Alas, my faithful readers, we have arrived at the grand finale of this series covering the lost art of whole-body training. For those who have read the first two installments, I hope you have enjoyed the journey so far. For those who missed the previous installments (shame on you), you can get yourself up to speed here:

Link to Part I
Link to Part II

This final installment is about the principles I use to structure programs based on whole-body training. The goal is to give you enough information that you can go away and create your own program utilizing whole-body training. So, without further ado, let’s review the main principles on which I build these programs.

Rule 1 – Basic Movement Patterns and Optimal Exercise Selection

When you are using a whole-body approach, the majority of your training volume is going to be made up of compound lifts. To reap the benefit of whole-body training you must invest most of your efforts into those movements. The goal is simple, get the lifter proficient at the basic movement patterns, and then get them brutally strong at them. The basic movement patterns in most cases are going to be:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Press
  • Pull

In some circumstances, we may include carries as a main movement pattern, especially in the cases of strongman competitors or sports athletes.

Focusing on these movements patterns not only gives us the best efficiency in terms of stimulus versus exercise variety, but it also means that we will build a balanced athlete/lifter. I mention this because I’ve genuinely seen “whole-body” workouts like this:

I’m not going to even address why this is an issue…

When designing workouts, I will either include three compound lifts and a small amount of isolation work, or four compound lifts and no other work. If four compound lifts are used, then the structure of the workout would be as follows:

Workout Utilizing Four Compound Lifts

  • Squat
  • Press
  • Hinge
  • Pull

When three compound lifts the structure would generally be:

Workout Utilizing Three Compound Lifts

  • Squat
  • Press
  • Pull/Hinge movement
  • Accessory work

If a hinge movement is performed as a main lift, then I would be sure to add pulling work to the isolation work and vice-versa. Hinge movements are performed last purely because they generally tax the lower back and nervous system the most and would lead to us underperforming movements that come afterward. The only common exception here would be if the lifter is performing an Olympic lift variation; since these are so complex and are more dependent on a fresh nervous system to perform well, they would go first in the workout (they are performed in place of the Pull/Hinge movement).

So, the workout would now look like this:

Workout Utilizing Olympic Lift Variation

  • Olympic Lift variation
  • Press
  • Squat
  • Accessory work

What also becomes important in this context is being able to choose optimal variations of each movement pattern. We don’t have a huge variety of exercises to depend on to help us address all of our weak points. So, we need to use the main lifts themselves to address those weak points. For example, let’s say we have a powerlifter who has weak quads. They are squatting three days per week, so they may use the following setup:

  • Day 1 – Front Squat
  • Day 2 – Narrow-stance Heels-elevated Back Squat
  • Day 3 – Competition-style Back Squat

We could then include some isolated quad work in their accessory work also.

Or, if we have another powerlifter who was weak off the chest on their bench, we may go with:

  • Day 1 – Wide-grip 1.5-rep Bench Press (one rep = go to the bottom, press halfway up, go back to the
  • bottom, then press all the way up)
  • Day 2 – Bow-bar Paused Bench Press
  • Day 3 – Long-pause Competition-style Bench Press

You get the idea.

If you are good at diagnosing your weak points and selecting variations of the main movements to target them, you will be amazed at how little isolation work you require.

Rule 2 – Every Workout Focuses On a Specific Stimulus

To get the best results from each whole-body workout, we want each workout to focus on a specific stimulus or facet of performance. Training using primarily compound lifts is neurologically demanding; we do not want to increase that neurological demand further by having several different stimuli within one session. We want to use the same intensity zone and energy system throughout the whole workout.

