A well defined programme is key for effective training and muscle growth.
Just rocking up to the gym, bench pressing and then throwing a few dumbbells around won’t cut it.
You need to hit every gym session with a focused plan and follow your programme, day in day out, with strict consistency if you want to see results.
It’s totally fine, and of course far easier, to grab an off the web programme (we also post template plans).
But making one specifically tailored to your requirements could yield better results, provided you follow some key principles when putting it together.
Plus spending the time to think about why, when and how you do the routine you do will greatly improve your knowledge of training which in turn can further boost your results.
What follows is an overview of the key things you should consider when building your own programme and some examples to get you started.
Even if you would s5ill rather just grab an off the shelf programme, the below will help you weigh up which type may be best for you. And help you understand the rationale for a full body, upper/lower or push/pull/leg split.
Key training programme design principles
When designing any workout programme you need to consider 4 core principles –
- Purpose – What’s the overall goal of your programme? For example, hypertrophy, strength, general fitness and/or any sub focus, i.e. a specific lagging body part
- Frequency – How often can you/will you train over a given time period? Generally, how many days per week.
- Volume – the total number of working sets and weight you aim to lift over a given time frame. Again, most programmes will be based on a 7 day week.
- Exercise selection – The exercises you’ll use to target each muscle/muscle group
Purpose - why do you want to lift weights?
Your training programme needs to reflect your personal ambitions and goals.
There’s little point following a powerlifting plan if what you really want is to look your best on the beach.
Similarly, there’s little point focusing on the key ‘show’ muscles if you really want to be competing in strongman.
Also, is the gym your primary focus and means of staying healthy?
Or, do you want to use the gym to supplement other sports training or build strength for a specific activity?
You should spend some time thinking about exactly what you want to achieve from your gym time as this will shape your routine.
Write down your goals so you can ensure your plan is set up to achieve them.
As a novice trainee, having an ironclad focus on strength, size or specific lifts is less of an issue.
If you are relatively new to working out then regardless of whether you follow a more strength or hypertrophy focused workout you’ll still see gains.
That said, as per the title of the post, the focus of this guide is muscle hypertrophy (increasing size) and building a plan that will provide you with all over body gains.
Frequency - how often should you train?
Training frequency is the measure of how often you work out over a given time frame.
Most training plans will follow a 7 day cycle and thus your frequency is based on how many days per week you hit the gym.
There are 3 key considerations when thinking about your training frequency:
- How often can you work out?
- What is the optimal (or your preferred) frequency that ensures you get in sufficient volume to see the results you want?
- How much rest do you need between sessions?
For reasons we will go into below, the second bullet on our list is the more important consideration if we were focused purely on maximising gains.
But we start with the first bullet as the ‘best’ frequency for building muscle may not be the ‘best’ for you if it doesn’t fit with your current lifestyle, availability or enthusiasm for training.
You need to decide how many days you will commit to the gym each week and make sure it is a realistic proposition.
As with achieving most anything worthwhile in life, building muscle requires repetition and consistency.
You must, therefore, set a realistic schedule that fits in with the rest of your life and which allows you to maintain it, week in week out, for months on end.
Ideally your training time should be non-negotiable.
I.e. regardless of what else is happening in your life you always make the time for your gym routine.
But, unless you’re a professional athlete this is far easier said than done.
Other commitments, be it family, friends, work/college or other hobbies, will demand your time and energy too.
So be honest about what you are prepared to commit to and if in doubt start small and build up.
That said, if you want results, current research points to a training frequency sweet spot of 2-3 times per week for each of the major muscle groups.
And, as we will expand on below, research also suggests there is a minimum training volume (the number of working sets) you should complete to see improvement.
So while in theory you can see decent gains training just twice per week. Hitting the recommended volume requirements across all major muscle groups in just 2 gym sessions can be hard going.
That is, you may find you need to spend a long time in the gym each session.
One of the potential drawbacks to this is that as the session wears on your energy levels inevitably drop.
This means you may find you can’t hit the later exercises with the required intensity to see your best results.
