How To Read A Training Program!


If you want to reach your strength and physique goals then you must learn how to read a training program. It is one of the most important skills you can learn in the iron game!

Introduction

  • Part 1: The A1 / A2 system
  • Part 2: Exercise Selection
  • Part 3: Sets And Reps
  • Part 4: Exercise Tempo
  • Part 5: Rest Intervals
  • Part 6: The Logbook

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to read a training program. It is my hope that I can also teach you the basics of writing effective training programs.

If a training routine is written correctly then it will have all of the strength training loading parameters clearly defined. This includes the following:

  • The choice and order of exercises
  • The sets and reps
  • The exercise tempo
  • The rest intervals

All of these training variables must be clearly defined in the routine. If even one of these variables is not listed out then it’s impossible for you to know what you are supposed to do in the gym!

Take a look at the following lower body workout:

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

Do you understand exactly what this routine is telling you to do? If you answered “yes” then you can skip this article. You probably already understand everything there is to know about how to read a training routine.

If you answered “no” then you MUST read the rest of this article. I think you will be shocked at how much you don’t know.

Now let’s get down to business…  

Part 1: The A1 / A2 system

One of the most important things in a training program is the order of the exercises. It makes a huge difference whether you perform deadlifts first in your routine like a powerlifter or last in your routine like Dorian Yates used to do.

The most accurate way to list the order of your exercises is to use the “A1 / A2” system. Let’s look at an easy example:

  • A1: Bilateral lying leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 4 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Machine hack squat (medium stance), 4 x 8-12, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • E1: Romanian deadlift, 4 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

On most routines you are going to perform all of your sets for the first exercise before moving onto the second exercise. Then you perform all your sets for the second exercise before moving onto your third exercise etc. In that case you simply put A1, B1, C1, D1, E1 etc. in front of your exercises.

Things get a little more complicated if you want to train exercises in some type of circuit.

Circuit Training

There are many training methods that involve performing exercises in some type of circuit. In other words you would perform 1 set for several different exercises before returning to your first exercise. One of the most common types of circuits is an antagonistic body part superset.

To perform an antagonistic body part superset for the legs you would perform 1 set for the quadriceps, rest 30-120 seconds, perform 1 set for the hamstrings, rest 30-120 seconds and then perform another set for the quadriceps. Antagonistic supersets are a valid training method.

Strength coach Charles Poliquin was famous for using them with his world-class athletes while bodybuilding coach John Meadows often uses them on his arm training days. The A1 / A2 system makes it very easy to write a training routine featuring antagonistic supersets. For example:

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

I want you to pay attention to the highlighted symbols in the above routine. Whenever you see a routine with more than 1 “A” exercise (or any other letter) then you know you are going to perform the exercises in some type of circuit. Here is how it works: 

  • Perform 1 set for your “A1” exercise
  • Rest
  • Perform 1 set for your “A2” exercise
  • Rest
  • Perform 1 set for your “A1” exercise
  • Etc.

You repeat this process until you have performed all of your sets for both the “A1” and “A2” exercises. Some routines utilize training circuits with more than 2 exercises. For example Milos Sarcev is famous for using giant sets with his bodybuilding clients. He often has his clients perform 10 exercises in a row for a body part!

Let’s take a look at a sample giant set workout for the quadriceps:

  • A1: Bilateral seated machine leg extension, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: 45 degree leg press, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Machine hack squat, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A4: Walking DB lunges, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest

If you have been paying attention then you should understand the correct sequence for performing the exercises. The same rules apply here:

  • Perform your 1st set for your “A1” exercise, then rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 1st set for your “A2” exercise, then rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 1st set for your “A3” exercise, then rest 10 seconds
  • Perform your 1st set for your “A4” exercise, then rest 240 seconds
  • Perform your 2nd set for your “A1” exercise, then rest 10 seconds
  • Etc. 

You would continue this sequence until you have performed all of your sets. For this particular routine that means performing 3 sets for each of the exercises. We’ll talk more about how to read the sets and reps in part 3 of this article.

