Neuromuscular Training Explained
Last week I wrote this post, in an aim to simplify how I think about what most trainers simply refer to as "resistance training," AKA "weight training," AKA strength training (whatever you want to call it).
It raised a bunch of questions, so this is a follow up with greater depth...
I like to call it Neuromuscular System Development (NSD), or Neuromuscular System Training (NST) because the other terms more commonly used are not as encompassing.
Strength training largely refers to heavy lifting with less than 8 reps with the goal to promote strength.
Strength: the maximal force you can apply against a load. Usually synonymous with your one repetition maximum in any lift, or the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time.
It feels inadequate to describe all the training I make people do that isn't energy system work and isn't mobility system work. It's more like a specific subset of resistance training.
What happens when we're lifting to build muscle? Or to develop explosiveness? Or eccentric focused lifting whereby you're using a resistance heavier than you can lift concentrically?
It's all very similar looking training, but the desired outcomes vary substantially.
Weight training involves anything that provides weight (gravity acting on a mass):
Unfortunately weight isn't the only thing that can provide resistance in the context of this training.
My default for a long time became resistance training because it is more compassing of all and any resistances that can be applied to the context of this training. It can include any thing that offers a resistance:
- Band Resistance
- Pulley Resistance
- Flywheel Resistance
- Friction Resistance (Sliders/Air Resistance)
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised even this term has limitations because it ignores intent and effort.
How could I include training like shock training (often called Plyometrics) into the mix using the more common lingo?
Note: Shock Training is a method of training utilized to increase velocity or speed of movement and can significantly aid in the development of strength, connective tissue development and bone density increases. I'll write an article about it someday.
I decided I wanted to use an even more descriptive phrase or word as an umbrella term to describe all the training I might ask people to do that didn't improve the energy systems or mobility systems.
The word neuromuscular implies that you are training both the nervous (strength/explosive power/plyometrics) and muscular system (resistance training/muscular endurance) — HENCE NEURO-MUSCULAR.
It just seemed most appropriate and I've been riding that decision ever since (until something better comes along anyway).
Around the time that I wrote this article someone else had a similar thought process. Retrospectively, I learned an the article that summed up my thoughts rather well. In June 2011, a paper by Myer et al. defined neuromuscular training (NT) as:
"a training program that incorporates general (e.g., fundamental movements) and specific (e.g., sport-specific movements) strength and conditioning activities, such as resistance, dynamic stability, balance, core strength, plyometric, and agility exercises with the goal to enhance health- and skill-related physical fitness components and to prevent injuries."
The caveat here before you read the rest of this article, is that there are exceptions to every rule (well maybe not every, but many).
For instance, there is a fine line between ATP-CP energy system training and neuromuscular training as it applies to short sprint distances. It's very hard to distinguish the two, even though that's what my naming conventions are attempting to do.
What's to follow are generalized philosophical recommendations for your average beginner/intermediate trainee, and they probably don’t apply to advanced trainees (think: competitive athletes, especially those in strength based sports).
Train Smarter, Not Harder
Forget what you may have read in bodybuilding magazines or what LeBron James is doing — these are advanced programs made for advanced athletes — and don’t bother trying to train different muscle groups on separate days with Frankenstein programs.
It takes too long, isn't flexible enough for most people (except young males with an abundance of free time), doesn’t provide enough continual stimulus for most people, and tends to over-emphasize specific muscle development. i.e. it leads to people skipping leg day.
You probably don’t need to, or don’t want to train to complete fatigue like many of these programs advocate anyway, for now.
People often try to outrun bad nutrition habits, by simply ‘doing more,‘ however, ‘more‘ doesn’t equal better. More usually leads to burn-out.
Better is better.
More is often worse, because it requires more time, and time is a precious luxury we're all bound by — time is coincidentally the biggest excuse for not resistance training…
Smarter means fitting in training when you can, adjusting how you train to how you feel, being realistic with your fitness routine and optimizing your sessions with the methods below.
