You might feel like your fitness programs aren’t good enough and other trainers know it. It’s not uncommon to be with a client in the gym thinking that all of the other trainers are laughing at the program you chose for your client.
No matter how new you are in this industry, the last thing you want is to feel like you’re that clueless trainer.
In this article, we’ll go over what a program is and isn’t, but more importantly, the seven principles to create the best workout routine and maximize your clients’ results. You’ll learn:
- Why the first few minutes of each session are the hidden secret of all great programs
- The two powerful non-negotiable aspects of every program
- Why programming around muscles is what bad trainers do
- The HIDDEN VARIABLE to change in all great programs
- What your client should always aim for
- The two most important variables every confident trainer uses in their program
- Why exercise doesn’t matter as much as you think and what does...
At the end of this article, we give you access to our handy programming checklist to help ensure all of your programs are on point from hereon.
We’ll get to all of the above bullet points, but let’s start with what a program isn’t.
Your Client’s Program Is Never:
- Cookie cutter: There is no one-size-fits-all program.
- Rigid: You must consider the client’s fitness level, the goals they want, and how they feel about training.
As you understand your client better, your programs for that client will improve. This is the true value that we provide.
7 Programming Principles
The following seven principles are a good place to start sharpening programming skills, my friend.
Principle 1. The Warm-Up Is the Foundation of the Session
Warm-ups help lubricate the body, mobilize your client’s joints, and activate the muscles of movements to reduce chance of injury.
A warm-up should be eight to 12 minutes and include three to five movements. Here are some examples:
World’s Greatest Hip Opener
This sexy stretch targets the hips, groin, obliques, lats, and allows for better breathing.
Luka Hocevar from Vigor Ground Fitness laying it down with some brilliant ankle mobilizations.
Andy Van Grinsven demonstrates the cossack squat, a great way to open up the hips and strengthen leg muscles.
Laugh all you want at the name, but it’s awesome for thoracic extension and flexion. Yoga With Adriene shows us how it’s done.
Pat Flynn of Chronicles of Strength gettin’ that range of motion in his shoulders. Good stuff.
Here we have Andy Van Grinsven showing off how much range of movement you should have with your thoracic spine.
Now this is an effective way to kick your client’s butt into gear. You can thank Mike Robertson of Robertson Training Systems for that.
Planks will never go out of style. Check the form, courtesy of the awesome dudes at Calisthenics Movement.
One question to ask yourself is:
Does my client need more than the basics due to injury, dysfunction, or lack of fitness?
Some clients may be overcoming an injury or dealing with dysfunction in some joints and require additional exercises and attention. This is something you should’ve noted in your initial consultation and assessments with the client.
- Warm-ups should be eight to 12 minutes long and include three to five movements.
- If your client is overcoming an injury, they might need an extra exercise or two.
- If you skimmed this section (I’m watching you ಠ_ಠ), here are four exercises featured above with video that are the best bang for your buck: planks, glute bridges, t-spine windmills, and cat-to-cow.
Principle 2. Train EVERYONE for Strength and Power
“The fact that you can deadlift 500 pounds means nothing if you’re slow as molasses, have the cardio of a sloth, or the mobility of a stone golem.” - Mike Robertson
Nearly any client who is cleared to train hard can train heavy.
Power training means something different for every client. For an older individual, it could be a lightweight medicine ball toss or a squat-to-stand. Your football player might do power cleans. It’s difficult to give you precise guidance since every client is different, but here are some golden rules:
- Strength and power come at the beginning of the session, typically after the warm-up.
- In a session with both strength and power, do power first.
- These movements require a bit more rest time between sets, about two to three minutes between sets.
The power or strength section of a program should last five to 10 minutes, but could also be the majority of a session.
As Louie Simmons, strength coach of Westside Barbell said,
- Everyone should train for strength and power, even your sweet ol’ Gramma.
- Absolute strength and power-related exercises belong at the beginning of a session, typically after the warm-up.
- If you do a session that has both power and absolute strength exercises, do power exercises first.
- These movements require a bit more rest time between sets, typically two to three minutes between sets.
