The conversation always goes a little something like this:
Me: so what do you do for your workouts?
Client/Advice seeker/inquiring potential client: Usually do chest and tri’s on monday, Legs on wednesday and Back and Bi’s on Friday’s (because, well, why not!)
Me: (in my head) OMG!!!
Me: (for real) Has that been working for you? Why do you split it like that (just curious)?
Potential Client: Not sure, I’ve always done it that way, everyone at my gym does it like that...how else would you do it?
Me: (with the voice of Bernie Casey) Well, that depends on your particular area of expertise…
And I karate kick and chop everyone in the gym! Just kidding!....sort of!
However, this is a conversation I have over and over again. It’s a great exercise in understanding, as well as targeted practice in going over your principles and philosophies. It also helps you challenge and examine your belief system, which we all should do. If you are an industry person, much of what I’m about to write will be old hat (and then again, based upon what i've seen on this very interweb….maybe not), so this isn’t necessarily written for you. This is a dissertation written for the casual fitness trainee. Anyone looking for a sustainable approach to constructing a TRAINING program that not only gets them stronger but also allows them to move better and remain more durable for anything else that life throws at them. That’s essentially my elevator speech for why i do things the way I do. The following are the nuts and bolts.
Determining needs (with wants)
I don’t think I’ve written a program in the last 8 - 10 years without some semblance of an evaluation first. That evaluation may have been as simple as a couple performance tests to determine big rock weaknesses, or could have been an observation of some basic human movement patterns such as the squat, lunge, push up, and hinge. Most of the time it’s a combination of all the above in conjunction with the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) to determine any movement deficiencies and asymmetries (differences between right and left). As I’ve heard guys such as Tony Gentilcore and others state, the evaluation doesn’t have to be super cumbersome and most certainly shouldn’t cause your trainee to feel like a lab rat. However, if the client comes to you with an injury history, is an athlete, or has some very specific goals it is diligent to make sure you’ve determined what the client does and does not do well from a movement perspective. Honestly, despite all your best intentions, without an evaluation you’re throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks from a programming perspective.
If sets, reps, and exercises are the main courses as it relates to programming then frequency, duration, and ability to recover are the side dishes. They’re often not given the proper attention, but can really make a difference in whether the program you write is effective for the client. What I find when I’m writing programs for people is that Murphy’s law always reigns supreme. What I mean by that is that your best laid plans are always just that, best laid plans. A program, especially one written for someone who participates in the real world (aka a non professional athlete) rarely plays out exactly as planned. “Things” invariably pop up, life happens and before you know it that 4 week phase with the built in supercompensation week ends up lasting about 6.5 weeks and that supercompensation week is actually a week of traveling for work and living in hotel rooms.
I always have to consider realistic frequency of workouts, meaning number of workouts the client can realistically get in per week. I’m also mindful of duration...If I write a workout that takes the better part of an entire afternoon to complete and my client only has a 45 minute window on his/her lunch break to get it in, then it’s probably not going to be an effective regimen for that particular trainee.
Perhaps the most important factors to consider (outside of the goals of the client and expected time frame to completion) are what I like to term competing factors. Competing factors are what affect a person’s ability to recover from the programs that I write. If they can’t recover then they can’t come back for the next session. If they can’t do that then there’s no consistency and without consistency it’ll be hard to realize success. When I’m programming i consider a person's job, do they sit all day? That may affect what I include or exclude from a program. Is their job highly stressful? Depending on the person, me adding stress on top of stress may be the exact opposite of what he/she needs. I may also factor in a person's homelife, do they have children? Do they get enough sleep? And what is their current nutritional status...that’s a fancy way of asking how well they eat? All those elements are going to factor when it comes to someone's ability to recover from the external stressors that I’m about to add. Once I’ve acquired all of the above information, then I go on and build out the program.
