The nuts and bolts of program design


They say a picture is worth a 1000 words.  Well, so is a good chart.  If you are looking for guidance in creating a workout program for yourself or for your clients, this chart is a great place to start.  It will ensure that you are within the key parameters discovered through exercise science to optimize your return on investment.  In other words it will help you get gainz!

NPTI Exercise Program Design Chart

(Click here to download PDF)


Exercises per











2:00 – 5:00






:30 – 1:00

Max Strength





2:00 – 5:00






:30 – 2:00

Muscle Endurance





0 – :30

Weight Loss





0 – 1:00






:30 – 1:00

Key Definitions

Running along the top row you’ll see the key workout variables you want to consider when creating a goal based program.

Exercises per workout – this is the total number of resistance training exercises performed in a workout, assuming one usually has 45-90 minutes to train.  Think quality over quantity, but there has to be a harmonious blend of both.

Reps – this is the reps per work set that you will want to spend most of your time using.  Reps on warm-up sets can be structured as you wish.

Sets – this is the work sets per exercise you will generally employ.  This does not include warm-up sets, which become more important as you move up the chart.

Load – this is the range of intensity you want to lift in compared to your 1RM on that lift.  This applies to work sets only.  This is a good guideline to start with but the bottom line is as long as you continually apply progressive overload, you will be at or near your target load in short order.

Rest – this is the suggested rest time in between work sets.  In my opinion this variable is often overlooked but it is very important.

The first column lists the goal you are working toward.

Power – means you want to take a heavy object and move it fast.  Good examples of this include Olympic Weight lifting, the shot put, hammer throw, etc.  The lifts should be done in an explosive fashion when possible.  This is sometimes referred to as Power against Heavy Resistance.

Speed – This is NOT sprinting speed, instead the goal is to improve how fast you can move parts your body – your hand and foot speed.  Examples of this would be pitching a baseball or throwing a punch.  The repetitions should be performed explosively.  This is sometimes referred to as Power against Light Resistance.

Max Strength – you want to improve your 1RM on the key lifts.  Powerlifting represents this.  Many of the lifts may be expressed reasonably slowly.

Hypertrophy – the scientific name for inducing muscle size and making the muscle grow.  Bodybuilders express a great deal of hypertrophy but any growth is hypertrophy (the opposite of this is atrophy or muscle loss).

Muscle Endurance – measures your ability to repeat the same action over and over again before fatiguing.  This is most commonly tested with bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, dips, pull-ups etc but it can be built and tested with almost anything.  The 225 bench test is usually a test of muscle endurance for football players.  Training in this style tends to promote the ability to do some fatiguing many times over – for example doing 5 sets of 40 push-ups with minimal rest.

Weight Loss – The goal of that specific exercise session is to lose weight.  This means you are trying to burn as many calories as possible during that session so it will be fast paced with minimal rest and the heart rate will be up.  Keep in mind nutrition likely has a more powerful effect on how much one weighs.

Beginner – A client that has not worked out regularly before or someone has taken a prolonged hiatus (6 months or more) from training.  The goal of this type of program is not to specialize but to improve all the components of fitness to build a solid foundation for the future.


What Else Do I Need to Know?

oly lifting women

Power – when training for power against a heavy resistance you’ll generally train 2-4 times a week.  Each area will be targeted 2-4 times a week.  Complete 1-4 exercises for each area trained.  Total body, push/pull, and upper/lower routines are commonly utilized.  Athletes will often focus on the movement (for example a snatch workout) vs an area of the body (a leg day).  Elite athletes may train several times a day.  Use exercises that allow you to lift a lot of weight, require a high degree of skill, and can be performed explosively.  Most exercises should be compound movements. Plyometrics can be employed, as can pairing a big movement with a lighter explosive movement.  Warm-up appropriately to lift heavy weight particularly on the big exercises.  Avoid training in an extremely fatigued state and avoid intensity techniques or things that prolong the set – the entire set should be completed in 10 seconds or less in most instances.  The reps are performed explosively.  Long rest is key to promote full recovery between sets.  Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Clean and Press, Push Press, and Front Squat are great exercises to help develop this ability.

throwing a punch

Speed – Speed training is usually performed 2-4 times a week, hitting each area 2-4 times a week.  This type of training is usually performed with total body routines; push/pull and upper lower routines can be used as well.  Elite athletes may perform multiple sessions per day.  Each area is usually hit with 1-2 exercises.  Isolation exercises and machines are rarely incorporated; instead focus on barbells, medicine balls, calisthenics, and plyometrics.  The load is very light and the speed of the lift is explosive.  Again this is NOT about improving sprinting speed but hand/foot speed.  Mel Siff recommends performing 5 out of 6 sessions with 20% 1RM, the other session with 40% 1RM.  Keep the total set duration short, 10 seconds or less is a good guideline, and keep the rest reasonably brief.  Peripheral heart action or pairing a light explosive movement with a strength based movement is common.

