A Personal Trainer’s Guide to Program Design
When I first started out training, I didn’t follow a structured program. I just had some goals in mind. Whether it was push-ups, squats or bench press, I just watched videos and performed exercises without any guidance. But thankfully, I soon realized that I needed to plan and design a program if I wanted to reach my goals. If I hadn’t designed my own program, I would have never reached my goals.
If you were like me, chances are you did not periodize your workouts, try various exercises or monitor your period of rest. The only aim you had was to keep increasing weights until you achieved your goal. The problem with this approach is that you can reach your goal in time, since you are not following a progressive and well-thought out program.
Another problem that comes from not following a progressive program is that as you get older, you simply keep performing the same exercises in the same manner as you did when you were younger. If you get on another person’s program and don’t follow it with all your heart, you will never get the results you desire and become frustrated and start following a different program. Switching between programs will only make it hard for you to reach your goal.
As a personal trainer who has experienced this situation, I understand the difficulties people face in following a training program. This is why I’m going to educate readers about key principles of program design. After knowing these principles, you will be able to design your own program based on your goals and needs.
Set Your Goal
The first thing you need to do is set a realistic, limited and exact goal. “I want to become healthy” isn’t a goal. It is a desire. A goal comes from your desires, but it is more specific. Goals have a clear meaning, are clearly defined and also limited. If you want to lose weight, get huge, strong, cut and build bigger quads, arms, calves and traps, you are going to design a program that gives each of these things attention. But, it is not possible to attain all of them with a single program. Therefore, it is important to narrow down all your goals and make them specific to determine what your program should look like.
Set a small goal that is attainable. This will help in building confidence and clear the path for more goals. There should also be a timeframe for the goals. “I am going to lose 100 pounds in one week” is silly because you cannot achieve it no matter how hard you push yourself. Your timeframe should align with your goals.
The context of life is another important thing that you should focus on when setting your goals. The life circumstances of a guy who attends college are different from a person who delivers pizzas to people all day. If your job requirements require hard physical work, you must account for the recovery period. In such circumstances, training everyday isn’t suitable.
Choosing between Mass and Strength
You can’t expect to build mass and get strong simultaneously; in order to maximize one, you must limit the other.
Specificity and repeated efforts are major parts of building a lift for maximal strength. So, if your goal is strength, then focus on that only and design your program around the lifts, which you want to really improve. A large amount of your energy and time must be spent in those lifts if you want to maximize efficiency. Lower reps with high volume and speed often work best for this task. But, you must set your exercise routine in numbers. For example, for squats, you can perform six sets of eight at 65% to 70% of 1RM; for deadlifts, consider three sets of three at 75% to 80% of 1RM and for bench press, go with 4 sets of 6 at 80 percent.
If your goal is to get massive, you must know how muscle groups can be effectively isolated and you should feel the muscles doing the work and create tension in areas you work on. For hypertrophy, I suggest 4-5 sets of 9-12 reps for your upper body work out, and 4-5 sets of 14-20 for your lower body workout. This is an example you can follow, not a rule. Your body may also benefit from other things like 100-repetitions sets, but it depends on the kind of exercise you are doing and what you want to accomplish. Start with five to six exercises per session to address those areas that require the most work. You can only design a program after you have decided what your focus is. Base your entire workout structure around strength or mass. Never both!
Focus on Frequency, Intensity, Volume and Recovery
Frequency, volume and intensity are three variables of training. By manipulating two of the three variables, you can meet your recovery demands.
Frequency is the number of times you plan to train in a day or a week. Intensity includes two variables: the weight/load or how hard the set was. The total workload per your training session is volume. There are several ways through which volume can be measured, but to keep it simple, let’s just stay with sets and reps.
The reserves in our body are limited and when we tap them out; our progress comes to a standstill. This varies from person to person. You might have seen how some people in the gym are able to grow more by just training three or four times a week with heavy weights and little volume and others aren’t able to build muscle even when they train five times a week with more volume. So, you must decide whether you want to work out more frequently, work out with more intensity or workout with high volume.
