Focus: To learn the latest strength training research and use it to design a strength training program.
What You'll Learn In this lesson, we’re going to learn the basics of developing a strength training element to an exercise program. We will look at various terminology and break down those terms so you have a better understanding of what they mean and how they can help your client get stronger. The guide will include information on sets, reps, time under tension, rest, exercise order, progressive overload and the different types of strength training your clients can incorporate.
Why is This Important? Most general population clients within a gym will have an interest in getting stronger. Have you ever heard of a client saying they’d like to get weaker? Probably not. An effective strength training element of an exercise program is a sure-fire way to get your clients to look great, feel powerful and build some muscles. So let’s get started!
From personal experience, when starting with a new personal trainer, most clients are more than happy to get stuck in at the deep end of the free weight section, whether it’s their first or second session.
However, it will be down to you to gauge how confident your client truly is. If your client has some confidence issues, you can start them in a smaller area of the gym and build them up to more advanced areas.
Some personal trainers may help their clients get accustomed to using machines and then progress to free weights at a later date. This might be a good idea. In short, the best personal trainers make sure their client is comfortable throughout each session, and they will match their client’s current skill level with their sessions.
The only thing more important than getting results is getting your client to come back, session after session.
Types of Strength Training
After you have assessed your client and they have discussed their goals with you, it is likely that they will want to design their first mesocycle around a specific type of strength training. What are they?
Hypertrophy - Hypertrophy is the action of increasing muscle volume or mass. A moderate weight is performed using moderate to high repetitions, and a client will use a combination of compound and isolation movements to achieve this goal.
Functional Hypertrophy - Functional hypertrophy is building muscle mass to improve physical performance. Many athletes are aiming to improve functional hypertrophy, so they can perform better in sports.
Maximum Strength - Usually, people aiming for maximum strength are competing in some kind of strength or powerlifting competition. It involves very heavy training, using a lot of compound movements and accessory work, all revolving around boosting the 1 rep max.
Muscular Endurance - Muscular endurance is the ability for muscles to work for prolonged periods of time. People performing activities such as hill running, combat sports or football may need to work on their strength endurance.
Before making any big decisions about exercises, rep ranges, rest times, tempo and so on, understanding your client’s goals, and how strength can play a role in achieving them, should come first.
Determining the Right Rep Range
First, let’s look at how many reps your client should do for their goal. Rep range is goal dependent. There is no right, wrong, or perfect rep range. However, in the context of program design, we can aim for certain rep ranges based on those specific goals:
If the goal is “hypertrophy”, the rep range should be 7-12 reps per set
If the client is aiming for “functional hypertrophy”, they should be aiming for 4-6 reps set
If “maximum strength” is the goal, the client will spend most of their time in the 1-3 reps range
When a client wants to improve their strength and endurance, they would be working in the 12-15 rep range.
If you are writing a program for a beginner with no weight lifting experience, they may benefit from performing 20 reps sets at a lightweight. This will get their motor neurons firing, will provide metabolic damage (or the “burn”) and give them time to learn new movement patterns. It will also decrease the chance of injury and stop them from getting completely exhausted.
Determining Training Volume
When determining the best training volume we're usually talking about the best number of sets in any given session or cycle of sessions.
Schoenfeld et al. (2018) published a study that had strength-trained men performed 1, 3 or 5 sets per exercise during an 8-week study.
Interestingly, there was no effect of training volume on strength development at all, while there was a clear dose-response of training volume with higher volumes resulting in markedly greater muscle growth.
This suggests that for strength gains alone, clients may need to perform a very limited number of sets to see the same results as someone performing higher amounts of volume.
In another study on the dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy, Radaelli et al. (2015) had participants perform 1, 3 or 5 sets per exercise with 2 exercises for the biceps and 3 for the triceps in a 3x per week full-body training program.
While muscle sized increased with training volume, much like in Schoenfeld study, strength increases with increased volume were insignificant.
What this means for you If your client goal is purely maximal strength then your workouts can be focused on getting fewer sets of absolute strength training in.
If the goal is muscular size then more volume seems to be the way to go with training volume increasing to at least 10 sets per muscle group.
Similarly, for muscular endurance client may need to perform higher numbers of sets to achieve their goals.
Time Under Tension
Another important element to understand when designing a strength training program is time under tension. Time under tension refers to the amount of time that your muscles are working under resistance.
You may have heard of “negative reps”. This is where a spotter/trainer helps you with the concentric (lifting) part of the movement, whilst you control the eccentric (lowering) part of the movement. Negative reps are one way to increase the time under tension. Many individuals that are aiming for hypertrophy are adamant that negative reps can improve muscle growth, but how true is it?
A study conducted by Carlson et al (2018) put two groups on a squat training program. The first group did a 4 second eccentric and 2 second concentric (4:2) whereas the second group did a 2 second eccentric and 2 second concentric (2:2) - the 4:2 group having much longer “time under tension”. As a result of this increased time under tension, the 4:2 group ended up performing less repetitions due to fatiguing the muscles earlier.