Principle 3. Build Around Movements, Not Muscles
Your client’s time is as precious as yours.
For greater efficiency, focus on compound exercises, not single muscle groups, to work the client’s whole body over the course of a training week. Most clients just aren’t aiming to be bodybuilders, and compound movements are likely to give the results they want, making you look good in the process.
In every session, emphasize these eight major movements patterns (with examples added for clarity):
- Lunge: reverse lunges, lateral slider lunges, lunge jumps
- Rotation: cable chops, paloff press, medicine ball throws
Split these up according to how many times you see your client per week. Here’s how you could train a client who sees you three times per week (substitute an appropriate exercise for the movement pattern).
Day 1: Hinge, horizontal and vertical pull, stability
Day 2: Horizontal and vertical push, gait, stability, and rotation
Day 3: Squat, lunge, stability
A client who trains with you two days per week could look like:
Day 1: Hinge, horizontal pull, vertical push, stability, and rotation
Day 2: Gait, squat, lunge, horizontal push, and vertical pull
As you work with your client, be aware of which muscles are worked during a session and in their overall programming and carefully consider your exercise selections to give proper balance.
You don’t need to include every exercise for every pattern. Having both a Romanian deadlift and a kettlebell swing for the hip hinge pattern isn’t necessary, for example. You’d wear your client out.
- If your client isn’t a bodybuilder, you’re better off focusing on compound movements.
- The eight major movement patterns are squats, lunges, hinges, vertical pushes, vertical pulls, horizontal pushes, horizontal presses, and rotations.
- Choosing the right exercise for the movement pattern is more important than adding every exercise possible.
Principle 4. Vary Your Client’s Resistance and Load
“Doing the exact same stuff all the time gets boring, and as your body becomes more adapted to one particular stimulus, it stops responding quite as robustly to it, but keep the parameters narrow enough that you’re not trying to make your body adapt in a dozen different ways at the same time.” - Greg Nuckols of Stronger by Science
There’s no need to rewrite programs when things get stagnant. Instead, you can (and should) vary your client’s load and resistances, called undulating periodization.
Imagine undulating periodization as a wavelength that goes up and down: your clients do the same exercises, but the amount of resistance and intensity may fluctuate throughout the week or whole program. Perhaps your client starts with a heavy lifting day, dials back to a moderately heavy, high-rep day in the next session, and keeps things easy and light after.
When you periodize, or vary the load, you help your client recover better and prevent injury.
Even the most athletic client can’t go heavy all the time and see linear results. Your clients will fatigue, which can lead to a breakdown in form or soreness so bad they run away from the gym forever. Not good for either of you.
Here’s how I periodize hinging, pulling, and rotation movements over the week for my sedentary clients:
Sumo stance deadlift 6 x 3 (heavy)
Cable hinged row with rope 3 x 15 (light)
Cable chop 2 x 20 with 2:2 tempo (light)
Kettlebell swing 5 x 20 seconds (moderate)
Dumbbell single-arm row 4 x 8 (moderate)
Medicine ball throws 6 x 3 (heavy)
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift 3 x 12 (light)
T-Bar row 5 x 5 (heavy)
Pallof press 3 x 10 (Moderate)
A standard program cycle lasting eight weeks would include a “deload” week on the ninth week typically. During a deload week, you halve the intensity of the exercises prescribed on the last week of the program. This allows your client to still train, just with lower weight or volume (or both), but also gives your client a chance to recover and minimize the risk of overuse injuries.
When figuring out how to vary programming load, ask yourself:
How can I challenge all aspects of my client’s fitness?
- Clients can’t work out so intensely and heavy all the time.
- Rather than give your client a new program, vary the load and intensity of the exercises through the week. This is known as undulating periodization.
- An example for someone who trains three times per week: heavy day, moderate day, and a light day.
Principle 5. Focus on Rep Ranges Instead of Exact Numbers
Is there really a difference between doing an exercise for three to five reps versus eight to 12 reps? A scientific study by Brad Schoenfeld, renowned researcher and an authority on building muscle, says yes.
