I entered the fitness industry in 2002. Before that I was a Division II college baseball player no one had heard of (although I was briefly a big deal when Collegiate Baseball Newspaper named me a “player to watch” in 1998). For a few years after that I was just a guy who trained people in commercial gyms around the Northeast.
If you recognize my name, it’s because, in 2007, I cofounded Cressey Sports Performance, one of the most renowned strength and conditioning facilities in North America.
I stayed there as head strength coach—and director of Tony’s Techno Tuesdays—until 2015. That’s when I left to open my own training studio, CORE, where I’m the Techno Viking pretty much every day of the week.
In 16 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of people, from teenage athletes to Major League ballplayers to pre- and postpartum women to John from accounting.
I’ve written thousands of programs.
Want to guess how many have been perfect?
There hasn’t been a single program so good that I didn’t scribble out of an exercise here, make a tweak or switcheroo there, grant myself a mulligan or two, or berate myself with a continuous loop of “boy, what were you thinking?”
I still find program writing one of the hardest things to do. For every “yep, I nailed it, and my client is totally going to the Olympics” there’s at least one “FML, I suck at writing programs.”
Nothing I do is more simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. Moreover, if I’m honest, it’s hard to think of anything more hypothetical.
- “How many sets and reps should this guy do?”
- “Will she respond better to back squats or front squats?”
- “Should we follow a linear periodization scheme, or undulating? No, wait. Concurrent is better, right?”
The answer is usually “it depends.”
Now, this article isn’t meant to answer all the questions above (although “it depends” usually works). Nor can I give you One Weird Trick for program writing mastery. You’re more likely to have a light-saber duel with a Sasquatch in the middle of a 14-hour orgasm than you are to find a simple way to write safe and effective programs for all your clients.
Instead, I’ll share some lessons and insights I’ve picked up in my 16 years as a fitness pro. They’ve helped me, and I hope they’ll do the same for you.
An Assessment Shouldn’t Be Sadistic
You can probably find Pulitzer Prize-worthy descriptions of what an assessment is, and what it does.
[Editor’s note: They don’t give Pulitzers for descriptions of program design.]
Here’s my pithy offering: “Can the person in front of you do stuff?”
My non-pithy reasoning:
Most people you train will know what their Point B is. They want to lose X amount of weight, make varsity, look like Mark Fisher in a unicorn jockstrap, or beat Jason Bourne in a fistfight. But I’ve yet to train a client who was aware of his Point A.
It’s up to you to ascertain that starting point, and the only way to do it is with an assessment.
You know this already, of course. The colossal mistake I see too often, from too many fitness professionals, isn’t so much omitting the assessment as using it to define the client as a walking ball of fail.
They’ll use an entire hour to show someone how “dysfunctional” he is. Kyphotic posture! Poor scapular rotation! Amnesiac glutes! One eyebrow that’s thicker than the other!
The idea is that if the trainer uses enough syllables to identify enough problems the person will scream “fix me!” while handing over his credit card.
I shudder to think of how many clients I embarrassed or turned off with assessments like these early in my career. Sometimes, after ripping someone apart with a laundry list of everything we needed to fix, I’d walk away thinking, “New client, y’all! I’m going to Ponderosa tonight!”
Then I’d be surprised when I didn’t hear from him again. Like, who doesn’t enjoy a 60-minute lecture on what a disaster they are?
In retrospect, what’s surprising is how many stuck around, even when I wasted our training time with ankle mobility drills and positional breathing. I’m not saying those things aren’t useful in some situations. But people want to train, and training itself can be corrective.
What to do instead: Show clients what they can do
Use the assessment as an opportunity to highlight the bright spots. When you must correct something, make sure the client sees an immediate improvement in their range of motion, or learns a pain-free alternative to an exercise they’ve struggled with.
Maybe we shouldn’t even use a word like “assessment,” which implies intimidation and judgment to new clients. Instead, try “success session,” a term coined by Ryan Ketchum.
