My Program Design Principles: 1st Edition
This is going to sound kind of weird, but the other day, I just sat and thought for a few hours.
Have you ever done that?
Just taken time to think?
And I’m not talking about sitting around and playing Candy Crush, while thinking every now and then (have mercy if I get one more invitation to play that game on Facebook…I will not be broken!)
I’m talking about just sitting and thinking. No Facebook, no TV…just you and maybe a pencil and paper.
It was actually a pretty powerful exercise.
And I did it because I have been training so much lately and the programs that I had to write were piling up.
My energy was (and I guess still is) being pulled in so many different directions, that my programming was suffering. I needed to reel myself back in and get back to the top of my game.
In the past, I could sit and spend however long I wanted programming, because I didn’t have nearly as many in-person hours.
Plus, being relatively young in this field, I hadn’t ever developed a true set of programming principles that I adhere to with each training program that I write. Sure, I always have the basics in mind, but I am kind of OCD, so I knew I needed something structured on paper to streamline my thought processes to allow me to not only write better programs, but do so much more efficiently.
So below is the result of what a few hours of thinking did for me this past week…I hope this is helpful for any fitness professionals who read this blog, but also the everyday trainee, because I believe the principles I discuss will aid you in writing better programs for yourself.
Without further ado…
My Programming Principles (at least as of November 2013)
#1: Do No Harm
I first heard this phrase from strength coach, Mike Boyle, and I have never forgotten it as the “golden rule”.
No one can achieve their goals to a full effect while injured. You can definitely train around injuries, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to test my skill with that by hurting someone!
The safety of a client is paramount and comes above all else. I can’t think of any worse feeling professionally than seeing or hearing (through phone or email) a client get hurt.
Whether it’s from an exercise that they never should have been doing in the first place or from not paying close attention to their technique, the first job of a fitness professional is to keep the people under your watch safe.
I love the philosophy of using the least training load possible to elicit an adaptation. I think that can be expanded out to using the least-risky training protocol/exercise for that client to achieve the result they want.
No great program can be written without a proper assessment of the person you have in front of you. Without an assessment, you have no starting point, and therefore, no direction. It’s just guesswork.
Some trainers use very detailed assessments and some prefer a more minimalist approach. I don’t think there is any bad method, as long as you are assessing.
I assess for 2 primary reasons;
To find out what they want and identify what they need.
What they want is the goal. Fat-loss, 20 pounds on their bench, or reduced pain in their lower-back. It doesn’t matter. The goal is everything.
Once you know what they want, you go through the actual assessment and find out their movement limitations. Their weak links are what they need to improve to chase their goal more effectively. I take that information, in light of their goal, and see how I can merge the 2 to create a program that is taking them where they want to go, while clearing up their limitations.
The assessment allows me to create specificity within every program.
Every body is different. Every body has different needs and movement capabilities.
A proper assessment reveals those differences and gives you the information you need to write an effective program. I am still tweaking my assessment model, and will talk about it in a future blog.
You hear a lot about “individualized” programs, but I think it can only be individualized if you assess not only someone’s baseline measurements, but also their posture and movement.
I could talk further, but the more experience I gain, the more I realize how critical a well-done assessment is for a truly outstanding program.
Though I will add, an initial assessment is great and all, but if you aren’t re-assessing at consistent intervals, then what was the point of the assessment? Having a baseline to refer back to means that you actually refer back to it to objectively measure progress.
You can write the greatest training program on the planet for someone, but if it doesn’t jive with their life, then the program is nothing.
This is a big thing I have learned since I moved to LA. Client schedules are very volatile out here (and that applies to pretty much anywhere), so if I write an amazing 4x/week, block periodized, fat-loss program, yet the client can only devote 2x/week to training and they travel consistently, then my program won’t do them much good.
The same goes for their homework. If you don’t see a client that frequently and they need to spend time working on their specific movement limitations, I can’t give them a list of 8 exercises to do. It won’t happen.
They won’t remember what each one is, nor will they have the time to do them all. Instead, I have learned to give them 1-2 exercises, at most, that attack their biggest limitation.
And I will touch on this later on, but sustainability has a lot to do with fluctuating the training stress.
Lifts haven’t gone up in a while?
Gains (or losses) come to a halt?
I would imagine at least part of the reason is because you haven’t taken your foot off the gas in quite some time.
That’s right. Training has to be FUN.
While there are lots of variables at play in any given program, if this one is missing, don’t expect to keep a client for very long or follow a program yourself for more than a month or two.
There will be times to buckle down and get serious, but it’s ok to crack a few smiles and have a few laughs. And fun is different things to different people. It could mean cracking jokes back and forth, or it might just mean including “play” in their program.
Did they used to play baseball?
Get outside and throw around a trigger point ball (or something similar) as part of your dynamic warm-up.
If they didn’t participate in a sport, no problem, just do something that isn’t structured exercise for a few minutes that gives them a bit of a challenge. I like using the agility ladder or cone drills for this purpose.
While there may not be a physiological rationale behind something like that, relieving someone’s stress and helping them have fun is a very worthy rationale.
#5: Movement is the First Priority
The first block of any client’s training program is going to place an emphasis on their weak links.
Do they lack hip extension?
Did they demonstrate an asymmetrical active straight-leg raise?
Regardless of goal, the client has to have adequate mobility and stability to perform the basic patterns.