If you love going to the gym every day, keep your volume low. If you are one of those fellows who can’t go the gym daily, try training 3 to 4 times a week. Then decide whether you want to work out with a high volume or if you really want to train heavy. If your frequency of workouts is in the middle like 3-4 times a week, either increase the volume; keeping the intensity low or increase the intensity while keeping the volume low.
All these three variables have a specific diminishing returns point. People often think that if 10 sets are working well, 12 will give even better results. If you start thinking that you must do more, progress will stall. Don’t add more weight to the bar or increase the number of work out sessions if progress is happening. Why screw around thinking there is a better way when results are showing? It doesn’t make any sense.
Rate of Adaption Must be Considered
Once you have reached full adaption and there isn’t any change in your workout plan, all that you will get is fatigue. All your workouts will only make you tired and give your body nothing in return. Our body doesn’t grow, if we don’t give it a reason to do so. Therefore, you must know when small changes must be made in your workout to develop a new training stimulus for improvement or growth.
If, with a certain exercise, your performance doesn’t improve after three sessions, switch it with something different. For example, if you are doing lying leg curls and after three workouts, you aren’t able to complete more reps with the same weight, go to standing leg curls or seated leg curls. You might think that this isn’t much of a change, but even these minor differences can create new progress. However, this doesn’t mean that you should overhaul your training program that is largely working fine and only few lifts have stopped showing results. Sometimes, changing your foot stance or head placement is all that is required to make an exercise effective. Keep on doing what is working and make some minor adjustments to things that aren’t working.
After every five weeks, check your workout log and decide if any modifications are required. I’ve developed programs for my clients that they have followed for long periods of time without any modifications because they were making consistently making progress. I’ve also had clients with whom I had to tweak a few exercises in the programs because the progress was not consistent. Two or three bad work out sessions are not something you should worry about. But, if you get four to five sessions where you are not sensing any improvement, make a few changes.
Don’t Forget Conditioning
Three important reasons for conditioning include work capacity, body composition and heart health. Most of the times, bodybuilders ignore the work capacity. When you are in good shape, you can train more in less time and even recover faster. There is a consistent debate going on about the type of conditioning people should do. Some say that there is no point of doing steady-state cardio. While others are of the view that interval training works best. I believe that they both have their own merits depending on the situation.
Take 60-minute walks because it will relax your mind and body and is also easy on the joints. Or go with interval training which can give you more benefits in less time. Whichever you decide to do, make sure you are happy with your selection and have not based your decision on opinion of others. The frequency of your conditioning depends on your goals. If your primary goal is to lose fat, you must do more cardio.
A Reason to Work Out
When you are designing your program, you must ask yourself why you are selecting certain exercises, why you are keeping the intensity, frequency or volume high or low, why sets and reps are high in number and what is your purpose for doing each exercise.
If you lifting more weight with high frequency, it means you are teaching your body to lift heavy in order to build more muscle. Only a person who doesn’t know what he/she is doing picks exercises aimlessly or someone who is copying another program.
Plan According to Your Level
If you are newbie, there is no point of doing extreme cable crossovers to build that chest. Focus on perfecting the technique, doing big lifts and progressive overload. Put your maximum effort in this direction. You can also violate the rules related to frequency, volume, intensity and recovery if you are not proficient or strong enough at creating the stress and tension that would leave you incapable of recovering. If you are more advanced, you will have the right idea about what your body can or cannot tolerate.
Design a Program that You Will Believe In
What differentiates the elite from the normal is not just drug use or genetics, but it is their ability to stay focused on training ideologies that work for them. A program you design should resonate with you. Only then will it elicit desire and passion from within. And when it does, you will work hard and be consistent. If you don’t trust the program, you will never be able to work hard and be consistent.
If you have desire and passion, you will get the results. Even if you have the most perfect program that is proven to work, you will never achieve the results you desire if you don’t put your heart into it. Therefore, I suggest you always design a program that resonates with your needs, your goals, your life context and the kind of person you are.
I hope you now understand what you must do to design a perfect program. If you need more guidance and assistance in designing a program that resonates with your needs and goals, contact me and I’ll help you out.