"Swapping the Shaolin Temple of China for the streets of London means I have to create my own temple within my mind and surround myself with an environment that can help rather than hinder."
Programs, programs, programs. They're fairly widespread in the exercise world. I can say the same extends to a few popular "rules." Actually, scratch that - there are tons of rules spouted by everyone. You know it's true because everyone gives their own opinion, whether you asked or not, when it comes to diet and exercise.
That aside, sometimes there's merit to them. Dismissing a person immediately is silly and with many programs you can find success stories.* Weight Watchers, P90X, and others have transformed people into their desired physiques and made them happy. That's great and I'm not going to take anything away from it. Instead, I am going to explain that a program isn't the trainee's only option. It can be satisfactory but I believe it is limited in scope.
*But also be aware that there are a number of unsuccessful clients that are not disclosed as openly as the successful clients' endeavors.*
Alternatively, a person can develop a philosophy in regards to exercise and their training. That's not to say it's superior to a program but that it has its own set of benefits. It also has its own set of limitations.
I mentioned that programs are popular but that always hasn't been the case. Off the top of my head, I believe Reg Park's 5x5 archetype is one of the earlier systems that was popular, then further promoted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and later it spawned various derivatives - Starting Strength, Bill Starr, Mad Cow, and similar versions. From my down time reading, weightlifters predating Reg Park advocated methods more than complete plans. For example, one set of 20 breathing squats were popularly prescribed and often recommended to be super set with pullovers. There were programs but they were not as heavily marketed to the extent we see today (the internet is a big game changer).
Personally, I find pre-designed programs can only take a person so far. These types of programs tend to be made for certain populations and address their needs in a broad fashion as opposed to individualized plans. For the person who sits all day, it will focus in on the major glaring problems such as poor posture. P90X gets a person active, requires little equipment, and can be done through the guidance of the instructional videos in the comfort of your own home. When it comes to a person's own unique characteristics, those details aren't taken into consideration. The exception is when the program has been designed specifically for a person.
With that said, let me go over using a training program vs. developing a training philosophy. I'll discuss the benefits and negatives of each and show that they're not black-and-white but exist within a grey area. Neither is correct nor wrong. First, I'll begin with nonspecific programs, where nonspecific means it was not created with one particular person in mind nor did anyone need an evaluation.
- A program has little mental work on the trainee's part. Everything in the program is prescribed and laid out for the trainee to follow. It's very straightforward and involves no guess work. It's very quick and easy.
- The plan is self-contained, and therefore there's no hopping around from exercise-to-exercise. With the variables restricted, it's easier to measure progress and the changes expected from the program. Often when there are no boundaries, it's easy to get carried away and attempt to do everything under the sun. A person can be overwhelmed if they take on too much. A program creates a targeted focus and eliminates that problem.
- The previous point also teaches a new lifter patience. They're forced to put in the time before they see noticeable results. They have to see the program through from start to finish. Typically, programs at the very least require a 4 weeks minimum of dedicated time and effort. Realistically, it takes 3 months of consistent effort and work for changes to become apparent. For example, P90X spans 90 days, i.e., 3 months.
- Programs introduce new variables. The exercises, progressions, the arrangement, methods, and more are new. It's all foreign to the trainee. This is especially true when taking into account ideas not thought of before. Doing your own workouts can unknowingly limit your potential. You can learn a lot when taken out of your comfort zone.
- Well known programs have reviews available. This is valuable because you can read other people's experiences. You can gain insight from their reviews in addition to advice they offer before selecting or starting the program. That information can help you transition into the program smoothly and give you an idea of what to expect.
- Unless a program incorporates leeway, there's little flexibility available for adjustments. Deviate too far from the prescribed outline and you're no longer doing the program. Even if modifying the program would be beneficial, the knowledge on what to change must be present.
- After completing a program, you can either (1) repeat it, or (2) find a new program. Rinse and repeat. Repeating the same program multiple times can become stagnant and dull your interest in exercise. Not only that, but some are not meant for long term use. Don't let a program be a crutch for exercise. Program or not, one should still be able to exercise.
- A program only triggers a certain amount of thought dealing with its design. From my own experience, this makes a person become a parrot. They regurgitate verbatim what they learned from the program. Training should be approached with an open mind with the ability to explain and adapt the variables that come with it. It's a very layered and fluid process and far from linear.