Training smarter means working selectively on the things you need to improve, while staying healthy (injury-free) enough to continue to do the things you love.
Stop doing things for the sake of doing them, and start asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’
- When is the most ideal time to train for you?
- Figure out how frequently you can train
- Organize your training sessions to make them more effective
- Use paired sets to save time when you can — For Example Skill Based 2×2 Training
- When time is of the essence, use compound exercises (move a lot of muscle at multiple joints) more than isolation exercises (one joint exercises like leg curls or arm curls).
- Use isolation exercises only as needed. To zero in selectively on problem areas. i.e. areas you'd like to improve that aren't being brought up by compound exercises.
Train Movements Before Muscles
*Unless muscles is the goal. Then train muscles first. That's one such caveat I alluded to above.
You can use machines if you want (they are often a good place to start) but if you value coordination, skill development and joint health you'll probably want to eventually mix in more coordination oriented neuromuscular work down the road.
A limitation of fixed axis machines is a lack of variance in load distribution. Unless you have access to a wide variety of machines (some gyms offer this) then it's easy to fall into a fixed pattern lacking movement variability that increases the odds of an repetitive strain issue down the road.
*Pulley based machines tend to be more forgiving in this manner due to less stability.
Don't get me wrong, there is the same potential limitation with any tool, but it's less so because the path of movement has more variance with a barbell than fixed axis machine. And a dumbbell has more variance than a barbell and so on and so forth. It's generally a good idea to mix up the tools you use to train.
You’re best bet is to preferentially train large compound movements first in your sessions. These are movements that utilize large movement patterns and consequently require a lot of muscle and energy expenditure.
Doing a variety of these movements properly also generally leads to injury prevention in other activities too.
I recommend learning the following movements:
- Squat (Bodyweight Prisoner, Goblet, Skater, Front, etc…)
- Hip Hinge (Cable Pull-Through, Dumbbell, Single Leg, etc…)
- Step/Lunge (Split-Squat, Reverse Lunge, Fwd Lunge, Step Up, Cossack, etc…)
- Press (Could be as simple as learning how to do a proper push-up)
- Pull (Could be as simple as learning how to do a proper chin-up or inverted body row)
- Stabilize/Carry/Locomotion (Front Plank, Side Plank, Glute Bridge March, Suitcase Carries, even sprinting in a sense, etc…)
- Anti-Rotation/Rotation (AKA Proper Rotation – Deadbug, Crawling, Chops, Lifts, Pallof Press, etc…)
Strength training is a set of skills you can use for a lifetime. Understand these basics and you can use any tool you want in the future to execute them. Foundational movements like these make advanced multi-planar variations far easier to learn later.
Then add muscle specific work at the end, once you’ve taken care of your movement work – *again, unless your goal is to improve muscle size of a specific muscle, or area or something; Then you might want to consider making that the first thing you do.
Meaning if you want to improve how something smaller looks or performs, like the calves or your biceps. Then add some specific isolation work for those areas if you want after you did everything else, assuming those muscles aren't your top priority. More of a 'nice-to-have.'
Paired Sets or Tri-Sets to Optimize
Rather than doing a set of squats and waiting the 90 seconds typically recommended before doing another set, optimize your training sessions by alternating upper with lower body movements in a supersetting type fashion.
I outline all of this in the very basic beginner/intermediate training template: Skill Based Twin Pairing Training
And if you’re curious about some of research behind this kind of training, check this out.
However, quickly, the notation will typically look like this:
A1) Front Squats
Or This for Tri-Sets:
1A) Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
1B) Feet Elevated Push-Up
1C) Reverse Crunch
This will maximize your time efficiency, while providing ample rest and recovery between efforts. By training muscle groups during your rest period that aren't being used in the other lifts (or minimally used), you can shorten your workouts, without a drop-off in performance or results.
I’m partial to paired sets more than tri-sets for the beginner because the tri-set requires a little more know-how for good implementation.
