Archive for the ‘weightlifting’ Category

Building the Perfect Program – Part 1

Monday, July 26th, 2010

In the strength and conditioning world nothing is more likely to ignite a fiery debate than the subject of programming.  Many coaches and athletes have a program or system that they believe is the “best” way to develop speed, strength or endurance.  Crossfit, sheiko, 5×5, Westside, the Bulgarian system, all of these systems have their applications and have proven effective but for a lot of people who try specific systems there are problems with these systems not fitting their schedule or their exact goals.

Over the last 6 years I’ve written hundreds of programs for clients from a wide variety of backgrounds from office workers training 3 days a week to drop a few kilos and improve their health through to military personnel and police training up to 3 sessions a day to achieve special forces selection.

In this article I want to outline the considerations and basic steps that I go through in putting together any program so that next time you need a program you can have a go at putting together a personalized program that takes into account your current fitness level, goals and available time and resources.

Programming Considerations


Before you begin to put together a training program it’s important to determine the desired outcome of the plan.  I won’t spend too much time on goal setting as it’s an area that most people are familiar with but one point I do want to stress is that in order for your plan to be successful your goals need to be fairly simple and they need to be achievable in the time frame you’ve set.  Many people I talk to are making the mistake of chasing too many goals at once and end up achieving nothing.  If you want to get good at several things that’s fine, just break your program up into smaller cycles and emphasise one or two goals at a time and put your other goals in a holding pattern.  If you are working hard on one aspect of fitness you won’t lose much ground on another aspect of fitness!

Time and Resources

This is a critical consideration.  If you want to join the SAS but you work 80 hours a week then chances are your available time is insufficient to achieve your goals.  Decide early on how many days a week you can REALISTICALLY devote to training.  You will save yourself a lot of frustration by planning and executing a solid 3 day week program compared to planning on 6 days a week and missing 3 workouts due to other commitments.

I would recommend a minimum of 3 days a week and a maximum of 6 days a week with a maximum of 15 training sessions for very serious athletes.

As with time, make sure you’ve got access to the right equipment before planning your training.  If you want to get strong you’ll need weights of some description, if you want to become the worlds greatest crossfitter then you are going to need a gym full of rings, rowers and all the other toys needed for the workouts.

Current fitness level, diet and supplementation, age and training age

I’ve lumped these together because they are all major factors in your ability to adapt and recover from training sessions.  Many people get frustrated because they set out to do a program only to burn out .  The problem is that unbeknownst to the athlete the program was originally written for a genetically gifted 25 year old professional athlete on a steady diet of food sleep and steroids!

At this stage of planning it’s important to conduct an honest assessment of how well you are going to recover from your training and take that into account when planning overall volume and intensity.

Putting the plan together

So once you’ve written down the main considerations above it’s time to put together a plan.   Here are the steps I go through when putting together a program.  Note that when planning initially I don’t try to put the program into a weekly schedule, I simply collect all the elements together and arrange them later, often shuffling things around a few times to get the best fit.

Match your goals with primary exercises/workouts

This stage is pretty simple.  If you’ve got a specific goal simply match up that goal with a short list of core exercises.  For example if your goal is to improve your powerlifting performance you would choose squat, bench press and deadlift and if your goal was to improve your aerobic fitness you might choose 3-4 variations of aerobic exercise like long distance runs, intervals, rowing and cycling.

Within your workouts these exercises should be “front loaded”, that is they should appear preferably as the first exercises in a session so that if the session gets cut short you’ve got your important stuff out of the way early.  I like to call these your “A” exercises and in a good program they will account for about 70% of your time and will give you about 80- 90% of your total results.  If you are on very limited time they may be the only exercises you do.

Choose supplementary exercises

Once you’ve got your big basics written down you can add a sprinkle of exercises that complement your core exercises.  This can be stuff like ab work, mobility work or strength exercises to balance out areas that need work to support the primary areas of interest in your program.  For a powerlifter this might be things like seated rows to balance out the shoulder or some conditioning work to keep bodyweight down.  For an endurance athlete this could mean strength work, soft tissue work or stretching.

These “B” exercises are still very important but because of their secondary role you can get away with dropping them occasionally (but you shouldn’t make a habit of it)

Sometimes I even go a step further and add some “C” exercises and workouts that are nice to have but not essential.

So for example a sample exercise grouping for a strongman in the early off season might look like this.

Main goal – Improve deadlift and overhead strength.

“A” exercises


Rack pulls

Military press

Push press

“B” exercises



Kroc Rows


Bench press

Glute Ham Raise

“C” exercises

Kettlebell Swings

Strongman implement work

Conditioning work

Choose set, rep and loading schemes for your primary exercises

Once you’ve got your exercises sorted it’s time to choose your sets, reps and loads for your primary exercises.  This is where the art and science of programming can get a bit tricky as there are a number of effective (and some not so effective) loading patterns you can use.

Initially I suggest using a simple program like 5 sets of 5 with a steady linear progression in weights over 4 – 6 weeks.  You could also adopt a 5-3-1 loading pattern or alternate between sets of 5 and sets of 3.

For endurance programs a simple cycle of long distance, short interval, medium intervals with a linear progression in volume works well.


In part two of this article I’ll outline the final steps in putting together a program and provide some worked examples of programs for different goals.