I get emails all the time from T-Nation readers who want to know why I don’t write programs for the masses. About the only answer I can muster up is: “Because I have a conscience.” And because there’s no such thing as a successful program for the masses, I’m not sure I’m comfortable trying to write one.
While we’ve had a lot of well-designed programs presented here at T-Nation, they’re always going to be inappropriate for some readers. Whether it’s injury history, inexperience, lack of familiarity with certain exercises, poor overall recovery capacity, or any number of other confounding factors, something is always going to stand in the way of making a program for the masses suitable for everyone who reads it.
While I can’t write the ideal program, I can point out common pitfalls in programming in order to help you develop and evaluate your own programs or those that have been written for you by other coaches. So let’s get to it!
10 Programming Pitfalls
Pitfall #1: Crap Periodization
It fascinates me that there are still misinformed coaches using linear periodization in spite of peer-reviewed studies and overwhelming anecdotal reports that have proven it to be an inferior source of programming when compared to non-linear modalities.
What’s even more hilarious is that there are “coaches” using programs right out of rubbish bodybuilding magazines! Linear periodization may be ineffective relatively speaking, but it’s been shown that linear periodization is better than no periodization – which is exactly what you see in your favorite professional bodybuilder’s 87 set biceps program.
Newsflash to the people still publishing these programs: believe it or not, when readers a) actually care about strength and b) aren’t on enough sauce to sink a battleship, it’s in their best interests to fluctuate training stress. Oh, and they shouldn’t lift in pink bandanas and combat boots either.
To build on the “caring about strength” issue, I’m a firm believer that maximal strength is the single-most precious commodity an athlete possesses. This even applies to bodybuilders. Yes, there’s something more cherished than thongs, posing oil, and fanny packs. You can’t have the strength endurance needed for “traditional” hypertrophy unless you have maximal strength in the first place.
And you obviously won’t do a very good job of stimulating myofibrillar hypertrophy (the muscle proteins themselves) if you aren’t handling enough weight to do any damage in the first place. Athletes in pursuit of peak power must also appreciate maximal strength, as it can have a ceiling effect on increases in power.
For these reasons, conjugated and true undulating periodization templates will always blow linear periodization and alternating accumulation-intensification programs out of the water when it comes to long-term progress in trained individuals (I ought to get a few letter bombs for that statement). These latter two approaches altogether ignore maximal strength (and other important strength qualities) for extended periods throughout the year.
Hopefully, the Unabomber isn’t a linear periodization advocate.
Pitfall #2: No Planned Overreaching
Okay, so now that we know that certain variations of non-linear periodization are superior, it’s important to realize that fluctuating overall training stress within these schemes can optimize progress.
Some coaches will choose to fluctuate this stress within the week, and others (myself included) within the month. Overall stress may be changed via manipulation of frequency, volume, intensity, duration/distance (endurance athletes), exercise selection, exercise complexity, speed of execution, accommodating resistances, asymmetrical loading, or range of motion. There’s no set-in-stone right or wrong way to do things, but the best coaches will have that sixth sense when it comes to knowing how much fatigue to impose, when to push training stress, and when to back off.
Planned overreaching can be extremely effective if appropriate subsequent deloading periods are used, but many coaches turn the entire training year into planned overreaching – better termed overtraining in a chronic sense.
If you’re a coach who insists that you need to push an athlete to puke year-round to mentally harden him, you ought to find a new profession (not to mention a better hobby). Anybody can make an athlete tired; not everyone can make an athlete better, though.
Pitfall #3: Poor Structural Balance
Mike Robertson, Dr. Ryan Smith, Alwyn Cosgrove, and I spend a lot of our T-Nation related time fixing injuries. I take the bum shoulders, Mike takes the knees, Ryan the lower backs, and Alwyn just berates people in a Scottish accent until their pride is so beaten down that they forget about their ailing joints altogether! (Kidding, of course. Alwyn really knows his stuff.)
These injuries are almost always the result of terrible balance in programming. What’s worse, these programming errors are often found in the programs put forth by several prominent Internet gurus.
If you want to be a good coach, understand anatomy first. Structure dictates function, and function dictates performance. If you’re a “guru” who can’t differentiate between scapulohumeral rhythm, lower crossed syndrome, subtalar joint dysfunction, and a fiery case of gonorrhea, chances are that you need to spend less time writing programs and more time doing your homework.
