A heuristic is a way of thinking that attempts to declutter the signal from the noise. It’s a general way of approaching an issue, not necessarily something that will be perfect, but a model that helps keep you grounded on the principles and avoid being overly analytical at the expense of taking action (i.e. “paralysis through analysis”). For those training for strength, here is a simple heuristic to keep in mind if you’re ever struggling to decide what to do: pick 3-5 exercises*, for 3-5 sets* of 3-5 reps**, with 3-5 minutes of rest between sets. I believe I first saw Pavel write about this years ago, but it’s stuck with me ever since. When trying to program, start by creating a single week of training. Pick 3-5 exercises ( let’s say the squat, press, and deadlift). Now we’ll perform each of these for 3 sets of 5 reps. As a general rule, we want to train a minimum of twice per week to see meaningful progress (i.e. in strength, muscle growth, and technique/skill). You could take it a step further and add a day of the week, and maybe add an exercise (e.g bench press), and you basically get the Starting Strength Novice Progression.
So let’s say you run this program for 8 weeks before you get stuck. What next? Well, you could google “strength training programs” and sift through the nearly 4.9 million results. You could refer to some of the resources I’ve linked through this website ( Barbell Medicine, Alan Thrall, Mike Tuscherer, Practical Programming/Barbell Prescription), or you could try something on your own and see how it works. For example, maybe you hit a wall doing 3 sets of 5 reps on 4 basic exercises. Let’s also say you’re a bit tired and beat up from doing the same movements, and want a little bit of change. Maybe you switch from low bar squats to high bar squats. Maybe instead of flat bench pressing, you use a slight incline. Maybe instead of deadlifting, you give rack pulls a try. Or maybe you keep it the same. Remember, “3-5 exercises.” Just pick 3-5, and aim to improve on them. Before we were doing 3 sets of 5 reps, so maybe we transition to 4 sets of 5 reps (remember 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps gives lots of options). And since we may have accumulated quite a bit of fatigue by the end of that 8-week program, maybe our aim starting this cycle is to begin with a weight that takes us further from failure in order to learn the movements and reduce some of that stress.
Sure, there are plenty of things we can improve on with this heuristic, and definitely some combinations you could choose out of the gates that I probably wouldn’t recommend given someone’s situation. But for people just starting out, who want to write their own programs and have minimal experience, try this simple heuristic. If you track what you’re doing, progressively overload over time, and review what seems to be working best for you, you’ll get a better understanding of how to write future programs. Most importantly, you’ll be taking action and moving forward, as opposed to standing still trying to figure out what to do.
*In general, try and pick multi-joint, compound movements that train lots of muscle mass. This includes squats, presses, bench press, deadlift, chin-ups, and rows. For sets and reps, I generally like to start people with 3 sets of 5. I usually don’t begin novices with 3 sets of 3 or 5 sets of 5. As you gain experience those will likely become a part of training, but starting out at 3 sets of 5 reps seems to be a nice middle ground.
**Reps might need to change depending on what movements you pick. Things like dumbbell bench pressing can be really tough for sets of 3-5 reps. This is why starting (if possible) with the barbell movements lend themselves well to long-term loading.