19 Ninja Tricks to Help You Write Better Training Programs

If you’re a trainer or coach, you have to write programs.

And trust me – there are tons of great resources out there to help you. I’m preferential to my Complete Coach Certification, but again, I’m biased…

But here’s the thing – the X’s and O’s are all fine and dandy, but sometimes you want specifics.

Or nitty-gritty details.

And sometimes, you just want strategies to help you get in the right mindset to write an awesome training program!

So this show is all about programming – I talk successes, failures, and want I do to hedge my bets and make sure each and every program I write is legit.

BTW…this show has been so popular that I’ve had the entire thing transcribed. Hope you enjoy it!

Hello, and welcome to the “Physical Preparation Podcast.” I am your host, Mike Robertson, and this is going to be a solo episode. Kind of the perfect storm this week, I was going to bank this and save this for our 100th episode. That’s all right. I’ve still got some cool plan for that as well. But yeah, I’ve got this really cool topic in my head. I’ve had it for like the last, at least two months, maybe a little bit longer, and I’ve been holding onto it. I’ve had all these ideas bouncing around and today is the day, got to get it out of my head, gotta make it happen.

So, today we are going to talk about program design and, you know, just to give you guys a little bit of insight here, like, I am still to this day beyond passionate about learning in this industry, I’m beyond passionate, as you can probably tell, about teaching and trying to give back, you know, the things that I’d like to think I’ve learned over the years.

And for me, content creation is one of the most rewarding things that I get to do on a week-to-week basis because, you know, when I work with a client or an athlete in the gym, it’s amazing. I get to work with them. I see that change. You know, I know I’ve got that in the trenches feel that look, “This kid is getting better every single day.” That’s awesome. But when I create content, I get to help people at scale. So, whether it’s an article, whether it’s a YouTube video, whether it’s a podcast, really doesn’t matter. When I’m creating content. I know that I am putting something out there that is going to make people better across the globe. And so, that’s really empowering for me.

And that’s why I want to talk today about program design because it’s something I’m constantly thinking about, obviously, as coaches, as trainers, we’re writing programs, if not every day, at least every week. And I feel like it’s one of those things where, just when you think you have it all figured out, you start to have some realizations of, “Man. I was good before, but I can be even better if I do this or I can be even better if I do Y?” So, kind of the whole premise behind this was, look, there’s a lot of good places to learn the X’s and O’s, basic training. But what I want to do is really dive into some specific examples, some things that I’ve seen over the years, and some things that I feel like are gonna make a huge impact on you as a coach, as a trainer, when it comes to writing your programs. So, without any further ado or build-up, let’s go ahead and jump right in. I think I got 19 of them. So it’s going to take a hot minute, but here we go.

1 – Don’t be Issurin before you’re Tudor Bompa

Number one. And I really liked this one. So, remember it, especially if you’re a young coach. Number one, don’t be Vladimir Issurin before your Tudor Bompa. Now, what do I mean by that? And if you haven’t ever read Tudor Bompa, or you don’t know who he is, you need to check yourself. You need to go to the library because it’s such an old book. It’s probably at the library.

But I think a lot of young coaches now kind of feel the need to show how smart they are, right? If you’re a young coach, it’s okay. You don’t have to act like you know everything. The second you can put your ego aside, the easier it’s going to be for you. But you know, for us old heads, Tudor Bompa was like the guy for learning the basics of periodization, and sets, and reps, and how to layout, you know, various program design schemes, whether it’s hypertrophy, anatomical adaptation, strength power, he gives you all the basics, right?

But I think on the larger scale, what you see is a lot of people these days, they want to get right to the good stuff. They want to learn the most advanced techniques. And the analogy that I would use is, you know, if you’re trying to learn like triple block periodization, it’s kind of like trying to learn calculus before you’ve learned addition and subtraction. You have to learn the constituent parts first.

So, understand the basics. You know, if you don’t understand the basics if you don’t understand, you know, why you choose certain set rep schemes, why you would choose certain times under tension, why you would choose certain rest periods, like, “Who cares about all the cool stuff?” It doesn’t matter yet. Learn the basics first, learn to own the basics. Because if you can just do that, I guarantee your programs are going to be better than about 90% of the people out there.

You don’t have to be on to the coolest stuff. You know, I remember one of our kids, who was an intern with us, I won’t name his name, but if he listens, he’ll know who he is. You know, we were doing a program design talk and he starts asking about French contrast training with Cal Dietz. And I’m like, “Look, dude, you don’t need French contrast training right now. Like you don’t even need to know why that works. All right? For now, learn how to squat, bench press, deadlift, hang clean, teach your athletes how to jump effectively, how to sprint effectively. Like give them all the basics throughout their programming, and you’re going to get really good results. And when you get that super-elite athlete, that’s trying to get the last 0.001% out of their body, then use French contrast training.”

So, you know, I say all this to prove the point of we have to get better at the basics first. You have to understand the basics. It’s like anything else, the better you understand the basics when it’s time to get into the advanced stuff, the easier it’s going to be.

2 – Paint by Numbers Initially

Number two, paint by numbers, at least initially. You guys probably all remember, at some point, we had those little paint by numbers books, or magazines, whatever they are. My kids still have them today. You know? So number one is red. Number two is yellow. Number three is green. And when it’s all said and done, you’ve got this pretty little picture. Well, don’t be afraid to do that when you’re writing programs early on. Too often, I think people want to go out and create the next Mona Lisa. And look, I’ll raise my hand here. I was guilty of this.

Like, the first training program I ever wrote was for myself. And I tell you what, in whatever, 16 years of playing sports growing up, I never once threw up in a practice. After my first training session that I wrote for myself, I literally threw up. Only time in my entire life. And it was a really good lesson. Like, “Man, I don’t know what I’m doing.” You know, quite frankly, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And I needed to go back and find a template. I needed to find something that I could work from, because look, you’re not going to create the Mona Lisa until you have a basic understanding again, of the constituent parts, like, what makes a great program.