You don’t want too much interference between exercises that are chosen, so having a decent understanding of anatomy is more important for tri-sets than it is for paired sets.
Paired sets are easy to just use an upper and lower body exercise paired together. Just avoid too many exercises that require a good grip and you might want to avoid it for really heavy lifting (like powerlifting training or olympic lifting training; 1-4 rep kind of work).
*With 1-2 days rest between…
Body part splits are popular in the bodybuilding community, but are they really that useful for the natural amateur lifter?
Read this article for clarification.
Total body routines — or at least only 2 day splits — give you a more frequent/continuous stimulus and higher frequency tends to lead to better improvements.
I rarely recommend anything more than a 2-day split, like an upper/lower split, or the X-Split. However, you can go that route if you’re really into resistance training and want to do it more frequently.
For instance, research indicates that you get better results doing an exercise for 1 set, spread out over three days a week, than you do doing 3 sets for one day a week.
Makes perfect sense really, at about the point where you’re body would start deconditioning from the initial bout of strength training, you hit it with another mild stress of training. The flaw of such research is that few people will do only 1 set, but it still makes sense to train the same muscles more than once a week all the same.
If you waited a week until your next training bout a week later, like many bodybuilding programs recommend, you will be losing strength and gains for days after the initial adaptation, before your next bout.
Frankly most of those programs are designed with geared (read: steroid users) trainees in mind, where the program doesn’t matter nearly as much as the gear. You can thrash your body on gear every single set and still recover, that doesn't happen for the rest of us.
For normal trainees, training more consistently but with less volume provides a more constant stimulus which generally leads to a better result in most people — at least until you’re so advanced you’re competing in a bodybuilding show or powerlifting competition…
Most beginners I find are better off keeping things simple, and full-body training is as simple as it gets. Until such time as they don't think they can complete enough work in a session to move them towards their goals.
You should always take a day off per week from all deliberate training. We call it an ‘Active Rest Day,’ which basically means go for a walk or a hike and do some mobility work instead, play with your kids but don't do any formal exercise.
i.e. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday are NMSD days! You can however, train ESD in between to great results.
Alternate Perceived Effort
Depending on Goals Each Day, Week or Month
As opposed to traditional planning sequences that plan everything out to the letter for you, telling you exactly what to do and when, most trainees would be better served by learning to tap into how their body feels on certain days and modifying the intensity based on that internal feedback mechanism: Biofeedback.
This is often referred to as ‘auto-regulation‘ training, meaning you automatically adjust how you train based on how you feel or by tracking metrics related to nervous system fatigues — for example an athlete might track heart rate variability (HRV), as measure of recovery.
I'm very fond of a type of training called Auto-regulation Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE).
Honestly that’s what happens when you let researchers name things, but the little research that has been done on it, shows that it’s more effective than linear progression models — the defacto standard in classic program planning, and basically the monthly cycle I’ll discuss below.
I’ll write a blog post on it some day...
Anyway, you could use something else too, like your vertical jump. After your warm-up, simply test your vertical jump and compare it to previous attempts:
- If you’re close to the same, you’re probably ready to train moderately, maybe heavy/hard
- If you’re below (2″ or more difference typically) then you might want to take it easy — higher reps, leave a few reps in the tank
- If you’re above your normal (2″ or more), then you should probably train hard/heavy that day
The other terminology for it might be Flexible Undulating Periodization — a fancy word for flexible planning that cycles intensity depending on the likelihood of you training well that day or not.
Whatever you call it, it's one part science, one part art.
You only need a certain minimum number of sets for each exercise in most cases (I'm inclined to say at least 2) and a certain level of proximity to failure (depending on goals) with progressive overload applied consistently as a trend.
Your proximity to failure is what will determine the true rate of perceived effort on the day and is the real gauge of the subsequent recovery you'll need.
If you train to absolute failure, that's a 'very hard day,' and you might need up to 72-96 hours of recovery time.
