Re-Design your Program for Optimum Efficiency


Heading to the gym can be a daunting task for some while, for others, it is a routine part of the day. Whether you’re a seasoned vet or heading into the gym to fulfill a New Year’s resolution, planning your workout is something that is often overlooked. Even those who do plan rarely go beyond a list of exercises and a rough idea of the number of sets and reps they plan on doing.  For many, this turns into day after day of unorganized workouts that take longer than they should, yielding little to no results. This often leads to missed workouts and quitting altogether.

Structuring your workout by addressing the various loading parameters can drastically increase the intensity of your session, while making it far more enjoyable and far less time consuming.

So, what are loading parameters?

Simply put, these are the factors of your workout. You should take the following loading parameters into account when designing your training program.

Exercise choice
When choosing which exercises to perform, it’s all about needs and wants; you need to squat if you want great legs! The idea here is simple: match your exercise choices with your goals.

Exercise order
Aside from specified programs for injury rehab, the general rule is to perform the hardest exercises first. Compound movements, such as the squat, deadlift, Olympic lifts, bench press, and chin up, should be placed before isolation exercises like calf raises and bicep curls.

The number and type of sets you do should relate to your goals. If pure size and strength are your goals, a high number of sets of just a few basic exercises will do. However, if shape and aesthetics are what you’re aiming for, a fewer number of sets and a larger exercise variety may be better options for you.

The number of reps you perform directly relates to the amount of weight you are attempting to lift and the goals you have in mind for your body. If you are trying to build muscle or really change the shape of your body, a rep range of 8-12 should be your goal for most of your sets. This is the range where, if training to failure, the greatest amount of muscle hypertrophy or growth is realized.  If strength is your goal, you should be lifting heavier weights in a range of 1-5 reps per set.  You will not gain as much muscle, but neuromuscular activation is highest in this range and helps make you your strongest. However, if you are more interested in increasing your muscular endurance and conditioning, training in the 12-15 rep range and beyond would be better suited to your goals.


This is one factor that is often overlooked despite its importance. The rep range you are lifting within really dictates how much weight you will be lifting. As such, you should choose a weight that brings you to failure on most sets within that range. So, if you do a set of 12 lunges using 30 lbs. and get to 12 but could have done 12 more, YOU NEED MORE WEIGHT! Many people stop at 8, 10, 12 or 15 just because that’s what is written in their program or is predetermined in their mind. For a program to be effective, the weight must be sufficient to bring you to failure or near failure within the prescribed number of reps. Keep in mind that failure is relative to your goal and does not mean breaking good form and having a full body muscle spasm under the bar to complete one more rep. When written in a program, weight is often expressed as a percentage of your one rep max for a given lift.  It is important to remember that, as you get stronger, the weight you lift at all rep ranges will and should increase. This is why occasionally having your max strength tested by a professional can be a very valuable tool for your training.

How you lift the weight is as important as how heavy you lift and how many reps you can do.  Tempo is simply a ratio measured in time, which describes how you will move the weight. Many complex programs for advanced lifters will have a four number tempo, such as 3110, 1130 or even XOXO to describe more explosive lifts. These numbers, or sometimes letters, describe phases of a lift including the concentric and eccentric contraction (often called positive and negative) as well as the time between these phases, called amortization, and the time between the end of one rep to the beginning of another. If you are new to the concept of tempo, try using two numbers. Simply assign a number to the negative and positive portion of the lift and stick to it. Failure is when you can no longer keep the tempo. This will make any set instantly more difficult. A good rule to follow is to assign a bigger number to the negative phase than the positive phase. So if you are squatting, take three seconds to squat down and 1 second to power the weight back up; your tempo using two numbers would be 3:1.

If you have time to update your Facebook status between sets, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’re not working that hard. You do need rest between sets but, just like everything else previously mentioned, the rest you need is related to your goals. Most people do not need more than 90-120 seconds between sets for their heaviest work. Power and Olympic lifters may require up to five minutes; most of us aren’t lifting two to three times our bodyweight, so two minutes or less will suffice.  If muscular endurance is your goal, you can reduce your rest to 30 seconds or less.

The chart below sums up some general guidelines to help you build your own program with a few of the often forgotten loading parameters in mind.

Goal Exercise choice Order Weight Sets Reps Tempo

– : +

Strength and Power 2-3 Compound exercises Most important lift first 85-100% of MAX 4-5 1-5 1-3: 1 3-5 minutes
Bodybuilding (Muscle Hypertrohy) 4-5 Compound lifts first 70-85% of MAX 2-4 8-12 2-3: 2-3 60-120 seconds
Muscular endurance and conditioning 5-10 Compound lifts first 70% of less of MAX 2-3 12-15+ Any tempo can be suitable 30 seconds or less


Whether you are putting together a new routine for yourself, or plan on sticking to an old one, make a check list and ensure that you have covered all of the loading parameters. Your workout will be more challenging, time efficient, and effective. Don’t be surprised if you’re sweating buckets and finishing your workout 15 minutes earlier than you’re used to.


Mike Samson is a strength and conditioning coach and university instructor who lives in St John’s, Newfoundland. Mike holds a Master of Science degree in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. A competitive athlete in Judo and BJJ disciplines, Mike is available for consultation in the St John’s area and also provides services online.

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