T Nation

Does Program Matter?

This might be fun for the group and helpful for those looking this time of year. Two-part thought experiment:

  1. Does it matter what program you do?
  2. Does it matter if you follow a program at all?

List your assumptions

For me, 1: not a bit. 2: maybe, but likely not.

I’m assuming you just want to get a little bigger and stronger, don’t compete in anything, and have a regular life. This implies that good, consistent results will beat out unsustainable/ impractical “optimal” results.

So our target customer is a 30-year-old working mom/ dad that wants to challenge themselves daily, be healthy for their family, impress everyone at the pool this summer; time sacrifices from work/ home have to be proportionate to these simple goals.

I don’t think what program you follow matters at all for these goals, for these reasons:

  1. If it motivates you, you’ll challenge yourself
  2. It’s impossible to work consistently in the gym and not improve
  3. The pool look is diet-driven anyway
  4. If it doesn’t matter what program you select, you’ll choose one that meets your lifestyle constraints

I’m not sure it matters if you follow a program at all, unless:

  1. You’ve never trained before; you need some background
  2. You won’t be consistent without the accountability of a program
  3. You have some specific goal not in my assumptions above

My hope is this should be somewhat freeing for those of us that get overwhelmed at the expense of doing. Let’s Pareto principle this thing! Maybe you disagree with me, though.
What are your thoughts?


I generally agree with you, I also think that following a program or at least reading about different methodologies and experiences is incredibly valuable.

Almost nobody should do their own thing their entire training career. So, being on a program right now probably doesn’t matter but having been on one (or having practiced within the confines of a lifting philosophy) probably does.

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Its not a binary thing.

Does the programme matter?
Can do. If the trainee want a particular goal, the training matters. If its just general bigger, stronger, leaner then so long as it is smart training the no.

Does programme matter - depends on how smart the person exercising is. How many times do you see the thread start with:
Hi - I do 4 sets of 15 flies, 9 sets of 5 curls and calf rises 4 times a week. But I’m not growing. I think I’m a hard gainer. So I want to do 10 week oral only cycle.

These guys (normally always guys) need a programme. Before they learn the principles.

So in answer:
Does it matter what programme you do?
If your goals are not specific then you don’t need to be specific in your training. But depending on the goals then the training can matter.

Does it matter is your follow a programme at all?
Until you understand enough to apply the principles of training then it is a good idea to have one. But I wold say I could free style it and be “okay”. And I’d consider myself less intuitive and knowledge than most.


For me a program matters, but i dont think it matters WHAT is the program.
In my experience, program does not matter for beginners. Whatever they do, they will adapt to it and get better. As long as they do something MORE from time to time, they will progress.
I was stuck in lifetime intermediate hell before i found 531. Not saying i am not in the same place now, but at least i know where im going and how to get there. Maybe i am not going there as fast as i would like, but at least i know the way and i have a vehicle.
Without a program, intermediates are just stuck at “do as much reps as you can” or maxing out much too often.

When strenght training, i believe program maters much more, for the reasons of reaching, overreaching, deloading and planning progress, because most people, me included, who want to get strong but doesnt know shit about programming, will just “work up to a max” in a whatever rep range every time.
When bodybuilding, i believe it matters much less because bodybuilding is mostly genetic and people with good genetics can do whatever they want and look good, while people with shit genetics wont look like that ever anyway.
This also is exactly like this for me… my lifts progress if i follow a program. My arms size and chest, however, wont grow much, no matter how much assistance work i put them under. I can do high reps, low reps, long rest, short rest, high volume, low volume, or DONT DO anything at all - i believe the difference is minimal so nowdays i just do 3x10-12 with short rests so i can just squeeze in a few exercises in a short period of time JUST IN CASE they would give my shit arms that 1% extra.

I train a girl, who has good genetics, from the very beginning. Never in her life she has done anything for her arms. She only does basic 531 with basic exercises and the only back work she does is pulldowns and sometimes we skip those due to time restrictions. Her biceps and triceps look full and round like she is on steroids. We do focus on deadlifts and squats but strenght in those progresses very slow.
As you can see - her genetics are perfect for upper body - she has abs, and big, full arm muscles, even tho we have never trained arms. And she progresses slow in strenght even tho that is the ONLY focus and goal.

I have good leg genetics. Not strenght-wise, but look-wise.

This is how my legs looked back when i was under 220lbs(6’2) super lean and shredded and havent done ANYTHING for my legs for 10 years at least.

Now, when i train for strenght my legs are much stronger but dont look much bigger tho.

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  1. Yes
  2. No

Principles matter no matter what program you run or don’t run.

