Below are a few points to consider when designing a program. To build or choose a program, you should understand the key points included below. I go over them briefly in the bulleted section and then revisit them in a bit more detail in the “Understand the rules” section.
The assessment should include, at a minimum, assessment of the foundational movements (overhead press, squat, hip-hinge, running), but also include anything specific to the desired style of training or known issues.
Determining the program
Based on the assessment, goals, and other situational data, you need to create a program that is custom-tailored to the client.
Creating the program
When I create a program, I consider a variety of things. A few key areas every program should address are included below. When creating or selecting a program, you will want to consider these points.
Specificity—tailored to the goal. In this case, the program should focus on the strength goal you have. For example, if you are a powerlifter, you should engage in a program that focuses on powerlifting, not another form of strength training.
Individual differences—tailored to the client. The program needs to fit your situational factors, such as schedule, skill level, and current physical state. For example, if you are a beginner, you should utilize a beginner program, not an advanced program.
Periodization—follows a structured plan. This simply means the plan is created with purpose and organized in an effective manner.
Progressive—improves results over time. The program must improve your abilities over time or it is pointless.
Fatigue management (AKA, intensity management)—manages the accumulation of fatigue over time. The program should help you manage fatigue, but the program is only part of the equation. By that, I mean the program should not be so physically demanding that you cannot recover. However, even a program that is not too physically demanding can become difficult if other aspects of your lift, such as nutrition and stress management, are not well-managed.
Working through the program
Focus—you must focus on your goal and complete the program effectively. If you go to the gym and half-ass your efforts because you’re thinking about work, too busy checking out people in the gym, more concerned with going out, or otherwise placing your attention on something other than training, your results will suffer. This applies to focusing on activities in the gym, but also tasks outside the gym, such as rest and nutrition.
Motivation—this goes in line with focus. If you lack the motivation to put in hard work, to be consistent, to do the things you need to do to be successful, then you are not going to reach your goals.
Consistency—it’s all good and fine to do what you need to do part of the time, but that will not get you to the end goal. For example, you might go kick but for a couple of workouts, which is awesome, but then slack off for the next three, or even worse, skip the next three. This is not ideal. If you get in enough workouts this way you might start to see results, but those results will be lackluster. For the best progress over time, you must consistently do the things you need to do. The best lifters, athletes, etc. are built in years, not months, weeks, or days.
Understand the rules
When I explain exercise programming to the common person, I only focus on four points. I will focus on more here. The reason for this difference in explanation is most people do not have the patience or willingness to listen to long explanations. These people want the quick answer, they want that “one weird trick.” Unfortunately, there is no one weird trick and an answer can only be so short.
When explaining exercise programming to the common person, I tell them to focus on four tenets, which are:
Program for the goal—your program should focus on the goal you have
Account for situational factors—consider your unique situation and the “things” included therein, such as physical ability and time constraints (schedule)
Make the program structured—plan the length of the program, days you will workout, what you will work on during specific workouts, etc.
Keep the program progressive—the program should improve ability over time by increasing physical performance, skill level, etc. through intensification of volume, weight, speed, or other variables
For this writing, I will dig a bit deeper, but still will not delve into all that is exercise programming. While I could leave this section out, I want you to have a basic understanding of the how’s and whys of exercise programming. There are few straightforward rules to be adhered to when creating an exercise or training program. While each coach, trainer, or other instructor has his or her take on the specifics, and some may include other concepts to use, the following categories are almost universal in nature.
Program for the goal (specificity)
Account for situational factors (individual differences)
Create a structured plan (periodization)
Make the program progressive (progressive overload)
Manage intensity and recovery (fatigue management)
I offer a brief description of each rule below, and will go into greater detail in following sections, providing specifics for each programming concept as well as how to apply it.
Program for the goal (specificity)
Specificity is the act of programming exercise for the task to be completed. This means creating a program the centers around the goal a person is trying to achieve or the sport a person wishes to compete in. For example, if a person is a football player, then the program should focus on things that help that player succeed in his position. Not only should the program be specific to football, but it should be specific to that client’s position. A running back will likely need a different program than a quarterback and guard.
Program for situational factors (individual differences)
The concept of individual differences means a program should focus on the unique variables of the person. This concept, to some degree, goes hand in hand with specificity, in that when programming for specifics you program for the person. However, individual differences require you program for the difference among persons, including individuals with the same type of goal.
For example, you may have two running backs who both need to perform well. However, one person may be faster on their feet while the other person is more explosive and stronger. However, for their positions, they both need to be quick on their feet, have explosiveness, and to a lesser degree, need to be strong.
To create a program for the first individual, you would create a program that helps maintain or even enhance his speed, but that has a focus on strength and explosiveness, while the program for the second individual would have a reversed focus.
At the same time, you must consider situation factors. As a working adult, you must consider your responsibilities such as work, furthering your education, and family, among others, when determining the program to use, creating a program, or adjusting the program. Considering your responsibilities and schedule is just as important as considering your goals and physical abilities.
