The Best Science-Based Training Programs For Strength and Muscle Gains

By Nader Qudimat
Last Updated October 9, 2020
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I’m sure you’ve realized by now…

You must lift compound exercises to make gains. 

But the question is…

How many reps, sets, and workouts per week?

I know, it can be complicated.

With training comes theory and many programs to choose from.

From forums, to sites and blogs, where do you go for info?

All kinds of experts, bloggers, pro bodybuilding consistently recommend the next “best” program. 

If it has the best exercises, up to date research and proven results, it has to be good.

Right?

The only problem is…

Your body is smarter than to follow the same program without adapting.

It boils down to your training history and preferences.

You might already be following a program, and it’s working well for you.

Why change something if it’s already working?

Jumping to the next shiny object will be the worst thing you can do.

There are all kinds of programs, some focus on strength, some focus on hypertrophy and others for power.

But all of them have a few things in common that will forever remain foundational principles for all kinds of programs.

Which one you will choose on a number of things that you should ask yourself:

  • How long have you been training consistently?
  • What do you want to improve?
  • What keeps you excited in the gym?
  • Is your current program working for you?

The last one is especially important to consider because if you’re already on a program and you’re making progress, then it doesn’t make sense to jump to a completely different program.

We’ll start with the question… 

What is Strength Training?

Strength training prioritizes lifting heavy weights than it does with reps and sets. 

It can be defined in two steps:

  • Movement of weight (this can include bodyweight)
  • Progressive overload

This means if you were able to do 6 reps of 135lb squats today, and then next week you perform 140lbs with 4 reps, you’re doing it correctly. 

You can apply the same principle to home workouts with just your body weight. 

A good strength training program will have…

Low rep ranges: training for strength prioritizes lifting heavier weights with compound lifts while keeping your reps low (below 6 reps).

Progressive Overload: Without progressive overload, strength and muscle will remain the same. You simply need to give your body a reason to grow.

By forcing your body to adapt to a tension that’s beyond what it’s previously experienced, it will have no option but to build new muscle and strength.

Compound Exercises: Compound exercises let you move heavy weights, exercises that involve several muscles at the same time will give you the best results in the quickest time. (Bench press, squats, deadlifts, overhead squats). 

Frequency: Ideally you want to have at least 3 workouts per week and there should be one day per week where you don’t train at all.

Volume: Volume is the amount of weight lifting performed. This can be measured in sets, reps and the exercises you do. 

Rest Periods: the rest period needs to be at least 2 minutes for strength gains or you will cut yourself short. 

What Are The Benefits of Strength Training?

One of the biggest mistakes you can make, especially if you're skinny, is training in a traditional manner, for reps and volume. 

Strength training is often thought to be just for getting stronger, however it is a big factor for building muscle. 

It helps with progressive overload since adding weight to the bar will help with muscle gains. 

You may see the opposite on social media platforms like YouTube or Instagram, when influencers post their workouts that have a dozen reps per set.

But you don't know if they are natural or using drug enhancements, i.e. steroids. Genetics and past workouts also come into play.

Performing lots of reps will induce cellular fatigue, which is needed for muscular growth however, progressive overload is much more important.

High rep training can help but the majority of your results will come from performing heavy compound lifts. 

Will It Make Me Bulky? 

Most women never lift heavy weights for the fear that it may make them bulky. 

However this is far from the truth. Muscle takes up far less room than fat does. Strength training helps you lose the stubborn fat that cardio usually can’t help with as well. 

Do I Need The Gym to Strength Train?

No you can workout right from home, with your own bodyweight. If your own bodyweight is a challenge for exercises then it’s more than enough for a while.

However since plates, dumbbells and barbells are cheap especially if you buy them used, we recommend investing a bit into them.

What exercises do I need to do?

Exercises that involve several muscles at the same time will give you the best results in the quickest time (i.e. bench press, squats, deadlifts, overhead squats).

You need to lift heavy weights to get big and we’re not talking about heavy bicep curls here.

Simply put, muscles need to be stimulated by lifting heavy weights on a barbell.

Which strength training program is right for me?

If you're asking this question, then you're most likely a beginner at strength training. 

One of the two programs are good for beginners:

5×5 Stronglifts

The 5x5 program from stronglifts.com

Stronglifts is similar to Starting Strength, but instead of 3 sets of 5, it goes with 5 sets of 5. 

The reason why you should start out with Stronglifts is because it's designed with 5 sets of 5 reps. As a beginner, you'll want to take advantage of multiple sets to perfect the form.

