Principles of a good training program

The concept behind this article is to help you pick a great training program. There are a lot of benefits to using a program created by somebody else. Generally, (hopefully) they are more knowledgeable than you and also have more experience than you. Rather than putting the ‘perfect’ training program together (side note, the perfect program does not exist), you can spend more time and energy actually training, . You’re also generally a bad person to take advice from, it’s almost always better to get a view from the outside in, when it comes to training.

Not only are there a lot of great programs available, there are also a lot of not-so-great programs available. I’ve listed some things to think about when choosing your program.

Has a defined goal

Any good training program should have a specific and defined goal. This is the subtle difference between training and exercise. The goal itself doesn’t necessarily matter, rather there should be a specific result the program is working towards. A program helping you ‘lose weight & get stronger’ is not a good program – How much weight will you lose? What are you getting stronger at? When will these two goals be achieved? At what point are you considered stronger and/or lighter? Are these two goals compatible?

Now think about these goals:

  • Develop one rep max strength in the three big lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift). Over the course of 12 weeks.
  • Prepare for a strongman event competition. Next year.
  • Prepare for tryouts for your specific sport during the off-season.
  • Run a 5k marathon in a month

What they all share is a narrow outcome and a defined ending or point at which you can test to see if you were successful at the goal or not. They are also not combined goals. A program that claims to help you lose weight, squat 600lbs and run a marathon will only help you achieve wasted time.

With training, you don’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none. This doesn’t mean to only ever focus on one thing for ever, it means you should base your training on one goal at a time. Don’t try and lose weight, squat 600 and run a marathon this summer. Maybe you use the winter time to focus on squat strength, then autumn to lose weight and finally train for the marathon in the summer time. This is how you can become a more ‘well rounded’ athlete over the course of a year.

The goal of a training program shouldn’t simply be movement for the sake of movement. This is where exercise differentiates itself from training. When you ‘exercise’ you’re not aiming to improve, you’re simply concerned with moving and ‘burning calories’. There appears to be no explicit path of progression or an end date. This isn’t to say that a goal of a program will mean you never exercise again, it simply means you set an end point for a specific phase of training. This is one problem with exercise-at-home videos, very few ever increase the difficulty in a progressive manner over a long period of time. You simple perform some movements for 30 minutes day in day out and A- not get bored and B- be any better than you were in a month’s time.

A program that tries to be a jack of all trades, leaves you a master of none, trying to do too many things at once only serves to dilute your body’s response to the given training stimulus and your ultimate goals.

Everything has a purpose

Take a look at the program as a whole and make sure that everything listed is serving an effective purpose. Much like cooking, when you start adding ingredients for no real reason other than, ‘this looks cool’ you end up with a mess. E.g., if your program is to help you improve your one rep maxes for a powerlifting meet, it shouldn’t have any one hour marathon running included. This will also be to with training age, abilities, goals and injuries.

This includes sets, reps and exercise selection. Unless you’re a tight rope walker, I would argue that there is no reason for you to be balancing on a bosu ball whilst performing a single leg pistol squat. That would be one extreme example of a useless exercise. Doing sets of 50 reps to drive up a one rep max will also be pretty useless. Specificity is a requirement of any pursuit, you don’t read books about accounting to understand quantum physics, so why perform physical activities that are completely unrelated to your goals?

Another reason to avoid doing potentially useless movements is the opportunity cost. Every movement you do takes up time to perform and also requires energy to recover from. This is why many athletes are single sport athletes, time spent perfecting baseball, would take away from 100m sprinting. To become better at a certain activity, all your resources should be dedicated to that activity. Spending time on activities that aren’t directly supporting your main goal is automatically detrimental to your progress. E.g., your goal is to get better at single rep squats, dumbbell lateral raises will contribute very little to your ability to squat more weight. By performing lateral raises, you are diverting resources; both time and calories, to an ineffective exercise. Even with this in mind, if your goal is to increase your overhead press, are lateral raises the best and effective use of your time? Probably not, you could instead devote time to high incline presses or pin presses.

Another reason novel exercises is bad is because it’s hard to get better at them. If I do front squats this week, back squats next week, leg press the week after and then lunges after that. How do I know if I’ve gotten better at anything? The stimulus has changed each week, my body is unable to adapt (get better) at any of the movements, so when I re-attempt the front squat in a month it will be a lot harder to improve at the movement compared to if I front squatted every week, or better yet, multiple times a week. Muscle confusion is something to be avoided in a training program.