In fact, this is one of my criticisms of some daily undulated periodization (DUP) systems; they will often vary the loading parameters from exercise to exercise. A squat movement may be trained for max strength, then a pressing movement for power, and then a hinge or pulling movement for hypertrophy. This variation within a session will cause a greater increase in cortisol/adrenaline and make the session harder to recover from. Here are some of the configurations I like to use with regard to segregating the weekly workouts:

1 – Physical Quality Split

This is one that would primarily be used with athletes. Here we split the workouts so that each one focuses on a different physical quality that we want to improve, such as power, maximal strength, strength endurance, and hypertrophy.
A power workout for an athlete may look something like this:

  • A – Hang Power Clean – 5 sets of 2 at 70-80% 1 rep max (1RM hereon in)
  • B – Back Squat from Pin (knees at 90-100 degrees) – 3 sets of 2 at 80-90% 1RM of full range Back Squat
  • C – Push Press – 5 sets of 3 at 70% 1RM

Whereas a strength endurance workout may look something like this:

  • 1A – Back Squat x 3-5 at 75-80% 1RM
  • 20-30 seconds rest
  • 1B – Heavy Sled Push x 60-80m, walking pace
  • 2-3 minute rest
  • 2A – Incline Bench Press x 3-5 at 75-80% 1RM
  • 20-30 seconds rest
  • 2B – Overhead Carry x 60-80 meters, walking pace

*Note – this is one of the few instances where I would use a super-set format within a workout. 90%+ of the time, we want to use a straight sets format to keep performance high and not cause excess cortisol/adrenaline release.

The whole point here is that each session is based on improving physical quality for the whole body. We want the same rep style and energy systems used throughout, i.e., during the above power workout we would be aiming for all reps to be explosive and to have no decrease in bar movement speed during the set.

2 – Loading Parameter

This is essentially the “lifters version” of the above. What we’re essentially looking at here is DUP. I may have criticized it earlier, but when the loading parameters are the same kept within a workout this is a very effective system.

Each workout is going to be based on using a different loading zone relative to your 1RM. The set and rep scheme will vary to match the loading zone that you have chosen for that workout. Here are some examples of loading zones and the physical quality they are best used to improve:

  • 100%+ 1RM – Over-load Work. Best utilized for desensitizing GTOs, increasing firing rate, and improving whole-body stiffness
  • 92-100% 1RM+ - Maximal Strength Work. Effective for desensitizing GTOs, increasing firing rate, and improving neurological efficiency with heavy loads (i.e. the skill of lifting heavy). This is the zone for learning to DISPLAY strength you already have.
  • 85-92% - Strength Work. This zone will still provide the neurological adaptations mentioned above, just to a lesser degree. However, loading in this zone can be done at a high enough volume to stimulate some hypertrophy.
  • 77.5-85% - Heavy Hypertrophy Work. This zone gives us a very good blend of neurological adaptations and hypertrophy stimulus. Due to the degree of loading pretty much all reps will be maximally effective, which makes it a very efficient method for stimulating hypertrophy. While it won’t help you display maximal strength it allows you to build muscle effectively (providing adequate volume) while still positively affecting the nervous system. As such, this is the best zone for BUILDING strength.
  • 60-77.5% - Lighter Hypertrophy Work. We can still maximally stimulate hypertrophy in this zone, provided we push our work sets to the correct level of exertion. The downside being here that the loading isn’t heavy enough to have any positive effects on the nervous system.
  • 50-60% 1RM – Hypertrophy and Tendon Development. The lower loading can still cause an effective hypertrophy response provided the exertion level is high enough. Alongside this, we are going to get the benefit of developing thicker tendons, which in time, will make them more resilient to injury. This can be achieved by doing traditional high-rep work (20+ reps) or through the use of slow eccentrics (which, in my opinion, is more beneficial).

3 – Contraction Type

This is my favorite system to utilize with a whole-body split. Here we use each workout to focus on a specific contraction type, so we would have:

  • Eccentric Emphasis
  • Isometric Emphasis
  • Concentric/Explosive/Ballistic Emphasis

I was first introduced to this principle by my mentor, Christian Thibaudeau, and his Omni-Contraction System (OCTS). When I started implementing this with my competitive lifters, the results were phenomenal. Not only were they getting stronger and improving their technique, but their rate of injuries plummeted. In my opinion, the OCTS takes the work of the likes of Cal Dietz (Tri-Phasic Training) and improves upon it. Training all three contraction types simultaneously has proven to be much more beneficial than splitting them across different phases of training. I’m not going to reel off the endless benefits of this system. If you want to know more about it, you can listen to the Table Talk Episode where Dave, Naomi, and I discuss all the different types of eccentric, isometric, and concentric methods and their benefits:

4 – Peaking

During a peaking phase, a whole-body approach can also allow you to perform your competition lifts regularly. Now, we can’t simply go maxing out the competition lifts three times per week realistically. Instead, we use a variation of the loading parameter structure laid out above. We lift maximally in the first session of the week, and this then gives us numbers to base our percentages for the other two workouts of the week. We then have a few different options we can use for the other two workouts of the week depending on the lifter’s requirements:

Day 1 – Ramp

Here we work up to one top set on each of our main lifts. It could be anywhere from a one to a five-rep max depending on the lifter and how far from competing they are. The top set should be technically solid and no higher than a nine on the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale; if you are sniffing ammonia and getting yourself psyched up, you’ve done it wrong.

Day 2 – Overload or Strength-Skill

The overload workout here would be for advanced trainees only, ideally those who already have experience with supra-maximal work. This workout could involve methods such as overloaded eccentrics with weight releasers, partial lifts, heavy holds/supports, or using supportive equipment to allow more weight to be lifted (i.e., using a Slingshot or similar device for bench press). The sets and reps can vary but the rule is that the load used MUST be heavier than that achieved on the full lift on day one. If we’re utilizing a strength-skill approach then we will need to drop the load down enough that we can focus on technical perfection, and also perform enough volume to get in a meaningful amount of practice. As a guideline, we’re looking to use a load that is 80-85% of our top set from day one and achieves a total rep count of 10-20 reps per exercise.

Day 3 – Weak Point or Speed Work

Our last workout of the week can be used to help strengthen a weak point in the main lift. The lift used on this day can even change weekly depending on what technical faults are observed in the main lift on day one. There are two rules that we need to follow here, however. Firstly, the loading needs to stay heavy (we are peaking after all remember), so the load should be at least 80% of what we worked up to on day one. This allows us to work on the weakness in a similar loading zone and to get the most direct carryover. The second rule is that the exercise chosen needs to be VERY close to the competition lift so that there can be a fast and direct carryover. For example, if your lockout is weak on the bench then performing a bench press with chains (using your competition grip and setup) would be a better choice than a close-grip bench press or partial bench press from pins. If the lifter is going to struggle to recover from performing a weak point workout on day three, then we can substitute it for a speed day instead. This is just another technique/skill day in disguise but with lighter loads. This allows the lifter to perform even more productive practice of their main lifts without overly taxing their nervous system. This would be done by performing sub-maximal sets of one to three reps at around 70-75% of our top set from day one.

Rule 3 – Goal Dependant Exercise Variation

How many different exercises one should have in their program and how often they should vary them depends primarily on the goal of the program. More exercise variation will cause a greater degree of neurological fatigue, especially when performing exercises that you have not “mastered”. The reason for this is that the more motor learning that is required, the more cortisol and adrenaline are released to effectively speed up your brain/nervous system. This is why Olympic lifters can perform heavy cleans and snatches so regularly. These movements have become so automatic to them that they cause little to no neurological stress anymore.

So, if performance is our goal, too much variety will lead to sub-par neurological recovery and hinder our ability to perform. Furthermore, if we want maximal performance on chosen lifts then we want to be performing those lifts as regularly as possible so that we can maximize our efficiency with them. A low degree of variation would allow us to perform those chosen lifts several times throughout the week.
If you’re an athlete and you are in-season or close to your season, a new exercise should only be introduced if it is absolutely necessary.

Conversely, if hypertrophy is your main goal, then a higher degree of variety will be in your best interest. Here being “too good” at a chosen exercise can lead to it being a worse stimulus for hypertrophy. The more efficient you are at a specific motor pattern, the more intra- and inter-muscular coordination you have during that movement. This essentially leads to the muscles “sharing the load” more efficiently, leading to less stress on any individual fiber at any time, which is bad for hypertrophy. What this doesn’t mean however is that we go full “muscle confusion, bro” mode.

