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Principles Of Fitness: Part 3 – Elements Of Exercise Programming


The Principles Of Fitness

Part 3 – Elements of Exercise Programming



This article is part 3 in The Principles of Fitness article series, so if you have not read Part 2 – Basic Aspects Of Exercise yet, be sure to do so by clicking here now.


1 – Training Volume




This refers to the amount of work you have done in a workout.  This figure is generated by adding up the number of exercises, sets, reps and weight you have done.  So for instance if you did an exercise where you lifted a 100lb barbell for 10 reps at a time, in sets of 4, you have done 40 reps total of 100lbs, which equals 4,000lbs of total mathematical volume.  This is why higher reps are better, because they equal more work done.  Someone may not be able to lift 4,000 lbs, or even 400 for that matter, but if they lift 100lbs for 4 sets of 10, they have just done 10x as much work as a power lifter who is lifting 400lbs for only 1 rep.  And this higher volume of work done will show on a persons body because they will grow far more muscle mass and have more parts of the muscle showing due to the amount of work their muscles are doing.  So do not worry if you can not lift as heavy as other people, you do not need to in order to become both fit and aesthetic.  To get the total volume of work you have done in a single workout, add these figures together for all of your exercises.  To get the total volume per week add these figures together for each of your training days.  There is a certain amount of volume and respective number of exercises, sets, reps and amount of weight that is ideal for each individual lifter based upon your body and your training experience.  Exceeding this amount will mean doing more harm than good and having diminishing returns the more you do so, and if continued over long periods of time will lead to overtraining and eventually causing injury.  It is important to figure out what your numbers are for your weekly volume so that you can stay in the optimal ranges, which I will describe more later.



2 –  Training Intensity



This refers to how hard you are working during your workout.  This usually refers to the amount of weight you are lifting, but it may also refer to the speed of your workout and how much time you are spending doing the exercises vs. resting, or it could also possibly refer to how hard the exercise is that you are doing.  A high volume doesn’t matter if there is an extremely low intensity and the workout you are doing is way too easy.  If you are lifting too light of weight or are doing it in a way that makes it so that you are not actually getting a “pump” or are resting too much throughout your workout you are probably at too low of an intensity to be getting what could be called a “good workout”.  To get a good workout is more than just the numbers that constitute the volume of work you are doing.  It doesn’t matter if you are lifting a 100lb barbell 10 times because those numbers aren’t actually making you do enough work to feel like you are getting pumped up.  It’s just as much about the intensity and how you are doing your exercises as the volume numbers.  So in order to make sure you are achieving the right intensity you need to consider the following:  Are you using a weight that challenges you for your rep range?  Are you using good form and making the exercise hard to do?  Are you doing the exercise with the right speed?  Are you minimizing the rest period between sets so that you do not lose your pump?  These things are how you gain the right training intensity to give yourself a good workout.  You know you have had a good workout not by the number of the weight you have lifted, or the number of times you have lifted it, but how much of a pump you feel in your body and how much work you feel your body has done.  You will know when you are getting an intense workout and when you are not if you listen to your body.




3 – Progressive Overload




This is a general phrase which simply means adding more weight or volume to your exercise routine over time.  This is because when you start working out with a certain volume it will produce the most stimulus and hypertrophy when you first start using it.  But as you use it more the amount of stimulus and hypertrophy goes down more and more over time, until eventually that amount of volume is not causing you to become more athletic or grow any longer, and you have reached a plateau with it where using it only causes you to maintain your current size and athleticism.  In order to avoid reaching plateaus and to continue to grow over time, you must use progressive overload by increasing certain aspects of your volume incrementally as time goes on, be it the number of reps, sets, or amount of weight.




4 – Training Splits



Your training split refers to how you split up your muscle groups when you exercise so that complimentary muscle groups are working together as they are meant to do.  The least effective splits are when people try to train one muscle at a time which is called a “bro split”, which is inferior since it is nearly impossible to isolate muscles and not train others, and it usually means one week between workouts for that muscle which is an excess of recovery time and some of that time is spent losing what you had gained.  Worse yet is when someone has no split and is just going to the gym and doing whatever they feel like doing for that day, which is what a lot of people there are doing and why it is not too hard to progress faster than they are with the right system.  The best type of splits are ones that integrate the largest number of complimentary muscle groups together into each workout.  A few examples of these are pushing/pulling/legs, upper/lower body, or total body.  Your split is not something to just choose at random, but it depends upon your level of experience, your schedule and how much time you have to devote to training each week and when those times occur, how much work you can do in each session, and how fast you wish to progress.  Your split should also change from time to time.  There is a different formula for the exercise routines that each person will have each training session and what the split of muscle groups they are working in each session will be, depending upon where they are at in their training program.  And that formula will also have a lot to do with how their training program is periodized, which is the topic that I will go over next.



