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7 Steps to Writing Great Workout Programs

I’ve instructed over a thousand people to become personal trainers, and one thing new trainers struggle with is the act of writing out a personal training program.  I am not talking about trying to decide if a client should perform bench press or perhaps push-ups, or if lunges are better than squats?  I am talking about the actual mechanics of constructing a workout program that is time efficient, easy to follow, easy to modify, and let’s clients make sense of the directions the trainer is trying to give them.  This is particularly important if you engage in online training.  If you are looking for ways to enhance and expedite your program design process, I have a solution for you.  Follow these 7 simple steps and you will be able to create impressive and consistent workout programs that clients will be willing pay for.  To be clear this post is not about the why’s of how the body works or what types of workout programs are best for certain clients.  This post is about how to properly write out and design strength training programs.

Step 1: Get Their Goals

npti-textbook It is important to have a couple of clear fitness goals that you will construct the program around for the next several months.  Prioritize these goals – be sure to delineate a number one goal that is most important to the client.  For more details on setting goals, refer to chapter 4 in the textbook NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training.  In short, make sure the goals are SMART and that they relate to a component of fitness.  Improving strength, building muscle, and enhancing muscle endurance are some of the most popular resistance training goals that clients will have.

Case Scenario: Let’s say we are working with an intermediate level male client that is 180 lbs and 35 years old.  After talking things over with him you discover he has the following goals, in order of importance:

Increase strength – take bench from 240 to 275 in 3 months

Increase size – improve flexed arm measurement from 15 to 15.75 inches in 3 months

Increase muscle endurance – be able to lunge around a track without stopping in 3 months


Step 2: List the Key Exercises


The principle of specificity makes it clear that exercise selection is very important.  This is also clearly illustrated in my Hierarchy of Strength – exercise selection is one of the most important variables that a personal trainer will have full control over in the workout program.  As such, list 5-10 key exercises that you want to make sure are included in the program.  Don’t feel as though you have to list all exercises the client will do and don’t worry about the order, right now just jot the exercises down.

Case Scenario:  For our client let’s be sure to include the following exercises in the workout program:


  To Increase Bench   To Increase Arm Size   To Increase Leg Muscle Endurance
  Bench Press

Incline Press

  EZ Curl

Pullover Skull Crushers

Closegrip Bench





Step 3: Establish Training Schedule

This step is easy but important.  You simply want to figure out what days a week the client will train with you; or if you are just a creating a workout program for someone to follow figure out the days a week they will normally train.  Put this in column format as shown below.  For clarification purposes I am listing 3 options (a twice a week, three times a week, and four times a week option) but in real life you would just select the number of days the client is able to train each week and go from there.

Example 1:  Training 2 x week

  Tuesday   Thursday


Example 2: Training 3 x week

  Monday   Wednesday   Saturday


Example 3: Training 4 x week

  Monday   Tuesday   Thursday   Friday


Step 4: Set up Weekly Routine

Once you have the typical days each week the client is going to workout, now you want to decide what areas of the body or what movements you are going to train on those days?  Here you want to balance out two very important variables in a workout program: Frequency (how often something is performed) and Intensity (how hard is it).  In general those two terms have an inverse relationship.  If you can’t decide what to do, train everything twice a week.  If the person likes to workout a bit easier then go for 2-3 x week; if the person really likes to workout hard and doesn’t mind being sore aim for once a week.  See below for possible examples of how this could get fleshed out (there are many ways to do this and this is not the most important variable to consider, so simply trust your gut and go from there):

             Example 1:  Training 2 x week

  Tuesday   Thursday
  Total Body Routine   Total Body Routine


Example 2: Training 3 x week

  Monday   Wednesday   Saturday
  Push   Pull   Total Body


Example 3: Training 4 x week

  Monday   Tuesday   Thursday   Friday



Lower Back





Note: Core could be trained once or twice a week on any day during this routine


Step 5: Fill in the Exercises

Now take the columns that you have created and fill in the exercises that you selected in step 2.  Put them where they belong, and then fill in any missing blanks.  Don’t overload the client with a massive number of random exercises, think quality over quantity.  Generally you want to perform a least 4 exercises per session and you will usually not perform more than 10 total exercises, 6-8 is a very common number for a one hour session.  For more information on which exercises are ideal to choose, see the Best Exercise Series found on  If you want to worry about exercise order now, that is fine, or you can fix that in the next step.

Example: Let’s take option 3 from above and flesh it out with our sample client.

  Monday   Tuesday   Thursday   Friday



Lower Back







DB Incline Fly

DB Hmr Curl

Reverse Curl

3 Board Press

Tricep Pushdown







Pullover Skull Crusher

Closegrip Bench

DB Mil Press

Leaning Lat Raise

Cable Lat Raise


EZ Power Curl


45 Degree Row

DB Row

Strict Curl

DB Power Rear Delts

Smith Machine Shrugs


Note: The bolded exercises are the ones we listed in Step 2 as key exercises


Step 6: Fill in the Nuts and Bolts

The nuts and bolts of exercise program design are the specific variables you are going to apply to the exercises you have selected for the client to perform.  These variables include: exercise order, warm-up sets, work sets, reps, weight used, rest time, as well as any intensity techniques you might employ (supersets, drop sets, pre-exhaustion, etc).  For more detail on why certain variables should be set up certain ways, see this post:

Example: Let’s take day one and fill out the nuts and bolts for it:

  Monday   Nuts and Bolts

 Bench 3 w/u sets




DB Incline Fly


DB Hmr Curl


Reverse Curl


3 Board Press

Tricep Pushdown


95×12; 135×8, 155×6

175×8, 190×6, 205×4, 185×6-8


135×8, 145×8, 155×8







135×6, 165×6, 185×6, 205×6


Note: Italicized sets are warm-up sets

You would follow that process of filling in the nuts and bolts for each day and for each exercise.


7. Incorporate Progressive Overload

I referenced earlier that the principle of specificity is one of the most fundamental training principles that personal trainers must keep in mind when they are creating workout programs.  The other extremely key variable is the principle of progressive overload, which essentially states that you must make the workout harder over time to improve the client’s fitness level.  If you don’t follow overload, you will not cause the desired adaptations in the client.  Well planned out overload is the one of the key differences between simply working out and actually following a training plan that is going to lead you to a specific goal.

For the vast majority of clients, you want to incorporate overload in every subsequent session or at least on a weekly basis.  To help with this process, I like to think about where I want the client to be either at the end of the training program (mesocycle) or at the end of the month.  Then I will program backward to where they are now.  For example, we have our client benching 205×4 on the first day of the plan.  That should be quite doable for a client who can bench 240.  On that phase of the program, we can likely just add 5 lbs to each working set each week.  You can’t do this forever but it is very reasonable that we can do that for the first month, at which case the client is now going to do 220×4 on week 4 which is good progress and they likely can’t do that set now.

However you can’t just add 5 lbs a week to every exercise forever, often that rate of progress is not realistic.  For example if we did that to the incline fly that would put them at using 50 lbs for 8-12 reps on week 4, 70 lbs on week 8, and 90 lbs on week 12.  Generally you need to be benching well over 300 lbs to use 90’s on an incline fly with good form so that is not realistic for our client.

If the total weight used is lighter and/or if the rate of adaptation isn’t expected to be that fast, it is often ideal to add reps instead of weight.  This is typically done using rep range progression which is where the trainer picks a desired range of reps (that relate to the goal), the client starts out hitting the minimum number of reps and then builds up to the maximum.  Once the maximum number of reps is hit, a small amount of weight is added, the reps drop back down to the minimum and the process repeats.  This style yields small results initially but over time it can lead to very significant gains in strength.

There are many other types of overload including adding sets, changing exercises, decreasing rest time, and using intensity techniques – but adding weight and adding reps are the most common ways to introduce overload.  They are also very easy to measure and sure to produce results.

For clients following a take home plan, or for the trainer looking at a monthly progression, it is easiest to show this in table format.  Take the workout that was created and then create a column for week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4.  Then fill in the expected overload.  You can’t always predict these things perfectly but a trainer will develop a sense of the type of progress a client will make over time.  As experience builds this becomes easier and easier.

