My Principles for Programming: Part I

Exercise programming can be a daunting task to tackle. I speak from prior experience with this, for clients and myself. I used to crush myself with hours of unnecessary work over the smallest, most irrelevant details of my programming infrastructure. Nowadays, I write upwards of 40 individualized programs monthly and have learned how to simplify my system in order to be more efficient with my time.

If you're new in fitness, either as a coach or trainee, you probably hit road blocks consistently when mapping out plans. One thing I like to keep in mind is: a mediocre program done at 100% adherence is better than the "perfect" program done at 50%. Worry less about why 10 reps might be better than 8, and more about actually executing said reps.

When you do decide to develop a plan of attack for your training, I always look at the bigger picture before putting the smaller pieces of the puzzle together. There's three things I always look at when thinking about the program as a whole:

  • What is your goal?
  • What are your current limitations?
  • How many days per week can you train and how much time per day are you allocating?

If you could answer these three questions, you're off to a great start with figuring out the blueprint to your training. Let's dig a little deeper.

What is your goal?

Do you want to get strong? Do you want to lose weight? Do you just want to live a healthier life overall? Maybe you want a combination of the three of these? The following is one of my favorite quotes when it comes to planning out your route to accomplishing goals.

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Worrying about how many sets of deadlifts you should do probably doesn't matter much if your end goal is to lose ten pounds. Don't get me wrong, strength is awesome. A stronger human being is a more resilient human being. You can definitely improve strength, while targeting other training adaptations. When weight loss is the main goal, however, you really need to make sure you put the time and effort into your metabolic conditioning and nutrition to achieve desired results.

If your training revolves around performance, then specific set/rep schemes can be the difference in improving your strength, power, agility, and other athletic attributes. I've been around tons of pitchers where a 98-mile per hour (mph) fastball could be worth millions of dollars more than one that's 95-mph. You need to take every single advantage you possibly can when your training revolves around competitive sports.

Understand what your primary goal is and adjust your training based off of that one vision.

What are your limitations?

You need to be realistic when you plan on training smartly. You're going to be restricted from certain activities whether it's due to injury, training level, health concerns, access to equipment, etc.

When picking exercises, you have to understand what you're trying to accomplish with each movement. If you suffer from chronic medial elbow pain, performing chin-up after chin-up is just a guarantee to add insult to injury. You don't need to be an anatomy wizard to know that an exercise is hurting you. If pain exists with an exercise, that should be an automatic red flag and scratched from your training until issues are corrected. Keeping you on the training floor, rather than in the physical therapy office is what we're trying to accomplish here.

You should keep this in mind when deciding your training experience and level of fitness. If you've never deadlifted before, you probably shouldn't be testing your one rep max week one. Reasonable decisions create sustainable habits and results. Instead of even looking at a barbell, learn how to pick up a kettlebell properly. Don't let your ego get in the way when picking exercises. Deadlifts, squats, pull-up variations, and military presses are cool, but so is a body that doesn't hate you later on down the road.

How many days per week can you train and much time per day are you allocating?

When writing a new program, I always ask my clients how many times per week they can train before anything else. This is quite overlooked by most folks when they start a training program. 

You don't realize off the bat how much effort it takes to train four to five times per week consistently. I see it all the time; people initiate a program by training five days week one. Week two might be similar, but life chooses to kick in and shortly after that five day per week program becomes a zero day per week program.

Keep in mind that the number of sessions isn't the only variable to factor in. The amount of time you put into each session also plays a big role. If your schedule only allows you to get 30-minutes of hard work in, you better be spending most of your time performing higher intensity circuits to improve overall conditioning and general fitness. If strength is your primary focus, you might need 90-minutes when considering a thorough warm-up and adequate rest in between heavy training sets.

Numbers on a sheet of paper don't mean a thing until you can figure out the answers to the three questions posted above. Once you understand what you're looking for out of your training, what your road blocks are, and how much time you can dedicate to training, then you can start to figure out the logistics that I'll be covering in part II of this series.