“The study showed a potential benefit to varying repetitions across a spectrum of ranges for increasing upper body muscle strength and hypertrophy,” Schoenfeld wrote.
Here’s the breakdown of how those rep ranges benefit you and your clients, based on Schoenfeld’s research:
- For strength and power: 3-6 reps
- For hypertrophy: 8-12 reps
- For endurance and improving technique: 12+ reps
In a nutshell: the more weight, the fewer the reps, and vice versa.
This means that you must help the client pick a weight that’s challenging enough for them to hit the rep range that’s appropriate for their fitness goal. If that’s to build muscle, they should aim between eight to 12 reps. Notice the emphasis on ranges, instead of an exact number.
There isn’t a magic number for results. Seven is not necessarily better than six. Your clients shouldn’t worry about getting exactly eight reps if the reps before looked half-assed. Always put great-looking form above hitting the rep number.
- For strength goals, do three to six reps.
- For building muscle, do six to 12 reps.
- For endurance, do more than 12 reps.
- Don’t get too focused on the exact numbers. Rep ranges are generally better.
- A good-looking rep is better than a sloppy, heavy rep any day.
Principle 6. Consider Intensity, Density, and Total Volume
Now we get into the sexy-sounding nitty-gritty of programming: volume and density.
Let’s start with volume. Volume is important for your clients to get consistently stronger, more capable, and bigger muscles over time. It’s defined by:
Sets x repetitions x load
That means a workout routine that calls for five sets of 10 reps on a 100-pound bench press is:
5 x 10 x 100 = 5,000 pounds total, and 1,000 pounds of volume per set.
You manipulate volume by adjusting weight, total sets performed, or number of reps. Typically, the more volume = more work = more rest.
There’s only so much volume you can pack into a session without sacrificing the quality of your client’s workout plans. This is when density may come into play.
Density is the amount of work done over a period of time as opposed to a finite number of sets. It’s defined by:
Sets x repetitions within a period of time
If you perform 10 sets of 15 push-ups within 10 minutes, then the training density for 10 minutes is 150 push-ups.
In density training, you might drop weights to the 80-85% while reps stay within the two to four range. Then you set the timer for however many minutes and off your client goes.
Do not confuse density with AMRAP (as many reps as possible). AMRAP is often done with lighter loads and a reckless desire to hit the highest number of reps possible--form be damned. Density emphasizes doing these exercises with perfect form (as perfect as the client can do, of course).
The idea behind volume and density is essentially: If you push your client too hard, or not hard enough, then you may risk hurting your clients or come up short in results, respectively. So, next time you sit down and design your client’s exercise program, ask yourself:
How hard can I push them without making them resent exercise or need them to take too much time away from the gym to recover?
Rotating volume or density on a biweekly basis is safe for a regularly training client.
- Manipulating volume helps your clients grow stronger and build more muscle over time, without burning them out.
- Volume is defined by sets multiplied by repetitions multiplied by load.
- More volume is not necessarily better.
- Density is the amount of work performed within a set period of time.
- Density is defined by sets multiplied by repetitions within a period of time.
Principle 7. Stop Caring So Much About Exercise Variation
Exercise variation matters far less than everything else on this list. Period.
Variety might keep things fresh for your client, but a horizontal row is still a row whether it’s with two dumbbells or one, a T-bar, or a cable fixture. Same with the squat. Simple, quality adjustments are enough. How you decide ultimately comes down to what equipment is available to you and what you are comfortable with. Ask yourself:
Why is your client doing the exercise and does it actually lead to progress for the client?
Are you just trying to impress a client, or are you genuinely challenging them to overcome a sticking point that you feel is keeping them from what they desire?
- The variety of the exercises itself is not as important as getting the major movement patterns down.
- The exercises you choose should actually lead to progress for the client.
- Would you rather impress your client with fancy exercises or get them real results?
In addition to the above, have a little fun with your fitness program and client. Just make sure you are still observing the science and honest desire to improve your clients.
Even the best workout program can feel stagnant after a while, but careful manipulation of any of the variables we’ve discussed can make something old feel new and bring even greater results.