Day 1 – Chest and Arms

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
  Bench 95×12; 135×8, 155×6

175×8, 190×6, 205×4, 185×6-8

95×12; 135×8, 160×6

180×8, 195×6, 210×4, 190×6-8

95×12; 135×8, 160×6

185×8, 200×6, 215×4, 195×6-8

95×12; 135×8, 165×6

190×8, 205×6, 220×4, 200×6-8

  Incline 95×8

135×8, 145×8, 155×8


140×8, 150×8, 160×8


145×8, 155×8, 165×8


150×8, 160×8,


  DB Incline Fly 25×8

35×8 x 3


35×10 x 3


35×12 x 3


40×8 x 3

  DB Hmr Curl 25×8



35×10 x 3


35×12 x 3


40×8 x 3

  Reverse Curl 40×8

60×8 x 3


60×10 x 3


60×12 x 3


65×8 x 3

  3 Board Press 135×6, 165×6, 185×6, 205×6 140×6, 170×6, 190×6, 210×6 145×6, 175×6, 195×6, 215×6 150×6, 180×6,

200×6, 220×6

Tricep Pushdown 80×8 x 3 80×12 x 3 85×8 x 3 85×12 x 3


Day 2 – Legs and Lower Back

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
  Squats 45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×8,

175×5, 195×5, 215×5, 185×10

45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×5

165 x 15 x 4

45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×8,

180×5, 200×5, 220×5, 190×10

45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×5

165 x 20 x 4

  Lunges 25×12, 35×12, 45×12 BW x 100 x 2 30×12, 40×12, 50×12 BW x 110 x 2
  Bulgarian Split    Squat 25×8

35×8 x 3

15×15 x 3



35×12 x 3

15×20 x 3


 Romanian  Deadlift 95×8, 135×8

165×8, 195×8, 225×8


155×20 x 3

95×8, 135×8

175×8, 205×8, 235×8


165×20 x 3

Glute Ham Raise BW x 6 x 4 BW x 8 x 4 BW x 10 x 4 BW x 12 x 4


Day 3 – Shoulders and Triceps

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
 DB Military Press 25×8 x 2

40×8, 50×6, 60×4, 45×8-12

25×8 x 2

40×10, 50×8, 60×6, 45×8-12

30×8 x 2

45×8, 55×6, 65×4, 50×8-12

30×8 x 2

45×10, 55×8, 65×6, 50×8-12

 DB Leaning Lat Raise 25×8 x 4 25×12 x 4 30×8 x 4 30×12 x 4
 Cable Lat Raise 20×8 x 3 20×12 x 3 25×8 x 3 25×12 x 3
 Closegrip Bench 95×8, 135×8

165×8 x 3

95×8, 135×8

165×12 x 3

95×8, 135×8

175×8 x 3

95×8, 135×8

175×12 x 3

  Dips +20×10, +40×8, +60×6, +30×8-12 +25×10, +45×8, +65×6, +35×8-12 +30×10, +50×8, +70×6, +40×8-12 +35×10, +55×8, +75×6, +45×8-12
 Pullover Skull Crushers 50×10

80×12 x 4


80×15 x 4


90×12 x 4


90×15 x 4


Day 4 – Back and Biceps

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
  Pull-ups +10×8, +20×6, +30×4, +15×6-10 +15×8, +25×6, +35×4, +20×6-10 +20×8, +30×6, +40×4, +25×6-10 +25×8, +35×6,

+45×4, +30×6-10

  45 Degree Row 135×8

175×8, 190×6, 205×4, 185×6-8


180×8, 195×6, 210×4, 190×6-8


185×8, 200×6, 215×4, 195×6-8


190×8, 205×6,

220×4, 200×6-8

  DB Row 50×10

80×8 x 4


80×12 x 4


90×8 x 4


90×12 x 4

 DB Power Rear Delts 30×10 x 3 30×15 x 3 35×10 x 3 35×15 x 3
 Smith Mx Shrugs 135×8

165×10, 185×10, 205×10


175×10, 195×10, 215×10


185×10, 205×10, 225×10


195×10, 215×10, 235×10

 EZ Power Curl 65×10, 75×8, 85×6, 65xAMRAP 70×10, 80×8, 90×6, 65xAMRAP 75×10, 85×8, 95×6, 75xAMRAP 80×10, 90×8, 100×6,


 Strict Curl


60×6 x 3 60×10 x 3 70×6 x 3 70×10 x 3


It is written weight x reps (x sets if multiple sets of that weight are listed)

Warm-up sets are italicized

Progression is estimated but reasonable.  If this program was followed for more than 1 month progression would need to slow at some point (for example go 8 reps, then 10, the 12 instead of 8 to 12 reps the next session)

AMRAP means complete as many reps as possible with good form

Format can get a little funky going from Word to WordPress for articles, so if this was a paying client’s program tighten up the format to make it look neater


The goal of this article was to show you the steps to follow in creating an exercise program.  We started with a simple idea – come up with a workout for a male that wanted a stronger bench, bigger arms, and better muscle endurance in his legs.  We ended up with a very solid one month plan that would likely yield very good results and be reasonably enjoyable to follow, all of which could be completed in 4 workouts a week, 60 min each.  Maybe after looking at all of that a trainer decides to go back to a push/pull routine.  You can simply take the exercises and then rearrange them to match that routine, not a huge amount has to change.

Trainers tend to spend a lot of time on workout program design, so when possible look for ways to become more efficient and streamline the process. Time is money, and when you can come up with the same end result in less time you just saved yourself some money.

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Workout Program Review: NASM’s OPT Model Phase 1 Template

I often tell my students that workout programs are like cooking recipes, it is impossible to know for sure what the end result will be unless you actually do the program or you actually cook the recipe.  However, just like an experienced chef might make a recommendation (you may not want to cook at that high of a temp, you may have used too much flour), an experienced trainer can look at a workout program and offer critiques.  They are not promises or guarantees, the principle of individual variation tells us that we can’t know for sure how one will respond to a certain type of training, but most individuals tend to have similar responses to exercise.

Recently a well-respected fitness professional, Brad Schoenfeld, posted up a picture of a workout on his facebook page.  The workout was a sample template for a theoretical client and it is found in the NASM’s CPT textbook (4th edition).  He posted this comment along with it:


Perhaps I’m missing something, but why in heck does someone with the goal of losing body fat need to do extensive core/balance training and stability ball exercises? And single-leg DB scaption to work the shoulders? Seriously?

Brad has a large following of fitness professionals, he has written several books and conducted much research himself, and his post generated a lot of discussion.  Many people piled on with the critiques saying the program was bogus, others defended the work, and others mentioned that without knowing more about the client no judgements could be made.  A few posters suggested that instead of simply offering critiques it would be more productive to offer substitutions and explanations instead.  I took that message to heart as I thought this could be a great learning experience for the students at NPTI and for budding trainers looking to learn more about exercise programming.

My aim with this article is to highlight what I believe to be the pros and cons of this program set-up, and then offer suggestions when I think there can be an improvement.  For any readers that don’t know me, I am the Director of the National Personal Training Institute which is a school for personal trainers.  I have personally instructed over a 1000 students to become a personal trainer.  That doesn’t mean I taught a one or two day course to those getting ready to become certified.  I am referring to guiding the prospective trainer through the full 600 hour, 6+ month long curriculum at NPTI.  As part of the program we teach the NASM’s material including the OPT Model and their way of doing things and the NASM CPT exam is included in the cost of the student’s tuition.  I have also been a personal trainer for almost 20 years, I have written over a hundred articles and 2 books on fitness including the textbook used by NPTI.  That does not mean what I say can’t be wrong or can’t be challenged, I am human and I can make mistakes with the best of them, but it does mean I am very familiar with the material.  I am also comfortable drawing conclusions from both academic sources and my own practical experience, some might say that is a weakness, I would argue it is a strength. 

First, a few disclaimers

  • This is not intended to be a full critique of the entire curriculum presented by the NASM or as an organization as a whole, this is a critique of a specific workout program.
  • It is true that it is difficult to know exactly how to set up a program for a hypothetical client.
  • There are many different possible routines one might reasonably establish for this type of client, that is the art and science of personal training.  The only true way to know for sure what produced better results would be to take a clone of that person through each of those routines, controlling for the confounding variables, and then measuring results.  Since that isn’t possible some assumptions have to be made.  Years of experience makes those assumptions easier but they are just that – assumptions. 
  • I firmly believe a big factor in how a client responds to a trainer is how the client ‘sells’ the workout to them.  You sell best what you believe in the most.  A trainer’s passion and enthusiasm for the program they put the client on will shine through, and I encourage trainers to find the types of fitness modalities that excite them and share that with their clients.  The Hierarchy of Strength suggests that belief in oneself is a key component to results.  If a trainer tries to use a workout program they don’t believe in, even if the program itself might be good, that often comes through and it weakens the experience for the client.


