fbpx Skip to main content

Typically, the art of programming refers to factors such as exercise selection, and building daily workouts, which can be built out into weekly, or more often monthly training phases or blocks, creating a holistic overview of a training program. Often, programming, and periodisation can be confused together. Periodisation is the much more subtle aspect of a training program and can be defined as the manipulation of training variables such as load, rest intervals, and intensity to produce specific training outcomes. Typically, Periodisation also takes into account other factors such as fatigue, and an athlete’s sports calendar – e.g. in season, off season, competition etc.

Periodisation requires a training program, however, not every training program has to be periodised. For the sake of this article, we are going to discuss general rules of thumb to apply to your gym workouts, and training program in general. Periodisation is a much more specific element, and there are different models and methods, which we will discuss in a separate article. Unless you are very consistent with your training program, it is our view at Dabbs Fitness that provided you follow the following training rules, with intelligent exercise selection, and appropriate effort and intensity during your training sessions, then you don’t have to necessarily follow a periodised plan, unless you are a professional athlete or have very specific needs and goals for your training.

The following tips are general rules of thumb which we apply to most of our training programs, and we are confident that some, if not all of these suggestions can maximise your training.

  1. Big lifts first!

Always perform your big lifts first, starting with compound movements which use multiple muscle groups such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull ups etc, and then perform the isolation exercises such as cable work, bicep curls, glute banded burners, or conditioning at the end of the workout when you are more fatigued. You want your quality work to go at the start of the training session. Quality work first, then quantity after.

  1. Prioritise

Whatever your training priority is – focus on this and do this first. For example, if you want to build a bigger squat or deadlift – focus on this movement, then focus on accessories which will improve this movement. If your priority is strength, then focus on quality strength reps for maximal effort. If your focus is on bodybuilding, then perhaps prioritise higher rep ranges, and supersets etc.

Similarly, if your focus is to improve conditioning, focus on this and perform conditioning sessions when you are fresher, either before, or instead of, the weights work. One track-based example may be that you want to focus on top end speed. Thus, you should do your quality sprint work at the start of your session, and perhaps finish the session with some longer intervals to maintain your endurance levels.

  1. Know your WHY.

Always have a reason for every exercise you program into your workout.  For us at Dabbs Fitness, this is the difference between a qualified strength and conditioning coach with a master’s degree, and a basic level personal trainer, and is perhaps the most important point on here. All our coaches must justify every exercise they choose while delivering a session, from the warmup through to the finishers. There is nothing random, and there is nothing left to chance. Our bodies have a finite amount of energy to expend while training, and we don’t want to waste this on inefficient movement or exercise, particularly if you, like many of our clients, have a busy job, play sports outside of the gym, have kids and a family etc. Every minute, and every movement counts in the gym. If you can always justify WHY you have programmed an exercise, then that is fine, even if we may disagree with your justification, or suggest an alternative exercise. If you have thought about it, we are happy.

Sometimes the justification can be as simple as ‘I enjoy this exercise’ or ‘I want to feel tired at the end of a workout’ These are both perfectly reasonable justifications, just ensure that you think about everything that goes into your session. A minimalist approach is best, and we would rather you smashed 3 or 4 exercises perfectly, than threw in 10 random exercises. For example, performing five perfect sets on the bench press is more effective than randomly throwing in incline, decline, flat, flies, push ups… etc. Think about it, have a plan, and then execute it.

  1. Focus on the desired adaptation.

This brings together the previous two points. By adaptation, we mean the specific outcome you want to create from training – do you want to build muscle? Do you want to get stronger? Do you want to get more explosive? Do you want to burn fat and increase metabolism? There is of course an overlap with all of these qualities, however whichever is your priority, you need to focus on that adaptation. For example, typically strength reps will range from 3-8 reps, at close to maximal efforts. Thus, if you want to get stronger, you should be squatting rep ranges such as 5×5 or something similar. If you want to build more muscle, your focus should shift to higher repetitions and increase your training volume. You may also want to increase the number of isolation exercises such as bicep curls, split squats, DB incline bench press etc, with higher rep ranges around 8-15 reps. If you want to improve your explosivity, you should be performing explosive sets of 3 for Olympic lifting movements, or perhaps jumping movements. These rep ranges are simplified, however it’s a great starting point for you. Be specific and focus on the desired adaptation.

  1. Break the rules sometimes

Final point – be flexible and break the rules sometimes. In recent years there have been several studies regarding self-regulation, relating to natural daily fluctuations in energy levels and strength. Some days and weeks you will feel great, others you won’t. You don’t always have to stick to your program, sometimes you can go over and do extra, other times you can hold back a little and just do the minimum. Some days you may feel like having a solid bench press session – go and do it, maybe even smash a new PB. Training is your ‘you time’ and should be enjoyed and experimented (within reason!). See what works for you and go and smash your training!

Example Full body session for strength:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Load (% 1 RM)
A1 Back Squat 5 5 85%+
A2 Bench press 4 6 85%+
B1 RDL 3 10 75%
B2 Pull Up 3 10 75%
C1 Reverse Lunge 3 8es 70%
C2 Tricep Extension 3 12 70%
C3 Ab Hold/core exercise 3 30s n/a

As you can see, the reps start lower and heavier, with more compound movements initially, which build into more hypertrophy reps as you progress through the workout. The session is designed around becoming stronger in the main lifts (Squat and bench), with the accessories targeting the assistance muscles for these movements, e.g., triceps for the bench press.

Example Upper body session for Hypertrophy:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Load (% 1 RM)
A1 Bench Press 4 10 75%
A2 Pull Up 4 F bw
B1 DB overhead press seated 4 12 70%
B2 DB row 4 12 70%
C1 Dips 3 F bw
C2 Hammer Curl 3 15 65%
C3 Lateral Raises 3 15 65%


This session has a much higher volume than the previous session, with higher reps which are typically more associated with relatively less load, but more conducive for hypertrophy and building muscle.