Create a structured plan (periodization)
Periodization is the structuring of a plan for physical activity. This means considering the program macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle as well as training frequency, volume, and loads used over time, among other possible considerations.
The structured plan will follow a clear path from start to finish. There will be varying phases and focuses in these phases, clear progression of load/distance/etc. over time, and varying intensities throughout, including recovery/deload days or weeks. The program will be properly varied. While progress assessment is always ongoing to some degree, programs will have specific points at which progress is officially measured. The program will account for the next two principles, progressive overload and fatigue management.
Make the program progressive (progressive overload)
Any good program is progressive. However, progressive overload is often misunderstood. Overloading over time does not mean infinitely adding more weight for every exercise and every set for every workout. Progressive overload refers to gradually adding intensity to a workout to further entice the adaptive response of the body to gain a physical characteristic, such as improved strength, greater speed, or more muscle. These are not the only physical characteristics to which overload applies, as vertical jump, agility, and other performance traits, such as mobility, all rely on progressive overload for forward progress.
Simply put, a progressive program continues to create change in the physical abilities or appearance of the trainee. To keep a program progressive, the training variables must change over time. No singular variable exists, and the type of training style determines what variables are present. For example, the variables adjusted for strength gains in resistance training differ from those adjusted in running.
When considering resistance training, some variables that can be changed include load (resistance, weight), volume (exercises, sets, reps, workout frequency), pace (speed work, pause work, slow pace work), and rest between sets (less or more rest to adjust difficulty and therefore the physical stress that occurs), among others.
Manage intensity and recovery (fatigue management)
If there is one thing that can kill a program and hurt the user, it is poor fatigue management. I refer to this as intensity management and recovery (for clarification, I’m talking about the overall difficulty (intensity) of a workout, not just weight (intensity). The intensity management goes in hand, to some degree, with controlling progressive overload. Handling the rate of attempted progression plays a role in making sure someone does not become too fatigued.
The importance of each concept
Some people suggest that one concept is more important than the other. I disagree but can understand why a coach or another exercise programmer might think so. However, for the intents of this writing and the best understanding of our approach to exercise programming, consider all concepts to be of equal importance.
Program for the task to be completed (specificity)
The first concept seems straightforward—program for the task to be completed. However, it can pose some difficulties, especially for the untrained person, that is, the person who does not understand exercise programming.
A textbook definition for specific is “clearly defined or identified” or “relating to or connected with.” This definition is appropriate for exercise programming. This means the main task programmed for training must be the main task that is associated with a goal, sport, or sport position.
However, when considering the task to be completed, you cannot just say “okay, I’ll program that task.” For example, if you want to be a powerlifter you can’t just program the squat, deadlift, and bench. By that logic, if you want to be a marathon runner, you can’t just program a marathon for every run.
Every exercise selected for the training program must be specific to the task. This begins with the competitive task or the primary goal, such as a stronger squat or faster 10-mile run, and means you program that task, in this case the barbell squat or the 10-mile run. However, you must also consider all the movements that will complement that primary movement.
For example, the powerlifter benefits from variations of the back squat, such as the front squat, while the marathoner benefits from shorter distance runs such as the 10K.
Specificity refers to training the specific thing that needs to be improved. Not only that, specificity assumes that all things in the program will be specific to the end goal. A powerlifter does not need to train like a marathon runner and a runner does not need to train like a powerlifter. Sure, the powerlifter can engage in running and the marathon runner can use the squat and the deadlift to produce greater power, but the overlap in training styles is minimal and the training should never take away from the primary goal.
Program for the client (individual differences)
The concept of individual differences focuses on the idea that no two people are alike. Just as a man and a woman are different, so is one man different from the next and one woman different from the next. It is in this area that I account for these differences and program accordingly.
Defining individual differences There is no textbook definition for individual differences. However, the term is associated with psychology (yes, it’s not just an exercise programming concept), specifically in differential psychology. In this form of psychology, the goal is to categorize and to account for the different mental aspects that make up people. In that same vein, individual differences in exercise programming attempt to consider the mental and physical differences among people.
Mentally no two people are the same. While similar behaviors may exist—for example, two people may be shy—the exact way these habits display are different and occur in varying degrees. The mental aspect plays a role in coaching and programming, but more in an intuitive way than in a concrete way.
For example, if you have a person who has the will to push hard, then programming harder sessions for this person will be easier, given that they can physically handle the tougher workouts. If you have a person who lacks this mental toughness, moderate difficulty workouts may be better for them, no matter if their body can handle more.
Additionally, psychological differences relate to a person’s aptitude for learning and cooperative nature. This is called coachability. Some people are not very coachable, either due to having a hard time catching on to things, being resistant to change due to stubbornness, or not liking being told what to do because of control issues. Programming for each person requires a different approach.
For example, the person with a high aptitude for learning should be able to catch onto things quickly and engage in an accelerated program when compared to someone who has a low aptitude for learning. For example, some people catch on to basic stance and boxing footwork in a few sessions, while some people can take weeks or even months. This changes the programming approach.