A little bit more about the NASM

nasm-opt-model-pic               To understand the background behind this program one has to know a little bit more about the NASM.  To be clear, I do not work for the NASM, however I do teach their material to our students.  It is not our primary resource, that would be our own textbook, but the NASM material is our main secondary resource.  The NASM is the largest personal training certification in America and it is a cert that is generally well recognized and accepted by most commercial fitness centers in the US. 

            The NASM can be a bit polarizing to some because their focus isn’t so much about teaching a basic understanding of fitness as might be the case with NSCA or ACE, instead the NASM has a very specific way of training clients and a very specific way of doing things.  To pass their exam you will need to know their way.  They believe the OPT Model – Optimum Performance Training Model – is the ideal way to train clients.  The OPT Model is a very convenient method for new trainers to use because it greatly simplifies exercise program design, it essentially makes it a ‘drop-down menu’ for trainers so as long as the trainer can accurately categorize what stage or phase a client is in, the template becomes reasonably easy to populate.  Some in the fitness world, typically those that are more comfortable creating their own workout routines, may find the template to be too rigid.  The other note about the NASM is they put posture, or at least certain areas of it, squarely in the scope of practice for a personal trainer, whereas most other personal training organizations do not.  The NASM tends to focus on a biomechanical view of posture and pain.   

          The OPT Model suggests putting clients into one of 5 phases, as shown in the chart above.  Each phase has its own specific program design considerations.  What is being discussed here is the sample template for a client in phase 1 – which is called Stabilization Endurance.  This is the phase that the NASM suggests beginners follow and essentially this is their version of a beginner program.  This leads us to the first issue and likely one of the sources of contention about the sample workout.

            As you can see from the template, the goal of the individual is fat loss, but then again this person is a beginner.  How important is a specific goal to address when training a beginner?  That is a good question and many good trainers may answer it differently.  At NPTI we would suggest that the goal really isn’t that important, if the client is truly a beginner they should follow a beginner workout which generally has the following goals:

  • To enhance the components of fitness (all of them – strength, muscle endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition)
  • To learn proper form on the exercises
  • To prepare the body for more intense work to become

                If a client approached a trainer and said “I want to become a bodybuilder but I have never lifted weights before” I don’t think it is appropriate to immediately throw that client on a bodybuilding style workout, instead I would advocate they follow the beginner workout for 2-3 months and then they can consider specializing after they have laid down a solid foundation.  The same is true for fat loss.  If a client wants to lose fat but really they are beginners, just getting them started on the right track is likely key and they don’t necessarily need to follow a more typical fat loss program that might be incorporated for a more advanced client.  Obviously if one strongly disagrees with that concept, then one’s conclusions may be different than mine.

The way I am going to organize this review is to simply go down the line and examine each main component of this workout in the order it is presented (and would be performed).  I will state if I have any significant issues with the set-up, and then offer my suggested substitutions and an explanation for them. 

First, let’s clarify the “sample client”.  As of now all we know is the client is John Smith and they have a goal of fat loss and this trainer put them on phase 1 of the OPT Model which is typically used for beginners. 

                Let’s make this client the average American male, which is 38 yrs old, 5’9.5”, and 195 lbs.  Let’s assume he has no major injuries and he is low risk according the ACSM risk stratification guidelines. 






Issues – None

My Personal Opinion – I don’t think it is very important for a client, particularly this client doing this workout, to do much stretching or foam rolling prior to exercise, but I would not have an issue with a trainer doing so. 

            My two rules of thumb are:

  •             If you can perform the desired exercise with good form without stretching prior, stretching before the activity is likely unnecessary.
  •             The more strength, power, and speed required, the more important the warm-up is.  Since this workout (and my substitute one) doesn’t require much strength, speed, and power, the exact warm-up isn’t that important.

            I do agree with the idea of doing some basic cardio work for 5 minutes (10 minutes is overkill and uses up too much training time) before starting the workout program.

            The NASM’s logic in starting with these stretches is that the foam rolling and stretching might improve the way the client moves.  If the goal is to get them to move better, one should start with that so they can move better through the entire workout.







Issues – Moderate

First, I don’t think it is a great idea to group these 3 things together, they are quite different.  I’ll address each one.

            Plyometrics – I don’t think a beginning client, particularly an overweight one, should be performing plyometric exercises.  While those exercises can be used to train the type II muscle fibers and ultimately they can be useful, I don’t believe the risk vs reward ratio is wise for beginners.  I also find it inconsistent that one of the justifications for the set-up of this sample workout is the client needs to address their weaknesses and postural issues before doing more traditional resistance training, but yet they are performing squat jumps?

            Core – I don’t believe beginners should train core in the beginning of the workout.  It does not provide much bang for the buck and I think it sends the wrong message to the client that this is our first priority and it is the most important thing to focus on. 

            I take some issue with the choice of their two specific exercises.

         A floor bridge is okay but from the client’s point of view it doesn’t involve the core that much, the trainer will have to educate them as to why they are doing that exercise.  It is also difficult to overload and to show progress on.


            A prone cobra, in my opinion, is a poor choice. 

The goal of both of these exercises is to improve posture and build core stability.  The NASM believes in insuring that the core can be held stable during basic exercises before it is asked to concentrically contract, but I don’t see this exercise really causing any noticeable adaptations nor do I see it significantly improving performance.  This is very hard to overload and most people that develop a base of fitness find they can do cobras reasonably easy.  I never had a client express to me that they enjoyed doing cobras and I haven’t had one that expressed pride in the progress they had made doing them (and for a while when I was first training I used them more). 

            Balance – If you want to include some balance here you could, the main issue is that balance is unfortunately task specific.  Most 38 year old males don’t have terrible balance, it is not a great bang for the buck use of time, and most clients after doing this for a week or two don’t really find balance work to be that fun in my experience.  Personally I would not employ this with a beginner client unless they really requested it or seemed to have a strong need of it. 

What did I like

            If one was going to do this set-up, I did like that they did this as a circuit.  That would contribute to the fat burning goal a bit and I could see the client huffing and puffing a bit.  Their legs might be burning just a little bit from the balance and the squat jumps, so that could have some merits to it. 

What would I do

    I wouldn’t do anything here, I would just skip this section and move to the next section.  I would not include any balance or plyometric work at all for this client, I would include some core which I would do at the end of the workout.





SAQ Training – Optional

Issues – None

       I agree, leave this section empty or optional for a beginner client.  If the client was more advanced and you wanted to do some sort of “conditioning” style speed or agility drills then I would do those at the end of the workout, after the lifting.  If the client was an athlete then this type of training becomes more important and one would likely start with it or at least perform it early in the session before fatigue limits performance. 






Resistance Training Section

Issues – Moderate to Significant

Exercise 1 – Ball Squat Curl to Press

 nasm-ball-squat-curl-to-press           I am not a fan of this exercise and I would use it sparingly.  I could see implementing some version of it to an elderly client, particularly at home with minimal equipment, but that is about it.

            A ball squat does very little to teach one how to squat, even with just their bodyweight.  This is a combination exercise and as such it is a “total body” exercise, but the problem with combination exercises is the load is invariably off.  The weight you can squat (with dumbbells) isn’t what you can curl and it isn’t what you can press.  If one loves this set up, you’d get much better results (in my opinion) by simply doing ball squats with the right load, then curls as a separate exercise, then presses as a separate exercise (you could still them do against a ball on the wall if one desired).  If one was going for the fat burning effect doing them back to back could work well, although that is not what I would do for a beginning client. 

            In my opinion this is an exercise that seems okay on paper and in theory but in practicality it doesn’t do much.  I personally would not attempt to include a ‘total body’ exercise for my client if they were a beginner.

Exercise 2 – Ball Dumbbell Chest Press

nasm-ball-db-press            The exercise is okay but it has a significant flaw in my opinion.  We are dealing with a beginner.  A beginner is already weak.  Performing a dumbbell press on a ball is less stable, less stable joints transmit less force, so we are putting a weak muscle in an even weaker position.  In addition there is the possibility that, while quite rare, the ball can burst resulting in significant injury. 

            I would substitute in the chest press machine (probably for the first week or two) and then dumbbell press, bench press, or another machine press like a hammer strength bench press instead of the ball dumbbell press.  Push-ups could work if they weren’t too hard (or too easy) for the client.

