There are many things to consider when it comes to designing a program for either someone going through rehab, for general population looking to achieve physical goals or composition change for long term health or an elite athlete. By taking in to account all of the following areas, you will ensure that you end up with a well structured, well planned, and more importantly individualised program, efficient and effective for achieving the desired goals. If you or your trainer do not do this, you will not be maximising your valuable training time, and this is the difference of seeing an expert Performance Coach with high academic qualifications and years of experience.
We will go in to greater detail on writing the program, but there are key things to consider and information that you need to have before this process starts, which is why a thorough initial consult is critical (read HERE for more). The initial consult will include, but is not limited to:
Know The Person – The perfect program never done won’t help anyone. Before any quantative data is captured you have to understand the individual. What are their likes/dislikes, work commitments, family commitments, stress, sleep, goals, what drives to reach these goals, and help understand what will be the best way to communicate and inspire the individual.
Injury history – a full history of previous injuries and health conditions
Training history – time frame, experience, potential for muscular imbalances, enjoyment
Training goals – date of event, timeline for weight loss, time line for return to sport, any other goals.
Training availability – Touched on this above, it is all well and good to create the perfect program but if they are too busy to do it you need to know time frames of training so you can prioritise where and what to focus on.
Once we have established some baselines in what you are working with, it is then vital to perform a physical assessment of the individual, this can include but is not limited to:
Anthropometry – body girth measurements, skin fold measurements, height & weight, what is done will be based on individual goals and needs. Use sparingly though, and only for the right person, this can often be damaging to someone with existing body image issues. Read more on that HERE.
Flexibility and joint ROM assessment – SLR, hip mobility, psoas length, shoulder joint ROM and scapula timing, this will help guide your well structured flexibility and rehab/prehab program. If special test required then make sure to refer on to a qualified Physiotherapist or Osteopath.
Functional movement assessment – See the body in movement, whether it be a variety of movement tests like an overhead squat or SL squat, or a gait assessment, you must make sure it suits the individual. There are a million things you can look at, so prioritise key patterns such as squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull & rotate, then you can look deeper if issues arise.
Power and strength testing – not only will it give information regarding any asymmetry issues, it will help create a baseline measure for the program design and training load involved as well as a monitoring tool for progression and overtraining. Only suitable for experienced people though or the information will not be helpful and can be dangerous.
Fitness testing – What is done for the fitness testing is all dependant on the individual goals and injury history, you wouldn’t test a swimmer on a treadmill and you wouldn’t run someone with lower limb stress fractures for example. Again this will give some baseline measures for the program design and load and help to determine training zones while giving more results to monitor progression and overtraining.
Once all the above information has been gathered, which can easily be done in our 30-45 minute compulsory initial assessment, we will then be able to sit down and create a needs analysis and create the individualised planned program.
Once all the information is gathered from the patient, athlete or client, the program design can begin. Using the results and the needs analysis for the particular goals, sport, injury recovery etc, we can work out what are the important things to be focussed on within the program, whether it be strength in a particular area, improvements in balance, mobility, flexibility, fitness, sports specific, what ever it is. This will play a big role in the clients program sequencing. Most people will generally have limited time unless it is a full time athlete, so it is important that you prioritise the main aims.
We start with the big picture, have the end date, event, goal, aim in mind, and work back from that. Breaking it down in to smaller sections, macro cycle, and micro cycles then into the individual training sessions. This will help with clarity of what you are trying to achieve with the program and if it is for an athlete, will allow us factor in the training loads as well as tapering phases, rest periods, target events etc.
The individual program writing – Strength Training
Click HERE for an infographic overview of designing your program
The warm up design – The first thing needed to be done in any exercise session is warm up the body appropriately, start general, and move too specific. Be wary not to spend too much time here, just prep the body for whats to come.
Generally will involve a cardio based activity to increase the body temperature, stimulate the body and mind, and prepare for what is to come. Non impact activities such as rowing, cycling and cross trainers are great for this, as they provide a safe environment while the body is cold and prone to injury.
Once the body is warm the specific part comes in to play, it needs to be specific for the person, and specific for the session. Dynamic stretching to previously identified target areas may be warranted for someone with a particular injury back ground, but not always necessary. Then comes dynamic movements to areas that will be involved in the upcoming program, this grease the groove so to speak for the upcoming session, it allows for improved muscle activation, co-ordination and firing patterns. This is also a great time to work on things like glute activation, rotator cuff stability, trunk muscle activation, your prehab/rehab work if you need to be doing this, all dependant on what the individual needs are.
Exercise selection – When it comes to exercise selection we must consider the main aims of the program based on patient goals and a needs analysis from the assessment and individual requirements, but must also consider the training history and experience for safety reasons. The squat or deadlift may be the best way of increasing leg strength, but if the person has never touched a barbell before then there is no point putting it in there, as poor technique will not only take away any beneficial effects of the exercise, but will also dramatically increase the risk of injury to the client/athlete. Spend time developing these techniques with little resistance either as part of the warmup or separately, and think of other, safer ways to develop it, ie a lunge pattern, a leg press or even as simple as a swiss ball squat.
Exercise sequencing –
When it comes to designing the individualised strength program, then as mentioned before, sequencing is the first thing to consider. Which part of the body, which movement, which physiological area needs the greatest development. The fresher the person, the greater the improvements that will be achieved what ever they are doing, so if the focus is to improve leg strength, say hip extension, then we would want to make sure it is sitting top of the program sequence as opposed to it being an after thought thrown on at the end when fatigued.
Safety is always important, and as you fatigue throughout the program, the chances of technique and form breaking down become greater. And it is for this reason that again the sequencing of the exercises is vital, ensuring that you start with the bigger and more technically complicated compound or multiple joint movements first when your fresh and less likely to lose form through fatigue. Things like deadlifts, power cleans, Squats, chin-ups, bench press etc fall in to this category. And then smaller single joint movements, where there is not as much injury risk, like a bicep curl or calf raise, can come later in the program.
Balance in exercise selection –
Throughout writing the program whether it be a single day program or a weekly split program involving multiple gym sessions, we must make sure that there is balance with the exercise selection. Ensure no movement is overworked and no movement is overlooked. Excluding people with serious imbalances, sports specific need or injury contraindication, every agonist that gets trained, must also be an antagonist for another movement. For every horizontal push movement, have a horizontal pull movement, for every vertical push movement, have a vertical pull movement, for every hip dominant lower body exercise, have a quad dominant lower body exercise. And with correct sequencing, all dependant on the individual needs, you will end up with a well balanced, injury free, fit and strong athlete or client.
Training Volume –
We want to enhance and improve every one we write a program for, and to do this less is more often works well. When determining the number of exercises used, the sets of each exercise, the reps per set, we must factor in not only other training that they do such as their cardio work and sports specific, but other fatiguing factors of life, work, kids, travel etc. Quality is far more important than quantity in strength programming, so unless there is some additional not so legal supplementation occurring, then you don’t want anyone in the gym strength training for more than 60 minutes of work. Hormonal changes will occur after that without appropriate fuelling and they will start to become catabolic, making everything you do from then pointless.
Prioritise your exercise selection and try not to exceed 15 working sets total for all of the exercises combined, I don’t include the small activation, trunk and warm up work in this number. So this could be 3 different exercises with 5 quality working sets of each for someone more trained, or it could be 5 different exercises with 3 sets of each for someone less experienced.
If the program includes very physically demanding and technical exercises such as a snatch or power clean, then I would use even less total sets. Quality over quantity.
Training Intensity –
The training intensity in a resistance based program is determined by the load used, the reps required and the rest between sets. This will come down to the individuals sporting or rehab needs, injury history, and lifting experience. Initial phases of training should include low load, high volume, strength endurance training and corrective exercise. Once a good baseline is achieved then a steady periodisation will follow, going through hypertrophy, general strength, max strength, and power. How far you progress through that, and how long you spend with each phase will again be determined by the needs analysis already done and the individuals lifting experiences, you wouldn’t want a beginner maxing out a 2 rep squat or perform 1 rep max power cleans. Just too much injury risk.
As the individual progresses then the programming becomes more advanced and many variations of periodisation can be used in addition to the linear progression mentioned above.
As for selecting the load to be used for each of your chosen exercises, this will be a combination of educated guessing based on their strength testing and previous training, and then of course trial and error as you start using the program. You do not need to fail on each set to make the gains, select a load that challenges but allows zero technique break down for the majority of the reps, and perhaps a small, not dangerous, cheat rep or 2 on the last set of each exercise for single joint movements.
The Cool Down – Strength
Just like the warm-up this is not a simple case of a few static stretches after your last set and then head out the door. It is just as important as the body of the workout and deserves equal focus with the planning. Just like the warm up, start general, finish specific. A gentle CV cool down, non impact based is a great way to flush out metabolic waste and start the recovery process, it is also the perfect time to start your post workout recovery nutrition, every minute counts so get that in as soon as you can. For a strength program, which should last no longer than 60 minutes, 3-5 minutes of gentle CV will be plenty and avoids adding fatigue and taking away the hard earned gains.
An individualised stretching program should finish off the cool down, returning the body to full length and balance. What gets stretched for more or and what gets stretched less will be based on what was hit more with the session as well as what the individual needs are.
The individual program writing – The CV Training
The warm up design – Just like the strength work, the first thing you need to do in any exercise session is warm up the body appropriately, start general, and move to specific. It needs to be as well planned as the rest of the program, not just do a 5 min run then go for it.
General will involve a low intensity cardio based activity to increase the body temperature, lubricate joints, stimulate the body and mind, and prepare for what is to come. Replicating what is about to come is best, i.e if it is a run they are about to do, warm up with a gentle jog, same goes for bike, swim, row etc. If it is a general session with a few different training methods involved in the CV work then stick to a non impact based CV.
Once the body is warm the specific part comes in to play, just like for the strength programming it needs to be specific for the person, and specific for the session. Dynamic stretching to previously identified target areas is important to have as we need the body in as best alignment as possible as opposed to further enhancing any imbalances. Then comes dynamic movements to areas that will be involved in the upcoming program, this will then ensure that oxygen is being delivered to all the right areas and allows for improved muscle activation and firing patterns. This is also a great time to work on things like glute activation, rotator cuff stability, trunk muscle activation, your prehab/rehab work, all dependant on what the individual needs are, before the CV work gets under way and you become to fatigued.
Exercise selection – training zones – When it comes to exercise selection in regards to CV we must consider the main aims of the program based on patient goals and a needs analyses from the assessment and sporting requirements, but we must also consider the training history and experience for safety reasons.
When planning the CV program we need to be thinking about what are the needs of the sport, what are the areas of weakness, what are the individual goals, and how many times a week will they be performing CV work. All of this will guide you selecting the right type of training zones for each session. A marathon runner for example will obviously need to spend a lot more time working in aerobic fitness zones, race pace work, with a small percentage of the overall volume used for high intensity work like interval sprints, fartlek training and threshold training. Where as someone who plays a team sport requiring bursts of speed throughout or someone with not a lot of time to fit in there training, will benefit more from prioritising High Intensity work.
Exercise Sequencing – the weekly view
With CV training, sequencing will refer not so much to the individual session but where that particular CV session sits within the week. If the athlete or clients aims or goals involve more strength, then the strength training must come first in the week when the body is at it’s freshest. If the athlete or clients goals and needs are for endurance, then you would be best to prioritise the CV work throughout the week.
With regards to different types of CV training throughout the week, the ones that require greater physical demand and intensity should again come earlier when you are fresher, for example high intensity sprints, track work or threshold runs would come before a medium, easy, or long steady state paced session.
When determining the volume of cardio to be performed each week, you must factor in not only other training that they do such as their strength work and sports specific, but other fatiguing factors of life, work, kids, travel as well as there training history. No point in having a beginner start with a 25km long run if the longest they have ever done before is a run around the block.
Just like with strength training, a few weeks of high load CV training needs to be followed by lower load weeks, this will allow time for rest and therefore adaption, this is basic periodisation. Without this, overtraining and injury risk will become a big issue. The best thing to avoid these things occurring is to closely monitor your athlete or client, you won’t necessarily have access to blood analysis, power testing equipment etc but by simply asking them regularly how they are feeling, sleeping, eating, muscle soreness and mood swings and monitoring it, you will be able to know if the volume is becoming to much for them or they need a low volume week of training.
So when it comes to setting out the week of CV volume, think about how many sessions total training they will have, how many games, how long they can train for at each session, how much can they safely physically handle and how you prioritise it with regards to other aspects of their program.
The Cool Down – CV
Don’t spend to much time here unless you are feeling specific areas of tightness, you must make sure that it does not add additional fatigue and training volume to your well planned program, keep it gentle, 5- 10 minutes will do, anything longer than that and you run the risk for additional fatigue, anything shorter than that and you won’t give the body time to cooldown. Just enough to calm the body and mind down, ready for what the day has next for you. Nutrition and sleep play much larger roles in your recovery than a few stretches.
Wrapping it up:
By taking in in all of the above factors when it comes to assessing and then writing a program, it will ensure that who ever it is for, they will be getting the most reward for the effort put in with as little risk as possible. Bang for your buck, individualised program writing. To find out more on how to improve your health, fitness and performance, and see the difference of working with a highly skilled, educated and experienced Performance Coach, come in and see as at Absolute, 199 William st.
Written by Head Performance Coach David Smith