Basics of a routine

Well, now, you’re all excited and ready to go to the gym. But where do you start? There’s no point in stumbling around the gym with no particular plan in mind. If you don’t have a focus it’s easy to get bored and give up. The solution? A routine. Here’s how to put one together.

sets and reps

Let’s start from the ground up. No matter what exercise you choose, you’re going to do it for a particular number of sets and reps. Sets and reps are the building blocks of your routine.


A rep (repetition) is one complete execution of an exercise. So, for example, one rep of a bench press or one rep of a squat would be the full down-and-up.

A rep has a few parts.  The positive or concentric portion is where you have to exert the most force. In a bench press, it’s the up part. In a pulldown, it’s the pulling down part. The negative or eccentric portion is where you simply provide some controlled resistance for the weight as it returns to its starting position. In a bench press, it’s the down part. In a pulldown, it’s the part where the bar travels back up as the weight on the cable stack pulls it back. To successfully complete a rep you must also release the weight in a slow, controlled fashion, not just drop it when you’re done pushing it off your body.

Gym geek alert! There’s also what’s known as the amortization phase of a rep. That’s where you have to decelerate the weight and get it moving in the other direction. In the bench press you don’t just let it drop on your face. (Well, not on purpose.) You slow its descent (the negative), and then eventually you have to stop it altogether and reverse its motion so that it goes back up. You don’t need to worry about this, but it does become relevant in exercises such as squats.

A rep should move through the full range of your joint motion. In the case of the bench press, this means pushing the weight up till your arms are straight (but never lock your joints!), then lowering it down as low as it will go (try to avoid crushing yourself here). In the case of the squat, you move from standing straight to fully bent at hips and knees.

tips on reps

Remember to breathe. This sounds like pretty stupid advice, but there can be the temptation to hold your breath while completing a rep. It’s not a problem for most people to temporarily hold their breath, but folks with high blood pressure should be careful. The best way to do it is to breathe in before the rep, hold the breath momentarily during the eccentric and the most difficult part of the concentric, then let it out at the finish of the concentric. Breathing out as you initiate the concentric can cause your body to reflexively relax, which is something you don’t want at the bottom of a squat. You can also breathe between reps if you need to. This is particularly important when doing oxygen-sucking exercises such as squats. Pause, take a breath or two, then get ready for the next rep.

You don’t have to worry too much about breathing properly. Your body will generally know what to do with this. You’ll notice that your midsection instinctively tenses, and you might even make a little “ungh” sound when the weight gets really heavy.

Beginners should use slow, controlled movements. Do not jerk or bounce the weight as this can lead to injury in an inexperienced trainee.

what makes a set

A set is composed of reps performed until the lifter chooses to pause and rest. A set can be anything from 1 rep to nearly any number of reps. Powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters often use 1 or 2-rep sets. On the other hand, wrestlers will often do sets of hundreds of unweighted squats. There are lots of possibilities once you get the hang of things.

How do you know when to stop? Well, there are a few methods.

Working to failure.
Failure is when you are struggling like a madwoman just… to… move… the… weight… another… inch… uggghhh… can’t do it.

Working to just less than failure.
In this case, you go until you feel as though the next rep will be a challenge to complete with proper form, but you’re not totally out of gas. This is the method I’d recommend over going right to failure.

Using a prescribed rep range.
This generally involves planning out the workout in advance, and aiming to complete a predetermined number of reps per set. The goal here is usually to complete the desired number of reps in good form. The set may stop short of total failure, and the trainee may feel that there are more “reps left in the tank”. The majority of elite strength trainers, such as competing powerlifters and Olympic lifters, train this way. You do not have to train to failure to make progress.

Cheating sets, breathing sets, forced reps, etc.
This is what some folks do when they get to the failure point. They may have a spotter assist them with the load, so that they’re still pushing weight but it’s lighter. Or, they may be performing something like the 20-rep squat routine, which is done using a weight heavier than one can use for 20 reps, and pausing with the bar on their back in between reps.

