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Getting fit and healthy is a very real battle for many of us, and it’s one that statistics suggest we are losing. Even though we have more access to information and resources than ever before, we cannot seem to turn the tide against rising problems with physical and mental health. But what if there were…

Plan To Excel

6 Steps To Plan Your Training And Maximise Your Results

TNE stands for understanding and applying the fundamentals of health and fitness, and nothing fits that statement better than understanding how to plan and structure your training.

Before we start it is important to understand that if you are just starting out it will take time to build the experience and knowledge to become proficient at structuring your training. But even a basic understanding will help you to excel.

Unfortunately it is something most people never do because they feel:

  • “It’s boring.”
  • “It’s only for people who want to take training seriously.”
  • “It’s confusing.”

But let’s be clear:

  • Planning your training doesn’t mean you have to create spreadsheets detailing out macrocycles and mesocycles in great detail!
  • Spending 20 minutes a week to sketch out a rough schedule that aligns with your goals will pay dividends.
  • A small time investment will maximise your results.

However, it can be a confusing and daunting experience. We are constantly bombarded with exercises or routines that promise to do wonders for us in a short period of time. 

So how do you actually go about building a training plan?

At the core of it is the fact that you need to make the right choice for you based on exactly what you want to achieve. Remember you are training your body, and not someone else’s, so following the same program as another person might not be that beneficial for you. 

There is no a one size fits all when it comes to your training needs. Your body is too important for guesswork!

Step 1: Identify Your Current Situation

Being clear about exactly what it is you want to achieve is paramount to the success of your training program. It reinforces growth, continual development and also acts as a ballast to your ship if it starts to sink. Knowing that you have set goals will improve your focus and direction. 

When setting a goal, factor these 5 things into your decision making. 

  1. Will I truthfully commit 100% to my goal? – Will I be honest to myself and do the work.
  1. What distractions will stop me from reaching my goal? – Early starts, heavy workload, prioritizing other activities over training, stress, limiting beliefs e.g. the thought of physical exertion.
  1. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to help myself achieve my goal? – Foods (quantity/quality), social gatherings, alcohol, Netflix!
  1. How much time can I commit each week to training? – Do you have a busy job, have kids, substantial travel demands? Do you have a set schedule that will dictate training? Or do you have to snatch 30 mins when you can?
  1. Are my expectations realistic? – Do my current circumstances based on the above either complement my goal or work against it. What do I need to do to align my expectations against reality? 

REMEMBER: There are no right or wrong answers here, it is down to you and your goals and expectations. Understand that true progress will always need a certain amount of sacrifice to be made. 

Current Situation + Goals + Realistic Requirements = Accurate Planning

Once you can assess your situation and get clarity in goal setting combined with the realism of the work needed, you can then adapt a plan around your situation. 

This will both manage training load, reduce stress, keep you consistent and most importantly keep you enjoying the experience and avoiding resentment.

Step 2: Understand The Process & Nature Of The Challenge

A simple question to ask here is:

“How far right or how far left of centre are my goals?”

This will allow you to put into perspective how extreme your goals actually are. To answer this question use the following scale as your baseline:

  • Extreme endurance on the far left.
  • General health & fitness in the centre.
  • Strongman on the far right.

By using this scale you can clarify how much you are willing to give to the goal itself. The more extreme the goal is, the more time, prep and planning you will need to put in. Understanding this is critical because it gives you a framework from which to work from. 

If you are simply wanting a well rounded and balanced physique and capabilities then you will aim for the centre of the scale. But even ‘general fitness’ as a term needs to have greater clarity. Incorporating micro goals into this overall strategy will lead to a more successful journey. 

The same applies to more strength or endurance based goals. For example, your overall desire is getting stronger and fat loss, but a micro goal should be;

“I’m going to build up my strength in 3 main lifts and do cardio at least once a week”. 

We can keep breaking down each micro goal thereafter until we get to exact reps and sets. This brings the goal to life and makes it seem more realistic, instead of seeing it as a distant target. This is crucial for consistency and maintaining a positive approach to each session you do. 

