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Rather than waste your time and energy on useless exercises and training fads, learn how to structure your own workouts for maximum efficiency.Cameron Prins/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

A big part of being a personal trainer is making decisions – which exercises, how many sets, how many reps and in what particular order – so my clients don’t have to waste any mental energy. Still, I make it my business to ensure they’re learning something along the way. I want my clients to be so capable and confident that, should I ever switch careers or spontaneously combust, they’ll be able to continue their training without missing a beat.

Over the course of this pandemic we’ve been told time and again that fitness is a key factor in the fight against COVID-19. Rather than have you waste your time and energy on useless exercises and training fads, I’m going to teach you how to structure your own workouts for maximum efficiency. Now, if (when?) another lockdown hits, you’ll be a self-sufficient training machine.

Think movement patterns, not body parts

When I first learned how to lift weights, bodybuilding was all the rage. This style of training focuses on individual body parts; biceps, quads, deltoids, calves – each gets their own exercise, leading to workouts that last forever. Times have changed since 1996.

These days it’s standard practice to structure workouts around movement patterns rather than body parts (that is, unless you’re pursuing a bodybuilding title, in which you can ignore everything I’m saying here). The human body was designed to move in all sorts of ways. We can squat, hinge at the hips, push and pull, rotate, carry and crawl. Choose exercises that express these patterns and you’ll get a more productive and complete workout in a lot less time.

Exercise selection

Exercises are typically divided into two categories: isolation or compound movements. Isolation exercises are so-called because they act upon one joint (such as bicep curls, calf raises, leg extensions), whereas compound exercises act upon multiple joints. Squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, dumbbell presses – these compound exercises offer more bang for your metabolic buck.

The best programs will lean more toward compound exercises. They’ll also emphasize the back of the body and the legs over the front of the body and the arms. Pick a dozen or so exercises that fulfill the above criteria and spread them out over the course of your training week. I usually stick with three to six exercises per session; this keeps the workouts short but intense. The exact exercises you select will vary depending on your goals, abilities and experience. Some excellent books to help you narrow down your choices included The Purposeful Primitive by Marty Gallagher, New Functional Training for Sports by Mike Boyle and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.

Start with the hard stuff

Knowing when to perform an exercise is one of those tiny details that may not seem important at first, but the value becomes apparent as your experience grows. Think about it: When is the ideal time to hit a maximum effort dumbbell press? Is it at the end of your workout, when your energy is spent and your core strength depleted, or at the beginning when you’re fresh and fully focused? The answer should be obvious.

Generally speaking, your training sessions should start with heavy and/or explosive movements (such as barbell squats and deadlifts, chin-ups and pull-ups, Olympic lifts) because those require the most energy. From there, we move to the secondary/accessory exercises that address any weak spots. This is where I like to train qualities like grip (loaded carries, rowing variations), balance (lunges, split squats), and core strength (planks, leg raises). Finally, I like to wrap things up with either body weight mobility work, basic conditioning drills, or some high-volume sets for the arms, abs and shoulders.

Reps, sets and RPE

You’ve selected your exercises and ordered them in logical series, now it’s time to get to work. But how much work should we be doing? How many reps, how many sets? The answer is, unfortunately, “it depends.” The same factors that determine your exercise selection (goals, abilities, experience) help to determine your overall workload. Aiming for 20-50 reps per movement pattern, spread over two to four sets, is a good way to structure your sessions.

What does this look like in practice? Here’s what one of my training sessions from last week looked like. After warming up with some body weight and kettlebell exercises, I performed the following:

  • Deadlift: 3 sets of 5 reps, 2 sets of 3 reps
  • Bulgarian split squat: 2 sets of 8 reps per leg
  • Military press: 2 sets of 8 reps, 2 sets of 5 reps
  • Banded face pull: 2 sets of 25 reps

The final piece of the puzzle is selecting the proper weights for each exercise. This can take some trial and error in the beginning (I’ve written about this exact topic before). My recommendation is to use the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) method – on a scale of one to five, with five being maximum effort, choose a weight that places you no higher than 4/5, no less than 2/5.

A word on cardio …

Yes, cardio matters. No, cardio won’t sap your muscle gains. Get 20-60 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise daily, preferably outside.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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