And I would say along those same lines, don’t try and be cute. You know, I think too often when we try and be cute or when we try and be really smart with our programming, that’s when things kind of get hairy, or when we don’t see the level of success that we would like. So, don’t try and be cute about it. You know, just give a really sound and solid training program. And I think when you do this too when you kind of follow somebody else’s template… Like for us, you could follow the R7 template that I use, that we use at IFAST. I think it’s a great system because it gives you the ability to check all the boxes. You know that you’re releasing, resetting, readying, doing the reactive work, doing the resistance work, you’re checking all the boxes throughout that program.

So, use a template like that because what it allows you to do is within that framework, you see what really works, right? That’s what it’s all about. Like the longer you do this, you want to try and figure out and flesh out what really works and what doesn’t. And once you’ve done that, then you can start to tweak and refine.

And this leads me to not only a discussion that I was having a while back, but I believe it was Stuart McMillan said this in one of his videos on the Altis website. But he was talking about how, you know, early on as a coach, you don’t know much. So, the only thing that you know is simple, right? Because that’s how your mind works. You’re not exposed to a lot. You don’t have a great understanding. So, you have to do simple stuff.

And over time, you start collecting information and you start collecting ideas. And if you can imagine going up to the top of a bell curve, you get to this point where, you know, things are really difficult. They’re really complex. And you know, at a certain point, you probably hit threshold and you realize, “Man, why am I making this so hard on myself? Or why am I making this so complicated?” And as a result, then you start to pair and you trim away the excess. So, you start to trim away the fat where, ultimately, again, at the bottom of the bell curve or at the end of the bell curve, now you’re back to simple, but it’s with a totally different understanding.

So, that’s what I would implore you to do, especially early on. Don’t worry about painting a masterpiece. It doesn’t have to be a Mona Lisa, right? Paint by numbers, learn the basics, learn the mechanics so that you can better understand what truly works and what doesn’t. It’s gonna make you so much better in the long run. I promise you.

3 – It’s All About the Adaptation…

Number three, when it’s all said and done, program design and training is all about the adaptation. So, when you’re setting up a program, you have to be incredibly clear as to what adaptation are you trying to chase? You know, back in the day, we would call our phases, maybe like an accumulation phase, a max strength phase, and a power phase. Now, I don’t know if it’s all that different, but we would probably have like an accumulation block, we would have a force block, and then probably like a power or a conversion block, you know, if we’ve got three.

But ultimately, you have to be really, really focused on what the adaptation is that you’re chasing. Because if you don’t understand that, you know, how are you measuring success? And this is what it always comes back to for me. Like, how do you measure success? In an accumulation block, I always look at it as, am I getting more total volume in over the course of that block? That’s pretty simple, you know, in a force training block, am I increasing this guy’s peak force numbers over the course of this three- or four-week segment? And you know, in the last block, when it comes to power, am I actually improving their power output? Am I seeing meaningful change in say a 10-yard dash in a vertical jump, in a broad jump?

But at the end of the day, guys, you have to remember, it’s not training for the sake of training, right? This is where a lot of coaches go wrong when it comes to conditioning because they think, “Oh, you just run these athletes until they’re dog tired, and you know, now they’re in shape.” And it’s not the case because ultimately, the adaptation that they’re imposing is incorrect and it makes their athletes worse. So, always ask yourself, am I chasing, and am I getting the adaptation that I want?

4 – …And Sometimes Adaptation Doesn’t Happen in 4 Weeks!

So, number four, or bullet point number four, piggybacks directly on this because sometimes the adaptation doesn’t happen in four weeks. I know this is mind-blowing stuff, right? But think about this. When I first started writing programs, and you know, I was influenced by tons of different people. But if you look at a lot of the textbooks that are out there, everything is in this nice pretty four-week block, you know? So you have this pretty four-week anatomical adaptation phase, and a four-week hypertrophy phase, and a four-week strength phase. And you know, they assume that we’re training robots that are incredibly linear in their adaptation, everything you throw at them, they adapt to successfully and in a consistent manner.

And you know, it’s not that pretty guys, it doesn’t work like that. And I’ll give you two real-world examples. I actually talked about this years ago, two years ago, actually, at our Physical Preparation Summit here in Indianapolis. And Joe Kenn had told me that when he got to the NFL, he was shocked at how high level these athletes were. And stuff that would take a college kid three weeks or three months to learn, these guys were learning in three sets. And, you know, look, man, I love Joe, but you know, that’s kind of hard to fathom until I started working with a guy from the NFL about a year after that. And this dude had one of the worst RDLs I’d ever seen in set one. And by set three, it was literally flawless. Okay? So, what does this mean?

Well, you know, adaptation occurs differently across different people, you know? So, for this particular guy, he learned a motor skill in three sets. Now, that doesn’t mean, you know, check that box, we move on from that exercise. There’s still a lot of room for improvement there and we can start loading the pattern and building it out. But you know, he adapts a heck of a lot faster than a lot of my, you know, more basic, what I would consider just general population lifting clients.

So, on the flip side of that coin, a guy that I’ve worked with for probably four and a half, five years now. We had been training him for a year or two. He was seeing success, but literally every four weeks I was changing his assistance exercises. And you know, maybe a year and a half, two years in, he says, you know, “I mean, I’m seeing progress, but I feel like just when I start to figure out my assistance lifts. We change them up. So, can we move it instead of four weeks? Can we stretch it out to eight weeks?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” That’s, I mean, it’s actually easier for me from a programming perspective, you know, maybe we just bump up the intensity, cut a few reps per set, “And yeah, let’s absolutely do it.” And I was shocked at how much more improvement we saw out of his lifts as a result.