This is why the smart training programmes will see you working out 3, 4 or more days per week and splitting your volume and/or muscle focus across multiple days.
While you can achieve results by hitting the gym just twice per week, you will see better and quicker results if you can commit to 3 or 4 times per week.
If you are new to the gym, 3 full body sessions per week is a great way to start.
As you become more experienced and want to/need to increase your weekly volume, you will be best served moving to 4 or more days per week.
How much rest do you need between gym sessions?
Provided you’ve worked hard enough in the gym and are fuelling your workouts sufficiently, your muscles do the actual growing stronger and bigger part while recovering after/between sessions.
This is why it’s important to schedule in sufficient recovery time between your gym sessions.
For beginners, studies suggest there is a post workout muscle growth window that lasts around 36 hours.
After this time muscles growth stops and a new stimulus (another training session) is needed to start another growth window.
If you are following a full body programme, this research then provides us with an obvious guide as to how to programme our weekly gym sessions, spread them out at least 36 hours apart.
The easy way to do this is to follow a day on/day off principle until you hit your weekly frequency target.
For more experienced lifters, it is thought this post training ‘muscle building window’ shrinks. This means that they benefit from, and are able to tolerate, higher frequency training.
All that said your ability to recover will be somewhat unique to you and depend on your training intensity.
Some trainees can happily workout back to back for days with little ill effect, others may require multiple days recovery between sessions.
This is also true of individual muscles, with some able to recover far quicker than others.
Again, this can be very individual, but generally the larger the muscle the longer it will take to recover.
Smaller muscles (biceps, calves etc.) on the other hand, recover very quickly and thus can cope with back to back training days and/or higher weekly frequency.
In summary, as a novice lifter it is sensible to allow 36-48 hours between each gym session, particularly if your sessions are full body focused.
If you are working out on a Monday, take Tuesday off and return all guns blazing on Wednesday.
A 3 day per week, full body programme working out Monday, Wednesday and Friday obviously fits into this schedule well.
As a more experienced lifter who may have plateaued with 3 workouts per week and who is looking to increase their volume, scaling to 4, 5 or 6 days per week would be beneficial.
However, if you are working out more often and doing back to back days in the gym, avoid working the same muscles on consecutive days.
E.g. Monday may be an upper focused day (as per the popular upper/lower split) and Tuesday would then focus on your legs.
Wednesday can then be a rest day, or you can complete another upper focused day.
Regardless of the final training frequency you employ, it is best to always allow at least one full day out of the gym per week to support recovery.
Training Frequency - Key Takeaways
- Pick a training frequency that fits with your life schedule and that you will be able to commit to
- That said, as a new lifter, try to commit to at least 2 gym sessions per week. But, if you can commit to 3 or 4 session you will likely see quicker and better results
- Adding in additional gym sessions per week is smart if your gains have plateaued and you want to increase your training volume. More sessions per week allows you to split out the increased volume which helps manage fatigue and time in the gym
- If undertaking back to back sessions avoid working the same muscles on consecutive days and instead follow an upper/lower or push/legs/pull split.
- Always take at least one full day out of the gym, per week
Training Volume - how many working sets per week?
As important, if not more so, than your training frequency is your training volume.
This is the number of working sets you perform each week for a given muscle/muscle group.
Research shows that for maximum muscle hypertrophy you want to be hitting each muscle/muscle group for 12-24 working sets per week.
As a new or novice lifter you will see strength and size gains at the lower end of this range, if not even slightly lower.
As you become more experienced you will most likely need to increase your volume to see continued growth.
This isn’t a certainty, however, and you may see continued gains for many months at relatively low volume levels, provided you continue to work at a high intensity.
But, as and when you start to hit plateaus, or have a particularly lagging body part, increasing volume can be an effective tactic.
As touched on above, frequency and volume are best looked at in combination.
Research presents us with a recommended volume target per week (10-12 sets for a new lifter) and also suggests we are best working each muscle at least twice per week.
So, simple logic suggests we split our total volume across our preferred number of training sessions.
