Looking to get yourself or your athletes as strong as possible? This complete guide to strength programming has got you covered. We’re gonna be covering everything you could need to know about programming for strength, including:
- How Do You Structure a Strength Training Program?
- Strength Training Programming: The Lifts
- Lifting Patterns for Strength Programming
- What are the 5 strength training exercises?
- Exercise Variations for Strength Programming
- Squat Variations for Strength Programming
- Hinge variations for Strength Programming
- Lunge variations for Strength Programming
- Vertical Push variations for Strength Programming
- Vertical Pull variations for Strength Programming
- Horizontal Push variations for Strength Programming
- Horizontal Pull variations for Strength Programming
- How many exercises are there in a strength program?
- Lifting Patterns for Strength Programming
- What Should a Strength Program Include?
- Progression in Strength Training Programming
- How to Choose The Right Strength Training Program For You?
- Sample Strength Training Programs
- Strength Programming Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
- References / Further Reading on Strength Programming
Let’s jump straight in.
How Do You Structure a Strength Training Program?
To structure a strength training program I like to start by imagining a game of chess, where the principles of exercise are like the rules, and each of the training variables that you can change is sort of like a different chess piece. As the person designing the strength training program, it’s your job to understand the rules and move the right pieces in the right order to reach the desired outcome.
What six principles are key to designing a strength training program? (The rules)
The six principles that are key to designing a strength training program are:
- Progressive overload
I’ve linked full articles explaining each strength training principle, but here’s a quick TLDR summary:
Specificity: Does the training that you’re doing actually relate to the thing you’re trying to get better at?
Progressive Overload: Is your training challenging you slightly more over time?
Recovery: Are you recovering enough between training sessions and training blocks?
Variation: Is there enough variety in your exercises, set and rep schemes, or are you doing the same thing over and over again?
Individualisation: Is the training you’re doing right for YOU.
Reversibility: The understanding that strength declines over time if not trained.
What are the 3 most important variables of strength training? (The moves you can make)
The three most important variables of strength training are:
“You can think of volume, intensity and frequency as the moves you can make to win the game of strength training”
Volume refers to the total amount of work that you perform. In strength training, this is often simply expressed as the total number of sets per week, or as the total sets for each movement type. It can also be expressed as the total number of sets multiplied by the total number of reps. Here’s a quick example:
- Day 1: Squat 3×5, Bench 3×5. Deadlift 1×5
- Day 2: Pause Squat 3×5, Overhead Press 3×5, Back Extension 3×10
Your volume expressed as total sets is 16 total sets. Which you could break down into 6 squatting sets, 6 pressing sets and 4 hinging sets.
Your volume expressed as sets x reps is 95 total reps. Which you could break down into 30 squatting reps, 30 pressing reps and 35 pulling reps
Intensity in strength training refers to the weight that you lift, which is typically programmed as a percentage of your 1 rep max. Intensity can also be programmed using RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) or RIR (Reps in Reserve). Below are three quick examples:
- Back squat: 5 sets of 5 at 75% 1RM.
- Bench Press: 3 sets of 6 at RPE 8
- Deadlift: 2 sets of 4 at RIR 2
In strength training, intensity ranges are recommended as
- 70-95% 1rm
- 7-9 RPE
- 3-1 RIR
And the recommended rep range for this is 1-6 reps. (Carvalho et al. 2022)
I currently don’t advise training to failure, as the current best evidence (Davies et al. 2016, Vieira 2021) suggests that it provides no additional strength training benefits, but does generate more fatigue.
Frequency in strength training refers to how often you train, commonly 3, 4, 5 or 6 times per week. For example:
- Starting strength has you training 3 times per week.
- Juggernaut and 5/3/1 have you training 4 times per week
- Candito 6 Week Program has you training 5 times per week
It can also refer to how many times you train a specific muscle group or movement per week. For example:
- Day 1: Bench and Squat
- Day 2: Deadlift
- Day 3: Bench and Rows
In this example, your bench frequency is twice per week, but your squat and deadlift frequency is once per week.
Strength Training Programming: The Lifts
Strength training programming should utilise exercises that allow you to produce large amounts of force. Generally speaking, this means compound, multi-joint exercises with a reasonable degree of stability (Paoli et al. 2017)
Lifting Patterns for Strength Programming
There are seven major movement patterns to consider when designing your strength program:
- Vertical Push
- Vertical Pull
- Horizontal Push
- Horizontal Pull
What are the 5 strength training exercises?