Exercise 3 – Standing Cable Row

            Here we have the same issue that we had with the ball DB Press and it is my main issue with phase 1 of the OPT Model.  Research is very clear.  Stabilization increases activation of the muscle, it doesn’t decrease it.  While it is true that distal stabilizers and possibly some synergists work harder when one performs an unstable exercise, the agonist and key synergists don’t work as hard.  Again we have a beginner and by default a beginner is weak.  I don’t want to put a weak person in a weak position, I want them in a strong position.  There is also the simple physics that one can only row so much standing up before the weight pulls them forward or before they are forced to squat very low and lean backwards to counterbalance the weight.  That is a significant negative.  I would simply use a v-grip cable row (seated) instead.

Exercise 4 – Single Leg Dumbbell Scaption

nasm-single-leg-scaption            I have a significant issue with this choice of exercise, particularly with the single leg.  Once again balance is very task specific.  A scaption (which is a hybrid between a front raise and a lateral raise – a shoulder raise at a 45 degree with the thumbs up) is a mediocre exercise to begin with, and performing it on one leg greatly reduces its benefits.  If a trainer really wanted to include balance at this point I would not suggest attempting a combination exercise (combining balance with lifting) but would instead suggest a superset.  Perform a normal scaption with the appropriate weight, and then perform a balance exercise such as the single leg reaching exercise listed previously.  Rest briefly and repeat.  That will at least allow the client to use an appropriate weight to stimulate the shoulder muscles and they can likely make the balance exercise harder, instead of using reasonably light weight combined with a balance exercise that ends up not challenging either the shoulders or the balance in a way that will force adaptation to occur.

            Personally I would not do any of those things.  If I was looking for more bang for the buck I would do a shoulder press of some sort (machine or seated dumbbell press), if I wanted more of an isolation effect I would perform lateral raises or perhaps a shoulder series of front, lateral, and rear delt raises all in a row. 

Biceps and Triceps – Optional

            I am okay with making these muscle groups optional.  For most beginners I would likely include them.  Stereotypically men like to work their arms although if fat loss is the goal it may not be as important to that person.  The time gained by not doing these exercises could be used to do other exercises which might have more bang for the buck.  What I did here would definitely be influenced by my client and what their secondary goals were (if they really wanted strong arms I would definitely include it here).  One nice thing about arm work is the client can usually perform them well (rewarding for clients that have poor cordination and may have been struggling with other exercises) and they “feel” the muscles working easily. 

            If I was going to train biceps my favorite exercises for a client like this would be cable curls, DB curl, and EZ curl.

            If I was going to train triceps my favorite exercises for a client like this would be tricep pushdowns (v-grip and straight bar), skull crushers, and DB tricep pullovers. 

Exercise 5 – Step Up to Balance

            This exercise is pretty good but there are other options to consider, particularly if we want to alternate exercises on each day the client trains.  Again I think balance is being overemphasized in this program and in my experience clients do not find excessive balance work fun.  Making training fun is very important with all clients but particularly beginners who may be ambivalent about working out in the first place.  Adherence is key, and if a client finds the activity enjoyable they are much more likely to stick with it. 

            A step up itself is okay but it is hard to load and hard to get an ideal range of motion.   Either the step up is too low and it is too easy or it is too high and the client has to shift their hips to get up on the step.  If you put the weights in their hands they often feel it more in their grip or their traps.  If the weight is on their back and they take a misstep they don’t have their hands to catch themselves.  And the falling issue is significant, as fatigue sets in they can easily step in the wrong place.  Step-ups tend to create reasonable cardiovascular fatigue, good in some ways especially for a fat loss program but less ideal if one is trying to train the musculature of the leg.  The unilateral work is nice to include and it will help a trainer see if one has a strength deficit in one side.

            This combined with the ball squat from above is an adequate leg workout, but I would not consider it to be optimal. 

            Personally if I wanted to perform 2 leg exercises, and I likely would, I would choose goblet squats and leg press.  The goblet squat is a great teaching tool to learn how to squat.  For beginners it is easy to do, it has a tendency to fix any form mistakes, and it is pretty easy to load.  Once a client is goblet squatting 40+ lbs they are usually ready to start squatting the bar.  It is very functional (in that transfers to other activities and real life) and it provides solid bang for the buck.  A leg press is great in that you can load up the muscles reasonably well in a safe environment and it is easier to do and requires less teaching and patience than a regular squat.  Clients are often pleasantly surprised to discover they can lift a reasonable amount of weight in this exercise and that can be empowering for them.

            Other options would be smith machine squats, regular squats if the client was ready for them, lunges, and step-ups as mentioned previously (with or without the balance component).  I would have no problem with a trainer including leg extensions and leg curls in this phase as well. 

            At this time in the workout I would add in the core training.  I would likely include one exercise for the “abs” such as a ball crunch, reverse crunch, clam, sit-up, plank, cable crunch, or something similar.  And I would likely include something for the erectors such as the lower back machine or hyperextensions. 

What did I like

           You’ll see the note “vertical loading” in the comments section.  Vertical loading means that the program is read vertically (as opposed to horizontally like a book is typically read) which essentially means this is set up as a circuit.  In the workout prescribed the client would perform one set of each of these 5 exercises with no real rest in between, at the end of the circuit they would rest 90 seconds and then they would repeat it.  I could see a client going through these exercises, getting a little out of breath, feeling like they are working out a little bit and believing they are working on their goals. 

            The workout listed is certainly quite easy, no load was given but due to the nature of the exercises selected it would be very light.  That can be appropriate for new clients, remember the number one reason why clients quit training is because the workout is too hard. 

What I didn’t like

           As previously mentioned I wasn’t a big fan of the exercise selection.  These exercises are not that easy to progressively overload for any length of time; they are likely not exercises that will be performed for an extended period of time during the program; and the total number of exercises is quite low (only 5 exercises total) with just 2 sets of 15 reps on each one.  That is pretty minimal volume which means not much total work is done and likely not much adaptation will take place.  For the client that is extremely detrained and sedentary and is literally scared of actually lifting weights this might be okay, but it would not be my go to standard template for a beginner client.






Issues – None

My personal opinion – the cool-down is fine, as with the warm-up 10 minutes is too long for a true cooldown, 3-5 minutes works best.  If I was going to do foam rolling and static stretching for this client I would include it here, at the end of the workout.  To me that has a more relaxing effect, signally a workout is over, rather than priming a client to workout.  I think this is particularly true for beginners.  I can understand that some athletes prefer to stretch prior to an intense exercise but in this case for beginners I think static stretching at the end is a good way to wrap up the session. 


Overall Thoughts

My first thought is something is missing – where is the cardio?  Beginners should be working on all components of fitness and establishing a cardiovascular base is, in my opinion, of paramount importance at this stage.  This would also be very helpful with the client’s goal of fat loss.

This workout is pretty short.  I think a trainer could take a client through this workout in 35 minutes assuming 5 min of cardio on the warm-up and cooldown (I would predict 10 min warm-up, 5 min core/balance/plyo, 13 minute resistance training, and 7 minute cooldown).  And just looking at that should highlight a problem.  Only 13 minutes of resistance training (remember it was just 5 exercises, performed as a circuit with no rest, for 2 sets) is not enough, even if the exercises selected were ideal.


What I would do?

I would do a more traditional beginner workout (traditional as defined by the ACSM).  That would include

  •             5 minute warm-up – likely on the bike, treadmill, or elliptical machine
  •             Approximately 8 resistance training exercises, 1-2 for each bodypart, 2-3 work sets, 10-15 reps, 30-60 seconds rest in between sets
  •             If appropriate some of the exercises could be supersetted or performed as a circuit (if the client was really weak or out of shape I would not do that)
  •             Shoot for 20 minutes of cardio after lifting (often start out with 12 minutes and then build from there).  The bike, a brisk walk at a slight incline, or the elliptical would all be good choices for this client most likely.
  •             Cooldown for 3-5 minutes and then perform some basic stretching and foam rolling if desired. 

