Overview of men’s weight training programs


Programs for men

As summarized in Table 1, there are three weight training programs for men.

Summary of men's weight training programs

Table 1. Summary of the three weight training programs for men, including each program’s duration, number of workouts per week, approximate workout duration, and whether the program can be repeated several times in succession. The workout duration does not include the warmup and post-workout stretch.

The first program, Muscle and Strength, actually consists of six smaller programs (mesocycles). As its name implies, Muscle and Strength is intended for men who want to develop maximum muscle and strength.

The Men’s Plateau Buster is a stand-alone program that you can use if you ever experience a plateau (a plateau is when you stop making progress due to your body becoming adapted to the training stimulus). Since the program is designed to produce the same results as Muscle and Strength, you can also include it as part of Muscle and Strength and use it after Muscle and Strength 3.

The Men’s Time-Saver is another stand-alone program. It is designed to provide a quick and effective full-body workout for men who have very little time to spare for the gym.

You can complete the training programs at any gym or at home using the following equipment:

  • An adjustable bench
  • A set of dumbbells
  • A barbell
  • A power rack/cage for safety
  • A pull-up bar
  • A multipurpose cable machine OR a set of clip resistance bands
  • Ankle straps
  • An ab wheel (optional)
  • Dip bars (optional)
  • Stability ball (optional)

All of the programs and the way they were designed will be explored in detail below.

General instructions

If a beginner, you should start from the Men’s Beginner mesocycle, after which, depending on your preferences, you can either progress through the other Muscle and Strength mesocycles or jump to the Men’s Time-Saver program.

If experienced, you can start from any mesocycle or program that you choose as long as you meet the suitability criteria (see tables 2 and 3).

Muscle and Strength

Muscle and Strength is a comprehensive long-term weight training program that was meticulously designed to:

  • Build and maintain major muscle mass and strength
  • Strengthen your core, which is important for stability, body-wide strength, power generation, and power transfer
  • Strengthen your body’s primal movement patterns, which is important for functional fitness, balance, coordination, athleticism, and performance
  • Encourage the right strength balances between your opposing muscle groups, which is important for proper posture and movement, and to prevent imbalance-related injuries

The program does this by using, or adhering to, a combination of:

  • Major mass-building compound exercises
  • Functional exercises
  • Undulating periodization
  • Intensity techniques
  • Recommended muscle strength balance ratios

In programming terminology, the long-term Muscle and Strength program is a macrocycle (‘big cycle’). The six individual programs that make up Muscle and Strength (from the Men’s Beginner program to Muscle and Strength 3) are known as mesocycles (‘middle cycles’). Although not expressed in Table 1, most of the mesocycles are themselves divided into microcycles (‘small cycles’). The mesocycles and microcycles incorporate variations in training, which will be explained in the mesocycle overview below.

Muscle and Strength lasts for a minimum of one year and 12 weeks if you move from mesocycle to mesocycle and take a deload week after each one. A deload week is a week during which you either rest or train lightly. However, apart from the Men’s Beginner mesocycle, you do not have to move from one mesocycle straight on to the next one. I balanced the exercises in each mesocycle as best as I could so that you can keep repeating each mesocycle over and over without much of a risk of developing muscular imbalances. As such, you can repeat each mesocycle as many times as you want to before moving on to the next one. This will ensure that you get the most out of each mesocycle and the macrocycle as a whole.

In fact, you don’t have to move on at all. If you enjoy a particular mesocycle, you can stick to it. Provided you keep increasing the amount of weight that you lift, as requested in the instructions of each mesocycle, you should see continual progress for a significant amount of time. Just make sure that you take a deload week before repeating a mesocycle or moving on to the next mesocycle.

Note that the deload weeks are important. Please do not ignore them. They will help you to fully recover and therefore keep making progress. They will also increase your likelihood of not giving up.

Mesocycle overview

Before I provide an overview of each mesocycle (Table 2), I remind you that training in different rep ranges leads to the development of different muscle properties. This was explained in How many sets and reps should you do?, in the Weight Training Guide.

More specifically:

  • Using a weight with which you can perform 13–20 reps in good form is optimal for developing muscular endurance
  • Using a weight with which you can only perform 6–12 reps in good form (i.e. a heavy weight) is optimal for developing muscular size
  • Using a weight with which you can only perform 2–6 reps in good form (i.e. a very heavy weight) is optimal for developing muscular strength

Men’s Beginner

Focusing mostly on the 13+ rep range, the 12-week Men’s Beginner mesocycle is designed to build a strong foundation of muscular endurance upon which muscular size and strength can be built in the more advanced mesocycles. It is intended for beginners, lifters who have less than three months of consistent weight training experience, and experienced lifters who haven’t trained for over three months.

