Design your most effective training sessions

If you’re including any gym or strength work into your training week, the chances are you are following a basic structure; you’ve been given a few exercises and then filled in the gaps. However I wonder how many of you have planned your gym sessions considering exercise selection, periodisation, variation of exercise, monitoring of rest periods or time under tension? This may sound a bit over the top but if you are serious about making improvements, these factors could be what is standing in the way of real success. As far as gym programs are concerned, the main problem is that too many of us simply keep doing what we’ve always done. 


“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” A.Einstein


It is a common occurrence that people generally tend to train the muscles that are the most fun or easiest for them. These are generally exercises taken straight out of a magazine or based around improving looks rather than performance. We can all be guilty of training our “beach muscles” and as a result, can end up causing more imbalances and poor postural habits leading to shoulder and lower back pain.

                                                    How do you choose your exercises?

                                                    How do you choose your exercises?

There are a number of factors that therefore have to be considered when designing a program, with the main elements being summarized below.

Warm Up

The majority of athletes training at a gym will do 5 minutes on a cardio machine and consider it as their warm up, simply because that’s what the resident PT instructed at their gym induction…6 years ago! The issue with this is that you aren’t preparing your body specifically enough for what you are about to do (exactly the reasoning for a warm up).

Performing a dynamic warm up routine will not only help to develop your flexibility and mobility but also prepare you for performance. This type of preparation is certainly a requirement with all of our athletes. It aims to improve joint mobility by targeting “trouble spots” such as the glutes, hips, and lower back. It also prepares the body for movement by stimulating the central nervous system in readiness to handle the more dynamic nature of resistance training. Our athletes have be taught to use it as an “early warning system” to detect any minor niggles or tight spots that might need specific attention.
Comparing this to the typical warm-up that most people do (five minutes cardio followed by static stretching), and you can immediately see how a dynamic routine is far superior and specific.

(‘Elbow-drop lunge’ one of many exercises that should be included in your Dynamic warm up- Pre strength session)

Define Your Goal

When dealing with athletes in any sport there are generally always goals in mind, a competition or race and are often categorised into Long and Short Term goals. The same concept should be applied when we strength train. The overall objective of any good workout design starts with setting goals and we tend to define these as Primary and Secondary.

quality over quantity

First you must determine the Primary goal of your Strength Training, whether it’s to increase power, reach optimal race weight or rehabilitate an injury, the goal/s need to be established. Next, you will need to determine your Secondary goals. These will be the ‘stepping stones’ towards your Primary goal, e.g. competence and form when performing a particular exercise under a specific load. For example, increasing leg strength is an excellent secondary goal to support a Primary goal of developing more power


The next step is to consider the integration or scheduling of your Strength sessions into your current training program. This is particularly vital when dealing with athletes with high volume training weeks, as sessions will need to be short and effective (we talk more about this in part 2).

Your sessions should be no longer than 1 hour, with the majority of our athletes on programs with a 30-45 minute design.
The reason for this is that it is highly likely that you will be performing your strength work before or after another training session. Due to the neurological demand of strength work, any longer and you will greatly reduce the effectiveness of both sessions.

Note: Someone who has done gym work for a number of years may be able to deal with more strength sessions in their training week, due to already being a ‘conditioned athlete’.

Exercise Selection

What should be the most obvious and important factor in Program Design is unfortunately the most common downfall- exercise selection. With the vast amount of information that we have readily available to us through the internet, magazines and YouTube videos, it’s not surprising to see people trying a variety of weird and unique exercises.
Whether you are the ‘try an exciting new exercise every session’ sort or a ‘been following the same program for years’ type, both have huge issues. Neither of these mindsets are specific and neither will be helping you achieve results or your Primary goals any time soon. Every exercise in your strength program should have a purpose and be tailored to your specific needs.

Order of Exercise

It may come, as a surprise to some of you that the order in which we place exercises during a strength program is actually designed specifically, and how well this is done will determine how well our bodies respond.

For example ‘technique or technical work’ should always be performed first when the body is fresh and most efficient at learning due to the high neurological demand. Trying to learn new exercises in a fatigued state is far from optimal (unless you already have excellent technique and are working on improving it in a fatigued state, this will come much later!).
After technical work, next come any dynamic, speed or plyometric exercises (again depending on your individual requirements).
If your program and exercise selection has been designed well enough, the inclusion of a “core finisher” shouldn’t necessarily be required. The majority of ‘whole body functional exercises’ will all demand a high level of core activation. The common ‘ab blast’ at the end of a workout is purely superficial and commonly due to habit.
Another way of looking at this is that you want to perform the compound, multi-joint exercises that use the largest muscle groups (squats and deadlifts) and then progress to the isolation work that focuses on individual musculature (such as glute bridge).