Sample Beginner Workout

Exercise Intensity Reps x Sets Rest Progression
Treadmill 3-4 mph 5’ + .1 mph/week
Chest Press ~40-60 lbs 10-15 x 2-3 :30-:60 + 5 lbs/week
V-grip Row ~40-60 lbs 10-15 x 2-3 :30-:60 + 5 lbs/week
Shoulder Series

Front Raise

Lat Raise

Rear Delt

~5-10 lbs  

10-15 x 2-3

10-15 x 2-3

10-15 x 2-3





+2-3 reps/week


+ 2.5 lbs at 15 reps

EZ Cable Curl ~20-40 lbs 10-15 x 2-3 :30-:60 + 2 reps or 5 lbs
V-grip Tri Push ~20-40 lbs 10-15 x 2-3 :30-:60 Can superset
Goblet Squat ~15-30 lbs 10-15 reps x 2-3 :60 + 5 lbs/week
Leg Press ~45-135 lbs 10-15 reps x 2-3 :60 + 10 lbs/week
Ball Crunch NA 10-20 reps x 2-3 :30-:60 Add tube
45 Deg Hypers NA 10-15 reps x 2-3 :30-:60 Go to 90 Degree
Cardio – Bike L3-L6 12’ HR 60-70% Add 2-3 min/week
Cooldown – Bike 3’ HR < 60% – 3 levels from cardio workout
Foam Roll








Static or Partner Stretch Pecs







Follow for 2-4 weeks before adding in more challenging exercises


     For more information on how I would set up a beginner workout, including weekly progression and when to add to new exercises, please refer to Chapter 18 in the text NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training

It would be nice to know

    It would be nice to know the exact plan of progression for the client in the template.  If we assume the client is working out three times a week, it isn’t clear if this template workout should be repeated exactly as is for those 3 days or if 2 more workouts that are similar but different would be created?  That information would affect any reasonable review of the plan.  It would also be useful if more specific guidelines on progression were given in the template.  If the client performed this workout for 1-2 months, when should one progress each exercise, add reps, add weight, etc?  In the NASM text they do discuss how to add progression to the main exercises shown in the book, but as a trainer that was just starting out it would be nice to see that fleshed out a bit more clearly. 


It is always difficult to compare one workout vs another and the results are not guaranteed.  This is the mental exercise I do when I want to compare two workouts.  Let’s say you have two clients, client A and client B.  They are both essentially the same (same age, weight, gender, starting level, etc).  Client A will perform one workout, they will use the sample workout provided in the template, for 2 months (I understand that at some point different exercises might be introduced but for this example we keep everything the same).  Client B will perform a second workout, in this case the workout I presented, for 2 months.  At the end of 2 months the clients will flip and the client will have to perform the other client’s workout – the same weight, the same reps, same exercises, etc.  Who will have the harder time of it?  Clearly client A will get better at the workout they are doing, and client B will get better at the workout they are doing (principle of specificity).  It is my belief in this scenario that client B will also be able to go through client A’s workout with reasonable ease, and Client A is likely struggle to go through Client B’s workout with the same load and reps. 

            To me that means that Client B’s workout is better and more effective.  One caveat to this system.  You might just say make the client squat, deadlift, bench press, power clean, and run sprints from day one because those are some of the most effective exercises there are, and there is some logic to that.  But I would respond that if the client get’s hurt, or if they quit, then they lose.  Attempting to force a client on very challenging exercises right from the get-go is an easy way to either burn them out, scare them away, or set them up for failure.  If even 1 out of 5 clients quits in the first 3 months because of the training you are making them do, that is too high for my taste (and not good for your business).  Ease them in to hard training but on the flip side don’t baby them which I fear is the case with the sample workout in the template.  If a workout is too easy it won’t elicit the adaptations that most clients are looking for.

            Some may argue that what I propose – taking a group of people through one style of workout and a second group through another style, has already been done.  In the study entitled: COMPARISON OF INTEGRATED AND ISOLATED TRAINING ON PERFORMANCE MEASURES AND NEUROMUSCULAR CONTROL put out by the NSCA’s journal, they did compare a version of the OPT Model workout, called Integrated training to a more standard workout, called Isolated training, and the OPT Model produced better results.  While that research definitely falls in the NASM’s favor, it is worth noting two important things:

            First and most importantly, the workout in that research article is very different from the program suggested here.  That workout is much closer to Phase 2 OPT Model training and it did involve some pretty intense training (subjects performed 6-8 real resistance training exercises using 60-85% 1RM for 3 sets).  I hope to do a review of Phase 2 training as well but in short I personally think that is a much more effective way of working out for most goals.

            Second, while the study did show a positive influence in several aspects of fitness, they didn’t attempt to measure any changes in body composition, body weight, maximum strength or bone mass. 


Final thoughts

            Here is my philosophy in a nutshell.  If you don’t agree with this you might look at things differently and I can understand that, but this is how I look at it.

            Resistance training is the most powerful tool that a trainer has access to.  It is a tool that the trainer has almost full control over (nutrition is also a very powerful tool but trainers don’t really have control over that).  Progressive overload is the most important principle to apply to resistance training to make it effective and to cause it to produce results. 

            It is extremely important to make workouts fun at some level.  Many new clients, once they get through that first month or so of not really understanding what working out is about, often find they enjoy lifting weights.  Look at what most people do in the gym without a trainer – many lift weights, some do cardio.  Both have lots of benefits.  How many regular gym goers are doing floor bridges and prone cobras month after month?  Not too many.  How many regular gym goers are doing DB presses, cable rows, crunches, and bicep curls?  A lot. 

            In my opinion and based on my experience, the sample workout provided doesn’t maximize the role of resistance training in the workout.  It also doesn’t take full advantage of progressive overload.  Finally the workout provided may not be that fun for a client.  One of the reasons it isn’t fun is because completing the workout isn’t that much of a challenge and as such the reward for getting through it isn’t there.  I don’t believe this is simply my opinion.  Indeed one of the poster’s in the original discussion stated the same observation, I will quote him here (minor edits made):

If I could add my two cents–what I disagree most with this program design is that it is boring for the clients. We can talk about research all we want, but if our clients aren’t enjoying their program, then it doesn’t matter how evidence-based it is.  In my limited experience as a personal trainer, my clients did not enjoy stability work–and I remember this vividly when I first became NASM certified and jumped on the OPT model, my clients did not enjoy it.  In fact, I would say it had the opposite effect: they felt like the program was deviating from their goal, and they also felt bad about themselves because they struggled with simple single-leg balance exercises.  Keep the goal the goal.


            In the defense of this workout, while the goal listed at the top was “Fat Loss” and this program would likely burn little calories, build minimal muscle, and create no EPOC (thus being quite poor for fat loss) it is their version of the beginner workout.  They would argue that one needs to have a stronger, more optimally functioning core and one needs to be able to dynamically stabilize the entire kinetic chain in all planes of motion concentrically, isometrically, and eccentrically before performing any truly loaded movements.  Their phase 2 program – Strength Endurance – is a much more appropriate fat loss program because at its core the program is centered around pairing a basic strength exercise with a stabilization exercise for the same muscle as a superset, each for a reasonable number of reps with short rest.  While I still think the stabilization agenda is pushed too far in that phase, it would pass reasonable muster for a fat loss program in most instances. 

            But I am curious as to what you think?  If you were a beginner which workout would you rather do?  What do you think would get you better results?  As a trainer have you tried either one of these methods or both of them and what are your thoughts?  Do you do something entirely different with beginners?  Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let me know if you would like to see more of these type of Workout Program Review articles in the future?  If you have a specific program you’d like me to review, send it to me at and I’ll consider it.

           If you are a trainer I wish you the best of luck with your clients.  If you are thinking about becoming a personal trainer, I encourage you to check out the National Personal Training Insitute as your option for eduction in the fitness industry.  Don’t just get certified, get qualified.  Go to NPTI – The School for Personal Trainers. 

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A New Instructional Series



I am excited to announce the release of a new instructional series: The Powerlifting Video Bundle.  With the help of my friends at Fitness University, we have created a new video set that covers in detail how to execute, train, and improve the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press.

Here is a trailer for the videos:



                In the bench press video, Josh Bryant shares his best tips and techniques to build an impressive bench press.  Josh is a bench legend himself, being the youngest man in history to bench 600 lbs raw.  For 90 minutes, Josh explains his philosophy, his favorite assistance exercises, and how he programs the lift to make gains even at an elite level.

      the-squat-cover          In the squat video, Tim Henriques spends 2 ½ hours providing high level, point by point instruction how to squat.  Proper technique including foot stance, grip, bar placement, the descent, the ascent, muscles involved are all covered.  In addition he goes over his favorite warm-up strategies for the squat, as well as how specific assistance exercises improve certain weak points.  Tim Henriques has personally taught over a 1,000 people to become personal trainers and he is the author of All About Powerlifting.



   the-deadlift-cover             In this 75 minute deadlift video, Jordan Syatt covers the execution of both conventional and sumo deadlifts.  He provides many great tips and tricks to maximize your deadlift ability.  Jordan is part of an elite few that have deadlifted 4 x bodyweight.




