“It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” ~Johann Sebastian Bach~
I can’t think of a quote more perfectly fitting for exercise programming than the one above. Writing a program is easy, in theory, but the reality is, there are simply too many moving variables to hit 100% on a program. The challenge lies in understanding how to fluctuate, modify, and progress this host of moving variables to produce the training effect desired in the most efficient manner possible.
Writing a strength training program is knowing (tangibly) how to create adaptation and improving function or performance, while understanding how to modify and apply it to create a desired outcome for a specific athlete or population. This is where understanding the more complex and ambiguous elements of performance training, rehabbing injuries, and coaching in general come into play. In this article, I’d like to bypass most of the basics or “programming 101” type of material, and rather focus on some of the second level methods and applications. So, please keep that in mind as you’re going through this. Most of what I’m going to discuss will all be stated with the foundations in mind, this is not in lieu of conventional applications.
Understanding Personality Types
To default to another one of my favorite quotes here- “It’s not about how much you know, but how much you can convey.” No two athletes are the same, this we know. But I can’t overstate the importance to this component enough. When we discuss training individualization and sport specificity, we need to start by considering the type of athlete we’re working with beyond just their physical measures. It’s important that we’re able to be flexible with varying personality types (and for some coaches, varying ages) if we want our input and cueing to be effective and our influence to be felt. Yes, coaches should be expected to set the atmosphere and tempo for training, but this doesn’t mean you force others to “adapt or miss out”. This is lazy, and inexcusable.
If the athlete is more casual/laid back then try to bring your energy down to their style… don’t feel rushed during conversation, don’t throw a bunch of cues at them relentlessly or keep the session super high paced. Conversely, for those who are “go getters” and want to push while limiting conversation, then again- meet them. Bring the fuckin energy every session, keep training up-tempo, include challenges and time-based circuits to drive competitiveness and keep the conversation for afterwards. In addition, inquire about what type of learner they are (i.e. visual, auditory, kinesthetic) on day one. This will allow you to get your points across in the most comprehensive and succinct fashion from the jump which will then likely establish a quicker and better rapport. Remember, the athlete needs to trust you before your input resonates, and from my experience, asking genuine questions about how they operate best is a great way to build this foundation.
For visual learners, I like to follow the “show/tell/show” method. This involves having them just watch me perform the movement, then I’ll have a direct conversation covering big points, then show them again with them mirroring me. This obviously isn’t needed for every single exercise, but I do follow pretty routinely for major movements (i.e. deadlift, squat, crawl, hinge). For auditory learners, I will only demonstrate upon request, again, unless it’s a major movement. I’ll then give them a thorough breakdown and go step-by-step. I will also reinforce major cues routinely. Now a caveat here is that I only work with adults, and most of which are highly trained to begin with. If I worked with kids, I likely wouldn’t have so much fidelity. Finally, for kinesthetic I will use a “show/explain/feel” protocol. In this, I show while they mirror, explain directly in conversation, and then put them in position and reinforce major points through contact (i.e. touch/point).
My “Rules” of Programming:
Rule #1: There are no “rules”
There are very obvious “do’s and don’ts” in the practice of strength training and rehabilitative training. The catch is, 99% of these rely on basic competence and common sense, not any degree or certification. So, when I say there are no rules, what I mean is that you should never relegate yourself to being exclusively “a Westside guy/girl” or “an FMS guy/girl”. The same goes for Olympic lifts, linear or conjugate programming, squat styles, stretching or literally anything else you can name. You are a coach, meaning your singular role is to improve performance in whatever your athlete competes in and is capable of. Your method is the one that best suits the athlete(s) at hand. (Remember… criteria such as “do no harm” are assumed here)
Rule #2: You’re never married to your Excel sheet
I’m someone who puts quite a bit of effort into planning my training ahead. That said, I know coaches are variable on this… and that is perfectly fine. As long as the end goals are met and the training is effective and safe, do what works best for you. There is one aspect of this that is non-negotiable, however, and that is maintaining the ability and willingness to remain flexible and adaptive with your programming and how you coach it. When you notice something that doesn’t fit right, or the athlete can’t execute proficiently, then call an audible. This is one of the biggest mistakes of young coaches. Don’t be tricked into thinking this makes you look dumb or unprepared, I promise you, this is a demonstration of awareness and confidence.
But forcing an athlete through “6 sets of X @ 90%” because “that’s what’s on the sheet” is simply inexcusable and unjustifiable. The same is true for when an athlete is telling you they can push more or go harder… let them! So long as the athlete’s feedback or input doesn’t obviously contradict the training goal for that day or put them in obvious risk, we need to consider their input in tandem as we do our excel sheets.
