The time used toward programming takes away time you could better spend training more clients, marketing your services, growing your business, or taking a day off to kick back and chill at the ball game. At the same time, you probably take great pride in creating results-driven programs for your clients.
A proper strength training program is crucial to help your clients achieve their goals of losing fat, building muscle, or improving their performance. There’s just one problem: program design and updates can be a major time suck if you train dozens or, perhaps, hundreds of clients and athletes.
I’ll show you a better way to program more efficiently and save you hours of precious time, without compromising the quality of your work or results. Here’s how.
Introducing the “plug-and-play method” for writing strength training programs
I call this programming the “plug-and-play” method, which is a streamlined template for strength program design. The template, usually made and kept on Excel, is flexible enough for me to individualize programs for hundreds of athletes, so I don’t have to write each and every new program from scratch.
This does mean that during its creation you have to spend a lot more time on doing the work up front to have a standard framework in place. Once you do, however, the integrity and quality of your weight training programs thereafter should never take a hit as you make programs for one client after another.
A caveat: If you’re working with competitive strength athletes (e.g., powerlifters, Olympic lifters, bodybuilders, and strongman competitors), this template may not be ideal. But for the field sports athlete or average desk jockey who doesn’t need fancy periodization schemes, it’s a great way to program efficiently.
These are the steps and considerations to creating your template, which you can make on Excel or Google Spreadsheets.
Step 1. Categorize all strength exercises into movement patterns
This first step goes back to Australian strength coach Ian King’s teachings, which were well ahead of their time in the ’90s. While everyone else was talking about body-part splits and isolation exercises, King approached program design by dividing exercises into movement patterns (see below).
We’re going to follow suit because when you categorize the exercises in this way you’re able to tell immediately when a program isn’t quite balanced. For example, if you see you have programmed three upper body pushing movements in a row, you can easily add more pulling exercises to balance out the program.
To continue with the first step, break down all exercises into the following eight movement patterns:
- Lower-body knee dominant
- Lower-body hip dominant
- Upper-body horizontal pushing
- Upper-body horizontal pulling
- Upper-body vertical pushing
- Upper-body vertical pulling
Now take every exercise you use in your programs and insert them into their applicable categories. For example, exercises in the power category would consist of jumps, medicine ball throws, and Olympic lift variations. Exercises in the lower body knee-dominant category would consist of back squats, front squats, box squats, split squats, rear-foot elevated split squats, reverse lunges, walking lunges, etc. Meanwhile, upper body horizontal pushing would include all bench press, push-up, and dip variations.
And so on and so forth.
You’ll notice that isolation exercises like curls or triceps extensions don’t fit into any of those eight categories, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Step 2. Create your training session
I approach my templates with a couple of preconceptions in mind:
- Training sessions should be finished within 60 minutes, after starting the first working set of the first exercise.
- Every training session begins with a power or explosive movement. It doesn’t matter whether you train sports athletes or cubicle workers, training power is mandatory. As we get older, the ability to express power is the physical quality that drops first. In fact, we lose it even faster than we lose strength. Improving an athlete’s ability to express power should be of utmost importance and done early in the session while their nervous system is fresh.
- Heavy strength lifts next because if you save them for after the high-rep work, your client would be fatigued.
Based on the above criteria, here’s a very simple strength training workout sequence that enhances explosiveness and builds strength and muscle.
1) Neural (power/explosive exercise) – sets 3-6, reps 1-6, rest 2 min. or longer
2a) Neural (heavy multi-joint exercise) – sets 3-6, reps 1-6, rest 2 min. or longer
2b) Neural (heavy multi-joint exercise) – sets 3-6, reps 1-6, rest 2 min. or longer
3a) Metabolic (assistance/isolation exercise) – sets 2-4, reps 8-12+, rest 30-90s.
3b) Metabolic (assistance/isolation exercise) – sets 2-4, reps 8-12+, rest 30-90s.
3c) Metabolic (assistance/isolation exercise) – sets 2-4, reps 8-12+, rest 30-90s.