Honestly, I’m pretty impressed when many so-called gurus can even distinguish an ass from an elbow. For the visual learners in the crowd, here’s a representation for clarification:
Pitfall #4: No Rest/Recovery Recommendations
I’d estimate that T-Nation readers – from ordinary weekend warrior to competitive, high-level athlete – are engaged in strenuous training for three to ten hours per week. That leaves a whopping 158 to 165 hours every week for you to completely “undo” all the progress you’ve made in the gym.
We all know about the importance of diet, and since my last name isn’t Berardi, Lowery, or Barr, I won’t delve into that here. However, the lifestyle components of recovery beyond diet are just as commonly overlooked as their nutrition counterpart.
Christian Thibaudeau outlined a ton of modalities for enhancing recovery and I went into detail on several recovery session modalities I use in Cardio Confusion. Virtually all methods – from massage, to self-myofascial release on the foam roller, to contrast showers, to recovery bloodflow circuits – have some merit; I’m not debating that here.
I’m just saying that if a coach isn’t explicitly encouraging you to engage in some of these activities when he writes a program, chances are you’ll miss out on productive training sessions and improved quality of life. Chances are that he, on the other hand, will be improving his own quality of life by spending the money you paid him for “effective programming.”
Foam rolling the IT band
Pitfall #5: Lack of Individualization
If you decide to consult a coach and he has a program ready for you in less than an hour, you’re getting taken for a cookie-cutter ride.
When I’m first contacted by an individual looking for help, I ask him to respond to roughly two dozen questions simply to get the ball rolling. There are usually several follow-ups as well. These questions relate to goals, training history, injury/rehab history, stats (age, height, weight, estimated body fat percentage), body type, dietary habits, problematic exercises, perceived weak points, equipment restrictions, occupation, work environment, and ideal training schedule.
I also request that he or she include an overview of their previous eight weeks of training and I perform a postural assessment. Whenever possible (i.e. in-person clients), based on what I see, I’ll do manual muscle testing and run them through some simple drills to give me an idea of where their inefficiencies exist. Athletes will always go through some performance testing before I write their programs. If an individual has a cute sister, I’ll be sure to get her phone number, too.
The point is, the individual and his unique needs matter. Avoid paying good money for cookie-cutter programs.
Pitfall #6: No Consideration of Warm-up
Over the last few years, considerable research has demonstrated that the classic “jog a little and then static stretch” warm-up is far from optimal. In fact, static stretching can actually be counterproductive when performed prior to strength and power tasks.
Nonetheless, it’s still extremely important to warm up prior to training, and since you need to do it, you ought to choose warm-up modalities that’ll give you plenty of bang for your buck. Several options are available, but dynamic flexibility/mobility work is without a doubt the most effective choice. Mike Robertson and I outline over thirty drills we use in this regard in our DVD, Magnificent Mobility.
You can also use low-intensity resistance training circuits and medicine ball work for a warm-up. The important thing is that you’re getting your body temperature up and dynamically exposing yourself to a variety of movements through full joint ranges of motion.
If a specific warm-up protocol isn’t included in your program, it’s fair to assume that the coach doesn’t view it as an important component of your success. In turn, it’s fair for you to assume that the coach is lazy, forgetful, or stupid – or a combination of the three.
Pitfall #7: No Consideration of Non-Training Activity
Earlier, I noted that you’ll generally have 158 to 165 “non-training” hours per week. This time isn’t just important in terms of recovery work, though; it’s also an important consideration because what you do in this time can have considerable physiological implications. A good coach should recognize that what you do at school, work, or just as a recreational activity can profoundly impact your progress.
A few examples:
1. The corporate CEO who doesn’t realize that slouching in front of a computer all day is just making his neck pain worse.
2. The ectomorph college student who isn’t eating enough to make up for the energy cost of walking four miles around campus each day.
3. The pro basketball player who doesn’t appreciate that three hours of pick-up hoops in July is interfering with his ability to gain strength and power in the off-season while making his patellar tendonosis worse.
4. The factory worker who spends all day reaching to the top shelf, but can’t figure out why his rotator cuff pain hasn’t subsided.
5. The teenage hockey player who plays four hours of video games every day, but can’t understand why his hamstrings and hip flexors are tighter than a camel’s ass in a sandstorm.
If these individuals don’t reach their goals, the majority of the blame may very well fall on the shoulders of the coach. It’s his responsibility – not the client’s – to know what outside activities may sabotage progress.
