Traditional generic gym programs are designed for the masses and for that reason they are often simplified or dumbed down for those who are not gym literate. They are kept simple so that they can be easily taught in minimal time. While they may cause some response in the complete beginner who has no previous training experience any success will be short lived. With a proper gym program you can achieve more and get there faster.
There are 4 vital components that need to be considered when designing a training program.
The standard gym program requires you usually to lift for approximately ten reps which is fine for most beginners but as with all the variables in a gym program they must be changed frequently to elicit a physiological response. First off you must realise what is your goal when training. If you want to train for endurance then you will need 13+ reps, for hypertrophy or muscle growth 8 to 12 reps are optimal. Fewer than 8 reps and you are focusing more on functional or relative strength. Decide what your goal is and train predominantly within the appropriate rep range. However do not fall into the trap of always training in one rep range for two reasons. Firstly; the body adapts to any stimulus when it is applied too frequently. So you will either plateau and/or overtrain. Secondly; working the other systems will always benefit your training goal. For example the stronger you are, the heavier you can lift when training for hypertrophy or endurance. This is why when training clients I always change my programs frequently and use both intensification and accumulation phases.
The number of sets you train for should correlate with the number of repetitions. When working low reps for strength the number of sets should increase and vice versa, higher rep ranges will require you to minimize sets. Most generic programs require you to perform three sets but this is only enough to elicit a response from beginners. Once a trainee is able to perform a basic array of exercises, has built up a base strength and learned the necessary motor patterns then it is time to progress them to 4 sets on a hypertrophy program. The addition of a fourth set ensures a harder workout and means when training you will to get the response needed from your body.
When training for strength you will require not only more sets but also longer rest intervals because this type of training taxes the nervous system which takes longer to recover then the muscular system. When training functional strength the nervous system can take from 2 to 3 minutes to recover fully and for maximal strength (training with less then 5 reps) rest periods can be as long as 5 minutes between sets. For the hypertrophy range the average rest period to allow the muscles to recover needs to be between 90 and 120 seconds. The best way to ensure you get the longest rest period and therefore are able to push the muscle to its limit without sitting around scratching your head is to superset exercises. Pair opposing muscle groups and train them together with short rest intervals between each exercise. This has two major benefits 1: It ensures you get the maximal rest and recovery between sets so you are able to push your muscular system to its limit while slowing fatigue. 2: You can get more exercises in to your training session giving you a bigger bang for your buck!
Often the most overlooked variable and rarely taught on generic training programs. Tempo is vitally important for a number of reasons. The tempo with which you lift the weight dictates the time under tension TUT and this variable should again correlate with your training goal. For example if training for hypertrophy the length of TUT should not exceed 70 seconds and should not be less then 40 seconds. For most beginners they tend to put the focus on the concentric phase of the lift when the muscle is shortening such as the push on the chest press or the pull on the chin up. Often the resisting or eccentric portion of the exercise is overlooked and the untrained lifter looses out on the benefits of increased TUT. They will perform the exercise too quickly and without control, increasing their risk of injury and never gaining the full benefits of a challenged force production.