5 Ways To Get Better At Writing Training Programs

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I received a message from a young coach the other day asking if I knew of (or used) any tricks to help make writing training programs easier or less time intensive.

Outside of suggesting he build his own time traveling DeLorean, skip a head 5o or so years to clone himself 17 times (and to see if someone possibly cured male pattern baldness1), and then travel back to 2018 with his small army of “hims” to help with the workload, I offered the following suggestions and advice.

Actually, originally, I offered like two sentences, but they were a Pulitzer worthy two sentences.

I figured this was a good topic to expound on and decided to make it into a blog post.

Hope it helps.

1. Practice Makes Perfect (Kinda)

  • If you want to get better at playing the violin…play the violin.
  • If you want to get better at long division…do long division.
  • If you want to get better at free throws….practice more free throws.
  • If you want to get better at not getting laid…go to Star Trek conventions.

I keed, I keed.

There’s no way to sugar coat this:

“If you want to get better at writing programs…write more programs.”

I have a folder on my desktop labeled Lisa, Don’t Open This Folder Client Programs, and if I opened it right now and actually took the time to count the number of programs in it – which is an amalgamation of my eight years at Cressey Sports Performance in addition to the 2.5 years I’ve been training people out of CORE – I’d garner a guess there’s at least, I don’t know, a kazillion, billion programs in it.

Okay, lets just say it’s a lot.

I am by no means insinuating I’m some program writing maverick and that I’ve got things dialed down to a well-tuned science, but it stands to reason in the 15+ years I’ve been writing training programs, I’ve gotten pretty okay at not sucking at it.

That being said, the sooner you acquiesce to the idea it’s going to take time, practice, and lots of experience on your part in order to get “adequate” yourself, the better off you’ll be.

To answer the question, though: Is there a way to expedite the program writing process?

Well, it depends.

Many factors come into play – one’s training age, injury history, goals, availability of equipment, total training frequency, favorite He-Man character (<– very important), to name a few.

I’d say on average it takes me anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes to write a program.


1. I rarely start from scratch.

I’ve written enough programs and have worked with enough people that I can Spidey-sense similarities and correlations between one client and another. If someone has the same background and/or goals as a previous client of mine I don’t need to re-invent the wheel. I can take someone else’s program, do a little bada-binging and bada-booing (tweaking), and cater it to someone else.

I take pride in writing individual programs for all my clients, but I’m also a realist. Most of the time most people need to be doing the same stuff anyways; at least in the beginning:

  • Less bench pressing.
  • More rows.
  • Better scapular upward rotation.
  • More single leg work and carries.
  • More butt stuff (posterior chain in general).
  • No, deep squats aren’t dangerous.
  • Yes, your knees can go past your toes.
  • No, you can’t have a bicep day. At least not until you can perform a chin-up.
  • If you ask me one more time whether or not you should go keto I’m going to throw my face into a wall.


It’s inevitable you’re going to be overzealous with some people or underestimate others, especially with regards to exercise selection.

I don’t think a day goes by where I’m not crossing out things on a program or making minor adjustments, or hell, even overhauling the entire program.

No one is perfect (except Ryan Gosling).

2. Remember: It’s THEIR Program, Not Yours

No quote is more appropriate here than one of Dan John’s classics:

“The goal is to keep the goal, the goal.”

If someone’s goal is to get strong or maybe compete in powerlifting, then, yeah, they should likely focus on the classic barbell lifts.

Write a program that reflects that.

Kipping pull-ups likely aren’t going to get the job done. In fact, kipping pull-ups are never going to get the job done.

Stop it.

Just, stop.

If someone’s goal is to lose a bunch of fat, again, I could make the case strength is still important and that the barbell lifts (which utilize multiple joints and make burning a bunch of calories in a short amount of time a thing) may be of benefit.

But understand there are many methods to get any job done.

Maybe someone would rather jump into a shark’s mouth than touch a barbell.

Blasphemous, I know. But it happens.

If so, don’t be an insufferable dick about it and force feed YOUR preferences over your client’s.2

A glaring example here is when you see bodybuilders training 55 year old female clients like bodybuilders. Yeah dude, I doubt she’s interested in her bicep peak. I mean, maybe. But I doubt it.

Stick to the goals and consider your client’s preferences.

NOTE: Don’t let the latter govern everything, mind you.

This can make writing programs much, much, MUCH more “freeing” and palatable. If someone likes using dumbbells, incorporate more dumbbells. If someone seems to be down with landmine exercises, use more landmine exercises.

Often, the #1 factor for a program’s success is ADHERENCE.

A client/athlete is much more apt to stick to a program when it’s one they enjoy and want to do.

3. Write Programs In Bulk

This is something Eric Cressey brought up recently and it makes a lot of sense. You’re bound to be more efficient and “in the zone” when it comes to writing program when you write them in bulk.