Pitfall #8: Lack of Exercise Variety
Every action in our daily life requires contribution from both the afferent (sensory) and efferent (motor) systems. The afferent system provides our central nervous system with the information needed to consciously or subconsciously respond to a given stimuli. The efferent system, on the other hand, is that actual “get ‘er done” component of human function. It’s how our nervous system coordinates muscle action.
The overwhelming majority of strength and conditioning research to-date has looked almost exclusively at the efferent component, which essentially encompasses all the feed-forward actions that lead to fiber recruitment, rate coding (firing frequency), and summation potential (how many motor units can fire at once, which is also related to how long the fiber is activated).
What gets lost in the shuffle is that in human function, none of these events can occur without afferent contribution. Very simply, something has to tell the nervous system what to do before it can do it. So, no matter how efficient your “get ‘er done” system is, if the feedback is a bottleneck, you’ll never perform up to your potential.
So, how does this apply to program design? In a word, variety. Your afferent system will be developed through variety in programming. If you always give the body the same tasks, you’ll only get good at responding to those tasks.
Given that resistance training is predominantly composed of closed-loop (predictable) challenges, a lack of exercise variety will turn you into a motor moron. How does one avoid going the “all show and no go” route? There are two broad approaches to expanding your motor pool and, in the process, afferent function:
1. Variations on closed-loop skills – Use different bars, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, medicine balls, body weight exercises, grip widths, ranges of motion, points of stability (e.g. lunge vs. squat), etc.
One-leg Romanian deadlift with dumbbells
2. Open-loop (unpredictable) skills – Certain implements, such as kegs, asymmetrically loaded barbells, and partner-assisted perturbations to balance, can make resistance training an open-loop challenge.
I should note that the examples I listed only apply to resistance training, but similar variation can be imposed with respect to training for agility, speed, reactive ability, etc. Your imagination is your only limit.
There needs to be enough repetition and frequency of a given drill to allow for adaptation, but one also needs to begin to push variety as soon as possible – especially with athletes. Exercise variety will not only improve overall function in athletes and bodybuilders alike, but also markedly reduce the risk of injury due to pattern overload, muscle imbalances, and movement dysfunction.
By the way, for those coaches who want to know where machines fit into this discussion, the answer is: “Stop eating paint chips.”
Pitfall #9: No Prehabilitation
Just because an athlete isn’t injured doesn’t mean that he never will be, and it’s the responsibility of the coach writing the program to make sure that injuries never come to fruition.
Anyone can tell you to bench, squat, deadlift, and do some pull-ups, but the best coaches will write programs that head off common imbalances before they can occur. Whether it’s some rotator cuff and scapular stability work, dorsiflexion emphasis, glute activation, or hip abductor attention, these interventions rarely have to comprise a significant portion of your training session.
With such a favorable cost to benefit ratio to prehab work, you can assume that any coach who isn’t including prehab in his programs falls under the lazy/forgetful/stupid umbrella. Is some horizontal abduction work really going to destroy the integrity of a program?
Cable rear delt flye
Pitfall #10: No Single-Leg Work
Variations of lunges, step-ups, and split-squats could very well be considered prehab movements; they really are fantastic injury-prevention interventions. Whenever you perform a single-leg exercise (without existing dysfunction), you’re naturally promoting balance between the hip adductors and abductors. If they don’t fire equally, you’ll lose your balance.
This component of frontal plane stability is of tremendous importance to efficiency in sport contexts. Athletes rarely encounter positions in competition where their feet are side-by-side. This relates back to the afferent efficiency issue. Give ’em some variety!
A common misconception is that unilateral movements can’t be effective for strength, power, and hypertrophy development. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As I noted in Construction by Adduction, the adductor magnus comprises as much cross sectional area in the “average” thigh as the entire hamstrings group. Given that single-leg movements really stress not only the adductor magnus but also its four synergists in adduction, some unilateral work can go a long way in bulking up your wheels.
Factor in that lunge variations are quite possibly the best movements for the entire glute complex, and you’ll realize that unilateral work can help to build a big, strong, functional posterior chain. They belong in every program, regardless of the goal.
To recap, you should have an individualized, structurally balanced, non-linearly periodized program that takes into account lifestyle factors and includes planned overreaching, rest/recovery modalities, plenty of variety, set warm-up protocols, prehabilitation movements, and single-leg work. How’s that for an all-inclusive sentence?
So, whip out your current program right now and consider it in light of these ten criticisms. I’m sure you’ll find at least a few areas in which you can improve!