- You might not enjoy the program! I don't know how obvious this is, but you don't have to follow to a program if you don't look forward to it. Unfortunately, individuals often seek out misery and exercise that absolutely fatigues them. They use this to gauge a program's effectiveness. It creates the incorrect association of displeasure and misery with exercise. Torturous exercise doesn't equate to effective.*With all that said, there are exceptionally talented people who can write one hell of a program, such as Carter Schoffer*
- Developing a training philosophy allows you to become autonomous. The entire process becomes specific to your individual traits and preferences - weaknesses, strengths, likes/dislikes, leverages, schedule, and so on and so forth. You are able to hone in on your personal and unique characteristics. This allows you to create for yourself a dynamic program. It can be altered any way you see fit at any given time.
- With a philosophy, there's more freedom in the program and less dependency on another person for exercise. Utilizing a trainer or a program can be helpful but it shouldn't be the only option. If for one reason or another you don't have access to either, you have to become self-reliant. Basic exercise and programming literacy can help in a pinch as well as for long-term goals. You won't become "lost" without a plan or trainer.
- The learning involved is a revealing experience. It develops a sharp eye towards understanding exercise fundamentals and its accompanying details. Even at a basic level, you can pick apart other programs and question their system before testing. It's no longer random trial-and-error.
- In the process to develop a philosophy, you become analytical as well. Topics and ideas need to be thought about and understood before their application. As a result, this can lead to being able to teach those concepts, exercises, and various methods to another person. It's a valuable asset to be able to explain and defend your programming along with your structuring choices.
- As another skill set - briefly mentioned in the previous point - it puts you in a position to help other trainees. Whether it's explaining something, teaching, or assisting them with their program, you become a valuable resource. As you learn, you will be able to extend the knowledge you've acquired to other people.
- Learning is a mandatory requirement. When it comes to exercise, it's very common for individuals to have a narrow and rigid view about it. Learning will make your approach flexible and expose you to other new ideas to incorporate.
As I said earlier, neither a philosophy or program is right nor wrong. Clearly each one comes with their own benefits as well as downsides. Additionally, it's not a "pick one or the other" situation. It's perfectly fine to have a philosophy and take part in programs. Develop a philosophy along the way as you test out programs. Programs can teach you something new and can make you think about how you would modify them. If a program piques you, try it. If you'd rather do your own thing, go that route.
- Learning is a mandatory requirement. This is indeed good and bad because there's a learning curve. The sheer amount of variables, data, and information available in this day-and-age is extraordinary. Information from the past, present, and newly discovered can become overwhelming. This information surplus presents itself as a dilemma. More information is great, but managing all the data and making it applicable can be a difficult process.
- Consequently, when you learn something new, you must experiment - and with exercise, there's a lot of experimentation to be done. It isn't a simple process either. Most times what you learn won't always be congruent with your personal findings. Then the real trick becomes figuring out where the discrepancy is, why action and information don't match up, and, if it's possible, to troubleshoot it so that the two do match.
- Developing a philosophy takes times. Lots and lots of time. Results and feedback aren't instantaneous. You'll read something, test it out, and then develop a couple of preliminary thoughts about it. Repeat this a few more times and before you know it, about a month, or longer, has passed for it to fully develop into a more concrete concept that you have a grasp on. Even from there, it will continue to grow and change as you continue to learn and gain experience.
- Eventually, you have to want to learn. This is especially true if you're not interested in teaching other people. How much you want to learn will depend on how interested you are in your own training and goals. After a certain point you may decide you don't care to research any further. Instead you choose to rely on what you have already learned as being sufficient. But remember, there will always be more to learn in the field. (That goes for any field.)
Personally, I shy away from programs. I don't dislike programs - in fact, this site features some - but rather any time its followers become dogmatic. Those who adhere to one program and defend it aggressively constrain their thought process and become inflexible. JC Santana describes it perfectly:
"Although our industry has advanced enormously in science and practice, much of the educational material presented as factual “gospel” (i.e., infallible truth) and the technique taught as being the “best” is theoretical and sometimes borders on mythical."
Instead of rigorously defending a viewpoint, engage in healthy open dialogue that leads to a productive discussion and the sharing of ideas. After a certain point, advance and employ methods that are appropriate. Never become too comfortable in one area and settle.
Exercise is a reactive experience and the human body is very strong and resilient. With strength training, the body can become a powerful organic machine - one that adapts to challenges as well as provide feedback. Be attuned to this feedback to make the choices that maximize the most benefit you can get out of your training. Don't get bogged down by the little things. Flow with the changes and feedback and understand there isn't a single solution to follow. That's where strength lies.
A philosophy won't only create a strong body, but a strong mind as well.
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.