The topic of program design can easily become a book. When looking at a client’s goals, there are so many things to consider! You can change exercises. You can change reps. You can change sets, rest, tempos, and splits. You can change variables inside of those variables and alter them day by day, week by week, or month by month. You can also look at types of damage to elicit and you can even focus on removing types of stimuli for a “deload” week. With all of this to contemplate and more, I can easily see why program design can be a confusing topic and even a bit intimidating.
Hopefully, I can clear some of this up.
Arguably, the most important and strategically demanding months of programming can be found in the first 12 to 16 weeks. At this time your client desperately needs to learn how to stabilize their hips, scapulae, and spine. This is also the time at which your ability to correct muscle imbalances will be tested. If the program you are designing is not focused on these two objectives, everything from this point on will be irresponsible and negligent and require a tremendous amount of backtracking. For these reasons, we will be focusing on this crucial timeframe for the majority of this blog.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Whenever you take on a new client, the first thing you must complete is an assessment. This needs to be non-negotiable. If you are unaware of a client’s injuries, problem areas, or potential limitations then how can you possibly write them up a program? Cookie-cutter programs are awesome for mass consumption but they do your client a great disservice if they are there for PERSONAL training. Take the time to get to know your client, their goals, and their muscles. Over the years, I have implemented, altered, and advanced ideas within my client assessment process. This will probably be the case for you.
(If you would like my client assessment script and the forms that I personally created and currently use, you can purchase my Fitness Assessment Starter Kit here.)
USING THE INFORMATION
After you have assessed your client, it’s time to put the information to use and begin whipping up a program. Once I have gotten to know my client a little my first thought is “do they have any problem muscles that I need to make a high priority?” I consider a high priority problem muscle a specific muscle that causes pain. It can also be a muscle that appears to be so substantially weak that I know it will make stability in the three main areas of concern (hips, scapulae, spine) almost impossible. When I have a client who has a high priority problem muscle, their program becomes centered around resolving the issue. If the client does not appear to have any high priority muscles, their program then becomes centered around creating as much stability in the hips, scapulae, and spine as possible.
PICKING A SPLIT
The next thing to consider is the split. This is probably the easiest part of the program. All you have to do is ask them how many days they will be training with you per week or how many times they can make it to the gym. I rarely program more than a four-day split and I never program less than a three-day split. This is in part because of the way my place of business is set up. Anyway, a leg, push, pull program works great and so does some sort of upper, lower, upper, lower split. This part should not be rocket science. There’s only a handful of muscle groups to work with. Mix and match depending on what sounds good, is conducive to the goal, and can be set up well in the gym. With all of that said, keep in mind synergistic muscles. If you program shoulders on Monday and chest on Wednesday, your client’s sore shoulders might hinder their chest progress. For these first 12 to 16 weeks, it doesn’t matter if its an antagonist split, synergistic split, or posterior/ anterior split. I already know your client can’t execute any of the exercises right in whatever split you program so don’t waste too much time on this step.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF EXECUTION
This section and the next section on exercise selection go hand in hand but this needs to be thought of separately so that you can snowball through the rest of the program design. What would you consider the fundamental components of execution? If a client can’t stabilize their scapulae, can they fully appreciate a pectoral contraction? If a client can’t stabilize their hips, can they really focus on utilizing the hamstring? If a client can’t stabilize their spine, can they execute anything in a bent-over position? The answer is no, no, and hell no they can’t! As a trainer, your first job is to teach them the concept of stability in these areas so that they become biomechanically intuitive.
What are some exercises and training techniques that we can use to teach stability in these areas? Well, we can pick easy, externally stabilized exercises such as machines and we can make the rep tempo extremely slow so we can pause them and correct them as they move through the rep.
For example, if I am trying to teach someone how to stabilize their scapulae via a chest exercise I might put them on some sort of pec fly machine (think pec deck). On this machine, their hips and spine are braced against the chair and their arm path is pretty much determined by the design of the machine. This means that I don’t have to worry about their body flailing around and we can mainly focus on their scapulae.