Rule #3: Program fits the athlete, and never the other way around
This somewhat dovetails off the point above, however, this too is a paramount concept. I’ve always believed that athletes need about 75% of mostly the same shit, while roughly 25% will be truly specific to the athlete. For instance, barring obvious outliers, all my athletes will deadlift, squat, hinge, crawl, carry, etc. The specificity lies in the way in which I apply these foundational movements. So, where all my athletes may have lower body strength programmed on Monday’s, I may have some who hex bar deadlift as their primary movement while others may back squat or DB goblet squat. Additionally, from my perspective, specificity should really be elucidated through the warm-up, intraset and accessory portions of training. These present the best opportunity to assign movements that address specific weakness/deficiencies or be assigned to meet specific training goals or outcomes. But in the end, again, the takeaway point is that each athlete is treated on an independent manner, every time.
My Pillars of Programming:
1.) Fill the gaps (macro view)
The assessment is an extremely critical part of engineering a successful program, and thus effective training. Coaches should understand that the athlete tells you and shows you exactly what they need. Between their injury/training histories (objective value) and general input (subjective value) in combination with your assessment, you have an exact answer key to the test, with the training goal/desired outcome being your final exam.
When assessing from a macro view, we want to look equally at where they’re strong and where they’re weak. We of course analyze in context of what their training goals/desired outcomes are and demands of sport or duty. With this, we want to fill the gaps by addressing exactly what we found was weak or deficient without compromising what was already strong. A simple example being an athlete coming off of a rotator cuff tear. Once they get to us, the formal rehab has been completed, but that does nothing for the extenuating issues that were developed while injured. So, we want to program for isolated strength in the cuff/shoulder complex, but also still account for the other global deficiencies all while maintaining lower-body strength.
Another example being a high school football player coming to a coach in the private sector wanting to train 2 days/wk. because he has team lifts on M/W/F. It seems obvious but inquire directly about what they do and try to collect a good amount of info. This way, if they follow a bench/squat/clean split (which they probably do), don’t have them come to you and do the same shit. Knowing their M/W/F lifts are probably overly generalized and likely excessive in nature, you’re gifted a great opportunity to emphasize working on things like technical speed, global mobility, and bending for example.
2.) Everything is a spectrum (micro view)
You should have no inextricable fidelity to any one particular thing/ practice/ method/ whatever. I never understand these views/beliefs…It’s simple- some of my athlete’s back squat, clean, and bench, and some don’t. Some have designated core training sessions, others don’t. I stretch some of my athletes, and work on stability with others. Some get plyos, others get conditioning. I could literally go on forever, but hopefully the points clear. The ratios of how much strength vs. metabolic work or mobility vs. stability focus you put in your programming should never be fixed. These, no differently than exercise selection, should be governed by athlete assessment and sport demand.
In addition, we are always assessing our athletes, or at least we should be. Try to think in both directions pretty routinely here… (i.e. “if they have trouble with this where do we go”, and also “how can I make this more demanding/challenging”). We need to keep the items we collected during our assessment in the forefront of our thinking here. When athletes have specific items to address, it can be subtle adjustments like having athlete coming off plantar fasciitis use a floating heel for split squats to address directly. Don’t be locked in to doing every single movement the exact same way for every athlete. Use good judgement of course, but sometimes, it’s good to just let athletes athlete.
3.) Time blocks (full article here)
I honestly believe this has been the most effective/pragmatic programming adjustment I’ve made in the last few years. The primary benefit I’ve seen by using time blocks in lieu of prescribing sets is autoregulation. This provides an immediate solution to the example cited above, where athletes will “push” through excessive sets nonsensically when their bodies aren’t prepared for it. If we use a 15-minute time block for our primary lift working reps of 5 (instead of prescribing 5x5), we can allow the athlete to pace themselves based on how they feel that day. In some cases, this may result in 7 sets of 5, where others it may only be 3. But in either case, prescribing 5 sets specifically, would’ve been incorrect.
The main variable at play here is rest time. The textbook outlines for rest times are nice, but in practice they’re rarely applicable. As such, the time block allows the athlete to rest as needed, rather than as told. In some cases, for instance an athlete working 90% cleans for doubles, I’ll instruct rest time as “take what you need, but two is mandatory”. This way, they don’t compromise technique or safety by shortchanging rest, but I also don’t disrupt their rhythm and flow by forcing them to sit for “3-5 minutes”.