Nuts and Bolts
After I’ve done all the assessing and information gathering I sit down to do the fun part of planning out the exercises and progressions to take the client towards his/her goals. There are a handful of staples that will be present in almost every program i write. I (and many others) refer to those as the fundamental human movements - Squat, Hinge, Push, Pull, Lunge. In my opinion you need to be good at the basics and there’s nothing more basic than the aforementioned five movements. Now, in what form the squat, hinge, push, pull, and lunge are represented will be unique to the each client's needs, wants, and abilities.
Research and experience has validated fairly clearly that total body workouts (vs body part or hemisphere splits) are superior in effectiveness and efficiency. I can’t imagine spending an hour or more for “chest day.” If i’m programming for a client with physique goals I tend to use a method called “tri-sets.” A tris-set is three exercises performed in a row with minimal rest in between (15-30 sec) and a more moderate rest interval (60-90 sec) after all three exercises have been completed.
I like to view the body in terms of arranging exercises in an ‘X’ pattern. The ‘X’ is nothing more than pairing a lower body exercise with an upper body exercise and finally a trunk stability exercise to round out the triset. How i go about choosing the exercises is what is unique. As I mentioned previously I always want a squat, hinge, push, pull, or lunge represented in every workout. So for example if I have a squatting movement planned (also known as a lower body “push”), I’ll pair it with an upper body pull, such as a TRX row or single arm dumbbell row. If it’s a hinging movement such as a KB Swing or Deadlift that I have planned, I would pair that with an upper body push such as a DB bench press or DB push press. A triset may look something like this:
A1. Goblet Squat (Lower Push)
A2. TRX Row (Horizontal Pull)
A3. Ab Wheel rollouts (Anti-extension)
In the example above i put in parenthesis the movement that each exercise represents.
I consider exercises in terms of their plane of movement. For example a chin up is a vertical pull. A Barbell bent over row is a horizontal pull (aka row). A pushup is a horizontal press. A shoulder press is a vertical press. Still with me? Lower body works similarly. A squat is known as a lower push or a quad dominant movement. A deadlift is termed a lower pull or hip dominant movement. I like to put “pulls” with “presses” whether its upper or lower body.
In the above triset example after the ab wheel rollouts i have (anti extension). I break “core” exercises down into what they resist. Rollouts force you to maintain neutral spine while moving, the work is in resisting succumbing to gravity and falling into extension, thus anti extension. The other ways the trunk resists movement is in Lateral Flexion, so we work anti lateral flexion. An example would be a side plank. And, lastly the trunk resists rotation. An example exercise would be the anti rotation press (pic). How this all ties into programming is that I tend to program the “Anti” movements earlier in the workout and may put a rotary exercise (and twisting action) later or towards the end of the workout.
(side note: this is how everyone should train the trunk)
A couple other programming considerations would be including more pulling than pressing, typically a 2:1 ratio. We spend most of our days hunched, reaching and working with things in front of us so the notion of doing more pulls than presses is necessary in order to counter the evils of everyday living. The other I want to highlight is including more hinging or bridging movements than squatting. Once again, we’re a quad dominant society, so some squatting is good, but more hinging is better. Highlighting hinging gets us working with our glutes and hamstrings which are large muscle groups that not only burn a ton of calories at work but also help us function pretty nicely. It also helps us have nice backsides...which no one complains about.
Below is an example of what a typical (for me) total body workout would and could look like:
A1. BB Hip Bridge
A2. Weighted Pushup
A3. Suitcase carry
B1. DB Reverse Lunge
B2. Single DB Row
B3. Ab Wheel rollout
Finisher: KB Swings
As you can see in the above example every major movement is addressed. The most functional aspect of creating workouts in this manner is that it allows you to train all the compound multi joint movements multiple times per week which allow much more bang for the buck. More exposure leads to faster skill acquisition which allows the client to progress quicker as well as get fitter. If you’re still doing body part splits and spending a ton of time in the gym, give the total body split a try. I think you’ll find that your workouts will be quicker and more effective in inching you closer to your goals.
If you’ve been wanting or needing a change to your workouts for the new year, check out my distance coaching product or drop me an email and we can schedule an in person consult.