After we have adjusted the machine and sat them down, I tell them to keep their shoulders retracted and depressed throughout the entire rep and move slow. The first month’s tempo is almost always a 4/1/4/1 tempo, meaning that they are going to take 4 seconds to bring their arms around, they’re going to pause for 1 second in the front, they’re going to take 4 seconds to move their arms back, and then they’re going to pause for 1 second at the backside of the rep. It’s important to note that the weight the client is using is LIGHT ASFFFF. It’s also important to note that the weight doesn’t matter because I could have them do it with ZERO weight and they still wouldn’t get it right. You’re not there to crush them. You’re there to show them just how out of tune they are with their body. Explain this to them and they won’t care that they’re basically moving air.
Back to the rep!
They begin to move their arms forward through the fly and I notice their shoulders start to slip 1/3 of the way up. “Pause,” I say and they freeze. “Get those shoulders back.” They retract and depress and I cue them to continue moving through the rep. At the 3/4 mark, their shoulders slip again. “Pause,” I say and they freeze. “Get those shoulders back.” They retract and depress and I continue to do this through most of, if not the entire, set. Nine times out of ten the client will start to understand what needs to be done within the last few reps. They’ll continue to move slow, focusing on keeping the scapulae back own his or her own, and at this moment we have just created stability for this one exercise.
Pick exercises with this kind of set up and this kind of execution that can generate this kind of result.
There are only 2 things you need to know about exercise selection (minus the information from the last section): get the muscle long and get the muscle short. Muscles work through a range and they’re strongest in the mid part of that range. Consequently, they are weakest at the ends of that range; when the muscle is long and when the muscle is short. Train your client’s muscles in the end ranges and their results will be ridiculous. Also, if you are not training in the end ranges, get on that gain train.
What does that mean for exercise selection?
That means that if you picked a pec fly that gets pec major super short then maybe you want to include some sort of press exercise that gets the muscle pretty long.
At the gym that I train at, we only have 30 minutes to train a client. Getting the muscle long and getting the muscle short has allowed me to make the most out of that time and deliver staggering results. The results that we deliver at my location are so great that my team has been number 1 in the company for several months now. This technique works so well that I typically only write 2 exercises per body part per week with only 2 sets to complete per exercise, meaning that for chest they only have 2 exercises with two sets per exercise once a week. That’s it.
Learn some anatomy, get the muscle long, get the muscle short, and maybe make sure the set up is efficient.
SETS, REPS, AND TEMPO
The last step in completing a workout program is to take a look at the minor details of that program. Sets and reps are almost trivial in the first 12 to 16 weeks. A client may understand how to stabilize their scapulae in 4 reps or they may be someone who wouldn’t get it if you sat there all day on the pec deck. When I’m with a client, we do not count reps. I repeat WE DO NOT COUNT REPS. That’s because it doesn’t matter. Do you think our client’s muscles care how many reps they’re doing if they’re doing it wrong? No, it doesn’t so why should we? Be with that client until they get it right or until you’ve decided to move on to the next thing because they’re not going to get it right at all that day.
Tempo, on the other hand, is your best weapon as a trainer. Be deliberate with your tempo. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you need the client to be super slow while they learn how to stabilize or are they starting to get it and now you want to make the exercise a bit spicy? Tempo is a beautiful thing and, in my opinion, is far more important than sets and reps will ever be. Pick something that is in line with your client’s goals for that particular month, week, or workout.
At this point, you should at least have a solid program rough draft and it’s now time to check that you have left room for progression. When I write up a program, there is only one thing that I am focused on progress during the first 12 to 16 weeks: stabilization. This is the foundation of progression and from which you can justify progressing other variables.
EXTERNAL STABILIZATION TO SELF-STABILIZATION
To reiterate, creating stabilization in the hips, scapulae, and spine should be your primary concern for the first 12-16 weeks. Eventually, we want the client to be able to stabilize these 3 checkpoints during any given workout or at any given time. With that said, we can progress stabilization by first using externally stabilizing exercises to nail down the movement patterns and then moving them to self-stabilizing exercises. A great example of a stabilization progression would be the row.
We can first start the client out on the diverging row where their hips are stabilized, their torso (spine) is stabilized, and their arm path is mostly dictated by the machine. We have eliminated two out of the three checkpoints to worry about. In month one, we teach them retraction, depression, protraction, and lat contraction. In other words, we teach them how to stabilize that third checkpoint, the scapulae.