These techniques are not ideal for the beginning lifter, although the 20-rep squat program can be done after you’ve gained some familiarity with squatting (if you’re interested in the 20-rep program, head over to Ironmind, go to their book section, and check out “Super Squats” by Randall Strossen). Overuse of forced/cheating reps can also lead to a false sense of strength. I see a lot of guys who claim they can bench press, say, 200 lbs. What benching 200 lbs. actually means to them is that they bench 100 lbs. while their spotter rows the other 100 lbs. worth off of them, while yelling, “It’s all you, man!” Or it means they take 200 lbs. through a tiny range of motion.

where to start with sets and reps

A basic beginner’s routine generally consists of something approximating 3 sets per exercise with 10-15 reps per set, though you can start with doing only 1 set per exercise for the first few weeks. Between sets you rest for 1 to 3 minutes, until you feel ready to tackle that thing again. You’ll want longer rests between sets of more complex exercises such as squats and deadlifts.

When you are starting out and figuring out what weights are good for you, you’ll have to go through some trial and error to find the correct weight. In general, aim for a weight that you can do for around 10-15 reps in good form. The 10-15 rep recommendation is based on the principle that beginners should use slightly lower weight for the first several months, in order to allow their connective tissue time to adapt to the loading. A weight which someone can use for 12 reps is usually a good weight to begin with.

But this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. You can use more reps, and you can use fewer reps. It depends on what is appropriate loading for the exercise, the trainee’s level of expertise, and her goals.

More reps

More reps are useful for movements that require a lot of stability. In the case of learning squats, I like to have trainees start with unweighted squats, focusing on balance and full range of motion, and working up to around 25-30 reps per set before tackling additional weight. This helps folks feel confident and sturdy once the bar gets on their back.

Fewer reps

Fewer reps are useful for movements that fatigue trainees quickly. Beginners who are learning complex movements can also opt to use fewer reps per set, so that weaker muscles don’t fatigue too early. For example, it is common in beginners for the torso musculature to be weak. If the trainee tries to perform long sets of squats, the torso may not have the endurance to hold up. She may feel some discomfort in her lower back. So, instead of doing 3 sets of 12 to start with, a beginner might do 5 sets of 5, with the same weight she’d use for the 12-rep set, and perhaps slightly shorter rest intervals. Once the last reps of the last set are a piece of cake, move the weight up.

Fewer reps are also often used for exercises that are initially difficult for the trainee. This includes things like pushups and pullups. Maybe you can only do three pushups when you start. So that’s where you start.


Another word you hear used with regard to sets and reps is tempo. Tempo refers to the speed at which you execute your reps. So, for example, a tempo of 2-1-3-1 would mean that the positive segment of the rep is two seconds, the pause at the top is 1 second, the negative part is 3 seconds, and you pause for 1 second at the bottom. By slowing the tempo, you can make a rep more challenging.

I know you have a lot to think about already, being a beginner and all, so you don’t have to worry about counting out the speed of your reps perfectly. Just think slow and controlled for now. A slow, controlled rep allows you to learn the movement and be sure that you are executing it correctly.

However, it is a myth that explosively performed reps are dangerous. Yes, they can be dangerous for someone who is inexperienced. But there is a place in a training program for a quickly performed rep. Jumps, plyometrics, and explosive exercises are important for building speed and power. But again, for now, if you’re a beginner, just focus on controlling the weight.

rep speed: the gym geeky explanation

An important factor in strength is called the rate of force development (RFD). When you go to lift a weight, you have to generate enough force to make it move from where it’s resting. So, if you are trying to pull a deadlift off the floor, you have to generate enough upward force to make that barbell leave the floor. The speed at which you can generate this force is called RFD. The faster your RFD, the more power you can put into the lift, kind of like a sprinter who can blast out of the blocks and accelerate quickly. Olympic weightlifters performing the clean and jerk and the snatch depend on a good RFD in order to get the bar quickly moving off the floor and above their heads. However a good RFD would also be important for many sports which depend on quickly generating power, such as throwing sports.

