Exercise programming has commonly been viewed as the intersecting point where the art and science applications of human performance coalesce. As I see it, the science is what determines the tangible outcome, and the art is descriptive of how we choose to get there. No doubt there are innumerable ways to write training programs, and I’m still far from convinced there is a definitive right or wrong. We have an abundance of evidence (scholarly or observationally) that has proven a wide variety of program styles to be effective, with a handful of fundamental constants.
Nevertheless, as we are committed to the conquest of determining optimal programming strategies and principles, we need to stay fluid in how we evolve our approach. While a lot of the conjecture surrounding programming is wasted breath, in fairness, it is our responsibility to be diligent with programming models and maintain a state of perpetual evaluation with our work. This requires us to become more confident with the nuances of programming and how to navigate what isn’t always so clear. In this article, we’ll discuss my four key elements to writing an effective strength program, but first, let’s make sure we have some of the foundational concepts understood.
The fundamentals of programming:
I. Progressive overload must be present.
Whether writing a program for peaking performance, or a bridge program for return to play, there must be elements of overload for the program to be successful. This has been proven time and time again, and pretty much irrespective of where you look, this will be a constant. Overload can come in many forms, but intensity, volume, and capacity (aerobic/anaerobic) are the most common.
II. Proper exercise selection.
We will touch on this in sections to follow, but in general, we need to make the right decisions with what exercises we include for the program to be effective. There is room for interpretation here, however, some of the common rudiments include squat, hinge, press, pull, sprinting, agility, core work, and mobility/flexibility should all be present in some form or fashion for just about any program.
III.) Energy systems & vectors.
We all know sport specificity is among the most bastardized and misunderstood concepts in all of performance training. This is severely overthought and overanalyzed at times. You want to be sport specific? Mimic the work:rest ratios of sport in training, load in the vectors found in sport. Boom, you’re now an expert. Kidding aside, matching the right energy systems and being strong in the right planes & ranges of motion are rudimentary, but critically important.
IV. Appropriate recovery and restoration.
Overload should never be mistaken for overdoing. What goes up must come down, and there is an appropriate dose-response for every athlete. Our job is to take them right to the edge of physiological tolerance without shoving them off the cliff. This requires adequate rest between sets within single training sessions, appropriate recovery between training sessions, and proper restorative care in accordance with the sport calendar.
While the list above includes more universally accepted rules, this one below is more of my own programming priorities for almost anyone I work with.
The underlying rules of programming:
I. Autoregulation must be a priority.
You are never married to a spreadsheet. No matter who you are or what the athlete is training for, you must be flexible with your script. A major mistake of young coaches is feeling obliged to “what should be done” as opposed to what can effectively be done. There are several variables constantly at play and everything is dynamic, your job is to aim for perfect and be understanding that it will never materialize as such.
II. Build through autonomy.
Another common mistake among coaches is seeing themselves as the empirical link between where the athlete is and success. The reality is your role is important but should not be perceived as the defining factor for a successful outcome. As such, develop the relationship with the athlete by teaching them how to manage their own training, understand their bodies, and have better decision-making ability. You will help guide them, but without becoming another external pillar of reliance for the athlete. I promise, they will appreciate reciprocity in training greatly.
III. Stress don’t strain.
There has been a longstanding misrepresentation of strength and conditioning coaches to outsiders (i.e., parents, sport coaches, medical staff). The part that bothers me most is that we are expected to be hard-nosed authoritarians or disciplinarians that punish athletes into being better. This is a horse shit narrative that needs work. S&C coaches should be perceived as having a precise, calculated approach while deliberate with stress applications that are provided with the singular goal of improving performance. Improving performance requires the athlete to be physically, mentally and emotionally ready to train, and overly straining or overtaxing the athletes is the quickest way to dampen their readiness.
Now that we’ve cleared up the fundamentals and underlying elements to programming, let’s dive into the four keys that will separate your programming from the pack.
1.) Prioritize training parameters over exercise selection.
There is an inherent symbiosis to writing a program… what are we doing, and how are we doing it? For the most part, coaches tend to put their focus on the specific exercises being performed, while how they are being done (and how they are coached) falls to the wayside. It should go without saying that exercise selection is important, but again, we can pick all of the perfect exercises but if they aren’t performed with good technique, the right sets/reps, the correct sequence, or in the proper amounts (intensity) then are they really the perfect exercises?
Similar to the art and science euphemism, there is a relationship here as well where I see exercise selection as determining what gets improved (i.e., lower-body strength, vertical jump, speed) while the parameters determine how they improve (magnitude, rate, etc.). In a broad sense, training parameters can be applied in overall programming structure or within individual training sessions. Training parameters are going to be responsible for marque elements of programming such as training density, collective workload, or more nuanced elements such as how the movement is loaded and how it’s performed.
2.) Volume or variation?