Rep ranges of men's weight training programs

Table 2. The rep ranges and intensity techniques of each mesocycle, along with the level of experience required to start from the mesocycle.

Muscle 1

The 6-week Muscle 1 mesocycle starts to build muscular size, as derived from the 9–11 rep range. It also incorporates an intensity technique known as superset training. You can start from this mesocycle without having to go through the Men’s Beginner mesocycle only if you have at least three months of consistent weight training experience.

Muscle 2

The 8-week Muscle 2 mesocycle is composed of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11 and 6–8 rep ranges. While both rep ranges are for developing muscular size, the 6–8 rep range helps to develop more strength. This mesocycle includes an intensity technique known as training to failure. You can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least six months of consistent training experience.

Muscle and Strength 1

The 12-week Muscle and Strength 1 mesocycle consists of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11, 6–8, and 3–5 rep ranges. The first two rep ranges are for building muscle; the last rep range is for developing muscular strength. The mesocycle also includes an intensity technique called dropset training. You can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least nine months of consistent weight training experience.

Muscle and Strength 2

Like the Muscle and Strength 1 mesocycle, the 9-week Muscle and Strength 2 mesocycle consists of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11, 6–8, and 3–5 rep ranges for developing both muscular size and strength. It includes an intensity technique known as rest–pause training. You can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least 12 months of consistent training experience.

Muscle and Strength 3

Although the 12-week Muscle and Strength 3 mesocycle also comprises microcycles that alternate between the 9–11, 6–8, and 3–5 rep ranges, it is different from the other mesocycles in that all of the exercises are arranged into supersets. As such, the workouts are more intense and quicker to complete. You can start from this mesocycle only if you have at least 12 months of consistent weight training experience.

Why alternate between rep ranges?

Most weight training programs that you have come across have probably followed either no progression or a linear progression through rep ranges, beginning with 13–20 (for muscular endurance), moving on to 6–12 (for muscular size), and maybe ending with 2–6 (for muscular strength). This arrangement is known as linear periodization. The problem with linear periodization is that, when you move from one rep range to another, you start to lose the properties that you developed in the previous rep range. My programs are based on an arrangement called undulating periodization, wherein the rep ranges are maintained as you progress and alternated in microcycles. This ensures that, as you progress, the properties that you developed in previous mesocycles (endurance, size, or strength) are not only maintained but also continually developed while you also develop new properties. Note that only the size and strength rep ranges are maintained, not the endurance rep range.

Overview of the other training programs for men

Men’s Plateau Buster

The 9-week Men’s Plateau Buster is your weapon for breaking out of plateaus, should they occur. You can also use it as if it’s the seventh Muscle and Strength mesocycle, and you can repeat it as many times as you want to.

As with the advanced Muscle and Strength mesocycles, the Men’s Plateau Buster consists of microcycles that alternate between the 9–11, 6–8, and 3–5 rep ranges (Table 3). The difference is that most of the exercises are arranged in accordance with an advanced intensity protocol known as pre-exhaustion training, which will ensure that you partially exhaust prime mover muscles using isolation exercises before you move on to the main compound exercises. Pre-exhaustion of prime movers makes them work much harder during the compound exercises, thus amplifying the stimulus for development and increasing your chances of kick-starting stunted progress.

If you’re new to weight training and follow the Muscle and Strength program, you will almost certainly not need this program as a plateau buster for at least a couple of years. However, if you ever do need it, it should ensure that you keep making progress.

Rep ranges of Mens Plateau Buster and Mens Time-Saver programs

Table 3. The rep ranges and intensity techniques of the Men’s Plateau Buster and Men’s Time-Saver programs, along with the level of experience required to start from each program.

Men’s Time-Saver

The 12-week Men’s Time-Saver program is for you if you don’t have much time for workouts. Alternating between the 9–11 and 6–8 rep ranges, the workouts include the bare minimum of exercises and sets necessary to get an effective full-body workout. What’s more, the exercises are arranged into supersets, which means that you can fly through them very rapidly.

You can repeat the Men’s Time-Saver program as many times as you want to. If a beginner, ideally, before you start the program, you should have completed at least microcycles 1 through 3 of the Men’s Beginner mesocycle. As with the Men’s Time-Saver workouts, the workouts of microcycles 1 through 3 of the Men’s Beginner mesocycle are short, and they will help you to develop a small foundation of muscular endurance upon which the Men’s Time-Saver program can build.

