I have been writing and designing programs for people for quite some time and it becomes a process. I thought I would pass on my knowledge for those looking to add a little extra. There is no perfect program, there is only a perfect program for a situation. The first part of the process is to identify your limitations, once you know the constraints to exercise you can start to build a program. I look at the following to help me start:
- Previous/current injury movement restrictions
- Time to exercise
- Goals (individual vs. coach vs. training history)
- Exercise preference (i.e. hate doing squats)
As a process if you answer the above questions you will have a template of a training plan suited to the individual. We can expand of this later and build more questions to define our scope, however these four are a good place to start. Answer these about yourself and see what you come up with and then we can fill in the blanks.
Once we have these answered we can look to start building some exercises into the program. Again I have a few rules. Firstly, the program should be progressive, the program should have an outcome, the program should be balanced and the program should include specific and general conditioning/strength. My last rule is universal, prioritise your weaknesses and develop your strengths. I will expand on each of these below:
- Progressive: We adapt to any stimulus or stress and this happens very quickly. We need to make sure that we progress the program so it challenges our limits and constantly improve. We can do this a number of ways, exercise selection, sets & reps, time, density of a workout and order of a workout. Again, there is greater depth we could focus on, however this is a good learning point.
- Outcome: A lot of programs I fell are short term focused with no direct outcome. If you answer the questions above not only do you have a template for your program you should have a good idea of what you are trying to achieve. The idea of any program should be to have an outcome. Working with athletes, I often use short term program goals to maintain focus and break up larger tasks, however, each short program has an outcome to progress to the next level. It is the same for anyone training, you should have a focus on what you are trying to achieve so you can make sure you are on track. If you train year round this can be tricky, I follow this a process to help me keep motivated and on task. December-January (off-season) low volume training, body weight and cardio work, maintenance, injury/stretching work. January-March (Foundation), build an aerobic base and work on training volume/density. April-July (Building the frame), start to increase intensity of both conditioning and strength work. Aug-November (Polish), lots of high end power work and power speed sessions in the gym/bike. The year for me is made up of a lot of 4-8 week programs with the above focus depending on the time frame. Each year it is progressive, I look back at last year and set a few targets (i.e. squat 120kg last year, this year is 125kg).
- Balance: All my programs are balanced to limit overuse injuries and minimise risk of functional deficits. I normally use a few easy to remember rules. The first is for every push exercise I do 2 pull exercises, if I work with someone who sits down a lot it is even more biased towards pulling and I use a ratio of 1:3 push:pull. I always do 1 quad dominant, 1 hip dominant, 1 hamstring exercise and 1 single limb as a minimum. There are thousands of examples here so it really depends on preference and your training history. I add in rotator cuff exercises every session (warm up or in session). When I do core work it is 1 x static, 1 x dynamic core drill, without going into too much detail I use different planes of movement where I can (i.e. side plank, front plank, side plank with rotation).
- General vs. Specific: It is important to develop both general exercise and specific exercise to maximise your training. What I mean here is your goal might be to deadlift 150kg for 1 rep. To get this you have to do general core exercises, general energy system development (absolute power), general aerobic work to cope with the volume of work needed to build up your strength to lift 150kg once. You also need to be specific and do deadlifts. You may do these in phases (See outcome paragraph above) or you may do these all at once. Do not get confused general does not mean low intensity or easy it just means it indirectly affects your outcome.
- Weakness vs strength: The best example here is people who spend 25 minutes stretching for a 40 minute workout. I am all for mobilising tissue if it limits your ability to perform an exercise. However, tissue is a structure that needs stress and to make it change by stretching and mobilising in my opinion is hard. I have always found if you can train through range then your flexibility will improve over time. It may be a matter of modifying exercises to fit your current range of movement and then slowly over time increase the range. We need to focus on our weaknesses, however we should always look to develop our strengths. If you can squat well, and cannot deadlift very well. It is natural to want to continue deadlifting to improve your strength. If we only focus on that we are probably limiting our gains as we are not working on developing our strength in the squat. Although I use squat and deadlifting as an example I am really talking about the nervous system, muscle system and how these interact. So always base your training plan on what you do well and then add into that where your weakness lies and balance your program between both.
So now you have basic knowledge on how to program, but there is still a lot to cover on exercise selection, sets & reps schemes, density, rest periods, exercise tempo, exercise order. Brain overload, there is a lot here. Again, I focus on having a couple of rules. Every trainer will be different and you may come up with a different plan for what you like and what suits your body. Everyone is slightly different and therefore we respond to exercise differently. There is commonality in that when we exercise our heart rate goes up, we sweat etc., however, it normally stops there. Beyond that you have your own response, monitoring and planning will help you identify what works for you. Back to my rules for filling in the program. When I am planning I normally follow this as a general rule. Use barbells for building strength, use Dumbbells for building stability, use body weight for building endurance. You can play on these as no now is saying you cannot get strong by doing body weight exercises. So a week for a person looking to improve strength in upper body pushing might look like:
- Monday: Bench Press (Heavy)
- Wednesday: DB Single Arm Chest Press (Moderate)
- Friday: Push Ups (Light)
Rule two when looking at exercise selection I choose difference movement planes. As humans we can move in 3 planes. It's a little complex, my rule is do something vertical, something horizontal, something unilateral (one-sided). Back to our above example:
- Monday: Barbell Shoulder Press (Heavy, Vertical)
- Wednesday: Single Arm DB Chest Press (Moderate, Unilateral)
- Friday: Push Ups (Light, Horizontal)
Rule three, choosing a sets and reps scheme. Here is where we can get really complex with training programs. Occasionally the fitness world is wowed by a new trend, however, it is often the case that we are not sure how that trend fits into the general training road map. If you understand nothing else but this section your doing well. Sets and reps schemes allow us to target, progress and express physical qualities. The first part of this is to look at what are my goals and what training phase I am in. The three I use are volume, strength or power. It may be that you are combining all of these at one time, no problems there but thats where programming can be highly complex.