RFD is trained through emphasizing explosive acceleration of a weight. It is generally done by using lighter weights which are not moving, and trying to get them moving as quickly as possible. An example of this would be the pause squat, where the lifter descends into a squat position, pauses for a few seconds keeping muscles tight, then blasts upwards. This isn’t something you have to worry about as a beginner, but experienced trainers often include explosive or speed training as part of their program.

variations on the set

Once you get good at the basic stuff and feel like a bit of a smartypants, try some variations in your set-rep combos. There are thousands of different things you can do to mix thing up, and many fans of one or the other will try to tell you that X training protocol is the only way to train. Unfortunately for weightlifing metanarratives, human beings are infinitely variable, and so should their routines be. You should avoid like the plague any school of thought that tells you there’s only one way to go. With weightlifting, there’s definitely more than one way to skin a cat. Find what works for you, even if that’s standing on your head between sets and chanting Hare Krishna mantras.

The only thing you need to do for sure is occasionally vary the intensity and volume of your routine (this is more an issue for intermediate and advanced trainers; for more on this see material on periodization). You have a veritable smorgasbord of variables in your routine. Number of reps, number of sets, level of weight, tempo, number and type of exercise, workout splits, length of rest period, all of these can be manipulated periodically to ensure that you keep meeting your goals.

Some variation and diversity is good. This includes choosing a good range of exercises (and activities in general) and varying your intensity and workload over time. However, resist the temptation to endlessly tweak your routine. You want enough novelty to keep yourself entertained, and enough consistency to generate and measure progress. You do not need to “shock the body” with constant variation at every workout. You do not need to “hit the muscles from various angles”. The body is not a bratty toddler requiring ever-changing new stimuli and a host of new toys. And either muscles contract or they don’t. As long as it gets enough of a challenge to make it pay attention (but not too much to damage it), and as long as it gets progressive resistance (i.e. the weight gets heavier over time), the body doesn’t care.

Here are some ideas for variation and increased intensity:

Drop sets
This is a set where you begin on a moderately high weight, then do all the reps you can. Immediately drop the weight by a small increment, say 10 or 20 lbs, then do all the reps you can again. Drop the weight down again, do more reps. Repeat. This is a pretty intense sequence, and I guarantee you’ll feel it the next morning. Don’t use this one at every workout.

Pyramid sets
First set, light weight, high reps. Second set, medium weight, medium reps. Third set, heavy weight, low reps. Fourth set, medium weight. Fifth set, light weight. Fall down on the floor and groan (optional).

Superslow sets
These—rather self-evidently—involve executing the reps at a very slow speed. I’m not much on this protocol. It feels hard, but doesn’t result in appreciable strength gains for an experienced trainer, nor does it enable one to develop good RFD (see explanation above). Slow and controlled is good, but superslow isn’t a big improvement on basic good form. Besides, unless you’re a tree sloth, it doesn’t have much practical application outside of some potential rehab.

Set cycles
Try a week of high weight/low rep/low exercise volume sets then a week of low weight/high rep sets/high exercise volume.

There are two different kinds of supersets. In the first kind, you execute two or more different exercises for the same muscle group with little rest in between. That might include, f’rinstance, putting a set of preacher curls together with some concentration curls. Both exercises work the biceps, but in slightly different ways. The second kind of superset involves more or less the same principle, but instead works two opposing muscle groups. So you might pair the biceps curl with a triceps extension.

Timed sets
These sets don’t operate by rep count but by time. Set a timer and go for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or longer. This is a handy method for exercises such as kettlebell swings.

You see where I’m going with these. The point is to find out what works best for you, then mix it up a little. Although some variation in a weight program is important, you should also be able to find the groove that suits you best.

exercise choices and the workout split

Many weightlifters work on a split routine or cycle. For the reasons why they do this, see my page on rest and periodization. They may break the workouts up by:

  • bodyparts: e.g. one day upper body, one day lower body
  • lift type: e.g. pushing versus pulling exercises
  • intensity and loading: heavy, medium, and light
  • skill focus: strength, speed, agility, etc.

Essentially, splitting the workout up allows you to focus on different things, while optimizing recovery potential.

However, while beginners should usually start with a full body workout, it is a myth that experienced trainees must always use a split based on bodyparts. It can be quite effective to perform a full body workout (or approximately a full body workout) each time, as long as the amount of work performed is carefully controlled. Indeed, no matter how experienced a gym rat you are, you can do a full-body routine at each and every workout without overtraining. The key is in the application: you don’t go all out each time, and you don’t do three billion exercises. For an example of an effective full-body routine, check out my workout pages.