The same is true for someone who is resistant to change or does not like being told what to do. It will often take longer for them to accept and acclimate to change, thereby increasing the duration of the training program. I have a client right now who took two months to reach goals that should have taken about three weeks, because the person does not want to do the things that are needed.
Psychological differences are difficult to account for initially. However, with time, you learn the mannerisms of a client and can adjust the programming to account for this.
How does this apply to you? You must account for psychological factors when selecting or creating a program.
Physical differences are easier to account for. Individual differences in this context refer to outward physical characteristics such as height, arm length, and other similar qualities, like muscular imbalances. In this context, performance stats also count as individual differences.
For example, a person who stands 5’6″ will likely use a narrower hand grip on a barbell than a person who stands 6’5″. This has to do with body width overall, but specifically with arm length difference and shoulder width differences.
Conversely, differences in body part size can make a difference in programing, specifically when choosing what exercises to use and how to perform them. For example, a person who has a big stomach will have a harder time using a narrow stance squat than a person who has a flat stomach. When descending into the squat with a narrow stance, the stomach inevitably presses into the hip flexors and thighs, limiting range of motion. People with a bigger stomach may find they cannot reach depth and that the pressure on the stomach is uncomfortable. These persons should use a wider stance, which allows the stomach to fall between the legs as opposed to pressing against the legs.
In that same line of thought, two powerlifters of the same size and stature may be able to engage in the same program but not follow the same loading pattern due to difference in starting numbers. For example, imagine lifter one has a max bench of 400 pounds while lifter two has a max bench of 200 pounds. There is no way lifter two will be able to work with the same poundage as lifter one due to the differences of ability. At the same time, lifter one will not progress if he uses the same poundage as lifter two, because the loads will be too light.
How does this apply to you? When you select a program and determine variables such as load, you must consider what you can do physically.
Grace and I generally follow the same workout program. It incorporates Olympic lifting, running, and cross-training (e.g. circuit training, CrossFit, etc.). Though we follow the same basic program, there are physical and psychological differences that make the program different.
Grace’s goal is primarily to maintain abilities, such as strength, circuit times, and running ability. My goal is to improve across the board. Since maintenance is easier than gaining, this means I must work harder, which means heavier sets, more volume, and more frequency.
Desire to push
I have worked out for a long time, almost eighteen years to be exact (as of this publication). During this time, I have pushed my body to its breaking point and beyond (hence, a few injuries). Though I’m safer with it these days, I still push myself hard and that is why I am as strong, fast, and fit as I am. Grace prefers a more moderate approach, which goes hand in hand with her goals, as my more intense approach goes hand in hand with my goals.
In general, I am stronger and fitter than Grace. Now the strength side might make sense, since I’m bigger and male. However, even if we look at pound for pound, I’m still strong, as Grace’s best lifts are 1.5 times her bodyweight (barbell deadlift) and one times her bodyweight (back squat) while my best lifts are 2.5+ times my body weight (barbell deadlift, back squat, and front squat).
I’m also a better runner, able to go faster and further than her in any run, though she still puts up good numbers.
Concerning the cross-training, due to my physical abilities, I am able to do more than her. It’s not to say she cannot outdo me on some timed circuits or CrossFit workouts, but her loads will always be lower, often not RXed, and she cannot complete some of the workouts at all.
When it comes to lifting technique, we’re about equal. We each have some movement we’re better at when compared to the other person, but the gap is usually small.
When creating our program, we had to consider these differences. The same is true when we create a program for a client. We must consider individual specifics that a person brings to the table. A program created for one person may not be ideal for the next person. That is why all programs are custom created.
While program templates such as those provided by us in some of the training manuals or those provided by others in similar texts, can lead people to success, better results would come from a program created just for these individuals.
When selecting a program, you must consider individual differences. The biggest problem with doing so is there are an infinite amount of individual differences to consider. A few key things to focus on are:
Goals of the client—what does he or she hope to accomplish
Condition of the client—physical abilities, injuries, height, weight, etc.
Mentality—are they difficult, do they have an aptitude for learning, etc.
There are some other aspects that trainers and coaches sometimes include in individual differences, such as time constraints, but I will touch on these in the periodization section, since though they are individual differences of the client, we consider them during the structuring of the program.
Create a structured plan (periodization)
A good training or exercise program will have structure. The exact structure varies but the program will consider key aspects and account for these for the duration of the program. Failure to have a structured plan will minimize the results a person receives and increase the chance of injury.
Periodization is the systematic programming of physical activity. This programming is connected to an outcome, meaning it is goal based. The outcome is rooted in the concept of specificity, as the specific task to be programmed will help define the training program. In short, periodization is an organized program that enables a person to reach a certain goal.
Understanding periodization Understanding periodization is harder than defining periodization. The reason for this is, while everyone agrees periodization refers to a structured programing of physical activity, not everyone agrees exactly how that structure occurs.
