Program design is critical to hitting your goals. Otherwise you’re just hoping for something good to happen and ignoring what you’ve done beforehand. Designing a program for yourself or a client should encourage simplicity.

If you or your client has an injury, or aren’t fueled before the session, or have to finish early, or… and it goes on and on until your plan goes out the window. Here’s my approach to designing a flexible exercise structure in the order of importance.


Think about yourself or your client, their experiences and their goals

What do they, or you, need? Form a clear picture. This is your starting point.


Include your critical exercises

These are the ones that must be in the program on a weekly or micro-cycle basis and include moves such as squats, deadlifts, pulls and presses. How are you using these to develop strength, power and athleticism?


Think about supplementary exercises

These are the ones that support the critical movements but don’t make up the program on their own, such as incline presses, pull-overs and split squats.


Do specific movements for the sport or goal

Write into a spreadsheet the exercise for steps two, three and four. Don’t worry if you can’t use all your critical exercises with a particular client. That’s where intelligent exercise selection comes into play. Not everyone will squat for maximal strength, for example.


Create a session plan using categories

Here are the basic exercise categories:

• Total-body explosive

• Upper-body push

• Upper-body pull

• Lower-body knee dominant

• Lower-body hip dominant

• Brace/rotation

Apportion your critical, must-have exercises first, then your supplementary moves. Include some unilateral work (one arm or leg), some bracing and anti-rotation/extension and some free movement. Go from the warm-up into power work, then strength work, then supplementary conditioning, or work capacity. There are exceptions to this but learn the rules before you break them.


Plan the warm-up

What comes first to prepare for the session? To prime the work that follows. How does this look for the full week/phase?


Plan your recovery/restoration work

It’s not about how much you can do, it’s about how to force the desired adaptation.


Every session is an assessment

How are you moving? What is your mind-set and your response to feedback? This is your in-built flexibility and reflection. It’s not intelligent to stick with a routine that doesn’t engage.


The big questions

Always have an end in mind. What do you want from a session, cycle or phase? Where does this program fit within that? What comes before it and what will come after? What kind of movement are we looking for?

Base your choices around your facilities because it’s no use suggesting medicine ball moves if you don’t have one. Steps one to four can be done in advance of the workout but often need to be changed at the last minute. But if you do get steps one to four done in advance of the session you can complete the last three in 5–10 minutes at the start of the workout.

If you follow this process you will design better programs – both in advance and with short notice. Do the work to get the thoughts down on paper then you can rely on this when it counts: in the session.


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