Regardless of where you sit on the scale you will always require consistency and patience, but the closer to the middle you are the less sacrifice is needed to stay on course. You will have more flexibility in case things go slightly off track. That doesn’t mean it will always be easy, and it will still require dedication from you.

Step 3: What Exercises Should You Be Doing?

Whatever your goal may be, having some simple guidelines when looking at the human body is key. Keep it simple stupid. Look at the body as 3 main segments. 

  • Arms
  • Trunk
  • Legs

Then progress this further by looking at our bodies functional needs. In everyday life we are required to do the following actions: 

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Legs
  • Core
  • Carry

Nb. This strength training approach will likely have a direct crossover into most other sporting disciplines, due to it being focused around key human patterns.

The following are examples of key exercises that fall into basic human patterns:

  • Push: Bench press, press ups, dips, shoulder press 
  • Pull: Deadlift, rows, pull ups
  • Legs: Squat, lunge
  • Core: Plank, rollout, toes to bar
  • Carry: Farmers walk, rack carries

Now that you have a rough set of guidelines to work from you can then look into more detail the relevance of specific exercises to help your goal. 

For example a bodybuilder might want more isolation exercises focusing on specific muscle groups. Whereas a cross-country runner would want to use compound exercises that will assist their running and not be of detriment to it. Unless they have specific structural weaknesses, they don’t need a mass of single joint exercises.

(Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work several muscles or muscle groups at one time.)

Compound Vs Isolation

There is an argument that many isolation exercises can aid those other than bodybuilders of course, due to them helping synergistic strength of the joints. But the best bang for your buck / time effective approach is to use compound exercises.

Now……refer back to your goal, and remember the word specificity:

Will doing 5 strength sessions a week help you as a runner? Most likely no. When will you get time to actually run (the specific part)?

Will 5 strength training sessions help you as a bodybuilder? Most likely Yes, because that is your goal and you are training in a specific manner.

Now that you have a vision of your goal and what you should be doing to achieve that, we need to look in more detail at frequency, duration, reps and specific training effect.

Step 3: How Often Should You Be Training Each Week?

The 80/20 rule is a good guideline to use here.

  • 80% dedicated specificity. 
  • 20% assistance work.

So if you are training 5 days a week and your goal is running related:

  • 3-4 days of run focussed training.
  • 1-2 days accessory strength training.

If your goal is to build a strong and muscular body, you will need to be spending more time strength training and that will make up your 80% dedicated specificity and you can get the 20% through some cross training cardio: for example.

If your goal is general health and fitness your spilt will be closer to 50/50.

Frequency of training is a metric that varies hugely on your goal. If you are wanting strength and hypertrophy gains from weight training, then 3-4 days a week is seen as sufficient as it allows for progressive overload and recovery between. 

If your goal is to run an ultramarathon then frequency might well be much higher and potentially split into 2 sessions a day. In this case the intensity and duration will be the driving factor. 

Some runners train twice a day 5-6 days a week and can cope very well that way. For most of us though, 3-5 total sessions a week including our strength and specificity work is ample.

Step 4: What Intensity Should You Be Working Out At?

Intensity is all relative. 

The classic interpretation of high intensity workouts usually conjures images of hard and fast intervals that leave you in a crumpled heap on the floor.

Some of the most taxing sessions are those that are the simplest and are not commonly associated with high intensity. This could be a heavy set of deadlifts whereby you are only performing 3 reps but at a hugely taxing intensity both physically and neurologically.

The time under tension is very little, but the effort it takes to lift the weight off the floor is close to your near maximal capacity. In contrast a set of 50 Tuck jumps is also high intensity but the time taken is considerably longer so will use different energy systems. 

Choosing the right intensity for you and your goals is crucial. You don’t want to be jeopardising all your hard efforts by negating this parameter. 

Making sure the majority of your training suits your goal is essential, and intensity is one of the key factors to take into consideration. 