After all, that is the goal of corrective exercise, in my opinion. To get someone ready to perform the big-bang, basic patterns with the least potential for injury.
The basic patterns include;
Press (horizontal and vertical)
Pull (horizontal and vertical)
I covered a few of the basic patterns that I seek to develop with all of my programs in my, 5 Exercises to Achieve Any Goal, post.
Depending on their starting point from the assessment, this block may take only 2 weeks, or it may take 12 weeks, if they have a long injury history and several dysfunctions. It also depends on their training frequency. I’m going to be able to progress someone much faster, in this sense, if I see them 3-4x/week, as compared to 1-2x.
#6: Strength is Always the Goal
If someone is not getting stronger in some way while I train them, then I am not doing my job.
The common misconception with this is that I am referring purely to absolute strength. I am not.
While progressive overload is necessary for adaptation in any program, that doesn’t just mean slapping more plates on the bar. That’s a myopic view of strength.
Strength is much more than weight. It could just be owning a certain pattern. If someone goes from not having great deadlift form to then having the proprioceptive awareness to do it properly, then they got stronger.
I mentioned earlier about using the least training load necessary to get an adaptation.
For example, is it really necessary for a fat-loss client to do a single-leg deadlift with 315 pounds? Or does it just look cool?
Everything has to be weighed on a risk-reward continuum, and in light of their goals. If someone demonstrates proficiency with a certain weight (i.e. their last set with that weight, they had 2-3 reps in the tank), then they probably need to go up to maintain an intensity level that will give them a training effect.
I focus the majority of strength increases with the basic patterns that I referenced above.
As an example, for a fat-loss client, I can guarantee they will have a much-better looking body when they go from not being able to do a pullup to repping out a set of 4-5 (or more).
#7: Structured Sessions
There is a general outline that I adhere to with any program when it comes to the individual training session.
Soft-Tissue Work (foam rolling, trigger point balls)
Static Stretching (if appropriate)
Energy System Development
Recovery (foam rolling, stretching)
This set-up is the same across the board for everyone, but how much time we spend in each section and what is actually done in each section is completely dependent on the client.
I won’t get into specifics, but the above template is one I have found to be successful in getting a great training effect for the client.
#8: Fluctuation of Training Stress
While the specifics of periodization are a little outside the scope of this particular blog, all of my programs have some sort of periodization attached to them, again dependent on the person I have in front of me.
It’s easy to read an in-depth text on periodization and instantly want to block periodize a 50-year old CEO’s program who travels consistently each month. This is not ideal.
That’s why a specific type of periodization is not a principal for me. Instead, as long as there is a goal for each 4-week mesocycle and the training stress (namely, intensity and volume) is fluctuated, in accordance with that goal, then I’m happy.
Generally, the first week of a mesocycle focuses on learning whatever new movements have been incorporated, while backing off the lifts that have been hit hard and heavy in the last mesocycle (if a separate deload week was not taken altogether). In the 2nd week, putting volume on those new skills is the main focus (building capacity). In Week 3, intensity becomes the primary variable that is progressed.
In Week 4, we go for it, capitalizing on the volume and intensity increases from the previous 2 weeks. This is the hardest week of the meso and sets up for a complete deload the next week, or a significant reduction in intensity and volume on the lifts that will continue in the next cycle.
I have found this model to be very successful for the clients I have worked with. But I consider the last paragraph more of my actual methods, than the actual principle.
When volume goes up, typically intensity needs to come down a bit and vice versa. Both qualities should very rarely be going up at the same time for an extended period.
#9: Always Set Someone Up for Success
For all of the basic patterns, and for all of my core and power work, I have a progression/regression continuum outlined on an Excel spreadsheet.
Below are the patterns;
Hip-Dominant (and single-leg equivalents)
Quad-Dominant (and single-leg equivalents)
Anti-Lateral Flexion Core
I use these continuums when selecting exercises for a client. I know I want them performing all of these patterns (some more than others, and not all of them right away, depending on their movement, goals and exercise history) throughout their program.
I do this because depending on the exercise you select, you are either going to set the client up to succeed or fail.
If you take a new client and give them a single-leg deadlift (when they don’t have great hip mobility and not a lot of single-leg stability), then you will proceed to watch them flounder and not do well.
This will make the client feel bad because they didn’t accomplish anything. Plus, they will just be embarrassed because since you gave it to them, that means they should have been able to do it, in their mind.
Having a rock-solid progression/regression chart will not only allow you to set the client up for success with each exercise you prescribe, but it will also allow you to adjust on the fly if they happen to not do well with something.
I always want my client to leave the session feeling like they did well. And this is largely dependent on giving them things they can succeed at over and over again, progressing them only when they are ready, not just in terms of exercise selection, but as a whole with your program.
Well, that’s pretty much it for now.
Those are the 9 principles I do my best to hold true to with every training program I write. After writing this, I know I need to get even better. I encourage you to develop your own set of principles, so that you can back up anything that you do with your program.
I guarantee it will lead to better results for your clients (and/or yourself) and less time spent throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks.
Programs that do no harm, are assessment-based, sustainable, fun, movement and strength-oriented with the basic patterns, structured, fluctuated in terms of training stress, and always setting someone up for success is a good place to start.
I hope to do something like this every year to consistently update my own philosophies and principles. As with my sitting and thinking, writing this was a pretty powerful exercise.
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