Program Design Tips for Upcoming Trainers

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A few weeks ago a handful of guys from my alma mater – SUNY Cortland – made the five hour trip from central NY to Boston to come visit Cressey Performance for an afternoon and check out the facility in the flesh.

After giving them the quick tour, explaining the general flow of things (everything from client intake to how a typical training sessions runs), and exchanging some pleasantries, inside jokes, and advice on where they should go eat later on in the city, I was asked a simple yet profound question:

Why are you so intelligent, witty, and good looking? What’s some advice you’d give to upcoming trainers when it comes to writing effective programs?

Much of my thought process revolves around something Mike Boyle touched on a few years ago when he said program design as akin to cooking.

Ask anyone what their philosophy or “foundation” entails and many will inevitably say they use a little of Cressey’s stuff, some of Robertson’s, a little of Gray Cook, maybe a dash of Contreras, and a sprinkle or two of Nia Shanks to taste.

They’re all over the place.

But that’s okay, to an extent. I’ll always advocate for someone to broaden their horizons and to learn from as many people and resources as possible. We just need to understand that some people can really cook, while others need to follow a recipe.

In other words:  some people write cookbooks, while others are better at following cookbooks.

Everything in a recipe has a purpose, much like program design.  For most (if not all) beginner/novice level trainers and coaches you should view yourself as a run-of-the-mill cook.  Your job is to follow the recipe and stick to it no matter what. The last thing you should be doing is combining recipes and failing to understand that “whats” and “whys” and general rationale of any one system or approach.

The intermediate level coaches and trainers (2+ years) can be considered the sous chef.  They’ve developed the ability to alter the recipe without spoiling it or sending someone to the emergency room. In a way the ingredients can be altered without disturbing the general plan.

They’ve earned the right (not to mention obtained the confidence) to tweak things towards their personal preference.

And then there’s the Bobby Flays, Wolfgang Pucks, and master chefs (5+ years) of the world who have been doing what they do for so long that they pretty much have free reign to add as much garlic as they want to any recipe……and it will be delicious all the same.

It’s okay if they break the rules because they understand the rules.

To that end, digging a little deeper, here’s the advice that I gave them:

1.  Don’t make it more complicated than it has to be.

If you look at the bulk of programs that we write at CP, none of them are all that elaborate.  Watch our athletes and clients train and you’re bound to see everyone doing some form of squat variation, deadlift variation, single leg pattern, push-up, row, core work, and/or some dedicated “arm care” work.

Walk into any gym and you’re going to see the same things.  The thing that differentiates us, however, is that we place a high-standard on the execution of those said movements.

Meaning:  we coach the hell out of everything.

You don’t need to write elaborate, complicated programs that require a PhD from MIT to translate.  But you do need to actually COACH your clients and make sure they master the basics.

Even something s simple as ensuring they can hip hinge correctly will make things infinitely easier down the road when you do start incorporating more “fun” stuff like box squats or goodmornings or overhead dwarf throwing,

2.  You should be able to explain or have a rationale for everything you write.

Why 5×5 and not 3×10?  Why are you using a trap bar deadlift as opposed to a sumo? Why use a reverse lunge rather than a walking lunge? Why have one person doing standard planks while another one is performing Pallof Presses?  Why are you not wearing any pants?

Unfortunately many trainers and coaches take a very haphazard approach to program design and it’s more like they blindfolded themselves and started throwing darts at a dart board.

You should be able to explain every piece of a program and why you’re including that for that particular person.

3.  Have a contingency plan as far as regressions and progressions are concerned.

By that same token, unless your name is Gandalf or Professor Dumbledore you can’t expect to be 100% correct, 100% of the time.

Stuff happens. People get called into work to work overtime  They pull a hamstring during their slow-pitch softball game.  Kids get sick.  They pulled an all nighter studying for an exam. Maybe they hurt their lower back getting up out of their chair.  Maybe they ate too much at Chipotle and have a massive case of, well, lets not go there.

Whatever the case may be, sometimes you need a contingency plan and you have to opt for plan B.

Using myself as an example, sometimes I miss the mark and overreach on one’s abilities.  I’ll program front squats into their program and it’s just awful.  Even with a little tinkering, if I still feel it’s not up to snuff I’m perfectly content with regressing an exercise – to say, a goblet squat – and going from there.

Either way I’m still working the pattern and attaining a training effect.

Conversely, it can go in the opposite direction too.  Sometimes I’ll underestimate someone’s ability and will need to progress an exercise and make it more challenging.

Whatever the case may be, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. But it’s important that you’re prepared enough for when that actually happens.

Nothing spells “unprepared or I’m completely clueless” than standing there scratching your head.

And that’s about it. Nothing profound or revolutionary, but that’s essentially what I relayed back to this particular group. Have any of your own thoughts?  I’d love to hear them below.

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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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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