The following are 3 examples of athletes and which energy system the majority of their training sessions will be working in:

Bodybuilder

Glycolytic system: Predominantly time under tension exercises that use up glycogen and produce high levels of lactic acid. This creates a high intensity load on the body for a brief period of time but without exponentially raising the heart rate.

Sprinter

CP / ATP Systems: The majority of work is explosive and requires longer rest periods to recover. Places high demand on the CNS (Central Nervous System). Heart rate usually spikes to near maximal.

Endurance Athlete

Aerobic / Fat Oxidative Systems: Much lower intensity with very different substrates and demands. An individual can have a high frequency of training due to its lower relative stress on the body. 

Remember:

Your body becomes its function!

If you are continually training at low intensity but your goal is to run a fast 5k run, you will need to add in some high intensity sessions. Similarly, if your goal is to run a marathon but you are spending 80% of your training week sprinting, you will need to work on your aerobic system.

Unfortunately there are no shortcuts. 

Nb. Studies have shown that high intensity work for very short bouts, 2-3 times per week can considerably help your overall health. BUT this is very different from training for specific goals. 

THE RULE: Intensity of your training needs to crossover to your goal. If your performance dips significantly, you start to struggle with sleep and your immune system starts to suffer: REST.  

TOP TIP: You can implement a simple wave loading intensity plan using the green, amber, red system is a great base to work from.

  • Green = easy intensity
  • Amber = moderate intensity
  • Red = high intensity.

Depending how many sessions you are doing per week and your goals, assign a colour to easily track your intensity. For most people training 3-4 times a week simply go green, amber red and back to green. This will keep you on a steady progressive overload week on week and avoids burnout.

Step 5: How Many Sets & Reps Should You Be Doing?

In general terms this is how you channel your effort towards the type of effect you want to elicit. Someone who wants to lift maximal weight compared to someone who wants to run for 6hrs will be requiring an extremely different set & rep scheme. 

By choosing the right sets and reps for your category, you will condition the muscles, joints and nervous system accordingly. 

For example:

ATHLETESETSREPS
SprinterHigh volume: 6-8 setsLow reps: Explosive ballistic movement.
PowerlifterModerate volume: 3-5 setsLow reps: Explosive strength
BodybuilderHigh volume: 4-6 setsModerate reps: Slow eccentric / Fast concentric for hypertrophy
Endurance Moderate volume: 3-5 setsHigh reps: Steady tempo building lactic tolerance

Nb. These are general rules. For example, research has shown that endurance athletes can benefit greatly from lower rep / heavier weight sessions to promote more sarcomere muscular response (increased muscle density). This is said to be a great crossover to endurance sports. BUT it can have a negative effect on untrained people. If you are wanting strength training to compliment your sport but always have severe DOMs from your weight sessions, you might be more suited to a higher rep range with lighter loads. It is all about Trial and error!

Step 6: When To Start Modifying Your Programme.

This is often the most confusing part of the puzzle. 

You have developed consistency and are happy with the approach to what you want out of your exercise plan. The training is going well and you are seeing results but then progress stalls and you hit a plateau.

When this happens one of two things usually happens:

  1. You seek a qualified fitness professional for advice.
  2. You quit on your goals. Either because you lose motivation or you start to resent the process.

Being intuitive and mindful of your body in all areas is really important. 

You might be:

  • Struggling with your rest and recovery.
  • Not seeing your strength and lifts increasing.
  • Seeing less and less change aesthetically.
  • Feeling the exercises themselves getting too easy.
  • Realising your relative effort and exertion have dropped significantly.

This is when you change some of the parameters in your plan. 

Keep the same format of training and frequency but look to change intensity and/or duration as your key markers.

This keeps it simple and allows you to maintain the consistency you have built up. 

Alternatively, if you are content with your progress you might want to streamline the specificity of the plan and align it with a specific goal.

What You Can Change

There are lots of ways you can adjust your training, but these will give you a basic idea.

Strength Sessions

Old Session

  • Straight sets of 3 sets X 8-10 reps, completing 1 movement at a time before moving on.
  • E.g. 3 sets of squats before moving onto bench press.

