10 Principles For Better Programming

The best training programs have ten principles in common. Is your lifting plan up to snuff?

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. There are thousands of training programs out there, but the most effective ones share similar principles.
  2. Check out the list below and make sure your training program puts most of these principles into action.

There are as many theories about programming as there are coaches who apply them. But in my 30-plus years in the field I’ve found that all successful training programs have common themes. Here are the top 10 most important principles for creating programs that work.

1. What Matters Most Comes First

The more important an exercise is, the earlier it should be placed in the workout. And, according to some, the earlier it should be placed in the week. For a bodybuilder with weak calves, this would mean training calves first in the workout. For a powerlifter with weak triceps, this might mean doing close-grip bench presses rather than the more standard wider grip. For someone with chronic orthopedic issues, it might take the form of specific prehab-rehab drills. The applications are nearly endless but the principle is simple – get to work on what’s most important first while your energy is at its highest.

Seasoned lifters will recognize that this principle contradicts a few other well-established practices, such as:

  1. Speed exercises should be placed before strength exercises.
  2. Exercises requiring more skill should be done before exercises requiring less skill.
  3. Multi-joint exercises should be done before single joint drills.

Although these three “rules of thumb” are all valid, when a conflict arises, they should always take a backseat to prioritizing weaknesses by placing them first in the workout.

2. Everything You Do Has a Cost, But Not Necessarily a Benefit

When “no pain, no gain” is your training mantra, pretty much any type of exercise or method is fair game, and generally, “more is better” tends to be the rule. This philosophy is flawed however, and here’s why: Whenever you touch the bar, the only guarantee is that you will pay a price of some kind – there’s no guarantee of benefit whatsoever. These costs include time, energy, risk of injury, and perhaps most important, time and energy that might be devoted to other important things, such as your family or career.

With that in mind, it strikes me as wise to focus less on the gross receipts and more on the net profits, so to speak. In other words, to borrow an old saying, “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep.” Seek the most possible bang for your buck. Look for ways to save time and reduce any possible redundancy between exercises.

In my own training, I’m thinking a lot about what the costs would be, at age 54, to bring my 510 deadlift up to 550. I love the thought of being able to pull 550, but honestly, when I think of the amount of time, effort, and risk involved, it gives me pause. Perhaps my life would be better off if I pursued other goals (training or non-training) instead. I hope you’ll give similar examination to your own goals as well.

3. Contrast Promotes Recovery

The negative effects of fatigue are specific to the activities that created that fatigue in the first place. This means that ideally, neighboring workouts should be as dissimilar as possible, given whatever constraints you’re working under. In this way, the fatigue from Monday’s session will have the most minimal possible negative affect on Wednesday’s workout.

Note that I said “given whatever constraints you’re working under.” This refers to the fact that there are always restrictions and limitations to this principle. As a quick example, imagine that you’re determined to improve your leg size, and you’ve determined that you should train legs three times a week. The “Contrast Promotes Recovery” principle dictates that these workouts should be as dissimilar as possible in order to promote maximum recovery from session to session. There are a few different ways to accomplish this, foremost among them being varied exercise selection and loading parameters. Here’s how you might put this principle into action on a practical level:

Monday Wednesday Friday
Back Squat (4x10) Deadlift (6x2) Step-Up (3x12)
Lunge (3x10) Front Squat (4x6) Leg Curl (2x15)
Leg Extension (4x12) RDL (4x6) Hip Thrust (4x10)

In this example, both exercises and loads change significantly from session to session. Another approach might be to alternate between knee/quad-focused drills in one session with hip/posterior chain-focused exercises in the next session.

4. The Best Exercises Are Also the Most Modifiable

Many years ago I stumbled upon an observation about exercises: I noticed that single-joint movements had a minimum potential for modification, whereas multi-joint exercises had much greater adaptability. For example, think about the deadlift: it can be performed using hands inside of (sumo) or outside of (conventional) the feet. It can be done while standing on a platform (more range of motion), or by elevating the barbell plates on platforms (less range of motion). Deads can be done against bands or chains, with various types of bars, single-legged, straight-legged… the list is nearly endless. Same thing for squats, lunges, vertical and horizontal presses, and vertical and horizontal pulls as well.

The ability to constantly modify certain exercises makes them valuable because they allow you to employ a strategy I call “same but different,” which is basically doing the same exercises week after week, month after month, without a loss of adaptive response, because the constant variation you can employ prevents habituation.

Single-joint movements however, although not completely without value, lack this valuable characteristic. Therefore, effective programs make liberal use of compound (multi-joint) exercises, and more sparing use of single-joint movements.