So, take-home message here, you know, it’s all about the adaptation, but sometimes the adaptation doesn’t take four weeks. Your higher-level athletes, they’re probably going to learn and absorb things and adapt very, very quickly. It’s why they’re so amazing at what they do. It might be as short as two to three weeks. Your general pop clients or your people that aren’t as malleable, man, it could be 6, it could be 8, it could be 10, it could be taking 12 weeks to get the adaptation that you want. So really start to try and figure this out with each and every client that you work with because it’s going to change the game as far as your program design goes.

5 – Changing TUT is Really About Changing the SSC

Number five. And this is a big one that I think a lot of people understand inherently, but they maybe don’t explain it super well. So, number five is when you think about changing time under tension, start to think of it as really playing around and manipulating the stretch-shortening cycle.

So, let me give you an example. If we use a three-number system to describe a lift, say three, zero, one. The three seconds is the East-centric or the lowering portion of the lift. The zero is any pause at the midpoint. And the last number is the concentric or the overcoming portion of the lift. So, if I go three, zero, one, I really start to take away the stretch-shortening cycle, right? Or if let’s say I go three, two, one. So, on a squat, three seconds down, two-second pause, one second to come up. Now I’m really taking away the stretch-shortening cycle from that lift.

So, what am I really doing? Well, I am preferentially loading specific elements of either the muscle or the tendon, right? So, when I really start to take away that stretch-shortening cycle, and I take away that elasticity, now I’m overloading muscle. So, maybe in a specific anatomical adaptation phase, that’s something I’m chasing. If I’m a bodybuilder, and I’m trying to get super strong, I don’t want to be bouncing off connective tissue, I want to slow things down. And that’s where, you know, some tempo lifting or oxidative lifting for your bodybuilders, these slow times under tension could be really, really valuable.

Now, on the flip side of that, for our athletes, you know, we probably want to maximize the ability to use that stretch-shortening cycle, especially for our athletes that need to be super-fast and explosive. Yeah, there’s a time and a place to build the muscle, and I think sometimes slowing down the time under tension is really good for building that musculotendinous junction, the connective tissues. There’s value in it early in an offseason. But as I move on, I want to maximize and make it as efficient as possible the utilization of that stretch-shortening cycle.

So, it’s maybe just a different way to look at it, but just know and understand when you start to play around with time under tension, what you’re really doing is, oh, my gosh, preferentially loading either the muscle or the tendon. And once you start to understand that, it’s gonna really change and shape the way you program time under tension.

6 – Remove ALL Distractions When Programming

Number six, this is more of just a good life rule, not just in program design, but anytime you want to accomplish something at a high level. Number six, when you are writing programs, remove all distractions. Now, I tell you this because, unfortunately, nowadays we are absolutely inundated with stuff, right? Like, I’m sitting in front of my laptop. My phone is at this point in time charging in the other room and sometimes I’ve got my iPad. So, you’ve got to imagine I might get one notification, like, one text message, and get three different dings. Or somebody could hit me up from the business, and you know, I get a message on Slack, and I’ve got this pinging me across three different devices. And that doesn’t even include reminders, or phone calls, or anything else.

So, distraction is such a hindrance to us writing a great program. So, this is more of a mindset thing. If you’re going to write programs and you’re going to write a great program, remove all the distractions, put your Wi-Fi in airplane mode, or your phone, whatever it is, you can turn the Wi-Fi off on your laptop, really dial in and focus on the task at hand.

If possible, I’ve got specific music that I listen to. You’ll probably laugh, but I like deadmau5. I don’t know what it is about his music. It’s got this trance-like effect. I would imagine that 80% of the writing and program design that I’ve done over the last four to five years has been two deadmau5, and probably just two or three different albums. And I can tell you, I can put the headphones on, and I’ve got an hour of just amazing work in me. And so, doing those little things to try and focus your energy, and focus on the task at hand is absolutely critical. It’s going to make sure that you write the best program possible.

7 – Serial Batch All Programs at One Time (if possible)

So, to combine with that, number seven, not only are you going to remove all distractions, but I want you to serial batch and write all of your programs at one time. Now, I’ll tell you why I do this. When IFAST was evolving, I had taken myself off the floor. We’d been open maybe two, two and a half years at this point in time so, I was just working in the afternoons. And we hired a gentleman to work mornings. And so, one of my rewards to myself on Friday morning was I would take myself out to breakfast, right?

So, I’m at breakfast and, you know, having this amazing omelet, I go next door to the coffee shop and I’m enjoying a coffee, and I’m like, “Okay, I got some programs to write. How many do I have?” And I realized I have 20 programs to write for that week because I had online clients. I had IFAST clients that I was still coaching. And I had this guy’s clients because he wasn’t prepared to write programs yet. So, you can imagine when I got to write 20 programs in like two and a half, three hours, just do the math on that. That doesn’t give you a lot of time to write programs.

Now, luckily, for me, a lot of them were more like fat-loss programs. They were quick and easy updates. They weren’t super complex like a high-level athlete. But still, 20 programs in two and a half to three hours is a lot. So what I found was when I would sit down and I would serial batch, or write all these programs at once, the first program, even if it’s a simple fat-loss update, it may take 15 minutes. But then the next one takes 13, and the one after that takes 11. And then maybe you’re just cranking them out, and each program update takes 8 to 10 minutes. So, it’s crazy to think how this happens, but what ends up happening is you get so dialed in, you get so focused, and your brain basically goes to this little space that is just purely for program design. And it makes all of your execution that much faster.

