Free Weight Training Program Guide

Designing your own free weight training program is easy with this guide. If you're wondering how to gain weight by significantly increasing lean muscle mass, following a structured program is the way to get started.

If you are a beginner, you may be wondering what the difference is between strength training, resistance training, bodybuilding training, weightlifting, and weight training. Let me clarify by saying that they are all pretty much the same and, when done properly, all lead to muscle growth. You're going to be using your free weight training program to build muscle as well as shape your body, not to be able to lift heavier and heavier weights. You will get stronger over time but if you want to get much bigger naturally... you should be thinking "train for size" and not so much "train for size & strength".

Getting Started

Prior to designing your free weight training program establish in your mind a realistic number of training days per week you can commit yourself to as well as the time you have to spend in the gym on each training day. A good program should be complemented with a great lifestyle. If you're always rushing and never focusing on a task you won't be productive.

Train each of the 6 major muscle groups (meaning your Chest, Biceps, Back, Triceps, Legs, & Shoulders), only once per week. Train your core (meaning your Lower Back, Abs & Oblique Muscles) 2 or 3 times per week. Train your Calves once per week (if they are very developed relative to the rest of your body) or twice per week (if they seem underdeveloped relative to the rest of your body). Almost any upper body exercise helps develop your Forearms... therefore many people don't have to train them. Nevertheless, training them once every 10-14 calendar days (and not training days) will help to develop not only your forearms but your lower biceps as well, giving your arms a thicker, fuller, more complete look.

For a beginner all this may seem like a lot of training. Just keep in mind that, in total, it's only about 5-7 hours of weight training per week. For someone with some more experience in weight training this may seem too little. Your muscles need to rest in order to get bigger. If you train less, you preserve more energy. Most people who are striving to gain more mass over-train their muscles. If you do this, you'll never make significant gains. Ask yourself why so many of the natural gym goers that have been training for years, have gotten hardly any results after their first year of training. Results are what you want. If you're someone with experience in the gym but have made little or no progress over the past few years... something's got to change.

SIDE 1 of your free weight training program sheet should have a clear Weekly Training Schedule. Under each training day specify the muscle group(s) you will be working out. Don't forget to include core, calves, and cardio as well if it applies to that day. Make a note just beside your training schedule to work your forearms every 10-14 days or so (if you'd like to include them in your program). Also on the same side, write out your entire forearms, calves, core, & cardio routines... which should include the exercise name(s) with drawings (to help remind you what the exercise looks like), machine # (if applicable), # of sets, # of repetitions, and a blank space (for any additional notes you'd like to make in the future).

SIDE 2 of your program sheet is for your larger muscle groups and their respective exercises. It should be separated into 6 categories, one for each of the 6 major muscle groups (which, just to remind you, are Chest, Biceps, Back, Triceps, Legs, Shoulders). For each muscle group include the exercise name(s) with drawings, machine # (if applicable), # of sets, # of repetitions, and a blank space (for additional notes you'd like to make in the future). If you want to be super-meticulous you can also include rest time between sets, and a section for tracking the amounts of weight you use for each exercise.

I suggest you rest for about 1.5 to 3 minutes between sets for larger muscle groups (Chest, Biceps, Back, Triceps, Legs, Shoulders) and 1-1.5 minute(s) for the smaller muscle groups (Core, Calves, Forearms). I really don't think it's necessary to write down how much weight you used every time you do a set, for every exercise, and at every one of your workouts. Basing your progression on the amounts of weight you push is exactly the sort of thing that will limit your muscle-building potential. Another reason why I don't like the idea of writing down amounts of weight used is the simple fact that the focus is taken away from the workout itself. In between sets, you should be resting, occasionally sipping some water, and/or thinking about the way you will look and feel once you've reached your goal.

I'm not going to recommend a specific amount of weight that I think you "should" be pushing. I think everyone is different. Besides, the primary goal of this guide is to help you gain muscle mass (and not to become a professional strongman). When weight training you should be concerned only with getting a great pump, and not being able to push insanely heavy weights. You'll figure out what weight range works for you. If you're a beginner, I suggest you always start a new exercise with the lightest available weights. Slowly move up in weights, with every set, until you are able to reach the prescribed number of reps maximum comfortably. Eventually, as your muscles grow, you will get much stronger. So, whenever you are able to surpass the number of repetitions that a program suggests, add a little more weight to the exercise.

'Reps Maximum', for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is just the number of repetitions that a particular program suggests you perform. If I suggest performing 12 repetitions of an exercise, that means that you should not be able to complete more than 12 repetitions with a given weight, but come as close as possible. The ideal, therefore, is that your 12th repetition ends up being the maximum number of repetitions you can push out with a given amount of weight.

Start with two or three exercises for each major muscle group, performing them with control using strict form and appropriate weight for attaining the prescribed number of reps maximum comfortably. For beginners, this is usually more than enough training. However, if after about a month you see little or no results, add one exercise to each of the muscle groups.

