4 Ways to Upgrade Your Programming and Coaching

upgrade707As coaches and trainers, we’re constantly looking for tools to make us better.

Maybe it’s a new style of programming.

Maybe it’s a new exercise you’ve heard a lot about.

And maybe it’s  coaching and cuing one of our big-bang exercises in a slightly different way.

The bottom line is that we coaches will leave no stone un-turned if we feel it will get us better results!

I’ve done this for 16 years now, with at least a nominal degree of success.

And furthermore, I’ve gotten to see the entire coaching and training continuum – from young trainers and coaches just getting into the game, to chatting and working with some true legends in our field.

If I had to whittle down what separates elite or high-level coaches from those just getting started in the game, it would be the following four things.

They may not jump off the page at you, but I can guarantee that any high-level coach worth his or her salt has implemented these four things to upgrade their programing and coaching.


#1 – They Strive for Simplicity

When we’re first writing programs, it can be overwhelming to say the least.

You’ve followed programs before, so you have an idea of what goes into one.

Plus, you just read 10 books on periodization and coaching theory, so you want to work that knowledge in there as well.

And last but not least, you can’t forget about the 15 new exercises you’ve seen lately that you’re just dying to get into your workouts!

So how on Earth do you reconcile all this?

Easy – you pare everything down and make it as basic and simple as possible!

When I wrote my first powerlifting program for myself, it took me about 10 times longer than it should’ve.

And for a guy whose best lifts at the time were 380, 250 and 480, the last thing I needed was an advanced program!

Whether we’re talking speed and agility, plyos or lifting, the goal isn’t to see how complex we can make a program.

The goal isn’t to put as many “tools” into the program as possible.

And we don’t get extra credit if our fellow coaches “ooh” and “aah” at the masterpiece lying in front of them.

At the end of the day, the only thing we get credit for is if our programs get results.

I’m a huge believer that the more streamlined and simple you make your programs, the better.

From a physiology perspective, this allows the body to truly understand what adaptation you are chasing, and then respond to it.

It’s okay to go through the awkward phase early-on in your programming.

In fact, we all go through it. It’s like a rite of passage.

But constantly question your own programming, and see if there’s any way you strip it down and make it more efficient.

Chances are, you’ll be shocked at how much tighter your programming will be as a result!

#2 – They Own the Basics

Ever since I got into the industry, the articles have been out there:

“8 Ways to Shred Your Hamstrings!”

“Tighten Your Core With 5 New Moves!”

“Turn Those Calves Into Cows with These 4 Exercises!”

I do a fair bit of writing, so I get what they’re selling. In this day and age of zero attention span and a constant pull towards the shiny objects, magazines and online resources have to find a way to pull you in.

But over the years I’ve been blessed to work with 1000’s of people across the globe.

These are real coaches and trainers who are putting in quality work with real people.

Some are just getting started, some are starting to find their ways, and some have been doing this for quite some time at a high-level.

And if I had one piece of general advice that I would give to all of them, it would be this:

When it comes to training, make it a goal to master the basics.

And don’t just read that and move on. Take it to heart.

Make it your goal to truly own the basic movement patterns in the gym.

Squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, lunges and presses may not look sexy on paper.

They may not get you 20,000 views on Instagram or You Tube.

But I can assure you this:

If you are using the basic lifts in your programming, and if you’re coaching them at a high-level, your athletes will get results.

Case and point: If you would’ve asked me five years ago if I was comfortable coaching the big three (squat/bench/deadlift), I would’ve responded with something along the lines of “Hell Yeah.”

But here I am, five years later, with a totally different outlook on those lifts, and how they should be performed.

No matter how good you are, and no matter how long you do this, you can always get better at coaching the basics.

And when in doubt, refer to Bruce Lee:


#3 – They Know Efficiency is Key

In this day and age where we value sizzle over the steak, one thing gets lost in the mix is the concept of efficiency.

This coincides directly with my point above. Rather than getting really good at one movement pattern or plyo progression, the focus is always on progression.

Move on to the next thing.

And then the next – because damnit, we can!

When we do this, though, we sacrifice efficiency and motor control.

We never truly develop that mind-body connection.