So not only do you have that, but the thing that I’ve found is, as I started doing that, it literally started to clarify and streamlined all my progressions, all my regressions, or as we’re calling it now, our trainable menu, everything got dialed in over this period of time because I was in this one unique space and it was all about writing the best possible programs. So, it’s really interesting how the brain works. So, whether it’s writing, whether it’s studying, whether it’s writing programs, I would implore you, you know, remove all the distractions and then try and do all of these like-minded tasks at the same time, because you’ll just be shocked at how fast you can start to crank these out.

And it doesn’t mean you’re sloppy, right? It doesn’t mean I’m just randomly throwing exercises at the wall. It’s like the first ones taking the most time and energy because I’m getting my mind into that space. But then, you know, once I’m there, man, now everything is just flowing and everything is coming so easily to me. So, especially if you have a lot of programs to write on a week-to-week basis, I would implore you serial batch it, do all of them at once because I guarantee each and every program is going to be far, far better.

8 – Dan John – “The Goal is to Keep the Goal, The Goal”

Number eight. And this kind of plays into our previous point about the adaptation, but I’m going to quote the great Dan John here, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” Now, what do I mean by that? What does he mean by that? One of the biggest issues that interns have, like our interns at IFAST, when they start writing programs is they’re overwhelmed with options. So, there’s so many things that they’re thinking about. They’re thinking about the program that they’re doing now or the program that their high school coach wrote them five years ago that they really liked. And they’re thinking about the programming book that they read and the article that they just read about programming. So, there’s no way to filter out all of this information and it becomes overwhelming to the point where they can’t put anything coherent together.

So, here’s what I always tell them is that, at the end of the day, imagine you’re working with a client. If they have one goal, if you have one goal for them to accomplish in this training session or in this training block, what would it be? And if you can answer that question, that is your totem. That is your anchor that you always come back to.

And look, this has happened to me, guys. I guarantee you like I’m thinking back to about five years ago where I started getting a lot of high-level athletes and from a lot of different sports, right? So like, high-level baseball, high-level football, high-level soccer, high-level basketball. And so, there was this period of time where, I mean, I’m writing these incredibly complex programs, and we’re trying to layer, you know, smart speed and power development, smart strength training, smart conditioning, layering all these pieces across not only one program, but multiple months of programs.

And so, this was like my guiding light. When I would start to get kind of lost in my own thought or overwhelmed with what I want to accomplish with an athlete, I would always ask myself, “If I can only accomplish one thing with this program, what would it be?” And it gives you such a great perspective on what you need to do, and the direction you need to take with a specific program or with a specific athlete.

So, you know, maybe another way to think of it, as an intern, if you can only create one adaptation for this training block, what do you want to accomplish? So, if you start to think of things in that fashion, it streamlines everything that you do, it narrows your scope, it narrows your focus. And I think, ultimately, it gives you a filter to pass things through because you know if it doesn’t create that adaptation, if it doesn’t chase that one goal, then it doesn’t go on the program and it makes your life very, very simple.

9 – Remember that it’s all GPP

Number nine. And hopefully, this doesn’t piss too many people off, but number nine, remember it’s all GPP. We are general physical preparation coaches. I’m not going to teach the football offensive lineman how to block. I’m not going to teach the wide receiver how to catch a football. I’m not going to teach my soccer guys how to kick a soccer ball. That’s sport-specific. Those are skills that skills and tactical coaches are going to do.

Now, it doesn’t mean I have no concept or no understanding of what they do. I don’t believe that’s the case at all. And whenever I really dedicate myself to working with a sport, I try and learn as much as I possibly can about the skills, the techniques, the tactics, because that makes me a better coach. It allows me to have more relatability to them. It allows me to truly understand what their coach wants, what they feel like they need to get out of their body, so that doesn’t pass the buck. But it does help us remember that, at the end of the day, I am trying to build general physical qualities that will carry over to their sport.

And you know, that’s something I think too often we miss the boat on. Like, I’m not trying to make the world’s best squatter, just so I can say, “Yeah, my kids squatted 500 pounds.” Like, that’s not the point. I use a squat because I want to teach somebody to change levels. I want to teach them how to absorb force better. I want to teach them to triple flex through their ankles, their knees, their hips. There’s a lot of reasons I would teach somebody to squat or to deadlift. All right.

But at the end of the day, I realize that is not ultimately, truly specific to their sport. There’s nothing more specific than them running, jumping, cutting, and doing things of that nature. And it just kind of reminds me of a discussion that we had years ago, Mike Roncarati, brilliant guy, two of the best podcasts I’ve had on this show still to date, was talking about, you know, the year before, they had won a ring with the Golden State Warriors.

And you know, I’m like, “Look, dude, what, what is it like? What gives you guys that level of success?” And part of it, in our world, we’re always thinking, “It’s us.” Like something that we’re doing is giving them that chance for success. And, you know, look, we can keep guys healthy, but I mean, his answer was so point-blank. It was like, “Look, the reason those two teams were in the finals, we had Steph Curry, they had LeBron James.” You know, at the end of the day, it’s like, “You know, you’re right.” Like, at the end of the day, it’s all about skill, right? And our job is to give the athlete or give the coach his best athletes, make them as strong, as robust, as resilient as possible, so that each and every game, he can put his best players out there.

You know? And then at the end of the day, you really hope you have the most skilled athletes in the world because I don’t care how much strength training and how much great performance training I do. I could have the best program ever. I’m not going to go out there and be able to beat Lionel Messi in a soccer game. Okay? So, general physical preparation. That’s what we do. We build better athletes so that ultimately when they go to their sport coach, they can layer the skills, the techniques, and the tactics that will make them elite at their sport.

10 – Use “Off-Days” to Earn Your Training

Number 10, this is a big one. Use your off-day training to fuel your big sessions. So, a little bit of insight here. Like I’m a huge believer in the kind of high-low system, if you will. And I know Derek Hansen has talked about this ad nauseum. Charlie Francis, and really Derek had done a great job of talking about micro-dosing and giving elements of high-intensity work on a daily basis. I think there’s a ton of merit to that. But I think along those same lines, something that gets lost in this message is let’s say Monday, Wednesday, Friday are your high-intensity days. You check those boxes. I would turn that around and say, “Well, what are you doing on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday to earn the right to train intensely on Monday, Wednesday, Friday?”