If you train to technical failure (my typical recommendation, see the proximity to failure article above), that's a 'hard day' but your recovery time is likely to be under 72 hours and closer to 48 depending on some other factors.
If you're 3-5 reps away from failure all the time (as you might want to be for some strength work) then that's probably medium day, so 36-48 hours is likely more in the ball park.
Anything lighter than this is an active recovery day and can probably be done daily, or near daily.
Adjusting your training to suit your day-to-day (or week-to-week or month-to-month if you insist) life stress, just makes sense.
For beginners I recommend a 5-8 rep range for the first 1-2 months (maybe first 3-4 months even) to get a handle on the exercises above. Once you’re past that initial prep phase though, you can go up or down depending on your skill.
This is actually my most frequently recommended rep range most of the time, depending on your goals.
If you want to build more strength you skew lower, if you want to give your joints a bit of a break you skew higher (<12-15) and anything higher than that is predominantly muscular endurance training.
If you're also an endurance athlete or something, you don't need more of that high rep training.
Consider altering your perceived effort in a training session based on how you feel. Go close to technical or absolute failure on days you feel better and know you have time to recover. Back off on days you don't.
Day 1 = Light Effort Day: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, with 3-5 reps in the tank on all exercises
Day 2 = Medium Effort Day: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, with 1-2 reps in the tank on all exercises
Day 3 = Heavy Effort Day: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, going to absolute failure on the last set of each exercise
Similar approach applied as a weekly cycle:
Week 1 = Light Week: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, with 3-5 reps in the tank on all exercises
Week 2 = Medium Week: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, with 1-2 reps in the tank on all exercises
Week 3 = Heavy Week: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, going to absolute failure on the last set of each exercise
Program lighter weeks to build into the heavier weeks so you manage soreness and feel good the whole way. And it doesn't have to be 3 week cycles like above either.
I find this effort-based weekly approach useful for women in particular, who tend to train more optimally based around their natural menstruation cycle on a week-by-week basis. We hit things hard when they are feeling good, and back off when they aren't.
It’s not useful to try and train hard when you’re having a bad week.
Or a monthly cycle:
Month 1 = Light Month: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, with 3-5 reps in the tank on all exercises
Month 2 = Medium Month: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, with 1-2 reps in the tank on all exercises
Month 3 = Heavy Month: 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps, going to absolute failure on the last set of each exercise
This is a great approach if you've taken an extended amount of time off of training recently (more than a month) and are returning to training.
It's also very similar to traditional linear training, but instead of changing rep ranges (what I used to, and many coaches still do) to light, medium and heavy, we use something more individual. Perceived Exertion, Reps in Reserve, or Reps to Failure.
Once someone gets into the rhythm of training consistently, I tend to favour daily or weekly cycles of this nature for most people. It allows you to factor in life events, and adjust more adequately.
However, monthly can be an easy way for some people to manage training too. And realistically speaking, a lot of people can stretch these 'monthly' cycles out for longer, the newer they are to training, upwards of 6-12 weeks sometimes.
Programs Should Cycle
This is really in the same vein as my last thought. You may also want to consider consider cycling volume, intensity and/or exercises at some point, in addition to altering your perceived effort.
You don’t necessarily want to cycle everything at the same time, but you could. I find it’s easier to think about one or two at a time at most. Lately I've been putting a stronger effort on exercise variety and perceived effort/proximity to failure as a cornerstone elements to consider.
But volume is a strong consideration as well, because it's one of the easiest ways to manage soreness. One of the easiest ways to cycle a program is to simply add a set every week for 4 weeks.
This would look something like:
- Week 1 – 1 sets of 6 reps
- Week 2 – 2 sets of 6 reps
- Week 3 – 3 sets of 6 reps
- Week 4 – 4 sets of 6 reps
From there you can hold that number of sets if you're still making progress (maybe even go a bit higher, if you want – generally speaking, I don't see much point of doing more than 6 sets in this particular rep range.