It involves the Stress-Recovery-Adaptation Cycles

The body gets better by being able to adapt to a stress placed upon it. The basic cycle includes:

This means that in order to improve some outcome, we must subject the body to a certain level of stress, allow the body time to recover from this stress, at which point it will adapt to the stress over time. The body recovers and adapts to a theoretical higher level of ability.

This means that there is a theoretical optimal level of stress that you want to subject the body to. There is also an effective & specific type of stress you must subject the body to. Too little stimulus, either by form of intensity or volume will not encourage an efficient adaptation. Too much stimulus will push you passed your individual recovery abilities and hinder future training sessions, leading to less productive future training sessions.

Have you ever wondered why professional athletes spend so much time training? It’s because their bodies have adapted to a certain workload and in order for them to improve a very small amount they must expend a lot of resources and time

More is essentially more. There is a lot more to it than that, but you can’t expect to get better at any activity by doing less. This is a long term view, because in the short term, there will be undulating periods of rest, higher & lower levels of intensities experienced. Going from a bodyweight squat to 135lbs will take a lot less time than going from a 500lb squat to a 635lb squat, even both are changes of the same 135lbs.

All of this to say that a good program takes the principle of SRA into account. It stresses the body at an optimum level, allows for rest period and over time gets harder. This also acknowledges some sort of phasic nature to training.

This includes the principle of overload

There is a huge difference between exercise & training. One is simply moving for the sake of moving, and the other is moving towards a goal. This follows on from the point above, however it goes a little bit deeper. Much like anything in life, we always want to be improving. For it is in the quest for betterment that purpose is derived. If I tell you that I can squat 400lbs, that sounds impressive, but if I then added I’ve only ever squatted 400lbs for the last five years, without increasing reps or weight. Now the achievement seems less impressive.

If the training program doesn’t have some sort of way to increase your output, or ask you to put in more, then the program won’t change you. The actions necessary to get you from sedentary to moving, will be different from getting you from moving to excelling. As your body adapts to new stimuli it gets better at said activity. E.g. if I walked one mile everyday in an effort to lose weight, I would see a little improvement in my energy expenditure for a couple weeks, until my body adapted to walking for a mile. Eventually, I will burn fewer and fewer calories, since my body adapts to cope with the stress of walking one mile.

The linear progression model is a very simple execution of the overload principle, since you’re adding weight each and every session in a simple linear fashion, e.g., add 5lbs every week. More complicated programs will take into account phases, seasons & subjective matters of intensity. Great ones will actually take a yearly, if not longer term approach to load selection.

Being better than yesterday is a concept that not only belongs in the weight room, but in just about every aspect of your life.

There is a subjective matter of effort included

There is a bit of debate as to whether you should include some sort of subjective means of valuing intensity and volume. Whether it’s through rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or percentage of one rep max (%1RM). We need to have some sort of way to assess the body’s ability to recover and adapt the day’s training to suit other stressors in life. Not many people reading this are professional athletes, we have lives outside of the gym. Effectively anything that isn’t sleep or eating is going to stress the body to a certain degree and this stress is going to affect our body’s ability to output force.

Maybe you had a bad day at work, have relationship issues, or simply didn’t sleep well last night. The program/template doesn’t see your day to day life. Without any way of adjusting, the program is either going to induce too much stress that isn’t recoverable from in the next two days or won’t stress you enough to induce changes.

We’re interested in your lifetime training productivity, not simply how much effort you put in today. This is why subjective load selection matters, it’s another tool in the toolkit that allows the stress to be both productive & recoverable on a daily basis. If you have a 500lb deadlift prescribed, but you got one hour of sleep last night and don’t do anything to adjust to your lack of sleep. You may or may not be successful at pulling the 500lbs, but what’s more critical is that the fatigue in your body has a higher potential to last longer, since your body’s resources aren’t 100% and maybe the next week you’re unable to either lift the 500lbs or progress further. In the long run, grinding through this one day of exercise without adjustment can have a lasting impact on achieving your long term goals.

Conclusion

There are a lot of great programs available on the market today. You can even make your own training program, (my recent thoughts would advise against this). Take a look at the program’s structure with a more critical lens. Don’t put too much attention into the size & strength of the coach putting it together. There are a lot of great athletes who don’t make good teachers/coaches and vice versa. There are also some really strong people who make good coaches. How many people did Michael Jordan coach in basketball?

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