4.) Percentages are arbitrary
With the known exceptions of powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, CrossFit athletes, and concentrated high-level athletes, I feel that percentages are highly misguiding. For almost all other athletes, 1-RM testing just doesn’t really make sense. That’s not to say they shouldn’t lift heavy and chase PR’s, there’s absolutely a time and place for that. But those should be more organic in nature rather than scripted/structured. Anyhow, broadly speaking, without a reliable and recent true 1-RM the derivatives aren’t really accurate themselves. We can very quickly find ourselves over or, more commonly, undertraining our athletes using presumptuous, faulty intensities.
I use percentages exclusively as arbitrary effort or perceived intensity. For example, I will still write a program as 4x6 @ 85%, but the 85% isn’t a derivative of 1-RM. Rather, this is more of a “let’s see what we can work up to for 6 quality reps”. We know what the rough weight will be most of the time, so it’s not a total stab in the dark. But again, let the athlete govern the push. If they have more in the tank, let it rip, if they’re just having “one of those days” then back the weight off as needed. Simple as that. Live to lift another day.
Navigating the Grey Area:
1.) Applying tempos (full article here)
When we think about ways to progress or modify exercises, we normally think of the conventional suggestions (i.e. add/reduce load, increase/decrease points of stability, or increasing/decreasing complexity). An often overlooked but extremely beneficial way to progress and modify exercises is by adding specific tempos. Tempo training is something that has been ingrained in powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and performance training for decades. In more recent years, this has permeated into general strength training and rehabilitative/clinical practices as well. Tempos are a great way to provide the athlete a better opportunity to learn and/or feel a particular movement. When they can feel better, they can perform with more confidence and intent. And more confidence and conviction usually lead to improved outcome.
I’ve also found adding tempos really benefits athletes with joint and ligament/tendon damage, degenerative discs, and neurological/motor control deficiencies. I think the joint crowd benefits most from getting a better opportunity to engage the surrounding musculature, which is likely under or over-firing due to guarding. For the disc/back population, I believe eccentrics allow them to execute movement with better control and thus stability by finding the path of motion that works best for them. Confidence is a major factor in athletes with back injuries/surgeries, they need to be able to know they can move or execute without triggering a spasm. As such, eccentrics provide this advantage.
Side note- heavy/long isometrics may not be a good idea for athletes with history of disc herniation/bulging, or hernia/diastasis. Increasing intra-abdominal pressure can be dangerous for these athletes to reinjure or sustain additional injury. The motor control population speaks pretty much for itself here. But inter- and intramuscular coordination should be a primary training focus for this crowd, and these are accomplished through tempos.
2.) Bands are a must
I’ll keep this one short and sweet, as I recently just wrote an article on this. I firmly believe that band tension is simply more conducive to human movement and force production. Again, don’t misquote me, I love my heavy shit, but I think they have limited value beyond absolute strength. Bands offer a different stimulus, that challenges the athlete in a different way. I think they should, in some capacity, be incorporated in most programming. The other benefit is how outright versatile bands are. Being able to modify movements and accommodate external load to tailor to athletes is essential to progress. Bands offer unique applications that can create more seamless progressions and varying degrees of stressing the athlete.
3.) Determine and prioritize, efficiency is everything
It always seems that no matter what we just never have enough time or frequency with an athlete as we need or want. Personally, I’m extremely fortunate to have a high training frequency, but limited by duration. Everything boils down to efficiency, and in order to establish efficiency, we need to determine and prioritize. Knowing how valuable our time is, it’s critical to make decisions and execute. Although we need to be thorough, we can’t spend a ton of time just trying to see what sticks. Take the objective items from the assessment, and generally balance out their priority or demand. This doesn’t need to be concrete but use it to work from. Find ways to saturate the training sessions by making deliberate use of all your time (i.e. thorough warm-up/movement prep, intraset work, etc.). This is also where effective cueing and instruction right out of the gate comes into play again, as less time is needed for instruction or explanation.
4.) Solutions-based training
If I can summarize everything into one phrase it would be this. Ultimately, athletes or clients come to us seeking a specific outcome/result. Whether that’s a specific performance objective, recovering from an injury, or perhaps just overcoming a perceived limitation it is our job is to take the athlete from where they are and do what we can to get them closer to where they want to be. In this frame of thinking, we should then recognize the inherent demand to be willing and able to be adaptive and intuitive. The fundamentals are the fundamentals, I do not undermine the significance of foundational strength. However, we need to expand our paradigm.