Or change the exercise to something similar (but not the same) and cycle back to something like this:
- Week 1 – 2 sets of 6 reps
- Week 2 – 3 sets of 6 reps
- Week 3 – 4 sets of 6 reps
- Week 4 – 5 sets of 6 reps
That Week 1, acts as a deload (or bit of a taper even) week. Or a period of time to give your body some additional recovery after the significantly higher volume you did on the last week of the program.
The first week of a new phase of programming might (generally will, if you are getting a program from me) feature new exercises often requires new motor learning, and new exercises are what make people sore.
These periodic "deloads" becomes more important the more experience you develop.
You don’t have to do 4 week cycles, it’s just easy to keep that in mind as it’s roughly a month. It's just enough time to get familiar with a program, but not so long, that you get bored.
*As above, you can probably stretch these out further to 6-8 weeks, or even beyond if you want — especially if you’re still making progress. This caveat applies more to new trainees and those chasing muscle growth.
This is simplistic for a weekly cycle, but easy to follow right?
It doesn’t quite follow the 10% volume increases I was taught in school, but it’s close enough, doesn’t involve too much math, and much easier to explain to clients.
When you’re done a 4 week block, you could simply change the exercises, or you could change the exercises and maybe the intensity (rep range), or you could just change the intensity. All are simple and valid ways to mix your training up in a productive manner.
General Rule of thumb: Change your programming up every month (or two) or so. That length of time in a program is called a 'phase' or programming, or more technically described as a 'mesocycle.'
If you’re opting for a daily cycle, then you probably want to ramp up over the course of that first week (assuming you're using the same workout for each day) before you start dramatically scaling up your perceived effort or proximity to failure
- Week 1, Workout #1 – 1 sets of 6 reps (3-5 reps in the tank)
- Week 1, Workout #2 – 2 sets of 6 reps (3-5 reps in the tank)
- Week 1, Workout #3 – 3 sets of 6 reps (3-5 reps in the tank)
- Week 2, Workout #1 – 4 sets of 6 reps (3-5 reps in the tank)
- Week 2, Workout #2– 4 sets of 6 reps (1-3 reps in the tank)
- Week 2, Workout #3 – 4 sets of 6 reps (1-3 reps in the tank)
- Week 3, Workout #1 – 4 sets of 6 reps (1-2 reps in the tank)
- Week 2, Workout #3 – 4 sets of 6 reps (1-2 reps in the tank)
- Week 4, Workout #1 – 4 sets of 6 reps (0-1 rep in the tank)
- Week 4, Workout #1 – 4 sets of 6 reps (0-1 reps in the tank)
- Week 4, Workout #1 – 4 sets of 6 reps (0-1 reps in the tank)
The above doesn't work very well on a monthly schedule, because it doesn't take a month to adapt to 1 set. You probably want to cycle the volume up weekly, or even daily (if you're using the same workout each time), rather than monthly.
Your monthly considerations instead should be:
- What exercises am I going to use this month based on my goals?
- What's the rep range I'm going to use based on my goals?
- What's the exercise order I'm going to use this month based on my goals?
- What volumes do I need to hit based on my goals?
- What joints/muscles ache currently and need a break for the next phase?
- What worked well last month? What didn't work well?
- Let the results of the last phase, dictate the direction this new phase takes.
Programs Should Progress
Most people presume this to mean that the program should continually get harder and harder, but by progress I mean more that you should just aim to challenge yourself on a fairly regular basis using whatever metric you’ve chosen as the goal of the phase of programming you’re in.
As I've said, monthly is easiest, but you're not bound by that timeline.
If the goal of this month’s training is to increase strength then you should be working to increase load at every workout (if you can).
If the goal is to improve muscular endurance, then you should be aiming to increase the number of reps you do with a given load.
If your goal is to improve power, then you should be aiming to to measure/track power output somehow.
If the goal is increased muscle mass, or fat loss, well how are you tracking that?
If the goal is to keep yourself interested, then maybe it's learning new exercise or movement skills?
