Updated: May 15, 2020
What’s that old adage again... “there are a thousand ways to skin a cat” ... or something like that? I certainly can’t think of a more fitting cliché than this one when it comes to writing programs. By now, there are literally countless programming models out there, a lot of which have been scientifically studied hundreds of times over and have been proven to be successful. The issue with arguing about programming preferences is that there are several, several, variables to be considered when discussing the merit of a particular programming style.
-Who is the program for?
-What are they training for?
-How dense is their training history?
-How well are you able to coach said program?
I could go on and on, but to get to the point, my belief is that any program, no matter the schematics, methodologies or modalities used will only be about as successful as your ability to coach it. Also, to be equally considered, is how receptive the athlete is to both the program itself as well as your coaching. Again, there are so many moving parts, it’s just difficult for me to give a concrete answer on that, I promise I’m not just trying to cop out on this one.
Before we get to writing the program itself, we need to look at the variables that we cannot control, or as I like to call them, the boundaries. From my view, we already have so many factors to be cognizant of, so what better way to initiate your plan than by removing all things you can’t control? Most of these variables are obvious, things like work/life demands, training frequency, training history, anatomical/biomechanical function are all things we just have to work with or around when getting started. An additional note on the point about anatomical function I always think to myself is “you can’t turn a Toyota into a Ferrari”. In other words, if the athlete you’re starting up with isn’t a “big engine” athlete, you need to be mindful of that when considering exercise selection. No matter how badly we may want to work Olympic lifts or program high-intensity plyometrics, it may just be imprudent for some of the athletes that walk in your doors, and there is nothing wrong with that. Additional factors that are “semi” beyond our control include sleep patterns, tissue quality, nutrition habits, and medications/substance use. I mention this second list as “semi” limitations because these are the variables that initially “are what they are”, but there can be improvements made through your guidance over time. So these factors I only consider as limitations initially, or as long as the problematic traits persist.
Now that we’ve cleared our thinking by removing the variables beyond our control, it’s time to shift the focus to the variables we can control. All, or most, of these variables should be identified and taken into consideration by way of the assessment/evaluation protocol. Any successful program must start with a thorough evaluation; anyone who tells you otherwise or undermines the significance of an evaluation is probably not going to be a very effective coach. Writing a program without performing an assessment is like driving to a place you’ve never been with no directions or GPS. Sure, we may end up reaching our destination, but what should have been a 4-hour trip could end up taking 8 hours due to lack of direction. The assessment is the underpinning to your program, it is the compass that points you in the direction(s) you need to go in order to achieve the ultimate goal, or destination.
After the assessment is taken care of, we need to collect some tangible data. Whether you’re in the private sector, or in a high school, collegiate or professional setting, tangible data is important. As of late, this has also become a point of contention in the S&C world, and for whatever reason this is now being argued is beyond me. Look, I’m not saying every person you work with needs to be subjected to an NFL combine-style testing battery, but at the same time, people need to know that what you’re doing is working. I’m not gonna get too deep on this right now, but just remember the old saying “that which gets measured gets managed”, and I do feel you should find at least one or two tangible, objective measures to track.
The word itself, programming, has become severely bastardized and misconstrued in a lot of strength and conditioning corners. Whenever I hear coaches debate the merits of programming, I always think about two religious leaders bickering back and forth about their perspectives and religious ideologies. It’s like we’ve gotten to a point where you must identify with a particular programming style… are you a conjugate guy, or a linear guy? Do you do wave loading, or do you follow the supercompensation philosophy? Meanwhile, I stand by my nearly inherent response of, well… it depends.
Personally, I’ve used just about any programming model you can come across. Some I’ve used improperly, some I’ve used correctly but with the improper population. I’ve tried programming 12-weeks out (which, by the way cannot be overstated enough just how stupid that is) just as I’ve tried programming on the fly or “non-programming” as some would call it. What I’m getting at is they all work just as much as they all don’t. What it all really boils down to is who you are as a coach, and knowing not just what works best for you as a coach, but also what aligns best with your way of thinking. A teacher implementing a lesson plan they don’t understand wouldn’t be very effective, would it? Additionally to be considered, is who the athlete is, where they are in the athletic calendar and what they are trying to achieve. So don’t be misled by feeling coerced into one way or another. Try a bunch of different styles, see what you like and see what isn’t conducive for you and your populations and move forward.
