How to Build an Awesome Workout Routine (6 Key Principles)

Building lean vegan muscle and losing fat requires two key components:

Getting your nutrition on point and following a properly structured workout routine that allows for sustainable progress over time. 

We've all been there - jumping from routine to routine, trying out different set/rep schemes, randomly testing your 1RM in lifts, doing zumba and hopping on the bandwagon of what's considered the most optimal training style at the time.

Yet in the end getting nowhere.

With this haphazard approach to training you'll inevitably fail in getting the results you desire.

However if you educate yourself and know the basic principles of how to balance factors such as exercise selection, volume, frequency, intensity and progression...

...and by following a training regimen that adheres to the correct principles - you can easily take your physique to it's genetic ceiling.

Well I'm about to break all of these factors down into bite-sized chunks of information, so you can take control and yourself put together a sustainable training regime that'll allow you put on pounds of muscle and lose fat. 

(If you're less interested in the whys, and more so in the hows, head over to the 'Sample muscle-building routine' listed below.)

Training frequency

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Frequency in the context of a training program can refer to two different things:

A. how often you should workout and Bhow often you should work each muscle group.

How ​often should you workout

This is something that ultimately is going to come down to personal preference, your specific goals and training experience, how much time you can spend in the gym, your weekly schedule and so on and so forth.

There are no right or wrong answers here - anywhere from 1-7 days per week could potentially work.

For those of us who have other obligations in life such as work and school as well as other hobbies besides the gym, spending time with friends or playing death metal - about 3-5 workouts per week will absolutely suffice for achieving your body composition goals.

How often should you train each muscle gruop

As for B. how frequently you should train a muscle group, again it's going to largely depend on the individual - their preferences, how their body responds to training etc. 

Plant-eater X might really enjoy blasting each muscle group with tons of work once per week and gets good results this way.

Plant-eater Y on the other hand prefers splitting up the the total volume into several different sessions throughout the week - also seeing nice gains.

viking

"I just love hitting my glutes every 4 days or so"

With that being said, based on the current body of evidence (one massive review examining hypertrophy [=muscle gains] from 2007 and another meta-analysis on training frequency from 2016) we can draw some conclusions for what seems to be an optimal training frequency for muscle gains.

Here's the gist:

It seems that a middle-of-the-road approach to training frequency, two times per week, is what promotes optimal hypertrophy.

Now as mentioned above you might see awesome results by sticking to the training frequency you enjoy the most, whether it be 1 or 4 times per week, due to training consistency and adherence being such a crucial component to this working out thing. 

Training split

plastic strongman

Next up is setting up a workout schedule that works for you.

Your training split should be customized to allow for the frequency you desire, it should fit into your personal weekly schedule and it should take into account your training preferences and needs.

Let's have a look at two different individuals that most likely will be utilizing drastically different training splits:

Person A: A teenager that loves hitting the gym, is still living at home with great recovery and nutrition in place, and with all the time in the world to hit the gym often and hard.

Person B: New dad juggling both family duties and work at the same time, perhaps undersleeping as well as under-eating, and not having an unlimited amount of time to spend at the gym. 

For obvious reasons these two individuals will follow very different training splits. 

Another component to picking a training split is making sure it's not stupid.

You have to consider factors such as exercise overlap, balance between amount of work done for each muscle group, allowing time for rest and recovery between session and many other things that could potentially impede progress.

Here are a couple of tried-and-tested weight training schedules or splits, hopefully you should be able to find one that you like. 

2-day full body split

Monday: Full Body Workout

Tuesday: off

Wednesday: off

Thursday: Full Body Workout

Friday: off

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

3-day push/pull split

Monday: Legs, Chest, Shoulders & Triceps

Tuesday: off

Wednesday: Hamstrings, Back & Biceps

Thursday: off

Friday: Legs, Chest, Shoulders & Triceps

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

Next week consisting of 2 pull sessions and 1 push session, alternating between the two weeks.