Whatever it is, it should fall into what I call the, “Goldilocks zone.” Not too hard, not too easy, just right for you. That's a skill in and of itself. One I spend nearly my first decade getting comfortable with and I'm still constantly tweaking all the time 23 years after I started lifting.
The Japanese call this Kaizen, or "Continuous Improvement." It's a life philosophy.
Try to move just a little more weight each time you head to the gym, or do a few more reps, just don’t get stuck or fixated on lifting a specific weight for each of the days I mention above. You'll have bad days, and good days.
You should note when you’re not feeling up to the task of linear continual progress, and you have my permission to back off a bit.
Maybe last weeks numbers are good today because you didn’t sleep that well, didn’t eat that well or you’re really stressed at work. Think about these things before you train and while you train.
That’s why I favour auto-regulation; true linear progress is a bit of a pipe dream in a biological system. Meaning, it never really happens.
Think of training programs more like flexible guidelines, rather than hard rules.
Too many people get stuck in attempting to do exactly what’s written on a page, rather than learning how to adapt to how they feel that day. Your goal with a program (should you choose to accept it) is to stay within it's guidelines as consistently as possible.
You don't have to be perfect, just consistent.
You won’t always see a linear curve of improvement, but as the workouts change or progress, you should probably experience some gradual gains over that 4 week period, before you move onto to new stuff the following month.
You want to see progress over the long term, but you want to give yourself a little breathing room on days you don’t feel so awesome.
Likewise, feel free to hammer it, on days you feel awesome!
Simply changing the programs up a little every month, means you have new things to make progress on. You want progress (add load, increase reps, whatever metric you’re using to track improvement), but you also need to cycle.
Improvement isn’t finite either, it doesn’t have to be measurable to be an improvement, maybe the same workout just felt easier this week than last, or you felt the right muscles working better, or you thought your form felt better.
I think numbers combined with those things is a better way to track overall, but numbers don’t necessarily register well with everyone either.
Challenge yourself when the opportunity presents itself, just don’t do anything that would jeopardize your safety.
You’ll always have things to work on.
Learn How to Ramp
Realistically speaking there are lots of ways to load over the course of sets.
For instance, you can use a descending pyramid → Ramp the weight up via a couple of warm-up sets to hit your max ability that day for your target rep range. Then take weight off as your performance dwindles (i.e. you can't complete the same number of reps with that highest weight) until all your work sets are completed.
It can be a little psychologically defeating, to get worse as the sets progress. But this is a great approach for muscle mass gains a lot of the time because it maximizes the number of effective or stimulating repetitions.
However, if you had a strength, performance or health objective I'm a bigger fan of trying to end every exercise on a high note. It just lifts your mood better.
Rather than lowering the weight to complete the numbers of sets I’m hoping for, I'm trying tweak the weight I'm using just right so that my last set is my best set instead. It's a little more challenging to gauge internally, but more psychologically rewarding.
In both examples, you are slowly ramping the weight up that you use, it's just a question of where the hardest set will be in the grand scheme of things.
Too many people pick a weight they think they will be able to do for 3 sets of 10 and start with that weight (no warm-up) and then keep that weight the same throughout the workout.
They often fail to finish sets and reps because they were overly ambitious, or fail to adequately stress the muscles/tissues involved because they were too conservative.
In my experience, men are more guilty of the former, women the latter. Not always, but usually. By learning to ramp the weight up, you avoid both errors in judgement.
Always use the first 1-2 months of programming to gauge a ramping sequence that works for you.
I generally encourage people to conservatively pick a weight they think they can lift for the prescribed number of repetitions. Then don't stop if you can do more reps than you were asked to do, keep going until you reach the desired proximity to failure.
If you did substantially more than you expected, add moderate amounts of weight roughly 5-10 lbs for dumbbells, 4-8kg for kettlebells, 10-20 lbs for barbells; give-or-take – to the tool you're using before your next attempt.
If you only did a little more than you expected, consider adding a smaller amount of weight each set — roughly 2.5-5 lbs for dumbbells, 2-4kg for kettlebells, 5-10 lbs for barbells; give-or-take.
