I’m often told by female clients that their main hurdle when it comes to strength training is a lack of know-what: figuring out an exercise routine to follow at the gym that will continuously challenge them while, most importantly, giving them the results they want.
In fact, almost all my well-intentioned beginner clients express having had some experience with weights, which then turned into dissatisfaction and a drop in motivation when the results failed to appear.
I’ve been recently blessed with some minor injuries, which gave me the opportunity to analyze my own training style, along with its deficiencies and potential for improvement.
Having spent most of my training journey chasing numbers has slowly chipped away at my body. Despite its highs and occasional triumphs, I often felt mentally depleted and, quite frankly, a little bored.
On top of that, I grew tired of nagging little injuries.
For that reason, I decided to prioritize balance, health, and movement, while giving my body the tune up it needed.
In need of a change and greatly inspired by some amazing coaches I follow, I ended up developing a simple formula that would enable me to do exactly that, plus throw in some variety and excitement in training.
The result has been shorter but more focused training sessions, the reminder that my body, as a unit, is stronger than its individual parts, and a love for progress that relies on more than just a quantitative metric.
Oh, and, of course: I’ve also been getting stronger, more resiliant, developed better endurance, and I’ve even seen a few groups of muscles pop up. Ou, hello!
With that said, I want to share this with anyone who is interested in a new challenge or is simply looking for a simple but effective training style to adhere to.
Are you in?
Your Body As a Unit
The human body astounds me, and I believe it would do the same to anyone who pays the slight attention to just how much harmony, efficiency and potential lies therein.
Training the human body as the machine it is means prioritizing the basic human movements: squat, hinge, push, pull, and locomotion.
These movements already make up all the exercises we know and love to do in the gym, but the focus is on quality of movement instead of individual exercises or muscle group isolation.
Let’s break them down.
Squat: this one is a no-brainer. We squat every time we squat, which unfortunately is more often performed by babies than adults. Goblet, barbell, landmine and single-leg variations all fall under this category.
Hinge: simply put, using your hips as a hinge between your upper and lower bodies, as in the motion of picking something up off the floor. This movement is seen in any deadlift variation, kettlebell swings and hip thrusts, and recruits the muscles of the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back).
Push: pushing objects away from your body, either vertically or horizontally. Any pressing movement (overhead-, incline-, flat bench press) falls under this category, as well as most movements involving the triceps, deltoids and chest muscles, such as push-ups and dips.
Pull: similarly to push, it also contains vertical and horizontal components. Pulling an object towards us recruits the muscles of the back, as seen in rowing variations and pull-ups.
Locomotion: walking, running, carrying heavy things, lunging, crawling. These are all types of locomotion that we can perform as humans, and for that reason, should be trained as well.
And then of course, we have the “core”, the trunk, or whatever else you want to call it, and its many actions that serve to stabilize and protect the spine. These include preventing extension, flexion, lateral flexion and rotation, as well as aiding in those same movements.
Without a doubt, I’d say most lifters can identify with the squat and pushing movements, probably some pulling as well. If we’re lucky, they might even had some experience with hinging in their training. Sadly, very, VERY few people train locomotion regularly enough to reap its benefits.
Regardless of where that imbalance lies, the truth is that most of us could benefit from a more well-rounded approach to training. Balancing these movements is essential to long-term strength gains with minimal injuries, as the latter are usually a by-product of neglecting one movement while overdoing another.
So, how can we achieve this balance, making sure to cover all ground without getting overwhelmed and in turn, burnt-out?
The answer lies in simplicity.
Here are my thoughts on training frequency for the average gym-goer: most could benefit from training 3-4x per week, and any more than that is usually unnecessary. Keep in mind I am generalizing the population who is likely to benefit from this style of training: your average strength enthusiast, who may or may not have some experience under their belt but isn’t necessarily an elite level athlete (at least not yet).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I seldomly recommend training twice per week simply due to the vast amount of time in between sessions, which can lead to a loss of acquired fitness and, well, time wasted.
If you’re “fully” recovered in two days (I say “fully” because, in reality, it would take way longer than 48 hours for all of the connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments to completely heal), you are wasting time that could be otherwise spent on practicing your craft.
I personally train four times a week, with a day of rest halfway through the training week and the weekends off. This template has allowed me to achieve the most balance in training while allowing for (my) optimal recovery as well.
Once you figure out how many days you’d like to train, you’re left with deciding which movements fall under each day.
If training 4 times per week, that’s as simple as one main movement per day. If you’re limited to 2 training days, you would then double up and have two main movements per day.
Either way you choose to split it, the formula goes as follows:
Exercise #1: Main Movement – bilateral, 10-20 reps total
Exercise #2: Secondary Movement – unilateral, 25-50 reps total
Exercise #3: Conditioning, main movement assistance
Exercise #4: Optional: mobility focus, movement practice, injury rehab/prehab
Exercise #5: Core, “Finisher”
The main movement will be performed for 10-20 reps per session. These reps can be broken into 2 to 4 sets. I recommend starting with 3 sets of 5-6 reps.
Pick a bilateral exercise, such as the barbell squat, overhead press, trap bar deadlift, etc.
We’re focusing on strength here, so the goal is to push a little bit heavier with the weights, giving priority to form integrity and staying true to our limits. You can choose to go up in weights every set, or give yourself a rep-range to work within, aiming for either an increase in load or hitting the higher reps.
The secondary movement is to be performed with a focus on strength and hypertrophy. This will be a single-limb exercise done for higher reps, anywhere from 25 to 50. The unilateral nature increases the recruitment of the supporting musculature of the trunk, which can serve as an indirect way of core training if you’re short on time. For this exercise, I recommend the following rep and set schemes: 3×8-12, 4×6-8, 5×5.
