Here it is, the post I have been building up to over the previous two articles. Having laid the foundations in part 1 and part 2 of the beginner’s guide to High Intensity Resistance Training, I am going to dive into revealing the workout routine that I consider a great introduction and solid foundation to your HIT journey. If the 40 year old me could figure out how to travel back in time and give the 18 year old me the wisdom of experience, the exercise part of it would look a lot like this. No matter what your current age or exercise history the principles in this article will serve you well and I want you to benefit from the insights gained during my first 20 years of trial, error and success in the Iron Game.
In this article, I am going to start out by detailing the routine that I suggest beginners start out with. I will then address the ordering of exercises in workouts, explain lifting tempo guidelines and look at important details such as time under load (TUL), rest between exercises and workout frequency.
The workout routine
Here is the routine that I suggest that you start out your HIT journey with, the Big 5+ trunk and calves. It is a well-rounded routine that addresses all the major muscle structures with the big 5 multi-joint movements front and center and 3 important single-joint exercises added too, for a total of 8 exercises.
I am going to give you three versions of the same routine below so that you will be able to perform this workout whether choose to use bodyweight, dumbbells or machines.
The order of the exercises
You will notice that the order of the equivalent exercises differs depending on whether you perform the routine exclusively with bodyweight (BW) exercises, with a mix of dumbbell and bodyweight exercises or exclusively with machines.
All three versions of the routine start out with the first two exercises being equivalents: upper-body, multi-joint, pull followed by push exercises, at the third exercise things change. In the BW only routine, the third exercise is a heel raise (calf) exercise, the equivalent of which doesn’t appear till later in the other two routines. The reason for its early inclusion in the BW only routine is that the big 4 upper body multi-joint exercises can be particularly demanding for a beginner, in terms of focus required, technique, upper-body muscular fatigue, and stabilizer muscle support demands. Inserting the heel raise after the first cycle of pull and push exercises, gives the upper-body a brief and welcome respite that will allow you to refocus and then get more out of the second push-pull cycle (inverted row and pike push up).
Other than this heel raise division in the upper body section of the BW only routine, you will notice that all three versions follow the same pattern at the start of the workout: upperbody pull, push, pull, push, starting with the exercise that works the greatest amount of musculature. The pulls and pushes are divided so similar muscle groups get a degree of rest between exercises, this is particularly important for the forearm muscles that would struggle if the pulldown/chin-up and row variants were performed back-to-back.
The next difference that you will notice is the position of the exercise to target the muscles of the low back. In both the BW only and the dumbbell/BW routines, the low back exercise comes after the squat, however in the machine routine the low back exercise comes before the leg press (squat equivalent). This is down to the important role that the lumbar musculature plays as a stabilizer during the squat, particularly the FW squat. Whereas the lumbar musculature itself is supported during the leg press so doesn’t have to play the stabilizing role. Many low back machines will also significantly stimulate and to a degree fatigue the hip musculature, so by placing the low back exercise before the leg press it is acting as a both a warm-up and pre-exhaust which is of benefit.
A major factor you will notice with all three versions of the routine is that in general the upper-body is worked first and the lower body after. This is done as the lower body multi-joint exercise is typically the most challenging and systemically fatiguing- if you give your all to that exercise and still have multi-joint exercises that follow it, those exercises can suffer locally (in terms of the stimuli for the targeted muscles) due overall mental/physical fatigue and also from being winded from the squat/leg press.
When writing or structuring an exercise routine, you always need to take into account the exercises in close proximity to one another and the effect they have, and also on the workout as a whole, the big picture overview. The image below shows my starting-point template for writing a routine, before considerations of exercise modality and specific individual needs are taken into account.
When you perform a full repetition of an exercise it consists of the positive stroke (lifting the load), the top turn, the negative stroke (lowering the load) and the bottom turn.
As you perform the exercise, I want you to be in complete control of the load whether that be your bodyweight, a dumbbell or a stack weight. Ensure that you do not leverage momentum or reflexes to help shift the load, I want it to be your targeted muscles moving the load exclusively all the time.
The tempo or cadence that facilitates this level of control will be in the region of 3/3 to about 8/8 seconds (moving slightly more slowly is viable too on equipment such as David, MedX, SuperSlow, RenEx, Arxfit and Outstrip).
That is minimally 3 seconds lifting and 3 seconds lowering the load, make sure that you decelerate and control the top and bottom turns exceptionally well too. Performance is key to getting HIT right, you need to aim to build up force gradually from the moment you begin contracting the target muscles against the load until the moment movement is initiated at the very start of the set. This process itself before movement occurs even may take 5 or so seconds when done well. You will then aim to achieve a constant degree of force output and muscular tension from the moment movement begins until the moment it starts to inevitably taper off at MMF.
