Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Designing a successful workout program can be like planning a vacation. Here’s why: When you want to plan a getaway, you first identify your final destination and then determine the quickest, most affordable way to get there. Sure, you can take the bus to save money, but if you only have a limited amount of vacation time, you probably don’t want to waste it getting to your destination. Flying is more expensive, but the benefit is that you will have more time to spend actually being on vacation then on getting to vacation.

When it comes to planning a workout, the first step is to identify a specific fitness goal, and the next step is to design the actual exercise program to help achieve that goal. Just like taking a bus can take longer to get to your vacation spot, designing an inefficient exercise program can mean taking a lot longer to reach a fitness goal. There is a major difference between designing a workout program that can actually produce results versus one that simply feels challenging. Just because a workout feels challenging doesn’t mean that it will create the mechanical or metabolic overhead necessary to produce desired results.

One of the most important factors that can determine the success of a workout program is the total training volume. Volume is the amount of intensity (the actual amount of weight used) combined with the number repetitions and sets performed in a workout. The number of sets in a workout and how they are organized with the rest intervals can be the most important variable for achieving a specific fitness goal. There are many ways to structure the sets of a workout to provide the necessary stimulus to achieve the desired results. The table below describes different ways to organize the sets of a program, along with the outcomes each method can be expected to produce.

Training Goal

Method of Organizing Sets

Sample Workout

General fitness and weight loss

Circuit training: Move from one exercise to the next with little-to-no rest between each exercise. Alternate exercises between upper-body pushing and pulling movements and squatting or single-leg movements so that one set of muscles is resting and recharging while the other muscles are working.

Follow this link to an effective circuit-training workout.

Time-efficient workout for burning calories

Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM): EMOMs are a relatively new way to organize a workout. After a complete, movement preparation warm-up, set a timer. At the start of every minute, do a certain number of reps of an exercise. Once you are finished, you have the rest of the minute to rest. For example, if it takes you 12 seconds to do 10 push-ups you will have 48 seconds to rest before the next exercise. EMOMs can either focus on only one exercise such as kettlebell swings or can alternate between upper- and lower-body movements such as deadlifts on the even minutes and chin-ups on the odd minutes.

One Exercise

Kettlebell swings: Set a timer for 15 minutes, at every minute complete 15 swings and then rest for the remainder of the minute.


Two Exercises

Even minutes: 10 Barbell deadlifts

Odd minutes: Chin-ups to fatigue

Select a weight that makes 10 deadlifts challenging. Set a timer for 12 minutes and have fun. If successful, you’ll complete six sets of each exercise, which is a lot of work in a short amount of time.


Muscle growth

High-volume training: Hypertrophy, which is the technical term for muscle growth, is the result of a high volume of exercise that creates both mechanical and metabolic overload of the involved muscle tissue. An effective, proven way of organizing sets for high-volume work is the German High Volume Method, which calls for doing 10 sets of 10 reps for up to two exercises. This is perfect for super-setting two competing movements in a workout, such as incline chest press and bent-over barbell rows, or alternating between upper- and lower-body movements such as shoulder presses and squats.

Bent-over rows: Select a weight that makes 10 reps challenging but doable.


Incline dumbbell press: Select a weight that makes 10 reps challenging but doable.


Rest approximately 60 seconds after completing both exercises. Even if you can’t complete all 10 reps, work to complete all 10 sets. Once you can successfully complete 10 sets of ten reps of a given weight, increase the amount of weight used.

Improving total-body strength

Russian Five-by-five Method: The former Soviet Union produced some of the best sport scientists in the world. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, while most professional athletes in the U.S. weren’t even lifting weights, erroneously believing it would make them slower, Soviet scientists were studying how to use strength training to improve human performance. One effective method they identified for improving total-body strength is to do five sets of five reps for five different exercises.

Select a weight for each exercise that will be challenging, but that allows you to complete five reps. To save time, perform the exercises in a circuit format, moving move from one exercise to the next with minimal rest. Allow one to two minutes of rest at the end of the circuit. If doing all sets at the same time, rest 60-90 seconds between sets.


Barbell back squat

Barbell Romanian deadlift

Dumbbell incline chest press

Barbell bent-over row

Kettlebell bottom-up shoulder press (both arms)

Improving definition for a specific muscle or body part

Complex sets: A complex set is a series of exercises, usually three but sometimes four, all performed in a row with little to no rest between each set. The idea of a complex set is to start with a compound, multijoint movement before moving to single-joint or isolation exercises for a specific muscle. The goal of a complex set is to completely fatigue a particular muscle or muscle group, which can be one of the quickest ways to stimulate definition.

Sample upper-body complex to improve shoulder definition:


Dumbbell shoulder presses (pick a weight that makes 10-12 reps challenging).

Go immediately to Dumbbell V-raises (select a weight that makes 10-12 reps difficult).

Move immediately to Lateral raises (select a weight that makes 10-12 reps challenging).

For best results, consider alternating between methods—follow one method for approximately eight to 10 weeks before moving on to a different method. This creates a well-structured program that will challenge the body in different ways throughout the entire year.

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