You alter the resistance based on performance to gradually ramp up and possibly even not hit your true max on your last set. If that happens, at least you now know you can at least do X weight for Y number of repetitions. That last set of the day, makes for a higher target the next time you train this workout.
If you overshoot, then the reverse is true. Overshoot by a lot, and consider stripping off a moderate amount of weight. Overshoot by a little, and consider stripping off a little weight instead. Modify the next workout accordingly, depending on your philosophical approach.
This effectively ramps you up to your ideal weight, and then modulates that weight based on your performance for the day.
For more on how to properly manipulate the resistances you're using, read this article:
Train 4-12 Exercises
Keep it simple, and use a relatively low number of exercises to start. You can always add exercises later to target areas of need, if you have the time.
Remember, I recommend training at a frequency of greater than 2x a week per muscle groups (if you can!). That means the stimulus is going to be more continuous than someone doing the whole frankenstein '1-body-part-per-day' approach.
Even if you use 2 day split, the volume should end up lower than most frankenstein once-a-week bodybuilding workouts you read in magazines.
It’s very effective doing something as simple as this:
- A1) Rack Pull
- A2) Single Arm Dumbbell (DB) Bench Press
- B1) Reverse DB Lunge
- B2) Inverted Body Row
Actually that’s pretty much a Skill Based Twin Pairing Training (TPT) program right there.
You can add things sure, but I tend to view those additions as akin to icing on the cake. The cake will be fine without them, but it's better with icing, so you may want to spend some additional time on any weak areas.
It’s much easier to add exercises if it doesn’t feel like enough training; Than it is, to come back from overtraining after doing too much.
Of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions. For instance, tthe occasional metabolic resistance training circuits or complexes, which often become more ESD than NMSD and might feature a higher number of exercises than typical resistance training focused work would.
There are a handful of special considerations, but for the most part, it’s a base of 3-4 exercises and another 3-4 exercises to address smaller muscles that can get overlooked with compound lifts – core, hip flexors, hamstring flexion, shoulders, arms, calves, wrists/grip, etc…
With a good warm up, I expect a basic TPT can be done in about 30-40 minutes, depending on the volume (# of sets) you opt for. If you go with 2, which is just fine for health objectives, then you might be able to finish in under 30 minutes, or even closer to 20 minutes with a quick 5 minute warm-up.
Additional accessory movements beyond that typically only if you have time. I often include stuff as "Optional" at the end of programs I design.
The longest I think most sessions should be is about an hour. Unless you're a powerlifter or something, in which case upwards of 90 minutes might be your norm because of all the sets and long rests.
I program accessory movements often to improve imbalances or weaknesses, or if you want aesthetics now’s the time to add that too. Sometimes those things can be addressed in the warm-up itself too. You'd be surprised.
Most of the training days in the programs I design for intermediate lifters are more like 6-8 exercises as the foundation.
Order Exercises Hardest to Easiest
Or most technical to least technical.
This also means that most explosive training (speed-oriented) movements — think sprinting, Olympic Lifting or Plyometrics — are done first and then your most strength oriented — the heaviest stuff, so a 5 rep back squat should go before a 12 rep push-up — work will be done in the workout.
The stuff that requires less technical ability like single joint exercises and is more fatigue resistant — like glycolytic or aerobic ESD — is better served left to the end, if you’re doing them same day anyway.
*Note: Sometimes it’s worthwhile to switch that order, depending on the training objectives. If you want big biceps, arm curls are probably necessary and might warrant being first in the sequence. This is just my generalized rule remember.
“When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” ~Bruce Lee
In our case, water flows from the fastest to slowest movements; From the hardest to the easiest; From the most technical to the least technical; From the heaviest to the lightest: From the most compound to the most isolated.
Working the other way doesn’t work as effectively for all the physical qualities involved, unless your training objectives revolve around improving a quality that’s further downstream.
