Personal Training 101: Program Variables and Design : Strength & Conditioning Journal

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Personal Training 101: Program Variables and Design

Wathen, Dan MA, ATC, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, FNSCA1; Hagerman, Patrick EdD, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, FNSCA2

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2010 - Volume 32 - Issue 3 - p 47-51
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181d81c4f
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One of the biggest challenges a strength and conditioning professional faces is designing programs that will provide the greatest benefit to their client. Given that such a program must induce an overload to stress the muscles and require the body to change, each component of the program must be considered in relation to the final goal. Program components that can be manipulated include the number of sets and repetitions, percent of one repetition maximum (%1RM), amount of rest between sets, and the exercises used.


Few topics in resistance training have been debated more than the question of the proper number of sets to achieve optimal strength gains. The center of this debate is whether a single set or multiple sets of an exercise provide the greatest strength gains. In the early 1960s, Berger (2,3) performed a series of experiments with college-aged novice trainees, concluding that 3 sets of 3-9 repetitions (reps) was best for strength gains when performed 3 times per week. Berger further concluded that it was only necessary to work at the repetition maximum (RM) once per week. Berger's work, along with many studies and meta-analyses demonstrating the superiority of multiple sets over a single set, has been criticized (4,5,7). This criticism stems from the fact that a single set of exercise has been shown to produce strength gains in some studies (4,5,7).

The reason that a single set may produce strength gains is based on the idea that if a client moves from doing no strength training to completing one set of several exercises, an overload is produced that will result in some strength gain. However, the current scientific literature demonstrates that multiple sets will produce strength gains that are superior to single sets (1-3,6,8-14). So although a single set may produce an increase in strength, it will be limited to the overload induced, and multiple sets will provide a greater overload and therefore greater strength gains over time.


The training age of a client is the amount of time the person has been training, measured in months or years; the clients are categorized as novice, intermediate, or advanced. Training age is more critical to the exercise prescription than chronological age or gender because it partially determines the technical ability of the client and how quickly their body adapts and recovers from exercise (1,8,13). Generally speaking, as a client progresses in training age, so does their ability to handle a greater overall volume of training. Novices are generally clients with less than 6 months of strength training experience. Intermediate trainees have 6-12 months of strength training experience, and advanced clients will have at least a year of strength training experience.

There are unlimited ways the components of an exercise program can be designed, and there is no single program that works for everyone. However, when working with novice clients, a trainer may choose to follow the guidelines set forth by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (1) and American College of Sports Medicine (8) of performing 1-3 sets of 6-15 reps per exercise. Novices with no previous strength training (training age = 0) may begin with a single set of each exercise, which will provide some strength gains; however, those gains will be limited because of the small volume of exercise, so when strength gains are of great importance, 2-3 sets per exercise should be used to provide more volume (6,8,9-14). These initial volumes of exercise will be sufficient to produce strength gains, mainly through the mechanisms of better neuromuscular coordination and intramuscular recruitment. As the client progresses to intermediate and advanced status, volume may be adjusted by adding sets and exercises, whereas reps can be lowered to allow for the use of a greater %1RM. Clients with more than 1 year of experience may need even more volume of training to continue to progress (1,8,13).


Training intensity is the amount of weight lifted relative to a client's maximum capabilities for a prescribed number of reps, usually denoted as %1RM. Training intensity along with variation in the number of sets, reps, length of rest periods between sets, and number of exercises are the most critical elements to sustain progress in resistance training (1,8,13). Most research indicates that working with loads of 50-60% of 1RM is sufficient for novice trainees to make strength gains (8,11). However, as training progresses and strength increases, a greater %1RM must be used to continue progress. To insure proper training intensity and variation for the client, a periodized program should be developed (1,8,13).

Novice trainees often have issues with time commitment and compliance with training programs (12). A personal trainer generally needs to increase the volume of exercise gradually to avoid having the client quit the program because of excessive soreness, fatigue, or time-related issues. It is critical that novice clients develop proper exercise technique before increasing resistance such that they should never sacrifice form for additional reps or resistance (1,13). 1RM may be tested after a couple of weeks of introductory training or a RM can be used instead. A RM is the greatest amount of weight that can be lifted for a specified number of reps. For instance, if a client completes 10 reps with 45 pounds, his or her 10RM for that exercise is 45 pounds. The trainer can then adjust the load by using a percentage of the RM for each exercise based on the number of reps to be performed.


The novice client should begin strength training 2-3 days per week. Classic periodization varies loads on a daily basis and moves from high volume with low loads to low volume with high loads over time (12). The sample periodization program shown in Table 1 is a reverse periodization model where the client moves from low/moderate volume and load to high volume and moderate load. In the authors' experience, the reverse periodization model serves to prevent extreme soreness that can result from overtraining a novice client by using a lower initial volume than classic periodization.

Table 1:
Sample 6-month periodization program for the novice client
Table 1:

There is quite a bit of trial and error in the beginning of most novice programs when finding loads that challenge but do not overly stress the client. Typically, a client can complete 6 reps with a load that is greater than 50-60% of 1RM, but for the sake of increasing compliance and learning correct technique, the load will begin in this lower range and progress throughout the program. In this example, one of the days will be considered the heavy day (at the high end of the prescribed %1RM), whereas the other day(s) will use 5-10% less load than the heavy day for the same number of sets and reps. This allows the trainer to pick the heavy day when the client is best prepared. If the client is having a bad day (stressed out, not feeling well, and the like), the load can be adjusted to the moderate or light day load. An unloading week is used every 4-6 weeks with loads 10-30% less than the preceding week.


As a client transitions from a novice to an intermediate, periodization can take on additional specific goals for each mesocycle. In the example shown in Table 2, a client begins with an endurance mesocycle, followed by a strength mesocycle, and ending with a strength and power mesocycle. The changes to sets, reps, and load are similar to the novice periodization scheme, but the number of sets has increased, as has the %1RM used. Repetitions for most exercises will remain within the 6-15 range, but there are some exceptions to the rule. Depending on the client's goals and their ability to perform front squats and dead lifts properly, some ballistic/explosive lifting may be introduced during the intermediate phase; however, the reps should remain at 5 or less for lifts, including power cleans, power snatches, one-arm snatches, power jerks, and push presses. As the %1RM climbs, the number of reps possible per set will decrease. When the client reaches levels of 85% of 1RM and greater, reps will be below the traditional 6-15 range. Additionally, rather than dramatically increasing the amount of weight for an exercise, increase the intensity of the exercises during this scheme by adding a set, reducing the rest periods between sets, and/or increasing the speed of movement during the concentric phase of a the lift.

Table 2:
Sample 3-month periodization program for the intermediate client.


In summary, current research and the client's goals and expectations will determine the optimal number of sets, reps, and %1RM used per exercise. Current guidelines call for 1-3 sets of 6-15 reps for novice trainees and 2-4 sets of 1-15 reps for intermediate and advance trainees. Higher reps are associated with more muscular endurance gains, whereas lower reps are associated with greater strength and power gains (1,8).


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sets; reps; loads; periodization

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