The 5 strength training exercises that are most commonly used are:
- Back Squat
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
There’s nothing inherently magical about any of these exercises. They simply allow you to produce large forces. They’re also widely known as part of popular strength training programs like starting strength and stronglifts.
Exercise Variations for Strength Programming
Squat Variations for Strength Programming
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Pause Squat
- Tempo Squat
- Leg Press
- Belt Squat
Hinge variations for Strength Programming
- Snatch Grip Deadlift
- Back Extensions
Lunge variations for Strength Programming
- Walking Lunge
- Reverse Lunge
- Split Squat
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Vertical Push variations for Strength Programming
- Barbell overhead press
- Seated barbell overhead press
- Dumbbell overhead press
- Push Press
Vertical Pull variations for Strength Programming
- Chin Up (Palms towards you)
- Pull Up (Palms away from you)
- Wide grip pull-ups
- Lat pulldowns (Any grip)
Horizontal Push variations for Strength Programming
- Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Pause Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
Horizontal Pull variations for Strength Programming
- Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Row
- Seated Row (Machine or Cable)
- Chest Supported Row
How many exercises are there in a strength program?
A good strength program will typically have between 4 and 14 exercises spaced throughout the week.
A strength program with only 4 exercises might look like:
- Day 1: Squat
- Day 2: Bench
- Day 3: Deadlift
- Day 4: Overhead Press
A strength programme with 12 exercises might look like:
- Day 1: Back Squat and Bench Press
- Day 2: Deadlift and Chest Supported Row
- Day 3: Pause Squat, Incline Press and Lunges
- Day 4: Back Extensions and Pull-Ups
- Day 5: Overhead Press, Leg Press and Dumbbell Bench Press
What Should a Strength Program Include?
“A good strength programme should include arrangements of exercises, sets and reps that provide to right amount of volume, intensity and frequency in line with the 6 principles of training. These also need to be applied at appropriate times”
- 4-12 exercises from the 7 movement categories
- Around 4 to 8 sets per muscle group per workout (Peterson et al. 2004)
- 1 to 6 reps
- At 70-95% 1rm
And we need these spaced in a way that allows you to recover.
With exercises chosen that are specific to your training goals, individual to your own areas for improvement, and planned to progressively get more challenging over time.
Progression in Strength Training Programming
Progression in strength training is fundamentally about getting stronger, i.e. lifting more weight. This means that the number one goal of a strength program is to progressively increase your ability to lift weight.
The simplest form of progression in strength programming is linear progression. This is where you add weight to your lifts every session. These sessions can be arranged within the same week (as seen in starting strength) or they can be arranged in consecutive weeks (as seen in the texas method)
Here’s a quick example of linear progression-based programming for strength:
Another type of progression system is linear periodisation. This is an approach in which you start with high volumes of training at low to moderate intensities, and end with low volumes of training at high intensities.
Here’s a quick example of linear periodisation-based programming for strength:
Another approach to progression in strength training programming is undulating periodisation. With undulating periodisation volumes and intensities are varied within the week.
Here’s a quick example of daily undulating periodisation-based programming for strength:
Putting Periodisation Together When Programming for Strength
It’s also worth noting that these different types of periodisation are not mutually exclusive. You can absolutely combine daily undulating periodisation with an overall linear periodisation-type structure.
You can also use simple linear progression for some exercises whilst using a more linear periodised approach for others.
The key factor is context. You need to choose the right strength programming approach for the individual, which is exactly what we’re gonna talk about next.
How to Choose The Right Strength Training Program For You?
Now that we’ve discussed the principles and variables involved in programming strength training, let’s talk about how to choose the right strength training program for YOU as an individual.
I want you to start by considering 5 main factors:
- Strengths and Weaknesses
- Training level
- Responses to training
Goals and Strength Programming
Are you looking to improve your powerlifting total? Or are you just looking to bring up one specific lift? Do you want to compete on a specific timeframe or is your training open ended?
Strengths, Weaknesses and Strength Programming
Over time you’ll build a sense of what your or your athletes strengths and weaknesses are. For example, do your hips shoot up in the squat? Do you struggle to lock out your deadlifts? You can use this information to choose appropriate variations and assistance exercises
Training Level and Strength Programming
Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter? Can you add weight to the bar every session, every week or few weeks, or do you need months of training in order to see progress?
Availability and Strength Programming
Can you consistently train 3, 4, 5 or 6 times per week? How will you structure your exercises to reflect this?
Responses to Training and Strength Programming
Do you tend to respond well to high volumes? How about high intensities? Do certain training frequencies burn you out too fast or cause joint niggles? The more experienced a lifter you are the better you should be able to answer these questions.