We’ve taken all unmodifiable variables into consideration, performed our assessment, and selected a programming style, now it’s time to jump into writing the program itself. For the sake of this article, know that this is not a specialized program. The material that follows is my advice/insight on writing a generalized program, assuming there are no medical or physical limitations. Lastly, we’ll just assume our hypothetical athlete needs equal focus across the board, meaning there isn’t any more or less focus on one particular area or training mode. I summarize programming in five basic steps, which we’ll break down individually and discuss what the focal points and goals should be. Those five steps are as follows:
Step 1: Get in shape = GPP/Aerobic Capacity
Step 2: Get big muscles = Hypertrophy
Step 3: Make big muscles strong = Muscular Strength
Step 4: Make strong muscles fast = Power/Anaerobic Capacity
Step 5: Rinse, wash, and repeat = Deload
Step 1: Get in shape
One of the better adjustments I feel I’ve made in the last couple of years is implementing a two-week GPP phase (GPP= general physical preparation) for just about every athlete I work with. There are really only two goals or foci during this two-week phase:
1.) For the athlete, build an aerobic base and expose them to a wide range of movements and training layouts.
2.) For me as the coach, experiment with intent, and take stringent notes on how the athlete moves and responds to different training stimuli.
To some extent, this can and should be considered an extended evaluation with some added bonus. For you as the coach, you’re now getting a full onslaught of what the athlete is, or isn’t capable of, because nothing is rehearsed (in other words, they don’t know they’re being assessed, so they perform more naturally). Athletes have an uncanny ability to conceal and compensate for abhorrent movement patterns, especially good athletes. And for the athlete, they’re most certainly getting a workout, which is the lone burden to doing evaluations- athletes generally hate it. But the GPP is really about as simple as you make it. For younger athletes, it could be considered organized recess, for your more advanced athletes, it can be more of an “experimental” opportunity. Either way, it’s a win-win for coach and athlete, you get to see an unfiltered view of their full ability, they get a wide spectrum of strenuous workouts. Boom.
A quick caveat that I’ll add here on cardiovascular health and aerobic performance is something I stole directly from Mike Boyle. His rule of thumb for assessing whether or not someone is in good cardiovascular health- and thus, how much aerobic work you should be programming- is a resting heart rate (RHR) of 60 bpm. As Mike states, if an athlete has an RHR <60 bpm then they don’t really need to do much “cardio”, and conversely, >60 bpm, we may need to extend the GPP phase depending on sport/training goal. So for your GPP phase, this could be used as a good goal to keep the athlete motivated. Generally speaking, my GPP phases span 2-4 weeks, with 2 weeks being sufficient for most. Using the RHR <60 bpm metric provides objective measure to help guide the duration of GPP phases, so no need to overcomplicate here.
Step 2: Get big muscles
Muscular hypertrophy is the technical term for just that- get bigger muscles. But there are some additional benefits to hypertrophy than just bulking up that are critical for improving strength, power, and ultimately performance. The two things that stick out to me with regard to hypertrophy benefits are the effects experienced by the soft structures (i.e. ligaments, tendons, fascia), and the opportunity to get accustomed to some heavier weights (65-80%). Let’s talk about the soft structures first.
Tendons, which act as big rubber bands in the body, are defined by the NSCA as a flexible but inelastic cord of strong fibrous collagen tissue attaching muscles to bones. This is an egregiously simplified explanation of tendons, but for the purposes of this article, just know that they’re pretty important, difficult to train in isolation, and are often overlooked. Ligaments, which act as the body’s natural bracing mechanism, are defined by the NSCA as a short band of tough, flexible, fibrous connective tissue that connects two bones or cartilages together. Again, an oversimplified explanation of ligaments, but for your consideration, just know that ligaments are what hold the ship together, and if they’re ill prepared for heavier weights the muscles don’t stand a chance. And finally fascia, which is a singular interwoven sheath of fibrous tissue that envelopes the muscles from head to toe. We can really get lost down the rabbit hole discussing fascia, but I’ll save that for a separate article. What you should know regarding fascia for now is that it is important, very, very important for the success of the athlete. And it, too, is a trainable structure that must be considered with exercise programming.
So where’s the connect between these structures and hypertrophy? Well, I’m so glad you asked. The external loads, or intensities, applied during a hypertrophy phase are generally between 60-80%. Or, in other words, “heavy enough to create structural adaptations, but light enough to not cause any structural damage”. Think about it, if you just got your driver’s license, it would be reasonable to suggest that we get comfortable going 30 mph, before hitting 70 mph on the interstate, right? Well, training is no different, in that you want to feel your way in to things before hammering the throttle. One of the primary differences between skeletal muscles and these soft structures, is that the soft structures don’t have a contractile component. So, for the ligaments, tendons, and fascia, these percentages are optimal for incurring growth without damage. Remember, “hypertrophy” literally translates to “growth”, and this is not relegated for just muscles. During our hypertrophy phase we want to create denser, thicker ligaments and tendons, and acclimatize the fascia to training under load. This will help adequately prepare us for the phases of muscular strength and power that follow.
