T Nation

Principles of a Great Training Program


I was discussing this with a few coworkers today and was curious to your insight.

We came to the idea that a great training program has the following

  1. Have to have a specific goal in mind
  2. Compound movements
  3. Assistance movements
  4. Mobility
  5. Conditioning
  6. Different sets/reps
  7. Heavy, medium, light weights
  8. Can’t ever have enough back or core work
  9. A clearly defined way to progress
  10. Flexibility in how to set it up based on schedule changes (ability to morph from a 5 day to 2 day program if need be)

But in order for the program to be truly great, the person has to

  1. Attack each training day with intensity and focus
  2. Rarely miss days
  3. Realize some days are just not gonna go good, live to fight another day

What do you guys think are the principles that make up a great training program?


I’ll nitpick some for you here.

What does an individual’s effort, consistency and ability to endure rough patches have to do with whether or not a program is “truly great”?


I think he is saying that it will be irrelevant if the program is good or bad if the user is not going to be able to do those three things. Perhaps a point that doesn’t contribute much to the principal discussion, but none the less, I think that is what he was getting after.


I would habe something on fatigue management.as that is where most people fall over imo. I’d also have more scope for individualisation than just schedule.


Boo on mobility.

A great training program is one that strengthens your weakness and one that you hate the entire time you do it.


Having a great training program is awesome and all but this at it’s core is the most important thing. Having a great person to run it. I don’t mean great as in being extremely genetically gifted but rather the willingness to work hard. I haven’t been training particularly long but I’ve met enough people who think they “work hard” whom clearly don’t. Like shit, these are often the same people who complain about my warm ups(when I actually do do them) being hard.

That being said, I would say that most of the ideas are pretty spot on, if not common sense. Well, it’s common sense to me at least.


I’m going to counter with my own, shorter, list:

  1. Specific goals
  2. Time bound
  3. Addresses all basic movement patterns appropriately
  4. Appropriate recovery protocol
  5. Speed work
  6. Progression method.



Beginners should worry less about programing and more on how it EXECUTE a program. I have noticed that the more reliant people are on the program, the less emphasis they will place on personal effort and accountability.


The basic principles a beginner program should follow:

  1. A proper progression model for 1 main lift per muscle group to quantify progression and to make sure the trainee is putting in the required effort to progress.

  2. A variety of rep ranges and exercises. I believe a lot of mobility issues and imbalances stem from a more and more sedentary population starting out with fullbody programs with a limited selection of exercises. Spend your earlier days learning how to properly activate the individual muscles and BUILDING MUSCLE on a bodypart split before going into more specific types of training.

That’s about it.



A well-designed training plan is obviously a benefit, but…

[quote]1. Attack each training day with intensity and focus
2. Rarely miss days[/quote]
if those two points aren’t in place, a plan won’t work. The person doing the program can make or break the program itself.


[quote]Have to have a specific goal in mind
Compound movements
Assistance movements
Different sets/reps
Heavy, medium, light weights
Can’t ever have enough back or core work
A clearly defined way to progress
Flexibility in how to set it up based on schedule changes (ability to morph from a 5 day to 2 day program if need be)[/quote]
FWIW, several time-tested programs meet only a handful of those criteria, like Starting Strength, most 5x5 plans, 20-rep squats, Bulgarian weightlifting, Sheiko.

  1. Progressive overload via volume and/or load on a consistent basis - either workout to workout or weekly or biweekly.

  2. Training frequency, volume, load, and exercise selection are coordinated towards a specific pre-determined goal while maintaining an underlying focus on joint health without distracting from working towards that goal (this can be accomplished with specific, separate mobility work and/or deliberate attention to exercise choice and volume).

That’s pretty much it. Broad guidelines because the concept of a “great program” isn’t universal, it’s actually the opposite. A great program is very specific and context-dependent, so very-big picture principles are the only “musts” that every program should share.


Holy cow this is such a huge point that gets missed. Everyone loves the “back to the basics” programs, but they’re forgetting something; it’s BACK to the basics. This implies that you were doing something OTHER than the basics FIRST.

20 rep squats and all the super popular abbreviated training programs were effective because they were performed after someone had exhausted themselves running programs that used a variety of movements. The idea was that you would take a break from having a broad training spectrum so that you could focus and specialized for a period of time before returning BACK to that broad spectrum of training. It worked really well, because you were able to utilize all that strength and size you had built and laser focus it into some pure insanity.

Instead, people just saw how great those programs were, decided it was some sort of programming alchemy, and figured why not just ALWAYS do the basics. And this is how we have people stalling on 115lb squats and resetting back to the bar every 4 months.


I’d say that a great training program should:

  • Target the user’s primary goal
  • be accessible
  • and excite

I’m looking at this as an overarching philosophy. For example, if the primary goal is to get stronger at the squat then it would target the primary goal by having the user squat, have a progression model, work on technique, etc.

It would need to be accessible as in something that they have the equipment for or a gym within reasonable distance. If the program calls for bumper plates and the user cannot get their hands on bumper plates then it’s not accessible. If the user works 60 hours a week and has a family that he wants to spend time with then two hours in the gym for five days a week might not work.

And it has to excite the user, at least initially. Eventually he will need to learn to just do the work and progress. But if there’s no interest in the program initially then I doubt it will last.