selection is kept simple by encouraging the use of free weights and the avoidance of most fixed movement angle machines. Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, suspension trainers, and our own bodies comprise the majority of the equipment used. These tools offer a wide variety of movement options and training styles while remaining constant in their availability and function from gym to gym. Learning to use these standard pieces of equipment will provide you with the best training foundation to scale your workouts as you progress in ability.

I definitely adopt a ‘less is more’ philosophy for exercise equipment to keep things as simple as possible for my clients, but that doesn’t mean you have to. If there’s a specific tool you like to use in your routine, keep it. For example, kettlebells aren’t mentioned in the bare bones list above because they aren’t absolutely necessary to run my programs but they add an incredible amount of variety/challenge to any routine – they’re an amazing tool for core, power, and HIIT training. Just because it’s not listed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. Feel free to incorporate any supplemental equipment to my list if it improves your sessions. 

Now that we have our tools picked out, we need to know how to use them. To easily address this issue, let’s shift our focus to movement pattern selection.

Our bodies are really good at bending, twisting, and contorting in all sorts of different ways. High levels of mobility are great for daily functional capabilities, but not every movement needs to be trained under a heavy load. Instead, we want to focus on strengthening a few specific, multi-joint movements that can improve general physical performance across a wide variety of activities. We might all have different hobbies and training goals, but we share the same basic movement patterns. When targeted equally, these movements should promote joint/postural balance and help to minimize the risk of injury due to an even distribution of work across prime movers.

As seen in the table above, the selected movement patterns are separated into three categories – upper body, lower body, and core. The upper limb options are pretty straightforward with presses and pulls in both the horizontal and vertical planes. Lower limb patterns add a bit more variety but are still quite simple with a squat, hip hinge, and single leg emphasis. In the core section, we have rotation, flexion, and a ‘hold,’ which is just a static/isometric contraction. Planks, carries, and anti-rotational exercises are all examples of holds.

When we perform these movement patterns with the recommended pieces of equipment, exercise selection becomes pretty simple. For example, if we want to press in a horizontal plane, we could pick barbell bench press, push ups, or dumbbell/kettlebell bench press – enough variety for growth but uncomplicated in implementation. Setting limits on the tools we use and the ways that we move allow us to keep our routines simple, focus on only the most effective exercises, and practice them frequently enough to become skilled at each one. If we’re relatively strong in every movement/equipment combination, there’s a good chance that we’re balanced and have a healthy baseline of general strength.

To help narrow things down even further, here’s a list of some exercises that fit into each category.

From the earlier discussion on training frequency, we know that activating a muscle at least twice a week is ideal, but we didn’t touch on how to train it. I recommend that you stimulate each muscle group/movement pattern with at least two different exercises instead of doubling down on the same lift and use a mixture of bilateral (both limbs/sides working together simultaneously) and unilateral (one limb/side working alone either in isolation or in an alternating pattern) movement styles. For example, bodyweight chin ups on Monday followed by unilateral lat pulldowns on Thursday would hit both our frequency and variety targets for the vertical pull. The exercise selection table above should provide you with enough options to make that possible.

One last thing before we move on – it’s important to note that while the exercises listed above can be used to build really effective programs, you will most likely want to supplement them with a few extras depending on your goals, limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. You may need to emphasize certain corrective exercises (hamstring curls, external shoulder rotation, etc) to help address any joint alignment issues or you might find that certain body parts (arms, shoulders, etc) need more single-joint volume to grow. Use the above list as a guide to help build what’s best for you.

If you need a second pair of eyes to help evaluate postural deviations or assess imbalances, let me know. I’d love to work with you or point you in the direction of a great local specialist.

Hopefully we all now have a basic understanding of strength and hypertrophy, mechanical loading, periodization, training frequency limitations, concurrent order, and exercise selection based on movement patterns. Let’s keep this party going and move on to the next section.

