I think many have heard this question before, and it is still something that in my opinion seems a bit unclear.

A fitness training program consisting of 5-8 compound exercises is considered to be a great foundation for any strength-training, but what defines a well-balanced training program?

My own approach to this is to choose exercises that affects almost all muscles in the body, especially exercises that stimulates numerous synergists are qualified for this task.

Lets ignore training frequency, load, reps and other details, and just focus on strength-training in its essence.

  • 1
    If you just want to focus on "strength-training" you should change the title of your question because "fitness training" would include more parameters than just strength. Aug 14 '14 at 19:33

A well-balanced full-body strength training program has to take in several factors, so it will look a little different for everyone:

  • Your current training level: dictates the length of the training cycle, as well as influences set/rep/weight decisions.
  • Fatigue management: depending on external life stressors, as well as being able to perform the work that causes adaptation, your body needs to be able to recover enough to do the next set of work. I.e. planning rest/nutrition/etc.
  • Training Emphasis: this affects the main exercises you employ, the assistance work, as well as influences the set/rep/weight decisions.

Those are all the things that many people skip over when figuring out what to do. Either they already know what program that someone else set up they want to use, or they just jump into training. You'll notice that I didn't touch on exercise balance just yet, but I will get to it.

An example of a good approach for beginner to early advanced trainees would be the following:

  • One main compound exercise per training day.
  • 2-4 assistance exercises per training day.
  • Weight determined off of an every day or training max (one you could hit even if the universe aligned against you). NOTE: this does not mean you will be hitting your every day max every day. It just means when you use a percentage it's against that every day max.
  • Assistance work can be isolation work, but focused on strengthening weaknesses in the main exercise, or providing stability in your joints. (example, pain in the elbows and you do a lot of pressing work, so you need to add in curls to stabilize the elbow joint).

A beginner to intermediate lifter can follow this approach with a week long training cycle and training 3x a week. That will keep them busy for quite some time. I started my daughter on a program like that focused on power lifting. The set rep scheme was 6x4 at about 85% of a training max. That training max increased by 5 lbs every week. She happened to set some federation records when she competed a few months later.

Main exercise: the compound exercise that is the main focus for your training

Assistance exercises: either compound or isolation exercises that support the main exercise

The bottom line is that you need a focus for getting stronger. That dictates the rest.

Typically assistance work is done for high sets/reps and low weight. It stimulates them in a more constructive way to assist the main work. The assistance work can be cycled as necessary depending on your current weaknesses or provide stability to joints by working antagonist muscles.

Typically your primary work is based off of a main goal. If you don't have a competition focus, like power lifting, strongman, or Olympic weightlifting, then you'll need some form of squat, some form of pull, and some form of pressing work in your main training.

A note about "optimal"

All too often, lifters get this notion in there head that there is some golden approach that is better than all others. Unfortunately, due to all the contributing factors (see the first set of bullets for some examples, and add your own personal genetics) it's impossible to define the optimal way for any given person to train. To make matters worse, what's optimal today won't be as you mature as a lifter. Building strength is not a linear process. Troubleshooting your program is a very different topic and too big of a subject to include in this answer.

Chasing after the mythical "optimal" approach to training, a lot of guys can be sold on the idea that they need specialty barbells, or some supplement stack, or use the golden way to train. People who sell all these things bank on that. While there is a time and place for all these things, it's very rare that they are absolutely necessary.

Instead of worrying about "optimal" training, take notes and evaluate your progress. If you start having problems and your training stalls, those notes are invaluable for planning how to address those problems in future training. Your notes should have at the very least:

  • Exercises
  • Sets and reps performed
  • Time in the gym
  • Rough indication of how you felt going in to the gym. I have a scale of 1-4 where 1 is abysmal and 4 is outstanding. It's kind of like a gauge of how you perceive the training went.
  • Freehand notes about the training. Did you have problems holding on to the bar? Is a joint hurting? Any place where you felt week during a lift?

If you find that you are running the bad side of average for a few training sessions in a row, it's probably time to back off the volume a little before you head into a really bad training session. If you are running on the good side of average, that's the perfect place to be.

You're going to have to take the steps of planning, performing, and evaluating continually throughout your training. It's the only way to tell if you are making progress and how to correct things as you go along.

  • When you mention assistance training you mean a assistive partner? So at which point do you determine that a training program is the optimal for the entire body? Which factors decide that its optimal?
    – JavaCake
    Aug 15 '14 at 12:59
  • I added to my answer to help with these questions. The more your training plan supports your training emphasis, the better it is. Aug 15 '14 at 14:10
  • Meanwhile i understand all the things you are describing, i'm still missing what sums up a great training program? Is it when all muscles are trained? Is it when compound exercises incorporates as many muscles as possible? Is it when all muscles are stimulated almost equally? Can you please go a bit deeper into this subject, you are already on the right track.
    – JavaCake
    Aug 15 '14 at 17:52
  • 1
    It's when your training matches your goals: your emphasis. If you compete, you get better at the competition lifts. If you are trying to increase the size of certain muscles, those muscles increase. It all boils down to your training emphasis. That will necessarily change over time, but I really don't know how to make it more clear than that. Aug 15 '14 at 18:29
  • We may be misunderstanding each other, but i am talking in terms of a very general full-body strength training program. Lets just pretend its for a beginner. Clearly this is very basic and very general. I think we agree on this, its not olympics training, nor is it extreme bodybuilding. Its just a very neat well-balanced strength training program anybody is able to perform without adding too much complexity. Basically this is what my question wants to discover. We can both agree that doing 3 different bench press exercises in a 5 exercise program is not well-balanced. What is balanced and why?
    – JavaCake
    Aug 15 '14 at 18:40

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