Arthur Jones the inventor of the Nautilus and MedX machines put it like this “At the start of the first repetition, muscular contraction should be produced gradually, and should be slowly increased until the start of movement is produced. Once movement at a slow speed has started, the level of effort should remain just high enough to continue slow movement. Do not increase the speed as movement continues.”
If you are new to moving this slowly during exercise, I suggest that you start out with a tempo of 4/4, and use a metronome during your first few sessions to get an accurate measure of what this tempo feels like. Beginners have a tendency of moving more quickly than they perceive: a mental warping of time perception under load may occur initially, and metronome use in the initial sessions will help to correct this, in the absence of a personal trainer.
Time Under Load (TUL)
TUL is the total time that the set lasts from initiation of force until you reach MMF, I recommend that you track your TUL with a stopwatch initially. Aim for sets that last anywhere between 60-90 seconds but do not stop a set prematurely just because you have reached the upper time, remember the goal is reaching MMF.
In your first few workouts, whilst you are dialling in the right weight to use and attempting to perform the exercises well, you may find you select a weight which means you get just short of 60 seconds, or if using BW you may find you are unable to get 60 seconds on the chin-up for example. If this happens I want you to perform a second set of the exercise to help you refine technique and accumulate an adequate overall TUL.
If you manage to get over 90 seconds in the exercise with an appropriate tempo, excellent technique, and you felt fully in control of the resistance from the get go all the way through to MMF, then at your next workout, you can increase the load you use.
Using a 4/4 tempo with controlled turns at each end of the movment will result in individual reps that last around 10 seconds in total. That means our TUL goal of 60-90 seconds gives us a rep goal of 6-9 repetitions per exercise.
Rest between exercises during a workout
Rest periods between exercises for beginners
During the first few weeks of training, when you perform your workouts, there is quite a bit to think about, you need to make sure you set any equipment up correctly and mentally run through exactly what you intend to do with the next exercise in the routine. It is far more important to get this right than to rush between exercises and adding the wrong weight or forgetting the purpose of a specific exercise and performing it poorly. As a beginner, it is better to take up to 5 minutes between exercises to get all this stuff right rather than rushing and making mistakes.
As you acquire and begin to increase competence in knowledge and skills through the first few weeks this set up/focus time between sets can decrease and therefore the rest time between exercises will shorten. This can continue until the rest period between exercises is reduced to 20-60 seconds.
This gradual and natural reduction in time between sets, that occurs over your early workouts happens to frame very nicely with improvements in your physical conditioning. Shorter rest periods add to the metabolic challenge of the workout and a gradual reduction in inter-set rest times acts as an inbuilt safety measure that will minimize the risk of experiencing any adverse physical effects such as nausea or dizziness when you lack conditioning at the outset. You will then be physically prepared and ready for the shorter rest periods to come, when they do come.
Benefits of a 20-60 second rest period between exercises
- Time efficient
- Once you have acquired the skills required, this timeframe still allows you to remain calm and measured throughout the workout
- You have time to ensure the equipment has been set up correctly
- You have time to check you are correctly positioned and mentally ready to commence the exercise
- Provides a significant systemic/metabolic challenge
Frequency of exercise
If you are new to intense resistance training and performing controlled movements I want you to start out by performing 3 workouts per week for the first 2 weeks, each separated by at least 48 hours rest, for example you could workout Monday-Wednesday-Friday. If all goes well during those first 2 weeks and you feel you are dialling in the exercises, correct performance and loading and you feel you are beginning to successfully get close to MMF then in week 3 you can reduce to 2 workouts separated by 72-96 hours, perhaps Monday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Friday. However, if you do not feel your HIT skills are there yet I want you to stick with 3 workouts per week for 2 more weeks to hone things in, after which you can reduce to 2 workouts per week. From this point on I suggest that you aim to perform 2 workouts per week regularly, unless on a particular week you are very busy, excessively stressed or don’t feel fully recovered, in which case just perform one workout that week when you are feeling at your best. Once you have mastered taking exercises to MMF fluctuate between 1 and 2 HIT workouts per week based on your energy levels and personal demands, it is beneficial to be adaptable depending on your personal circumstances rather than attempting to be competely rigid trying to adhere to the calendar.
There you have it, your first HIT routine and the details to put it in to practice. Remember, HIT only works if you do it, and do it right, the next part is up to you, your muscular system awaits. You have much to gain with an initial time investment of an hour to an hour and a half per week in making this happen. I want you to make this work and am happy to answer any questions you have about doing so on the blog. Next time in the fourth instalment I will address many frequently asked questions about the application of HIT and how to individualize HIT further to your circumstances. Till then HIT stronger!