After a while, say a few months, you'll probably want to drop the number of sets to 3 as you'll be stronger and lifting heavier weights, which will take a greater toll on your recovery and ability to come back stronger. 

And eventually you will want to space out deadlifts and squats so you’re not doing it more than once, max twice, a week.  

Warm Up

​Mehdi recommends that you start with 2 sets of 5 reps with the empty bar on squats, bench and overhead press.

Then add 25 to 45lb (10-20kg) and perform 2-3 reps.

Keep adding 20 to 45lbs of weight until you reach your working weight for your 5×5 sets.

Don’t rest between sets until you reach your 5×5 weight, otherwise you’ll take more time for your workout.

Since you’re already warmed up before your barbell rows and deadlifts, you don’t need to warm up and you can start heavier.

You should never perform your 5×5 weight until you do your warm up sets.

Cardio won’t be enough before your workout.

Your muscles, and central nervous system, needs to be “activated”, or you’ll risk injury and your working weight will feel much heavier.

Once you start your heavy 5 rep sets, take 2 to 5 minutes between each set, like in Starting Strength.

If you can’t complete 5 reps for any set, deload for a week and don’t lift heavy.

The Workouts

The Stronglifts 5×5 consists of two workouts:

Workout A:  (5 sets, 5 reps)

Squat, Bench Press, Barbell Row

Workout B: (1 set of 5 for deadlifts, 5×5 for everything else)

Squat, Overhead Press, Deadlift

The progression is straightforward: add 5 pounds to each exercise, for every workout.

If you’re new to lifting, this will work for you.

Adding 15lbs to your compound lifts is possible.

However if you’re an experienced lifter, slapping 15lbs to your current working weight for every workout would be impossible.

Scheduling 

Stronglifts is a 3 day per week strength training plan but it is flexible to when you perform them.

The popular way is training one day on, and one day off, with 2 consecutive days off.

That means you can train with one of these ways:

Stronglifts is a 3 day per week strength training plan but it is flexible to when you perform them.

The popular way is training one day on, and one day off, with 2 consecutive days off.

That means you can train with one of these ways:

  • Monday, Wednesday, Friday
  • Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday
  • Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

The final option isn’t optimal for recovery because you’re training two days in a row and you won’t be able to train as hard on Sunday.

On what day you perform these workouts doesn’t matter, so long as you have it to 3 times per week, with 2 consecutive days off.

Each week, the workouts rotate so it would look like this:

Stronglifts 5×5 Week 1

Workout AWorkout BWorkout A
Squat 5x5Squat 5x5Squat 5x5
Bench Press 5x5Overhead Press 5x5Bench Press 5x5
Barbell Row 5x5Deadlift 1x5Barbell Row 5x5

Stronglifts 5×5 Week 2

Workout BWorkout AWorkout B
Squat 5x5Squat 5x5Squat 5x5
Overhead Press 5x5Bench Press 5x5 Overhead Press 5x5
Deadlift 1x5Barbell Row 5x5Deadlift 1x5

Pros

It has straight forward progression with simple exercises.

The workouts are easy to understand and can be understood by any level of trainee.

It doesn’t require much time, only about 45 to 60 minutes to finish the routines.

It has high volume and is well suited for beginners, though there is an advanced version of this program.

Cons

The volume for leg work is doubled to what it is for the upper body.

If you have issues with joints, this will increase risk of injury as it requires heavy lifting with the same exercises.

You’ll want to change up the exercises to prevent this after a year or so.

There are not many exercises for arms and shoulders, which can lead to imbalances especially if those muscles are lagging for you.

The workouts can feel boring as the exercises, reps and sets are the same for every workout.

Bottom Line

For beginners, the 5×5 program is perfect to start with and it’ll accelerate muscle and strength gains fairly quickly.

There is an advanced version of this program but the progression is slowed down a bit.

You can’t go wrong if you’re just starting out and haven’t found any strength training programs that work for you.

However if your upper body is lagging then you may want to either adjust the volume to balance out the exercises or choose another program that doesn’t have doubled the volume for leg work.

Push Pull Legs

Our own push pull legs program can be found here.

Push pull legs isn’t so much of a program as it is a template.

It’s an easy to understand layout that can make program creation a breeze.

And there are a variety of options for them.

The exercises are easily customized and the frequency can be adjusted according to your individual needs.

It trains all the major muscle groups in a way that allows for recovery but yet can be used by anyone, new or experienced lifters.

