I have fined tuned a strength training approach that I plan to follow going forward, and can be useful to many others. This is a gradual, sustainable approach to making consistent strength gains in the gym, without spending an excessive amount of time or effort in workouts.
This can be followed by people wanting to develop full-body strength, who aren’t lifting enough to have maxed out the cable machines at the gym (e.g. most people). If you’re strong enough that the available weight on these machines isn’t heavy enough to challenge you, then you’ll want to do a different workout, or do this progression with different, suitable exercises of your choice.
Each of these workouts are 20 minute strength workouts. No matter what, stop at 20:00. If you don’t have one, I recommend getting and using a fitness watch like a Garmin that will allow you to track sets/reps/weight. But it’s OK to use a phone or stopwatch or watch the clock if that’s what you got.
There are two rotating workouts, 4 base exercises each, with core/ab work to finish as time permits. They can be done once a week each, or almost daily if you can handle that (though I do recommend taking a rest day at least once a week).
Workout A: Pull Workout
- Cable Lat Pulldown (either reverse grip or wide grip)
- Seated Cable Row (any angle/grip desired)
- Cable Face Pulls (rope or dual handles)
- Dumbbell Hammer Curls
- finish with Hanging Leg Raises, or sit-ups.
Workout B: Push Workout
- Decline or Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press (30° incline)
- Overhead Squats (Smith Machine or barbell)
- Cable Close Grip Tricep Press-Down (with two-hand grip of your choice)
- finish with Hanging Leg Raises, or sit-ups
When starting this progression, decide on a do-able but reasonably demanding weight for each weighted exercise (the raises/sit-ups are done with no weight). You want 4 sets of 8-12 reps to be do-able, not a question. Tip for starters: Whatever your known max is for each exercise, divide it in half. Err towards making it a bit too easy.
(If the Hanging Leg Raises are too hard, or there’s no Captain’s Chair or pull-up bar available to you for them, I list sit-ups as an alternative. If you have the equipment but it’s too hard, you can start with Hanging Knee Raises)
Start at that weight with 4 sets of 8 reps for each exercise, or with core exercises do just 8 reps with no extra weight. Take 30 seconds rest between sets, and longer than that between exercises to transition and setup. Take as long as you need to. Usually it takes me about 1-2 minutes, but sometimes it takes me 3-4 minutes if machines are taken or equipment isn’t available and I need to adjust.
Do Workout B with 4 sets of 8 reps. The next time you do each given workout, increase all exercises to 4 sets of 9 reps. The next time, 4 sets of 10 reps, and so on until completing each workout with 4 sets of 12 reps.
The next time after that, increase the weight on each exercise, and go back to 4 sets of 8 reps, repeating the progression between workouts.
For most exercises you can increase the weight by 10 pounds or 5 kilograms. The face pulls should only increase by 5 pounds or 2.5-3 kilograms (the smallest increment available to you).
Again, core exercises are always done with no weight: This is supplemental work and doesn’t need to be progressed. Just go back to 8 reps with the other exercises.
Now, if you fail any of the base exercises in any workout, i.e. you fail to complete every rep, every set, in every workout of that progression (8 reps to 12 reps)… you must repeat the weight in that workout once the workouts revert to 8 reps. You also should repeat a weight if for any reason you don’t feel comfortable increasing the weight in that exercise. You want the increase for each exercise to not be a big deal.
You can follow this progression indefinitely, forever increasing weight until you hit your limits and have to repeat weights, or until you max out a given machine and have to switch to a different exercise.
If you have never done the Overhead Squat before, it’s a challenging but rewarding and underrated full body lift.
Presuming you’re on a Smith Machine, you will likely need to employ a wide grip to ensure full range of motion and be able to fully stand. If you’re taller than 5’10”, you may not be able to use the Smith Machine because even with a wide grip the bar will hit the machine’s top range of motion before you can fully stand. Use a barbell or similar.
You can use dumbbells for Overhead Squats but the demand of the exercise is a bit diminished with separate weights, and depending on how the weights are held overhead it may become a different exercise for the upper body and core. Still, if you must, it can work. Start with 5 lb dumbbells if so and get used to practicing correct form on both the squat and how the weights are held overhead.
On the Overhead I would actually recommend starting out with just the bar and doing only 3 reps per set. On a Smith the bar weighs 25 lbs; if you do it with a freestanding barbell an Olympic bar is 45 lbs; some freestanding bars may only be 10-20 lbs and that’s fine. This compound exercise will be sneaky-difficult enough to do.
Start with just 3 reps per set, progressing for each workout like the others (i.e. when they go to 9, the overhead goes to 4). Once the other exercises get to 12 reps, you should be at 7 reps for the Overhead. Then, when the other exercises add weight and go back to 8 reps, you’d increase the Overhead to 8 reps and it will now match the same progression as the other exercises.
Once you can do 12 reps with the bar, you then add 10 pounds and go back to 8 reps on the next workout, following the normal progression.
For the Decline Bench Press, please use a decline bench with the leg handles (which many mistakenly presume is just a sit-up bench). If you don’t have a decline bench, go ahead and just do Flat Bench Presses.
Please do not lay upside down on an inclined bench for Declines, as this is dangerous as the inclined portion of the bench may not be able to support that weight, and your hips can slide down or off the bench because your feet are not on the ground.
Many coaches will tell you with the Decline Press to just drop the weights on the floor when done. I actually recommend you don’t, that you use a light enough weight that you can sit-up, reach for and pick it up off the floor, and put it back down without dropping it.
On a Decline Bench, don’t ever pick up or put down the weight while laying down, nor remove your legs from the handles while laying down: Both moves are injury risks. Keep your legs in the handles and sit-up before putting down or picking up any weight. Yes, this basically makes it sort of a core exercise because you’re effectively doing a weighted Russian Twist, plus you.
If this is unsuitable or challenging to do, just do Flat Bench Presses instead.
Typically, presuming about 30 seconds per active set, you should finish the 4th base exercise in a workout at about 17-18 minutes, allowing time for about 2 sets of raises or sit-ups before 20:00.
Sometimes you may finish the last base exercise with less than a minute left: Typically you should just rest or walk the gym and let the 20:00 run out. The core exercises are supplemental and not essential.
In rare instances, I’ve finished all the base exercises plus 4 full sets of raises with enough time to spare for another set of something else, in which case if I’m not exhausted enough to just wait out the 20:00 limit I’ll do another set of an exercise of my choice, any exercise I want. You can repeat a prior exercise, just do more raises/sit-ups if you’re up to it, do an exercise from the opposite workout, or experiment with a totally different exercise. But in my experience, this usually happens when I’m doing quick sets, like the Overheads with fewer than 8 reps, and once you’re up to 8+ reps of all base exercises this pretty much never happens.
I will recommend for the Face Pull, the Decline Bench, and the Overhead Squat you do not go any higher than your bodyweight.
The Face Pull faces diminishing returns at heavier weights.
As mentioned, you need to be able to sit up and pick up or put down the weight on the Decline Bench, and once you’re lifting heavy this becomes very difficult. In fact, once you max out the dumbbells and/or need to use a barbell, the Decline Bench is probably no longer feasible and you should switch exercises.
The Overhead Squat is a challenging full-body exercise that can be dangerous at heavier weights beyond bodyweight, because the needed shoulder stability at heavy weight isn’t guaranteed. You’re better off progressing the reps beyond 12 at bodyweight than increasing the weight.