Once you’ve decided that you want to build muscle, lose fat, increase strength or improve your body in any way, the first subject that always comes up is weightlifting workout routines.
In order for you to get the best results as fast as possible, you must make sure your workout routine is designed specifically for you, your body, your experience level, and your exact goal. The problem is, there are a ton of different weightlifting factors to set up, and a ton of conflicting, confusing and all around horrible advice out there about how you should do it.
Seriously. Just spend a few minutes searching around online for workout routines and you’ll come across thousands of different weightlifting and bodybuilding programs, plans, schedules, splits and methods that your head could explode. I’ve been there before, so I know exactly how annoying it is.
That’s why I want to eliminate all of your confusion about workouts and programs right now by taking you through a FREE guide that will cover every major factor of weightlifting workouts and show you exactly how to create the workout routine that will work best for you.
The 6 Factors Of A Perfect Workout Routine
In order to put together the best program possible, there are 6 weightlifting factors that we need to set up effectively. They are:
- Frequency: How often should you work out?
- Weekly Split & Schedule: How should your program be organized throughout the week?
- Intensity: Should you lift heavy or light weight? High or low reps?
- Volume: How many sets and reps should you do?
- Exercises: Which are best for you?
- Progression: How, when and why should you progress?
To build muscle, lose fat or improve your body, you need to get each factor just right. Here’s how…
The Best Frequency
Workout frequency most often refers to how many total workouts you’ll do per week, and how many times you will train each muscle group over the course of that week (once, twice, three times?). Let’s figure out both.
How many workouts per week?
This answer is easy. The majority of the population should be doing 3 or 4 weightlifting workouts per week. Yes, it’s possible to get by with just 2, and it’s possible to still recover well enough to make 5 work. However, workout routines that consist of 3 or 4 total workouts per week are definitely most ideal and most often recommended for getting the best results possible.
How often should you train each muscle group per week?
On the other hand, this answer is a little more complicated. Luckily, I’ve already written an article that fully answers it: How Many Times Should You Work Out Each Muscle Group Per Week? Here now is a quick summary of what I explained works best:
- Beginners with ANY goal should train each muscle group 3 times per week.
- Intermediate or Advanced trainees whose #1 goal is building muscle, losing fat or just improving the way their body looks should train each muscle group about 2 times per week. Those mostly interested in JUST increasing strength or performance (rather than looks) should train each muscle group 2 or 3 times per week.
So, if you’re a beginner to weightlifting (training for less than 6-8 months correctly), stick with 3 times per week. If you are anyone else with pretty much ANY goal, training each muscle group about twice per week is what has been proven to work best in most cases.
Training each muscle group once per week is the LEAST EFFECTIVE weightlifting frequency of all. Workout routines built around this lowered frequency work well for bodybuilders with amazing genetics and tons of steroid use, and it works fine for just maintaining muscle (rather than actually building it), but it sucks for everything else. It can still work if done right, it’s just NOT what works best.
The Best Weekly Split & Schedule
Now that you know what weightlifting frequency will work best for you, you need to pick a weekly split and schedule that allows that ideal frequency to be reached. At the same time, it also needs to allow for optimal recovery and fit your own personal schedule. Here are some recommendations…
The 3 Day Full Body Split
Monday: Full Body Workout
Wednesday: Full Body Workout
Friday: Full Body Workout
Literally all of the most highly proven and often recommended weightlifting workout routines for beginners with ANY goal use this 3 day full body split. It allows each muscle group (or key exercise) to be trained 3 times per week, which allows beginners to build muscle and increase strength at the fastest rate possible. For this same reason, it’s also ideal for people past the beginners stage whose #1 goal is increasing strength.
The 4 Day Upper/Lower Split
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
And here is the workout schedule that I personally use and most often recommend to pretty much EVERYONE besides beginners. It allows for each muscle group to be trained twice per week, which is what has been proven to work best for intermediate and advanced trainees. Many of the most effective workout routines on the planet use this split.
A 3 day version of this upper/lower split is also possible and equally effective, which is ideal for people who can only manage to work out 3 days per week or would just prefer a slightly reduced weightlifting frequency. You’d just do upper, lower, upper one week, and then lower, upper, lower the next and keep alternating like that (with 1 day off between workouts and 2 days off at the end).
The Push/Pull/Legs Split
Monday: Chest, Shoulders and Triceps
Tuesday: Back, Biceps
Saturday: Chest, Shoulders and Triceps
Sunday: Back, Biceps
And here is one of the only true “body part splits” that I actually like. Most body part splits used in typical bodybuilding programs train each muscle group once per week. As I explained earlier, this is the least effective weightlifting frequency. However, this split avoids that. It’s slightly less frequent than the 4 day upper/lower split above, but still more frequent than once per week.
The only problem with workout routines using this schedule is that the days the workouts fall on will vary from week to week, which could be a problem for people whose personal schedules aren’t that flexible (which is a big part of why I usually recommend upper/lower). Still, while there are a few other ways to make the push/pull/legs split work, this is probably the best of them all.
For beginners with any goal, the full body split is definitely my only recommendation. For everyone else, the 3 or 4 day upper/lower split is what I recommend most, with the push/pull/legs split being another great option if your schedule can make it work. For additional details on these splits as well as a few other variations, check out my article about workout plans and weight training splits.
