The first step of writing a good lifting routine is setting straight forward goals. The more specific the goal, the better chances you have to achieve it. A good example would be something like: “I want to be able to deadlift 3 times my bodyweight or do one arm pull-ups“. Those are very direct aims that allow you to have a narrow focus when writing your plan.
On the other hand, goals such as: “I want to be rich and famous.” are too general and often result in the lack of target fire and actual progress. To narrow down your goals, just answer the question: What can I do right now with what I have to get closer to my desires?
When it comes to lifting, I have found the most success with simple routines. By success, I mean getting stronger and/or more skilled at something. I have given up on becoming huge naturally a long time ago, but I still make progress in different strength/skill avenues with the same approach.
Let’s say that you want to improve your pull-up numbers. That’s a very good and specific goal and it’s rather easy to set a good plan for it.
One of the ways to do things would be to simply reduce the number of exercises and/or sets & reps you are doing to make place for more pull-ups. Here’s how a hypothetical routine based around pull-ups could look.
Day 1: Pull-ups, some pushing exercises;
Day 2: Leg Training;
Day 3: Pull-ups, some pushing exercises;
Rest two days and start over.
Pull-ups are done first in your training routine and the frequency is relatively high.
The next step is to add progression. Repeating the same stuff works, only if your goal is to maintain what you currently have. I would even say that you actually still need to do more, even if your goal is simply maintenance. Think of it as earning a salary. As expected, most people make the same amount of money every month for various reasons. The biggest factor is, of course, the fact that salary increases are incredibly rare.
You want more money? Well, there are thousands of people who would do your job for even less than what we’re paying you right now. Go fuck yourself. Next, please!
Thus, most people work for the same amount year after year. Nothing changes. There’s no progression. In fact, the unstoppable inflation actually eats your earnings and you regress. The same happens with your training when you don’t add some sort of progression to it. Below is an example how you can increase your pull-up numbers.
Pull-ups: five sets; 5, 5, 3, 2, 2
Day 2: Legs;
Pull-ups: fives sets; 6, 5, 3, 3, 2
In day two, you just try to add one more rep to what you did the previous workout. That’s one way to do things which will work for a little while. Another approach would be to keep on adding sets while keeping the duration of the workout the same. If it takes you 40 minutes to complete all fives sets, the next time simply add one more sets afterwards while keeping the overall workout length the same. At the end, what’s important is that you do something more. That’s it. That’s what progression is.
We already have a goal, general plan and a progression model. The next thing that needs to be covered is longevity.
Nature says dualism rules. We have nigh and day, waking hours and sleep…you get the idea. To prolong the longevity of a training routine there must be sufficient rest periods and deloads. You cannot be adding more and more until infinity. This is where the good old cycling method comes into play. In our pull-up case you could deload by adding an easy week after 4-8 weeks of progression. You will surprised how stronger you will feel after some rest.
You cannot have it all…
Unfortunately or not, you cannot get really good at many things at once. Doing a ton of exercises is in direct conflict with the concept of having a narrow focus. Thus, sometimes different elements have to take the back seat for a while. There is a sacrifice you have to make.
When I was in high school one of my best classes was actually French language. I was good at it. However, after I graduated I never used it. Because of the way my life went down, I never needed this skill for work. Thus, it was no longer part of my narrow focus and my knowledge has no choice but to deteriorate. To keep my skills, I used to dedicate 10-20 minutes a few times a week just to maintain what I have already built. I guess similar approach is also fine for lifting. Doing a certain skill just enough to maintain it could be very beneficial when you’re focusing on something else. Still, there is no doubt that my French skills are nowhere near what they were when I was in high school. It’s fine though.
What about assistance exercises?
Assistance exercises are fine and can help a lot, but they are only supplementary work and should be treated as such. For example, if your goal is to learn the front lever, which is a good example of strength, balance and skill, what will help you the most is direct training. Still, exercises such as straight arm pull-overs can also be helpful because they strengthen the triceps, elbows and back in position replicating the front lever. However, there are plenty of people who achieve the front lever without ever doing those. In brief, assistance is fine, but it should always compliment your main goal.
Below is a list of assistance exercises that help some of the popular lifts/skills:
Front lever – straight arm pull-overs on a cable machine or with elastic bands, straight arm triceps kick backs, weighted pull-ups, horizontal rows…etc.
Deadlift – front squats, back squats, rows, Romanian deadlifts…etc.
Squat – front squats, back hyper-extensions, good morning…etc
One arm pull-ups – heavy weighted pull-ups, biceps curls…etc.
In all examples the assistance exercises help a direct point of the main lift.
Creating a good and effective lifting routine is quite simple. Set a currently possible narrow goal, make sure you add some form of realistic progression and rest after you have accumulated some fatigue and enjoyed some progress. Then, build back up again and repeat. There are no perfect routines, but all routines that are good answer the mentioned requirements.