There are three basic forms of periodization:
Undulating: regular changing elements of training stressors (e.g. daily or weekly) to keep the body adapting
Linear: progressing the training cycle in a straight-line or linear fashion similar to progressive overload
Block: Training broken down into distinctive blocks focusing on key areas of performance
Use of phases (blocks)
In athletics, phases are used to focus on different skills or physical attributes needed for the sport in which a trainee competes. When it comes to strength development, often there are hypertrophy, strength, and power phases. However, this is not always the case, nor does it need to be. A person, especially someone who already carries significant muscle, could only focus on strength and power, or could still include the hypertrophy phase, but keep it shorter than the other two phases.
Really, any skill or ability could be developed in phase of a block. For example, a CrossFitter might focus on skill development in the first phase to learn skills needed for new competitive events at regionals or the CrossFit games. The second phase could focus on strength. The final phase could focus on conditioning.
Use of linearity Linearity refers to approaching the training progression in a straight line. A simple way to think about this is the use of progressive overload. For example, you might approach weight increases by simply adding more weight each week. For example:
week one you use 100 pounds for a lift
week two 105 pounds
week three 110 pounds
This is a straight-line approach to increasing weight, since you went from 100 to 110.
Linearity can also occur in a sort of staggered approach. For example:
week one you use 100 pounds for a lift
week two 105 pounds
week three 110 pounds
Week four 100 pounds
Week five 110 pounds
Week six 120 pounds
The form of linearity is commonly referred to as a wave pattern, due to the increase then decrease in weight. This allows a person to add weight, back off a bit to lower intensity and aid recovery, but then adds weight again to continue the progression. Use of a wave method is a way to manage intensity, aid recovery, and allow you or a client to train longer and safer, ideally without, or at least minimal use of, deload or recovery weeks.
Every program uses some form of linearity, whether a running program, lifting program, CrossFit program, or even a gymnastics program. There is always some type of increase in intensity over time, by increased weight, speed, hold times, exercise difficulty, etc.
Use of undulation The regular changing of stressors, also known as undulation, is a means to work multiple intensities in the same week. Undulation can be applied in many ways, but commonly daily or weekly undulation is used. Daily undulation changes stressors on multiple days in the same week. Weekly undulating changes stressors on different weeks. For example, in daily, you might:
Bench press 3×10 on Monday
Bench press 3×8 on Wednesday
Bench press 3×12 on Thursday
Using the different rep ranges, and the weights associated with each, changes the stress that the body experiences.
I do not strictly follow any of these constructs as listed, but then, the same could be said for many coaches. If you talk to or read enough content from enough coaches and trainers, you’ll find that, even if they prescribe to a periodization style, they still alter it to fit their needs.
For example, Louis Simmons is the well known leader of Westside Barbell. He follows the conjugate method, but it is adjusted to his training preference. Along that same line of thought, Mark Bell says he follows the Westside Method, but states it is his interpretation of said method.
Basic tenets of periodization
Regardless of the type of periodization you use, or if you do not follow a specific form of periodization, there are basic tenets that you must consider. These are:
Length of training cycle
Focus of training cycle
Training session frequency
Length of workouts (time per training session)
Volume workouts (exercises x sets x reps)
Stressors (load, speed, etc.)
Preference of the coach
As a quick side note, let’s discuss that last one for a moment. Coach preference refers to the training methods employed by a coach. These methods may be the frequency or volume a coach believes works best, it may refer to the exercises he or she feels are superior, and it may refer to many other things. Why do I focus on this? Because there are many ways to achieve the same goal. Some are better than others while some are worse. Quite often, however, different coaching methods achieve the same result, just utilizing a different program. For example, Chad Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems uses his training style, Louie Simmons uses his, I use mine, and many trainers and coaches in gyms across the country use theirs. Is it possible one method is superior? Sure. However, while I can’t speak for all trainers and coaches across the country, I can say that Chad Smith’s programs work, Louis Simmons’s programs work, and my programs work—we can all add hundreds of pounds to a trainee’s big three in relatively short time periods, given the trainee follows the program correctly.
Now back to periodization. As noted, periodization is the systematic planning of physical training. That is, periodization is a structuring of the mentioned training factors to maximize performance and minimize negatives such as overtraining and injury. As stated, many coaches employ different programs to achieve this end, but all use some form of periodization. Let’s look at the key areas considered for periodization.
Length of Training Cycle
Time is one of the first factors considered when considering periodization. Time refers to the length of the training program. More specifically, time refers to the macro,meso, and micro-cycles of a program.
The macro-cycle is the length of the overall training program
The meso-cycle is the breakdown of the macro-cycle into smaller parts
The micro-cycle is the breakdown of the meso-cycle into smaller parts
Each cycle can be any length. For example, the macro-cycle could be 12 weeks, with the meso four weeks, and the micro one week. However, the macro could easily be 12 months, the meso three months, and the micro one month. Additionally, the breakdowns do not need to be equal in length. For example, the macro could be one year, the mesos 3-6 months in length and the micros 1-2 months in length.