This is something that’s become more of a pressing focus for me as I’ve gone along, but in general, we want to see programming with a delineation between emphasizing volume or variation. One of the biggest misunderstandings for S&C coaches, in my opinion, is the overzealous pursuit of size and strength. This is a common misapplication for a lot of coaches because it is so heavily emphasized in our academic development and “culture”. However, it’s imperative we understand that we are not trying to make athletes better power lifters or body builders, we are trying to help them become better athletes. Therefore, while volume and progressive overload are essential components to this, they are not the entire recipe.
The first thing to understand is there’s a time and place for each, and that these can fluctuate throughout the sport calendar year. But with all else being equal, I tend to emphasize volume and consistency for the primary lifts and sport specific endeavors like sprinting, change of direction and jumps. With these, we want to follow a conventional model of progressive overload and consistent application. Beyond there, I look to emphasize more variation with things like warm-up options, accessories, and conditioning options. The reason is simple for me- the majority of injuries among college/pro/elite athletes is some consequence of mechanical overload. While we do need to prep these areas in training (i.e., hamstrings, calves, rotator cuff) if we’re overzealous with volume/intensity we will break them down further.
Beyond that, there are too many variables in sport for us to quantify each aspect of training. Where we understand the primary demands (i.e., energy systems, primary planes of motion, vectors) I believe we’ve gotten to a point of underestimating the significance of non-specific sport endeavors in training. For this reason, I rely more on varying the accessory lifts/drills rather than accumulating unnecessary volume.
3.) Methods change, principles don’t.
It’s such an incredible privilege working with the population at VHP over the last six years, but the one thing I’m most appreciative of is the wide spectrum of injuries we’ve worked with. This has given me a great experimental trial of learning how to scale and modify training. That said, one thing that has stuck out to me along the way is noticing that the more you experience, the more sound in your foundations you become. Yes, there are plenty of possibilities when designing training programs, but no matter how the task is being carried out, it’s important that the principles behind how you plan and organize training are in a good place.
Some core principles for me, as they relate to programming, include:
1.) Stress don’t strain (Be efficient!)
2.) Keep the goal the goal (Train to be a better athlete not weightlifter)
3.) Close the gaps (on deficiencies & weaknesses)
4.) Work proximal-to-distal
5.) Establish aerobic base/health & wellness (don’t overwork what’s under recovered)
While there are obvious differences in physical ability, training goals, and expectation, there shouldn’t be any differences in core principles between working with a pro athlete or a middle school volleyball player. It’s important to first establish, and then adhere to your training principles. These should be the constant across all athletes you work with and how you build your programming out. I should also add this doesn’t mean you need to subscribe to a specific training style and claim you’re a “fill in with trendy program style” coach. In fact, this supports the exact opposite- you’re a conjugate style coach when it’s optimal for the athlete, and a basic linear when that offers the best application. You squat heavy with the athletes who can, and don’t for the ones who can’t or don’t need to. The list goes on and on, but point being you are invariably fluid and evolving with how you program and coach athletes. Continuously pursue optimal, and filter out what you know doesn’t work for you.
4.) Managing connective tissue vs contractile tissue
I alluded to it above on the second point, but this goes back to distancing yourself from being overzealous with pursuing load and treating athletes like powerlifters. We need to appreciate that the majority of sport injuries (across almost all sports) are soft tissue injuries. And this being the case can really only mean one of two things- either the athlete didn’t have the connective tissue resiliency to endure the sport season, or the muscle was too strong relative to their connective tissue and it caused a tear. In either case, it speaks to a broader point of how we have been going about our athlete’s preparation and a humbling reminder that we are far from having this whole sport performance thing figured out.
Big squat numbers are great, a big bench is great, faster 40 times are great… but at what point do these things detract from the actual goal of human performance which is to better prepare our athletes to PLAY. There is no empirical ratio I can give you for this, but I do believe for the most part we are overdoing the pursuit of maximizing contractile tissue while chalking up our connective tissue work to being indirect. This will not be sustainable, especially as athletes are more tenured in their sport or advanced in training.
A simple step that can be taken to start balancing out our work is ditching the redundant compound accessories (i.e., DB RDL, DB chest press, BB bent row) and replace these with more multidirectional work, with different resistance types, and more open-chain options that are more proprioceptively demanding. In addition, we can use more tempo work and uneven load/surface training to better emphasize the connective tissues. Remember, once sufficient strength has been attained, it doesn’t take a lot to maintain it. Thus, once your athletes have reached this point, begin looking to de-emphasize the load/intensity across the board and start having them do more submax loading with high velocity/intent, open chain drills, and restorative work. This will give them a more robust and well-rounded athletic profile and will likely help keep them in the game longer without compromising ability.
Programming is an art form that is developed from sound scientific principles. The foundations are non-negotiable, but there is a lot more up for interpretation than I think we’ve been led to believe. Remember that our ultimate goal is to make athletes better at sports and become less injury prone through the medium of training. If we become overzealous to maximizing strength we could be missing the point severely. There is a necessary balance between emphasizing contractile and connective tissue, the contractile capacity is what provides the horsepower, resilient connective tissue provides the suspension. And with this, we want to utilize a good amount of variation in training throughout the calendar year. Understand that your program will never be perfect, but you are always striving towards it, and always be open to improvement.