Variables in a weight training program

In any weight training program there are a number of variables that must be considered. Let us examine each in turn.

Exercise selection

There are hundreds of exercise choices available.  While table below gives a selection of the most common exercises, more are available at the website Athletes must be aware that over time they should move from general exercises that strengthen muscles generally to more specific actions and speed of actions as the goal approaches. The beginner strength trainer should be focussed on developing a foundation of general strength and good technique as well as developing core (abdominals and lower back) stability and strength. Once developed over a long (months – off season, years for a novice), this foundation of general strength should move to specific exercises that are movement specific for the sport or event training for.  Crucially, the choice of exercises should also focus on exercises that prevent injury. For example, team players may need to focus on exercises that strengthen the knee joint while throwers or racquet sport players may need to focus on strengthening the trunk stability and rotation muscles.

Muscle group Exercise Equipment
Chest Bench press

Incline bench press

Dumbbell bench press

Dumbbell incline bench press

Barbell or machine




Shoulders Military press

Dumbbell shoulder press

Shoulder raises

Barbell or machine


Dumbbell or barbell

Upper back Lateral pulldown

Seated row

Chin-up or pull-up

High cable pulley

Low cable pulley

Chin-up bar

Triceps Triceps press-down


High cable pulley

Dip station

Biceps Arm curl Barbell, dumbbell, low cable pulley
Quadriceps Leg press


Leg extension


Barbell or machine


Hamstrings Leg curl Machine
Calves Calf raise/leg press

Standing heel raise

Seated heel raise


Machine or barbell


Lower abdominals Vertical leg raise

Supine leg raise

Vertical leg raise

Lying on floor

Upper abdominals Crunch


Lying on floor
Lower back Back extension Machine

Order of exercises

Four principles need to be adhered to:

  1. Do the priority exercises early in the training session before fatigue sets in.
  2. When training all muscle groups in a session, do the large muscle groups (e.g. bench press) before small muscle groups (e.g. triceps press-down), multi-joint exercises before single joint, or rotate upper and lower body exercises.
  3. When training upper body one day and lower body the next, do the large muscle groups (e.g. bench press) before small muscle groups (e.g. triceps press-down), multi-joint exercises before single joint, or rotate opposing exercises (e.g. triceps and biceps, quadriceps and hamstrings).
  4. When training individual muscle groups, do the multi-joint exercises before single joint and higher intensity exercises before lower intensity exercises.

Number of repetitions (reps)

This is the number of times each exercise is done. In general, the higher the number of repetitions, the lower the load or weight lifted. For muscle endurance development, the higher the number of repetitions; for strength, the lower the number of repetitions. Thus, the beginner should be focussed on higher numbers of repetitions to develop strength with low to moderate loads. This enables the development of good technique while developing some strength, muscle endurance and hypertrophy at the same time. Good technique means less likelihood of injury when the weights increase over time.


Sets are the specific number of repetitions done as a group without resting.In general, the greater the number of sets, the greater the benefit but the greater the fatigue. For beginners, two sets per exercise will suffice for the first 2-4 weeks, as the repetitions will be high (and fatiguing) with the load low. Gradually the number of sets can be increased


Load is the amount of weight lifted, pushed or pulled. The higher the load (and therefore the lower the number of repetitions), the greater the strength gains; the lower the load (and therefore the higher the number of repetitions), the greater the endurance gains.  2.5-5% increases in load per week are suggested.


This is the rate at which you work the muscles. For example, if we use the bench press exercise, 2-1-2 means out (push) for 2 seconds, rest for 1 second, in (back) for 2 seconds.


Intensity is generally expressed as a percentage of 1 RM or in terms of number of repetition maximums (RMs).


Speed at which the exercise is done. Generally expressed as seconds such as 2-1-2 that is 2 seconds up, hold for 1 second, 2 seconds down. Research has shown that the more time a muscle is under tension, the greater the muscle hypertrophy so the larger the muscle becomes. An increased speed of lifting influences muscular power. For beginning aging athletes, a slow speed not only allows for muscle hypertrophy, it allows good technique to be developed.


Recovery is the amount of rest between sets. In general, the less the rest, the greater the endurance gains; the longer the rest, the better the strength gains when lifting heavy loads or doing power exercises, both of which are fatiguing and require longer rest. 


Frequency is the number of times the strength training is done per week. In general, the more experienced the athlete, the more frequent the number of sessions per week.