The legendary Steve Reeves was known for having one of the most symmetrical physiques in his time and for all time. Balanced program design and attention to detail is a must in addition to the hard work required to build a championship body. The benefits of a balanced program go far beyond aesthetics however with joint and overall body health being at the top of the list.
What are you training today? That is a question I used to ask partially out of curiosity and also to strike up conversation in the gym. I’ve always enjoyed meeting people and learning from their views on life and in the gym environment, their thoughts on training.
Now as a fitness professional, I ask that question to gain knowledge to better help people. What I’m looking for is how their program design is organized and the reasoning behind their plan. I hear all kinds of responses such as “back and bi’s”, “chest and arms”, “legs and shoulders”, or just one random individual body part on a given day.
First let me say there is no one “best” way to train as there are so many different goals you can strive for like strength, speed, power, explosiveness, muscle mass, fat loss, and etc. Second, no matter what program you’re following today, you need to change it on a regular basis to keep your body responding and to help prevent injury.
When is the last time you changed your program?
Program design is a science and and an art and as such is far too complicated to adequately cover in one short article. My goal in this post is to address one of the most common flaws that I see and offer some examples for a better path to follow. This flaw is a simple lack of balance between your pushing and pulling muscles.
Most people do way too much for their chest, shoulders, and arms while neglecting their back and legs. Personally I believe the shortage of back work is due more to a lack of knowledge while the short change to legs is simply due to the fact that proper leg work can be the most demanding and painful of all forms of training.
For every push, there needs to be a pull. It makes no difference whether this is on a vertical or horizontal plane. Unfortunately most people group their body parts together without taking this simple fact into account. For example, if you train chest and back together one or two days a week, your back may not be getting the proper amount of work.
The reason why is that your chest represents a “horizontal push” while your back represents both a “horizontal pull” and a “vertical pull”. It would be fine to pair chest and back “rowing” movements for one workout. This would be balanced. But then you still have to hit your back with vertical pulls for a complete training effect.
If the volume of work between opposing muscles is not equal, strength imbalances can develop which can lead to movement impairments and ultimately injury. Typically the injury will be to the connective tissue between the two muscles. When two apposing muscles are “fighting” with each other, its usually the joint or tendon in the middle that loses.
So what does a balanced program look like? The following is a simple breakdown of opposing muscle groups:
Chest (horizontal press) = Back (horizontal pull)
Shoulders (vertical press) = Back (vertical pull)
Biceps = Triceps
Legs = Quad dominant (think squats) = Hip dominant (think stiff leg deadlifts)
**Anterior core = Posterior core
**The “core” can be defined in many different ways from the very basic to the complex.
For sake of my example, the anterior core refers to what people typically consider “abs”, and the posterior core refers to the low back.
For a breakdown of sets, I like to see the following ratios as a percentage of chest and back:
Chest (horizontal press) = Back (horizontal pull) – 100%
Shoulders (vertical press) = Back (vertical pull) – 80 to 85%
Traps – 25%
Biceps = Triceps – 65 to 70%
Quads = Hamstrings – 100%
Calves – 65 to 70%
**Anterior core = Posterior core – 80 to 85%
**The posterior can be a little tricky to account for because depending on what exercises you’re doing for back and legs, the posterior chain is going to be more or less involved. The scenario I’m concerned about is the person who does a “gazillion” crunches or sit up variations and next to nothing to strengthen their posterior chain. This is a recipe for disaster when it comes to low back health.
So is your training routine balanced?
Most people will do good to make it the gym 3 to 4 days a week so making the most of the time invested is key. With the majority of gym members trying to drop body fat, energy expenditure is very important. Workouts that focus primarily on the major body parts including the legs, back, and chest are going to be the most productive.
Spending an entire workout just training arms will not burn that much energy and may not be the best for the average person. And for those who tend to utilize machines over free weights, they’re going to burn even less energy as machines do little to challenge the core and stabilization muscles. Bottom line, machines are generally easier than free weights and not as effective.
Extreme body part split routines where each muscle is trained roughly once per week are used effectively by elite bodybuilders to maximize the development of muscle mass. These athletes are already genetically gifted to build muscle and when drugs are added to the mix, their ability to recover and progress from high volumes of essentially daily workouts will be far greater than the average gym member.
There was a time not so long ago when the old time lifters typically trained their whole body as a functional unit 2-3 days per week. Steve Reeves came from that generation. I once came across one of his routines in an old muscle magazine and he worked his entire body 3 days per week. As you can see in the photos above and below, in his prime, Steve looked amazing!
The average member will do great on an upper / lower split done 3-4 days per week. This type of split offers the potential for variety and flexibility for someone with limited time to invest in their weekly training. Throw in a couple of cardio sessions either after weights or on an off day from strength training and you have a well rounded program.
For a few select clients that are advanced enough in their development and have the time to commit, I will prescribe a 3 way split training 5-6 days per week. With all of my programs, I rotate the different acute variables such as the number of reps, number of sets, rest intervals, intensity, and tempo from workout to workout. This helps protect the body from repetition injury, keeps the mind fresh, and keeps the body off guard and thus more likely to progress.
Workout Example (1)
Upper / Lower Hybrid split which can be performed 3-4 days per week.
Below are a few examples for how these workouts can be performed. About the only hard and fast rule is to not train your A and B workouts back to back 3 days in a row. Ideally you should spread them out as evenly as possible throughout the week. The C workout for calves, core conditioning, and cardio is a “floater” and can be plugged in where ever it makes sense in your schedule.
- The A & B exercises are to be done back to back in super set fashion resting approximately 60-90 seconds between pairs.
- Complete all of the sets for a given “super set” before moving on to the next.
- The super sets offer the added benefit of maximizing your time in the gym and create
a strong cardio effect.
- The core & conditioning circuit typically consist of mostly body weight ground based movements including some plyometics, sled pushes, and sprinting.
Workout Example (2)
Three Way Split for your primary body parts with Calves & Cardio and Total Core Conditioning built into days 3 and 5.
- This program can be done 5 fixed days per week where you go through day 1 and day 2, take day 3 off, and finish out the remaining 3 workouts with day 7 being off.
- A second alternative is to train 5 days on followed by an off day. This program perpetually floats and is not tied to a 7 day traditional week.
- The advantage of the 5 on 1 off option is that when “life” gets in the way and you have to miss a day, you simply pick up the next day and move forward. With my personal work schedule and the occasional “early” meeting or business travel, this program provides the flexibility to keep me on track.
- Another great feature of this program is that I’ve created four different phases. If you start with the first program and repeat 4-6 times before moving to the second, you can train 4-6 months with constant variation.
- Like the first program in the example above, the A & B exercises are to be done back to back with 60-90 seconds rest between pairs.
- The straight numbered exercises are to be done one at a time with minimal rest. Shoot for 60 seconds if possible. This will produce a whole different training effect verses the super sets.
- I purposefully left the exercises generic naming only the movement patterns in an effort to provide the most flexibility given the availability of equipment for a given reader.
In conclusion I want to reiterate that there’s no best way to train. The best routine is the one you’re not doing now because your body will adapt sooner or later to what ever program you may follow. The more you advance in your training years, the more adaptive your body will become.
You have to effectively “trick” your body into continued progress…but it can be done. Focus on consistency in your efforts and work for progression. I’ve always loved the fact that you carry the benefits gained from training with you 24 hours a day. After 30+ years of training, the benefits to me have been well worth it.
Best of luck in your efforts.