No matter how well designed your long-term training plan is, if your actual workouts suck, your plan simply won’t deliver the goods. And sadly, many people’s workouts do in fact suck (relative to their goals), so recently I set out to identify the differences between how I train people (and myself for that matter), compared to what I see a lot of other people doing in the gym. The following article describes, in detail, the strategy I use to design highly effective workouts. Called “Primary Pattern Programming,” this system is both simple and powerful. It allows maximum creative freedom without allowing you to “fall off the rails” as I often joke. Enjoy! — Charles Staley
I created Primary Pattern Programming based on the following two premises:
1) Most people who train with weights are primarily interested in getting stronger and/or improving body composition (meaning, having low bodyfat levels and a significant amount of muscularity)
2) Most people who train with weights want workouts that are maximally efficient, as well as maximally effective.
If your training goals are different than what I just listed, PPP may not be what you’re looking for — for example your primary goals might be more centered around injury prevention/rehab, athleticism, and/or developing other fitness traits such as cardiovascular capacity or mobility.
One other qualifier before we we dig deeper into this topic: PPP is not a periodization format — instead, it can be integrated into almost any popular periodization scheme, including linear and DUP (daily undulating periodization) styles. PPP at its essence, is a strategy for populating exercises into weekly training cycles.
With those introductory thoughts in hand, the question now becomes, what is the most efficient way to create a maximally effective workout for the purposes of strength and/or hypertrophy development? In my mind, the answer is summed up with the following statement:
The most efficient and effective workouts are those that address the maximum amount of muscle, with the fewest number of exercises, with the least amount of redundancy.
In my experience, I’ve found that the best way to accomplish those ends is to think about exercises in terms of movement patterns, rather than muscles. Over the years, various experts have identified several different “primary” or fundamental movement patterns, which include everything from vertical and horizontal pushing, vertical and horizontal pulling, squatting, hinging, rotation, lunging, and gait, just to name some of the best-known examples.
Introducing Primary Patterns
For the purposes of training to improve strength and muscle mass, I’ve consolidated the various possible options down to four “primary” patterns:
- Squat (including single-leg movements such as lunging and step-ups)
- Push (both horizontal and vertical)
- Hinge (any multi-joint movement that involves strong hip extension forces)
- Pull (both horizontal and vertical)
Exercises that fit within these 4 patterns have a few things in common:
- They involve motion around more than one joint
- They stress more than one muscle or muscle group
- They facilitate the use of relatively large loads, resulting in high muscular tensions
- They require relatively large amounts of energy
In short, they create a high amount of homeostatic disruption, which is a primary requirement when your goal is to fundamentally change your body. Each PPP workout is comprised of 4 primary pattern exercises (one from each category), which allows a tremendous amount of creative freedom within the overall structure of this system. Just taking the squat category as an example, here is an incomplete list of potential exercise options:
- High bar squat
- Leg Press
- Step up
- Low bar squat
- Split squat
- Hack Squat machine
- Front squat
- Band-resisted squat
- Rear-Foot elevated split squat
- Hip belt squat
- Goblet squat
- Forward/reverse lunge
- Pause squat
- Overhead squat
- Alternating lunge (in place)
- Band-resisted step up
- Walking lunge
- Box squat
- Jump squat
- Reverse lunge
- Sumo squat
The remaining 3 categories have similar possibilities. Despite all these options, I’m sure you’ve already noticed that there’s no obvious place for many exercises you might like and use, including:
- Direct arm, ab, trap, forearm, deltoid, and calf exercises
- Box jumps
- Olympic lifts
- Many kettlebell drills
- Loaded carries
- Sled pushes and drags
- Get ups
- Various types of activation, mobility, corrective exercise, and/or mobility drills
I certainly recognize the value of these exercises for specific contexts, and for that reason, PPP workouts allow for up to 2 “secondary” exercises per workout (these secondary movements are considered “optional,” and to be done after the 4 “compulsory” primary pattern exercises). The reason these exercises are both secondary and optional is that, compared to primary pattern exercises, secondary exercises train fewer muscles, smaller muscles, and tend to impose less homeostatic disruption.