No matter what you choose to do, your exercises should be thoughtfully selected. Compound movements, movements which involve more than one joint (such as movement at the ankle, knee, and hip as happens in a squat) or a large muscle group, should always form the basis of your routine. Common compound movements are squats, deadlifts, presses, pullups, pushups, and rows, as well as the Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, squat) and their assistance exercises (such as pulls, presses, shrugs on toes, etc.). Ideally more difficult movements which use many joints and muscles are placed first in the workout, while simpler exercises which move only one joint (such as biceps curls) are placed at the end. Usually exercises for torso musculature (abs, obliques, lower back) are also placed at the end in order to ensure that they are fresh for more demanding exercises in the beginning, and able to provide as much torso support as possible.

Because compound movements involve so many moving parts, they’re much more efficient and effective for most goals than isolation exercises. Generally, I don’t bother with most isolation work unless there’s some particular need for it, such as rehab. Doing a few sets of underhand-grip pullups is a much better use of your time than a few sets of biceps curls.

stretching and flexibility

Stretching and flexibility are often accorded a magical power they does not possess.

People assume that stretching before a workout prevents injury. In fact, this is a myth. Clinical research has not substantiated stretching’s ability to prevent injury, and some research suggests that static preworkout stretching can actually increase possibility of certain injuries, such as hamstring tears in sprinters. Preworkout stretching of the stretch-and-hold variety can also temporarily decrease strength for up to an hour after the muscle is stretched. Excessive laxity (looseness) of the connective tissue in joints is associated with injury.

Frequently people fail to distinguish between active and static flexibility. Active flexibility is the ability to move a joint through a full range of motion, such as a martial artist or Rockette doing a high kick. Static flexibility is the ability to go into a stretch and hold it.

Active flexibility is what you want as a weight trainer, and the best way to develop this is performing the movements themselves. It is a myth that weight training inhibits flexibility. In fact, taking joints through a full loaded range of motion does wonders for developing functional flexibility. Being able to drop into a deep squat, for example, demonstrates excellent active flexibility of hips, spine, and calves. Olympic weightlifters are among the most flexible athletes. Static flexibility should be seen as an adjunct to active flexibility, and applied for particular purposes, such as rehabilitation. For more on stretching and flexibility, check out the FAQ and the article “Myths and Truths of Stretching”.

What does this mean for incorporating stretching into your workout? Well, for starters it means that you may not need a whole lot of unusual flexibility to do well as a weight trainer. You will need enough active flexibility to perform the movements.

Before starting the workout, warm up with some light cardio for a couple of minutes to get the circulation going. If it’s early in the morning, do a few reps of reaching overhead to engage the spinal musculature.  Then perform some gentle movements that take the joints through a progressively fuller range of motion. Move to doing one or two warmup sets of the movement with lighter weight than you would normally use. Finally begin your work sets with your desired weight. If you want to do more extensive stretching, save it for after your weights.

One exception to this rule is rehab (as always). Many folks need to stretch out something or other before a weight set, because the tightness of that part inhibits proper execution of the lift. However for the average person this is usually not much of a concern.

putting it all together

So, what does all of this stuff look like when you assemble it? Well, probably something like this:

1. Warm up, 3-5 minutes of light cardio
2. Warm up, gentle range-of-motion movements
3. Warm up sets of desired exercise
4. Work sets of desired exercises, moving from more difficult compound exercises to simpler isolation exercises
5. More active stretching if desired
6. More extensive cardio if desired
7. Passive stretching if desired

how much time should I spend on all this?

There are no clear rules on how long a weights workout should be. It depends on what you are training for, your level of expertise, your frequency of training, and so forth. However, I would say that if you are working with weights for longer than an hour, you might be able to cut it down by choosing fewer, but better, exercises. Probably aiming for somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes in total, 3 to 5 times weekly, is about right for the average person.

Doesn’t that all sound exciting?! Now, go to the program page and pick out something pretty for yourself.