New Session

  • Superset system partnering up exercises with little to no rest between.
  • E.g. Complete 8-10 reps of squats, move straight to the bench press and complete 8-10 reps. Rest and then repeat for a total of 3 sets.

CV Sessions

For CV sessions you can increase the volume or the intensity.

By increasing the duration, adding 15 minutes for example,  will further increase our bodies ability to oxidise our muscle cells and capillaries more efficiently which will help with many health markers and build our aerobic ability. 

For added intensity you might simply change the gradient you are running on which will change the effort levels organically. 

What you are seeing is natural progression. The same frequency but moving variables. There is no need to start all over again with an entire new program. The variables you change are up to you, but make sure you understand what is changing, how to implement the changes, and when to make them.

What Do I Need To Do If My Goal Is Just To Be Fit & Healthy?

You should have a rough idea now as to how different demographics require a specific training effect focused around the demands of that sport/activity. 

I previously stated that a broad goal of wanting to simply be fit and healthy doesn’t actually give us a clear direction. It lacks intent and does not help us find the best training plan. Instead let’s look at a clear flow model of where to start, where to head, and continual progression strategies.

Starting State: Detrained, likes socialising and going out, inconsistent with training.

Desired End Goal: Stronger, more athletic. Be able to take on some new challenges with competency.

Programme: Improve overall strength and develop an aerobic base. These 2 combined will give you a multitude of desirable gains, Both structurally and physiologically.

What To Do

To improve overall strength it is best to follow the compound lifting protocol. Multiple muscle groups in a minimal amount of time using just a few basic exercises. When you start out the aim is to build cross-sectional strength over mass joints, not isolating individual muscles. 

A weeks schedule that accounts for many components and fitness, would look like this:  

MONDAYWEDNESDAYFRIDAYSATURDAY
Strength 1CV 1Strength 2CV 2
– Squat- Lunge – Row – Press up- Farmers walk – PlankLISS (Low Intensity Steady State)
30 min run in Zone 2 of the Heart Rate Zone
– Deadlift – KB swing- Split squat – Pull up – Rack carry – Deadbug Interval Sprint Session 
– 30s Sprint- 60s Rest 
Sets: 3Reps: 8-10Rest: 90s Sets: 3Reps: 8-10Rest: 90s  Repeat x 10

The above uses all of our basic human patterns and allows us to hit multiple muscle groups. The volume is moderate and the rep ranges are sufficient to create an adaptive strength response whilst promoting sufficient hypertrophy. 

The CV (cardiovascular) sessions are spaced evenly between our strength sessions and have two very different stimuli. 

CV 1 is a Low intensity Steady state, to elicit your endurance based substrates which has many positive health effects.

CV 2 is a more intense interval based session whereby your anaerobic system will be taxed. This will aid your metabolic activity, help with body composition and improve recovery. 

It really does not have to be complicated. As you start to adapt to the training effect, you then simply change some of the variables. 

Final Word

As I said at the beginning, TNE is all about understanding and applying the fundamentals of health and fitness. Planning your training as an amateur sport enthusiast or gym goer does not have to be a time consuming or complicated affair. And it will take time to build experience and knowledge.

But a little bit of effort and diligence will pay off hugely because you will establish exactly what exactly is working for you. And as you become more experienced you might look to move much more into the specific category and have a very distinct goal you want to train for.

Remember:

  • Make training fun.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Be specific to your goals.
  • Allow for failure.
  • Embrace the challenge.
  • Don’t fall for fads or gimmicks, they will invariably fail you.

Finally, remember that planning your training only works if you are also tracking what you do! To read some simple tips on tracking take a look at our Tracking Training Article.

Author

Ed Norman is a Royal Marines PTI, who has worked with everyone from royalty to Hollywood actors & Olympic athletes, and coached North Face athletes who are pioneering the most extreme outdoor pursuits on the planet. As well as participating in some of the toughest multi-day running events on the planet. Ed’s programmes will provide the structure to challenge you, build resilience, integrate quality movement patterns, and create a fulfilling training experience.

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