How Important Is...

Cardio Training?

You can make incredible gains in muscle mass while still doing cardio 2-3 times per week for about 20-30 minutes each time at a moderate intensity or 1-2 times per week for about 20-30 minutes each time at a high intensity. Cardio will keep you looking leaner, bigger, and more defined. Note: Make sure to warm up for at least 7-10 minutes before beginning your 20-30 minutes of moderate to high intensity cardio training (and cool down afterwards for about 5 minutes). An example of a warm-up (and a cool-down) is walking on a treadmill at a regular pace.


Stretching does help the muscles to grow. However, if you are very limited with time (due to a busy lifestyle), exclude it altogether from your program. Contrary to popular belief, stretching is by far the least important aspect of fitness. Still, it could help with your muscular development. If you're interested, gyms usually have stretching guides posted on their walls or offer free handouts including images demonstrating how to perform basic stretches. Information on the subject can also be found online, although, you'll want to make sure that the source is credible. You can do it for 10-15 minutes at the end of every workout, holding each individual stretch for about 30 seconds. Note: Make sure you are properly warmed up before stretching.

When To Change Your Program

I suggest you change your free weight training program every 2-3 months. Generally, somewhere in between that time you'll begin to get bored with it. Also, you'll have reached a peak in terms of size and strength. If you want to consistently gain muscle mass, change your program regularly. Continuing with the same program may lead to being unmotivated, feeling tired when performing an exercise, and/or even losing muscle mass. Eventually, once you've gained the desired weight, you'll change your free weight training program less often... because maintaining is easier than gaining. Note: When changing your program, you don't need to change your weekly training schedule in any way, only your exercises.

How To Change Your Free Weight Training Program

Basic strength training exercises guarantee results. Therefore, when it's time to change your program, you'll often include the same types of exercises. All you have to do is slightly tweak those exercises. Some of the ways you can do this are...

I. Switch Between Barbells, Dumbbells, Cables, & Machines

Cables alone come with a variety of attachments that enable you to perform a similar exercise with different grips and hand positions. Barbells also come in different shapes. The Straight Bar and E-Z Bar are the most conventional. Every 3rd or 4th program, you can include a Hammer or Zottman Bar in your weight lifting program, if it's available at your gym.

II. Switch Benches

Some exercises can be performed on several different benches. The different types of benches are...

  • Flat
  • Incline
  • Upright
  • Decline
  • Curved

Most of the time, the exercises you perform on benches (that are not attached to a machine) will be combined with free weights (meaning a type of barbell, or dumbbells).

III. Change Hand Grips {Palms Down, Palms Up, Hammer}

This one is pretty straight forward. I classify the different hand grips as...

  • Regular grip (or palms down)
  • Reverse grip (or palms up)
  • Hammer grip (or palms facing inwards)

Just keep in mind that there is a strong correlation between changing hand grips and changing hand positions.

IV. Change Hand Positions

Machines, cable attachments, barbells, and dumbbells alike usually allow the option to use different hand positions for similar exercises. I generally classify them as...

  • Your shoulder width
  • Wider than your shoulder width
  • Narrower than your shoulder width

Once again, keep in mind that there is a strong correlation between changing hand positions and changing hand grips.

V. Add Super-Sets

Super-setting is when two exercises are performed one after another with hardly any resting in between. Generally, supersets are used for 'cutting up'. I suggest you include a maximum of 1 superset exercise for each major muscle group per program. If you don't overdo it with the supersets, you won't lose size. Feel free to combine any two exercises that are categorized within the same muscle group (& not two different muscle groups). If you are new to weight training, do not include any supersets as part of your 1st program.

VI. Add Drop-Sets

A drop-set is a set of a particular exercise that is performed using a certain amount of weight, directly followed by another set of that same exact exercise, with a decreased amount of weight. The weight can be dropped down more than once. For example, you have the option to perform a double-drop-set. I suggest you do not drop the weight more than two times. A triple-drop-set may burn out the muscle being worked.

Drop-set exercises are great because they give you an awesome pump. Still, they take a lot of energy out of the muscle being worked, which is why only the last exercise of your workout (for each muscle) will usually be a drop-set exercise.

Your goal when performing a drop-set, similar to regular sets, is to reach the prescribed reps maximum. So, for example, if your program tells you to do 8 repetitions, then make sure that with every part of the set, you use an appropriate amount of weight to get you to 8 reps (no more, no less). Keep in mind that drop-sets are not a necessity to gaining muscle mass. Similar to super-sets, if you are new to weight training, don't use drop-sets as part of your 1st program.

VII. Alternate Sides

Many exercises, mainly those that require dumbbells or handles (which are a type of cable attachment), can be performed by alternating sides... helping you focus on each side independently. Some machines also allow you to do this. It enables you to really isolate the muscle being worked and to get a full contraction.

