The 5 Training Variables To Design Your Own Workouts

This is part 2 of a Core Concepts Series on Strength Training. Part 1 goes over The Foundations of Strength Training

Achieve your fitness goals more efficiently by fine-tuning these five acute training variables:

    1. Choice of Exercises
    2. Order of Exercises 
    3. Number of Sets
    4. Resistance 
    5. Rest Periods

1. Choice of Exercises

Muscle groups that are neglected of stimulation will not see progress. This is why choosing the correct exercises should be the first step towards putting together your training program.

Exercises to Choose When Looking To Gain Strength

When your goal is to gain muscle strength, then the exercises in your training program should be divided into two categories: primary and assistance.

Primary exercises are those that are most in line with your goal, i.e. they will stimulate the muscle groups in which you are trying to gain strength. 

Primary exercises

Bench press
Power clean
Leg press
Military press
Barbell row

Assistance exercises

Leg curl
Knee extension
Chest fly
Lateral raise
Tricep extension
Calf raise
Biceps curl 
Front raise

When training to improve athletic performance the primary exercises should work the muscle groups in a way that mimic the movements performed in the sport.  

The primary movements for Olympic weightlifting are the clean and jerk and the snatch. For a powerlifter they are the bench press, squat, and deadlift. 

Primary exercises require the coordinated effort of multiple muscle groups, allowing you to lift a lot more weight compared to assistance exercises.

Primary exercises should be performed towards the start of a workout when your muscles are not affected by fatigue. 

Assistance exercises involve single joint movements. Examples include the biceps curl, tricep extension, and shoulder lateral raises. Because assistance exercises recruit only one muscle group, you lift a much lighter weight on them compared to primary exercises.

Assistance exercises should be performed towards the end of a workout after the major muscle groups are tired from primary exercises.

Exercises to Choose When Looking To Gain Size

When your goal is to gain muscle size, the exercises in your program should should be divided into multijoint and isolation exercises. 

Most muscle groups can be stimulated through both multijoint and isolation movements. The biceps, forearms, calves, and abs, however, are more effectively stimulated when trained with isolation.

Multijoint exercises

Bench press
Overhead press
Upright row
Leg press

Isolation exercises

Front and Lateral raise
Tricep pressdown and extension
Barbell curl
Leg extension
Calf raise


How Many Exercises In a Workout

Anywhere between​ 4-6 exercises per muscle group should result in adequate stimulation. 

2. Order of Exercises

The order in which you perform your chosen exercises will determine the effectiveness of your workout as well as the specific adaptations that the workout aims for.

As mentioned above, when looking to gain strength, primary exercises should be performed towards the start of a workout when fatigue is not an issue. If you were to perform assistance exercises first, it would compromise the amount of weight you would be able to lift for the primary exercises. Furthermore, it could leave you susceptible to injury, since exercise technique tends to lag when muscles are fatigued.

When looking to gain muscle size, you can perform either multijoint or isolation exercises first. Pre-exhaust training is a technique that involves using isolation exercises before multijoint exercises in an effort to exhaust a particular muscle group so that it becomes the weak link for when you do the multijoint exercises. 

When training multiple muscle groups in a single workout, larger muscle groups (such as the back and legs) should usually be trained before smaller groups (such as the shoulders and biceps) because larger muscle groups should be trained before fatigue becomes an issue.

3. Number of Sets

A set is defined as a consecutive amount of reps followed by a period of rest. The number of sets in a workout determines the total volume of exercise (how to calculate training volume: sets x reps x resistance). The number of sets in a workout must be aligned with your individual goals of strength and starting level.

It is widely agreed that, multiple sets are more beneficial for developing both muscle strength and mass. This stance is supported by both the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Pearson et al. 2000) and the American College of Sports Medicine (Kraemer et al. 2002). Single sets are effective for building strength for a beginner weightlifter. As a beginner, you can start with single sets and progressively increase the amount of sets to make continued adaptations in strength.

There are three major applications of sets: number of sets per exercise, number of sets per muscle group, and total sets per workout.

The number of sets per exercise will depend on the particular training program. On average, for the intermediate to advanced trainer who has over a year of experience, sets between 3 - 6 per exercise are fine. This range is considered optimal for increasing strength. 

The number of sets per muscle group for muscular hypertrophy is dependent on the number of exercises for the muscle group, the number of muscle groups trained, the intensity used, and your experience level. 

The total number of sets per workout should be between 10 - 40, depending on the type of training and the number of sets per exercise.

Doing too many total sets can be dangerous, particularly when intensity is high. Putting too much stress on the body can lead to overtraining. Everyone has a different threshold when it comes to how many sets is too much, but doing over 20 sets per muscle group for an extended period of weeks can result in overtraining. Furthermore, doing more than 40 sets per workout, even when multiple muscle groups are trained in that workout, can lead to overtraining if done too frequently or if proper nutrition is not being followed.

Every couple of weeks/months the number of sets should be manipulated to prevent stagnation of training adaptations.

Intensity (the amount of weight lifted) is the most important variable that influences the number of sets you should perform. The higher the intensity, the greater the stress placed on the muscle, and the lower the number of sets you should do.