A classic push pull legs routine will split your body parts by function into 3 workouts:

  • ​Push (Chest, shoulders, triceps)
  • ​Pull (Back, biceps)
  • ​Legs (hamstrings, calves)

And it can be performed in a number of ways, depending on your experience and time, from 2 to 6 days.

The exercise selections are completely up to you but each workout should contain compound lifts, depending on the workout:

  • ​Bench Press
  • ​Squats
  • ​Overhead Press
  • Pull Ups
  • ​Deadlifts
  • ​Barbell Rows
  • ​Dips

​Your push workouts will contain exercises that involve the upper body muscles consisting of only the pecs, shoulders and triceps.

Pull workouts are targeting the back muscles and biceps.

And finally the leg workouts are for your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. 

The 2 Day Push Pull Legs Routine

Training just twice a week can yield great results if it’s done correctly.

But optimally, you’ll gain muscle and strength faster if you workout at least 3 times per week as a bit more is always better.

Instead of doing one workout for push / pull / legs, you’ll be doing a workout for the upper body and another workout for the lower body.

This is an routine you can do if you can’t workout more than twice a week:

Workout 1 Workout 2
Push and Pull Legs

The 2 Day Push Pull Legs Routine

For beginners, the 5×5 program is perfect to start with and it’ll accelerate muscle and strength gains fairly quickly.

There is an advanced version of this program but the progression is slowed down a bit.

You can’t go wrong if you’re just starting out and haven’t found any strength training programs that work for you.

However if your upper body is lagging then you may want to either adjust the volume to balance out the exercises or choose another program that doesn’t have doubled the volume for leg work.

​The Classic 3 day Push Pull Legs Routine

This routine is the optimal frequency for me personally, since I do have a lot of volume in my workouts.

If I did more workouts in the same week I would easily overtrain.

And it allows for optimal recovery as there’s one rest day between workouts and 2 rest days after leg day.

Doing these workouts 3 days in a row wouldn’t allow for recovery and it can actually be worse for muscle and strength.

It’s important to allow your muscles to recover, as they do grow outside the gym:

Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3
Push Pull Legs

​The 4 day Push Pull Legs Routine

This routine increases frequency and allows you to train much more.

The downside to this is that you can easily have too much volume and overtrain if you’re not planning out your reps and sets.

The upside is if you have a developed physique but have lagging muscle groups like lower or upper body, you can have a program focused on more volume on one part of the body over the other.

For example, if your upper body is lagging behind, you could have 3 workouts for the upper body, and 1 workout for the lower body.

Or if your lower body is your weak part, then you’d have 3 workouts for the lower body and 1 workout for the upper body.

If you do find yourself not feeling good with this frequency, the 3 day push pull legs routine will likely be best suited for you, especially if you’re a natural bodybuilder.

Workouts can be rotated each week so instead of starting with push, you’d start with legs or pull.

Here it is:

Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3 Workout 4
Push Pull Legs Push or pull (with different exercises than previous workout)

​The 5 day Push Pull Legs Routine

Working out 5 days a week might be optimal for some because it has more than enough frequency while allowing 2 days for recovery.

If you’re just starting out, this will be over doing it for you.

But if you’re past that stage, and consider yourself at least an intermediate lifter, then it might be beneficial.

It can be done in several different ways, depending on a number of variables (volume, sets, weight, intensity, etc), and you can choose where you have your rest days.

If it’s possibly, have a rest day before and after leg day so your lower back has sufficient recovery from squats.

And workouts can be rotated each week so there’s no need to always start with push workouts.

Here is a default routine you can start with:

Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3 Workout 4 Workout 5
Push Pull Legs Push Pull

The 6 Day Push Pull Legs Routine

This frequency is too much for most people but if you have just enough volume, you might get away with this and still make great gains.

Again, depending on the volume that you do on pull day before or after your leg day, have a day off before leg day.

This frequency is most likely too much for most people, especially if you’re natural.

And beginners should certainly not be using this routine, as it’s frequent and requires a lot of planning to prevent over training.

It’ll also take some experimenting to see which order of workouts you’d want to do.

The 2nd workout for the same muscle group in the same week will likely need to have less volume, and the next week could have different exercises.

If you still want to go with 6 days, here it is:

Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3 Workout 4 Workout 5 Workout 6
Push Pull Legs Push Legs Pull

​Bottom Line On Push Pull Legs Routines

​This programs bring the basics back to training and it is a timeless program that will forever be a staple in many bodybuilders programs.

Each workout uses similar muscle groups to help develop a balanced physique.