The exercises that you choose still need to be ones that you are proficient at because otherwise, you won’t be able to handle enough load on them to stimulate the hypertrophy you desire. You will be too limited by a lack of skill/coordination. As such there ends up being a fine balance between too much and too little variation. Generally, if hypertrophy is the main aim I will keep an exercise in the rotation until it stops improving regularly. This shows that the lifter has reached the point where they have picked the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of neurological adaptations. But bear in mind that when doing this we are picking from a pool of movements that the lifter is already familiar with. I like to have 3-6 variations for each movement pattern that we can cycle between depending on how quickly the lifter learns new motor patterns.

Rule 4 – Manage Exertion and Stress

I mentioned this briefly above but when planning the format of whole-body sessions the goal is to keep the neurological stress as low as possible. This is already a neurologically taxing training style, so we don’t want to add to that unnecessarily. I achieve this through the following:

1 – Straight Sets Only

When structuring the workout I will use a straight sets format in 99% of cases. Simply put, this means that you finish all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next. So, if front squat is the first exercise in your workout you would perform all your work sets before moving on to the next exercise of the workout. Methods such as super-sets that have you switching between different movement patterns will cause a greater release of cortisol and adrenaline as your nervous system must be working faster to swap efficiently between different tasks.

2 – Utilise RPE or RIR Wisely

In these circumstances, I much prefer to use RPE or reps in reserve (RIR) when prescribing intensity rather than percentages. RPE/RIR allows us to gauge the difficulty of a set based on how we feel that day and even adjust from set to set should fatigue begin to accumulate or we get our initial weight selection wrong.

I do like using percentages in some circumstances, with more linear strength-based progressions. However, when training whole-body three times per week, overdoing it in one session can easily have a negative impact on several sessions that come afterward. If we’re using a lift-based split for example, if we push a little too hard on squat on Monday, then our pressing muscles won’t be HUGELY impacted during our bench session on Wednesday. Yes, we may be carrying a little more neurological fatigue than we’d like, but at least from a muscular perspective, the impact isn’t too severe. This obviously isn’t going to be the case when we are using whole-body training sessions.

I like to keep RPE around an 8-8.5 in the vast majority of cases when it comes to the compound lifts here. It gives us the best balance between being intense enough to stimulate progress but not so intense that we overly stress our nervous system and/or end up having a breakdown in technique (which itself leads to a higher stress load.)

3 – No Training on the Nerve

This follows nicely from my previous point. Training “on the nerve” is a term coined by Vassily Alexeyev (look him up). It means that in the gym we should not be psyching ourselves up for lifts or attempting weights that we are not sure of making. When you’re about to attempt an intimidating lift you’ll likely start to feel a little anxious, your heart rate and blood pressure will jack up, and you may even get a bit shaky (especially in the hands). This is all a sign that your adrenaline (and therefore cortisol) is high.
This “fight or flight” response can be very useful in a life-or-death scenario, such as having to make your third squat attempt because you completely f***ed your opening two attempts (not speaking from experience here of course). The elevated adrenaline will increase the firing rate of your nervous system and your maximum (voluntary) contraction force along with potentially dampening any self-doubt and increasing confidence (hooray for neurotransmitters).

The downside, however, is that it’s like taking out a loan for energy, you must pay it back later on, with interest added on. You may get around a five percent increase from psyching yourself up, maybe more if you’re an individual who is sensitive to adrenaline, but it will greatly increase the amount of stress on the nervous system from that set. Then if you start doing this for multiple sets, that loan you took out gets bigger and bigger, and so do the interest payments.

I’m not saying to NEVER get revved up for a lift, but if you are downing pre-workout every session and sniffing ammonia for half of your work sets then you are doing much more harm than good. Eventually, you’ll get so many beta receptors (the receptors that respond to adrenaline) downregulation that you’ll need to do two lines of cocaine just to get the energy/motivation to squat the empty bar (semi-joking).
What matters the most with this system, and with every training system in my opinion, is having the greatest proportion of decent or OK sessions; long-term success is built from stringing together hundreds of sessions that are completely unspectacular and not memorable in any way. Sure, you may remember that squat session where you popped two tablets of ephedrine, head-butted a hole in the wall, and then hit a (insert number) rep personal best. But you’ll selectively ignore the two or three terrible workouts you had directly after it because you were so drained.

