When Are You Not Following the Program?

Here’s another one for you: what “boundaries” do you give yourself and still consider yourself following the program? I don’t want to take words out of anyone’s mouth, so I won’t take a shot at paraphrasing what I think I’ve seen on here, but I’ll speak for myself: I allow “like” substitutions but keep loading schemes. For instance, switching from seated to lying leg curl is obviously no big deal. Similar for leg press to hack squat. Going from barbell squats to belt squats makes me feel like I’m cheating, but I’ll allow it if my back is banged up - in that case it’s a train/ don’t train situation.

I’ll also add whatever I feel like. This is where I have to do a (tiny bit) of thinking and cost analysis. Cardio and crunches? Those don’t interfere, so I add with impunity. Hill sprints or farmer carries? I might have to think about it, because there’s a recovery cost. In this case, I make myself hit the scripted program days and I do the scheduling/ recovery work to make the additions fit.

I see others that do a much better job of making a program their own. What “rules” do you give yourself/ when do you think you’re no longer following the plan?

  1. When the machine is taken for awhile, I switch exercise or do one that is similar

  2. Very rare but when I want to because after all why not, I train for myself. Last week I was very angry one day, so I did a 1RM instead of a 3RM. To me it’s still a similar rep range even though it is more fatiguing.


I’m totally on this train - I’m still working up to something heavy, so it’s well within the intent

Maybe it comes from having strict parents and then being a Marine, but if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s following orders. That’s why templates work well for me; I pretty much follow them to the letter. (exception being I have to do seated press instead of standing, as I’m tall and my ceilings won’t accommodate.)
I actually had an online coach programming for me for a year. After a few months he sent me an email to let me know that I can ask him questions or talk to him throughout the week, as I guess most of his clients did. I just lifted what he told me to lift and reported it at the end of the week. I also got much stronger (and leaner) during that year.
People a lot smarter than me created these programs. I’m not saying I never would change a program, but if I wanted something different, why would I have chosen that program to start with?


Great points all around! I definitely agree with the sentiment about why would I mess with something I believed in enough to follow in the first place?

I see this as somewhat dependent on the program’s purpose and the trainee’s purpose. Training for health and fitness, trying to get bigger and stronger, etc.? Lots more flexibility in what you can change and still be “on program” though I would still say changing loading parameters and adding things to the program is going “off program.” Training specifically for strength, like lifting for a powerlifting meet? Not nearly as much flexibility.

In both cases doing a 1RM when a 3RM is called for is “off program” in my mind. I am absolutely guilty of having done this on many occasions so I say this with no judgment.

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There was some wisdom regarding exercise substitutions and the “suck factor”, unsure of the source as I heard it 3rd hand.

“If you’re going to substitute an exercise, the substitute should suck more

RE: Going off program…
I’ve done this pretty much my whole time in the gym, with the exception of when I’m first starting a program (running the first mesocycle as-written is pretty standard). So I’m cool with going full binary on this one:

  • If you aren’t following the program exactly as written, you are not following the program (unless you are increasing the suck factor via extra work or substitutions).

^ But I also think this is okay in many circumstances.


@flappinit is due credit for the substitute suck factor I believe.

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As long as I get the 4 main movements in that I have planned for the day, I’m not bothered. . I would rather wait for equipment and do the compounds I have planned than switch them up so that I have time to fit the 2-3 “extras”. I am willing to sacrifice them to get the compounds in.

In general I’ve started switching up isolations every couple of weeks anyway so don’t care if I can’t do a specific variation/assistance for whatever reason. If my elbows or tendons are feeling a bit funky I’ll sometimes just decide not to do them or drastically reduce the load.

I set my program to be pretty autoregulatory anyway so it’s hard “not to do the program”. Like others have said, it’s only when I feel like doing a 1RM that I truly go away from it, but even that arguably fits into my plan. I cycle out of a rep range when the RPE gets too high for me to progress. Going from a 3RM to a 1RM counts as cycling and a 1RM is an RPE that’s too high so i’m in and out of that rep range. I dunno.