In month two, we move them to a seated cable row. Now, their hips are somewhat braced but their spine and scapulae are not. We have two checkpoints that we have to teach them to stabilize at the same time. We test their retraction, depression, protraction, and lat contraction in this new exercise that requires additional education on arm path and thoracic extension.
In the third month, we introduce a new set of tasks. Let’s say we only have the top of their chest supported on an incline bench as seen here in this picture. Now, the client has to learn how to stabilize their hips, their scapulae, and their spine all at the same time. They also need to learn more about the lat arm path since it’s a free weight. The great thing about this exercise is it looks almost identical to a free-standing bent over row (the final test in stabilizing the three checkpoints for back). We can use this to our advantage. Let’s say our client is awesome. Their chest supported row looks perfect. Their hips don’t bounce, their spine isn’t rounding, they can retract, depress, and protract their scapulae, their arm path is spot on, and they can utilize and feel their lats. They’re killing it! Now, we can say to them “Let’s see if you can slightly lift your chest away from that bench..” At this moment, we are preparing them for self-stabilization.
By the fourth month, our client should not be a stranger to self-stabilization and the bent-over row should require minimal stabilization cueing. They can now perform an exercise that requires the utilization of all three checkpoints. They have mastered self-stabilization for this exercise at a specific weight and a specific tempo for a specific amount of reps and sets.
MORE ON PROGRESSION
On a month by month basis for these first crucial months, I am not too worried about changing the reps, sets, rest, tempo, or weight. On paper, I may program something different but that truly depends on the client. Are they learning quickly? Does it seem like they’re getting down the basics? If I programmed a different tempo or amount of reps, do I think they will still be able to execute it at the level I need them to? If the answer is yes, then I may switch some things up.
On a day to day basis though, I am more inclined to progress certain variables if they are nailing down the fundamentals. My first go-to progressions are cues and tempo.
This is one of my favorite things to progress because it keeps me, the trainer, on my toes. During a set with the client, if everything is looking good, I’m thinking “how can I make this exercise harder?” I’m not trying to make it harder in the sense that we’re about to add a ton of weight. I’m trying to make it harder by giving them verbal or physical cues to elicit better contractions. The better the contraction, the harder the exercise will feel. For example, we’re back on the pec deck. To make things more challenging. I may tell them to think about pushing back instead of pushing forward. This is counter force. After they’ve got that down, I may tell them to pause at the bottom long enough to squeeze their muscle as hard as they and then pull through (use it to move it). Cueing will vary by exercise but think about the function of the muscle and use cues that will advance execution around those functions.
Tempo can help or hinder a client’s learning process. If the tempo is that there is no tempo and they’re just whipping the weight around, we won’t be able to teach them all of the intra-rep fundamentals. If the tempo is slowed down, we have an opportunity to pause and correct them at the moment.
On paper, I don’t alter the tempo much in the first 12 to 16 weeks. It may go from the original 4/1/4/1 tempo to a 4/1/2/1tempo but the concentric is the only thing that changes. In person, I progress the tempo when I see that they can perform a rep at the standard we have set, meaning that their form is on point and they know how to contract the muscle to move the weight. Contracting slow is great but we want the client to be able to use their muscles for all kinds of things and some of those things might require some quick moves. For this reason, when they are ready, I will cue them to contract faster. Notice I said “contract faster” and not “move faster.” There’s a big difference in using the muscle to move the weight and using momentum to do the job. Watch closely and you will be able to see the difference. I might also add longer pauses where it matters most or eliminate a pause in areas where it might not be beneficial.
In the beginning, our primary goal as a trainer is to educate our clients on the fundamentals of execution. To do that, there are three main areas our clients need to learn to stabilize: the hips, scapulae, and spine. The first 12 to 16 weeks are crucial to this process and arguably the most important phase in program design. Creating a program centered around establishing the fundamentals of execution will only set your client up for success.
Post 12 to 16-week programs should be designed with similar ideas in mind. Stabilization is always the main concern but now you can challenge them with advanced tactics and alter some of the variables that we considered trivial early on. This is the time where you can begin to dial in on your client's goals whether they be strength, hypertrophy, or whatever. If you want to learn more about post 12 to 16 weeks programming drop a like and leave me a comment letting me know exactly what you’re curious about :)