4 – Rest Periods

There is a large amount of evidence now that indicates what was widely known for a long time; when training for strength, longer rest periods lead to greater performance and therefore greater results over time (1) (2) (3).

More recent studies have also indicated that longer rest periods are also in fact superior when training for hypertrophy (3).
There are many factors that affect optimal rest periods. However, all else being equal, the more muscles and joints involved in a lift, the more rest we are going to need because the neurological and muscular demand of the exercise will be greater. Since most of our program is going to be made up of compound movements we will be using longer rest periods for the majority of our workout. For most, three to four minutes of rest between sets will be ideal between work sets on their main movements. This is largely based on the relationship between post-activation potential (PAP) and fatigue.

After performing a heavy set our nervous system has an increased level of activation (PAP) BUT we also have a level of fatigue after performing the previous set. If we perform our next set after one minute of rest our PAP will be very high as our nervous system will still be “switched on” from the previous set, but our fatigue will also still be high due to the short rest period. At this point, the benefit of the PAP will generally be heavily outweighed by the residual fatigue and our performance will be reduced.

Similarly, if we wait five or six minutes after our previous set then our residual fatigue will likely be completely gone but we will have also lost our PAP (it lasts four to five minutes at most in most people). This is why the sweet spot tends to be three or four minutes of rest. It will mean that we still get a small benefit from PAP but are doing our sets with minimal residual fatigue from the previous set. This period is also long enough for the lifter to mentally review the previous set (what they could have done better, does the load need to be adjusted, etc.) and then re-focus for the next set. Sometimes even if you are physically fit enough to do your next set earlier you may struggle from a mental perspective to concentrate fully on each set.

In the context of whole-body training specifically, three to four minutes of rest allows us to perform well without causing the increase in neurological stress that comes with reduced rest periods (training density is another factor that affects cortisol/adrenaline release). Three to four minutes also isn’t so long that it means your workout will take too long and you will struggle to concentrate for the duration of the session. If you have 12 work sets on compound movements in a session, then you have a total of 36-48 minutes of rest in the main body of your workout.

When it comes to the accessory or isolation work that comes afterward, we can reduce the rest periods due to the lower degree of neurological fatigue from the preceding set. For free weight movements, you could go as low as 90 seconds to two minutes depending on the nature of the lift. Cable and machine movements cause even less neurological fatigue so you may benefit from reducing the rest period even more here, depending on the intensiveness of the set.


So, dear reader, we have reached the conclusion of this series of articles. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

This article should be the final piece of the puzzle that gives you a good understanding of why whole-body training may be worth experimenting with, the pros and cons of this training split, and finally how to structure your workouts and program.
Regardless of whether you choose to utilize it with your own training, or the training of your athletes, I hope that you now have a better understanding of this training system and that it can be another tool in your toolbox when required.


  1. de Salles BF, Simão R, Miranda F, Novaes Jda S, Lemos A, Willardson JM. Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Med. 2009;39(9):765-77. doi: 10.2165/11315230-000000000-00000. PMID:=19691365.
  2. Grgic J, Schoenfeld BJ, Skrepnik M, Davies TB, Mikulic P. Effects of Rest Interval Duration in Resistance Training on Measures of Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review. Sports Med. 2018 Jan;48(1):137-151. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0788-x. PMID: 28933024.
  3. Brad J. Schoenfeld, Zachary K. Pope, Franklin M. Benik, Garrett M. Hester, John Sellers, Josh L. Nooner, Jessica A. Schnaiter, Katherine E. Bond-Williams, Adrian S. Carter, Corbin L. Ross, Brandon L. Just, Menno Henselmans, James W. Krieger. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 30, Number 7, July 2016, pp. 1805-1812(8)
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Tom Sheppard is a UK-based strength and powerlifting coach. As a coach, he has worked with professional athletes from a wide variety of sports worldwide, including rugby, baseball, MMA, and high-level powerlifters. Tom is the co-owner of Phoenix Performance and the Head Coach at Thibarmy. He also contributes content for companies such as elitefts and T-Nation. Tom presented at the 2022 SWIS Symposium alongside some of the biggest names in the fitness industry.  

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