Sample Strength Training Programs
To help you put all of this information together, I’ve designed a few example strength training programs. Each program is designed with a specific type of lifter in mind, so you should be able to see how strength programming theory looks when properly applied.
Squat strength program
This is a simple squat strength program for an intermediate lifter.
- Day 1 has a 1-3 rep top set followed by 2-3 sets of 2-3 reps as a back-off (performed at around 10% less than the top set)
- Day 2 has a 4-6 rep top set followed by 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps as a back-off (performed at around 10% less than the top set)
The different rep schemes and intensities mean that the squat strength program uses daily undulating periodisation, and the range of achievable reps gives the intermediate lifter some say in what they perform that day.
Bench Strength Program
This is a bench strength program for a beginner lifter:
This bench press strength program uses a simple linear progression, so you’ll start at a moderate weight and aim to add 1-2kg every single session for as long as possible.
Beginners can recover quickly as the weights they use are much lighter, and they can progress quickly as they will be gaining strength through motor learning and neural adaptations.
Deadlift Strength Program
This 9-week deadlift strength programme is for an advanced lifter.
The program has you lifting in a hinge pattern twice per week. One session is a heavier deadlift session, whilst the other session is a lighter day of back extensions.
Training is organised in a linear periodised structure, as well as using daily undulating periodisation to train different rep ranges.
Strength Program for Beginners
This beginner strength programme is built around 3 training days per week, which is a great frequency for a beginner lifter.
The 3-day strength program structure is just a simple linear progression, in which you will alternate between workouts A and B and an ABA/BAB pattern.
You’ll notice that this structure is essentially starting strength, as it’s hard to think of a much better strength program for beginners.
Strength Programming Frequently Asked Questions
How long should a strength training programme be?
A strength training programme can be as long or short as required to suit your goals. Typical lengths include 6, 8 and 12 weeks, but strength training programmes can be much longer if needed.
How many hours a week should I strength train?
How many hours a week you should strength train depends on your goals, experience level and recovery ability. For most beginners 2-3 hours per week is a good guide, for intermediates, this might rise to 4-6 hours, and for advanced lifters, this might rise again to 5-10 hours of strength training per week.
How much strength training is enough?
In order to determine how much strength training is enough you need to track and record your training progress. If you are making consistent progress then there’s a good chance that you’re doing enough strength training. However, if your lifts are stalling, you might need to train more, or consider a new strength training approach.
Can strength training build muscle?
Yes, strength training can build muscle, but the process will be far slower than if you were training specifically for hypertrophy. If muscle size is your goal, I recommend that you check out my 17-week upper lower split hypertrophy programme
Can strength training be cardio?
Strength training can provide a small amount of cardio, but it is far from ideal. If cardio fitness is one of your goals I highly recommend adding a few low-intensity, low-impact cardio sessions into your training.
Can you develop strength without hypertrophy?
Yes, you can absolutely develop strength without hypertrophy (or at least with minimal hypertrophy) You can do this by sticking mainly to lower rep ranges (1-4 reps) with longer rests, as well as eating at maintenance calories rather than being in a caloric surplus.
With that said, since muscle size is an important component of strength, you will likely limit your total strength by trying not to gain size.
What is the most effective strength training program?
Hopefully, after reading this article you know that the most effective strength training program is highly dependent on the individual. Goals, training history, ability level, recovery ability and time availability all play big roles. The most effective strength programme will always be the programme designed around YOU.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Try designing your own strength program using what you’ve learned, or consider having a look at my custom programme options.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.
References / Further Reading on Strength Programming
Carvalho, L., Junior, R. M., Barreira, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., & Barroso, R. (2022). Muscle hypertrophy and strength gains after resistance training with different volume-matched loads: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 47(4), 357–368. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2021-0515
Davies, T., Orr, R., Halaki, M. et al. Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 46, 487–502 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0451-3
Paoli, A., Gentil, P., Moro, T., Marcolin, G., & Bianco, A. (2017). Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Frontiers in Physiology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.01105
Peterson, M. D., Rhea, M. R., & Alvar, B. A. (2004). Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 18(2), 377–382. https://doi.org/10.1519/R-12842.1
Vieira, Alexandra F.1; Umpierre, Daniel2,3,4; Teodoro, Juliana L.1; Lisboa, Salime C.1; Baroni, Bruno M.5; Izquierdo, Mikel6; Cadore, Eduardo L.1. Effects of Resistance Training Performed to Failure or Not to Failure on Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Power Output: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2021 – Volume 35 – Issue 4 – p 1165-1175 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003936