The logic behind this template is that you start your training sessions with a power exercise that targets the nervous system, move on to heavy multi-joint exercises where you can pile on the weights to build strength, and wrap it up with some higher rep hypertrophy work that gets a nice pump going and keeps the joints healthy. This all would take less than 60 minutes to complete.
Of course, you can make several templates and use whatever training techniques you like. However, if the goal is to program efficiently for a beginner (someone with less than a year of progressive strength training, or two years of less focused training) and make them strong with just the basics, this template works extremely well.
Step 3. Determine the client’s training frequency
This heavily depends on the client’s goals. Anything less than twice per week won’t do much for strength and performance gains. On the other hand, your typical fat loss client or non-strength athlete won’t be devoting more than four weekly workouts to achieving their body composition or performance goals. So 2-4 training sessions per week hit the sweet spot.
Step 4. Choose your exercises and reps appropriately
The important thing here is to progress and regress movements according to the abilities of the individual you’re programming for.
Going back to the sample template I’ve created, I need a power or explosive exercise. Some of my choices include jumps, medicine ball throws, or Olympic lifts. However, consider that the average client probably won’t be suited for the Olympic lifts. Sticking with jumps and medicine ball throws would be a better choice for power exercise. As a general rule of thumb, keep reps lower to avoid premature fatigue and grinding out an exercise with bad form. For example, you can have the client perform Olympic lifts and jumps for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps, and med ball throws for 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps.
In the second block of exercises within the template (2a and 2b), we’ll pick two big, multi-joint exercises targeting opposing muscle groups in a superset fashion. This allows the client to recover better without dragging on rest periods for too long. Here are a couple of examples:
- In a full-body session, you’d pair an upper body exercise with a lower body exercise (e.g., front squats with chin-ups).
- In an upper and lower body split, you’d go with a pulling and a pushing movement on upper body day (e.g., bench press with rows).
- On lower body day, you’d pair a knee-dominant movement with a hip-dominant movement (e.g., front squats with Romanian deadlifts).
Here you just pick multi-joint exercises that allow the use of heavy weights for 1-6 reps. Good choices would be bilateral barbell squat, deadlift, bench press variations, and chin-ups. If you don’t feel comfortable giving a client heavy, low-rep maximal strength work, you can bump the reps up to 6-8 per set.
The third block (3a, 3b, and 3c) is basically a tri-set of bodybuilding-style work in the 8-12+ rep range. This includes direct work for the upper back, legs, glutes, arms, abs, or whichever body part you deem requires more attention.
For example, if you’ve got an office worker walking with a slouch, you’d probably want to hammer his upper back with rows to pull his shoulders back into a more neutral position. Likewise, an athlete with deflated-looking glutes would hit glutes and hamstrings with more volume to help his strength and speed on the field or pitch.
When choosing the three exercises, you can stick with exercises that involve several muscle groups, such as close-grip bench presses, push-ups, back extensions and lunges; or throw in some more isolation stuff like curls and lat pull-downs.
The exact exercise selection doesn’t matter much. The goals are to make the correct muscles do the work instead of just moving big weights around; improve general fitness; and spur some muscle growth.
Step 5. Establish appropriate rest periods
We know that the nervous system can take longer than your muscles to recover between sets. Keeping this in mind, you’ll want to keep rest periods longer on blocks one and two (explosive and heavy strength movements), then decrease rest times when you move on to block three (higher rep hypertrophy work). Here’s the general gist for rest periods:
- For power movements: In Olympic lifts and high-level jumps, aim for 2-3 minutes of rest between sets. With low-intensity jumps and med ball throws, around 60 seconds works well.
- For 2a and 2b: 2-3 minutes of rest for trainees who can lift heavier weight and are beyond the beginner’s phase. Someone who’s new to weight lifting doesn’t use their nervous system very inefficiently, and as such, would recover quickly.
- For 3a, 3b, and 3c: Decrease rest periods to 30-90 seconds. You really don’t need longer rest when the goal is to build some work capacity and get a nice pump going to finish off a session.
Also, keep in mind that not every power/explosive exercise taxes the nervous system to a similar degree. Two minutes of rest after eight med ball floor slams, for example, would be overkill since it’s not a very neurally-demanding activity.