4-day upper/lower split

Monday: Lower Body Workout

Tuesday: Upper Body Workout

Wednesday: off

Thursday: Lower Body Workout

Friday: Upper Body Workout

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

Rotating legs/push/pull split

Monday: Legs & Abs

Tuesday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps

Wednesday: off

Thursday: Back & Biceps

Friday: off

Saturday: Legs & Abs

Sunday: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps

Following a rotating legs/push/rest/pull/rest pattern.

The "bro-split"

Monday: Chest

Tuesday: Back

Wednesday: Legs & Abs

Thursday: Shoulders

Friday: Arms

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

Intensity (rep scheme)

intensity

Simply put, the term intensity refers to the amount of weight lifted.

Lower intensity means lighter loads used and vice versa for higher intensity. 

In the context of a workout, intensity is going to predict how many reps or repetitions you can perform on a given exercise - using a higher intensity will yield lower reps and vice versa.

There are some distinct advantages to using different rep ranges and intensities. 

Here are some general guidelines for rep ranges and their primary training effect:

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    Working at a high intensity of 90-100%, which equals around 1-4 reps, will mainly promote strength (neural) gains. 
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    Working at a a low intensity of <60%, 20+ reps, will mainly promote muscle endurance gains.
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    Working at a moderate intensity of 70-85%, about 6-12 reps or so, is going to yield the most effective hypertrophic effect due to the time under tension and mix of both metabolic and strength adaptation. 

Now these rep ranges aren't distinctly separated but rather exist on a continuum with quite a bit of overlap. Performing 10 reps will still promote some neural adaptation, but not nearly to the same degree as a 1RM lift and vice versa.

If you would have to pick one rep range only for making gains it would probably be 6-12 reps.

Anecdotally this is where many bodybuilders spend the majority of their time...

... and the comprehensive meta-analysis on hypertrophy that I referenced before  also suggests this to be the most efficient intensity range for building muscle.

I love 6's and 12's

Now:

Don't be afraid of straying outside of the 6-12 rep range from time to time. 

There's evidence indicating that muscle gains is also possible at many different loads, for instance if you take a set at 30% intensity to failure it's still going to promote hypertrophy.

Some exercises just work better within a lower rep range of perhaps 3-6 reps, and lower reps also produce full muscle fiber recruitment from the very first rep.

Other isolation exercises might be more suited to the 20+ rep range which can also help inject some novel training stimulus.

Should I go to failure?

Relevant to the discussion of intensity is if it's necessary to go to failure i.e lifting until your form breaks down or you can't perform the last rep and someone has to to come help you while the bar is suffocating you. 

Short answer: no.

Slightly longer answer: Going to failure will produce a lot of unnecessary fatigue and might increase risk of injury. Using the measure repetitions in reserve (RIR), you should aim for 1-2 RIR when terminating the set.

Now going to failure on isolation movements using higher reps is more forgiving than say, a 3 rep squat, and is probably not the end of the world (I do it quite frequently)

Training volume

well developed middle delts

There are a number of different ways of defining training volume:

You might encounter it described as either quantity of reps per session, reps per week, total tonnage (reps x sets x weight lifted) or amount of 'hard sets' done per week. 

(In case you haven't encountered the terminology before - sets means how many times you repeat an exercise for a certain number of reps. For example 3x10 (sets x reps) means you do 3 sets of 10 repetitions.)

Regardless of how we choose to define it, performing the correct training volume is a key factor for promoting muscle growth. 

So what would be considered 'optimal training volume'?

Be warned, asking this particular question is like opening up pandora's box.

Proponents of HIT (high intensity training) will say that only 1 set to failure is the best method for gaining muscle...

... and on the other side of the fence, high volume fanatics will tell you that blasting each muscle with 30 sets per week is the only path to gains.

So let's look to the available body of scientific research to try and sort this out.

How much volume for the most amount of gains?

bodybuilder

The same meta-analysis from 2007 examining hypertrophy also summarized takeaway points for training volume and muscle growth:

"Overall, moderate volumes (≈30–60 repetitions per session for DER [Dynamic External Resistance] training) appear to yield the largest responses."