Anatomy Of A PPP Workout
Here’s a hypothetical example of a Primary Pattern Programming training session, so that you’ll be able to move from theory to practice. This happens to be a “whole body” workout, but PPP can also be used with upper body and lower body sessions as well:
- Exercise 1 (Squat): Rear foot elevated split squat
- Exercise 2 (Push): Dumbbell seated press
- Exercise 3 (Hinge): Barbell RDL
- Exercise 4 (Pull): Neutral grip pullups
- Exercise 5 (Secondary #1): Incline dumbbell curls
- Exercise 6 (Secondary #2): Lying dumbbell tricep extensions
A second hypothetical example illustrates the diverse possibilities that PPP workouts allow, while still conforming to the principles of the overall system:
- Exercise 1 (Squat): Overhead squat
- Exercise 2 (Push): Ring pushups
- Exercise 3 (Hinge): Glute bridge
- Exercise 4 (Pull): Towel pullups
- Exercise 5 (Secondary #1) Toes to bar
- Exercise 6 (Secondary #2): Turkish get ups
And finally, a third hypothetical just to stimulate some creative thinking on your part:
- Exercise 1 (Squat): Leg press
- Exercise 2 (Push): Bench press
- Exercise 3 (Hinge): Block pull
- Exercise 4 (Pull): T bar row
- Exercise 5 (Secondary #1) Barbell curl
- Exercise 6 (Secondary #2): Standing calf raise
Notice that you could have a gym full of people, all doing PPP workouts, and yet all doing completely different exercises. In fact, the only thing these lifters would have in common is that their workouts are efficient and effective. You’ll only see a minimum of “lesser” movements like curls, tricep pushdowns, and leg extensions. By definition, whenever you train PPP style at least two thirds of your workout will consist of high “bang for your buck” exercises. And if you happen to like movements that I consider to be “irrational” for the purposes of maximally-efficient strength and muscle acquisition (power cleans, box jumps, crunches, get ups, tricep kickbacks, and curls, just to name a few), you’ll be happy to know you can still do them. And yes, I do realize that many of these movements are in fact good choices for many people, despite my overall objections to them, which is why I’ve designated the “secondary” exercise category.
Wait! There Is One Final But Important Component to PPP…
This final consideration involves the order in which you perform your exercises, and specifically, I recommend a “circuit” style approach to exercise order. In other words, gym logistics permitting, you’ll perform the 4 primary exercises in a circuit, rather than completing all sets of exercise 1 before moving to the next exercise, and so on. There are a few different reasons for this recommendation:
1) Circuit training tends to be much more time-efficient than a station training approach — meaning, you can perform more total work in less time.
2) Circuit training has more cardiovascular benefit than station training.
3) Circuit training prevents you from giving the lion’s share of your energy to your favorite exercise or muscle group. This not only facilitates a more balanced physique and strength profile, it also reduces the risk of overuse injury. As a simple example, I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve consulted to male clients who had bench-press -induced shoulder issues over the years. Nearly all of these guys managed to correct these problems by doing the bench press as the last exercise of the workout, as opposed to the first. Now sure, if you bench at the end of your workout, you won’t be as strong as compared to benching at the beginning of your session, but hear me out — that’s a good thing when you have shoulder pain! And needless to say, you’ll bench more weight with pain-free shoulders at the end of your workout than you will with painful shoulders at the beginning of the session, right? Bottom line — a large proportion of exercise-specific orthopedic pain isn’t the fault of the exercise itself, but rather, spending too much time, too much energy and using too much weight (and often, cutting corners in order to use that much weight) on that exercise. When you train in circuits, every exercise you do receives equal time, attention, and energy. This doesn’t solve all injury issues, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve used it to save my clients from time-consuming and expensive doctor and physical therapy visits.
Frequently Asked Questions:
I’ve anticipated your most likely questions concerning PPP, which I’ve answered below. That being said, if you still have questions about this system of training, please post them in the comments section below.
Q: How many sets/reps should I use?
A: This depends on your primary training goal and your individual maximum recoverable volume. That being said, in general, when your training objective is hypertrophy, reps should be in the 8-15 range for most sets, and when strength is your primary goal, reps should usually stay in the 1-7 range. Sets/per exercise/per workout will typically be between 3-6.
Q: What if it’s difficult or impossible to use circuit training in my gym?