For example, to hit our target for chest, we undertake 3 sets of bench press on Monday followed by 3 sets of dumbbell flys. Then on Thursday we complete 3 sets of incline dumbbell press followed by 3 sets of cable flys.
Or, if we were doing a 3 day full body programme, we may choose to split our chest volume across all 3 sessions, completing 3-4 sets of bench press on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In both scenarios we’ve hit our weekly volume target of 10-12 working sets for chest.
Another key reason frequency and volume should be considered together is that splitting volume across more sessions helps you manage your energy and maintain the intensity required to see results.
Undertaking 12 working sets for one muscle/muscle group in a single session is hard going. Trying to complete 24 is ludicrous.
And, this workload is multiplied across all the muscle groups you work in a particular session.
As you increase training volume, therefore, it is sensible to split your working sets across multiple sessions.
This allows you to hit each and every set with maximum energy and intensity, allowing you to get the most benefit and avoid junk volume and/or injury.
Also, note that you don’t have to try and hit each and every muscle group in isolation and can hit your volume targets across multiple muscle groups by utilising compound moves.
Compound moves, such as the squat, rows and bench press, hit multiple muscles each and every rep.
So, as per our example above, by undertaking 12 working sets of bench press we are not only meeting our chest volume, but also contributing to volume requirements for triceps and shoulders.
We cover exercise selection in more detail below but it’s smart, and more convenient, to use a combination of compound and isolation moves to hit your volume targets.
A note on rep ranges
There is a general consensus, although it’s far from settled, that lower rep ranges (1-5 reps) tend to promote greater strength gains whereas moderate to higher rep ranges (6-20) promote muscle hypertrophy.
We also buy into this thinking, but must stress that as a novice lifter it is probably less of a concern.
Ultimately, if you are working hard enough in the gym and lifting regularly you will see gains in both strength and size whether you lift exclusively with low or high reps.
If you are focused on powerlifting, then yes, concentrating primarily on the big lifts with low rep ranges will see you pushing higher totals.
If you are more concerned with general wellbeing and building a chiseled physique, however, then moderate rep ranges (8-15) is the way to go.
That said, when working in the hypertrophy rep range it is still a good idea to mix up your ranges between sessions.
For example, on Monday you may complete your squats in the 6-8 rep range, thus push a heavier weight. You would then work in the 10-12 rep range and with a more moderate weight for your 2nd weekly squat session.
Remember that progressive overload is key so be consistent with your weights and rep ranges week to week so you have a benchmark to build from.
And, finally, whatever the rep range, remember that intensity and effort are key.
You should be working in the 1-3 RIR range (with a spotter, if needed) for every working set.
Training volume - key takeaways
- For maximum muscle hypertrophy you want to be hitting each muscle/muscle group for 12-24 working sets per week.
- Novice lifters will see results working at the lower end of this scale. More experienced/advanced lifters will likely need to increase volume towards the middle/higher ranges to see continued results.
- Look at frequency and volume in combination – how many gym sessions will you need each week to meet your volume requirement, maintain the required intensity and best manage your time?
- You can hit multiple muscles at the same time, via compound moves, to hit your volume targets.
- Remember that intensity and effort are key. You should be working in the 1-3 RIR range for all your working sets.
Exercise selection - which moves are best?
While there is no absolute ‘best’ move for any muscle group or any one individual, there are moves that anatomically make the most sense and that allow you to put the most stress on the target muscles in the safest way.
We’ve outlined below what we feel are the best primary and secondary moves for each major muscle group and then also listed some potential variations.
Our recommendation is that the primary moves should form the core of your workouts and the majority of your weekly volume.
It isn’t right to say that these primary moves are non-negotiable, there are multiple ways to work muscles through the most optimal range of motion.
But, all things being equal and assuming you have no inherent problems/injuries stopping you from performing the exercises correctly, the listed moves should be built into your workouts and performed early in your session.
If you need additional volume and/or want to target specific body parts/muscles, add in a secondary move.
If, for example, you are working at the lower end of the volume scale (10-12 sets per week) we’d stick to the primary moves as these will provide the most benefit. E.g. you will benefit more from 10 sets of squats per week than 5 sets of squats and 5 sets of leg extensions.
