Is your training a long road to nowhere?
Most people don't engage in any form of physical activity whatsoever. This article is not meant to disparage people who do by saying they are doing it 'wrong'. Getting people to actually start is it's own unique challenge but getting people to carry on after an initial period of high motivation is just as important. I believe that if people feel in control of their training and progress then they will be more likely to keep at it. I personally dislike doing things when I don't know why I am doing them. Working too hard for little perceived gain is highly demotivating and I hope this article might help keep some people on the right track. -Richard
A lot of people don't train using a formal program and just 'work out' their energy as and when they find themselves in a gym. They might have a familiar collection of exercises you intend to perform and an idea about roughly how many reps they want to do but probably do not have an idea of what long term progression you want to make.
So you have an idea of what movements you are going to do and roughly what you should be capable of right now but probably not a four, six or longer plan. While this can work okay up to a point if you are consistent the chance of you making long term progress this way over the long term is poor and for some people it doesn't work at all.
You need a plan.
A training plan is made up of three parts. First the actual movements that you are expected to do. Maybe the 'big three' squats, bench and deadlift, maybe a bunch of crazy cable machine stuff and dumbbell work or maybe just some press-ups and pull-up, this article isn't about exercise selection. The second part is the numbers. The sets, reps and rest periods you are going to be using for each of those lifts and exercises and when you will be doing them during each session and week of the program. Lastly and probably most importantly is how those numbers are expected to change and progress over the life of the plan.
This change over time is by far the most important element of a training program. If NO change occurred then the program almost by definition would be unable to change anything.
The three training variables are intensity (usually how heavy it is), volume (how many times you lifted it) and density (how much time the volume took to do). Any one of those can make a workout 'hard'. Bicep curling a bean tin for thousands of reps without a break would suck (density), an 'easy' set of press-ups would be murder if repeated enough times over a day (volume) and a sufficiently heavy object will take a toll even if only lifted once (intensity).
A training program will balance the three variables and then change them over time in order to cause some kind of adaptation in the person that is doing it. In a ridiculously simplified rule of thumb when making a program focus on intensity increase to get an increase in strength, focus on volume is best for hypertrophy and bodybuilding while a focus on density will be great for conditioning and fat loss. It should be obvious from the three examples from the previous paragraph that you can't really focus on just one area without the program being silly.
The following three examples all start with an old as the hills workout of five reps performed five times with 50kg of weight with 3:00 minute rests.
Feel free to visualise whatever exercise you like.
As you can see even through the starting point was the same in each of the three programs the training effect would be very different for each person. The progression is far more important than the starting point or any individual workout.
It should be said that these examples are all for illustration purposes only and the starting reps and sets of a real program would most likely be structured with the desired result in mind. It should also be noted that being technically proficient with the movements you plan to train is an absolute necessity. Increasing those variables can't lead to sloppy form and poor technique or all you will achieve is an injury. Don't practice a lift until you can do it right, practice until you can't do it wrong. Finally it should be noted that individual assessment is required to select an appropriate program and not every program is appropriate for every person.
For example if a person with an especially low level of strength decides to follow a very high volume and density program hoping to build muscle then the weight they will need to use will be negligible and they will likely not achieve very much. They would be better suited working on strength for awhile and would still likely build some muscle if they ate their rations. When they returned to the high volume/density program this time able to handle bigger weights they would then see greater progress.
I hope this was helpful.