4. Intensity

increase bench press fast

Intensity can sometimes be used to describe the difficulty of a set rather than just the amount of weight lifted. Say, for example, you perform a set with light weight for very high repetitions to a point of muscle failure. You may describe this set as intense, but according to the formal definition, the set would be considered low intensity.

The intensity of a particular set refers to the amount of weight lifted or resistance used. This is the second most important variable in a training program after exercise choice. 

The intensity of a particular set is inversely related to the number of reps performed, i.e. the heavier the weight, the fewer reps can be performed.

Intensity is commonly measured as a percentage of the one rep maximum. For example, the intensity can be at 80 percent of an individuals 1 rep maximum (RM). If your 1RM on the bench press is 225 pounds, then 80 percent of that would be 180 pounds (225*0.8).

Measuring intensity as a percentage of the 1RM requires a frequent and accurate testing of the true 1RM. This method may work for some strength athletes because they regularly test their progress as they prepare for competition. Olympic weightlifters, for example, are highly suited for this method.

Competitive weightlifters must use precisely measured intensity for their training phases. Powerlifters also commonly use this method because their defining moment is when they can perform their true 1RM for bench press, squat, and deadlift.

As a bodybuilder or other fitness enthusiast, the regular testing of your 1RM is not really suitable. It would take up too much time due to the many exercises used. Also, many of the exercises used are not suitable to be tested for a 1RM. If you find yourself in this category, then just aim to shoot for a heavier weight as you master a particular rep range, not necessarily your 1RM.

A more recent method of measuring resistance is the use of the OMNI-resistance scale. On this 10-point scale there is a measure that gives the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) (Robertson et al. 2003).

Each value from 1 to 10 on this scale represents about a 10 percent increase in repetition maximum. For example, full exertion for the 1RM results in a 10 while the use of 50% of 1RM results in a rating of 5.

Strength gains are more pronounced in the 1 to 6 rep range using 80-100 percent of 1RM.

Muscle growth is most conducive to training in the 8-12 rep range using 70 to 80 percent 1RM.

Muscular endurance benefits are good for repetition maximums of 12 and above using 70% or below of 1RM.

Whatever your goals, it is best to vary your rep ranges because each muscle adaptation is related to the other. For example, increasing your muscle strength and endurance positively affects muscle growth.

Yes, you should spend the majority of your time training in the rep range most suitable to your goals, but cycling in different rep ranges is a way to prevent stagnation. 

5. Rest Periods

The amount of rest you should take between sets is dependent upon a number of factors including the amount of resistance used, your goals, and the metabolic pathways that need to be trained.

A general rule to keep in mind is that the higher the resistance the longer the rest periods.

When training to increase strength, you should take longer rest periods. This is because lifting heavy for low reps requires energy from anaerobic metabolism. This is the metabolic pathway that is able to give the immediate energy required for the lifting of very heavy weight for a short period of time. Aim for a rest period between 3-5 minutes when training as such.

Here are some general guidelines for rest periods:

  • Resistance at less than 5RM - 5 minutes rest
  • Resistance at 5-7RM - 3-5 minutes rest.
  • Resistance at 8-10RM - 2-3 minutes of rest.
  • 11-13RM - 1-2 minutes of rest.
  • Over 13RM - 1 minute (Kraemer 2003).

Following the ascribed rest periods makes sure that fatigue is minimized towards the start of a new set.

When training to gain muscle size (in the 8-12 rep range) shorter rest periods are more effective. Taking shorter rest will take you to a point beyond fatigue, thus enhancing your body's ability to grow more muscle.

Additional Variables

Another variable to consider is repetition speed. On a typical repetition both the upper and lower portions of the movement last about two to three seconds. This is the standard pace at which most trainers recommend completing the reps.

Changing up rep speed can have different effects. For example, speeding up reps can be effective at increasing muscle power.

There are strength training experts who say that slowing down rep speed can result in increased muscular endurance. Research in this area, however, is limited.

How Many Workouts Per Muscle

Another considerable factor is training frequency. Generally, you should wait to train the same muscle group until it is fully recovered. Muscle recovery comes down to an individual basis and is influenced by many factors including experience, intensity, and volume.

In most instances you should give anywhere between 2 to 7 days of rest for each muscle group. This will depend on your particular workout split. For example, your frequency will vary depending on if you train multiple body parts per workout or you train one to two body parts a workout.

The more workouts it takes you to train all major muscle groups the more rest you should take between workouts.

Tailoring These Training Variables For Your Goals

How you put together your workouts will largely determine the effectiveness of your program.

You must carefully alter the acute training variables mentioned in order to reach your goals in the most efficient manner.


  1. Pearson, D. et al. The National Strength and Conditioning Association's basic guidelines for the resistance training athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 
  2. Kraemer, W.J., et al. 2002. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
  3. Robertson, R.J., et al. 2003. Concurrent validation of the OMNI perceived exertion scale for resistance exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 
  4. ​Stoppani, Jim. Core Concepts. Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength. 

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