Roger-Estep deadlift

Max Strength – when training for maximum strength you’ll generally train 2-4 times a week.  Each area can be hit 1-4 times a week.  Complete 2-5 exercises for each area trained.  You can use a split or a total body routine.  Use exercises that allow you to lift the most weight combined with the most skill.  Most exercises should be compound movements.  Clusters, negatives, and partials can all be used to build strength.  Avoid most intensity techniques that induce fatigue.  Warm-up appropriately to lift heavy weight particularly on the big exercises.  Low reps, multiple sets on several key exercises is the most common set up (5 x 5 is a classic).  Keep the set relatively short, under 15 seconds in most instances.  Long rest is key to promote full recovery between sets.  The squat, bench press, deadlift, military press, farmer’s walk, pull-ups, and power curls are key to developing strength.

Hypertrophy – when training to increase muscle size you’ll generally train 2-4 times a week.  Each area will be hit 1-2 times a week.  Complete 3-5 exercises for each area trained.  Using a split routine is most common.  Use exercises that allow you to lift the most weight combined with the most isolation on the muscle.  You should feel the muscle working during the set and it should be taken to fatigue (not necessarily failure) during the workout.  Both isolation and compound movements can be used.  Intensity techniques that accumulate fatigue are useful to force new motor units to be recruited.  Supersets, compound sets, pre-exhaustion, timed sets, drop sets, and multiple angles of stimulation can be used.  Vary the weight and reps to ensure full muscle development.  Most sets should last about 15-45 seconds.  Keep rest long enough to maintain reasonably heavy weight but short enough to build fatigue.  Avoid unstable exercises or exercises that force a huge reduction in load.  It takes about 30 minutes of hard work a week, including about 8-20 challenging work sets per area per week for each area you want to build, once one is beyond the beginner stage.


Muscle Endurance – most trainees will train 2-4 times a week using a total body or upper/lower routine to build muscle endurance.  Complete 1-3 exercises for each area trained.  Generally focus on compound exercises and/or exercises that target larger muscle groups.  Increase the tempo (speed of lifting) to complete more reps in a given time.  Drop sets, compound/giant sets, bodyweight exercises, timed sets, and timed rest periods are all commonly used when looking to improve muscular endurance.  Most sets will last 30 seconds or longer.  Bear in mind there is a strong correlation between maximal muscular strength and single set muscular endurance; there is also a strong correlation between cardiovascular endurance and multiple set muscular endurance.  Excellent exercises to build muscular endurance include push-ups, pull-ups, dips, sit-ups, lunges, bear crawls, thrusters, and planks.


Weight Loss – the goal of the weight loss phase is to burn as many calories as possible in the given duration without using cardiovascular equipment.

Disclaimer: It is worth noting that likely the most powerful benefits achieved by intense resistance training which include increasing resting metabolism via increased lean tissue and creating EPOC are not created by this style of training.  A client who wishes to lose weight may be better served by focusing on their nutrition and then selecting a more performance oriented goal to work towards in the gym (strength, hypertrophy, power, etc).  Essentially this style of training is cardio via weight training for those clients that don’t like or won’t complete regular cardio.  It is also worth noting that weight loss style workouts don’t tend to be as “fun” as performance based workouts over the long term, and the number one reason why people continue to do anything is because they find it fun.

Weight Loss programs will usually be total body in nature, training 2-4 times a week.  Use 1-2 exercises per area of the body worked.  Focus on exercises that include large muscles, require most of the body to be involved, have a high power output potential, are standing rather than seated, require some coordination, and are challenging enough to disrupt homeostasis.  Rest time is minimal and the heart rate should remain elevated throughout the session.  Supersets, combination exercises, active rest, timed rest, drop sets, complexes, calisthenics and peripheral heart action are all frequently used to promote weight loss through calorie burning.


Beginner Workout – Beginners should generally train 2-3 times a week, using a total body routine.  They will do 1-2 exercises per area worked.  Start with exercises the client can perform with gchest_press_femaleood form reasonably quickly.  Machines are often included as a main part of the beginner workout.  Both compound and isolation exercises can be used, although if the client is just training twice (or once) a week then focus on exercises that provide more bang for the buck.  Rest long enough to allow some recovery and to prevent overtaxing the client, but move fast enough through the workout to increase the heart rate and accomplish a good amount of work.  Avoid intense fatigue inducing elements that are likely to push a client too hard.  The number one reason why people quit working out is that it is too hard, one must gradually build up a tolerance to exercise before they appreciate truly working hard.  Light to moderate intensity for beginners is fine; avoid failure.  Be strict with the form on all exercises.  Chest Press, Lat Pulldown, Cable Row, Shoulder Press, Leg Press, Goblet Squat, Leg extension, and Leg Curl are all solid exercises to start beginners off with.  Beginners should spend 1-3 months on the beginner workout before moving on to more advanced training goals.

The goal of this article is to provide you – the serious fitness enthusiast, the hardcore lifter, the personal trainer – with broad but clear parameters on how to create a workout program for the most common goals that trainees have.  Think of exercise program set-up a bit like captaining a ship.  There is not just “one” way across the ocean, and it is okay to take a slightly different route than someone else even if they have the same goal.  However, if you veer significantly of course or if you lose sight of where you are going, then trouble lies ahead.  These guidelines are meant to serve as that buffer zone.  You have wide leeway as to how you apply them and it doesn’t mean you can never train outside of them, but do so knowingly and for a good reason.

For more detail on this information check out the newly released textbook: NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training which can be found on amazon HERE.




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