I had a conversation last week that made me think, "How do I design programs?" I rely on a few hard-and-fast (that's what she said) rules. As I learn more these may change, but for now they play a big role in how I structure programs.
Before I continue I should distinguish between a program and a workout. A workout is one exercise session whereas a program consists of many workouts spanning multiple weeks. A workout can be done for fun without having to follow any particular guidelines. I've done it plenty of times. Consider a program when you need a plan to achieve a goal like increase your back squat, run faster, recover from an injury, fix your posture, and the like.
Now the rules.
Training Should Mimic or Resemble the GoalThese rules don't encompass everything I do but they're core principles I use to create a program. Other individuals will have their own philosophy and that's perfectly alright. Find out what works and benefits you the most.
- Select movements that overlap with movement(s) in the sport.
- For example, shot and discus throwers generate power through their legs and hips to throw the object. Think of what develops strong legs and hip extension such as squats.
New Skills Go First
- A great way to get ideas is search Youtube for how athletes of a sport train. You can usually find a variety of videos from amateur to elite.
- You want to develop a new skill? Begin with it in the first day of the week. This allows you to avoid fatigue while hammering the technique into your nervous system. Remember practice makes perfect.
Prioritize One Plane Movement per Session
- If the goal is to learn barbell snatches or a front lever, putting them first while you're fresh makes it easier to learn without sacrificing form.
- The first lift is done when you're primed for working out. As the workout progresses fatigue sets in. Of course it's natural to become tired. Hence whatever you begin with won't suffer from a lack of physical and/or mental focus.
- In a session prioritize one lift per plane movement.* This means you devote your effort to a single exercise compared to the bodybuilding method of many exercises for one muscle.
- Pick a heavy compound lift or something that requires near 100% concentration and effort - 1-arm push-up, heavy overhead press, banded deadlift, tempo squat, etc.*I wrote about plane movements here with an example of each here [the six compound lifts]. The only one not included is a loaded walk/carry.
Choose 1-2 Exercises per Plane in a Workout (3 Max)
- The previous rule doesn't mean you're limited to one thing. Another exercise or two can be added as secondary work. You're able to train with more volume in place of intensity.
Free Weights Comprise the Program- With the exception of special circumstances, an injury for instance, no machines are used. Cable-based equipment is acceptable, but nothing that has a fixed path of movement [the infamous Smith machine]. Free weights provide better results.
- Follow a deadlift variation [hip-dominant] with single-leg Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, or band stomps to further work the hamstrings and glutes. They're less demanding on the body than the main lift - deadlift in this case - but still provide training volume.
Postural & Abs Go Last
- This is self-explanatory. Postural drills are light and higher in volume. Abs can be difficult but don't suffer as much from the preceding training in the workout. You can even pair a postural movement and abs back-to-back.
Emphasize Quality NOT Fatigue
- A common belief is we must break our bodies to a crippling state where we can barely move after enduring a brutal workout.
I don't play that crap. Go in, put effort into a few moves, and then call it a day. At most it should take 90 minutes consisting of 4, maybe 5, days a week.
- Simply put: target weaknesses and any glaring problems.
Remove Awkwardness & Pain
- Overly strong bench press but lackluster pull-up? Hunched posture? Something else? Devote more attention to bring up a lagging area.
- Everything doesn't work for everyone. If it's painful or downright awkward no matter how much you attempt to work out the kinks, drop it from your program and find a suitable alternative. Don't be afraid to experiment.
"If it works, it works, no matter what anybody says."
- Franco Columbu