5 – Periodization



Periodization when put simply refers to categorizing something into periods, or in other words, training in different segments.  Each segment, or “block” is focused on a specific training style for a certain purpose.  To elaborate upon this definition, periodization used in programming is a structuring in the exercise schedule that is cyclical and consists of different training phases (with rest periods in between), for training style variation and systematic progressive overload in order to most quickly and effectively reach one’s goals without overtraining.  This is important because over time doing the same exercises and routine will limit progressive overload for just as how your body will get used to one weight and no longer get enough stimulus from it for growth, the same occurs with types of exercises, and entire exercise routines.  If your chest workout only consists of types of barbell bench press, your chest will get very good at doing these specific types of exercises, and eventually you will hit a plateau with them where you are no longer growing, because you are limiting your exercise variety.  So one must introduce changes in variables and have variety in their training in order to keep growing.   Periodization is also important because its structured scheduling allows someone to do progressive overload as much as possible and train as hard as possible without overtraining and causing injury as one would otherwise.



Periodization is done by having different training blocks, also known as “cycles”, in which each one employs a different type of training, with variations in rep ranges, exercise types and routines, and training styles and structures.  For instance one block could be dedicated to endurance training, one to hypertrophy, one to strength training, etc.  Each cycle, known as a “Meso-Cycle”, implements a progressive overload during the weeks of training within it, known as “Micro-Cycles”, until you have reached the maximum load you can handle.  At that point a light maintenance week, known as a “Deload Week”, is taken in order to prevent overtraining, negate the fatigue you have accumulated, and heal any inflammation you have generated.   The Meso-cycles are systematically organized in the athletes training year, which is known as a “Macro-Cycle”, in order to achieve the greatest level of progressive overload needed in that time in order to accomplish their goals for the training year.



So for instance if fat loss is the goal of one’s exercise with the right periodization system/structure one could easily loose 100lbs in bodyweight in one year, creating a catabolic exercise program in which the meso-cycles are programmed so that you will be losing 10 lb’s per cycle.  Or for instance if weight lifting is the purpose of ones exercise one could easily add 50lbs of weight to certain exercises in a year by creating an anabolic and strength training exercise program in which the meso-cycles are programmed so that one is adding 5-10lbs to their exercises per cycle.  Periodization is one of the primary and most important sciences used in fitness programming for anyone who has serious long term goals.  It is the system that the coaches and trainers of professional athletes use to prepare them for competitions where the goal is to be one of the best athletes in a certain class.  So since periodization works so well for professional athletes is extremely effective in helping anyone else who may have lesser goals like simply losing weight or getting stronger.



Periodization is in my professional opinion the most important part of exercise programming because it deals with the structure, organization and systemization of the program for the most strategic and effective progressive overload geared towards specific results.  This makes it the most important thing to understand in order to give you the most rapid progress towards the outcome of reaching your goals.  However unfortunately it is something that most personal trainers do not know anything about, so though they may know the exercises and their proper form, limits their capacity to help you in the long term.  One of the first things you should be concerned with when choosing a personal trainer is if they understand periodization and how to use it in their programming, since you should be choosing someone who is going to do more than just teach you how to exercise, but formulate a long term program that will accomplish your goals.  Having read this you now know more about exercise programming than most personal trainers even do.  So make sure that the fitness professional you choose to train you and help you reach your goals knows how to create the best possible program for you that will get you the most success fastest, using periodization.   And if you are serious about fitness and want the best possible exercise program for the most rapid results be sure to contact me for a free consultation.  Because I for one am a personal trainer who actually specializes in the science of periodization, so I can create a customized program for you that will be systematized and structured specifically to get you to your goals in the fastest most effective ways possible.



6 – MEV



An acronym which stands for Minimum Effective Volume.  This means the minimum amount of total work (reps, sets and weight) that you need to do for your workout to be at all effective and give you any gains at all.  For someone who has never worked out before, the MEV would be 1 set per muscle of about 10 reps at a very low weight (5-20lbs), per training week.  For someone who has been working out a while but is still a beginner (has been working out for 1-3 years) they will need to do about 5 sets per muscle per week, at any rep range of their choosing of whatever weight they are comfortable with for that rep range.  For intermediate lifters (who have been working out for more than 3 years but less than 7) this increases to 10 sets per muscle per week, and increases the longer you have been working out and the more advanced you get.  For advanced lifters (who have been working out 7+ years) it would be at least 15 sets per muscle per week, or even more for the more advanced.





