Programming Critically

Thanks to an upcoming seminar I’m doing and an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with another coach, I’ve been thinking a lot about good goal setting and planning and how it relates to programming. I thought about titling this “Thinking Critically”, and to program well you certainly need to do that, but you also have to apply it well.

I remember my very first university subject: Training Program Design and Implementation. It was my first real exposure to strength training theories – set and rep ranges, linear periodization, exercise selection and placement within a program. We had to come up with a yearly training plan for an athlete as our major piece of assessment. Being the nerd I am, I really enjoyed that assignment. I put together about a hundred page document with a yearly overview, including summaries of macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles, as well as example programs and rationale for their use (one that I would probably cringe to look at now!).

Fast forward to the real world.

When I started my work experience I expected to see the same neat format laid out for the entire season. I couldn’t have been more surprised to see a mixture of power and strength exercises programmed for the first cycle. It was my first exposure to concurrent training and strength and conditioning in real life, and while it took me a while to wrap my head around the difference between what I was seeing and what I was being taught, it’s been such a long time since I’ve even considered it that when the topic came up in conversation, I had to sit back and gather my thoughts for a minute.

Over the past years I’ve definitely gotten away from programming on a block-by-block basis typical of traditional linear periodization (in fact, I probably haven’t programmed like that since I had to do that assignment). I’ve stopped worrying about training blocks as such, and started looking at what I need to accomplish with my athletes or clients, the time and resources I have at my disposal, and what I’m starting out with. I might write one or two “base” programs using the sport and/or positional requirements, time available, and other demands of the sport as a starting point to determine things like the main lift(s) of the session and the overall training volume and frequency. Then it gets tweaked, based on the individual needs of the athlete, or a subgroup.

As an example, I might have a three month pre-season working with club rugby. I’ve got a wide range of athletes, training ages and ability levels, and I have to get a group of 30 players ready for the start of the season. I might break it down like this, with individual focus areas added in as appropriate.


 Watch the program in action. Look for how the players respond and what they achieve. Use the program results to determine what your next goal is (or if you need more of the same), what your timeframe is, and plan accordingly.

Thinking and programming critically using an outcome-based approach allows you to make faster progress towards individual goals, rather than moving through a set process as in traditional periodization models. It does, of course, make sense that increased size will help increase strength, and getting stronger equates to getting more powerful. However, if an athlete struggles to maintain size, what’s the point of putting him or her in a pure power phase? Alternately, if the athlete is already at their ideal playing weight, do they need a lot of hypertrophy training? Real life never seems to be as cut and dry as the traditional models. Consider what you want and where you’re starting from before jumping right into the process.