What Christmas Morning Can Tell You About Program Design

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I remember it like it was yesterday:  Actually, it was 1986, but the movie-like beginning makes the story sound cooler.   It was Christmas morning.  EARLY Christmas morning.  I’m talking 2 AM Christmas morning.   There I was, sitting in my room, counting down the minutes before I was “allowed” to rush down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom at 6 AM to wake them up so that we could get the show started.

As we – meaning, my brother, sister, and I – waited at the top of the stairs, my mom would walk down, turn on all the lights, and get everything all situated.  My step-dad, on the other hand, would take his time getting out of bed, and after what seemed like an eternity, he’d finally head downstairs, only to set up shop in the bathroom.  It was agonizing, because there was no telling how long he’d be in there.

In his defense, though, now that I’m a full-grown man I can appreciate the significance of the morning visit to the can.  But goddammit!!!  At ten years old – and on Christmas morning no less, it was pure torture.

Anyways, once my mom had the music on, and my step-dad has his coffee in hand, we were ready to roll.

The three of us would sprint downstairs, turn the corner into the living room, and see what Santa had brought us.

To give you more of a visual feel, it kinda looked something like this:

Turning the corner –

OMG, Nintendo!!!!!!!!

Anyways, that particular Christmas I really wanted a Thunder-Punch He-Man.  Who didn’t?  All the cool kids had one, and I had been bugging my parents for one since like August.  What can I say, I was planning a head.

Sadly, while I did get a bunch of cool things, what I didn’t get was He-Man.  As much as I wanted one, what I needed, apparently, was some new underwear.   Thanks Mom.  Thanks a lot!  **slams door**

Anyways, by now you’re probably wondering, “Tony, where are you going with this?” and “what in the hell does this have to do with getting jacked and stuff?”

#1.  Don’t use that tone with me.

#2.  If you’d hold your britches, you’ll soon learn that this was a great segue to explaining the difference between wants vs. needs as it pertains to program design.

As a strength coach, when designing individualized programs I’m always (read:  all…..the……time) balancing the ying and yang between wants and needs.   Using a great example, there are plenty of guys out there who would want nothing more than to bench press every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  In fact, that’s what many end up doing.  Thing is, though, all that benching isn’t doing their Quasimodo posture any favors, and it isn’t necessarily what they need to be doing.

Similarly, lets take a female whose main goal is to lose fat.   Left to her own vices, she’ll most likely end up doing what she’s good at and what’s easy.  In other words, she’ll end up doing what she wants to do, which is typically spending her afternoon on the elliptical machine and taking a yoga class here and there.  Or worse, listening to anything Tracy Anderson has to say.

In reality, what she NEEDS to be doing is making a more concerted effort to lift some appreciable weight (ah, ah, ah, pastel colored dumbbells don’t count), incorporating some more interval-based training into her repertoire, and stepping away from the post-workout Starbucks.

Again, there’s a huge discrepancy between wants and needs, and the coaches and trainers who are able to bridge that gap are generally the ones who will be the most successful with their clients.

At the end of the day, my job is to get people results in the quickest, most efficient (AND SAFEST) way possible.  Sometimes that involves playing the meanie strength coach and making people do birddogs till their blue in the face –as one of my female clients, who hurt her back about a month ago, recently learned last week.

She walked into the facility on Thursday with a look on her face and asked, “do I HAVE to do birddogs, again????”

I replied with, “is your back feeling better?”


“Do your birddogs.”

Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the fact that she wants to work hard and start lifting heavy things again, but that’s just not what she needs at the moment.   Instead, what we’ve been focusing on are Prowler pushes, single leg work, push-ups, Goblet squats, core stability (chops and lifts), and yes, TONS and tons of birddogs.

So, in the end, I guess all I’m really trying to say is that your job as a coach or personal trainer is to take the reigns and inform your clients that, despite their thoughts on the matter, your job is to get them results.  Much like Christmas morning, sometimes, you have to forego what they want (Thunder Punch He-Man/bench press), and give them what they need (underwear/birddogs).

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Comments for This Entry

  • rick story

    Love Mike's Corrective stuff thinks its great...His hair... Not so much lol

    May 31, 2011 at 7:01 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    Tony, Funny story: After visiting CP in 2009, I remember being so excited at having a program designed for me by the famed EC. Two months in, however, I remember sitting at work, preparing to go train and thinking, "Damn, Eric! Man, I know you know your stuff but lunges three times a week? (Yep, he even threw in forward lunges on my Saturday Upper Body day) Do I really need THAT much single-leg work?" Months later, upon realizing that I no longer looked like a three-legged giraffe when I performed the high knee to forward lunge mobility drill, I answered my own question: "Yes, I did need that much single-leg work." Now, when I do walking lunges with 110s in each hand, I'm happy I (a) listened and (b) got what I needed, not what I wanted. RS

    May 31, 2011 at 7:03 am | Reply to this comment

  • Stephane

    I'm currently testing an extremely high frequency push up specific training program in which I perform push ups EVERY 20minutes ... So I definitely understand the "do I have to?" attitude. By the way, the Christmas morning pictures are awesome!

    May 31, 2011 at 7:36 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dean Somerset

    @RS - You're probably the only guy I know who would complain about looking like he had three legs. Hey-ooooh!!!

    May 31, 2011 at 8:20 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Stephane: Jesus, you're sadistic!!! Sounds like PLP on steroids....;o) @ Ronell: You're the man! Hope to see you back up here soon.

    May 31, 2011 at 8:47 am | Reply to this comment

  • Donovan

    This is something that has been on my mind quite a bit. The more clients I get, the more the goals/wants are all the same (weight loss, fat loss, get stronger). All 3 are common goals, but the few that I have worked with for quite a while have some how began to feel like they have been given the ability to "make suggestions" in their program. Some are good and yet surprising. For instance, one wants to do burpees now as a part of her conditioning when before she hated them. Another wants to do TRX Jump Squats, but she knows she has a bad back. Both are very strong and I am proud of them for stepping out of their comfort zone and wanting to do the hard stuff now. The one who has back issues pretty much wants to do something that's contraindicated by her own words and can easily find other forms of conditioning/metabolic training. So just how much of a say should clients get in their own programs whether they "think" they may want or even "need" something in their program? P.S. @Dean-HA! Nice.

    May 31, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dana

    I'm guilty of being the client who wants what I want, which is cool, fun stuff with lots of heavy weights, along with whatever anyone else in the gym is doing. Double unders? Handstand pushups? Chinups? Prowler sprints? Give 'em all to me! Even though I may grumble about my program, it always makes me stronger, which is actually what I *really* want.

    May 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jo

    Not having had anything but university athletics support or one sport specific work done in the gym time the comments and the problem seems really funny to me. I've always entered a gym in the mindset of 'I am doing this to get faster at this laptime, or 'I am doing this so I can beat the shit out of the person who beat me last competition.' Do people ACTUALLY go to trainers and ask to 'lose fat'? Though we did once do an exercise of pre and post season hydro fat % monitoring and all went and figured out how mcuh we had lost. The coach made us put that little weight stack on the floor, then we went and found the requisite increase in muscle mass and put that pile on the floor and compared it to our swim time results. One of the BEST 'show don't tell' about muscles mass vs weight and performance.

    June 1, 2011 at 1:00 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    @Tony: I'm certainly coming back this year. @Dean: I'm offended! :) First chuckle of the day.

    June 1, 2011 at 5:14 am | Reply to this comment

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