(Note that this is within the intensity range of 60%-85% of 1RM, or ~6-20 reps taken to, or within failure)

Another meta-analysis on the subject (Schoenfeld et al 2016) indicates that there's a dose-response relationship between volume and greater gains in muscle mass where:

Less than 5 weekly sets per week provided 5.4% gains,

5-9 weekly sets = 6.6% gains,

and 10 or more sets = 9.8% gains.

So it does seem to be the case a higher training volume also produces a greater hypertrophic effect.

However that doesn't mean that jacking up training volume to 50 sets per week is a good strategy - while you do need to do enough work to stimulate growth...

... doing too much can actually inhibit growth.

There's a certain amount of work that will adequately stimulate the muscle, and beyond this point more work will only generate unnessecary fatigue and possibly even increase the risk of injury and overtraining.

A good analogy is to think of it as hammering a nail into a wooden board:

Two or three precise hits will get the job done. Spending 5 more minutes battering the board will not yield any better results - you might just ruin the damn thing.

hammer and board

Just 84 times more and this should work

Furthermore, these reviews on training volume only report the means of the subjects, some individuals will thrive on higher volume and some on lower volume.

(A good read on the subject is an article written by Borge Fagerli where he recommends more moderate volumes for several reasons).

Anyways, here's the bottom line for training volume:

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    30-60 reps per session maximizes the growth response
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    Anywhere from 5 to 10+ hard sets per muscle group per week will produce good gains.

Exercise selection

woman performing exercise

Proper exercise selection is another important component of designing your workout plan.

If your workout regimen revoles around ineffective exercises you'll severely limit your rate of gains.

What makes this difficult is that there's an almost infinte number of lifts to choose from...

...so how are you supposed to know which ones yield the best results?

To get the best return on investment from your training you ought to follow a couple basic guidelines:

Perform mainly compound exercises

The foundation for any effective weight training program is compound exercises.

A compound exercise involves multiple joints and muscle groups, for example the squat and the bench press are both compound lifts.

There are several reasons why these exercises should form the bulk of your routine:

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    They train many muscles at once. A compound exercise can effectively engage many muscles at once with one exercise - which means they build more overall muscle and give you a big return on investment, so to speak.
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    They allow you to lift heavy weights. And heavier weights means a larger stimulus for the muscles and a greater incentive for them to grow big and strong. 
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    Tremendous potential for weight progression. As compound movements utilizes many muscle groups it means there's a greater potential for weight progression = more gains.

Say for example that you want to build a well-developed chest:

Adding 60 pounds to your dumbbell bench press is going to result in much more gains than 10 pounds to dumbbell flyes (and your triceps and front delts will also thank you for it).

Use isolation exercises intelligently

Isolation movement hitting the middle deltoid

Isolation exercises are movements that isolate and work one muscle group.

While they don't provide quite the same bang for your buck as compound movements, isolation exercises can still serve a useful purpose in a training program. 

Say for example you're working your back.

After some heavy sets of chin-ups and rows you also need to fit in some additional volume for the biceps specifically.

In this situation there's really only one alternative - an isolation movement - in this case some sort of bicep curl.

This is how you implement isolation exercises intelligently - by supplementing your heavy compounds with carefully selected isolation work. 

A rule of thumb is that the majority of sets (80%+) performed should be compounds, with the rest being isolation movements (20%)

What exercises should I do?

Exercises can be divided into 6 basic movement patterns (7 with arms included)

A well-balanced training routine should include exercises from each and every movement pattern.

