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Questions:

  • Is the following routine suitable for my goals?
  • Is the routine balanced and efficient? (eg. Am I doing too much of a specific exercise)

Background:

I am:

  • 25, Male, 78kg, 5ft5.
  • Graduated off 5x5 SL with following 1RM:
    • Deadlift: 135kg (Limited by grip strength, i'm getting chalk!)
    • Squat: 120kg
    • Bench: 62.5kg
    • OHP: 45kg
    • Pendlay Row: 72.5kg
  • I have a good level of fitness (Can get a good pass on a British Army Fitness test),
  • As you can work out, I have a triangle body shape; lots of strength in my lower body, weaker chest.
  • I get popping/grating shoulder when doing dumbbell presses so I don't do them!

My goals:

In order of preference:

  1. Aesthetics: I'm doing this to look good. I am pairing my exercise with a 10-15% calorie deficit to reduce my BF% from mid twenties to high teens.
  2. Balance: I want to achieve what I deem to be a balanced body. My squats and deadlifts are good for that of my goal bodyweight but my upper body is lagging.
  3. Improve my main lifts (Deadlift, Squat, Bench).

Routine:

I put this together from a range of different PPL routines. Its a 6 day rotation, either PPL[rest]PPL or PPLPPL[rest]. I lowered individual set volume on the big lifts to continue progression to higher weights. I do accessory AB work at home with planks and ab-wheels on a daily basis.

Warm-up: (WW = working weight)

I only usually bother with this for the first lift of a muscle group. I don't do a full re-warm up when going from squats to deadlifts.

  • Empty bar x10
  • 50% WW x10
  • 75% WW x5
  • 90% WW x3

Main Routine (Sets x Reps):

Pull 1

  • Deadlift 3x5 + 1xAMRAP (as many reps as possible)
  • Pullups 3x10
  • Cable Seated Row 3x12
  • DB Bicep Curl 3x12
  • Cable rope face pull 3x10
  • Hammer Curls 3x12
  • Cable Crunch 3x10

Push 1

  • Barbell Bench 3x5 + 1xAMRAP
  • OHP 4x5
  • Incline Bench 4x5
  • Dip 3x10
  • Lateral Raise 3x10
  • Tricep Pushdown 3x12

Legs 1

  • Squat 3x5 + 1xAMRAP
  • Leg Press 3x12
  • Leg Extension 3x12
  • Calf Raises 5x15
  • Wood Chops 3x12

Pull 2

  • Pendlay Row 3x5 + 1xAMRAP (as many reps as possible)
  • Pullups 3x10
  • BD Bicep Curl 3x10
  • Lat Pulldown 3x12
  • EZ Curls 3x10
  • Cable Crunch 3x10

Push 2

  • OHP 3x5 + 1xAMRAP
  • Bench 4x5
  • Dip 3x10
  • BD Fly 3x10
  • Lateral Raise 3x10
  • Tricep Pushdown 3x12

Legs 2

  • Squat 3x5 + 1xAMRAP
  • Leg Press 3x12
  • Leg Curl 3x12
  • Calf Raises 5x15
  • Wood Chops 3x12
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First, your question is very much rooted in opinion, so, here’s my opinion.

You stated that you want an “Aesthetic” physique. Aesthetics implies balance. By your own admission, you’ve indicate that your “upper body is lagging”. Your current routine may not sufficiently address this concern. You should consider rearranging your training to prioritize the “problem areas” you’ve indicated. For example, if your biceps are lacking, make sure to do biceps exercises early on in your routine when you are fresh. Don’t be afraid to change your routine occasionally to address the problem areas.

I’d also reconsider dropping your body fat percentage as you’ve indicated. Most bodybuilders drop to the teens and lower, but, only for the months leading up to a competition. Rather than concentrating on immediate calorie reduction, you should consider training for mass since muscle is more metabolically active thus allowing you to burn more calories. In addition, added muscle should improve your aesthetics.