No single time breakdown exists, nor should it—the timing must be relevant to the individual or group trained. For example, the periodization structure for an NFL athlete should go in line with the different playing seasons while the periodization structure for a powerlifter would focus on specific competitions.
While no universal timeline exits, many coaches follow a one-year or less training program. Often, due to the changing demands of the client, the idea that a client may not be with the coach for a full year, and other variables, coaches will look at a full year, but only focus on one smaller training cycle at a time, such as a 12- to 16-week period.
There are many other thoughts that could go into the discussion of time as it refers to periodization, but this should offer you a rough overview of the idea.
Focus of Each Training Cycle
The focus of each training cycle refers to the specific training goal for each cycle. For example, with powerlifting the overall goal is to become stronger, though the macro goal may focus this goal on a specific competition.
A person could take a very generalist approach and simply try to get stronger at all three lifts in each meso and micro cycle. In this approach the individual might use the exact same exercise and volume scheme the entire macro cycle. This will work in many instances. However, there are other ways.
Let’s consider the macro-cycle 12 months, eachmeso-cycle three months, and the micro-cycle one month. The macro-cycle would focus on the general goals. The meso-cycles would focus on a specific goal, such as increasing the trainee’s one-rep max (1RM) for each lift by 1-10 percent. The micro-cycles would focus on the progressive overload in each month. For example, three weeks of increased intensity might be followed by a one-week decrease called a deload.
Now this might seem a bit generalized, but when working with specific individuals I consider their circumstance and create a program to meet their needs. While each program follows an outline that enforces the concepts referenced so far, no two programs are identical.
How many times a person trains per week and per day is his or her training frequency. The number of sessions required for success varies by individual factors. For example, a highly trained individual may be able to handle more volume, say nine sessions per week, than a new trainee, who might only be able to handle 4 sessions per week.
Conversely, if a person has a shorter time to reach his or her goals, that individual may need to train more often. However, if a person has a longer time to reach the goals, that individual may be able to train less frequently.
A person’s schedule also determines his or her training frequency. This is a situational factor or individual difference that changes with each client. If a person can only train once a day five times per week, programming more than this does no good.
Coach preference is a variable as well, in that many coaches or trainers have a specific number of days they like to trainees to train. For example, with new trainees, I generally start with three days per week, separated by 1-2 days of rest. With intermediate to advanced trainees, I may have them train 5-6 days per week. Twice-a-day sessions are reserved for the elite, meaning that most individuals will never engage in more than six training sessions per week.
Length of Workouts
The length of the workout can vary for many reasons. A trainee may not be able to train as frequently. He or she may need more time working on problem areas. The person may have a high or low capacity (fitness level) for training. There are many other variables.
One of the most important ones is schedule. Just as a person cannot train six days per week if his or her schedule only allows for five, that individual cannot train in a single session for longer than his or her schedule allows. If a person can only train for an hour, it does no good to program two hours.
Generally, I do not have new clients train for more than an hour at a time. Usually, I like to increase frequency before workout length. Longer workouts can be grueling making the final exercises in a workout abnormally difficult. However, training more frequently, for example placing those last few exercises on a different day, give people an opportunity to recover and then return refueled to complete those same exercises. This increases their chance of doing well and minimizes negatives. Intermediate to advanced trainers might train for 1-2 hours per session, with the elite possibly going longer, but not much longer, due to fatigue.
Volume is the number of exercises times the number of sets times the number of reps. The exact volume used depends on various factors, most importantly trainee capacity, but notably training cycle length, frequency of training, and session length.
For example, I start a new trainee with low volume, since this person will only train three days per week for one hour per day. Volume generally consists of 3-4 exercises per day, with 3-5 sets per exercise, and around 2-20 repetitions per set. Note that this volume does not include warm-ups such as the general warm-up and warm-up sets for the specific exercises for the workout of the day.
Of all the variables considered in structuring a training program, load is the most uncertain. No two people have the same physical abilities, so no two people will have the same levels of strength, speed, etc. A coach cannot tell a person to lift 200 pounds if that individual can only lift 100. A trainer cannot start applying percentages if a person’s form is bad; the form must be improved first. A trainer cannot tell a person to run five miles if they can only run three. While considering load, other stressors may be considered as well, such as speed (run speed, bar speed, etc.) and height (jumps, throws, etc.).
Progression (Progressive overload)
Periodization adjusts stressors over a training period. These adjustments may change volume, weight, exercise, training frequency, and other factors. The specifics of each factor depend on the training program, the trainee, time, and preference of the coach, among other possible variables.
As a general statement, progressive overload refers to the continuous increasing of workout intensity over time to continue the adaptation of the body. As the body adapts to a stimulus it becomes capable of handling that stimuli with greater ease. For example, if a person regularly benches 100 pounds for 10 reps, he or she will eventually be able to do so with ease. To continue the adaptive process to enable the body to continue growing bigger, stronger, and more well-conditioned, a stressor must be changed.