And ultimately, we short change what our clients and athletes get out of training with us.

This is why I often start athletes with an exercise that I know full-well is going to be easy at the start of a program.

Sure I want to build rapport and give them some confidence in the gym, but I also want to make them incredibly efficient early-on.

Greg Robins alluded to this fact in our recent podcast as well. To paraphrase Greg:

Why bother including exercises or tools in your program if they aren’t going to be executed well?

This is also why many of my early programs may look easy on paper.

After all, if I’m not back squatting heavy, throwing all of my high-intensity speed and power work in, and if I’m just doing low-intensity cardio, how on Earth am I getting anything done?

The fact of the matter is, I’m rebuilding this client from the inside out.

I’m taking the parking brake off their body, so that their true mobility, athleticism and conditioning can shine through.

Too often, I see athletes that are working too hard to get too little out of their programming.

Focus instead on stripping them down early-on, making them more efficient, and I guarantee the long-term results will be worthwhile.

#4 – They Utilize the Keystone Cue

HabitOver the summer my goal is to read one book per week. This past week, I’ve been reading the book Habit by Charles Duhigg.

In this book, he talks about Keystone Habits. A Keystone Habit is one habit that’s developed which  creates a domino effect into other similar habits.

Here’s an example:

During the start of the off-season an athlete isn’t doing anything training-wise.

They’re on the “see-food” diet at home.

And they’re staying up ’til all hours of the night binge watching Daredevil on Netflix and honig those FIFA 2016 skills.

Once they start training in the off-season, though, things to start to fall in place.

They start eating better.

They start going to bed earlier to improve recovery.

Training, in this case, is the keystone habit. Once they start training, other pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

The same thing happens with coaching, and these are what I call Keystone Cues. (<== See what I did there?!?!?!)

As a coach, my goal is to give as few cues as possible during the session.

I want my athletes to make subtle mistakes, so that their body can figure out a movement pattern that works for them.

So no, I’m not going to fix every little thing that’s going on with them.

But, if I can find one Keystone Cue, one thing that’s going to have a domino effect and fix 10 things at once?

That’s the cue I want to use.

And f you want more insight into coaching and cuing, here are my 5 favorite cues , as well as my five least favorite cues.


They say in life one of the best things you can do is to see the path taken by the masses…

…and then go the opposite way.

Rather than being seduced by new exercises, complex programs or over cuing, make it your goal to streamline everything you do.

Make your programs simple yet effective.

Use a handful of exercises (whether they be speed, plyos, or lifts) and do them with flawless technique.

Last but not least, cue with discretion, and with the goal of fixing numerous issues in one fail swoop.

If you do this, I guarantee that you’ll be on the fast track to getting superior results with every client and athlete you train.

All the best


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  1. Really great article Mike. giving people confidence and their initial success in the gym is about getting them to do the basics efficiently. Really good point and always overlooked in my opinion. Thanks for the article I’m really enjoying reading your stuff lately.

    • Scott – Confidence is huge for everyone, but especially people who may be nervous, stressed or anxious walking into your gym.

      Thanks for the kind words and keep up the good work!

  2. Great post Mike, I really relate to number one and it took me a long time to get there. Keep up the great work.

  3. About the turning 40, I just turned 66 and I don’t feel old either. If you stick with what you already know, you will turn all those benchmark birthdays back to being numbers where they belong.
    And it doesn’t take heroic efforts either. Daily maintenance is key. Get your sleep, get your nutrition, move, breathe, and have a couple of good laughs, at least one of them at yourself. This is all the stuff you already know.
    Happy birthday, Mike. Your newsletter is my favorite fitness email and I love your other products too. Hope I’ll be receiving it for many healthy years into the future, yours and mine.

    • Dante –

      Thanks so much for this! I truly appreciate it.

      And trust me – I don’t plan on going anywhere for a VERY long time 🙂

      Take care my friend, and thanks again for the kind words!


  4. Great article Mike! My training and coaching is so much more efficient by doing movements and exercises that work and are time effective. As a specialist hurdles coach, there are heaps of fancy looking drills…. that I don’t use. If it doesn’t replicate the movement, I don’t use it

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