Developing a Weight Training Program for Greater Strength and Power

Total body routine versus lifting for different muscle groups

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Are you new to lifting weights or want to accelerate your routine? Professor Ormsbee provides some pointers.

Close up of free weight
At the start of a weight training program, it is important to learn proper alignment and form, then develop a specific plan tailored to help you meet your individual goals. Photo By Jiri Hera / Shutterstock

Getting Started

When developing a weight training program, you can refer to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines, which take into account the recommendations of experts across many disciplines, like exercise science, physiology, athletic training, and medicine. ACSM recommends lifting weights a minimum of two to three days per week if you use a full–body workout. 

However, if you really enjoy strength training, you can easily spread it out over four or more days per week and change up the order of the muscle groups you exercise each time. Training each major muscle group twice per week is sufficient. 

To begin, ask yourself, what fits into your schedule now? If it is only one day per week, start there. Over time, you can add more days, time, and intensity to your training.

Professor Ormsbee recommends starting with one to three sets of exercises that target each major muscle group. Aim for 8 to 12 repetitions.

Often, beginning with machines instead of using free weights is your best bet because they help to reinforce proper alignment and form and may be safer until you feel more comfortable with the process. As you become more advanced with your program, and your goals become more specific, you can develop a specific plan tailored to help you meet those goals. 

Developing a Weight Training Program

When designing a plan to build muscle mass or improve muscle quality, a few criteria are unique. Muscular strength is a measure of how much force your muscles can produce in one effort. 

To improve strength, do five to eight repetitions at a weight that progresses up to 80% of your maximal strength for one repetition, or RM. Think higher weight and low to moderate reps for three sets. 

For example, if you can lift 100 lb, or 46 kg, on the bench press, then you would start with about 65–70 lb, or 29–31 kg, and work up to using around 80 lb, or 36 kg, for five to eight repetitions. You would repeat this two more times before switching exercises.

The second type of muscular training is muscular endurance, which ultimately leads to hypertrophy, or the increase in muscle fiber size. For muscular endurance and hypertrophy, you would use a lower weight, roughly 65–85% of your one RM, and 8 to 12 repetitions for one to three sets. 

The third type of muscular training is called muscular power, which is the amount of work performed per unit of time. This is a quick movement involving two strategies—the most traditional is to aim for a heavy load, typically over 90% of your 1 RM, with only one to four repetitions. 

Again, using our example of one RM bench press of 100 lb, you would lift 90–95 lb for just one to two reps. You would likely take long breaks between sets with this style of lifting. 

Alternatively, because muscular power is based on how fast the movement can be completed, you can also use a light load—it could even be your body weight—or a load that is somewhere around 50% of one RM and then perform the movement fast. Of course, the style you choose is based on your goals, and working with a coach is highly recommended given the technical aspects of doing this safely. The main idea is to move the load as fast as possible.

What’s the Best Approach?

Thus, in order to increase your muscle mass, effort is required when you’re at the gym. If you like to lift and to do aerobic exercise, then don’t worry too much about whether you do cardio or resistance training first when you work out. 

Let’s assume you want to lift weights. You might think you should do a total body routine or split the body segments into working your legs one day and your upper body on a second day. 

However, many other variations exist like chest and triceps on day one, then back, biceps, and shoulders on day two, and legs on day three. It can be confusing without proper guidance. 

To settle this argument, researchers recruited 20 resistance-trained young men and had them perform two to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for a total of 18 sets per session for eight weeks. They used either a one-day-per-week, split-body routine where multiple exercises were done for two to three muscle groups per session, or a three-day-per-week, total-body routine where one exercise was performed per muscle group per session with all muscle groups trained. 

The researchers tested the upper and lower body strength and muscle size. After eight weeks, they noted no differences except for greater increases in the size of the forearm flexors in the total-body routine compared to the split-body routine. 

In the end, Professor Ormsbee recommends developing a weight training program that you like and that you can stick to.

Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.