While any number of variables can be changed for progressive overload to occur and progression to continue, when considering development of strength, weight is the variable most often changed. Over time, for you or anyone to become stronger, he or she must increase the load used when lifting. To go from a 200-pound squat to a 500-pound squat, you must increase weight over time. The exact progression will vary and is again based on various factors, most of which have been discussed or alluded to already.
Make the program progressive (progressive overload)
I touched on progression in the last section, but I’ll go into greater detail here. Simply put, as I define it, a progressive program is one that improves abilities over time. These abilities can and often will be varied; there is no one ability, such as strength or speed, that defines progression.
There is no textbook definition for progression, at least not in the sense of training. However, you might find definitions such as “the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state” or ” the process of developing over a period,” which are not bad definitions.
Essentially as you (or a client) progresses, you are trying to move to a more advanced state. The goal is to be bigger, faster, stronger, leaner, more skilled, or some other enhanced state when compared to where you were when you began a program. If the program does not achieve this end, it is not progressive.
Defining how to measure progression is impossible in a universal way. Progression is measured based on the goals of the client. For example, progression for a runner will be different from that of a lifter or someone trying to lean out. In that same line of thought, a person chasing multiple goals will view progression different as well.
Example: progression for powerlifting
Progression for powerlifting is simplistic in theory—the lifter always tries to lift more. Of course, it’s not that black and white. While the overall goal is to get stronger, the progression may occur in a staggered fashion, similar to the staggering I mentioned earlier. For example, a person with a 200-pound lift might:
Week 1: 140 pounds 3×8
Week 2: 160 pounds 5×3
Week 3: 180 pounds 3×2
Week 4: 150 pounds 3×5
Week 5: 170 pounds 8×3
Week 6: 190 pounds 3×2
Week 7: work to new max 5×1
And then repeat
Example: progression for sprinting
Theoretically, progression for running does not differ from progression in powerlifting. A person needs to increase training intensity over time to account for the improved ability of the body due to adaptation. This idea applies to lifting, running, jumping, calisthenics, etc.—there is no exclusivity to a single training style or sport. Application does differ, as we target differing goals which use different metrics. A progression example for a sprinter with a 40-second 200-meter sprint may look like this:
Week 1: 200-meter sprint @ 45 seconds x 4 repetitions
Week 2: 200-meter sprint @ 40 seconds x 3 repetitions
Week 3: 200-meter sprint @ 40 seconds x 4 repetitions
Week 4: 200-meter sprint @ 55 seconds x 2 repetitions
Week 5: 200-meter sprint @ 40 seconds x 5 repetitions
Week 6: 200-meter sprint @ 40 seconds x 6 repetitions
Week 7: work to 200-meter sprint max
And then repeat
Both examples are very simplistic and only used for example. A plan for lifting or running would be far more detailed and include various days, exercises, speeds/loads, and other variables. The examples are just meant to provide you with a simple idea of what progression may look like.
Managing your level of fatigue over time is one of the most important parts of a training program. This concept is continuously considered and assessed during a training program. Each day, week, and month of a training cycle, a person must assess how his or her body feels to determine if the individual is pushing the body too far.
Overtraining is a side-effect of poor intensity management. It is a scientifically proven occurrence, yet some people do not believe it exists, or at best, do not understand it. I’ve sat in college-level courses with other trainers who referred to overtraining as a “myth.” These same people are the kind of people who think you must “go hard all the time.” Both points are false. Overtraining is not a myth and you do not need to go hard all the time. You need to train smart.
The body can only take so much damage for activity and mental stress, including exercise, before it cannot recover well enough. This poor recovery will first show up as lowered energy levels, loss of focus, poor mood, and lingering soreness or achiness. Eventually, forward progress will stop, regression will occur, and injuries will occur. These effects can be staved off by smart training and nutrition.
While you do not need to “go hard all the time” you do need to push your body to do more. However, even a little bit more week over week is progression. At the same time, understand that as you push your body harder, you must be sure to adequately nourish yourself and rest. Additionally, if you feel the signs of pushing too hard coming on, such as excess fatigue, lingering soreness, etc. then you need to make sure you are getting enough rest, enough nourishment, and/or back off the training. Any one of these things can give a person problem, but some “hardcore” people have more trouble with the last one.
Backing off training does not mean you have to stop working out, go easy for a long time, or otherwise overly reduce training effort. Instead, it simply means adjusting enough to help your body recover. For some people, this may mean taking a few days off. For others it may mean using a deload week, which is a week of significantly reduced intensity by adjusting volume, weight, or other training variables. In extreme situations, a person may need to pullback for a few weeks or even take a couple weeks off. Now this might seem like lost time, but it’s not if your body recovers and is able to come back strong because of this. On the other hand, if your body needs the time off and you don’t give it the time off, then that fatigue, that soreness, the loss of focus, they will continue and even compound. Train smart.
Now the problem here is you must listen to your body. I can’t tell you exactly when you need to take time off. Sure, I could say plan for a deload at specific times, which may work. However, some people don’t need deloads and taking one will be wasted time if it does not serve the intended purpose. With that in mind, you need to pay attention to the signals from your body. For example, if you are six weeks into a training program and struggling with loss of energy and motivation that cannot be attributed to something else, then you may be pushing too hard and need to pull-back for a few days or even a week, regardless of what the program calls for. Again, list to your body and adjust as needed.