If getting strong is a passion for you, or if your goal is to incorporate the barbell lifts into your clients’ personal training programs, these videos will contain great tips and cues to help you do just that.

The Powerlifting Video Bundle is available as a DVD set or as a digital download.  If you haven’t already picked up your copy of the 5 star rated book All About Powerlifting you can purchase the book and the DVDs together for the special price of $54.95.  That purchases also incudes the following:

  • All About Powerlifing Program Design Bible
  • 5 competition lifting bookelts
  • “Done-for-You” workout programs all in one bundle




To get your copy of these brand new videos, go here:


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Tim’s Training Tips #1-5










Over the past several months I have been posting some training tips on Facebook.  People seem to like them and I have gotten lots of requests to condense them.  To that end I will put a collection of tips together for easy reference and post them as a blog post.  We’ll start at the beginning (where else would you start?) and I plan on this being a continuing series.

Tim’s Training Tips #1: Rest Periods

How long you rest in between sets is a very important variable and it will vary based on your fitness goal.

If you are training for STRENGTH, you want to have full recovery between your sets. For most people this is 2-5 minutes of rest (use the lower end for smaller muscles/easier sets, the higher end for bigger muscles/harder sets). Advanced lifters on crucial sets may want to rest 5-8 minutes between sets.  The basic idea here is to allow your creatine phosphate and ATP stores to near fully recharge and not to be in oxygen debt at the start of your set.  A simple tip for observing complete recovery is when breathing returns to normal.

If you are training for SIZE you want near full recovery between sets, but not full recovery to force the muscle to use additional fibers.  Generally start the set about 30 seconds before you feel totally recovered.  For most people this is about 1-2 minutes of rest. Don’t rest so short that you can’t continue to lift pretty heavy, however.

Note: some recent research shower better gains with longer rest and I think it is very important to still allow the client to lift heavy.  For beginners and early intermediates, since they are not very strong anyway, the longer recovery helps promote going heavier.  But once one has more experience, keeping the rest a little shorter than desired I believe is ideal.  I do believe there is something to the idea of “getting a pump” for muscle growth and the pump tends to dissapate with very long rest times.


If you are training for multiple set ENDURANCE or conditioning, you want the rest to be quite short. For most people this is one minute or less, :30 seconds works well in most scenarios.  With these workouts you will really be huffing and puffing.  Expect performance on each set to be well below maximal because of the very limited rest times.





Tim’s Training Tips #2: Total Exercises for Strength

If you are training for STRENGTH, generally you want to use 4-7 resistance training exercises in each workout.

If you are using more than that, it is possible you are sacrificing quality for quantity.  In addition because of the needed rest times the workout will be really long and remember the added work will tax your recovery ability.

If you are using less than that, it is possible you may not have a complete program or you may not be addressing all areas of strength development.  The big exception to this guideline is if you are performing multiple training sessions per day, in which case one will likely do 1-3 exercises per session.

Exercise selection is hugely important in developing strength, so pick the most important exercises for you and focus on them.  For more detail about exercise selection, see my “Which exercise is best?” series which starts here with a list of the best chest exercises for size, strength, and endurance.


Tim’s Training Tips #3. Exercise Selection for Strength

If your goal is to improve maximal strength, exercise selection is very important. Remember that strength is a specific skill, it is not a general trait. In order to make sure the strength you are building in the gym is as transferable as possible, use this litmus test.  Select exercises that allow you to go as heavy as possible while simultaneously requiring a high level of skill (coordination). It is important that both of these criteria be met.

For example a leg press uses a lot of weight but it doesn’t involve much skill, it likely will not build up your strength as well as a squat.

A pistol squat standing on a bosu ball requires a good amount of skill but the weight used is too light to appreciably build maximal strength, both requirements need to be satisfied.

In general this means that barbells, dumbbells, and challenging body weight exercises should form the bulk of the program for those individuals looking to build strength.



Tim’s Training Tip #4: Exercise Selection for Size

While exercise selection is not quite as important when training for size as it is when training for strength, it is still very important.  I like exercises that build size to meet the following standard.  Select an exercise that allows you to use a large amount of weight combined with the most isolation on the muscle.

When training for size it is important to feel the muscle working in the exercise, particularly during isolation (single joint) exercises.  It is likely that getting a pump in the muscle is helpful to promote muscle growth (and if you never get a pump in the muscle then you may have poor nervous control of it).

Barbells and dumbbells are still good options when training for size, but other implements such as the smith machine, hammer strength machines, and cables become much more viable options.

For more information on how to chooses exercises, refer to these two tnation articles.  The first gives guidelines on training for size and strength:

The second provides an extensive list of all the common exercises with the muscles working in each exercise:


Tim’s Training Tip #5: Pre-exhaustion

In the last tip I mentioned it was important to feel a muscle working if you are training for size. Sometimes individuals have a hard time feeling specific muscles working.  When this is the case it might be prudent to try pre-exhaustion.

Pre-exhaustion is when you perform an isolation or very strict exercise before a compound or less strict exercise for the same muscle group.

For example if a client wanted to feel their glutes more in a squat, you can perform hip thrusts before the squat; if they wanted to feel their chest during the bench press you could do pec flys before the bench.

To perform pre-exhaustion choose 1-2 isolation exercises and do 3-10 sets on that exercise.  Heavy weight is not the goal, fatiguing the muscle is, as such don’t allow for full recovery in between sets.  Then move on to your main compound exercises after that, expect that the weight you are lifting on the big exercises will be noticeably lower.

Pre-exhaustion can also be used in the following situations:

·         The person is lifting so much weight you don’t feel you can safely spot them

·         You only have access to limited weight (for example DB’s only go up to 70 lbs or something)

·         A newbie trying to learn how to contract a certain muscle

·         An individual trying to get a pump in a certain muscle

·         A bodybuilder trying to ensure a certain muscle receives more work or they want to bring up a weak point


Common examples of pre-exhaustion include the following:

     Chest – Pec Flys, Pec Deck, or Cable Crossover – then followed by the normal pressing exercises

     Back – Straight Arm Lat Pulldown or Pullover Machine – then followed by the normal pulling exercises

     Delts – Lateral or Front Raises before the Overhead/Military Press

     Biceps before back or very strict bicep exercises (Preacher Curl, Incline Curl, Concentration Curl) before less strict exercises (EZ Curl, Power Curl, DB Curl)

    Triceps before chest or very strict tricep exercises (Tricep Pushdowns, Skull Crushers, Kickbacks) before less strict exercises (Dips, Closegrip, Pullover Skull Crushers, DB Pullover Tri Extension).

     Glutes – Hip Thrusts or Bridges before Squats, Lunges, Leg Press

     Quads – Leg Extension before Squats, Lunges, Leg Press

     Hamstrings – Leg Curl (any variation) or GHR’s before RDL’s, Stiff DL’s, Good Mornings

     Erectors – Hypers (any variation) before Deadlifts (any variation) or Good Mornings

There is often some confusion around the use of pre-exhaustion.  Whatever muscle you train first (the muscle you initially – pre – exhaust) that is the muscle that works the hardest in the subsequent exercises.  It is the true the synergists make attempt to take over for the weak muscle and occasionally clients will feel those muscles, but the muscle doing the most work and receiving the most stimulus is the pre-exhausted muscle.

Because of the low weight used on the compound exercise, pre-exhaustion is generally not ideal when training for strength.  It is also less effective if the client is already quite weak and can’t lift much weight on the main exercises when they are fresh.


The goal of these tips is to provide you – the trainer, the serious lifter, the fitness enthusiast, with some actionable tips that are easy to incorporate into your workout and that will make a noticeable difference in your results.  I hope you find something useful in them.








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Some Pretty Good Stuff

                We have put out some pretty good stuff in the last couple of weeks – stuff that I strongly believe will really help you as a trainer make your clients’ programs significantly better.  To that end, I wanted to compile those various charts and handouts into one easy to find space.  If you are looking for more detail about each one of these things or if you want to download high quality versions of the media, simply click on the specific link to take you to that article.