Whether you’re new to the gym, or an advanced lifter, anyone can use this classic program.

Pros

Easily customizable and can fit most peoples schedules without requiring any special frequency as you can follow either 5, 4 or 3 day plans.

The routines contain more upper body volumes than most strength training programs while having enough volume for legs.

Progression and exercise selection is fairly easy to understand and anyone can make their own program with these routines.

It allows for a mix of strength training and bodybuilding training that will suit most trainee’s preferences.

Cons

Lower body doesn’t get as much volume as the upper body.

If your legs are lagging and slower to develop than your upper body, include more leg exercises.

Pressing may cause issues for people with shoulder issues as it contains pressing for shoulders and chest with incline and overhead exercises.

You can switch out these exercises for either leg exercises or any other exercise that you feel comfortable with or simply lower the weight and perform more reps.

With so many variations of push pull legs routines it may get confusing for someone who likes to have everything planned out for them and doesn’t know which one to go with.

In this case, start off with a PPL program you like and customize it from there to your liking.

Upper and Lower Routines

Liftvault has good options for upper and lower workouts

​Like Push Pull Legs programs, this type of training is customizable.

There are a lot of variations that can be applied and since each person is different, there isn’t a one size fits all program.

But if there’s one thing that all lifters can agree with is that there are principles that should be followed to maximize results.

Upper and lower body routines are based on strength and bodybuilding principles that every level trainee can use.

This training split can be used anytime and there isn’t a better way to get back to the basics than this.

To break it down:

​You have two workouts, one for the upper body and the other for the lower body.

The first workout is your upper body muscles, back, chest and arms.

The second workout is your lower body muscles, quads, hamstrings, and calves.

How many times you perform these workouts per week depends on your volume and level.

If you’re going to max out your lifts for reps then you won’t be able to push as hard for the second workout.

The Traditional Upper Lower Split Program

Since this only requires to split your workouts by upper or lower body exercises, you can perform this program with either a frequency of 2 times per week.

Optimally you want to go for 3-4 times per week to maximize results.

Having a day between workouts will help with recovery but if you really need the weekends to be free of workouts, then you’ll probably opt for 3 to 4 times per week with only one day off between 2 days of workouts.

These are the workouts but you can change out the exercises if you can’t perform one for another.

Compound exercises should have 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps while smaller exercises should have between 2-3 sets with 8-12 reps.

Before we get to scheduling, here’s how the workouts should look:

Workout 1 Workout 2 Workout 3 Workout 4
Squats Bench Press Deadlifts Incline Bench Press
Lunges Bent Over Row Overhead Press Wide Grip Pulldown
Leg Extensions Overhead Press Reverse Flies Seated Cable Rows
Leg Curls Side Raises Side Raises Push Ups
Calf Raises Bench Dips Bench Dips Dumbbell Bicep Curls

​Scheduling your workouts:

For most natural trainee’s will do well with 3 workouts per week.

However if you find that isn’t enough, you can go up to 4 workouts per week and it can be done in a couple of different ways.

You can rotate through each workout (1,2,3,4) either every workout or every week, depending on your preferences.

Here’s one schedule you can go with:

  • Day 1: Workout 1
  • Day 2: Rest
  • Day 3: Workout 2
  • Day ​4: Rest
  • Day ​5: Workout 3
  • Day 6+7: Rest
  • Day 8: Workout 4:
  • Day 9: Rest
  • Day 10: Start back at workout 1

Or you can go 4 times per week, with one of these two options:

  • Day 1: Workout 1
  • Day 2: Workout 2
  • Day 3: Rest
  • Day 4: Workout 3
  • Day 5: Workout 4
  • Day 6+7: Rest

Or….

  • Day 1: Workout 1
  • Day 2: Rest
  • Day 3: Workout 2
  • Day 4: Rest
  • Day 5: Workout 3
  • Day 6: Rest
  • Day 7: Workout 4

Pros

Splits workouts evenly by either upper or lower body work.

Volume is fairly balanced for the entire body.

Easy to understand and follow, making it suitable for beginners and all levels.

Cons

​This program can easily cause over training if there’s not enough rest and too much intensity.

Very little focus on smaller muscles like biceps and triceps.

The Bottom Line On Strength Training

​It's no secret that if you want to gain muscle and strength, you need to follow a program consistently. 

No matter what program you choose, it needs to have the correct volume, frequency, rest between sets and most importantly of all, progressives overload. 

If you're making progress with your current program then there's no need to switch to a new program until you reach a plateau. 

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I'll help you out as much as possible. 

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