Set Volume, Rest Times, Rep Ranges, & Loads

Because strength and hypertrophy are two complementary points on the same resistance training spectrum, we need to look at set and rep details from both perspectives to build an effective program. If we understand each extreme end of the weight lifting gradient, it’s much easier to move our program slider and target certain goals. In this section, we’ll look at optimal set volume, inter-set rest times, rep counts and their corresponding loads for strength and hypertrophy.

To start, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page and take a second to define reps and sets.

A rep or repetition, is one concentric+eccentric cycle of an exercise and is normally marked as complete when we return to the starting position of a movement. Reps can be short in duration and involve a single-joint or they can be lengthy and require multi-joint coordination to complete a sequence of movements. For example, one repetition of a bicep curl would be the combination of elbow flexion+extension and is isolated to one joint, while a rep of an exercise like the Turkish get-up requires just about every joint in the body and uses a series of different movements. 

A set is an isolated collection of one or more reps that’s separated by a predetermined rest time. Sets allow us to attack a certain muscle or movement with structure and intent. Like reps, a single set can be simple and involve only one exercise or it can be a complex collection of movements and exercises of various styles (circuit training). However, in most cases, a set is just the rep count for one exercise. For example, if we perform a total of 30 push ups that are divided into 3 groups of 10 reps, we have completed 3 sets of push ups. When reading any of the Fitstra programs and most others, sets always precede reps. 3×10 would be read as 3 sets of 10 reps.

Alright, we’re all together now. Let’s begin things by looking at set volume.

As we briefly covered earlier in the microcycle training frequency section, research shows a positive dose-response relationship between total volume and gains for both strength and hypertrophy. However, the optimal number of sets for these two points of emphasis vary quite a bit depending on training style and fitness experience. We know that ‘more’ is better for size and strength, but we need to have some idea of what ‘more’ means. By comparing available studies, we can put together some helpful windows of set volume that apply to both beginners and trained lifters. The table below shows optimal weekly set totals for either strength or hypertrophy for a single muscle group/movement pattern. Meaning, 4-8+ sets per week are ideal when only training for strength, while 8-12+ weekly sets are best if a program isolates hypertrophy.  

As seen above, hypertrophy gains can require nearly twice as much weekly set volume as strength. This implies that it generally takes less time to improve neuromuscular efficiency than it does to grow new tissue. So, if we’re building a program that aims to increase both, it’s probably best to spend the majority of our training time on hypertrophy. But because the studies used to form the table above only tested for one of the two training styles (strength or hypertrophy), we can’t just stack the two ranges together and call it a day – the total volume for beginners and most trained lifters would be a bit too high. Instead, we need to operate within set volume ranges that allow us to improve both strength and hypertrophy without causing unnecessary amounts of CNS fatigue and muscular damage

I recommend that most lifters shoot for 5-10+ total sets per week for every muscle/movement pattern, with the exact total depending on training status and program goals. Within this set range, 60-70% of them should focus on hypertrophy and the remaining 30-40% are left to target strength. This split should promote consistent growth and allow for enough weekly heavy strength work to improve the neuromuscular coordination of new tissue as it’s added. If you’re more on the beginner to intermediate side of fitness, start lower in your set totals. See how you respond to a certain volume and then make incremental modifications as necessary. It’s better to be slightly under worked for a week or two than overly sore and exhausted. 

The table below contains some recommended weekly set split options ranging from beginner to intermediate with the set totals and strength percentages listed at the bottom. 

One really easy way to organize this setup within the recommended routine (2-3x per movement pattern per week) is to separate strength sets from hypertrophy sets for all muscles/movements and target them on different days.

Let’s revisit the chin up/lat pull down example from the Exercise Selection section. If we’re doing chin ups on Monday, all of the sets performed for that one exercise can be focused on strength. When Thursday arrives, every lat pull down set will emphasize hypertrophy. For a goal of 8 total sets of vertical pulling in a week, 3 sets will isolate strength chin ups on Monday and the remaining 5 will focus hypertrophy with lat pull downs on Thursday. This strategy is used in both of the Fitstra Upper-Lower programs. 