Lastly, I’d also consider training 5 days or less. One day of rest may seem sufficient, but, over the long term, given the volume of training you indicated, recovery may end up becoming a problem. Remember, you’re not building muscle while you’re in the gym. That occurs when your body has had a chance to recover.

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I don't see any immediate problems with it. But it sure is a lot of volume. Make sure you can properly recover from it.

There's some programs I'd consider an excellent step up from a linear progression on a beginner program, like SL 5x5, that could be a good prep for going towards higher volume and specific goals. The Texas Method is a great template that will allow for continued progress in strength gains as an intermediate while leaving room for customization. I've also done Candito's Linear Program which is great for novices (and I did it in that context) but felt like it would make a great graduation from a simpler program into intermediate territory. His 6-week program might also be a good fit. Maybe doing one of those for a brief period would make for a smooth transition into PPL.

For balancing a program, a good point was made on aworkoutroutine.com (good blog with a common sense, no-nonsense approach). It stated that creating a balanced routine should try to achieve similar total reps on opposite movements. So if, say, you do 3 sets of 5 reps for bench, then somewhere in the program there should be 3 sets of 5 reps for rows. See about totals for each major movement pattern and how they add up compared to each other. That could give you a good idea. Now, this does depend on goals. If you're going for a bodybuilding approach and feel specific areas of your body need more work, then that's going to skew some volume. But a balanced physique is still a good thing to have and over time would naturally result from a balanced program.

Good call on the chalk. Have you tried a hook grip on the deadlifts yet? Also, if grip starts becoming a limiting factor, straps might be useful. You obviously don't want to use them all the time so grip can become stronger, but there's no need to let that one component hold you back from the benefits of progressing on the deads.

  • I looked back through and I believe my opposite movements are pretty well balanced (paired them up over push/pull days). I have pretty small hands and didn't get very far with hook grip. I picked up a grip trainer for use when at work which hopefully will help. I found a belt also helped. – Gunge May 25 '16 at 12:14
  • @JJosaur I don't have big hands either. There's a gym I sometimes go to when on the move and the bars there are just slightly thicker, but it's enough to start failing way faster. You really need to mash that thumb on hook grip. Just getting two fingers on it is enough. Maybe I should start using my grip trainer again as well, but I felt it was easy to get into trouble with flexor tendons with it. These days, after finishing deadlifts with straps I'll take off some weight and do singles holding the bar at the top as long as possible. Works well between taking off plates. – G_H May 25 '16 at 12:44
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If you want to "look good", I assume you want to have quick results.

Indeed, it seems you have a weak chest. In general, people going to the gym to "look good" put the heavier weights on bench presses (normal, incline...)

You should therefore concentrate on your upper body, thus doing longer sets for bench press, and switch exercises randomly. For example :

  • bench press 4*10, incline press 4*10, dips
  • incline press 4*10, bench press 4*10, decline press 4*10
  • flys 4*10, bench press 4*10, dips

This is an example. You did SL, so you know how to keep track of your progress : write down what you achieve, and either change the number of reps, or the weights, but the most important thing is to avoid doing the same routines. You can also use the pyramid technique (don't know if it is exactly called like that) : start with many reps but low weights, progress to few reps and heavy weights, and back.

Like :

  • 1*12*50kg
  • 1*10*55kg
  • 1*8*60kg
  • 1*6*65kg
  • 1*4*70kg
  • 1*6*65kg
  • 1*8*60kg
  • 1*10*55kg
  • 1*12*50kg

Given that your chest is weak, you will use more your triceps at first, this is why it is a good idea to do the pec flys at the beginning, because you concentrate on them only when you are not tired yet (and you will be limited by your triceps).

For the dips, once you reach 12, you can use a belt and put some weight on it, start with 5kg for example.

In general, prefer the barbell exercises than the machines.

You say you have issues with dumbbell exercises : indeed it can be traumatizing if not well executed, but these give really good results, so maybe you should try again with quite lower weights, and ask someone experienced to watch your form.