The study concluded that hypertrophy gains were the same in both groups, however, strength gains were actually slightly increased in the 2:2 group. This is probably due to the 2:2 group doing more repetitions, meaning that they had more time performing the squat movement. Therefore, if your clients are able to perform more repetitions by excluding slow negatives, it’s probably beneficial. The hypertrophy gains aren’t improved by increasing time under tension, but strength gains are increased by doing more repetitions.
So how long should your client’s reps be? Brad Schoenfield’s 2015 systematic review concluded that time under tension doesn’t matter too much, providing you control the eccentric and don’t go too slow on the concentric. A good benchmark is to get your client to perform the concentric as fast as possible without breaking form (i.e. no longer than 3 seconds) and the eccentric should be controlled at around 1.5-3 seconds.
Determining Exercise Order
Whilst all exercise order can be changed, there’s a logical way to structure your workouts to decrease injury and ensure maximum effort can be exerted to achieve more volume.
More volume means progressive overload is achieved and strength gains can be made. One of the most basic rules is that compound movements come before isolation. Whilst this rule isn’t bad, it misses out some other important movements.
When designing a strength training program we might deviate from a typical training program you learn in your level 3 personal training course because much of the content would be a waste of time for a client with strength goals.
An example exercise order for a strength training program might include:
5 Mins Cardio - to warm the body and elevate the heart rate
5 Mins Dynamic Warm-Up - dynamic stretches, muscle activation
40 Mins Compound Strength Moves - e.g. squat, bench, deadlift
10 Mins Cool Down - stretching
This is by no means set in stone but as a general rule of thumb, this is an effective order for clients to follow.
Rest between sets is an element of an exercise program that is often overlooked. New clients will, more often than not, be rather keen to exercise. It’s not uncommon for new clients to perform 10 reps, wait 30 seconds, start a new set and wonder why they could only do 4 reps the second time around. Rest is crucial in anaerobic exercise - but how long should you rest? Let’s break down the arguments for short and long rest times.
Shorter Rest Times (less than 90 seconds) It is often argued that shorter rest time cause metabolic stress - or the “burn”. The 2010 meta-analysis performed by Brad Schoenfield showed that metabolic stress was the main cause of muscle growth - so surely the more damage we do to our client’s muscles, the more they will grow. But is this the case?
When resting for shorter periods, your client will be unable to lift the same amount of reps or weight compared to when they have had a long rest period. Whilst shorter rest periods will mean your client achieves more metabolic stress, less total volume per exercise will be achieved. Bear in mind that more total volume is a key element to muscle growth.
Longer Rest Times (3 minutes+) Longer rest times means your client will be more rested in between sets. As a result, your client can achieve more total volume per exercise. You are probably wondering which is more effective - total volume or increased metabolic stress?
Schoenfield et al (2016) conducted a study by splitting two groups of 21 resistance-trained men, getting them to perform a resistance exercise program, and giving the groups different rest times. The first group rested for 1 minute and the second group rested for 3 minutes. All other forms of resistance training were kept equal. They followed a resistance program for 8 weeks, and then various measurements were taken, such as 1 rep maxes and muscle growth.
At the end of the study, Schoenfield et al concluded that, after 8 weeks, the group that rested longer had increased their 1 rep max and muscle thickness was significantly greater. This was likely due to the longer rested group being able to handle more total volume.
So how long should you rest? 3 minutes? Well, that depends on what muscle groups you are working. Senna et al (2016) experimented with different rest times and concluded that multi-joint compound movements require around 3-5 minutes of rest time, whereas single-joint, isolation movements require around 2 minute of rest time. This is also in alignment with Schoenfield’s research. You may also wish to include some shorter rest times, to ensure you get enough metabolic stress toward the end of the workout.
To save you some time, we have created this graph to signify rest times for different movements. Combining long rests with short rests means you will achieve maximum volume whilst also producing enough metabolic stress. We are using some standard leg exercises:
Barbell Squat - 3-5 minutes rest time
Barbell Bench Press - 3-4 minutes rest time
Hamstring Curl: 2 minute rest time
Leg Extension: 2 minute rest time
Bodyweight Squat: 1 minute
Piecing It All Together
A good strength training program pieces together the time tested principles that are proven to work, your clients ability and how their training fits around their lifestyle.
The key to making a good strength training program is progressive overload. At its core, progressive overload is a matter of giving your muscles additional stress in a strategic manner to result in muscle growth and increased strength. All workouts and programs will be designed around slow, gradual progression, meaning your client makes more improvements over time.
For a beginner client, they usually have a period of time where they make an incredible amount of progress in a short period of time. More advanced clients will probably need a more advanced program with periodisation - but we will get into periodisation later on in the course.
Workouts with your clients should always be focused on more reps, more volume, more weight, better range of motion and more intensity. A great way to keep track of your clients lifting progress is to use an application like PT Distinction. Not only can you track their workouts in a session, but they will be able to track any workouts they do alone.