To see how strength and hypertrophy can be combined on the same day, check out the Fitstra Legs Push Pull program. 

There are plenty of different ways to implement this weekly set split. Most importantly, do what’s best for you.

Now that we have some optimal ranges of set volume established, we need to make sure they’re performed well by recovering properly between sets.

Inter-set recovery times vary quite a bit from person to person under different training settings but in general, more is better. If allowed to rest longer, we can lift more weight, restore a greater percentage of our baseline energy stores (ATP), remove more of the metabolites (lactate, ammonia, and hydrogen ions) that build up during exercise, increase post exercise MPS to a greater degree (when compared to shorter rest times), and keep intra-workout fatigue in check. Longer rest times between sets also just make the workout more enjoyable due to lower ratings of perceived exertion. If the overall difficulty level of an activity is lower, both emotional satisfaction and program adherence will be higher, especially for beginners. But just like set volume, we need to define ‘more’ to take advantage of these benefits. 

As seen in my overused purple and black gradients above, there’s a range of inter-set rest times that extends across the resistance spectrum with longer recovery periods corresponding to increased load potential and decreased PNS fatigue. The ‘best’ rest times and exactly where any of us fall on this recovery timeline depend on training experience, age, exercise intensity, volume, work capacity, diet, and goals, but we can aim for some standard targets based on common training methods.

I recommend inter-set rest times of 1.5-3 minutes when training for hypertrophy and 3-5 minutes for strength. It will take a little trial and error to dial in exactly what’s best for you, but these ranges should work well for most people. If you’re unsure of where to start, begin with longer recovery periods to establish baseline performance levels and then work to gradually shave off time as you increase your work capacity through cardiovascular conditioning. Keep in mind the structure of the recovery gradient and remember that heavier loads will always require more rest to be performed well. Make sure you’re recovering enough to lift heavy, because ultimately, strength and hypertrophy programming are both built on the relationship between rep count and load.

With a general understanding of set volumes and rest times, we can now move on to rep count and load. I’ve talked a lot about training for strength and hypertrophy, but haven’t touched on exactly how to do it. Let’s fix that by looking at specific rep ranges and how they affect size and strength.

The reps and loads we use in resistance training are based on our one rep max (1RM). A 1RM is the absolute most amount of weight we can lift for one complete repetition for any single exercise. If we want our program to be effective and tailored to our individual needs, we first need to know what our 1RMs are for the exercises in our program. But for a lot of people, maximum loads can be dangerous. To reduce our risk of injury, we can estimate our 1RM by using a multiple rep max of a lighter weight.

By using the chart above, we can calculate an approximate 1RM of any exercise. To find this value, divide the amount of weight successfully lifted by the corresponding load percentage (as a decimal) of reps completed.

For example, let’s say you can bench press 135 lbs for 5 reps. Based on our 1RM values, we know that any weight we can move 5 times is approximately 87% of our one rep max. With this information, we then divide 135 by 85% (135/0.85) to give us an estimated 1RM of roughly 160 lbs. Although we can technically calculate a 1RM from any rep count, I recommend the use of a 4-6 rep max. This method is great for beginners and experienced lifters alike, as it does not require a testing week or any type of program modification to determine strength. With our 1RM data ready to go, we can look at optimal rep ranges and loads for strength and hypertrophy.

Looking back at the 1RM table and the black/purple gradient transition, we see that strength is strongly associated with heavier loads but fades out pretty quick once we go over the 6 rep mark. In contrast, hypertrophy starts to creep in around the 6 rep mark but extends all the way through the table. Like many other aspects of fitness, there’s not a solid line that separates strength from hypertrophy, but there are sweet spots. Studies show that strength gains are primarily made when we lift at or above 80-85% of our 1RM, while hypertrophy can occur within a broad spectrum of loads. These percentages correspond to rep ranges of roughly 1-6 for strength and 6-12+ for hypertrophy. In all Fitstra programs, the rep count for any exercise that specifically targets strength or hypertrophy should always be paired with its corresponding 1RM percentage.