And it’s a huge shift in mindset because too often, we just assume that an athlete is ready to go. You know, now if you’re monitoring, if you’re doing subjective wellness scores, if you’re doing HRV, if you’re tracking say their velocity, or their jump profile, or performance on a day-to-day basis, you start to get some understanding here. But like, if you look at this stuff long enough, a lot of athletes are coming in and Monday is one of their worst days. And they’re training like dog shit on Monday because they haven’t done anything of value since Friday session that they just did with you. Right? Friday, maybe they went out, Saturday, they sat around all day, Netflix and chill. Saturday, maybe they go out, Sunday, recover. And then Monday, they come in the gym, you have not earned the right to train intensely on that day.

So, maybe a better way to think of this is how can you stimulate recovery on your off days? And this is why, you know, I’m such a big believer in whether it’s tempo running, whether it’s low-intensity cardiac output sessions, you know, there’s lots of ways to stimulate recovery on off days. And for me, it’s stimulating recovery or creating like a noncompeting adaptation. So, if I’m doing high-intensity stuff like high CNS stuff, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Maybe Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, I’m working on just more general GPP, or I’m doing some tempo running or again, cardiac output, which is maybe just kind of flushing the entire body from a muscular perspective, but then chasing more of a central adaptation at the heart.

So, ultimately, what I’m always thinking about is not just how important Monday, Wednesday, Friday are, or how much I want to push them on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but most importantly, how can I use Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday to prep them for the next training session to make sure it’s high quality, right? And I think that’s a big shift in mindset. It’s not just, “We’re going high Monday, Wednesday, Friday.” No, I’m going to use those off days to facilitate recovery to ensure that those high-intensity days are not just high intensity, but they’re high quality as well. So, little shift in mindset there. But I think if you start thinking in that fashion, it’s really going to improve the quality of every session that you do.

11 – Meet Them Where They Are with Regards to Exercise Selection

Number 11, meet them where they are with regards to exercise selection. Now, this is a big one because, too often, especially if we’re of a certain age, we have favorite pet lifts. And maybe the younger kids and the young coaches that are listening in now, maybe you have your pet lifts too, but a lot of us that have been around for a long time come from either an Olympic lifting background or a powerlifting background. And so we really love those lifts. We really want to use them with every single client. But I think the longer we do this, and the more open we are to finding the best strategies for our athletes, you know, we start to realize, “Hey, you can’t fit the square peg in the round hole.”

So, there are certain movement skills that I want every athlete to learn. And I know this is going to make some people angry, but like literally every person that comes in our gym is going to learn a variation of a squat, of a deadlift, of a split squat or a lunge, of a push up. You know, because these are all fundamental movements that I want every client, every athlete, regardless of age, to be able to execute.

Hey, but at the same time, everybody’s going to look a little bit different, right? So, you know, I’ve got this article coming out on Monday, based on when you hear this, it may already be out, but it’s all about training tall athletes. Should we squat our tall athletes? And look, guys, I just have the firm belief that, yes, you should squat your tall athletes. You should give them that movement skill.

Now, that doesn’t mean you load up 315, put a barbell on their back, and hope they can squat up and down with it. That’s not the case, but I think if you’re doing all the right things in the other parts of your program, and you’re giving them the right exercise to execute, man, everybody should be able to squat at a decent level, right? You just regress the exercise to a level that is safe and effective for them. So, ultimately, you have to ask yourself, what can this person do successfully? Right?

Not everybody is going to barbell deadlift from the floor. Not everybody is going to barbell bench press. Not everybody’s going to put a barbell on their back and squat. Okay? But look at this client, look at this athlete in front of you and ask yourself, what can they do effectively? And then start there, right? Or better yet, what can they do incredibly well? So, wherever they’re at, take them one notch even further back, right? So they can really have some success. So they can really gain some confidence and then push them forward from there, you know, even like a session or two.

And I do this all the time with my athletes, right? I try not to make it fake cause it’s not, but it’s like, “Man, you just crushed that exercise. Like, man, I had you scheduled to do this for four weeks. Two weeks, you’re good. Let’s move on to the next thing,” because that’s incredibly fulfilling to hear as a client or as an athlete. It’s incredibly fulfilling to feel successful in the gym. So, meet them where they are with regards to exercise selection. And in some cases, underwhelm them. Okay?

Which actually leads me to point number 12…

12 – Underwhelm them Early

As a whole, I make it a goal to underwhelm clients and athletes early. And not in regards to how much I care about them, or my enthusiasm, or my energy level, but, you know, you can do like two sets of very basic stuff of maybe four or five exercises, a little bit of movement work, a little bit of conditioning and people can be super, super sore the next day. And I’m constantly shocked. Like I try and underwhelm people early on because I’m really focused on improving movement skill, improving efficiency. And I’m not going to do that for long.

But just by virtue of teaching somebody to move well or to move more effectively, they are often shocked at how sore they are after a session. They’ll be like, “Man, I didn’t even feel like I worked that hard, but man, I’m sore in muscles I didn’t know I had.” That’s the desired effect for me. That’s what I’m looking for. So, that first, especially three, four weeks is a big focus and emphasis on movement quality in coaching.

Now, a lot of you are probably thinking, “Well, what do I do with fat-loss clients?” Because fat loss clients are notorious for being like the least patient people, right? Even if somebody is 50 pounds overweight, they just want to get crushed on day one. So, what do you do with that person?