As for the typical once-per-week body part splits, leave them for the bodybuilders on every drug known to man. Us regular people with average genetics do best with these.
The Best Intensity
As far as weightlifting workout routines go, intensity can have a few different meanings. In most cases (including this one), we’re talking about how heavy or light the weight you are lifting is. The heavier it is, the higher your intensity is and the less reps you’ll be able to do. The lighter it is, the lower your intensity is and the more reps you’ll be able to do. The question is…
How many reps should you do per set?
Honestly, anywhere between 1-20 reps per set can serve some type of purpose in weightlifting. However, this could definitely be narrowed down quite a bit based on your specific goal:
- Doing 1-6 reps per set is best for increasing strength.
- Doing 5-12 reps per set is best for building muscle.
- Doing 10-20 reps per set is best for improving muscular endurance.
Which means, for the majority of the people reading this, you’re most likely going to want to do between 5-12 reps per set. This is the rep range used in nearly all of the workout routines aimed at building muscle or improving the way your body looks.
And for anyone wondering why I didn’t mention that higher reps were best for getting toned, it’s because they’re not. As I explain in my article about How To Get Toned & Defined, it’s pure bullshit.
The Best Volume
Volume refers to the amount of work being done (sets, reps, exercises) in your workouts. This could mean total volume per workout, or per week, or per exercise, or per muscle group. Each is important, but the one we need to care about the most is total volume per muscle group. Why? Because this is a crucial part of ensuring we’re doing enough to get results, but not too much to hurt recovery. So…
How many sets should you do for each muscle group?
Of all of the weightlifting factors we’re looking at in this guide, volume is the hardest one to pin down to an exact number that’s best for everyone. Goals, experience level, and individual ability to recover play big roles in this answer. However, here is an amount that tends to be just right for most people.
- 8-15 sets per bigger muscle group per week (chest, back, quads and hamstrings).
- 0-8 sets per smaller muscle group per week (shoulders, biceps, triceps).
Now, the key words there are “per week.” Meaning, the same weekly frequency isn’t being used in all workout routines. Some people will train each muscle group once, twice or three times per week. Depending on that frequency, you’d need to divide that volume up among your workouts. For example…
- If you’re training each muscle group 3 times per week (which I recommend to all beginners), you should do between 3-5 sets per bigger muscle group per workout, and half that for smaller muscle groups.
- If you’re training each muscle group 2 times per week (which I recommend to intermediate and advanced trainees), you should do between 4-8 sets per bigger muscle group per workout, and half that for smaller muscle groups.
- If you’re training each muscle group 1 time per week (which I rarely recommend to anyone), you should do 8-15 sets per bigger muscle group per workout, and half that for smaller muscle groups.
The most effective workout routines on the planet generally follow these recommendations. Oh, and most people will do best sticking towards the middle of these ranges, not the high end.
The Best Exercises
Now that you have a pretty good idea of how much volume to do, you need to figure out which exercises you’re actually going to do in your workouts to get that volume. There are hundreds of different weightlifting exercises to choose from, and each one can serve a different purpose and be more or less ideal for certain people’s bodies, goals and experience levels than others.
In general however, the majority of the workout routines that people create should be based around the following exercises:
- Bench Press (flat, incline, decline, barbell or dumbbell)
- Rows (barbell, dumbbell, cable, chest supported or machine)
- Overhead Press (barbell, dumbbell, seated or standing)
- Pull Ups (various grips, chin ups or lat pull downs)
- Squats (back, front, split squats, lunges)
- Deadlifts (conventional, Romanian)
There are definitely some exceptions, but for the most part, some variation from each group of compound exercises listed above should be included in virtually ALL workout programs and get most (or sometimes even all) of your attention. Beyond those, isolation exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises, leg curls, etc. can be fine secondary additions to your program if they support your goal or preferences.
My articles about choosing the true best exercises for you and the differences between free weights vs machines and compound vs isolation will help explain all of this in much better detail.
The Best Progression
While those are the main components that go into creating workout routines, there’s one final component that matters more than all of them. It’s the only weightlifting component that MUST be in place in order for your workout to actually work and produce positive results.
I’m talking about the absolutely required concept of progression.
As I explain in my muscle building article, there is no aspect of your workout routine that is more important than progression. You can set up everything else just right, but it will always fail to work if there is no progression taking place over time.
What I mean is, your body will not improve unless you increase the demands you are placing on it. So, if you keep lifting the same weights for the same number of reps on the same exercises over and over again, your body will NOT improve. You must gradually attempt to do more reps with the same weight or do the same number of reps with a heavier weight, or some combination of the two.
For example, if you can lift 100lbs on an exercise for 8 reps, you need to try to do 9 reps the next time you perform that exercise. Once you can, you need to try to do 10 reps. From there, you can increase the weight to 105lbs and do 8 reps. Then try for 9, then 10, then 110lbs for 8… and so on.
This is a common example of weightlifting progression, and your workout routine MUST be built around making this happen as often as realistically possible. If it isn’t, then you’re just wasting your time.
Progression is always the key to getting results from your workout. Make sure it’s always your #1 focus.