When we reflect on what we know about muscle growth and the ‘learning’ process of strength, these ranges make sense.

Hypertrophy requires the activation and mechanical loading of type 2 fibers, regular spikes in muscle protein synthesis, and possibly some occasional tissue damage. Because PNS fatigue results in the eventual recruitment of our largest motor units, all of these hypertrophy prerequisites can theoretically be met with heavy or light weight. Studies have shown that hypertrophy can occur at rep ranges up to 30, but I don’t recommend that you work that high. Despite the growth potential that lower loads offer, I suggest that you cap your hypertrophy range at 12 due to the fiber type-fiber size paradox.

The fiber type-fiber size paradox is a concept that basically states muscle fibers with the highest oxidative capacity have the lowest growth potential. It also says that the attempt to simultaneously increase a fiber’s oxidative capacity and size will be less effective than if the two areas were trained independently. Lighter weights that fatigue us at relatively high rep counts (15-30) rely on highly oxidative type 1 fibers for a significant portion of the set. These high rep sets don’t recruit our largest motor units until the end of the exercise, resulting in a considerable amount of ‘wasted’ muscular energy spent on smaller MUs. In contrast, heavier weight performed for 6-12 reps recruits type 2 fibers much sooner and directs our energy expenditure primarily towards growth. High rep sets can be incredibly beneficial for muscular endurance, but they do a poor job of efficiently isolating hypertrophy and can cause too much damage and fatigue to be worth implementing.

The fiber type-fiber size paradox is one of the main reasons why Fitstra programs utilize an exercise structure that selectively targets certain goals instead of blending everything together. ‘Distinct purpose designed to promote a specific adaptation’ applies to more than just our conversation on periodization.

Although hypertrophy can occur under a variety of rep/load conditions, strength improvements are more one dimensional. To be strong, we need high levels of neuromuscular coordination and fiber activation that, when combined, result in maximum force output. These two aspects of strength are skills that need to be continuously practiced and perfected under ‘game day’ conditions as new tissues are added from hypertrophy training. Meaning, if we want to be proficient at maximum force production, we have to teach both existing and new muscle mass to work together and reach their collective strength potential by lifting heavy weights. The benefits of power training we covered earlier (improved MUR and rate coding) can help us lift more, but there’s no substitute for high 1RM loads. Stick to 1-6 reps, use smart progressive overloading patterns, move heavy things, and teach your body to be strong. Treat strength training like a skill that can be improved with no ceiling but lost without practice. Stay consistent.

Use these set volume, rest time, rep count, and load suggestions as starting points and make adjustments as needed to build the best program for your individual needs.

Now that we understand the basics of rep counts and their corresponding loads, we can move on to the final details – rep failure and tempo.

Rep Failure & Tempo

At this point in our strength and hypertrophy discussion, we’ve covered just about everything you need to start creating a simple, yet effective program. You (hopefully) now know some of the basics about periodization, motor unit recruitment, training frequency, exercise order, and other important muscle building topics. The big picture of effective resistance training is clear, but it’s not quite complete. To wrap up this lengthy guide, we need to touch on two final topics that dive a little deeper into repetition style and performance – failure and tempo.

Within the context of resistance training, ‘failure’ is a specific point during a set where no more reps can be completed due to the build up of PNS fatigue. We fail when we can’t generate enough force to overcome external resistance. Reaching this level of exhaustion is usually encouraged in training programs to get the most out of every set. Using a spotter, lifters can push their bodies to failure to ensure all high threshold motor units are recruited. However, despite its popularity, most of us should avoid failure in our training.

By consistently taking our sets to failure, we increase both CNS and PNS fatigue, muscular damage, and our necessary inter-set rest times. Repeated set failure also increases our session RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) which can lower emotional satisfaction/enjoyment and cause problems with program adherence. Highly trained lifters and elite competitive athletes may see additional benefits from this style of max effort training when used correctly, but research suggests that both strength and hypertrophy can be improved without reaching failure. So, I recommend that you avoid failure when possible.