Part 2: Exercise Selection

The second piece of information you come across when trying to read a training routine is the exercise selection. Whether you are writing your own programs or using someone else’s training program it is absolutely critical that all aspects of the exercise are clearly defined.

Let’s take another look at our sample lower body routine:

Sample Lower Body Workout

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat)
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight)
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance)
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back

On all four of these exercises the exact exercise form is clearly defined. This is more important than you think. Let’s take a closer look at the first 2 exercises listed above: back squats and leg curls.

Exercise #1: Back Squats

Most trainees believe that there is only one way to perform a back squat. What a ridiculous thing to say! In reality there are a huge number of variables that have to be defined when including squats into your training routine. Here are a few of the variables that you have to consider:

  • Are you using a “high bar” placement (bar resting on your traps) or a “low bar placement (bar resting on your rear delts)?
  • Are you squatting through a full range of motion or performing a “powerlifting-style squat”?
  • Are you using a close, medium or wide stance with your feet?
  • Are your feet flat on the ground or are your heels elevated?

As you can see there are many different ways to perform a squat. All of these variations have merit. It is important that you clearly define what kind of squat you are performing in your routines for optimal results.

For example if your goal was to target the vastus medialis muscle (the “teardrop” shaped quadricep muscle on the inside of the knee) then you may want to squat with a close stance and your heels elevated. For example:

On the other hand if you wanted to target your adductor muscles (the muscles on the inner part of your thighs aka your “groin” muscles) then you may want to use a wide stance with your heels flat. For example:

Remember, an exercise is only as good as the time it takes for you to adapt to it. Once your body has adapted to a given exercise it is best to move onto a new one. This can be as simple as raising your heels or moving your feet in or out to stimulate further gains in strength and size.

Exercise #2: Leg Curls

Most people give very little thought to how they perform leg curls. This is a massive mistake! There are 4 different training variables that you must consider when using leg curls:

  • Which leg curl machine should you use?
  • Should you train 2 legs at a time or 1 leg at a time?
  • Should you dorsiflex your ankles (point your toes towards your shins) or plantarflex your ankles (point your toes away from your shins) during your sets?
  • Should you point your toes straight ahead, inwards towards your body or outwards away from your body?

All of these different types of leg curls have merit. But it is important to understand that the training effect will be different depending on how you manipulate each of these variables. Let’s use your foot orientation as an example. There are 3 major hamstrings muscles: 

  • The semimembranosus 
  • The semitendinosus
  • The biceps femoris.

The semimembranosus and the semitendinosus are located on the inside of your legs. On the other hand the biceps femoris is located on the outside of your legs. When you point your toes medially towards your body you recruit more of the semimembranosus. For example:

When your toes are pointed straight ahead you recruit the semitendinosus the most. For example:

Finally when you point your toes laterally away from your body you recruit the biceps femoris the most. For example:

Most trainees never change the orientation of their leg curls. This is a big mistake! If you want to maximally develop your hamstrings then you must point your feet in different directions on leg curls to target each of the hamstrings muscles. 

As you can see it is absolutely critical that the exercises in your training program are clearly defined. This means all of the exercise variables are listed out for you. If your routine just says “lying leg curls” then you really don’t know what you are supposed to do.

Should you train 2 legs at a time or just 1? Should your toes point inwards, outwards or straight ahead? Should you plantarflex or dorsiflex your toes during the exercise? All of these variables MUST be defined for optimal results.

Part 3: Sets And Reps

The next thing that you should pay attention to in a workout routine is the number of sets and reps for each exercise. Let’s have another look at our sample training routine:

Sample Lower Body Workout

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12

The highlighted numbers represent the sets and reps for each exercise. The standard format is to write the sets before the reps. For example when you see “4 x 6-8” the program is telling you to perform 4 sets of 6-8 reps. In many cases there will be a range of repetitions that you can perform.