So, here’s what I do and feel free to take it and run with it. If not, I’m okay with that too. But this has worked really well for me. And I feel like for most of the guys at our gym. Fat-loss people have the worst work capacity of any client you’re going to work with. Right? For a lot of reasons, they’ve got awful work capacity, so it doesn’t make any sense to smash them on day one.

So, here’s what I do. If I’m going to make something high-intensity for them, I’m going to give them, you know, all the basic lifts in their session. So if we’re talking R5 in the resistance component, we’re still going to find a squat variation and a push up variation and maybe a split stance variation. We’re going to do all that stuff. And then if I want something to be high-intensity, I’m going to do it at the end in a very safe and effective manner, or in a nonthreatening manner, I guess is a better way to put it.

So, I’m going to put them on the bike and maybe we do 8 to 10 seconds on 50 to 52 seconds off. So, now they still get that high-intensity feel, they get that burn. They get that good sweat going. They feel like they worked hard, but I know I taught a movement skills upfront. I know I got a good kind of an aerobic effect on the back end, even though it’s high level, it’s alactic for that 8 to 10 seconds. And then they’ve got that 50 seconds of recovery work.

So, if you can do that kind of stuff that allows you to kind of underwhelm them with some of the strength training stuff upfront, but it starts to give you the adaptation that you want over the long term because ultimately, that fat loss clients need to improve work capacity. You know, doing two sets of stuff forever isn’t going to cut it. So, if I can find ways to underwhelm them and to give them more work capacity early on, that’s going to lead me to successes down the road.

So, you know, if they want to feel worked out, find ways to do it in the conditioning. And it doesn’t have to be the bike. It could be the bike. Sometimes it can be the Prowler, it can be dragging a sled or even just battling ropes. I mean, there’s so many low-level options there where you don’t have to beat somebody up. You can get this really strong metabolic effect where they get the endorphin rush, they feel like they’re working hard, but ultimately, you know, they’re doing it in a safe and nonthreatening manner.

13 – Don’t Be Afraid to Train In-Season

Number 13. If you train athletes, don’t be afraid to train them in season. And I’ve had some really amazing collegiate level strength coaches on here. When you talk about Corey Slessinger, when you talk about Ryan Horn, when you talk about Josh Bonhotal, these are guys that are working with some of the best basketball players in the United States. And a lot of them are training these guys multiple times per week, if not daily. Okay?

So, it comes down to what is the athlete prepared for? Right? Like, if an athlete is prepared to train at a high level, if you are sensible with the volume, with the intensity, if you’re choosing the right exercises, there’s tons of things that you can do in-season to help preserve and maintain the health and the resilience of your athletes. So, this is something I can’t stress strongly enough.

I think, you know, this year, as a soccer club, has been one of the most frustrating ones for me, you know, part of it has been the scheduling, part of it has been just the general amount of time I’ve had with the guys, but this is the most soft tissue injuries I’ve had in any given season. And so, I’m always looking at ways that I can address it as a coach. Obviously, I feel like if I had the guys more frequently in season, I could do more with them. But part of that is just scheduling. You know, when you have a hurricane that shuts down your Saturday game and it has to get pushed to Wednesday, you know, it just jacks, the entire rhythm and flow up.

But if you guys are finding ways to train your athletes in season, and what we tell our high school athletes at IFAST is, “Look, I mean, you don’t have to be here twice, three times a week. You know, if I can get you twice, that’s ideal, but if I can get you even once a week, I can do a lot of stuff to not only stave off the injury monster but to maintain the gainz that you have spent this whole off season accumulating.” And that’s something we’re always trying to pitch, not only to the athlete but to the parents as well.

So that when they come back, “Hey man, we’re starting from not too far off where we’re at now.” Versus if you take the next three, four, five months off and then come back, we’re starting back at square one again, and nobody wants that. So, don’t be afraid to train in season. I think hopefully, we’re all beyond that, but I still think there’s a certain segment of coaches that need to hear that and need to really embrace that idea.

14 – The “Introductory” Week vs. The Deload Week

Number 14. I really like this one. There’s a difference between what I would call the introductory week and a deload week. Case in point, when I was writing programs, or when I started writing programs back in the day, I was a big believer in, “Man, that adaptation, bro, it’s coming on week four. Gotta make sure you deload because as a system, just, you know, chronic accumulated stress by week four, your body needs a break.” Just forget that. Right? Forget about that. It may happen, but we know everybody’s rhythm as flow is a little bit different.So, what I’ve gotten away from over the years is getting away from this concept of a deload week at all. What I do more of is what I call an introductory week.

So, a deload week would happen on week four. So, you go three, you know, fairly intense training weeks however you want to structure those. But week four is a deload and you’re cutting, you know, generally the volume by, say, 40%. And maybe you’re cutting the intensity a little bit. This is what people love to debate over how much you should cut the intensity. I always cut it about 20% because I felt like you needed a little bit of a break. Others would say, “No, I don’t cut intensity at all. I just cut volume.” So, regardless, there’s the deload week, which happens at the end of a cycle, or maybe in week three of a four-week block.

What I moved to and what I’m having great success with, especially for like more, my general pop clients, is what I would call an introductory week. So, introductory week just says, “Hey, week one is my lowest volume week.” So, it kind of works as a deload because systemically, it’s not as taxing, but I also know week one, I can do anything different, and that client is going to be sore. I mean, literally two sets of just basic exercises and because you’re using new muscles or learning new motor patterns, you’re sore the next day. So, I just find this makes such a huge difference. And the other thing that it does, it subtly shifts the mindset and your athletes feel like, “Well, you know, week four, I don’t like having to take a week off.”

So, now, you skew that mindset a little bit. You say, “No, no, no. We’re not taking a week off. We’re just taking a week to really coach you up to really learn these new exercises so that the next three weeks we can go hard.” So it’s a really subtle thing. But shifting from what I would call deload weeks to more introductory level weeks makes a huge impact on kind of the psyche of the athletes. And it makes your job as a coach that much easier.