First, we put out the Hierarchy of Strength, which attempts to rank the key variables in building strength in order of importance.  It also attempts to highlight how important each variable is:


Then we composed program design charts for the Big 3: The Squat, The Bench Press, and The Deadlift.  The idea here is that once you know which level a client is on the chart (most clients will be beginner, a few intermediate, advanced will be a rarity among normal PT clients) you can then select an appropriate weekly volume for the lift.  It is suggested to start with the minimal suggested volume and work your way up from there.  Sample programs are included to help you see these charts in action.


Squat Article:


Bench Article:


Deadlift Article:

If you find this information useful, feel free to share it with your friends and colleagues. 


Don’t forget to check back periodically to our Coming Events section to see the new CEU’s we are offering, we update that every month or two.


Remember, if you refer a friend to NPTI you receive a free CEU of your choice, a value of up to $300!

Keep learning, keep studying, applying the information in the gym on yourself and on your clients, and keep moving forward to become the best trainer you can be.


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My Favorite Exercises

I believe that proper exercise selection is very important to help one achieve their goals.  If you are going to be busting your butt in the gym you want to spend your time on something that will actually give you the results you are after.  To that end I have compiled the 5 best exercises for the muscle group you want to work.  But, it is important to know what specific goal you have.  Are you trying to get stronger, get bigger, or build muscular endurance?  To help you out I am going to list my top 5 exercises for each muscle group in each one of those categories.

My Favorite Exercises for Chest

Chest Strength Chest Size Chest Endurance
Bench Press Bench Press Bench Press
Incline Press Smith Mx Bench Push-up
Decline Press Hammer Strength Press Dip
Dumbbell Press Dumbbell Press Ring Push-up
Dips Power DB Fly 1 Arm Push-up



My Favorite Exercises for the Back

Back Strength Back Size Back Endurance
Pull-ups Bent-over Row Pull-up
Chin-ups Machine Row Chin-up
Bent-over Row DB Row Inverted Row
DB Row Machine Pulldown DB Row
Cable Row Pullover Machine Flexed Arm Hang



My Favorite Exercises for the Shoulders

Shoulders Strength Shoulders Size Shoulders Endurance
Push Press Smith Mx Mil Press Handstand Push-up
Barbell Military Press Power DB Lat Raise Barbell Military Press
DB Military Press Leaning DB Lat Raise DB Military Press
Power DB Lateral Raise Power DB Rear Delt Raise DB Lateral Raise
Leaning Lateral Raise Rear Delt Machine DB Rear Delt Raise



My Favorite Exercises for the Legs

Legs Strength Legs Size Legs Endurance
Squats Leg Press Squat
C Deadlifts Smith Mx Squat Lunge
Sumo Deadlifts Squat Leg Press
Good Mornings Deadlift (any) Front Squat
Leg Press or Front Squat Leg Ext/Leg Curl Step Ups


My Favorite Exercises for the Biceps

Biceps Strength Biceps Size Biceps Endurance
EZ Bar Curl EZ Curl EZ Bar Curl
Power Curl DB Curl Suspension (TRX) Curl
DB Curl Cable Curl DB Curl
DB Hammer Curl Power Curl Band Curl
Strict Curl DB Hammer Curl Preacher Curl


My Favorite Exercises for the Triceps

Triceps Strength Triceps Size Triceps Endurance
Closegrip Bench Skull Crushers Closegrip push-up
Board Press Pushdowns Bench Dips
Skull Crushers Closegrip Bench Band Pushdowns
DB Overhead Tri Ext Dips Dips
DB Pullover Tricep Extension DB Pullover Tricep Extension DB Pullover Tricep Extension



My Favorite Exercises for the Abs (core)

Abs Strength Abs Size Abs Endurance
Hanging Leg Raise Cable Crunch Plank
Inverted Sit-up RC Leg Raise Sit-up
Cable Crunch Decline Sit-up Crunch
Dragon Flags Machine Crunch Twisting Decline


Standing Ab Wheel Dumbbell Side Bend Wood chop/Rotations


I am not trying to make the argument that you should only use these exercises listed here for the rest of your training career.  I am, however, suggesting that if you are not regularly incorporating a good number of these exercises for clients that have these specific goals, your results may end up being less than optimal.  Ultimately you want to have a litmus test for exercises; a method for determining if the exercise is likely getting the job done.  Here is the litmus test that I use:

Strength: When training for strength you want to choose an exercise that allows you to lift the most weight combined with the most skill necessary.

Size: When training for size you want to choose an exercise that allows you to lift the most weight combined with the most isolation (emphasis) on the target area.

Endurance: When training for muscle endurance choose the most challenging functional exercise that a client can complete for 20 or more reps.  A functional exercise in this instance is an exercise that moves in 3 dimensions and has a high probably of transferring to common, everyday activities.

Let’s look at the leg press for example.  One huge benefit of the leg press is that allows the client to lift a lot of weight – most clients will use more weight on the leg press than they will on any other exercise in the gym.  That fits very nicely for the first part of the guideline both size and strength.  However, the leg press involves little skill – it is a fixed machine and as such the strength developed in that lift may not transfer that well over to other activities – squats for example.  If you want to use the leg press to develop strength you need to incorporate the other barbell lifts as well.  However the leg press does a great job of isolating – or placing significant emphasis on – the target muscles, in this case the glutes and the quads.  In my opinion it may be the best exercise to develop those areas, particularly the quads.  The point of this example is to highlight how having a filter to view exercises through will help you see the benefits and negatives of each exercise and will allow you to make more ideal exercise selection for your clients.


Selecting the optimal exercises will go a long way towards improving your clients’ fitness, but don’t forget to incorporate the standard exercise program design science as well to ensure they are achieving maximal results:

  • Strength: For most sets use a heavier weight, use lower reps (1-6), and take long rests in between each work set (2+ minutes). Be sure to incorporate progressive overload in your workouts.
  • Size: For most sets use a moderate weight, use medium reps (6-12), take shorter rests in between each work set (1-2 minutes), and use a high volume of training (8-20 tough sets for the target area). Be sure to eat enough to facilitate growth.
  • Endurance: For most sets use a lower weight, use higher reps (12+, often in the 20 range), and take shorter breaks particularly if training for multiple set endurance. Be sure to keep your cardio high enough and your bodyweight low enough to handle the demands of this style of training.



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The Muscles Involved in the Key Barbell Lifts


Sometimes it is nice to have a quick resource that outlines the major muscles working in the key, compound lifts.  Look no further, here is such a resource!  5 Key Lifts are outlined with a ranking of the all the various muscles on a scale of 1 to 5; 5 is hugely involved (the agonist), 1 is very minimally involved.  In general improving anything that is ranked a 3 or more likely to help your performance on the lift.


The Squat:


The Bench Press:


The Conventional Deadlift:


The Sumo Deadlift:


The Overhead Press:



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NPTI’s Exercise Program Design Chart


They say a picture is worth a 1000 words.  Well, so is a good chart.  If you are looking for guidance in creating a workout program for yourself or for your clients, this chart is a great place to start.  It will ensure that you are within the key parameters discovered through exercise science to optimize your return on investment.  In other words it will help you get gainz!

NPTI Exercise Program Design Chart


Exercises per











2:00 – 5:00






:30 – 1:00

Max Strength





2:00 – 5:00






:30 – 2:00

Muscle Endurance





0 – :30

Weight Loss





0 – 1:00






:30 – 1:00

Key Definitions

Running along the top row you’ll see the key workout variables you want to consider when creating a goal based program.

Exercises per workout – this is the total number of resistance training exercises performed in a workout, assuming one usually has 45-90 minutes to train.  Think quality over quantity, but there has to be a harmonious blend of both.

Reps – this is the reps per work set that you will want to spend most of your time using.  Reps on warm-up sets can be structured as you wish.

Sets – this is the work sets per exercise you will generally employ.  This does not include warm-up sets, which become more important as you move up the chart.

Load – this is the range of intensity you want to lift in compared to your 1RM on that lift.  This applies to work sets only.  This is a good guideline to start with but the bottom line is as long as you continually apply progressive overload, you will be at or near your target load in short order.

Rest – this is the suggested rest time in between work sets.  In my opinion this variable is often overlooked but it is very important.

The first column lists the goal you are working toward.

Power – means you want to take a heavy object and move it fast.  Good examples of this include Olympic Weight lifting, the shot put, hammer throw, etc.  The lifts should be done in an explosive fashion when possible.  This is sometimes referred to as Power against Heavy Resistance.

Speed – This is NOT sprinting speed, instead the goal is to improve how fast you can move parts your body – your hand and foot speed.  Examples of this would be pitching a baseball or throwing a punch.  The repetitions should be performed explosively.  This is sometimes referred to as Power against Light Resistance.