In this example you can perform anywhere from 6-8 repetitions. Other routines will give you an exact number of repetitions to perform. Sometimes you will perform a different number of repetitions per set. A perfect example of this is wave loading.

A “wave” consists of three sets performed in a row with decreasing rep ranges. For example here is what a 5/3/1 wave might look like:

  • Set #1: 5 reps
  • Set #2: 3 reps
  • Set #3: 1 rep

This sequence may be repeated for a total of 2-3 times in a routine. There are a huge number of novel set and rep schemes that you could use in your training routines. However, as a general rule of thumb they are not very difficult to read. As long as you understand that the number of sets always comes before the number of reps then you should be OK. 

Part 4: Exercise Tempo

Exercise tempo is easily the most neglected and misunderstood training variable. This is a shame because exercise tempo has a huge impact on your results in the gym. Let’s take another look at our sample lower body routine:

Sample Lower Body Workout

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2

The 4-digit formula highlighted in our example represents the tempo for each exercise. This 4-digit formula was invented by the strength coach Charles Poliquin. Let’s take a look at an example:

4/2/X/0

The first digit in the tempo formula tells you how fast to perform the eccentric portion of the exercise. In layman’s terms it tells you how quickly you should lower the weight. In our example the first number is a “4.” This means that you should lower the weight over 4 seconds. Yes, 4 seconds really means 4 seconds!

The second digit tells you how long to pause in the stretched position. In other words it tells you how long to pause in the bottom position of the exercise. In our example the second digit is a “2.” This means you would pause in the bottom position for 2 full seconds.

The third digit tells you how quickly to perform the concentric or lifting portion of the movement. Instead of a number there is an “X” in our example. This tells you that you should lift the weight as explosively as possible. The “X” means explosive muscular contraction.

Finally the 4th digit tells you how long to pause in the shortened or top position of the exercise. In our example there is a “0” for the 4th digit. This means that you immediately start lowering the weight back down after reaching lockout. 

In case you are more of a visual learner here is Charles Poliquin giving a quick overview of exercise tempo:

Putting It All Together

Let’s take another look at our sample tempo:

4/2/X/0

If you see a tempo like this then you should immediately know that you lower the weight over 4 seconds, pause for 2 seconds in the bottom position, lift the weight explosively and pause for 0 seconds in the top position. It’s important to know that there is no single best tempo. For optimal results you should vary your tempos from one routine to the next. For more information on lifting tempo I recommend you check out the following article: 

The 18 Laws Of Tempo Training!

It will tell you everything you need to know about how to manipulate the tempos of your exercises for optimal results.

Part 5: Rest Intervals

Rest intervals are another neglected training variable. Most trainees put very little thought into how long they should rest between their sets. This is a huge mistake! Let’s take another look at our sample lower body routine:

Sample Lower Body Workout

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

The highlighted numbers represent the tempo. It is absolutely critical that the rest intervals are clearly defined for every exercise in your routine.

As a very general rule of thumb shorter rest intervals are recommended when you are training for hypertrophy and using higher reps. On the other hand longer rest intervals are preferred when you are training for strength and using lower reps.

Let’s look at some examples.

When you are using training methods such as supersets, tri-sets and giant sets the rest intervals can be as little as 0-10 seconds between exercises. Let’s take another look at our sample quadriceps giant set routine:

  • A1: Bilateral seated machine leg extension, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: 45 degree leg press, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Machine hack squat, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A4: Walking DB lunges, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest

In this routine you are literally resting for ten seconds before moving on to the next exercise in the circuit. At the end of the circuit you rest for 4 minutes before repeating the entire giant set again. 

On the other end of the spectrum powerlifters will sometimes rest as long as 5-10 minutes between their heavy sets. This is especially true when they are peaking for their powerlifting competitions. 

If you are going to use antagonistic supersets then you can use much shorter rest intervals between exercises without compromising your performance. This is because while your “agonist” muscles are resting your “antagonist” muscles are being trained and vice versa.

