I use both.
Sometimes life gets busy and I just use a program to get shit done and not have to devote any brain power to it. I’ve used Stuart McRobert, Huge In A Hurry, Stronglifts and 5/3/1 to this effect. I can usually do this for 6-8 weeks before boredom kicks in.
When I have free time, I usually design my own program or wing it. After a certain amount of time, this becomes necessary as one-size fits all programs need to be individualized by a knowledgeable trainer or coach.
The most optimal way to train is to get the most out of each single training day. Robotically following a program is not going to help with that. Sometimes, the most out of a day is most recovery, sometimes its most lifting, sometimes its doing a bunch of singles and calling it a day.
I’m glad I used programs because they’re an excellent learning tool. You might not think you can do a lift, but if you program calls for, say, 280x5 on squat and you grind it out, you start to realize just how intense you can train. Then, it’s up to you to hit that intensity level again (or higher), whether you stick to the program or not.
So in summary PRos and cons of programs…
- Hit a certain level of intensity guaranteed
- Mental break from overthinking things
- Get to know what works for you by trying different programs
- Certain amount of gains are programmed
- Can be trapped by a program
- Can lose the “listen to your body” skill, a critical skill beyond beginner level
- Not usually the optimal way to train
I expect to use them less and less as I progress as a lifter.
Very good points. One thing I like about 5/3/1 though, and one reason I wouldn’t lump it in with other cookie cutter routines is that with 5/3/1, the assistance work is completely up to you. There are some templates, but ultimately everything besides the main movement is free to tweak as you please. There are other programs like this as well, of course. I think it’s a pretty good medium between the two philosophies.
Going off of what you said, I’ve noticed that the more experienced I get, the more I start finding what works for me and the more I start going by feeling. Recently I’ve been focusing on establishing a better mind-muscle connection, and experimenting with different movements and methods each week helps with that. It also keeps things interesting. Still though, I stick with the classic big movements as the foundation of my routine.