A final thought—this is not an excuse to pull back needlessly. Part of the reason the overtraining concept gets a bad rap or is considered a myth is due to people wanting an excuse not to workout. These people will state they are working too hard when they just don’t want to work out. They would rather go hang out with friends, have a beer, or do some other “fun” activity as opposed to training. While taking a break or pulling back from training for mental relief is okay from time to time, the pullback should not be due to lack of motivation. If that is your reason, suck it up and get back in the gym.
Self-Adjusting Programming Over Time
The process of self-adjusting programming is an individual assessing their current physical state, their abilities, their mental state, and the success of the previous or current programming. Methods for doing this include:
1-rep max test
Now, that might seem like a lot, but most of these are quick tests. You will assess yourself before you begin this program, and then again at the end of each 12-week cycle.
Listening to Your Body to Adjust
When you exercise or exert yourself in any way, your body will tell you things. When the sweat starts to appear on your body, this is a sign that you are overheating and the body is cooling you down to stay in a safe state. Do not take the “overheating” as a dramatic term; it simply notes that your body has left its comfortable state and is now in the process of trying to bring it back to that state. You will keep sweating until it gets back to that state.
Discomfort or pain can signal a number of things. For example, if you push through a grueling weight training set and the muscles have a short-lived “ache”, the body is telling you that the given muscle has been pushed to its limit at the point and needs rest. The amount of rest could be 1 minute, 5 minutes, or overnight.A sharp pain in an area of the body may indicate that the muscle, joint, or other tissues moved in a manner it should not and that you should not do that again. It may also indicate an injury.
Pain is an often misunderstood physical signal in relation to working out. We feel pain when working out on a regular basis, but not injury pain. The pain is one signal that our bodies are working hard. At points, we must rest to make this pain subside so we can continue our workout. At other points, the pain is muscle soreness from previous workouts. Depending on the level, this can tell us not to work that muscle, to go easier on that muscle, or to give that muscle a better warmup and/or greater rest between sets.
Understanding the difference in this pain can mean success or failure, not to mention injury or no injury, in your fitness pursuits. Get to know your body and learn how to adjust as needed, push through when warranted, and how to understand what your body is telling you in order to maximize success. We used pain as an example but understanding what your body does when you are hungry, when your brain needs glucose, and when you need water all play a role in your success. This is not something that we can teach through text, but instead you must learn this by listening to your body over time.
The Tests and Assessments
While knowing how to read and understanding the signals your body produces will take time, the assessments are part of the process you can apply today. Let us break down each test.
1-rep max Test
The 1-rep max test is just as it sounds – you work to assess your 1-repetition max on a given lift. To do this, begin with lighter warmup weights and slowly work your way up to a 1-repetition max that you can safely perform. The key is “safely” here. Getting the weight up by any means necessary including bad form does not constitute a safe 1-rep max. While your form might deteriorate slightly as you reach your 1-rep max, it should still be very close to standard form. Let us use the squat as an example. Assume I have a 500-pound 1-rep max on the squat. If I were to test this, I would follow a weight and repetition scheme something like this:
135 x 3
225 x 3
315 x 3
365 x 1-3
405 x 1
425 x 1
455 x 1
475 x 1
500+ x 1
Understand that a proper warmup would precede the weights. Sufficient rest between sets would be used. Understand that the above rep and set scheme is an example.
Before beginning the training program, you must assess your starting point. While the distances in the programs are set, the times in which you complete these are the variable and determined by your self-assessment.
Ideally, you need to know your current 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1-mile, and 3-mile (5k) run times. If you are new to running, then assess the distances you are currently capable of achieving. For example, if you have never run a 5K, but can run a mile, then complete a 1-mile run test, 100-meter, 200-meter run test, 400-meter run test, and 800-meter run test. Ideally, you should perform these tests on different days, though you could perform two tests on the same day. By the same logic, if you are going to complete a 5K run test, it should be completed on another day.
For the record, it is not sufficient to test the 5K and simply divide your time to get your 1-mile, 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, and 800-meter times. You must test each distance as a separate test.
Once you have your times for each distance tested, make a record of them.
The mobility test assesses your ability to move through various motions. Work your joints through full range of motion to assess if you possess normal range of motion.
The mental assessment is a self-assessment that simply gauges your mind state. Ask yourself questions such as what your goals are, are you demotivated, do you need a change of programming to spark mental interest, and do you have distractions preventing you from focusing on your goals. Also, take a clear look at your life circumstances and assess stress. While this assessment may seem silly to you, it is an essential part of the process. If you are feeling mental stress, say from time constraints, you may need to adjust your schedule in or out of the gym in order to reduce this stress. If you are demotivated, it might be time to switch up your program.