A: The next best option is to do your 4 primary movements in pairings — for example, complete all working sets for your squat and push movements, followed by all sets of your hinge and pull drills, and finally, if you’re using secondary exercises (remember — these are optional) finish up with that. If you simply must train station-style, do so, but I recommend you change the your exercise order from workout to workout.
Q: What about (list your favorite exercise here that doesn’t fit in any of the 4 primary pattern categories)?
A: Do them as secondary exercises.
Q: I have a question about warmups — I need more warmup sets for some exercises (like deadlifts for example) than for others. So should I do all my warmups in a circuit also, or get a “head start” on the exercises that need more warming up?
A: Both methods are acceptable, and each has its distinct benefits and drawbacks. During a recent workout, I did barbell squats, flat dumbbell bench presses, weighted back extensions, pullups, and standing dumbbell curls. I needed no warmup sets for the pullups, and back extensions, but I did need warmup sets for the dumbbell benches and squats. In this session, I simply did every warmup and work set circuit style, which meant I finished the pullups, and back extensions first, followed by dumbbell benches, and finally squats. By the time I got to my work sets on squats, all of my other work had already been completed. The down side of this was that I was probably fairly fatigued by the time I got to my heaviest sets of squats, but the upside was that I was thoroughly warmed up.
If, on the other hand, I had decided to get a head start on my squat warmups, I would have been less fatigued, but also less warmed up for my squat work sets. As long as you understand these trade offs, you’ll be able to make the best decisions for your own workouts.
Q: Can I do the same exercise for each category every workout, rather than (for example) using a different squat movement each workout?
A: You can — this is a good strategy when you’re trying to improve your strength on a specific exercise, like the bench press for example. However, when overall muscle mass and body composition is the main goal, it’s probably better to use maximum variety in your exercise choices.
Q: I have a specific warmup/activation/prehab routine that I really like — can I continue to use it with PPP?
Q: I’m a weightlifter (as in Olympic weightlifting) — how might I use PPP in my training?
A: Basically you’d start each workout with 1-2 sport-specific exercise (snatch, clean & jerk, or variants of these 2 skills), and follow it with standard PPP training for your “assistance” exercises. Here’s an example of what that might look like:
- Exercise 1: Competition snatch
- Exercise 2: Power clean & push jerk
- Exercise 1 (Squat): Front Squat
- Exercise 2 (Push): Push press
- Exercise 3 (Hinge): Snatch pull from knees
- Exercise 4 (Pull): Bent Row with barbell
Q: Earlier you mentioned that PPP could be used with dedicated workouts for upper or lower body — how would that work?
A: Essentially, each lower-body session would be composed of (2) squat movements, and (2) hinge exercises. Secondary drills, if used, would obviously be for lower-body muscles. Here’s an example:
- Exercise 1 (Squat): Split squat
- Exercise 2 (Hinge): RDL
- Exercise 3 (Squat): Leg press
- Exercise 4 (Hinge): 45º back extension
- Exercise 5 (Secondary #1) Lying leg curl
- Exercise 6 (Secondary #2): Standing calf raise
Same idea for PPP upper-body sessions, only you’d use (2) push movements and (2) pull drills, like this:
- Exercise 1 (Push): Flat barbell bench press
- Exercise 2 (Pull): Pullups
- Exercise 3 (Push): Incline dumbbell press
- Exercise 4 (Pull): Landmine row
- Exercise 5 (Secondary #1) Hammer curl
- Exercise 6 (Secondary #2): Dumbbell shrug
Q: Where can I learn more about PPP?
A: Here are a few of the more popular articles I’ve written on the subject:
Charles Staley calls himself “The oldest, skinniest guy you’ll ever see deadlifting 500 pounds.” More seriously, Charles is known as an iconoclast and a leading influencer in the fitness arena. His reputation and self-effacing style have lead to appearances on NBC’s The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show, along with numerous radio and podcast appearances. He has authored more than 1000 articles for leading fitness publications and websites, and has lectured to eager audiences around the World. Charles is not only a thinker, but also a doer: At age 58, he competes in the sport of raw powerlifting, and is a 3-time World Champion (220 and 198-pound weight classes). His popular Staley Strategies online coaching program allows people to train under his expert guidance, regardless of where they live.