15 – Flip the Sets and Reps on the Accumulation Block

Pulling this together here, number 15. Flip the sets and reps on your accumulation block. And again, if you’re of a certain age, you know that an accumulation block or a hypertrophy block, you got to start with like 8s or 10s or 12s, right? So, it’s gotta be like 3 by 8, or 3 by 10, or 3 by 12, or 4 by 8, whatever the case may be, it’s gotta be high reps. Right? And something I started doing probably six years ago, five, six years ago, at least was flipping the way I structure the accumulation block. So, instead of 3 by 8 it’s, 8 by 3, still working on 60 seconds rest, still getting the same total amount of reps, but here’s the cool thing, I think three things happen when you flip the sets and reps and an accumulation block.

Number one, every set of every rep is higher quality. Right? We all know if we’re gutting out a set of eight, rep six is okay, rep seven, maybe it’s okay, and rep eight, we’re just trying to grind it out. Right? Whereas, if I’m just doing triples, they’re really clean, they’re really crisp, and everything looks good. So, number one, you get a higher quality of movement.

Number two, you get a higher relative intensity. So, I’d spend forever since I’ve used percentages so, just work with me here. But let’s say you’re going 3 by 8. Well, you probably have to use like 60% of your one RM for that day. Right? Whereas if I go 8 by 3, it could be 70% or 75%. So, my relative intensity is way up, yet the quality of my movement is higher. So, I just really like flipping the script like this. It makes such a big difference.

And last but not least, I stay pretty much purely alactic. And you know, if we want to talk, Adrian, you know, noncompeting adaptations where you can go purely alactic and purely aerobic. And they seem to jive pretty well together. So, in those early training blocks, the more purely alactic stuff I can do, and the more purely aerobic stuff that I can do, the better because they don’t fight and they don’t compete for demands.

So, just one of those little tips that I picked up years ago, I think probably Bill Hartman started doing it. I saw him do it with one or two clients and I’m like, “Damn it. That’s smart.” And I started using it and I’ve seen great success with it. I don’t think I’ve done a traditional, you know, accumulation block with 8s or 10s or 12s ever since. So, flip the sets and the reps on your accumulation block, let me know how it goes because I feel like you’re going to see a huge improvement in the quality of the movement and the relative intensity, and just in the fact that it’s going to jive better with the overall program.

16 – Make it a Goal to be a Lazy Coach

Number 16, you’re going to love this one. Make it a goal to be a lazy coach. Yup. I said it, be a lazy coach. Now, what do I mean by that? I don’t mean you’re just sitting around on your cell phone, like, looking at other people when you should be coaching. Not what I mean at all. What I mean by this is that you should make it a goal to choose the best exercise for every single client and athlete you work with because here’s what happens. If you choose the right exercise, you inherently don’t have to coach as much, right?

The right exercise puts them in the right position so that they can execute the movement the way that you want it without you having to give them feedback. So, this is something that I have made a huge priority on with my own programs, you know? And I think part of it is I’ve spent years in the one-on-one environment, even in the settings that I work in now, a lot of times, it’s me and one or two guys. It’s either like a private or semi-private session so sometimes you feel just compelled to talk a lot. Right?

But you know, I want them to explore their body. I want them to explore movement. So, if I’m constantly giving them feedback, I don’t know if that’s always helpful. They need to learn the movement for themselves. And this is something that Nick Winkelman has said for years, can’t agree more. “You know, there’s a time and a place for me to jump in, but there’s also a time for me to sit back and shut up and let them figure out the movement.”

So, in my opinion, this is kind of where I’m at now. I feel like the less I have to coach, the better my exercise selection is. So, just think about that for a minute. Like, what if you didn’t have to coach or cue your clients nearly as much, it’s a weird shift in mindset. I get that. But this is something that I’m really striving towards right now, so that, you know, the less I have to cue, changes the whole dynamic. Because now if I do give a cue, it carries more weight, right? And now, they’re more apt to follow through, versus if I’m giving them feedback or a cue every set of every rep, it’s overwhelming and they’re not truly learning or understanding the movement, as well as I, would like, all right?

So, give this a shot, be really, really specific with your exercise selection. And I think if you guys do that, chances are, you’re going to have to give less feedback, but ultimately, your clients, your athletes are going to see better results.

17 – What are they prepared for?

Okay, guys, home stretch here, number 17. And here’s a big question. Before you write that first program, you need to ask yourself, what is this client prepared for? Right? Now, what do I like, not what is the program I used before that I want to use this client. You have to ask yourself, what are they prepared to do on day one? And it kind of comes back to underwhelming them early, right? Like once I have an idea of what they’re prepared for, and this could be movement-wise, it could be work capacity-wise, it could be skill-wise, start with maybe an exercise a half notch easier than it should. Make it easy for them early on, give them success so that you get the positive momentum going.

Jae Chung, who is our morning coach at IFAST, who I love dearly, he is like the philosopher for the gym, but he always talks about inertia. And it’s so true. When you’ve got a client coming in, and maybe they haven’t had success before, or they’ve struggled with certain aspects of fitness in the past, inertia is a MOFO, right?

So, how do we get inertia going in the right direction? Well, we ask ourselves, what are they prepared for? How can I underwhelm them early so that I can get momentum and so that I can get inertia going in the right direction? So, again, some of this is like tactical X’s and O’s some of it is just higher level. Like, how do we get in the right mindset? How do we shift the dynamic of our training sessions by writing better programs?