Here are some general recommendations for rest intervals when training with antagonistic supersets:

  • 1 Rep = 120 Seconds Rest
  • 2-3 Reps = 100 Seconds Rest
  • 4-6 Reps = 90 Seconds Rest
  • 7-9 Reps = 75 Seconds Rest
  • 10-12 Reps = 60 Seconds Rest
  • 13-15 Reps = 45 Seconds Rest
  • 16-20 Reps = 30 Seconds Rest

These numbers are based off the findings of Charles Poliquin, the strength coach who popularized antagonistic body part supersets. Here are some very general guidelines for rest intervals if you are training with “straight sets”:

  • 1-5 Reps = 3-5 minutes rest
  • 6-12 Reps = 1-3 minutes rest
  • 12-20 Reps = .5-2 minutes rest

These rest interval targets are consistent with the recommendations of Stan Efferding and many other world-class bodybuilders and powerlifters. There are many ways to manipulate rest intervals in your routine. The important point is that you are actually tracking them.

Part 6: The Logbook

The logbook is the single most important tool that you can use in the gym. Every time you train you should have a logbook with you. Your logbook is where you record your workouts including the choice and order of exercises, the sets, the reps, the tempo and the rest intervals. Let’s take another look at our sample lower body routine:

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

This is what a routine looks like when all of the strength training loading parameters are properly defined. But this is NOT what you should write in your training logbook. Instead you should leave room to record your performance for each exercise in your last workout and in your upcoming workout.

Here is what your logbook should look like for this workout:

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
    • LT:
    • TT:
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
    • LT:
    • TT:
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
    • LT:
    • TT:
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest
    • LT:
    • TT:

“LT” stands for “Last Time” while “TT” stands for “This Time.” You are going to record the weights you used in your last workout in the “LT” slot. Your “TT” slot is going to be blank. You will fill this in when you perform your actual workout.

For example here is what your logbook might look like the second time you perform this workout:

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
    • LT: 315 x 7, 6, 305 x 7, 7
    • TT: 315 x 8, 8, 7, 6
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curls (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
    • LT: 140 x 8, 7, 6, 6
    • TT: 145 x 7, 7, 7, 6
  • B1: 45 degree leg press (medium stance), 3 x 10-12, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
    • LT: 530 x 10, 510 x 12, 11, 10
    • TT: 530 x 11, 11, 11, 11
  • B2: 90 degree back extension, barbell on back, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest
    • LT: 45 x 10, 10, 10, 9
    • TT: 45 x 12, 12, 11, 11

Every time you repeat this workout you will record your previous performance for each exercise in the “LT” slot and your new performance in the “TT” slot. 

If your training is dialed in then you should be 1-3% stronger every time you repeat a specific workout. This may include adding 1-3% to the bar or performing at least 1 more rep on an exercise.

As a very general rule of thumb performing 1 more rep on an exercise is the equivalent of a 2% strength increase. If you choose not to use a logbook then you may find that you are spinning your wheels for years on end without making any progress. The logbook keeps you accountable and ensure that you are continuously progressing.

No, you will not be able to get stronger on any one routine forever. Most trainees adapt to a routine after about 3-6 workouts. After you adapt it is time to switch to a different type of routine and progress on that one too.

If you want to see what kind of results you can expect from using a logbook then look no further than Dorian Yates. He became one of the biggest, strongest men on the planet and he recorded every single workout he ever performed in a logbook.

You can record your workouts in a logbook or you can just “wing it” and hope for the best. The choice is yours!

Conclusion

Learning how to read a training routine is one of the most important skills you can learn in the iron game. After all, if you cannot properly read a training program then how are you supposed to perform one?

If you want more help with learning how to manipulate all of the strength training loading parameters then I highly recommend you check out the following article:

Charles Poliquin Program Design: The Ultimate Guide!

If you want to take your training to the next level then check out my online coaching program. My customized training programs can save you weeks, months or even years of wasted time in the gym.

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from reaching his goal. Nothing on Earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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