  1. It matters what program you do because it should align with your goals. Providing max effort is applied, different programs that meet your goals of strength or size will probably yield similar results. This still has to be a well-designed and understood program though.
  2. It matters to an extent. If you’re a newbie and have no idea what a good training program/split looks like, you’d probably benefit greatly from having that knowledge. If you’re super advanced, you probably also need a program. Intermediates can probably do without, providing they have the understanding of what is needed in a good program. All this goes away if your goals are simply “to stay in shape” though.
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  1. For the vast majority of folks, no.
  2. Yes, but I’m thinking of a program as equating more to a template for training in this context. So long as the template covers the majority of the basic movement patterns, sets, reps, splits, etc. don’t matter for your target customer. Effort applied will trump all of those.
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If you don’t have a plan, you can’t change the plan.

It gets you stuck in a position of reaction.


For this target customer? I don’t think program matters at all beyond the absolute basics: some resistance training, some cardio/conditioning training. Other than that, consistency, time and effort are the important factors. P90X will work, 531 will work, Tactical Barbell will work, Crossfit will work, Easy Strength will work, 5000 burpees a day will work, everything works.


everytime I read this I say out loud, If you work it.


wind out of sails


We see dudes who are 30 (or close to 30) mess themselves up with bad programs all the time.

Sometimes they only make themselves to tired too continue training. Other times they make themselves really sad, or difficult to be around. Many kill their Testosterone, or get overuse injuries.

This stuff is important!



depends does the subject understand programming or would they be randomly walking around the gym doing things.

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I don’t necessarily agree. I’ve seen so many people that are very consistent and over a couple years they are neither stronger nor has their physique changed. They are consistent, but consistently focusing on the wrong variables. Keep in mind, too, we are in the TNation bubble where we have long long ago filtered out all but the most reasonable programs that we tend to throw out in advice threads. Remember that over 99% of the “programs” available with a simple Google search or Reddit browse are absolute dog shit. I will agree with you if we add the following caveat:
It’s impossible to work consistently in the gym with an intelligently designed progression and not improve.

100% disagree! I know I’ve argued this point a few times and in my stalling cut thread, so I won’t beat a dead horse haha.

I think you give the average target customer WAY too much credit. Again, this is absolutely true in the TNation bubble, but I’ve seen too many idiots IRL to agree. I knew a guy that ran Smolov squat program on top of his daily crossift workouts, and was genuinely shocked when he ended up blowing out a disc in his back!

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Some disagreement! Love it!

I’ll contend most of this. I really struggle to get on board that diet won’t drive what the average person is looking for at the pool. At the same time, it’s easier for me to get fat than lean so that’s probably just my bias.

@FlatsFarmer do you think most our 30-year-olds mess themselves up with programming, or just weren’t trying to get better in the first place? I recognize that’s asking for a ton of speculation, and I’m not sure how jaded of a side I want to take, but I’m still throwing the possibility out there.

I’m willing to concede it’s not actually “impossible” not to progress, but it’s hard enough that you’d almost have to try. I think the point about the T-nation bubble is very fair. Counterpoint: if you care at all, in 2021, is it possible not to stumble on this or a similar site?

I think I should add, I’m not necessarily making the argument with this post, but I exploring the thoughts.

Yes, very possible. I think the marketing of this site is extremely off-putting to newbies. Look at the photos they use for every article…some super shredded geared up bodybuilder, even if it’s an article about box jumps or rehabbing your tight hip flexors lol. It’s very incompatible with the environment on the forums and has always perplexed me. There’s some insanely knowledgeable coaches here, but the site presents itself as just another dime a dozen spot peddling the “next big thing” supplements. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted to send an article from here to help a friend out, but ultimately didn’t because I knew with the way this site presents itself, it’d carry no credibility in their eyes.


The guys I’m thinking about are Highly motivated and trying hard to improve. So i blame the programs.

Guys are Trying to get better running “Smolov” or “DarkHorse” or “Unity” or “PPL x 6.” It just rarely happens. Because these are not great programs.

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Was that person me? Because I’m pretty sure I’ve run a similar program.

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I agree with this 100% looking good at the pool, by most people’s definition, mostly involves being really lean which (in my mind), is driven 98% by nutrition.


Well, you really know how to cut to the core of me, Flatster.

Valid point, though. Typically, when I’m struggling, I blame myself vs the program. That doesn’t mean the program is doing its job.

@jskrabac I agree with you here. I’m trying to do some DIY stuff at home that’s new for me, and I automatically skip the YouTube videos where the thumbnail is a full crew framing a house or something. I definitely get it would be that on steroids, pun intended, when the article looks like some whole other underground lifestyle.

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