Max Strength – you want to improve your 1RM on the key lifts.  Powerlifting represents this.  Many of the lifts may be expressed reasonably slowly.

Hypertrophy – the scientific name for inducing muscle size and making the muscle grow.  Bodybuilders express a great deal of hypertrophy but any growth is hypertrophy (the opposite of this is atrophy or muscle loss).

Muscle Endurance – measures your ability to repeat the same action over and over again before fatiguing.  This is most commonly tested with bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, dips, pull-ups etc but it can be built and tested with almost anything.  The 225 bench test is usually a test of muscle endurance for football players.  Training in this style tends to promote the ability to do some fatiguing many times over – for example doing 5 sets of 40 push-ups with minimal rest.

Weight Loss – The goal of that specific exercise session is to lose weight.  This means you are trying to burn as many calories as possible during that session so it will be fast paced with minimal rest and the heart rate will be up.  Keep in mind nutrition likely has a more powerful effect on how much one weighs.

Beginner – A client that has not worked out regularly before or someone has taken a prolonged hiatus (6 months or more) from training.  The goal of this type of program is not to specialize but to improve all the components of fitness to build a solid foundation for the future.


What Else Do I Need to Know?

oly lifting women

Power – when training for power against a heavy resistance you’ll generally train 2-4 times a week.  Each area will be targeted 2-4 times a week.  Complete 1-4 exercises for each area trained.  Total body, push/pull, and upper/lower routines are commonly utilized.  Athletes will often focus on the movement (for example a snatch workout) vs an area of the body (a leg day).  Elite athletes may train several times a day.  Use exercises that allow you to lift a lot of weight, require a high degree of skill, and can be performed explosively.  Most exercises should be compound movements. Plyometrics can be employed, as can pairing a big movement with a lighter explosive movement.  Warm-up appropriately to lift heavy weight particularly on the big exercises.  Avoid training in an extremely fatigued state and avoid intensity techniques or things that prolong the set – the entire set should be completed in 10 seconds or less in most instances.  The reps are performed explosively.  Long rest is key to promote full recovery between sets.  Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Clean and Press, Push Press, and Front Squat are great exercises to help develop this ability.


throwing a punch

Speed – Speed training is usually performed 2-4 times a week, hitting each area 2-4 times a week.  This type of training is usually performed with total body routines; push/pull and upper lower routines can be used as well.  Elite athletes may perform multiple sessions per day.  Each area is usually hit with 1-2 exercises.  Isolation exercises and machines are rarely incorporated; instead focus on barbells, medicine balls, calisthenics, and plyometrics.  The load is very light and the speed of the lift is explosive.  Again this is NOT about improving sprinting speed but hand/foot speed.  Mel Siff recommends performing 5 out of 6 sessions with 20% 1RM, the other session with 40% 1RM.  Keep the total set duration short, 10 seconds or less is a good guideline, and keep the rest reasonably brief.  Peripheral heart action or pairing a light explosive movement with a strength based movement is common.

Roger-Estep deadlift

Max Strength – when training for maximum strength you’ll generally train 2-4 times a week.  Each area can be hit 1-4 times a week.  Complete 2-5 exercises for each area trained.  You can use a split or a total body routine.  Use exercises that allow you to lift the most weight combined with the most skill.  Most exercises should be compound movements.  Clusters, negatives, and partials can all be used to build strength.  Avoid most intensity techniques that induce fatigue.  Warm-up appropriately to lift heavy weight particularly on the big exercises.  Low reps, multiple sets on several key exercises is the most common set up (5 x 5 is a classic).  Keep the set relatively short, under 15 seconds in most instances.  Long rest is key to promote full recovery between sets.  The squat, bench press, deadlift, military press, farmer’s walk, pull-ups, and power curls are key to developing strength.

Hypertrophy – when training to increase muscle size you’ll generally train 2-4 times a week.  Each area will be hit 1-2 times a week.  Complete 3-5 exercises for each area trained.  Using a split routine is most common.  Use exercises that allow you to lift the most weight combined with the most isolation on the muscle.  You should feel the muscle working during the set and it should be taken to fatigue (not necessarily failure) during the workout.  Both isolation and compound movements can be used.  Intensity techniques that accumulate fatigue are useful to force new motor units to be recruited.  Supersets, compound sets, pre-exhaustion, timed sets, drop sets, and multiple angles of stimulation can be used.  Vary the weight and reps to ensure full muscle development.  Most sets should last about 15-45 seconds.  Keep rest long enough to maintain reasonably heavy weight but short enough to build fatigue.  Avoid unstable exercises or exercises that force a huge reduction in load.  It takes about 30 minutes of hard work a week, including about 8-20 challenging work sets per area per week for each area you want to build, once one is beyond the beginner stage.


Muscle Endurance – most trainees will train 2-4 times a week using a total body or upper/lower routine to build muscle endurance.  Complete 1-3 exercises for each area trained.  Generally focus on compound exercises and/or exercises that target larger muscle groups.  Increase the tempo (speed of lifting) to complete more reps in a given time.  Drop sets, compound/giant sets, bodyweight exercises, timed sets, and timed rest periods are all commonly used when looking to improve muscular endurance.  Most sets will last 30 seconds or longer.  Bear in mind there is a strong correlation between maximal muscular strength and single set muscular endurance; there is also a strong correlation between cardiovascular endurance and multiple set muscular endurance.  Excellent exercises to build muscular endurance include push-ups, pull-ups, dips, sit-ups, lunges, bear crawls, thrusters, and planks.



Weight Loss – the goal of the weight loss phase is to burn as many calories as possible in the given duration without using cardiovascular equipment.

Disclaimer: It is worth noting that likely the most powerful benefits achieved by intense resistance training which include increasing resting metabolism via increased lean tissue and creating EPOC are not created by this style of training.  A client who wishes to lose weight may be better served by focusing on their nutrition and then selecting a more performance oriented goal to work towards in the gym (strength, hypertrophy, power, etc).  Essentially this style of training is cardio via weight training for those clients that don’t like or won’t complete regular cardio.  It is also worth noting that weight loss style workouts don’t tend to be as “fun” as performance based workouts over the long term, and the number one reason why people continue to do anything is because they find it fun.

                Weight Loss programs will usually be total body in nature, training 2-4 times a week.  Use 1-2 exercises per area of the body worked.  Focus on exercises that include large muscles, require most of the body to be involved, have a high power output potential, are standing rather than seated, require some coordination, and are challenging enough to disrupt homeostasis.  Rest time is minimal and the heart rate should remain elevated throughout the session.  Supersets, combination exercises, active rest, timed rest, drop sets, complexes, calisthenics and peripheral heart action are all frequently used to promote weight loss through calorie burning.


Beginner Workout – Beginners should generally train 2-3 times a week, using a total body routine.  They will do 1-2 exercises per area worked.  Start with exercises the client can perform with good form reasonably quickly.  Machines are often included as a main part of the beginner workout.  Both compound and isolation exercises can be used, although if the client is just training twice (or once) a week then focus on exercises that provide more bang for the buck.  Rest long enough to allow some recovery and to prevent overtaxing the client, but move fast enough through the workout to increase the heart rate and accomplish a good amount of work.  Avoid intense fatigue inducing elements that are likely to push a client too hard.  The number one reason why people quit working out is that it is too hard, one must gradually build up a tolerance to exercise before they appreciate truly working hard.  Light to moderate intensity for beginners is fine; avoid failure.  Be strict with the form on all exercises.  Chest Press, Lat Pulldown, Cable Row, Shoulder Press, Leg Press, Goblet Squat, Leg extension, and Leg Curl are all solid exercises to start beginners off with.  Beginners should spend 1-3 months on the beginner workout before moving on to more advanced training goals.

The goal of this article is to provide you – the serious fitness enthusiast, the hardcore lifter, the personal trainer – with broad but clear parameters on how to create a workout program for the most common goals that trainees have.  Think of exercise program set-up a bit like captaining a ship.  There is not just “one” way across the ocean, and it is okay to take a slightly different route than someone else even if they have the same goal.  However, if you veer significantly of course or if you lose sight of where you are going, then trouble lies ahead.  These guidelines are meant to serve as that buffer zone.  You have wide leeway as to how you apply them and it doesn’t mean you can never train outside of them, but do so knowingly and for a good reason.

For more detail on this information check out the newly released textbook: NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training which can be found on amazon here: