Program Design 101: Is Your Training Program Any Good?

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by JARED WILLIAMSON|PT, DPT, SCS, OCS, CSCS

Program Design 101: Is Your Training Program Any Good?

Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal. -Friedrich Nietzsche
To a significant extent, we athletes engineer our own injuries. The same motivation and tenacity that makes us successful in competition can be misdirected into seeking less-than-optimal, sometimes outright risky training programs in order to get an edge.

Program design is difficult, involves many variables, and cannot be learned merely by reading blogs, books, magazines, or journal articles.
Renowned professional Strength and Conditioning Coach, Mike Boyle, has likened program design to the culinary arts. To paraphrase his analogy: just because you love to eat and have been doing it for years does not mean you can cook… much less be a gourmet chef.

Program design is difficult, involves many variables, and cannot be learned merely by reading blogs, books, magazines, or journal articles. Nor can it be picked up by taking weekend courses or standing on a personal history of playing sports and working out. In fact, some people earn master’s degrees and PhDs in mere aspects of this area. Others make their living doing it in consultation with collegiate and professional sports teams and military special operations units. Ideally, programs are designed by professionals.

So why discuss it here? Because almost everyone you’ve ever seen working out anywhere is trying to do their own programming. For a humorous take on this question, check out the video below:

Though it is fun to laugh at what we’ve all seen going on unsupervised in the gym at one time or another, this subject warrants serious discussion.

Luckily, you don’t have to understand how to design a program yourself in order to recognize a good or a bad one. As long as you can identify certain key elements, you can steer clear of risky or ineffective programs. The elements we’ll cover here are as follows: exercise order, rest cycles, and training versus testing.

Exercise Order

Both in an individual session and from one session to the next, training sessions should be programmed to complement one another. Generally, this means putting components of a training session in the order shown in the table below.

The order in which physical skills should be worked during a training session is based around neuromuscular and metabolic recovery.

The order in which physical skills should be worked during a training session is based around neuromuscular and metabolic recovery.

When we train out of order, we create interference — sending our body mixed messages on how it is supposed to adapt to our training.
This is a basic order for physical performance testing – meaning, it keeps the events from conflicting with one another so the athlete can earn the best possible scores in all events. The order of the events is based around neuromuscular and metabolic recovery. Another way of thinking about this is imagining how much attention you need to pay to what you’re doing during a set. If you can shut your brain off during the exercise and still have good technique, you’re probably doing something that fits best near the bottom of this list.

When we train out of order, we create interference — sending our body mixed messages on how it is supposed to adapt to our training. For example, when you go for a run before doing some heavy Olympic lifts, you “dull-out” much of the reactivity and elasticity in your ligaments and tendons that is very important to have during power training. Moreover, you have depleted some of the metabolic systems you will need to get the most out of your muscles, and these systems can take time and fuel to recover to more appropriate levels for resistance training.

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