Quad dominant

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    Squats
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    Front squats
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    Machine/hack squats
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    Leg press
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    Lunge variations
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    Leg extensions

Hamstring/hips dominant

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    Deadlifts
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    Barbell/dumbell romanian deadlifts
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    Barbell hip thrust
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    Good mornings
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    Glute ham raise
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    Reverse hyper
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    Leg curl

Horizontal push

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    Incline/flat/decline bench press
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    Incline/flat/decline dumbbell bench press
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    Incline/flat/decline chest press machine
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    Incline/flat/decline machine or dumbbell flyes.
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    Dips
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    Push-ups

Horizontal pull

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    Barbell rows
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    Dumbbell rows
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    T-Bar rows
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    Seated cable rows
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    Chest-supported rows
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    Inverted rows
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    Any other row variation

Vertical Push

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    Standing overhead barbell/dumbbell press
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    Seated overhead barbell/dumbell press
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    High incline press 
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    Side lateral raise
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    Upright barbell/dumbell row

Vertical Pull

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    Chin-ups
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    Pull-ups
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    Wide and close-grip lat pull-downs

Arms

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    Barbell curls
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    Dumbbell curls
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    Machine curls
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    Tricep pressdowns
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    Tricep extensions

Progressive overload

plane lifting

Thus far we've looked at different training parameters such training frequency, the workout split you use, intensity and rep schemes, training volume and exercise selection.

Surely that should be enough to design a decent workout routine... right?

Well, hold your horses.

There's one last missing piece of the puzzle, that will ultimately dictate if you're going to be spinning your wheels and never reach your body composition goals...

... or get the muscular development you want at the fastest rate. 

That missing piece is progressive overload, which basically means that you have to continually challenge, or overload, your muscles to make gains. 

To become bigger and stronger you can not be doing the same thing over and over in the gym and expect your muscles to grow.

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it:

If you don't force your muscles to do more than what they're accustomed to, then there's no incentive for them to make any further adaptations. 

The most common method of progressive overload is by adding weight. 

So if you did 3 sets of 10 reps at 110 lbs on the bench press, you should aim for 3 sets of 10 reps at 115 lbs the next workout. Voila, you've got overloaded the muscles.

Other viable strategies are:

Adding reps. Using the previous example of 3x10 (sets x reps) at 110 lbs on the bench press, instead of adding weight next workout you do 3x11 at 110 lbs. 

Adding sets. 3x10 at 110 lbs --> next workout do 4x10 at 110 lbs.

Reducing rest time. If you perform 3x10 at 110 lbs resting 3 minutes between sets - the next workout reduce rest time to 2.5 minutes and perform 3x10 at 110 lbs.

Making the exercise more difficult. Slowing down the rep tempo, pausing the reps at the bottom, using a more challenging technique and so on and so forth.

Sample muscle-building routine

We now have a pretty comprehensive toolkit to design a great workout routine:

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    Train each muscle group about 2 times per week. 
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    Pick a balanced training split that fits your weekly schedule.
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    Intensity should fall in the range of 60-85% or about 5-20 reps (most of the time doing 6-12 reps).
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    For volume shoot for 30-60 reps per muscle group per session and/or 5 to 10+ hard sets per muscle group per week.
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    Base your routine on compound lifts with supplemental isolation movements.
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    You have to make sure to progressively overload your muscles.

Obviously it's going to be damn near impossible to create a routine that is tailored to everyone's specific needs, different schedules, goals, genetics, amount of bananas eaten per day etc. 

Hence why I designed this sample routine to be as effective for as many indivudals as possible:

A. Takes only about 3-4 hours per week and fits easily into a busy schedule 

B. Moderate frequency and volume ensures that you'll stay both motivated and fresh whilst making long-term vegan gains.

C. Good balance of different exercises that will build a well-proportioned physique

D. Suitable for both beginners and intermediate lifters

Something along the lines of this is going to be very effective for putting on mass in a bulking phase (or retain muscle during cutting):