5. The Best Programs Compel You

Look, training is sometimes fun, but mostly it’s hard work. And hard work always required discipline – the ability to push yourself when things get tough. So if you can find subtle ways to make the medicine go down a bit easier, you’ll be better off. Specifically, if you can find ways to make your workouts more compelling – meaning they pull you as opposed to you needing to push yourself – your training is much more likely to be consistent and productive.

Aside from doing the types of exercises and training that you like to do, there are a number of little strategies that you can employ to this effect:

  • Recruit a motivated, reliable, skilled training partner.
  • Compete. Put yourself on the line.
  • Use compulsory and optional exercises. In other words, make sure you do the important stuff, but cut yourself a little slack on the less critical exercises.
  • Find the best training environment possible. That means the best equipment, environment, proximity to your home… everything.
  • Put yourself in a position to succeed by pursuing “rep records” as often as possible. New PR’s make training both fun and productive.

6. Program with Patterns

There are a handful of fundamental movements patterns that should be represented on a regular basis in your training. These include squatting, lunging, hip hinging, horizontal pulling and pressing, vertical pulling and pressing, and perhaps trunk flexion and/or rotation.

The degree to which each of these patterns should be represented in your training depends mostly on your goals as well as your individual anthropometry (your height, proportions, injuries, etc.). Bodybuilders, by virtue of requiring a balanced, “complete” physique, need to address all muscles – and by extension, patterns – in their training. Others may not need the same level of balanced attention to every part of the body, and in fact, athletic specialization often necessitates an imbalanced physique. Cyclists, for example, would be hindered by conspicuous upper body development.

One slight tangent on this subject: Even if you don’t load a particular pattern, you should at least move through that pattern’s range of motion regularly to at least maintain it. For example, you might not overhead press for whatever reason, but you should still maintain the ability to reach overhead without undue restriction.

7. Eliminate Binary Thinking

Too often we view individual exercises as “good” or “bad,” when in fact, the reality is far less black or white as you might think. We view squats as good and leg extensions as bad. Military presses good, machine presses bad.

The actual truth is, most of the exercises you revile aren’t really bad at all if used in the proper context and dose. For example, machines can be really valuable in instances where time, injuries, or insufficient skills rule out a more complex free-weight exercise. Similarly, a little direct arm work isn’t dishonorable unless it diverts you away from more important things. So loosen up a little and open your mind to new things!

8. Think Outcomes, Not Tools

If your goal is to gain 10 pounds of muscle, do you really care if you get it through barbells, kettlebells, machines, or bodyweight exercises? Many of us fall into the trap of focusing too much on what tool we’re using and not enough on what we’re using that tool for.

Recently, despite my nearly lifelong disdain for machines, I was talked into doing some leg extensions as a way of strengthening my quads in the hopes of improving my squat (squats by themselves only tend to work my adductors and posterior chain). You know what? I did and it worked.

Do yourself a favor. Sit down and write out exactly what you hope to gain from your training. Greater strength? More muscle? Improved agility and mobility? Less body fat? Better performance in your chosen sport? Next, take a look at your current tools, as well as potential tools you’ve been neglecting for whatever reason. Finally, start establishing better alignment between your tools and your outcomes. You might be surprised at what you end up with.

9. Paretto’s Principle

The 80/20 rule is something most of us have heard of, but fail to adequately appreciate or apply judiciously. The idea is that 80% of our results tend to come from 20% of our actions. The question is, what are your 20% activities and/or behaviors, and what are some of the 80% that you might be better off without? Think not only in terms of exercises, but also in terms of training frequency, number of sets per exercise, and so on.

Only you can answer those questions of course; I’m just here to prompt you to do so. After all, imagine if you could reduce your workload by 30% and still get 97% of the results you’re getting now. Wouldn’t that be a worthwhile tradeoff?

10. Consistency Before Intensity

One very reliable hallmark of novices is that their efforts are both dramatic and temporary. Novices approach every workout like it’s a war against all odds, and their constant Facebook posts make it sound as if they were modern-day warriors doing battle, not only against the weights but also against their own lesser natures.

What these people fail to appreciate is that unlike a workout (which is simply an “experience”), training is a process. And in any process, intensity only has value if it’s sustainable for the long haul. As I look at my training journal right now, I see that I’ve logged 81 workouts so far this year, which translates to an average of 4 sessions per week. Not all of them were balls-out, and in fact, it’s not realistic to expect that they can be. T Nation contributor Bret Contreras often likes to say that “for every five workouts, one is lousy, three are mediocre, and one kicks ass.” And that’s okay, as long as you’re consistent.

Principles Determine Practices

If you’ve got any pet principles that aren’t on my list, I’d love to hear about them. Give me your best shot in the comments section below!