Realistically, you know if you are injured. However, stopping after each training cycle before beginning the next to determine if you have lagging injuries or limitations is important. For example, maybe your elbow is bothering you. This could be due to activity in the workout or in everyday life, but regardless it needs addressed. Addressing the issue may be as simple as lowering weights on pressing movements, reducing pressing volume, or wearing an elbow support. The exact process for assessing and treating an injury varies by the type and degree of the injury. It is beyond the scope of this text.
This is a very important assessment. The thing that keeps anyone going in the gym, and in life, is recovery from the same. If, while running through your training cycle, you find yourself physically or mentally fatigued regularly, or even semi-regularly, you need to ask yourself why. While being fatigued or beat after a hard workout is normal, not every workout should leave you dragging yourself to the door. Even more, week after week you should not feel more beat down or experience ongoing soreness or lack of energy. This is a sign of poor recovery.
Now some people attribute this to overtraining, and it can be the cause; however, it is often something else. Many people experiencing ongoing mental or physical fatigue are not getting enough rest, proper nutrition, or both. It has been said that with proper nutrition and rest, overtraining does not exist. While they may not be the truth, it does lend to an ideal, the ideal that rest and nutrition are important for recovery and proper use of both allows the body to function better and recover better in and out of workouts.
If you find yourself with regular or semi-regular mental or physical fatigue, you need to address it. Look for insufficient nutrition, insufficient rest, overtraining, stress, underlying medical issues, and anything else from your life that may be causing the fatigue. Adjust as needed.
A program needs to help you reach your goals. If it does not, then it is not useful to you. Now a program can fail due to poor design but it can also fail due to poor application. We have seen both. You could have a perfect program in front of you, but if you do not follow it, you will not get the results. That is a bit simplistic, but you get the idea. In order for a program to work, it must be properly organized, and you must implement it correctly. Often, a person will need to run a program at least once before getting a true feel for how it should be done. This includes acclimating to movements they are not used to, getting the weights and repetitions right, and finding the proper rest interval to use, not to mention other things, such as knowing what nutrition strategy to implement and how.
If your program has not allowed you to achieve your goals, or to make gains in some area of importance, you need to figure out why. This can be hard. The first step is to look at multiple metrics. If you are looking to increase 1-rep max strength on the bench, dead, and squat, then look at those numbers. At the same time, look at increases in muscular endurance with lower weight, greater ability to move lower weights with ease, and improvement in technique that has occurred. If you just look at the 1-rep max on the bench and say there has been no increase, you may scrap the program. If you look at the program and see no increase on the bench but have a 10-pound increase on the squat and a 5-pound increase on the deadlift, then you have improved and the program has been successful in these areas. If you take a closer look at the bench and notice that you can move lower weight with greater ease, have improved muscular endurance in the benching movement, or both, then you have become stronger on the bench. While the 1-rep max does not yet reflect this, the increase could be at the end of the next training cycle or the one after that.
The Importance of Self-assessing
If at any point you are going to design your own programs, even if it is off someone else’s template as you are doing in this case, you need to know how to asses yourself. If you do not, you could select weights, speed, and volume that is harmful to you. Worst-case scenario: you injure yourself seriously. Lesser issues include minor injuries, overtraining, and burnout. What is more, if you select weights, speeds, and volume that are too low, you may not stimulate the body enough to cause the body response necessary to achieve your goals.
Application of Self-assessment Results
Once you do the assessments, you need to apply the results to your program. The process to do this is a straightforward one that should be easy for you to implement.
1-rep max increase: if you find that your 1-rep max on any of the lifts has increased, then you should adjust this for the next training cycle. For example, if you begin a program, your max bench is 205, and the program calls for 80 percent of your 1-rep max, then you use 165 pounds. If, after the training cycle your 1-rep max has increased to 215, you use 80 percent of this for the next training cycle. This time you use 170 pounds. In this manner, the programs can be forever progressive.
For exercises that you select a weight and the weight is not based on 1-rep max percentages, you will need to take more care. For example, imagine you currently use a pair of 45-pound dumbbells for the overhead press. With this weight you can perform 3 sets of 10, with the last set very hard and you sometimes miss the last few reps. Once you are able to perform all 3 sets of 10 with the last set easy to moderate with no missed reps, it is time to increase weight.
When it comes to cardiovascular work, the process is a bit different. Imagine you currently run a mile in 12 minutes with a speed of 5 mph and this is a hard run. Imagine after a training cycle or two, the mile run at 5 mph is now moderate difficulty. In this case, you could increase the speed by 0.5 miles per hour to 5.5 mph. Of course, if 5.5 is too easy you may choose 6, if 6 is too hard you may choose 5.7. If 5.5 is too hard, you might choose 5.3.
Increasing speed is not like increasing weight. For example, if you add 5 – 10 pounds to the squat weight, your form and breathing patterns basically stay the same. If you increase your run speed by 0.5 – 1 mph, the frequency with which your feet move and the number of strikes in one minute increase, resulting in increased demand on the cardiovascular system. For this reason, finding the right speed to increase may take a little trial and error.
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science.
Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.