Free Weight Training Program

I've made designing your own free weight training program very simple by suggesting to perform 3 sets for each exercise you choose from the Exercise Guide. Everyone around you will suggest a different number of sets to perform. It's much more important to properly complete a few sets than focus on insignificant details. Keep in mind that your instincts are your most precise tool... so go with what you feel. I don't mind if you change the number of sets to perform. Don't do more than 5 or less than 2 sets, and always focus on the set itself... feeling your targeted muscles getting pumped all the way through.

With the exclusion of calves, lower back, and abs exercises... Complete 12 reps for the 1st set, 10 reps for the 2nd set, and 8 reps for the 3rd set... slightly increasing the weight with every consecutive set of that exercise for that particular day. The repetitions should be performed at a slow, constant speed (about 4-6 seconds for every repetition). You should be in total control at all times.

Use an amount of weight heavy enough that allows you to gradually get pumped without feeling panicked, uncomfortable, or in pain. Don't worry if you complete a few more or less than the number of repetitions I suggested. Do what you can to follow the free weight training program you've designed for yourself. I always tell people that they should do and can only do... their best.

If you did 12 reps and still have a little left in you, then you should push out a few more. If, according to your program, you're supposed to complete 12 reps, but during your set you run out of gas at about 8 reps, stop there. You shouldn't even perform one repetition while using bad form. This is how you get consistent results. Any other way will limit your progress, or worse - get you injured.

If this is going to be your first ever weight training program, or your first in a long time, perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions (for every exercise you choose) for the 1st month of training. Also, make sure an experienced fitness professional or strength trainer overlooks your free weight training program the first few times you perform a new exercise.

How many of the same type of exercise you should do varies per person. If you are a beginner to weight training, always start with one. As an example, in the case with Chest workouts, it would be one 'Incline Press'. Someone with a little more experience can perform two 'Incline Press' exercises, and so on (but the number doesn't usually exceed two). Keep in mind that the total number of exercises to be performed should also be respected. Once again using Chest as an example, it should fall in the range of three to five exercises. This means that for Chest, you'll perform no less than three exercises, and no more than five.

You can choose not to include certain types of exercises in every single program you create. That doesn't mean that you should avoid them altogether; Include those particular types of exercises in every 2nd or 3rd program you write for yourself. Popular examples are those that put a lot of strain on the body, namely squats, deadlifts, etc.

The next step in writing your program would be to select a tool for performing each type of exercise. In the case of 'Incline Press', you may decide to perform the exercise with a machine, barbell, or pair of dumbbells. A beginner, for example, can choose to perform an Incline Machine Press before moving on to the next type of exercise... which for Chest, more often than not, will be 'Flat Press'. Someone with more experience can choose to perform an 'Incline Dumbbell Press' followed by an 'Incline Barbell Press' before finally moving on to a 'Flat Press' exercise. In each case, a fly exercise will usually complete the workout.

Be aware that there are specifications other than equipment type to consider. For example, you could perform an exercise 'Seated' or 'Standing', or by using a 'High-Pulley Cable' or 'Low-Pulley Cable', or on different kinds of benches like 'Incline', 'Flat', 'Decline', 'Upright', etc.

This guide is the simplest method I could come up with for you to be able to write your own beginner-to-advanced free weight training program for years to come. The exercises that are included, and the order in which they are structured, are very important. There are so many options, that even if you will be training in a small gym or home gym that offers very limited equipment, you could still design programs similar to the ones I've used to gain nearly 100 pounds of lean muscle mass naturally.

Last but not least, have a fitness professional, personal trainer, gym instructor, or at least someone with a few years of weight training experience show you the proper form for each exercise you select to be part of your program. That said, I suggest you don't combine their advice with my own, on topics such as the number of sets and repetitions to perform, the speed at which the exercise should be performed, as well as the amount of weight you should be using, etc. Doing this will only lead to confusion and, therefore, slow down your progress.

Remember when designing your own free weight training program to include whenever possible a mix of Barbells (Straight Bar, E-Z Bar), Dumbbells, Machines, & Cables (Low Pulley, High Pulley). Each type of equipment serves a purpose and has an advantage over the others. Barbells (like straight bars & e-z bars) are great for developing overall size of the muscles allowing you to have a much wider and thicker frame. Dumbbells are also excellent for developing size, and are incredibly effective at shaping the muscle. Machines are great for isolating particular muscles, and are therefore useful tools for improving on weak points. Working with cables gives the muscles more definition because they trigger all of the muscle fibers close to and within the targeted muscle.

If you're a beginner to strength training, include mostly Machines in your first free weight training program. They're convenient for less experienced strength trainers because their pre-set movement demonstrates proper form for exercises that will later be performed with free weights. As your experience with weight training moves to intermediate or advanced levels, include mostly Free Weights in your programs. You should, however, continue to include some machines and/or cable exercises.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you concerning your free weight training program, is that it's not the equipment you use that makes the biggest difference - Rather, it's the way you perform each exercise. No matter how much equipment you have access to, or the quality of that equipment... if you use perfect form, you could only get quality results.

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