There's stuff you learn only after years of training. Skip the long learning curve and get smart about lifting right now. Read this.
Rule 1: Earn the Right to Train with High Reps
One of the first things most people learn in the gym is that "low reps, heavy weight" equals strength, and "high reps, light weight" equals definition and cutting. Anyone who reads this website knows that weight training goes way beyond the above directives, but the layperson doesn't. He often follows suit, hitting the weights for sets of 15 reps right off the mark to "get cut."
Training for sets of more than 8 to 10 reps should be considered a privilege. Longer sets capitalize on different energy systems. After around 10 seconds, fast-twitch muscle fibers begin to "disengage" from any lift we're doing, and our muscular endurance becomes more of a key player than it was.
Furthermore, it's unreasonable to think that a novice (or even intermediate) lifter will maintain great technique through the entire length of such a set. With that said, it just becomes that much more important that a proper foundation of strength acts as a governor and becomes the deciding factor on whether to increase rep ranges.
If you can't maintain great form and technique using heavier loads for a shorter duration while NOT fatigued, you're not going to be able to do so when fatigue is a major factor and lactic acid has accumulated within the target muscles. It's that simple. Develop a foundation of strength and let general training exposure make you more comfortable with lifting before messing with high-rep protocols. Keeping good form, rhythm, and timing with high rep sets is more of an acquired skill than most people want to recognize.
Rule 2: Annihilate One Lift Per Workout
When I was younger, I'd train for strength or intense hypertrophy by assigning volume to everything I was doing that day. If it was a chest workout, I'd go through my full bench press pyramid system, follow it up with equally intense dumbbell work, and then finish off with more hell for the triceps.
There's nothing particularly wrong with that exercise protocol. The problem comes from assigning the wrong mentality towards each section of the workout. Being able to put your energy and neurology into your first movement will simply allow you to get more out of it. Don't do a strength workout for three lifts in the same day. Assuming you're training hard, you simply won't have enough left in the tank for a proper strength training workout in the remaining lifts after the first one is over.
Even if you feel you do have enough in the tank, it's still worth wondering what your performance would be like if you were to do your second and third lifts completely fresh. It's smart to save the other two movements for their own workouts and treat the additional exercises in your program as supplements to your main lift. Now that doesn't mean you have to change the additional movements at all; just lower the volume and weight a notch and change the rep ranges. Your nervous system will thank you.
Remember, your day at the gym on your recreational program isn't meant to be a powerlifting meet. Take advantage of a full recovery to get the most out of your program and you'll be glad you did.
Rule 3: Pull Before You Push, and Pull More Often
Everyone knows you need to keep a balance between pulling and pushing exercises. If you don't pay attention to that balance, you're setting yourself up for bad posture, muscle tightness, and even chronic joint pain. By extension, all of that will affect the quality of your workouts.
People usually remember to get their back workout in to counter their chest or shoulder workout they did earlier in the week. But it doesn't end there. Not even close. Remember that due to our lifestyles, a 1:1 ratio isn't enough when it comes to creating and promoting (and in many cases, restoring) balance among the muscles. It means training the back more frequently, with more volume, and for higher rep ranges than we generally do with our anterior muscles.
There's more. When you do an upper body workout that contains both front and back side muscle groups, you'd do well to program the pull exercises first, before doing the push exercises. The reason concerns scapular stability.
Performing your pull-ups before doing your overhead presses, or your rows before bench presses, will create a much more stable shoulder environment for the second of the two exercises. Your rotator cuff muscles attach to your scapulae, and increasing blood flow and tightness to that region will do plenty to give the shoulder joint enough support to steer clear of unwanted injuries or general instability. It also means pain-free pressing.
Even if you're doing a straight pressing workout, nothing but good can come from priming the shoulders to bear load by stabilizing them through a couple of high-rep sets of rows of any variation, using any means of resistance – dumbbells, cables, or even bands. The goal is just to get the upper back to start feeling a mild pump and get activated.
Taking things a step further, programming pull work before push work in single workouts is a smart move, and what's even smarter is to program a pull day before a push day in your weekly program cycle. If you're already taking the above advice and are training back (or pull exercises) more than once weekly, just make sure at least ONE of those pull workouts is programmed before your major pressing workout.
Tough workouts can produce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which can decrease range of motion or flexibility of the muscles. Take advantage of that restriction by getting the upper back muscles mildly sore before a chest workout. I've never had a chest workout that felt or performed worse because my upper back was sore from training it prior. The ROM inhibition can have the same effect on shoulder stability specific to heavy pressing.
Rule 4: Don't Train for Strength Every Week
Some programs will require heavy doubles and triples where a lifter hoists hundreds of pounds day in and day out. For a competitive Olympic lifter or powerlifter, that type of training is standard operating procedure, done for the specific purpose of competition. The body adapts.
For regular folk that may not be in their best interest. They have full time jobs, outside stressors, nutrition that's probably mostly just decent, and recovery habits that could stand to improve. It's a generalization, but the life and lifestyle of a recreational lifter – regardless of how seriously he values his training – just can't be compared to that of an elite level Olympic lifter or powerlifter.
So, loading up with strength work will lead to a very angry nervous system and invariably a soon-to-follow lifting injury. Structure your programming so that you alternate between a heavy loading week and a higher volume week. The volume week gives the CNS a chance to recover while giving muscular endurance a kick in the pants.
Plus, even the most elite athletes have deload weeks. It's useful to pay closer attention to your rest and recovery and the health of your nervous system. Just because you "feel okay" doesn't mean your body's always functioning optimally.
Rule 5: Don't Break Your Routine or Your Environment
The things you do in the gym that surround the actual workout matter. There's a lot of information on the exact ritual to follow when warming up for a good workout. Some say foam rolling is an absolute must. Others say it's one of the stupidest things you can do before training. Some hate on static stretching. Others hate on warm-up sets. Others disdain mobility work and muscle activation.
Getting caught up on what the experts recommend can make a lifter discount the most important link that most experts neglect to emphasize: understanding your body and knowing how things affect your own workout. The truth is, barring the completely asinine, if a certain warm-up routine makes your muscles and joints feel good and ready to train, then what reason do you have to ditch that method in place of something new?
If you want to foam roll and static stretch your quads before your squat workout because you notice your knees feel great after doing so, have at it, even if that directly contradicts what you just read in some book. Conversely, if foam rolling makes you feel like a weak waste of space that's too loose to even create proper tension, stop it! Make choices that build the best warm-up for you.
One more thing. Everything mentioned above applies to your environment too. As you get stronger and your PR's get heavier, it's important that you keep things as consistent as possible so as to limit the amount of things that can throw off your psychology.
When you can, squat at the same rack you like and feel strongest using. Lift with your favorite bar in the gym and follow the ramping set protocol that makes you feel ready to move mountains. There's nothing wrong with following a consistent routine and set of rituals, as long as they are your own instead of someone else's.