We aren’t going to build massive guns or double our squat max in any single session – we smash our goals by accumulating small, incremental daily victories over long periods of time. The key to success is consistency, but it’s a lot harder to keep working out if we’re overly sore, injured, and just generally anxious about the upcoming session. To make sure we’re always having fun and showing up every day, I suggest that beginners stay 1-2 reps away from failure while trained lifters keep a 1 rep buffer between them and exhaustion. If you think, “I probably could have knocked out one more” as you rack your weights after the last rep, perfect. Flirt with failure but don’t let it screw you out of potential growth and training consistency. 

Maintaining these reps in reserve won’t always be easy, but it’s much more manageable if we’re controlling our movement tempo.

In all Fitstra programs and most resistance training setting, we want our repetitions to be complete concentric+eccentric cycles of movements that are performed in a controlled manner and taken through a full range of motion. The lengthening and shortening of a muscle under various loads and exercises help us maximize our size/strength potential by taking advantage of regional hypertrophy. Regional hypertrophy is the growth of new tissues within specific areas of a muscle. While both contraction styles can produce similar results, studies show that concentric contractions tend to increase the middle cross sectional area of a muscle (proximal sarcomeres in parallel) while eccentric contractions can favor overall fiber length (distal sarcomeres in series). If we can make a muscle longer and thicker, it will be stronger and faster. But to get the benefits of both contractions, we need to make sure we’re moving through our reps at the right speed.

For most people that fall into the beginner/intermediate range, I recommend that they use a simple self pacing assessment to establish their own ‘controlled’ rep speeds. When moving a weight, do you feel like you’re in charge of the object or is it imposing its will onto you? Are you moving slowly enough to feel muscular tension throughout the full range of motion? Does your movement speed allow you to hit all of your target reps with the load you’re using? If the answers to these questions are ‘yes,’ you’re most likely good to go. The absolute best rep speed will be the one that you can perform consistently with great form and confidence. With that said, I do have some suggestions.

I recommend that most lifters spend 1-2 seconds in the concentric phase and 1-3 seconds in the eccentric. Experienced lifters may see hypertrophic benefits from eccentric times of up to 4 seconds, but the excessive damage from loaded lengthening should be used sparingly. Pay attention to how fast you can move a weight when you’re about 3-4 reps away from failure and aim to mimic that movement speed through the full rep range of motion.

Like all the other sections and advice given here, use the failure and tempo guidelines to help build what’s best for you.

Now that all of the big points have been hit, let’s wrap this novel up.

Putting It All Together

Unlike the other guides, I’m not going to include program examples here. This article is already long enough and there are too many different possible training combinations that would need to be covered. Instead, I’d rather just give you complete programs that have hours of planning and thought behind them with instructions to explain all of the details.

Head over to the Programs page and check out all of the workouts listed there. They range in length (2-6 months), target a variety of different training styles, and accommodate all experience levels. I‘d love for you to try a few of them out and tell me what you think – they’re all free. Go have fun. 

However, if you’re looking to focus in on one specific area of your training and want something custom, let me know. Let’s work together and build a plan just for you.

Wrapping It Up

Despite all of the topics covered here and the length of this article, we’re still just barely scratching the surface of strength and hypertrophy training. With no mention whatsoever of mechanics, there’s a lot more to touch on, but hopefully this guide has been helpful and given many of you some of the tools needed to start building or tweaking your own programs.

It should be pretty clear by now that resistance training is a monster of subject that can be approached from quite a few different angles. Science points us in a very helpful general direction but gives us enough wiggle room to play with program details. Feel free to experiment with my suggestions in different ways to find what’s best for you.

Focus on being the best you can be at your favorite exercise based hobbies, but make sure you’re lifting weights too.

If you have any questions about what was covered here or would like to chat with me about building a custom strength/hypertrophy program, please let me know. I’d really love to work with you.

Experiment by manipulating different variables. Find out what works best for you. Share what you discover. Have fun.

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