My Principles for Programming: Part II

In part I of this series, I discussed how we should understand the true goals for our exercise programs before attacking the more elaborate details. While it might be cool to come up with fancy set and rep schemes, they don't do much for you if you don't understand why they work hand-in-hand with your goals to begin with.

Now that we hopefully have a firm understanding of what we're training for, today I'd like to discuss the actual anatomy of a training program. There's three things that I initially look at when figuring out the logistics behind formulating the training plan.

  1. Exercise Selection
  2. Exercise Order
  3. Sets and Reps

Let's dive in a little deeper into the meat and potatoes of the training programs I formulate.

1. Exercise Selection

When writing a program, I have a list of staple movements that I want to incorporate into virtually every single plan. All of these categories will help you develop strength, move better, and improve your physique under appropriate load. This list includes:

  • Deadlift/Hip Hinge variation
  • Squat variation
  • Single Leg Posterior Chain variation
  • Split Squat/Reverse Lunge variation
  • Lateral Lunge variation
  • Upper Body Horizontal Pull variation
  • Upper Body Horizontal Push variation
  • Upper Body Vertical Pull variation
  • Upper Body Vertical Push variation

This list is entirely dependent on the individual's ability to move. I'm not going to load up somebody's deadlift when they can't hinge at their hips properly. I also won't press most people overhead, especially when they don't know their scapula from their ass. These are people that I'll find regressions for in order to understand the more advanced exercises better.

If you're going to train three days weekly, I'd suggest distributing three of these variations per training day. A solid program will cover these primary categories effectively to create a great foundation. 

Keep in mind, you're not just performing three exercises daily. Exercise prescription outside of this list depends solely on outcome-based goals from training and current movement capacity.

Athletes, like hockey and baseball players for example, are going to require much more lateral and rotational power work than the average desk jockey. When prescribing power exercises, I always think of the carryover it'll have onto the playing field. Rotational medicine ball slams are an incredible way to produce power in a golf swing, while they might not have any positive carryover for the high school history teacher looking to get lean.

For people whose intentions are to improve physique, I'll take more of a bodybuilding approach to their exercises outside of the core structure. I prescribe (as long as their shoulders, elbows, forearms, and wrists work effectively) biceps curls to people all the time. Let's be honest, who doesn't want nicer arms? Sprinkling in a few sets of curls at the end of a workout won't make you less "functional" of a human being than you already are, trust me.

I mentioned this in part I and the previous paragraphs but current movement capacity is huge for ensuring healthy results in a reasonable manner. Injuries don't just happen, there's a reason behind said injury.

The goal of training is to minimize and diminish pain rather than exacerbate it. Yes, chin-ups are sexy as hell even though I hate performing them. If you don't have good overhead shoulder mobility and elbow supination (facing your palms up), is it really a good idea to load up a movement that requires great mobility from both of these joints with your bodyweight? I'd argue no.

Instead, I'd like to see this individual hammer the hell out of their elbow Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) and Shoulder CARs to improve this limited joint control and mobility. This is the less sexy of the two options, obviously, but it'll have a much greater carryover when you look at where you see yourself in six months. We'll dive a bit deeper into this with exercise order.

2. Exercise Order

The order you place your exercises in is just as important as the exercises themselves. Hell, I'd argue that this variable is even more important. You shouldn't gas yourself with kettlebell swings and walking lunges, then follow those up with heavy deadlifts unless your goal is to train until fatigue and injury kick in. If that's the case, we need to work on your goal-setting skills.

When setting the order for your exercises, you should always think big to small. What I mean by this is, movements that require the largest muscle groups should come prior to those that don't have as great of a muscle recruitment requirement. A prime example of this is deadlifts versus biceps curls, you can figure out which one is going to require more total musculature.

Here's a general example of a lower-body day that I would write for a client's program:

Warm-Up (Based on the client's deficiencies and needs, which we'll touch on in part III.)

A1. Trap Bar Deadlift 4x5
A2. Core-Engaged Deadbug 3x6/side
A3. Quadruped Scapular CARs 3x3/side

B1. Kettlebell Goblet Reverse Lunge 3x8/side
B2. Single Arm Kettlebell Farmers Walk 3x30 yards/side
B3. Split Stance Kneeling Adductor Mobilizations 3x8/side

C1. Lateral Mini Band Walk 3x15/side
C2. Reverse Crunch 3x8

The letters might throw you off, but these are the supersets in which these movements are performed. Here's a video that shows you a brief example of the A circuit:


In the workout above, A1, B1, and C1 go in order from high to low in regards to intensity the movement will have on your body. While reverse lunges and mini band walks can be tough, they're nowhere near as taxing on your neuromuscular system as heavy deadlifts are.

The other exercises that I didn't bold are what I consider filler exercises. These are crucial, don't think that they're just thrown into a program for the hell of it. I use filler slots to hammer the hell out of mobility and stability deficiencies that could be causing pain and/or limiting performance. Fillers also serve as an active recovery method; in the video you can see that I'm constantly moving even though it's my rest period before my next set of deadlifts. These types of exercises won't drain you, but will keep you active in between sets rather than standing around doing nothing. Why perform one exercise when you can hammer three different ones without crushing your body?

3. Sets and Reps

Believe it or not, this is probably the most overthought factor out of all of them when it comes to training programs. I know firsthand simply because I struggled with figuring this out for a long, long time.

"Why should I do 5 sets of 4 reps instead of 4 sets of 5 reps? Maybe 6 sets of 3 instead is better?"

I had this mindset for clients that have been working out for maybe two or three months maximum prior... boy did I not see the big picture. The beautiful thing about novice trainees is the fact that they'll develop strength immediately just by looking at a barbell. 

You'd be surprised how long you can get away with a 4x5 set/rep scheme before ever having to tweak this structure. I've seen people perform 4x5 with movements like trap bar deadlifts and squat variations heavier month-to-month without hitting a wall for close to a year. Stick to the basics when prescribing sets and reps.

With accessory exercises, I like to stick between 6-12 reps for 3-4 sets. Accessory work shouldn't kill you, we don't need to test your one-rep max reverse lunge, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. There's tons of powerlifters that like to bench, squat, and deadlift and that's about it. By neglecting accessory training, these lifters are throwing tons of opportunity to get better out the window and might even result in injury down the road due to the lack of program variability.

If hypertrophy (muscle development) is your goal, your sweet spot for most exercises will be in the 8 to 12 rep range, but that doesn't mean rep ranges higher or lower won't be effective. Slowly controlled tempo reps will also be a factor in muscle development, but that's a topic for another day.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for exercise physiology and how we adapt to the stimulus that is thrown at us. Set and rep ranges go much deeper than what you'll find in an old Men's Health magazine or your college anatomy textbook. Results come from mastering the basics, however, and if you can nail these principles with your training you're well on your way.

Next week I'll dive deeper into organizing a warm-up best tailored for your training. We'll also discuss how to progress and regress exercises, while figuring out what movements are best for you at the time being. Always start with these guidelines, and tweak on the go. My client's programs are always changing based off the way they're feeling day-to-day, there's no reason why your program should be set in stone on day one.

Have a question that I might not have touched on? Drop a message below and I'll be more than happy to answer it for you.

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