The second benefit to hypertrophy is very simple- it’s the perfect “practice” phase. As we’ve already covered, our intensities are going to be somewhere in that 60-80% range, which again is an intensity range that is definitely high enough to be considered “work” but also light enough to where the reps shouldn’t be too laborious. A cue that I will often use for athletes when in a hypertrophy phase is “reps should look robotic”. Meaning, each rep should be machine-like, with very little variability on technique and should be performed in a smooth, seemingly effortless manner. Recall that “muscle memory” to some extent is a very real thing, it’s just often misused or used out of context. When I use the term muscle memory, what I’m getting at is the neuromuscular adaptation at play, in which you must perform repetitions on repetitions effectively to neurologically ingrain the movement pattern. In most cases, this is heightened during hypertrophy work.
Step 3: Make bigger muscles strong
By now we’ve gotten in shape, increased our muscle density, and adequately prepped our soft tissue structures for some heavier loads. Now it’s time to push the intensity up a bit. Muscular strength is about as cut and dry as it gets- heavy weights (80% +), lower reps, longer rest periods. Contrary to popular belief, everyone, irrespective of sport or training goals, should tap into some heavy lifting. The only thing that should differ is the frequency at which you perform heavy lifting, albeit once every 3 months or every 3 weeks, in some capacity we all need pure strength work.
Aside from the obvious benefits of increasing muscular strength, there is one key bonus to heavier weights that I emphasize with my athletes, and that’s the psychological advantage. Whether we’re talking about a 13-year-old volleyball girl, or a 25-year-old football player, nothing will boost confidence like moving some heavy shit around. It changes the athlete’s perspective of what they’re capable of and gives them a little more swagger in the gym for a few weeks thereafter. It’s a really awesome thing to see as a coach, especially with the younger athletes who are still relatively new to the weight room. The muscular strength phase is also critical for the power phase that follows. We aren’t going to get much, if anything at all, from our power work if we aren’t getting stronger first.
Step 4: Make strong muscles fast
"Strength without speed, isn't much of a strength at all."
Personally, my favorite phase of the lifting calendar… power! Power = moving semi-heavy weights + moving them fast as shit. Yes, that is a technical equation, and no, 80% of your 1-RM is not “semi-heavy” in this regard. I think this is one of the most underappreciated and/or misapplied training modes out there, and for a few reasons. The foremost is that both coaches and athletes alike tend to get a little antsy when trying to train power, and they do so by overloading the barbell. The (true) equation for power, is power is a biproduct of force and velocity (P= F x V). The operative part of this equation, however, is the ‘V’, or velocity. As with anything else, depending on the source, you’ll see a very wide range of intensities for power. My personal opinion, which was cultivated by Cal Dietz on this, is that you can’t truly train power at intensities above ~55%. Why? Well, because once you get above that 55% mark, there isn’t enough speed in the execution of the movement for you to really be getting a power adaptation.
Now, I’m not here to split hairs about the empirical intensities for power, although, the takeaway point is the weight needs to be relatively light in order for the velocity to be high. And if you don’t believe me, just go and ask Eric Cressey about appropriate med ball weights.
As I alluded to a moment ago, both athletes and coaches are guilty of growing somewhat impatient with power, because frankly it doesn’t really feel like you’re doing much when working with such light intensities. Here’s the catch- THAT’S THE POINT! The same goes with the rest times that are associated with power, which may appear to be unreasonably high (typically 3-5 min.). Why rest for 5 minutes if you don’t feel like you need to? Well, because you want to be 100% fresh for subsequent sets, so that you can put absolutely every ounce into each rep. Think about baseball players taking batting practice. They swing, step out of the box, reset, and then go again. They aren’t just chopping away at pitch after pitch, everything is sharp, precise and POWERFUL. It’s no different in the weight room, be fresh, feel fresh, and exert absolute maximum effort on each rep.
Similar to my comments on muscular strength, another grave misconception is that training power is something that should be reserved for athletes. This, again, is patently false. Remember that everything should be perceived, and applied, in a relative fashion. I’ll give you an extreme example here to illustrate my point. I recently just finished up working with a 78-year-old hemiparetic stroke victim. For weeks I racked my brain trying to think of ways I could get a guy who has difficulty walking and standing, moving fast under load. Well, all along the answer was right in front of me- have him swing a baseball bat against a foam pad!! It worked perfectly, and it was a perfect way for him to train rotational power. So again, just because we throw the word ‘power’ out, doesn’t mean we need to have everyone and anyone hitting 1-RM snatches and box jumps. Be creative and make whatever it is you’re doing relative to the person you’re working with.
Step 5: Rinse, wash, repeat
This is about as self-explanatory as could be, after we finish up our power phase, it’s time to deload and step away from all of the primary lifts you’ve been training. Similar to the GPP phase, there is no agenda here. This is the time to plug in workouts you know your athletes love doing, have organized recess for the younger athletes, and put a premium on soft tissue work and mobility concepts.
Let's recap real quick using some graphics to clarify anything that may have been confusing.
Step 1: Assessment/Evaluation
Step 2: Data Collection
Step 3: GPP Phase