7 – MAV & MRV




MAV is an acronym which stands for Maximum Adaptable Volume, and MRV stands for Maximum Recoverable Volume.  In other words, these two terms describe the blurry area that exists between training  lot and overtraining.  Maximum Adaptive Volume is the beginning of this area, and is the maximum volume that your body can grow from.  Maximum Recoverable Volume is a bit more than this, and is the most volume you can safely recover from.  Meaning that at this point you have actually given your body too much to adapt from and at this point your body is more concerned with even recovering at all, and any more weight and it would not be able to and you will start to do more harm than good and can injure yourself.  The only reason you should reach MRV is if you are going to have days or a week of rest afterwards so that your body has extra time to recover, and that way though that work is not causing real muscle gains you are at least training your body to be able to handle that kind of work load so you can get stronger and continue to use it again in the future, and at some point you will have trained your body to be strong enough so that you are growing from it.  But you have to be very careful with MRV and should ONLY use it when you have an extended rest period afterwards, otherwise when you want to max out your training or do a high volume, it should be an MAV and not an MRV.



The tricky and risky part about these concepts, and overtraining, is that chances are that this line is lower than you think it might be, so you are more apt to overtrain and hurt yourself than you probably think and that is why you need to approach this line with extreme caution and make sure you aren’t doing too much and are also highly focused on recovery.   Most people think that the harder you train the more you gain but that is not true, the line of MAV and MRV at which point you are no longer growing and doing more harm than good are closer than you think and very easy to cross.   Using less weight and lower volume with a greater focus on good technique will produce greater results for most people (except advanced athletes who are the only ones who need a high volume and/or weight).  Overtraining kills gains and damages the body and over a short period of time will produce injury that will put you out of commission, so make sure you avoid doing it and watch out for your MAV.   Don’t just keep putting weight on the bar and adding sets to your routine in spite of your surmounting fatigue.  The effectiveness of your workout lies in making your exercises more efficient and difficult to do with the greatest form possible, rather than by making your workouts heavier and longer.  And anytime you are increasing the weight you are using you must then do damage control by decreasing the overall training volume by doing less reps and sets to ensure that your volume is not approaching your MRV and that your workouts are healthier.



8 – SFR



An acronym which stands for Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio.  This means the ratio of the amount of stimulus (which is good) to the amount of fatigue (which is bad) that you are generating for each exercise.  Some exercises you may choose to do may produce more stimulus than others, but even more fatigue than the stimulus itself, and at a certain point of having more fatigue than stimulus, or having a high stimulus to fatigue ratio, that SFR makes them inefficient exercises.  For having too much fatigue will negate the benefits of stimulus.  This is because of multiple factors, each one more detrimental than the last:



First, fatigue is taxing and exhausts your central nervous system and makes you weaker for subsequent lifts.  So you might think that you can just do these lifts at the end of your working, but this leads me to the second factor:  The fatigue they generate is cumulative, so exercises with a poor stimulus to fatigue ratio add up over the course of your training week and your body will end up not recovering as much over the course of your training week as it needs to.  So that fatigue is affecting you more and more day after day and having a negative impact on the training sessions you are doing later that week.  Now you might think, well what if I limit the exercises that have a high SFR and only do one or two a week?  Well this leads to my third point, which is that because this fatigue is cumulative it will then make you more sensitive to other exercises you are doing throughout the week that have a slightly lower SFR but still produce some fatigue (as many if not most exercises do), and will then make those exercises more fatiguing and difficult.  So if you have a couple exercises with high SFR then suddenly other heavy lifting you are doing that didn’t used to pose a problem will become something you struggle with because your body simply won’t have enough energy for it.  But you might be thinking that you are ok with your workout routine being fatiguing because as long as it is accomplishing its purpose you are willing to spend all of our energy on it.  Which leads me to my fourth point, which is that cumulative fatigue will not only affect you during your workouts, but it will make you lethargic at throughout the rest of your day and will impede your ability to do your job at work and reduce your overall functionality and performance in all things.  And if this wasn’t bad enough for you, lastly this cumulative fatigue causes inflammation that leads to aches and pains and even injuries that will have a negative impact on your big picture training and will stunt your growth, or may even take you out of commission for a long period of time.  So for all of these reasons there is no excuse for doing any exercises that cause yourself an excess of fatigue in your training.



Fatigue is the enemy that you must fight against.  This is another reason why too high of a volume is considered “over-training” and is a bad thing, because as you approach your MRV, you are cumulating too much fatigue, and that fatigue will be killing your gains and even reducing your overall ability to function as you should.  So when it comes to exercise selection you must choose to invest your physical resources in exercises that have a good stimulus to fatigue ratio.  That means that they produce maximum stimulus and minimum fatigue.  So keep this in mind and notice how you feel when doing certain exercises.  Do certain exercises give you a great pump and make you feel super strong and energized?  Those exercises have an ideal SFR as they produce more stimulus than fatigue, and you should focus on them the most.  Do certain exercises make you feel weak and depleted and in need of a long rest period afterwards in order to recover your energy, and then you go on to find that they actually make you too tired and sore to function properly the next day?  Those exercises have a bad SFR because they are producing more fatigue than stimulus are most certainly doing more harm than good, and so you should either not do them at all, or if they are absolutely necessary then minimize them and only do them once a week, and only schedule them right before the weekend or a rest day.