Here are some examples of single-limb exercises you can choose from:
Squat: Bulgarian split-squat, lunges, pistol squats
Hinge: SL deadlift variations
Press: Single-arm landmine press, SA standing kettlebell/DB press, SA Dumbbell bench press
Pull: One-arm rows (DB/ cables), renegade row
The third exercise of the day will be a complement to the main movement’s muscle group, with a metabolic conditioning flavour to it. The goal here is to increase endurance and power, but also to have fun in a challenging way. I believe this is also the best exercise slot for training locomotion.
You can choose from sled drills, loaded carries, kettlebells, slam balls, sandbags, you name it.
Here are some of my favourite combinations:
Squat + sled work (push, drag or sprint)
Hinge + kettlebell swings
Push + bear crawls
Pull + sled or rope pulls, loaded carries
You can’t go wrong with the basics here. Keep it simple and make sure you are using some metric as a way of measuring progress. You can choose to beat previous times taken to perform an exercise, increase the load, increase the distance, number of reps, etc. Be creative and have fun.
Lastly, there should always be one form or another of core training. You can check out this article for more insight on it. I’ve chosen to focus on anti-extension and anti-rotation movements – so I perform one of each, twice per training week.
Anti-extension: planks, ab-wheel roll-outs, TRX Fall-outs, stir the pot
Anti-Rotation: half-kneeling and tall-kneeling single-arm presses, chops, Pallof press, some plank variations
Anti-lateral flexion: suitcase carries and deadlifts, side planks
The good news is that most, if not all, the unilateral exercises you can choose to include as Exercise #2 can also serve as an indirect way of training the trunk stabilizers.
In a single-leg squat or press, for example, the supporting musculature of your hip and trunk must be fully engaged to keep you upright under load.
Pairing the Movements
My personal preference is to pair movements that will not interfere with one another, such as one lower body and one upper body movement. But, if you prefer splitting your training days into lower and upper body sessions, feel free to do that as well.
Day 1: Squat (main), pull (secondary)
Day 2: Push (main), hinge (secondary)
Day 3: Pull (main), squat (secondary)
Day 4: Hinge (main), push (secondary)
Because you’re training each movement twice per week, you can get away with less exercises per session. Contrary to popular opinion, less can be more, if you focus on the process and meeting a certain standard of quality every time.
Day 1: Goblet Squat, 3×6
alternating with Pull-ups, 3-5 sets, 1-2min rest
One-arm Rows, 4×6-8, 1-2min rest
Prowler Push, 4-6 sets of 20-40m, 1min rest
Ab-wheel Roll-out, 3×6-10, 1min rest
Day 2: Standing Military Press, 3×6, 2min rest
Single-leg RDL, 4×6-8, 1-2min rest
Turkish Get-ups, 3-5 reps per side
Farmer Walk, 4 sets x 30-60m, 2min rest
Day 3: Barbell rows, 3×6, 2min rest
Bulgarian Split-squats, 4×6-8, 1-2min rest
alternating with pull-ups, 3-5 sets
Sled Drag, 4-6 sets, 1 min rest
Stir the Pot, 3×10 each side, 1min rest
Day 4: Trap Bar DL, 3×6, 2-3min rest
Landmine Half-kneeling Press, 4×6-8, 1-2min rest
Kettlebell Swings, 50-100 reps
Suitcase Carry, 4-6 sets per side
My aim with this training style is to eliminate the need for fancy programming. I’m at a point in my training “career” where I mostly feel like feeling good, energized, and accomplished. I’ll leave the nuances of program design and periodization for a more specific phase of training.
With that said, there still needs to be a way to account for progression from one week to another.
My recommendation is to increase the load where possible (again, staying true to your strength limits), or aim for a higher rep count that still falls under the target rep range (for example: 3×8-12 reps).
You can also opt for more unconventional ways of progressing an exercise: increasing the range of motion, decreasing stability, adding pauses, tempo work, etc.
It should be fairly obvious that this template leaves a lot of room for customization. At first glance, it may seem like not “enough” work per session, and that’s okay. If you’d like to throw in one or two more exercise slots following your secondary movement, go ahead.
Allow me to talk about myself as I illustrate the ways you can change this program to suit your needs.
I’ve been struggling with an impinged shoulder and a squeaky SI joint for the last couple of months.
Because of that, I’m currently staying off any and all bilateral squat and deadlift variations, and any other exercise that directly loads the spine. That means my main lower-body movements are usually unilateral in nature. I’m a huge fan of Bulgarian split-squats and single-leg deadlifts.
As for upper body movements, I have recently been making massive strides towards full (or at least acceptable) shoulder health, which has enabled me to bring back exercises such as the bench press and chin-ups into my training. Hooray!
In addition to my injuries, I also have specific goals that I am focusing on. One of them is to not only regain vertical pulling strength that I may (or may not) have lost, but I also want to rebuild my chin-up technique by focusing on clean, smooth reps. For that reason, I do multiple sets of chin-ups every single training day.
I’ve also been feeling quite inspired to try new things and challenge my body in new ways. I’ve taken up a more consistent practice of various kettlebell exercises, such as the swing and Turkish Get-ups, which also take up some training time. I perform those often during my warm-ups, and sometimes towards the end of my sessions as a form of mobility and prehab work.
The point I am trying to get across is that simplicity pretty much always wins. I get enough done in a session to leave me mentally and physically fulfilled (and I know I’m making progress from week to week, so I’m not under-training either). At the same time, I have more opportunities to hone in on the work that needs to be done: mobility, rehab, and simply… practice.
My goal has been to restore my body back to health while having some fun with training, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I urge you to pick one or two goals – at most – and go forward with them.
Your body is capable of wonderful things, if you only allow yourself to explore it a little deeper. Focus on what it can do for you, and I promise you amazing things will happen.
To your strength.