How the programs were designed

Exercise selection

The purpose of all of the training programs for men is to build and maintain muscle mass and strength, strengthen the core, strengthen the body’s primal movement patterns, and encourage the right strength balances between opposing muscle groups. Most of the exercises were selected to fulfill those objectives. However, some exercises were included to serve other purposes, such as to prepare you in one mesocycle to move on to more advanced exercises in the following mesocycle, or simply to add variation to the workouts to keep you engaged.

Exercises for maximum muscle and strength

To maximize gains in muscle and strength, I ensured that the programs are dominated by major compound exercises (for example, the barbell squat and barbell deadlift). Compound exercises simultaneously target multiple muscles and involve the movement of two or more joints (or pairs of joints). They are different from isolation exercises (for example, the dumbbell curl and dumbbell lateral raise), which target fewer muscles (sometimes only one) and involve the movement of only one joint (or one pair of joints). Focusing on major compound exercises ensures that you:

  • Stimulate simultaneous growth in the maximum number of muscles
  • Flood your body with testosterone and human growth hormone, which will boost the development of muscle and strength throughout your entire body
  • Strengthen your base and core, which will help you to lift even more weight and thus feed the cycle of growth

All of this will ensure that you pack on the most amount of muscle and strength, and get maximum results in the least amount of time.

Another benefit of compound exercises is that their movements are more natural than the movements of isolation exercises, which means that they are much better at improving your functional fitness, balance, coordination, athleticism, and performance. What’s more, compound exercises provide a better cardiorespiratory workout.

Exercises to strengthen primal movement patterns

Functional fitness is the kind of fitness that is useful outside of the gym, in everyday activities. You develop functional fitness by strengthening the ways in which your body is designed to move.

The ways in which your body is designed to move can be broken down into seven ‘primal’ movement patterns:

  1. Squatting
  2. Lunging (forward, sideways, or backward)
  3. Hinging at the hips
  4. Pushing (horizontally or vertically)
  5. Pulling (horizontally or vertically)
  6. Twisting
  7. Walking/Jogging/Running (gait)

You use these primal movement patterns in various combinations every day of your life. By strengthening them, you not only develop a functionally strong body but also:

  • Enhance your motor control, coordination, balance, and flexibility
  • Become more equipped for everyday activities
  • Improve your overall fitness, athleticism, and performance

Unfortunately, most training programs that you encounter do not cover these movement patterns. Instead, they focus on training muscles, often in isolation, which is not how the body is designed to work. Rest assured that the weight training programs on this website, together with the circuit training program in the Cardio Training Programs section, incorporate effective functional training and give you the benefits outlined above.

Exercises to strengthen your core

An important element of having a functionally strong body is to have a strong core. Your core isn’t just your rectus abdominis and lower back; it’s your entire torso, especially all of the deep muscles that attach to your spinal column and pelvis. Your core muscles help to:

  • Stabilize your body when you lift
  • Transfer weight from one side of your body to the other
  • Transfer weight from your lower body to your upper body, and vice versa

Your core is also where you generate much of your power. As such, it acts as your power base, power transfer center, and stabilization facility. Having a strong core is therefore of major importance for progress and overall fitness and athleticism.

Proper core training involves performing a range of major compound and functional exercises designed to strengthen both the deep and superficial muscles of the core, ideally, both dynamically and isometrically. All of the weight training programs on this website incorporate effective dynamic core training, while some also include isometric core training.

Balancing the exercises

When training, it’s important to develop a balanced musculature. Ideally, opposing muscle groups (for example, the flexors and extensors of your elbow) should adhere to recommended muscle strength balance ratios. The reason is that, if opposing muscle groups develop significant differences in strength, performance can be jeopardized and the risk of sustaining injuries and developing problems related to muscle tightness, joint instability, posture, and gait can be increased.

Athletes prevent or fix imbalances in opposing muscle strength by approaching a personal trainer, who identifies the strength ratios of opposing muscle groups using one-repetition maximum testing and then prescribes a training program to fix any imbalances or ensure that imbalances are not developed. The least you can do as a gym-goer and fitness enthusiast who cares about his physique is follow weight training programs that are relatively balanced in terms of exercise selection, training volume and training intensity, thus reducing your likelihood of developing or exacerbating imbalances. This is especially important if you’re going to repeat the programs over and over again.