As you look to increase weekly leg volume, however, and are looking to complete multiple sets in a single session, add in a secondary move so you hit your leg muscles from different angles and to help manage fatigue. E.g. 3-4 sets of squats followed by 3-4 sets of leg extensions, then repeat in your next session.
At very high volume levels, where you’re completing 10 sets in a single session, you may want to utilise a third variation. So, 3-4 sets of squats followed by 3 sets of leg extensions finishing with 3 sets on the leg press.
Again, utilising different exercises will help manage fatigue and can make longer sessions feel less intimidating. Plus, there are advantages to hitting muscles from different angles throughout the session/week.
As you become more experienced and trained you will likely find that you need to add in more individual muscle specific exercises (isolation moves) to see continued growth.
So, we’ve included a range of variation moves below, choose the one that you prefer and that feels best.
That said, even as an experienced lifter, it still pays to keep the king compound lifts at the core of your workouts.
As a novice, they are likely all you’ll need for the first few months (at least) of training.
Remember, many moves utilise multiple muscle groups, particularly the compound moves listed under primary.
So bear this in mind when planning your exercises and working out what you need to do to hit your volume targets.
- Back Squat
- Standing Overhead Press
- Barbell Bent Over Row
- Flat or Incline Barbell Bench Press
By allowing you to shift the most weight these big compound moves promote all over muscle and strength growth.
This is especially the case with the squat.
The sheer amount of weight you’re carrying forces your entire body to adapt, growing bigger and stronger.
*Yes, we know that many people say you don’t need to deadlift and the risk/reward ratio is too far towards risk. We call BS on this. The lift is a fantastic move that hits your entire body PROVIDED you do it correctly.
Any and every move in the gym can be dangerous if you lift with poor form or lift with your ego (i.e. more weight than you can safely manage).
Start light, nail your technique and build up the weight slowly.
- Chest – Dumbbell, Cable or Machine Incline Fly
- Shoulders – DB Lateral Raise
- Quads – Leg Extension
- Hamstrings – Romania Deadlift
- Glutes – Hip Thrusts
- Back – Pull Up or Pull Down
- Biceps – Barbell Curls
- Triceps – Dumbbell Skull Crushers
- Abs – Cable Crunch or Hanging Leg Raise
For additional volume or focus, after your primary moves, add in some of the secondary moves above.
You may find you need to split your focus across more sessions to fit in the increase in volume.
- Chest – Incline BB/DB Presses and Flys, Press Ups, DB Pullovers
- Shoulders – Seated DB press, Arnold Press, Cable Side Laterals
- Quads – Machine Press, Split Squats, Lunges
- Hamstrings – Leg Curl, Swiss Ball Curl
- Glutes – Machine Press, Cable Pull Through
- Rear Delts – Kneeling Cable Face Pull, Bent Over DB Fly, Machine Rear Fly
- Back – Seated Cable Row, DB Row, Pendlay Row, T-Bar row
- Biceps – Hammer Curl, Cross Body Curl, Bicep 21’s
- Triceps – Rope Extension, Dips, Narrow Grip Bench Press
- Abs – Planks
- Calfs – Calf Raises
- Forearms – reverse barbell curls
If you you need more volume, variety or to hit a specific muscle for very high volume, add in your preferred variation / what feels best to you, from the list above.
As ever, please lift safely, with good form and within your limits. Consult a professional coach or PT if you have any doubt about how to perform any of the exercises listed.
How you lift is more important than how much. Remember to leave your ego at the door before each and every session.
Other things to think about when designing your gym programme
- Incorporate progressive overload -
Your body is amazingly adaptable and without a regular increase in stimulus your gains will stall.
This is where progressive overload comes in.
As the name implies the idea is that we progressively increase the stimulus we apply to our muscles over time.
This forces our bodies to adapt to ever increasing demands by becoming stronger and growing more muscle.
By increasing weight, reps or sets each week/month we can increase the stimulus on our muscles, continuously pushing them to adapt.
