By Eric Cressey, C.S.C.S
Use this guide to create your very own cutting-edge exercise routine
Lawyers have a word for accused criminals who represent themselves in court: convicts. Similarly, trainers like me have a word for guys who write their own workouts. Several words, actually: “weak,” “injured,” “skinny,” “fat,” and, worst of all, “skinny-fat.”
Why? Because it’s human nature for us to make it easy on ourselves. We pick exercises we like. We design workouts that play to our strengths and ignore our weaknesses.
And yet the most successful programs I’ve used are ones I created for myself. My secret? I follow the same process I use to write workouts for my clients, starting with the five considerations on the following pages. Guide yourself with them, and you’ll create a custom routine that can have you looking stronger and more buff in no time.
1. Which exercises should I include?
The best workouts are built on basic compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench and shoulder presses, chinups, rows. As your own trainer, your job is to fit these exercises into a balanced program. Below are the exercise categories I draw from to do just that, along with the number of times I use a category in a week. But to make it easy, my Ultimate Strength Workout shows you exactly how to put it all together. Add in a great warmup and some core work, and you’ll have a template you can use to build the body you want.
SQUAT (1 or 2 times a week)
Includes barbell back and front squats and all the dumbbell variations.
DEADLIFT (1 or 2 times a week)
Includes traditional barbell deadlifts (arms outside legs), sumo-style (wide stance, arms inside legs) and straight-leg lifts, and more variations than most of us could do in a lifetime.
SINGLE LEG (2 or 3 times a week)
Includes lunges; stepups; single-leg squats; and deadlifts with body weight, a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells.
HORIZONTAL PULL (2 or 3 times a week)
“Horizontal” refers to the direction of movement if you were standing up. So if you’re doing a seated cable row or a bent-over dumbbell row, it’s still considered a horizontal pull. This category also includes face pulls and inverted rows.
HORIZONTAL PUSH (2 times a week)
Examples of these exercises include the classic pushup; the bench press with barbell or dumbbells; dips; and all their variations.
VERTICAL PULL (1 or 2 times a week)
Includes chinups, pullups, and lat pulldowns.
VERTICAL PUSH (0 or 1 time a week)
Includes all the variations of the shoulder press.
2. What should I do first?
The first exercise in each workout should be the one that requires the most effort. If your goal is overall strength, begin one workout with a squat and another with a deadlift, and separate them as much as possible. So if you do squats on Monday, do deadlifts on Friday. On Wednesday, you could start with an upper-body exercise. If your main goal is upper-body size, do the reverse and start your Monday and Friday workouts with upper-body exercises.
3. How many sets/reps?
Most of us do well with a mix of heavy (for strength), medium (for muscle size), and light (for muscular endurance) weights. This calls for a combination of low-rep (3 to 6), moderate-rep (7 to 10), and high-rep (11 to 15) sets.
Your set count should be inversely related to your number of reps per set. If you’re doing high reps (15, say), 1 to 2 sets might be enough. For 10 to 12 reps, do 2 or 3 sets. For 8 reps, 3 or 4 sets would work well. And if you’re doing 3 or 4 reps per set, you probably want to do 5 or 6 sets.
The key is to manage the total volume of each workout. On this month’s workout poster, you’ll see that each sample workout includes 14 total sets of strength exercises. Add in core training and perhaps another exercise to shore up a weakness, and you could end up with 20 total sets.
That’s not a magic number; you may see better results with more or less volume. But it’s a good benchmark for most men, most of the time.
4. How will I make progress?
This, of course, depends on your main goal.
You measure progress by the number of plates on the bar, so you want to increase the weight on your main exercises each week. Let’s say you’re doing 5 sets of 3 reps of the front squat. In the first week, you use 135 pounds for your fourth and fifth sets. The second week, you might go up to 155 pounds for the final sets.
You can continue like this for a few weeks, but eventually you’ll hit a point when your strength gains are smaller than the weights you can add to the bar. To use heavier weights, you have to reduce your number of repetitions. So instead of 5 sets of 3, you might do 3 sets of 3 and 2 sets of 2. Or you could do 6 sets of 2, using progressively heavier weights in each set, with the goal of using the heaviest weight possible in your final set each week. You can apply this strategy to any exercise, with any configuration of sets and reps.
Muscles grow bigger when you make them stronger, which is easy enough to understand even if it’s sometimes hard to pull off. They grow because you make them do more work. You can accomplish that by adding a rep or two to each set or by adding a set to each exercise.
Let’s say you’re doing the barbell incline bench press. You start with 4 sets of 6. For the first few weeks, you should see steady increases in strength simply by adding more weight to the bar. When you feel your strength reaching a plateau, try to squeeze out an extra repetition or two—that is, do 7 or 8 reps—with the same weight on your final 2 sets. Or you could add a fifth set. That gives you more total work, which should lead to bigger muscles.
5. How can I keep my program fresh?
Your workouts will turn boring—maybe even counterproductive—if you don’t revise them every 4 to 6 weeks. You have two ways to keep them challenging.
1. Change exercises within each category—switch from chinups to pullups, for example.
2. Change order. If you’ve been doing 3 sets of 10 reps of the final exercise in a workout, try doing it first, using heavier weights for 5 sets of 3 reps.
Whichever strategy you choose, I highly recommend that you give yourself a weeklong break between programs. You don’t need to take the week off; just use that week to do less—fewer sets, lighter weights. You’ll likely find that this “rest” helps boost future gains. And it’s especially important if you’re feeling beaten up and run-down.
Last point: The only way to figure out what works best for you is to haul your butt into the weight room, push yourself, and see what happens. Until then, the best-written plans are just pieces of paper in your gym bag.
Anybody can slap together a bunch of exercises and call it a workout. Many people do, and they have the mediocore results to prove it. But we have a way to create the perfect workout for YOU. Eric Cressey’s Ultimate Strength Workout is available exclusively on Men’s Health Personal Trainer. Try the workout for 4 to 6 weeks, then customize it by plugging in your own exercises. Click here to learn more!