9 – RIR, RPE & “Failure”




These are three terms that measure how close you are coming to your maximum effort in a specific set of an exercise, which are used to make sure that you are exercising at the right intensity for that training session.



RIR is an acronym which stands for “Reps In Reserve”.  This means how many repetitions you feel you have left in you at the end of the set before you would have hit failure.  So if you did 10 reps but feel you could have done 12 before you couldn’t go on any further, that is a 2RIR.  And it is worthy of noting here that I am using that number as the example because 2 is the ideal number of RIR when it comes to your SFR, as that is the amount of RIR that produces the most stimulus possible without excess fatigue.  Anything below 4RIR is not working hard enough and producing enough stimulus or intensity to get an effective workout and cause muscle growth, and is probably too close to your MEV.  Whereas going to 1 or 0 RIR will produce a high SFR and cause a lot of fatigue, so it is ok to do in select sessions that are meant to be of the highest intensity, but if you are constantly going to 0RIR you will be overtraining and exceeding your MRV and start to kill your gains.


Similar to RIR is RPE, which is an acronym that stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion.  This means how much effort you have put into your set, and is measured on a scale of 1-10.  Like RIR this measures how many reps you had left in the tank.  But unlike RIR your RPE is the measure of how many of the reps you did out of the number of reps you think you could have done.  So if you have left 2 Reps in Reserve your Rate of Percieved Exertion is 8.  Again, anything 5 or below is considered below your MEV and is not enough of a workout.  And also again if you are constantly doing a 10 you are probably overtraining and cumulating too much fatigue over time.  So it is best to generally keep your lifting effort at about an 8 RPE.



“Failure” is an interesting concept when it comes to weight lifting.  Most people think of failure as a bad thing, but in resistance training it is actually good thing to do in the right amounts.  When you have gone until you cannot anymore, at a 10RPE and 0RIR, you have gone to “failure”.  It is great to sometimes go as far as your body possibly can, however as stated above, you should not be doing this all the time as it creates too much fatigue and will eventually hurt you.  But doing it in the right amounts at the right times is highly effective, you just have to know how to periodize it.  You should be doing this more towards the end of your cycle when you have a rest period afterwards to negate your fatigue.


There are two types of failure that you need to know:  “Technical Failure” and “Absolute Failure”.  Technical Failure refers to the point at which your technique stops being perfect and small technical aspects of the form begin to break down (such as beginning to move your torso in a movement that is not supposed to be a whole upper body motion but only involve the arms and shoulders).  “Absolute Failure” refers to the point at which your form completely breaks down and you can no longer execute the movement well enough to continue doing it at all, or in many cases cannot even continue to hold onto the weight and must drop it.



Technical Failure usually starts at 1 or 2 RIR, which is why 2 is the ideal number to stop at most of the time.  Absolute failure occurs at 0RIR and is why it is called that, because at that point you have nothing left in the tank and cannot continue on without assistance from a spotter, or without lowering your weight load.  It is ok to go past technical failure late in your cycle, and to go to or past absolute failure at the very end of your cycle.  Going to or past failure is a great way to generate the most stimulus possible, and it can help you to break through strength plateaus and help you to be able to condition yourself to lift your max weight.  But going to/past failure has a serious downside as it has a very bad SFR as it causes much more fatigue than stimulus, and this is why you should only do it at the end of a cycle when you can rest afterwards to recuperate.


You may be wondering how one can go past absolute failure.  One way to do this is by using wrist straps for any pulling motions to ensure that the weight does not fall out of your hands when you have lost your grip strength.  This can also be done either having a spotter help you by starting to help you a little and remove a small portion of the weight as you continue to do more reps, or doing what are called “Forced Negatives” where they help you bring the weight up but then you slowly lower it down on your own (the upward part of the motion being known as the “positive” and the downward portion of the movement being known as the “negative”).  Or lastly, by doing a “drop set” where after you reach the point of failure you then drop the weight down and then keep doing more reps.  Just makes sure that you never go to or past failure early on in a cycle as they will create cumulative fatigue that will cause you to be weaker the next week and will offset your progressive overload.  And do not do so too much or you will injure yourself.  With going to failure less is more, doing so a little will produce more gains, but doing so more than that will kill them.




I hope that you enjoyed this first installment in the principles of fitness article series and found it very informative.  And if you did, be sure to read the next one on different types of exercise and training, which you can read by clicking here now.

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