Using a notebook or app, log each and every one of your gym sessions, noting down the weight lifted, the sets/reps completed and your effort levels.
Aim to increase one or more of these variables over time (likely several weeks) to push your body to adapt and grow stronger.
For more information on progressive overload and how to incorporate it into your training, take a look at our more in depth article here.
And, for information on effective ways to measure and control your efforts in the gym, take at our article on reps in reserve.
- Track and review each and every workout -
The discipline of recording and also reviewing your workouts is a sure fire way to improve your training programming and results.
Through consistent recording and review of your gym sessions you can ensure you’re utilising the key muscle building concepts, such as sufficient volume, frequency, effort and progressive overload, and maximising your time in the gym.
So, get your pencil out (or your phone) and record everything you do in the gym.
Then, schedule some time every 4 weeks or so to review your training logs against your goals and identify any areas for change or improvement.
Take these insights and use them to inform you next 4-6 week training cycle, work on any weaknesses and challenge yourself to be a better version of yourself than you were the cycle before.
For more information on programme tracking take a look at our long form post here.
- Rotate your exercise order between sessions -
Regardless of whether you build a full body or split programme, it makes sense to rotate the order in which you undertake exercises from session to session.
You only have a finite amount of energy, which depletes with each and every working set.
Thus the exercises you perform later in your session are unlikely to be hit at the same intensity as those you undertake early on.
Rotating the order you complete exercises ensures you hit each primary compound move, or muscle group, with maximum energy and intensity at least once per week.
For example, if you build a 3 day full body programme that utilises the big compound lifts you may start with the squat on Monday, then follow with the bench press, barbell row, and the deadlift before finishing with some accessory/isolation lifts.
On Wednesday, your 2nd session, you change up the order of the big lifts and start with the bench press, then follow up with squats, rows and so on.
On Friday, your last session of the week, you start with the Deadlift before moving onto your remaining lifts.
Similarly, if you build a 4 day upper/lower split programme your first upper session may see you start with a push focus (chest, shoulders, triceps) before moving onto your pull moves (back and biceps).
For your 2nd upper session later in the week you reverse this focus and start the session with pulling moves.
- Don’t forget your nutrition -
As important as the hard graft you put into the gym is, it will all be for nothing if you don’t work equally as hard on your nutrition.
The amount you eat and what you eat are important.
This means tracking what you eat and knowing your target daily calorie count to ensure you are fuelling enough to workout and grow (just 200-300 extra calories per day above your TDEE is sufficient) or, conversely, not over eating and putting on excess fat.
Stick to natural whole foods and meals you prepare yourself and ensure you are consuming adequate protein to facilitate muscle growth.
An easy rule of thumb is to aim for approximately 1g of protein for every lb of bodyweight.
It’s also a good idea to aim to consume a decent portion of your protein (30-40g) post exercise, within an hour or two, as studies show this helps with recovery.
But, don’t get too hung up on meal timings. The main goal is ensuring adequate calorie and protein intake over a 24 hour period.
Remember to drink water when you are thirsty and aim to down 6-8 glasses (1.2 -1.5 litres) per day.
For more in depth nutritional information for muscle growth take a look at our article nutrition for muscle growth primer.
Hopefully you can now see how training frequency, volume, recovery and exercise selection interplay to dictate optimal training and the shape of specific gym programmes.
And, as an aside, this also helps you understand why the popular upper/lower and push/leg/pull splits are set up as they are.
By following the principles set out above you can draft your own programmes, tailored to your specific availability and goals.
You can also use them to judge the effectiveness of programmes you see elsewhere or that you may wish to try.
So get out your laptop or notebook and draw up your own programme.
Start with the number of sessions you have each week and plug in the various exercises until you hit your volume targets.
Remember it’s sensible to start with the big compound moves to make up much of your volume, then add in some additional isolation exercises if you need more volume to hit your weekly target and/or you want to focus on specific body parts.
Rotate your exercise order and make use of varying rep ranges across sessions.
And make sure you are building in sufficient recovery time between sessions and recording and reviewing your progress, making tweaks as required.