Step 6. Individualizing the routine/program
The great thing about the plug-and-play method is that you’re mostly good to go with the program you’ve created. You can also easily apply the program to a team or small group training setting.
Trainees with mobility restrictions or previous injuries, however, need further consideration and smart modifications. If a client would do better with the dumbbell bench press instead of a barbell bench press because the barbell irritates his shoulders, then make the change.
All of my hockey players will perform some type of deadlift by default as their heavy, lower body hip-dominant movement. However, that doesn’t mean my guys always pull from the floor with a straight bar like a powerlifter would. They might do trap bar deadlifts, deadlifts off blocks, sumo deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, or even landmine deadlifts. The variation we choose all depends on the player’s injury history, possible mobility issues, and technical execution with a given variation.
Even if I were working with a player whose lower back was too banged up for him to perform any of those movements without issues, an exercise that stresses the spine less, like hip thrusts or back extensions, could be a viable alternative for hitting the posterior chain muscles.
These modifications just go to show that program individualization doesn’t mean that each new client necessarily requires a training program to be built from scratch. In a balanced program, all trainees will push, pull, squat, and hip hinge. Our task is to figure out what is a safe exercise within those movement categories for each client or athlete, then adjust the reps, sets, and rest periods accordingly.
Putting it all together
Here’s what this could all look like in a twice-per-week, full-body, in-season strength training exercise program for a pro hockey player:
1) Power (neural) – Power clean from hang 4×3, rest 3 min
2a) LB knee-dominant (neural) – Front squat 4×5, rest 2 min
2b) UB vertical pulling (neural) – Weighted chin-up 4×3, rest 2 min
3a) LB hip-dominant (metabolic) – Weighted 45-degree back extension 3×10, rest 75s
3b) UB horizontal pushing (metabolic) – Dumbbell bench press 3×8, rest 75s
3c) Core (metabolic) – Ab wheel 3×10, rest 75s
1) Power (neural) – Depth jump 3×5, rest 2 min
2a) LB hip-dominant (neural) – Trap bar deadlift 4×3, rest 2 min
2b) UB vertical pushing (neural) – Push press 4×5, rest 2 min
3a) LB knee-dominant (metabolic) – Dumbbell split squat 3×8, rest 75s
3b) UB horizontal pulling (metabolic) – Single-arm dumbbell row 3×8, rest 75s
3c) Core (metabolic) – Standing Pallof press 3×8, rest 75s
And here’s an example of a twice-a-week strength training program for the average personal training client who wants a lifting schedule to lose fat, where some of the exercises, set and rep schemes, and rest periods are altered to better match their current fitness levels, needs, and lifting experience.
1) Power (neural) – Med ball floor slam 3×8, rest 60s
2a) LB knee-dominant (neural) – Dumbbell rear-foot elevated split squat 3×6, rest 90s
2b) UB vertical pulling (neural) – Assisted or body-weight chin-up 3×6, rest 90s
3a) LB hip-dominant (metabolic) – 45-degree back extension 3×10, rest 60s
3b) UB horizontal pushing (metabolic) – Dumbbell bench press 3×8, rest 60s
3c) Core (metabolic) – Dead bug 3×10 per leg, rest 60s
1) Power (neural) – Box jump 3×5, rest 60s
2a) LB hip-dominant (neural) – Deadlift off blocks 3×5, rest 90s
2b) UB vertical pushing (neural) – Half-kneeling landmine press 3×6, rest 90s
3a) LB knee-dominant (metabolic) – Dumbbell split squat 3×8, rest 60s
3b) UB horizontal pulling (metabolic) – Single-arm dumbbell row 3×8, rest 60s
3c) Core (metabolic) – Standing Pallof press 3×8, rest 60s
I’ve included an Excel sheet with pre-made examples of how to program for the following training goals and weekly training frequency. You can play around with the Excel templates as you see fit.
- Categorize movements you frequently use with your trainees
- Determine training frequency
- Plug in the exercises you want
- Adjust reps and sets
- Tweak rest periods
You now have a way of individualizing your program, a lot quicker and more simply, for each client or athlete that stays true to your training philosophy.
And the best part is, clients are elated because your program delivers measurable results fast.