Let’s make clear that you don’t learn programming from one freaking podcast episode, book, or blog post. It takes practice, trial and error and experience to become a proficient and confident programmer.
For those that are confused, I am talking about writing strength and conditioning or fitness training programs for a client or group of clients.
Here’s the thing with programming, and I’ve said this before – there is not one way to program. That’s the beautiful and often super overwhelming and frustrating truth about programming.
There is no a+b = c for strength or endurance or power. Want to increase your back squat or bench numbers? Do x. It doesn’t work like that.
So before we even get into the foundational must knows, I encourage you to embrace the fact that you have a blank slate to work with when it comes to writing programs. Rather than being overwhelmed by that, attempt to see freedom here. The freedom to develop YOUR PHILOSOPHY.
Trust that I went to my professor’s office in college more than once complaining about how hard programming was. I just didn’t get it. I was student who wanted a tried and true equation. It’s not that tried and true equations don’t work for increasing strength, power, muscle size or endurance. It’s just that there are SEVERAL for each of those.
If you’re overwhelmed or feel incompetent, you should.
I don’t say that diss you. I say that because programming IS overwhelming. It IS complex. But when done efficiently, it becomes quite simple. So don’t give up. Like anything else, it takes practice, and implementation. Often, on yourself.
And to be fair, these are my opinions and observations from ten years of programming + being in this field. I by no means know everything. Not even close. Take these for whatever they’re worth to you.
For instance a hamstring curl and an RDL do different things for the hamstring, and I would not substitute one for the other.
A glute ham focused back extension would be a much better substitute for RDL, whereas supine slider curls or prone bench ham curls would be a better more accurate substitute for hamstring curls.
One primarily focuses on the concentric phase and shortening range of motion, while the other focuses on the eccentric phase and stretching to hamstrings.
This is where having a college degree is not required but is definitely helpful. You learn all about anatomy and physiology before you even get into programming. So that when programming does come about in your last year of uni, you already have a base of understanding in what muscles attach where, and how they function.
If you don’t have an A&P background, then make time to study the human body. There are plenty of free sites online that allow you to view muscles, their origins, insertions and actions. It’s honestly just fun, especially if you enjoy this stuff.
Sure, I suppose you can get good at programming without this understanding but likely not.
A place you could even start would be Mike Boyle’s joint by joint approach.
And to be honest, Julie Read has a really fun anatomy coffee table book called Muscles to the Masses and I absolutely adore it.
Once you actually get into programming, I’d argue that step one is to simply grasp that there are different adaptations from certain set and rep schemes.
While there is LARGE variance here, and it is not this black and white…sometimes it can help to start with a rigid structure, and then enter grey areas as you gain a better understanding.
Power: 1-3 reps, 2+ minutes rest, 40-60% of your max [with power, the factor of time comes into play – how fast can we move something]. To have high velocity, the load will be lower.
Strength: 4-7 reps, up to 2 minutes rest, 75+% of max [time is not a factor here – the focus is FORCE, so the load is high, and the velocity is likely low or honestly rather irrelevant].
Hypertrophy: Soooooo traditionally, to my knowledge this was taught as 8-12 reps, but we now know that the main factor in eliciting muscle growth is mechanical tension. We can get progressive mechanical tension at a very wide range of rep schemes. So not based on any studies I know of, but imma say 4-12 reps. This also means that you’ll possibly work at a large range of percentages.
Just know it’s a wide range and happen across a large span of rep schemes. Push the muscles, eat the protein, and recover. Viola, hypertrophy. Not that simple, but also kind of is.
And lastly –
Endurance: Traditionally, 12-15 reps but is truly just 12+ reps, likely under 1 minute of rest between sets, and done at 60% or lower of your max for load.
Did you write those down? I hope you got that. Because while it’s not that black and white, I do still believe it’s a solid place to start with programming.
This speaks to two things, but mainly the STRUCTURE of the program.
Perform power first, then strength, then hypertrophy and endurance.
Perform largest compound movements first, then progressively decrease to any single joint or isolation work.
For example, you’d do your plyometric box jumps or olympic lifting work first. Your nervous system should be primed and ready, and will fatigue throughout your lift. As will your muscles. We want to optimize power output when your body is most ready for it.
Then you’d enter into your heavy squats per say, then accessory work like step ups, romanian deadlifts, lunges, hip thrusts or what have you.
Listen – because I know someone will get their biker shorts all up in a bunch. These suggestions are not the ONLY way you can EVER write a program. They simply provide a very basic and evidence based framework to START WITH.
So, a little tidbit on mechanical advantage. You can use this in an entire day’s lift, or in one lift.
In a whole lift it looks like what I described, do the hardest movements first, then taper to the easier or less complex ones.
In one movement that looks like a drop set.
Pull ups: 2 reps each, wide grip, narrow grip, P grip, chin up.
You likely can’t do 8 wide grip pull ups, but we tax your muscles by adding on reps of easier versions. They’re easier, yes. But as you fatigue, they all feel just as difficult as the first rep. It’s truly magical.
For split squats, you could do front foot elevated reverse lunge, into front foot elevated split squat, into normal split squats.
Make sense? Great.
We’ll stop there for today in this two part series. I had planned to make this one episode but it’s truly a lot to take in so, look forward to next week when I lay out part two of the fundamental programming “must knows.”
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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