18 – Don’t Build without Maintaining

Number 18. Don’t build without maintaining. Now, what do I mean by that? If you go back to, you know, trying to think late ’90s, early 2000s, when Dave Tate, Louie Simmons, they’re writing for Elite, they’re writing on “Powerlifting USA,” they’re writing on T NATION. I mean, I literally have like a 3-inch binder of just Louie and Dave writings. And one of the things that they used to always talk about was like in classical Western periodization, there is like Tudor Bompa has, you know, there’s an anatomical adaptation or a hypertrophy phase, there’s a strength phase, there’s a power phase. And what they would talk about, and one of the biggest objections they had to this kind of training or this kind of programming, was that you spend four weeks building or chasing an adaptation, and then you forget about it. So then you’re onto the next block and you’re chasing that adaptation, but you’re never maintaining the stuff that you did in the past.

So, I think this is something that’s really critical. And if you look at how I tier my programs, there’s always an initial goal, there’s always a true adaptation that I’m chasing or something that I’m trying to push the limits of, and then there’s something I’ve always trying to maintain. Right? So, again, coming back to, let’s say we have three blocks, we’ve got an accumulation block, a force block, a power block. In the accumulation block, it’s very simple. I’m trying to build connective tissue strength. I’m trying to build general work capacity, get the athlete ready to train. You know, maybe one other piece would be like movement quality and movement skill.

So, that’s block one. Block two, now, I’m chasing force output. How can I make this athlete more powerful? Or if I’m being specific, how can I increase their force output, you know, while maintaining the skills and the qualities that I developed early on? So, I don’t want to just forget about movement quality. I don’t want to just forget about, you know, general kind of tissue strengthening work, but I am going to shift the elements around. So, with force development, that’s probably going to be my primary lift, and I’m going to push that really hard. And then the other stuff, whether it’s movement quality, whether it’s tissue strength and tissue resiliency, I’m going to work on that with my assistance lifts.

So, this is a really critical piece, guys, always think about what am I building? What am I developing? And what am I maintaining? So, it kind of muddies the waters, maybe just a little bit, right? Because the goal is to keep the goal the goal. I get that. So, what is the goal, number one. Number two, what am I trying to maintain? What am I trying to hold on to? And if you start writing every program with that mindset, guaranteed, you’re going to get better results, and guaranteed your clients, your athletes are going to be more robust as a result.

19 – You Don’t HAVE to Follow the Program

Last but not least. And this is something, guys, I can’t tell you. I’m probably ashamed at how long it took me to figure this out, or maybe not to figure it out but to really 100% buy into it and embrace it. Number 19, you don’t have to follow the program. Back facts. You don’t have to follow the program just because it’s written on this piece of paper right here, doesn’t mean you have to do what it says on this piece of paper on that training day. You know, as the saying goes, you don’t train the program, right? You train an athlete. And every athlete is going to be a little bit different every time they come in.

So just because it says 8 sets of 3 at 75%, you know, sets on the minute or whatever it is, you know, if a guy just broke up with his girlfriend, and his dog died, and he went on, you know, a 24-hour bender, and then showed up at your gym, he’s probably not ready to perform that day. You know, versus the guy that understands, “Hey, I’m going to get my seven and a half hours sleep. Or my five sleep cycles as Nick Littlehales would say. I’m going to get my five sleep cycles. And I’m going to eat this all-organic diet and I’m going to meditate and I’m going to do the things necessary on my off days to earn my high-intensity training days.” You know, sometimes people aren’t ready to train and that’s okay, right? Now, if it’s a constant theme, that’s the problem, that’s something else you have to deal with.

But at the end of the day, train the athlete in front of you. Don’t blindly follow the program, train the athlete in front of you. And there’s tons of ways you can do this. Right? I’ve done all of these things. Sometimes I do fewer sets. Sometimes I do fewer reps. Sometimes I decrease the intensity. Sometimes I change the exercise altogether, right?

So let’s say somebody is back squatting and they’re just not feeling it, or their backfield sketchy that day. I mean, I’ve had days like that. Okay. “Hey, man. Let’s abort mission. Let’s go, well, two kettlebell front squat, we’ll get three sets of five. We’ll get a little bit of stimulus to your legs and then we’re going to move on and we’ll figure out what else we can do that day.” All right? So, it’s just like a hall pass here, right? It’s a permission slip. You don’t have to follow the program if something’s not going well, or the athlete’s not prepared to train, that is fine. Don’t sweat it. Figure out a way to get them a training effect for that day and then move on with life.


Okay, guys. So 54 minutes in, hopefully, I did not bore you to tears. Most importantly, I really hope you took something away from this. You know, maybe it’s one or two tips. If it’s more than that, great. But you know, take one or two of these things and start really thinking about how it can apply to you.

Chances are, over 19 tips, one or two really stood out for you. And I would ask you to, you know, either make yourself like a little post-it note or if you got like a little, you know, area where you write your programs, maybe put something there like a little reminder to just constantly be conscious of that one thing that you feel like is going to make you a better coach or that’s going to improve your program design skills because look, I mean, I’ve been doing this 17 years. I’d like to think I’m doing it at a fairly high level now, but look, there’s always room for improvement and there’s always things that we can do better.

I think, you know, young coaches, you’re young, you’re malleable, you’re trying to filter stuff out, you’re at one place. Whereas older coaches that have been doing this a little bit longer, now it’s more like, “Hey, I had success with this thing, but I stopped doing it. Now, this podcast or this article triggered, you know, that thought process again. And now I’m going to start doing that again.”

So, wherever you’re at on the spectrum, you know, young coach, seasoned vet, I appreciate you listening in. One thing I would like to ask is if you got something out of this show, or if you know someone who would benefit from listening to this show, please do me a favor, pass this on. You know, the show is growing literally week to week. You know, I’m loving the support, I’m loving where it’s going. And most importantly, I just love the fact that this show is positively impacting coaches and trainers such as yourself. So, thank you so much for tuning in love you, appreciate you, and we’ll be back soon with our next episode. Take care.

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