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Program Design

One of the first steps to designing a program for any athlete or client should be to answer the basic questions: Who, what, where, when, why, and how?  If we take the time to critically analyze each of these questions when writing out programs, it takes a lot of guessing out of the equation and makes exercise selection, volume, and intensity much more justifiable.

Who is this new client/athlete? Are they a 10 year old who needs to develop a better foundation, or an IT whiz who is great at what they do but doesn’t understand how to get results at the gym?  Whatever the scenario may be, there are a spectrum of exercises that may not be warranted for either individual in the beginning.  Here, our biggest bang for our buck is going to be exposure to as many simple exercises as we can in a logical manner.  It’s not until we get the college or professional/olympic athlete that we start to get very specialized with our programs, or the individual with a huge training age (consistent number of years training).

What is the client/athlete training for?  This will dictate what you’re going to do and how long your cycles are going to last.  If you’re dealing with a strict weight loss or general health client, there is no real competition to peak for unless they have a particular date in mind for a wedding or vacation for example.  Athletes may warrant a little more planning here based on their test performance in the beginning.

Where?  This question can be asked a couple different ways.  Where is the training going to take place?  Is it going to be at your facility under your guidance?  Or could they be doing this on their own either at their home or at a commercial gym?  This could take some serious critical thinking about logistics.  You may have all the equipment that you need, but their commercial gym may not.  It may require that we make tweeks here or there to make the program work.  The other way to read this question is, where does the client or athlete hope to be at the end of this?  Maybe you have an NFL prospect that expects to be a high draft pick based on the combine that you are helping them prepare for.  Or maybe it’s a 12 year old trying to make the club hockey team in town.

When?  When in the day is the training going to take place?  When in the week?  Will this individual fit in with a similar group of individuals?

Why is a huge question to ask throughout the whole periodization process.  It may seem like a redundant question in some respects, but bear with me.  Why is this client or athlete coming to you?  Why are you going to use a particular exercise?  Can we justify everything that we are going to do with this person or are we just putting in fillers?  Every exercise or task must have a reason.  With our overweight client it could be simply that this particular exercise is extremely metabolically demanding.  For an athlete it could be speed work.  For anyone, the correctives should be placed to achieve an optimal position for the joints in the body.

How are you going to make this come together?  Are you going to use any particular system to make this work?  Sit down and plan this thing out.  I was once taught by someone much smarter than myself to start at the end.  That’s how I personally start my program design and it seems to work.  If someone simply just wants to get bigger, how are you going to do that?  Faster? Skinnier?  Plan it out.

That’s the basic jist.  It helps tremendously to sit down and ask yourself all these questions when you write programs.  KISS-Keep It Simple S… is an acronym that one of my mentors likes to use often and it has been probably one of my best tools in the toolbox.  Putting someone on a physio ball balancing doing squats while performing some Harlem Globetrotter ball spinning isn’t going to make anyone better, but, it will probably get someone hurt.  If not physically then maybe emotionally for the trainer/coach because their clientele isn’t getting better.  I digress.  Keep it simple.


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Exercise Order & Selection Part II

As previously discussed, we need to think about what we are going to do with our clients/athletes based off whatever testing criteria you have used.  This will dictate the corrective exercise selection that we will use to make the movement better.  You can find the discussion here.

After we have done a thorough warm-up and have finished our movement and plyometric series, we can get into the lift.  The questions are: What exercises am I going to put into the lift?  What is the overall training effect I am trying to achieve?  How much volume/intensity/load am I going to place on the individual?  These and in addition to how much rest will I need to provide?  How much time do I have with said athlete/client?  These are all great questions which will hopefully be answered below.


When working with a general population or athletic population that is coming to your facility, the restrictions aren’t as great.  There is virtually an open window of time to work with these individuals depending on their schedule.  Generally speaking, you can take your general population through a balanced session in 45-75 minutes depending on the difficulty of the day.  However, working with a high school or college team the demands are quite different.  If the athletes are in-season, the coaching staff may not even want the athletes to be training in the weight room.  To performance/strength and conditioning coaches this is absolutely frustrating, but that is a different conversation.  There is a total coaching contact time that the NCAA places on the athletes on a day to day basis that really makes it necessary to have your sessions planned very well.  Additionally, at the high school level, some kids play multiple sports throughout the year.  If a kid plays all three seasons and all three of the coaches don’t want to lift during the season, that kid will potentially not lift unless they’re hanging out with their buddies at the local commercial gym doing curls.  On top of that, this same athlete is most definitely participating in one or more summer sporting camps or club teams.  This potential athlete will more than likely burn out or get injured really quick.


With the general population and younger athletes, pick the exercises that are most important.  Depending on who you follow, the exercises will almost always include some sort of squatting, hinging, upper body pushing, upper body pulling, and some even say carries and ground work.  Put the more demanding exercises toward the beginning of the workout when the athlete is fresh.  To save time pair the upper and lower body exercises in a series or circuit.  This will minimize how much time the athlete is standing around watching the clock.  Unless of course, you are working with a very specialized population of lifters such as powerlifters or olympic lifters.  Even then you can provide the athlete with some sort of active recovery to perform.  Maybe you have a powerlifter who can’t squat all the way into the hole, hip correctives!  Or an olympic lifter who is lacking full shoulder flexion, shoulder correctives.  This is of course broad and basic, but that is probably the most important lesson: Keep It Simple!!

Training Effect

The training effect should also be simple.  If you’re working with general population who just wants to lose weight then make them move using a variety of exercises mentioned above.  They just want to be healthy? Keep a balanced program with regular testing built-in, in addition to every 8-12 weeks.  For an athlete it is usually be faster, stronger, more powerful, or move better.  In the beginning this is really simple.  If you have a young athlete who has virtually no training age they’re an open book.  Develop the foundation with this population!!!  They do not need the same specialized training that the Division 1 or professional athletes are getting.  Instead, make them really good at squatting, hinging, pushing, and pulling.  The athlete will achieve all of their goals.  It’s when their numbers start to plateau that we need to consider different methods.  As the athlete gets older, keep them consistent with their strength and conditioning work.


This is where semantics get involved.  Having just been to Joel Jamieson’s Certified Conditioning Coach (CCC) course, there are a whole host of things that could contribute to an athlete or client not performing.  As human beings, life has a funny way of getting in the way.  Whether it’s breaking up with a significant other, midterms, poor nutrition, fighting a cold, or bad sleep there are a lot of variables that can influence the outcome.  Having the athlete or client fill out some sort of subjective report when they walk in the door will help you as the coach determine what potential they have.  If you’re rolling in dough, you can invest in a product like the Omega Wave that will give you as the coach huge insight into the state of the athletes nervous system/well-being.


I hope that this has provided some insight to the beginning of program design.  These questions as well as many more are constantly circulating in my head and in conversation between myself and other coaches.  Please provide feedback in the comments section.