Your Client Deserves an Individualized Program
When I’m on the road and training in a new gym, I can’t resist observing what other trainers do with their clients, and how they interact with them. I’m like a moth drawn to a flame.
One time, when I was in a globogym in Texas, I saw a trainer working with an overweight woman who appeared to be a beginner.
First exercise: walking lunges, a common and benign exercise by most standards, but a fairly aggressive choice for someone new and clearly deconditioned.
It was painful to watch. But then it got worse.
Second exercise: Smith machine squat—again, a common exercise and not a terrible choice for someone just learning the movement.
The first set looked okay. The client seemed to get decent depth and looked confident. So the trainer added weight.
The second set … not quite as okay, but passable. Her range of motion was smaller as she struggled to maintain technique. Imagine my surprise to see the trainer add even more weight.
The third set was as ugly as I expected. If there were a wikiHow page on how not to do a Smith machine squat, they could’ve used this set for reference. The ROM was practically nonexistent.
Can you guess what the trainer did next? That’s right. He added more weight.
Can you guess what happened to his client? She unracked the barbell, initiated the rep, and immediately got stapled.
Here’s why I’m telling this story: While this is an example of a bad trainer, he wasn’t uniquely bad. In some ways he was typical.
To him, and to trainers like him, their way is the only way to train. Program design is a simple matter of molding clients to their biases and preferences, no matter the clients’ individual needs or ability levels.
What to do instead: Program like your job depends on it
Train each client like you’re being observed. Because you probably are.
Your clients may not realize you indiscriminately deploy the same programs with every client, with the same exercises and techniques. And if they do, they may not know there’s anything wrong with it.
But others will see what you do, and what you don’t do, and steer potential clients away.
Audit Your Programs
If you can look at a program you wrote five years ago and not throw up a little in your mouth, you’re doing it wrong.
Put another way: On a scale of disgust-registering faces, with 10 being the look you’d have if you saw your mom having sex with a mime, you should be around a seven or eight when you look at programs you once thought were pretty good, if not brilliant.
Even worse, if you compare it to a program you wrote last week, and see no differences, you need to reconsider your career choice.
Ideally, you’d see a clear difference between how you wrote a program five years ago and what you do now. And if you looked at programs from four, three, and two years ago, you should see a steady progression toward your current program design.
At the same time, you should audit the results of those programs. And not just the measurable ones, like increases in strength or decreases in body-fat percentage. Are you seeing fewer injuries? Do your clients enjoy the workouts more, and look forward to their training sessions more than your clients did in the past? What about their sleep and nutrition?
If those are more dialed in, you can take it as a sign your clients are more motivated, or you’re giving them better guidance beyond your program, or (more likely) some combination.
Another important question: Are your programs more detailed, or less?
My programs have become more efficient as I’ve learned to omit the extraneous fluff. But it isn’t easy. Early in my career, the more I learned, the more I wanted to pack into each session. I equated elaborate programs with providing value and giving my clients a sense of excitement.
But eventually I figured out that adding more to a program is rarely the key to better results. Nor is adding novelty for the sake of novelty. Today my goal is to find the minimal effective dose. I try to keep things simple while making sure my clients do the simple things well, and do them consistently.
What to do instead: Have your colleagues audit your programming
Nothing is more powerful than a colleague’s feedback. Or more intimidating. That’s exactly why you should go out of your way to get constructive criticism from your fellow coaches about your programming.
We did this often at Cressey Sports Performance, and while it sometimes sucked to see your work examined in forensic detail, it made us all better coaches.
You’ll probably notice something I haven’t done here: tell you how to write a program. It’s my favorite topic, not counting all the others, but it’s not my goal in this article.
Instead, I hope I’ve given you some ways to improve your own programming, starting with your first encounter with a new client and ending … well, never. I’m still figuring out new ways to improve my programs after 16 years, and if I ever stop learning, I’ll know it’s time to hang up my clipboard and call it a career.