For instance, you’re an amateur runner who’s lifting and running on the same day. In this case, it might make sense to run first and do lifting second, because running performance is the goal.
Running is your sport, which makes it the most technical and therefore the most important thing to train.
Otherwise, do your ‘cardio‘ or ‘conditioning‘ after you lift — just not your speed training. i.e. I wouldn't do sprint intervals for conditioning after I lifted and running in general is more technical than most people think. Cycling, rowing, elliptical, up-hill walking, even swimming, have at er! None of them are impact-oriented.
- A) 5 x 20 m sprints, with 2 minutes recovery between attempts (active mobility between sets)
- B1) Jump Squats for 5 reps
- B2) Medicine Ball Soccer (Overhead) Throw for 5 Reps
- C1) Deadlift for 5 Reps
- C2) DB Overhead Press for 5 Reps
- D1) Reverse Lunges for 8 Reps
- D2) Ab Roll-Outs for 8 Reps
- D1) Face-pulls for 12 Reps
- D2) Waiter Walks for 40 meters
- E) 4 minutes of Stationary Bike Tabata Protocol (rest 5 minutes before F)
- F) 20 minutes of steady state aerobic work on the bike when you're done
That’s a pretty long, very convoluted example, that you will likely never see programmed. At least not by me. I simply wanted to touch on all the key considerations made when designing a program – Speed → Strength → Hypertrophy → Endurance → Conditioning...
Rarely will a training session try to train all physical qualities like the one above, on the same day. It’s better to distribute them over a few training sessions.
i.e. You’re more likely to see something like: sprinting with some olympic lifting, a few heavy sets of resistance training and a few accessory movements; Or a few moderate sets of resistance training, with some accessory work, and the tabata protocol to finish. Usually 1-3 qualities is the max I’ll try to hit in the same training session, otherwise I’ll try to break the sessions up in the day.
Train 2-4 Day Per Week
Though one day a week is certainly better than nothing…
The training you actually do will always beat the training you intended to do, but never did.
Two is typically my recommended minimum. However, for weight loss purposes I like to add at least one energy system day, or some energy system work at the end of 1-2 training days at least. If possible.
This depends on schedules though, there are many ways to work it around a schedule, which is indeed the art part (leave a comment if you want a little help).
It could look like 3 NMSD days, 1 ESD day, or 2 and 2, or 3 and 2, or 3 and 3 if you’ve got the time and can make the commitment.
There is an obvious co-relational thing going on between the amount of time you can dedicate and the results you will see, but don’t fool yourself into over-committing, which is psychologically taxing, and is one of the top reasons people quit a program early.
Start small and work up, start with anything, even if it’s only a very short once a week to start.
If you discover that you really really like resistance training, you can do up to 4 (I rarely advise more than that unless you're a big-time enthusiast).
I wouldn’t do 4 full body sessions a week though, so opt for one of the 2-day splits mentioned above if you want to train that much.
There are ways around this, but that’s the basic generalized approach I’d use to start and stick with, until such time that more advanced training methods might be of some use.
NMSD Bullet Points:
- Train Smarter, Not Harder
- Train Movements Before Muscles
- Use Paired Sets or Tri-Sets to Optimize the Time Spent
- Train Full-Body Days (or 2 day splits), with 1-2 days rest between bouts for the same muscles.
- Consider Altering Perceived Effort to a Degree: Daily, Weekly, or Monthly
- Programs Should Cycle Other Things Too (Volume/Exercises, along with Intensity)
- Programs Should Progress (^ load, ^ reps, ^ speed, whatever it is, track it)
- Learn How to Ramp Load Over Multiple Sets and Finish on a High Note
- Train 4-10 exercise (3-4 main lifts, then whatever accessory movements you need/want)
- Order Exercises Hardest to Easiest, Biggest to Smallest, Compound to Isolation
- Do 2-4 days per week if you can, but 1x a week is better than nothing
Have a useful question or comment, have at er. Troll me and be warned…