Five Program Variables Essential for Strength Training Success

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In new book from Human Kinetics, the world’s leading strength and conditioning organization details the choices all weightlifters must consider

Strength Training-2nd Edition by the NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association

"Strength Training is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to maximize their muscular fitness." – Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS, CSPS, FNSCA

Any sound resistance training program should be made up of several variables that determine the outcome of training in the long term. These variables, called acute program variables, can be changed in a single workout. Acute program variables are what allow weightlifters to create various types of workouts.

As contributor William J. Kraemer stresses in the forthcoming second edition of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Strength Training (Human Kinetics, January 2017), understanding the factors that go into creating the exercise stimulus is crucial to designing an effective training program. Creating an effective exercise stimulus starts by deciding on training outcomes, such as increasing force production, power, or hypertrophy. The next step is to develop a single training session directed at these specific, trainable characteristics. “The acute program variables describe the choices you can make in a single workout,” Kraemer declares. “The choices you make for each variable over time dictate the progression of your training program.” He says there are five variables to consider:

1. Choice of exercises. The exercises chosen should reflect the areas of the body and the biomechanical characteristics of those areas you want to target for improvement. Kraemer says when choosing exercises, you should keep in mind that nonactivated muscle tissue does not benefit from resistance training. Therefore, first you should determine what you want to get out of a resistance training program and then select exercises stressing the muscles and joint angles you want to target. Kraemer also points out that most sports and functional activities in everyday life, such as climbing stairs, depend on structural multijoint movements. The benefits of multijoint exercises in terms of muscle tissue activated, hormonal response, and metabolic demands far outweigh those of single-joint exercises. As a result, most workouts should revolve around multijoint exercises for best results.

2. Order of exercises. The order in which exercises are performed affects the quality of the workout, especially if you are lifting heavy loads. Most experts believe that exercising the larger muscle groups first provides a superior training stimulus to all of the muscles involved because doing so stimulates greater neural, metabolic, endocrinal, and circulatory responses while potentially augmenting the training of subsequent muscles later in the workout. Thus, the more complex multijoint exercises, such as squats, should be performed initially, followed by the less complex single-joint exercises, such as dumbbell biceps curls. Most important, exercise order needs to correspond with specific training goals.

3. Intensity or resistance. The amount of resistance used for a specific exercise is a key factor in any resistance training program. It is the major stimulus related to changes in strength and local muscular endurance. Higher intensity is important for strength development in all individuals—older and younger. Like other acute variables, the loading intensity you choose depends on your goals and training status (e.g., whether you are a trained athlete or sedentary). “If you want to maximize strength gains, you should lift heavier loads and therefore perform few repetitions,” Kraemer says. “If local muscular endurance is the goal, you should use a lighter load, which in turn allows a greater number of repetitions.”

4.Number of sets (volume of exercise). Total exercise volume (sets multiplied by repetitions multiplied by weight) is a vital concept of training progression. Using a program with a constant volume may lead to boredom and cause you to stop training. But by varying the training volume through periodization, you can use various exercise stimuli over long-term training periods. The number of sets is also a factor in the volume of exercise. Kraemer notes that not all exercises in a training session need to be performed for the same number of sets. “In studies examining resistance-trained individuals, multiple-set programs were found to be superior for increasing strength, power, hypertrophy, and high-intensity endurance,” he says. The use of periodized multiple-set programs is recommended when long-term progress—not maintenance—is the goal.

5. Rest periods between sets and exercises. Finally, a major topic of study over the past decade has been the influence of rest periods on the stress of the workout and the corresponding amount of resistance that can be used. The length of the rest period can significantly alter the metabolic, hormonal, and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of resistance exercise as well as the performance of subsequent sets. “For advanced training that emphasizes increasing absolute strength or power, rest periods of at least three minutes are recommended for structural exercises using maximal or near-maximal loads, like squats, power cleans, and deadlifts,” Kraemer advises. Meanwhile, less rest, perhaps a minute or less, may be needed for exercises involving smaller muscle mass or single-joint movements.

Edited by Lee E. Brown and written by a team of experts chosen by the NSCA, Strength Training combines the most valuable information with best instruction for proven results. By including multiple program options for specific machines, free weights, other types of apparatus, and body weight, the text provides the flexibility to tailor training to personal preferences or needs. For more information on the second edition of Strength Training or other strength and conditioning books and resources, visit

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