If you want to lift weights, walking into the gym (or moseying over to your dumbbells at home) is a good start. But if you want to get stronger over time, you need to give it a bit more thought than that. And that’s why you need a weightlifting program.
A program is a prescription for exactly what to do and when to do it, and most lifting programs last weeks to months. (I’d say a four-week program is about the shortest I’ve seen, and 12 weeks is on the longer side.) During that time, you’ll lift a certain number of days each week, you’ll do specific exercises that the program calls for, and you’ll follow the program’s directions to add weight as you get stronger. This is all good stuff, especially if you are a beginner.
While some intermediate and advanced lifters can program for themselves, many still use tried-and-true programs, or they ask a coach to write a program for them. Where can you find a program? Well, for starters there are tons of free programs you can download online. If you do, read reviews—concentrating on ones from people who have run them and can comment on whether they’re effective. Likewise, there are programs that you can pay to download, programs that you can find in a book, and coaches and clubs that provide programming for a monthly fee, whether online or through an in-person gym.
If you’re new to exercise, writing your own program isn’t likely to be the best option. Here’s more on what a good program will do for you, and why you should consider using one that’s been designed by somebody more experienced than you.
Do one thing at a time
We often have more than one goal for our lifting, but you can’t work on everything at once. Maybe you want to get stronger and build more muscle, but also lose some fat, and you want to prevent injuries when you play pickup soccer, and you’re thinking about maybe competing in powerlifting once you feel strong enough.
It’s totally reasonable to have all those goals, but you can’t work full-bore on all of them at the same time. You have to pick something to emphasize first. In this case, you’d probably want a program that’s high enough in volume to start building some muscle, which (if it’s well-rounded enough) will also help with the injury prevention and get you started toward being stronger.
Later, when you change your diet to try to lose some fat, you might want a program that is easier to complete when you’re running on fewer calories (or that lets you adjust based on how you’re feeling that day). And when your first powerlifting meet is coming up, you’ll want to do a block of training that prepares you to be at your best on competition day.
If you just wander into the gym each day and do what you feel like, you won’t necessarily be focusing on the right things at the right time. Choosing a specific program for each phase of your training will keep you on track.
Do the right amount of work
If you’ve started lifting on your own, you probably know one of two recovery strategies. Either you work out a different body part each day (chest on monday, legs on tuesday, and so on, the classic “bro split”) or you schedule a rest day after every day that you do hard work.
These are fine, but you don’t need to schedule your rest that way if you have another way of managing your total workload. For example, a 5-day lifting program might mix easy, medium, and hard days so that you only need a full rest day twice a week.
In addition, a program will often change the amount of work you do each week. This can mean giving you deloads or easy weeks every now and then, and setting you up to walk into the gym on certain days ready to set a PR.
Do the right exercises
Different goals call for different exercise selections, and your program will account for this. When you’re getting ready for that powerlifting meet, your program will have a lot of squat, bench, and deadlift done to competition standard. But in your base-building phases, you may not be so laser-focused on those three specific lifts.
Beginners often look at exercise selection in terms of hitting all the muscle groups they can think of, but that’s not always a good strategy. You may forget about something that you really should be working (see: all those memes about bros who skip leg day); you may also just not be choosing the right exercises for your goals. A program helps you make sure you’re doing what you need to do.
A good program won’t just tell you which exercises to do; it will also tell you how heavy to do them. Some programs prescribe that the weight you lift should be a certain percentage of your max in that lift; others use RPE, an effort-based scale where you choose the weight that matches how hard the lift is supposed to feel.
There are also approaches that blend these ideas or tweak them slightly, like programs that give you a percentage of a “training max” that is adjusted separately from your real max, or programs that prescribe a certain range of weights for the day while allowing you to choose the exact number within that range based on how you feel.
All of these foster progress, because they call on you to notice how much weight you are lifting over time. For an RPE-based program, the weight that was “an 8” last year will be heavier than the weight that is “an 8” this year. For a percentage-based program, you’re expected to hit a new PR every now and then, which will bump up all your working weights for the next training block.
And then there are programs that give you instructions to add a certain amount of weight in a certain timeframe: 5 pounds each workout for a beginner program, perhaps, or 10 pounds to your training max every three weeks, or in other cases you’ll test how many reps you can do at a certain weight to determine whether you go up in weight the following week. All of these give you a way to achieve progressive overload, which is essential to improving your strength.
When you’re winging it, there’s no specific reason to go to the gym on a Friday. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But if you’re following a program, and Friday is deadlift day, and you really have your heart set on improving your deadlift (or getting a bigger butt, or whatever your goals might be), you won’t skip Friday, because you know how important that is to you.
Having a program means you have a checklist of things to do. It means you have a process goal (do all my workouts) in addition to your long-term goal (get a bigger deadlift/butt). Our brains respond really well to crappy rewards like checkmarks on a schedule, and our bodies respond really well to consistency over time.
So if you intend to actually get stronger, and chase some goals—whatever they may be—find a program that fits, and start using your time in the gym more wisely.