In order to reduce your likelihood of developing imbalances while using my programs, I designed them in accordance with the muscle strength balance ratios recommended by the International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA; Table 4).

International Fitness Professionals Association muscle strength balance ratios

Table 4. Muscle strength balance ratios recommended by the IFPA.

The strategy that I used was to:

  • Make note of the target and synergistic muscles of each exercise, as revealed on ExRx.net
  • Ensure that the exercises, rep ranges, and number of sets prescribed for opposing muscle groups approximately satisfy the above ratios

For example, since the strength of your elbow flexors and elbow extensors should be equal, I tried to ensure that the exercises, rep ranges, and number of sets prescribed for these muscle groups deliver approximately equal muscular overload.

Note that balancing the Men’s Beginner program wasn’t as important as balancing the other programs, because the Men’s Beginner program isn’t intended to be repeated over and over again and is designed to prepare you for the subsequent programs. Even so, it is still relatively balanced.

Summary of programming rules and objectives

When designing the training programs for men, I tried to follow or satisfy the following rules and objectives.

  • Train all muscle groups at least twice a week
  • Strengthen all primal movement patterns using compound and functional exercises
  • Prescribe exercises, sets, and rep ranges for opposing muscle groups in accordance with recommended muscle strength balance ratios
  • Undulate rep ranges to simultaneously develop multiple muscle properties and maintain properties developed in previous mesocycles
  • Strengthen the core using compound, functional, and unilateral exercises
  • Train the core dynamically and isometrically
  • Only include exercises the equipment for which should be available in any gym
  • Incorporate exercise variation to maintain engagement
  • Avoid exercises that have a high risk-to-benefit ratio, such as the close-grip upright row and behind-the-neck pulls and presses
  • Generally favor free-weight exercises over machine exercises
  • Avoid overworking the supraspinatus muscle, which is a common mistake
  • Train large muscle groups before small muscle groups
  • Prescribe more sets for large muscle groups than for small muscle groups
  • If a muscle has multiple heads, include exercises that emphasize each head
  • Train large heads of individual muscles before small heads
  • Keep workouts to approximately 18 sets (the more advanced workouts include up to 21 sets)
  • Force gradual but definite progress from mesocycle to mesocycle
  • Ensure adequate rest by enforcing regular deload weeks

Alternative exercises

If you get bored of an exercise or if you can’t perform one of the exercises for some reason, I have provided suitable alternatives below that maintain a similar balance. Note that if you read the Muscle Activation Guide, you will have a better understanding of muscle targeting, after which you will be able to identify alternative exercises by yourself.

Legs and glutes

  • Hyperextension — Straight-leg deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift — Cable pull-through
  • Squat — Front squat — Hack squat — Sumo squat — Zercher squat — Jefferson squat
  • Forward/Rear/Side lunge — Step-up — Split squat — Bulgarian split squat
  • Lying leg curl — Seated leg curl — Inverse leg curl
  • Machine standing calf raise — Standing one-leg dumbbell calf raise — Leg-press calf press
  • Barbell hip thrust — Barbell glute bridge

Back

  • Lat pull-down — Pull-up
  • Close neutral-grip lat pull-down — Underhand lat pull-down — Chin-up
  • Bent-over dumbbell row — Barbell row — T-bar row — Inverted row — Straight-back seated cable row

Chest

  • Bench press — Push-up — Cable/Machine chest press
  • Incline reverse-grip bench press — Incline bench press — Decline push-up — Pike push-up
  • Incline cable fly — Incline dumbbell fly

Shoulders

  • Overhead press — Shoulder press — Arnold press — Pike press
  • Cable face pull — Dumbbell face pull — Cuban rotation
  • Lying dumbbell external shoulder rotation — Cable external shoulder rotation

Arms

  • Triceps rope push-down — Dumbbell/Cable kickback — Triceps overhead extension — Lying triceps extension — Skull crusher
  • Triceps dip — Bench dip — Diamond push-up — Close-grip bench press/push-up
  • Dumbbell/Barbell curl — EZ bar curl (bar must have minimal camber)
  • Preacher curl — Concentration curl
  • Hammer curl — Reverse curl

Core

  • Front plank — Ab walkout — Inch worm — Wheel rollout
  • Cable wood chop — Weighted Russian twist — Weighted lying oblique twist
  • Lying leg raise — Hanging leg raise — Captain’s chair leg raise
  • Lying straight leg raise — Hanging straight leg raise — Captain’s chair straight leg raise
  • Lying leg and hip raise — Hanging leg and hip raise — Captain’s chair leg and hip raise