Regarding the back, you should and must do the same amount of pec and back days, in order to be "symetric" (not sure about the wording!)

And continue doing the legs once a week.

The rest of your program seems OK, try to change the order/the reps and sets/the weights.

  • Isn't switching things up at random largely discouraged these days? Most people seem to agree that consistency and sticking with a program for an extended time to actually allow the body to adapt to the exercises is the better approach, with "shocking the body" being deemed broscience. I know some folks swear by it (Arnold), but maybe that approach won't work for a natural trainee. Also, "quick results" aren't really gonna happen without drugs. Natural bodybuilding takes a loooong time. Some results, sure, but not getting shredded in a few months. – G_H May 25 '16 at 11:11
  • Indeed, I see what you mean. I think it depends on how your body works. I know for a fact that when I was doing "random" exercises, my body changed really quickly, where my friend's body was not. There are guys at my gym that always do several sets of 10 reps on the bench, at 100kg, since 4 years or so : their body do not change at all, and they are not stronger. So I think it is something still worth trying! – Boris May 25 '16 at 11:20
  • That's a good point. I've heard from other folks too that some things just don't work for them, even though it's considered good practice, while other things do, even though some think they're broscience. So it's probably best to do something for some months and if results are really lacking, switch it up. But it can be hard to gauge because it takes some real time for progress to become visible. – G_H May 25 '16 at 11:34
  • @Boris I do not care for "quick results". I want my gains to be sustainable and quality. – Gunge May 25 '16 at 11:52
  • Right, don't worry, I wasn't talking about the 4-week-get-ripped-for-the-beach-program! I wanted to say that you will have faster results doing bodybuilding rather than strength training. But if you care for quality, why not keep on doing the SL program? Or even the intermediate SL program, madcow, etc... – Boris May 25 '16 at 12:17
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To be honest, I actually like what you've done. When I was cutting weight for a powerlifting meet, I did something similar.

Now, you say you want to look good (i.e aesthetics), balanced, and be strong. In other words, you want to lose body fat and keep or increase all your strength. Let me break it down a little.

To look aesthetic, you need to lose body fat, and hence you need to REALLY get your diet down. I know, everyone will say "yeah yeah I eat healthy its no problem", but no you NEED to have a very good idea of what your diet is going to look like. For example, since you're 171lbs, to lose about 0.5 lbs of body fat per week, you would need around 171x14 = 2400 calories roughly to maintain the weight you're at, and 2400-500= 1900 calories every day in order to drop 0.5lbs weekly. Obviously most of your calories should come from protein in order to keep most of your muscle and strength (1g per lbs of bodyweight should be good to start), and tweak your carbs and fats depending on how well you tolerate them. So basically...really get your diet down first, can't out train a bad diet ever.

Second, I see that you like doing 3x5 on the big lifts. This is OK, but you definitely want to change this up and add a bit more volume for these, since they are your bread and butter. For example, try doing 10 x 3 one week, 6x5 the next..etc. If you're gonna train them all twice a week like you laid out, try going "light", and focus on speed work, for example 5-10 sets of 3 with about 50-60% of your 1RM, and the other day, go "heavy", for example 5-6 sets of 5-3 for 75-95% of your 1RM.

To sum up, for aesthetics, you need to lose body fat. This means DIET, and retaining muscle mass (best kept through strength training). To get better at the big lifts, you need to just do them. That's it. You want to perfect/improve something? Then you practice it as much as you can, while allowing for proper recovery. Vary up your rep/set schemes, as well as your intensity, and you'll be golden. All of these assistance movements you added, should target your weaknesses in the big 3 lifts. For example, if you're struggling at the lockout of the bench, work on your triceps for 2-4 assistance exercises, instead of just throwing a bunch of random exercises and doing them all for 3x10-12.

I suggest reading up on some of Layne Norton's articles (natural PL, bodybuilder) who has a phD in nutrition, they are very informative.

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