Workout A1: Chest, Back, Shoulders & Triceps

1. Incline Bench Press

3 sets of 6-8 reps 

~3 min rest between sets


2. Barbell Row​

3 sets of 6-8 reps

~3 min rest between sets


3. Dips​

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


4. Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


5. Side Lateral Raise

2 sets of 12-15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets


6. Face Pulls

2 sets of 12-15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets


7. Tricep Pressdown

2 sets of 12-15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets

Workout B1: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Abs & Biceps

1. Squat or Front Squat

3 sets of 6-8 reps 

~3 min rest between sets


2. Split Squat

3 sets of 10-12 reps

~2 min rest between sets


3. Leg Curl

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


4. Standing Calf Raise

~2 sets of 10-12 reps 

2 min rest between sets


5. Barbell Curl

~2 sets of 12-15 reps

1.5 min rest between sets


6. Abs

Couple sets of ~15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets

Workout A2: Chest, Back, Shoulders & Triceps

1. Overhead Barbell Press

3 sets of 6-8 reps 

~3 min rest between sets


2. Chin-ups

3 sets of 6-8 reps

~3 min rest between sets


3. Dumbbell Bench Press

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


4. Dumbbell or Chest-Supported Rows

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


5. Chest Flyes

2 sets of 12-15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets


6. Reverse Flyes

2 sets of 12-15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets


7. Lying Tricep Extension

2 sets of 12-15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets

Workout B2: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Abs & Biceps

1. Deadlifts

3 sets of 4-6 reps 

~3 min rest between sets


2. Leg Press

3 sets of 10-12 reps

~2 min rest between sets


3. Leg Curl

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


4. Sitting Calf Raise

2 sets of 10-12 reps 

~2 min rest between sets


5. Alternating Dumbbell Curl

2 sets of 12-15 reps

~1.5 min rest between sets


6. Abs

Couple sets of ~15 reps 

~1.5 min rest between sets

On a weekly basis this will look like:

Monday: Workout A1

Tuesday: off

Wednesday: Workout B1

Thursday: off

Friday: Workout A2

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

And the next week:

Monday: Workout B2

Tuesday: off

Wednesday: Workout A1

Thursday: off

Friday: Workout B1

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

Keeping on rotating through the workouts in this manner.

Another alternative if you've got the time is to perform all four workouts in one week. (note that this is completely optional):

Monday: Workout B1

Tuesday: Workout A1

Wednesday: off

Thursday: Workout B2

Friday: Workout A2

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

Q & A

What about cardio?

On off-days you should engage in some sort of physical activity. 

It could be whatever you fancy: yoga, brisk walk, a session on the stationary bike, boxing, GPP work, dragging a sled around, circuits of body weight movements. 

Basically just make sure that you move your body for 30-60 minutes every day.

During cutting you should shift your cardio towards high intensity interval training (HIIT) as it's highly effective for burning fat whilst also preserving muscle mass.

How do I progress?

Say you perform 3x10-12 on the leg press with 200 lbs and your sets look like:

Set 1: 12 reps

Set 2: 12 reps

Set 3: 11 reps.

Perfect, you hit the top end of the range on the first set and got all subsequent sets within the rep range of 10-12, so you can then add more weight the next session.

Next time around you do 210 lbs and get 12,10,10. Add weight.

Next session you do 220 lbs and get 10,9,9. As you didn't hit the top end of the range and the subsequent sets fell outside, stay on this weight for the next session.

Next session you absolutely kill 220 lbs and get 12,12,12 which means you can add weight next session, and so on and so forth.

How do I warm-up?

First do about 5 minutes of light cardio to get your body temperature up and joints loosened up. 

Then:

Before any lower body session perform the agile 8 circuit.

Before any upper body session perform a couple sets of wall slides, band pull-aparts, and perhaps some chins to get the shoulders warmed up and ready for action - here's a good example routine.

When it comes to warming up for a specific exercise you perform a couple of lighter sets before the heavy work sets.

So if you were to do a 135 pound incline bench press it might look something like this:

Set 1: 45 pounds x 10

Set 2: 45 pounds x 10

Set 2: 90 pounds x 8

Set 3: 110 pounds x 5

And then on to the working sets.

As a rule of thumb bigger movements and the first exercises of the day will require more warm up sets, whilst isolation movements later in the routine require less.

So that's it for this article, thanks for checking it out!

Please share in the comment section what workout routine you prefer.

🙂

  • Alex
  • December 2, 2017
Alex
 

Hey there! I’m Alex and I’m obsessed with a vegan diet, strength training and bodybuilding, as well as health and nutrition. When I’m not writing articles on here I am either in the gym, playing electric guitar or cooking vegan food!

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