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If you are new to the world of fitness, it can seem intimidating or even confusing to start a strength training program. In my experience, many women are not so familiar with many aspects of weight training when first starting out. Let me break it down in the most simple way.

Reps and Sets Based on Goals

The more repetitions (how many times you do a movement) you perform of an exercise, the less weight you use. The less repetitions (or reps), the more weight. For example, if I want to do 20 squats I would use a lot less than I would for 5 or 6.

Should you go higher or lower on the rep range? Depends on your goals. Generally speaking, for muscle conditioning, endurance and not as much of an increase in size, we are looking at anywhere from 12-15 reps or more. If you want to build size or strength, we keep the weights heavier and reps lower.

If you’re just starting out, 2-3 sets can be sufficient. If you are looking to add size or strength, again we can increase this number.


Program Splits

Program splits (meaning what you do on each of your training days) are based on different factors, such as your goals, level of fitness and time commitment.

If someone is a beginner to strength training, a total body program is usually suited best. This means we work each major muscle group for each workout, using lighter resistance. The reason is that doing one whole day dedicated to a single major muscle group would be too much of an overload for an untrained individual. Furthermore, we want to use each major muscle group more than once per week to help build those initial neurological adaptations.

If you want to build some size in a certain area, you can give that muscle group it’s own day. The number of training days would dictate your split. A 4 day split can look something like: Back/biceps, shoulders/chest/triceps, glutes/hamstrings, quads/calves.

If you’re lagging in strength or size in one particular area, you can add that to your program 2-3 times per week. Again, these are just general rules we can follow – we all have slight differences that can affect these splits.


Compound Lifts and Accessory Movements

Generally speaking, we want to start with the exercises that engage the most muscle groups. For example, a leg workout can start with deadlifts or squats. This is because we don’t want to prefatigue the smaller muscles needed in the exercise. (Or you can do that on purpose too…but we won’t get into that here.)

Then, you can move on to your accessory movements – these are the exercises that use your smaller muscles, or single joint exercises. They are “accessories” to help increase strength in your bigger lifts. In our leg day example, you can finish with something like leg curls or leg extensions.

Tempo and Rest

Often overlooked in programming, the tempo (speed in which you perform the exercise) and the rest periods between sets are very important. I wouldn’t push this so strictly on a client brand new to lifting, as it is too much information overload. However if you’ve been lifting weights a while, most definitely pay attention, as this can make or break progress!

Generally (again, this can vary) for many “bodybuilding” exercises we can use the tempo of 3010 (3 counts down, no pause, up for a count of 1, no pause, repeat). Sometimes we can extend the lowering portion by 1 or 2 counts to help build strength.

Rest periods vary based on the reps performed. The less reps, the more rest – you’re lifting heavy weights, you need to give your muscles enough time to recover. Don’t go too high on the rest times, as we still want to keep the muscles engorged with blood.

General rest period recommendations:

Muscle endurance (12-15 reps or more) – 30 seconds to 1 min

Hypertrophy (8-12 reps) – 1-2 min

Strength (6-8 reps) – 90 sec or more

Power (2-3 reps) – 2 mins or more



When it comes to programming, there is a saying I like to use – it really is “when the art meets the science”. We have these general rules but we also have individual factors that can change any given variable. A trainer or coach’s job is to take all things into account and become your program architect.


If you are interested in a custom program made for you, take a look at my Online Training page here.

Strength Training 101

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