Understanding the fundamentals
There is no doubt that succeeding in the gym starts outside of it. Preparing a carefully designed programme that is tailored to your goals is half the battle. You then just have to execute it.
Unfortunately, proper programming is often neglected, even worse, forgotten about all together. World renowned strength & conditioning coach Mike Boyle likened programming to the culinary world.
“When it comes to developing new performance programmes, some people can really cook; others need cookbooks and recipes. Some people write cookbooks, some people read cookbooks. So, are you a cook or a chef?”
His point is that if you’re writing a programme for yourself for the first time, you’re a cook. Find a good recipe that meets your goals and follow it exactly. Mike goes onto say “in cooking, every ingredient in a recipe has a purpose, you wouldn’t leave out the flour in a baked cake.” This means that chopping and changing a programme you’ve been given, or found, is never optimal. There is a reason why it has been designed like that, whether it’s specific exercises, reps, movement patterns and so on.
Of course, there are lots of resources online in terms of programmes you can follow, but bear in mind, these programmes, although many well thought-out, aren’t tailored exactly to your goals. This is where leveraging a highly qualified and experienced coach comes in handy.
Programme design essentials
To properly design a functional strength programme, keep the following principles in mind.
Master the basics first
Progression of an exercise can only be earned by first mastering it in its most basic form. A big mistake is progressing too quickly, whether it’s adding load or adding complexity to a movement. In order to be functional, you must first master basic movements at bodyweight before you can progress.
Begin with bodyweight
As we mentioned, starting with bodyweight is the key to progressing in any functional training programme. One way to destroy a strength programme is adding load to an exercise without mastering it at bodyweight.
Progress from simple to complex
Adding complexity to an exercise is the best way to make it more functional, and challenging. Taking single leg exercises for example, athletes should master the simplest form of the exercise, such as a split squat, before progressing to a rear foot elevated split squat, or Bulgarian split squat etc.
We have spoken about this is many times in previous articles, but it really is the key to success. In its simplest form, the goal is to add weight or reps each week. Programmes are usually designed in 12-week blocks, so if you’re able to add 2 more reps of a certain exercise than your previous week, you have made progress. The same applies if you are able to add weight to the same lift, even if it’s just 2.5kg on your squat from the previous week, you’ve made progress. This is the fundamental application when it comes to strength gain.
For bodyweight training, the progression is simple. Begin with three sets of 8 reps in week 1, move to three sets of 10 reps in week 2, and finish with three sets of 12 in week 3. This is the simplest form of progression using just bodyweight.
By the fourth week, you can generally progress to a more difficult exercise or add external loads. Of course, if you’ve been training for a while and have great technique, you can jump into a loaded programme right way, following the same progression (8-10-12). External load can come in the form of a dumbbell, kettlebell, a weight vest, sandbag etc.
We have a detailed guide on the concept of progressive overload which you can check out here.
Strength and conditioning expert Charles Poliquin simplified the concept of periodization in is 1988 article “Variety in Strength Training,” by stating a programme should consist of “phases of high volume (accumulation, extensive loading) and unloading should be modulated within the programme.”
Higher-volume, lower-load periods should be alternated with higher-intensity, lower volume-periods. Dan John, another highly respected figure within the industry, recommended between 15 and 25 reps for major exercises. That means you have the choice of accumulating volume with three sets of 8 (24 reps) or exercising more intensely with three sets of 5 (15 reps).
Upper body, lower body and core exercises are classified according to one of three terms;
Baseline exercises are generally the starting point for an average athlete. Subsequent exercises are either progressions or regressions. Athletes perform the baseline exercise for 3 weeks and then move to the progression of the exercise. Those that experience difficulty with the baseline exercise, usually due to injury or technical issues, are immediately regressed. This system of progression and regression is often the key to overall development. Essentially the goal is to ensure every exercise you do is done correctly. If this means regressing a loaded squat to a bodyweight squat, then that’s fine. This mastery of the bodyweight squat will in turn lead to more understanding and knowledge of the loaded squat, when you progress back to it.
Understanding the levels of functionality
Understanding the functional properties of certain exercises is key when designing a programme. The table below evaluates exercises on a scale from least to most functional. This is divided into lower body exercises (knee dominant and hip dominant) and upper body (push and pull).
The concept of programming for success runs true. You can’t go into the gym without a plan and expect to get better. Finding a programme tailored towards your goals is the key to progression as an athlete.
There are many programmes available online and sometimes it’s hard to cut through the noise. We’d recommend enlisting the help of a highly-qualified personal trainer or strength & conditioning coach that can write a carefully constructed programme for you.
Master the basics first and advance using progressive overload, whether it’s volume, intensity, density, or complexity.