Learning to write my own resistance training programs
A book report on Glute Lab: The Art and Science of Strength and Physique Training
In November 2020, I programmed my own training for the first time–ten years after getting serious about fitness.
As it goes with me more often than I care to admit, doing something new brings on a flood of negative emotions.
It’s the regular old imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head.
I can’t do this. I’m going to do it wrong and then fail. I’m not smart enough to figure this out. What if I’m not starting in the right place? What if the book I picked to learn is not the best one?
I don’t know where these emotions come from but if my Freewill Astrology horoscope is tuned into the astrological omens.... The conditions may be ripe for me to figure this out and move on!
Anyway, choosing the right book has been a strange obsession of mine for the longest time.
In my early 20s, I would get caught up in a nasty spin trying to decide what to read as if my decision was going to cement my future success or not. I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot of great books.
The Book I Started With
To prepare myself for the transition away from having a coach to programming for myself, I had to start somewhere. I decided to start with Glute Lab by Bret Contreras.
I don’t remember how I found the book. I probably searched for lists of the best fitness books and researched my way to this one. Or maybe I was already following the guy on Instagram?
As a marketer by trade it drives me insane that I can’t remember my journey to this purchase.
Fast forward one year and at least 10 books later, I’d say Glute Lab was the perfect starting point. Why?
There is a lot of confusion about fitness and this book gives it to you straight.
The author respects the science and admits where the evidence is still not clear.
It provides the best path forward given imperfect information.
Despite the name, the programming methodologies in the book are well-rounded and cover the full body (not only glutes).
It covers the fundamentals of strength and physique training and provides blueprints for getting started.
It explains how variety should be incorporated into a program so that you progress well, but avoid skipping all over the place and not see results.
Lastly, in the book, Contreras emphasizes the right “dose” of resistance training and advocates strongly against over training. For me, this was an important lesson to learn.
Specifically this book shaped how I approach my own training program design.
Progressive Overload: You have to track the weights, reps and sets you're doing so you can progressively increase over time. You won’t progress if you don’t do more over time. But more doesn’t have to mean more weight on the bar. It can be adding in one or two more reps. Or moving more slowly (i.e. paused squats).
Prioritize Compound Lifts: I most often put squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, bench press and chin ups first. These moves give you the most bang for your buck.
Variety of Rep Ranges: Incorporate exercises at heavy (2-5 reps), medium (6-12 reps), and light (13 - 50 reps) weights because they are all effective in building muscle and strength.
Variety of Planes: Muscles need to be worked at different angles - horizontal, vertical and lateral. As someone who struggles with spatial awareness this can confuse me… but in short the body is meant to move in different directions so we should train in these ways.
Avoid Complexity: Again there is so much junk fitness information out here. It’s daunting to figure it out. This book does an incredible job of calling out the fluff masquerading as “advanced training knowledge” and helped me focus on what matters most.
Rule of Thirds: When designing a program, Contreras balances the choice of load (weights, reps, sets), effort (push until close to failure, 2-3 reps of failure, nowhere close to failure) and vector (move vertically, horizontally and laterally). By doing this, you end up with a very well rounded program.
Reading the book, I was surprised by some things.
His suggested training frequency is lower than I was used to.
I used to be a five or six day per week person with a more full body approach. Over the last year, I experimented with different cycles (4-8 weeks each) using different frequencies and body part splits. I’ve found I like 4 days of hard resistance training focusing on specific body parts each day.
He’s not an advocate for supersets or trisets.
I understand why. If muscle building is your goal, you want to set yourself up to make your resistance training as intense as you can.
If you are supersetting (doing two exercises back to back), you are not giving yourself much rest between sets to go as hard as you can.
At the same time, we don’t have multiple hours to hang out in the gym everyday which is why many people superset.
I’ve settled on mostly avoiding supersets on major compound lifts (squats, deadlifts bench press, chin-ups) because this is where you are getting the most bang for your buck.
Then supersetting throughout my accessory work to save time.
“So do you recommend the book?”
Bottom line. If you’re interested in learning more about programming, I highly recommend Glute Lab as a starting point.
This book presents like a textbook, but it’s approachable. Writing this post, I was looking through it again, and it inspired me to re-read it because there is just so much knowledge packed into it.
Moving into year two as my own coach
A year later, 10 books deeper, a couple of personal records attained, and more muscle on my body, I’m a lot more confident about my programming chops.
I’m more at ease with the process and looking forward to planning for 2022 with the last year under my belt.
Perhaps my greatest achievement this year is that I got over worrying if I was choosing the right book or not. I just voraciously read what I find and if it’s not adding value, I put it down.
I still have a lot to learn
Despite everything I have read this year, I remain befuddled by some things… namely conditioning.
I come from a CrossFit background and I love that style of training. But it wasn’t getting me the physique I wanted.
When you delve deep into the strength and hypertrophy (muscle building) literature, you quickly learn that it’s counterproductive to be training for cardiovascular endurance and strength and muscle growth at the same time.
Not that you can’t do both, but one should be the focus and the other should be programmed in such a way as to minimize interference.
I miss sweaty workouts that really run the engine. If anyone has a good recommendation for a book on conditioning science, please do share.
Next year, I may attempt to either bring back some conditioning regularly just because I love it or build in a few cycles that focus on that. TBD.
👩⚕️ You should consult a medical professional before starting an exercise routine.
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