If it's a volume phase there are a few sets and reps schemes I use:
- Traditional 3 x 8, 3 x 10, 3 x 12 same weight
- Ranges 3 x 8-10, 3 x 8-10, 3 x 10-12, 3 x 10-12, 3 x 12-15, 3 x 12-15 (increase weight each block)
- Pyramids (ascending) 8/10/12, 10/12/15, 12/15/20 (decreasing weight across set)
If it's a strength phase there are a few sets and reps schemes I use:
- Traditional/Block 3 x 12, 3 x 8, 3 x 4 Increasing weight
- Ranges 3 x 10-12, 3 x 10-12, 3 x 8-10, 3 x 8-10, 3 x 6-8, 3 x 6-8 (increase weight each block)
- Wave Loading 10/8/6, 8/6/4, 6/4/2 (increase weight across set)
If it's a power phase there are a few sets and reps schemes I use, this is a little more complex and might be more useful across a weight. Power is always about quality so focus on speed and use low reps to achieve this.
- Heavy/Light Day Same Exercise 3 x 3 @ 80% Squat 3 x 3 @ 60% Squat
- Heavy/Heavy Day aligned exercise 3 x3 @ 80% Back Squat 3 x 3 @ 80% Front Squat
- Contrast Loading (Strength/Power Exercise) 3 x 3 @ 80% Squat straight into 3 x 3 Body weight jumps
The last rule is adding layers to the program. Look at your goal and then pick some of the following:
- Rest periods are a great way to challenge the system. The greater the stimulus and the lower the recovery the harder the body has to work to keep producing the work. The obvious deficit here is absolute work will decrease overtime. If your goal is power I would increase the rest, if your goal is work rate or aerobic fitness decrease the rest.
- Density defines how much work you do in a period of time. We can look at this on a few scales. The density of a session (i.e. do 10 sets of squats in 60 minutes vs 10 sets of squats in 45 minutes), the density of a day (twice a day training vs once a day training), density of a training block (how many sessions you perform in a week, month, program). Increasing the density increases the work rate. If you produce 500 watts in a 1 minute bike effort and have a minute off x 10, your work rate is 250watts/min. If you do the same with 2 minutes rest between the work rate is 166watts/min. They are the same workout so you can see density makes a large difference. Each will have unique outcomes. I use density during my power and volume phases. Work rate is important for both.
Exercise order and Tempo:
- I have a general rule for exercise order, start with your most fatiguing and finish with your least fatiguing. However, you can play around with this if your goal is to develop strength/power under fatigue, as you may want to put these at the end. If I use the spin classes as an example I often say finish strong. It is a natural decision to increase pace as time gets closer. If we can develop this we can develop our pacing strategy. So I may order the sessions so the harder exercises are at the finish. It helps you develop a reserve to produce power at the end of a race. When we do our 10km time trial it is the last 3-4 minutes that make the difference. We want to be able to power to the end and blow away the competition. However, to develop high end power requires you to be fresh, hence our power sessions are ordered so the powerful work is complete first.
- Exercise tempo can have a different definition for different tasks, I will speak about it in a gym/weight sense. The exercise tempo describes how fast we are lifting/lowering the weights. The slower the tempo the greater the time under the tension the muscle is subjected. The trade of here is the load needs to be lowered, so it is a good finisher to a session. I often use my body weight exercise with a slow tempo at the end of a heavy training session to really blowout the muscle. An example may be after a heavy strength day (barbell bench press) I might finish with a push up on a 3010 tempo. This describes the lowering part (3), the pause at the bottom (0), the up phase (1) and the pause at the top (0). So you would perform a push up on a 3 second down, no pause, 1 second up, no pause.
The last part of programming is understanding how to order/plan your days. If you have asked your questions at the top then you will have an idea of how often someone or you can train. That is a constraint, I often see these amazing 6 day programs given to people who can only train once a week. Great in theory in practice it does not work. I have outlined how I break up a program for each phase. I always stick to these patterns with some slight variations.
- 1 Day a week is full body
- 2 Days a week is full body
- 3 Days per week is 1 lower 2 upper or 2 lower 1 upper or 1 upper, 1 lower, 1 full.
- 4 Days per week is 1 lower strength/volume, 1 upper strength/volume, 1 lower volume, 1 upper volume.
- 1 day is full body
- 2 days is full body or 1 lower, 1 upper
- 3 days is 1 lower, 1 upper, 1 full or 1 push, 1 pull, 1 lower
- 4 days rarely happens in this phase as I usually look to have day on/day off training
Power training is normally a lower volume type of training so I look to add sessions around it that continues to build on the foundations laid before
- 1 day full body (contrast/volume)
- 2 days full body (contrast/strength, strength/volume)
- 3 days 1 lower body power 1 upper strength/volume 1 full body contrast
- 4 days similar to strength training it is hard to get 4 days in a week here, if I do have time I normally add an extra upper body or full body volume day
The more you understand about your training the more you are able to fine tune it so you get a better outcome. Hope this blog helps with your own training structure. If you require some more information feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org