Instead of writing one program here and another one there, sit down, grab a cup of coffee (or tea), put on some of your favorite program writing music (for me it’s Deep House or Norah Jones, don’t judge), and get to work.

I think you’ll find it’ll increase your program writing prowess.

4. Have Someone Audit Your Programs

It’s not lost on me it’s tax season (here in the States anyways) and that using the word “audit” may make some start to hyperventilate into a paper bag.

This is an instance, however, where audit is a good thing.

Asking a colleague to take a peek at some of your programs and to provide some honest feedback is a splendid way to hone and sharpen your skills.

Of course it helps to be someone who can take constructive criticism well. If your default reaction is to get defensive, stomp your feet, and yell “YOU’RE RUINING MY LIFE” when a friend suggests it might not a good idea to program back squats for someone with limited shoulder external rotation and to maybe consider front squats instead, you may want to hold off on this idea.

Conversely, grow up, it’s only going to make you better and to allow you an opportunity to see things from a different lens.

5. When In Doubt, Simplify

The next time you find yourself sitting in front of your computer screen contemplating putting in Close Grip Bench Press cluster sets for your 16 year old high-school athlete with weight releasers utilizing a 5-0-7 tempo while also repeating the alphabet backwards, in Elvish:

  1. Stop
  2. Punch yourself in the pancreas.
  3. Hard.
  4. And remember to just keep things simple.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to be seduced into adding novelty to your client’s programs for the sake of adding novelty…but I assure you most of them do not care and more importantly most do better without it.

The “boring” stuff is almost always going to be the better fit and is likely all most of your clients will need for quite some time.

Seriously, when in doubt….simplify.

And then just coach the shit out of everything.

6. Miscellaneous Pontification

– It would also bode in your favor to actually lift weights.

– Refrain from adding things to your programs that you yourself have not tried first.

– Network. Make nicey nice with local coaches and physical therapists.

– The second season of Jessica Jones wasn’t as good as the first. Just sayin.

– Also, not for nothing, but did you not notice I used both words “amalgamation” and
“acquiesce” in this blog post? You didn’t, did you?3

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.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. Maybe find out a stock or two to get in on early? Oh, and will Meghan and Henry stay together?

  2. This reminds me how I posted a video of a client of mine performing cleans with a dumbbell on Instagram not long ago and some asshat chimed in saying something to the effect of “dude, you should really think about using kettlebells. This (meaning my client’s video) looks really awkward (it wasn’t) and he’s going to get hurt.”

    I noted that people have been performing cleans with barbells and dumbbells for pretty much ever, but that more importantly, my client actually preferred using the DB. So that’s what I programmed.

    The guy never responded back, and not coincidentally the pic for his profile was of a kettlebell. Douche.

  3. I HATE YOU. YOU’RE RUINING MY LIFE. *slams door*

Comments for This Entry

  • Shane Mclean

    No I didn't notice. :) Great post mate.

    April 7, 2018 at 11:55 am | Reply to this comment

  • elise a. miller

    Lovely article except for this: "A glaring example here is when you see bodybuilders training 55 year old female clients like bodybuilders. Yeah dude, I doubt she’s interested in her bicep peak. I mean, maybe. But I doubt it." Can fitness trainers please stop using middle-aged women as a descriptor to define clients who don’t care about hypertrophy (and strength and deadlift numbers while we're at it)? I am 48 and very interested in all of those things.

    April 8, 2018 at 10:08 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hi Elise. Sorry you took that the wrong way. It was just an example, but I can see how it could have made someone a little miffed. I have plenty of middle aged women who are into those things too and have written many articles on why women should strength train and add muscle. However, I think you can agree that you're an outlier in that department and the vast majority of women in that demographic likely aren't in the same boat. It was just a generalization on my end. used to convey a point. Apologies if it came across the wrong way.

      April 9, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Louise Oakley

    Thanks! I've been wondering about Jessica Jones season 2 - guess I won't waste my time and work on my bicep peak instead 😉😉

    April 8, 2018 at 4:54 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Elise Miller

    Thanks Tony. I actually should have taken a breath—or a day before commenting. I know you know. It was just the third time I heard middle-aged women used that way. I'm a menopausal bitch apparently. ho ho ho. Off to get my estrogen cream. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Really appreciate it. It's a jungle out there.

    April 9, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Reply to this comment

    • Tony Author

      Hahahaha - Elise, that made me laugh. It's all good. I can see how it would get annoying to repeatedly see "you" being used as the example of someone not interested in hypertrophy. Trust that I am on your team. I'll be more careful with my words in the future.

      April 9, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Nate

    Simplicity is the key. I have spent hours of my day trying to write up new and exciting programs. My clients and groups show up to get a good sweat, move better and be little stronger. If I can make that as simple as possible, then I can focus on the relationships and on any other small details that can help them get to their goals. Do you have a way of programming mobility that is engaging and fun?

    April 14, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Reply to this comment

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