Splitting the Difference – One Way to Program for Endurance and Muscle Growth


One way to program for endurance and muscle growth is by splitting the difference. There are thousands of ways to structure an exercise program and all require consideration of each client’s individual skills, abilities, experience, enjoyment, and current fitness level. I love the art and science of program design because it’s unique to each person and to each goal.

How to design a hypertrophy workout program

A thoughtful way to approach programming design includes 7 general steps (give or take based on the school of thought and training philosophies you gravitate towards).

Step 1: Needs Analysis. This step focuses on – you guessed it – the needs of the individual or athlete. Such questions as the following are addressed before programming is determined.

  • Does the client have any health conditions or pre-existing injuries that may limit his/her ability to execute the exercises within the program? Note any contraindications.
  • Examine what equipment is available to help you determine the types of exercises you will select.
  • What is the client’s schedule? This will help you identify frequency.
  • What are the priority muscle groups? Ideally, yes, a program will target all major muscle groups, but the point here is to clearly identify any imbalances the client may have initially that will require attention.
  • Is the client training for general fitness and health, performance, or an event? Note: if the client is an athlete, principles of programming related to the athlete’s season will apply.
  • What does the client enjoy?


Step 2: Exercise Selection. The types of exercises selected are often dictated by the desired type of resistance exercises, movement patterns of a particular sport (if the client is an athlete or training for an event), and the client’s overall “training age” or experience.

Step 3: Frequency. To determine the training frequency or the number of training sessions you will include, you must first know what the client’s training status is. Beginners train 2-3 times each week, intermediate train 3-4 times a week and advanced train 4-7 days a week.

Step 4: Exercise Order. As is common knowledge, there’s a method to the madness. Exercise sequencing is an important variable in program design. Primarily, we do not want one exercise to compromise the client’s ability to execute a subsequent exercise; therefore, we consider how to order exercises in such a way a client will derive maximum benefits. Common ordering patterns include alternating push and pull exercises, alternating upper body and lower body movements, large muscle groups before small, etc.

Step 5: Training Load & Reps. Training load is the amount of weight per exercises and reps are the number of times an exercise will be performed. Important: Reps are inversely related to load. The lighter the load, the greater the reps. The load can be determined by a percentage of 1RM or by estimating the 1RM. It is not generally recommended to ask a client (recreational exerciser) to perform maximal lifts. Save that approach with the serious athletes and advanced performers. You can also determine progression at this stage.

Step 6: Volume. Volume refers to the total amount of weight lifted in a training session. One way to approach this is to assign load based on the training goal (strength, power, hypertrophy, muscular endurance or combo).

Step 7: Rest Periods. This variable is dependent on the training goal, the training status of the client, and the load. If a client is in poor physical condition, longer rest periods may need to be allocated until a base fitness level can be achieved.


Four-Day Split for Muscle Size and Endurance

An example: Ross is a 30-year-old recreational exerciser who has slipped into a period of random activity patterns. He sporadically visits the gym one to two times a week and doesn’t have much of a program to follow. He enlists your help. His primary goals are to increase muscle size and improve endurance. He is an intermediate exerciser in that he does have moderate experience with weights and used to work out with a personal trainer a little over a year ago. Ross has no pre-existing injuries or other health conditions. Given his schedule and training goals and the other information obtained in the needs analysis, you decide a four-day split routine would be beneficial.


Muscle Groups Sets x reps Muscle Groups Sets x reps
Days 1 & 3 (Monday/Thursday) Days 2 & 4 (Tuesday/Friday)


(Include exercises such as the squat, lunge, lat pull, seated row, curls, back extension, etc.)

3-4 sets of 10-12 reps


Load ~ 70-85% of estimated 1RM



(Include exercises such as bench press, chest fly, military press, lateral raise, overhead triceps extensions, etc.)

3-4 sets of 10-12 reps*


Load ~ 70-85% of estimated 1RM


*Core – higher reps – 25+

Notes: Encourage warm-up sets as needed for large, multi-joint movements such as the squat and bench press. Allocate about 45 seconds of rest in between each set. Since endurance is part of his goals, encourage 3 cardio sessions a week to begin and dedicate Wednesday to Yoga or some other at-home flexibility routine outside of the cool-down stretches performed during the training sessions. Lastly, plan for progression. A conservative rule is the “2 for 2” rule. If the client can perform 2 extra reps beyond what is originally assigned, increase the weight.

Design workout programs that combine creativity and science

Remember – switch up the angles (i.e. think internal and external rotation with the hip joints) of an exercise as different angles will target different parts of the same muscle group (adductors, hamstrings, pecs (incline, decline, flat, etc.).

This layout is one of thousands of examples aimed at the same training goals (hypertrophy and strength). The two most important aspects of safe, effective, and enjoyable program design are to apply all 7 steps (the science) and be creative (the art). Don’t shy away from using various exercise implements in new ways. How can you incorporate band work or balance discs to add an extra challenge? What speaks to your client? What gets them excited and keeps them hungry for the next session? In other words, keep it legit, but keep it fresh and fun. Rewrite the program every 6-10 weeks (this depends greatly on each client’s status and overall goals and is not meant to be a hard and fast rule).

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National Strength & Conditioning Association. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning (4th ed.). (G. G. Triplett, Ed.) Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics.

Related Article: Creating Exercise Variety Simply and Effectively


Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com