There’s also something I put in the “things you keep doing but know you shouldn’t” thread from a while back, and that’s adding another set when I didn’t make any progress. I know that can sometimes be a good option but not getting the progress is usually a recovery or form issue for me so it can be unnecessary. If I always did that eventually progress would be hard to measure.

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I switch exercises or perform a comparable one when the machine is idle for a bit.

Rarely, but when I feel like it—because, hey, why not?—I train for myself. I completed a 1RM last week rather than a 3RM because I was feeling quite upset that day. Even though it is more taxing, to me it still feels like a similar rep range.

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This is becoming the ubiquitous example, which I find amusing. We appear to be split as a group on whether this constitutes breaking the program or now - interesting!

Occasionally I’ll take a PR if I can feel it is there during a set i.e. doing a set of 5 rather than a top set triple just because hitting a PR is my main motivation with training even though it’s not the smartest thing to do.

Also I do a lot of self regulating on accessory work depending on how beat up I’m feeling and exercise selection based on what I like/ dislike. Doesn’t matter how many times I do a dip they still feel awful so I just swap to something similar.

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I’m running a program right now, where I confess that I tweak it by skipping exercises every leg workout.

Calf raises. Supposed do them twice a week. I just don’t care. It’s a “powerbuilding” program, I’m just trying to be big and strong. The day I do calf raises is the day I officially hang up my hat as an athlete and admit to chasing vanity, and I’m just not there yet lol.

I’d still say I follow the program.

I will also echo what @TrainForPain said above about adding in low effort work. I will hit some cycling after lifts, because I’m fat and my heart thanks me. Not in program, but it’s not likely to make a notable tax on my recovery. Now if I were doing multiple mile runs several times a week or adding in intense WODs when the program didn’t call for it, then I may start to say I’m going off program, or at least running a modified version of it


I stick with programs that have built in variation. 5/3/1 doesn’t assign assistance work other than total reps. There are other template based programs on this website


If the program exceeds two workout days a week - I tweak it into fitting my preferences. I also maintain a full body regime, even if the program states otherwise. Simply, I don’t have enough time at my disposal to train more often. Surprisingly, the results are there anyway, which must mean something.

The tweaking requires thought and planning though, but I manage that alongside other duties.

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This is kind of interesting. I would simply do a different program or my own thing. You can’t argue with what works, though!

Absolutely! I definitely think the consistent work is the variable; the program is just an organization tool.

I’m with you again. This is where I’d rather just do whatever is written down; this guy has no intention (capability?) of thinking in the gym.

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I often want to do this but then get paranoid even the smallest amount is gonna mess recovery up so close to the workout, and then I worry about any calories burned ruining my surplus (if bulking). It’s definitely an irrational disorder I need to sort out.

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I think we’ve all done this in our younger days, then you see all of us saying that’s not the way to go!
At worst, if a bunch of cardio slowed your hypertrophy progress, you’d get to progress for longer - not even a bad thing on its own.
In reality, not only am I less of a sloppy turd when doing cardio, it also increases the amount of volume I can do - that’s going to help the hypertrophy cause.

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I keep the reps and weights on the main movements as programmed. I like to tweak accessory movements to fit my wants/equipment availability.

I’m too short to use most machines and setting up some exercises are a pain in busy school gym.

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I hear ya, and I’ve read so much stuff on this. I’m 33 so definitely need to stop thinking so detrimentally about it! I’m sure it’s some kind of extremely low level body dysmorphia hanging around from being so underweight for so long.

How do you best incorporate it? I was doing just 3-5sets of 30sec sprints on the bike once a week for a short period but figured I was doing enough walking to not need it (despite feeling like shit cardiovascularly and knowing that was just an excuse). Progress halting after doing 5 sets of bike sprints after my workout? Yup. Irrational.

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