Here's what you need to know...
- An effective and mentally freeing approach to programming is making a list of training items that you want to complete within a set time and chipping away at it.
- A scratch list item might be "100 glute-ham raises". You can break them down however you like over the course of a week: all on one day, 50 reps on two days, or 25 reps over four days.
- These are a nice change of pace from rigid paradigms because there's no mention of sets and reps. However, they aren't appropriate for everything.
A scratch list is a checklist of work to be completed, with the total workload broken up into "doses" of your choosing. These can be made as a single workout, a weekly or monthly to-do list, or whatever you can dream up.
These offer a change of pace from more rigid paradigms because they can be performed pretty much thoughtlessly without attention paid to sets and reps. As such, they tailor well to our ever-fluctuating energy levels. However, because of their haphazard nature, they aren't appropriate for everything.
Here's an example of one I recently made for myself. I needed to simply start moving again to get a baseline of conditioning. I hate being excessively regimented, so a scratch list was a great place to start. I prefer to print the items in light gray so I can physically mark over them once complete.
You can make a list of total dosage – say, 100 glute-ham raises for a week in whatever breakdown you feel like. Or you could break it up into smaller doses, perhaps listing four separate doses of 25 glute-ham raises to be sprinkled more evenly throughout the week.
When is a Scratch List Appropriate?
1 – Accessory Work
Accessory work is typified by higher rep ranges, usually 6-15 reps. This is a workable rep range because as long as the lifter is working hard, reps in that range all have roughly the same training effect – increased muscle hypertrophy and density.
Say your list says 50 reps of barbell rows at 155 pounds. You may feel frisky and get 15 reps in the early sets and then taper down to 10 or 8 as you tire, but all reps still fall within that accessory work rep range.
2 – Exercises You Hate
The scratch list can provide a motivational change of pace. The salient feature is that you can pick your poison for any given day, as long as the whole body of work eventually gets done.
One day you might be more motivated to bang out a bunch of sets of an exercise you hate (Bulgarian split squats come to mind), whereas on another day you just can't handle it. This system lets you ride your motivation as it ebbs and flows – if you do a little less today, do a little more tomorrow.
3 – Exercises Without Strong Interactions
Exercises that can be placed anywhere within a program without much of a deleterious effect on others will work on a scratch list. Because you'll be moving through them in a somewhat random fashion, exercises have to minimally affect your ability to perform other movements. Rotator cuff work is probably my favorite muscle group for this method. It can be paired with virtually anything with little hesitation.
4 – Time-Crunched Days
On a day when you only have 20 or 30 minutes to train, scratch list exercises can be a good way to get a higher volume of training in. This is especially true for the commercial gym-goer who has to share space and equipment with others. Your program won't get thrown off if something you need is unavailable, so you can continue repping out another exercise on the list.
5 – Conditioning: Where Variety Matters Most
One of the best uses of a scratch list is for conditioning because it's typically not progressive in the same way as strength training. Since you just need to get it done without much regard for progressions, a monthly scratch list of different conditioning options works really well to keep you interested.
When It's Not Appropriate
1 – High-Intensity Exercises
I never use these to program for heavy lifting. If you have sets of 5 reps or fewer, it's not a good idea to list "30 reps" of your 85% 1RM. It's better to stick with a "sets times reps" format to keep you on track with rest periods and ensure you're getting stronger. I also don't want to encourage anyone to bang out 4 sets of 8 with a 5-rep weight (if that was even possible). Although a few more reps may be possible, it's not worth it if form becomes sloppy.
2 – High-Technique Exercises
Same principle as with heavy lifting – I don't want to encourage extra reps beyond their ability level at a given weight. Things like Olympic lifts or heavy unilateral exercises become dangerous and ineffective if pushed beyond the standards of good form.
3 – High-Interaction Exercises
Exercises that produce heavy fatigue or soreness on a set-by-set basis don't make it onto scratch lists.
As such, any exercise must be able to be placed anywhere in the workout without negatively affecting it as a whole. For example, if I put "50 Back Extensions" on someone's workout and they repped a lot of them at the beginning, their lower back would likely be cramping the rest of the workout. Any subsequent leg exercise would suffer, along with the workout as a whole.
4 – High-Complexity Programs
Scratch lists are both good and evil for their haphazard nature. If you're trying to get faster, jump higher, throw harder, or win your next powerlifting meet, scratch lists may only be appropriate for small facets of your training program. And with really complex programs, there are more interactions between lifting, conditioning, pre-hab, and skill work that are not as easily accounted for when using one or more scratch lists.
If you do too much on one morning, it may negatively affect the evening and next day's session. Scratch lists can't control for that, so typical programming is a better option.
How To Make Them Work For You
Here are my top 5 uses for scratch lists:
1 – Weekly Weakness List
Say your squat sucks because your hamstrings suck. A great start would be adding glute-ham raises, sliding leg curls, and back extensions to the end of your workouts. Your weekly scratch list might look like this:
- 60 Glute-Ham Raises
- 60 Sliding Leg Curls
- 60 Back Extensions
This would give you a workload of 10 reps of each on 6 different days, or 20 reps each on 3 days, or you could bang out one exercise in full on three different days. There's an infinite number of ways to accomplish the same task, which is 180 reps of hamstring-focused exercise.
2 – Weekly Body Maintenance List
Unless you're a ballplayer, rotator cuff work is just super unsexy. Everyone needs more rotator cuff, soft tissue, and mobility work, so everyone should have a weekly maintenance list. Interaction is minimal and they can be thrown in wherever you please – as active rest between sets or before or after a workout.
The following list has rotator cuff and mobility exercises thrown in, and it's a three-week list with sets and reps as individual "doses." There are a million ways to get things done on this system. Some items are listed more than once because they need to be completed more than once per week.
3 – Monthly Conditioning List
For 95% of the world, conditioning just needs to get done. It doesn't have to be complicated. Pick a few different things you want to do – hill sprints, Prowler pushes, interval runs, jump rope, complexes, etc. – and figure out how many doses per week you want. Then choose how many of each type will fill out that number of doses. Scratch off as you go.
4 – Monthly or Weekly Skill Work List
I have work to do this winter – I have baseball skill work I need to refine for next season. If I want the change to stick forever, I need lots of reps. My goal is 10,000 this month, so I made a list using doses of 150 repetitions. That leaves 9,850 to go before I'm where I need to be!
If you want to get better at a sport, become proficient at the Olympic lifts, or simply refine your squat, bench, and deadlift technique, you need a practice plan. Maybe it's 1000 broomstick snatches between you and a new PR. Identify where you need work, define an amount of repetitions that will boost the weakness, make a list and get to work.
5 – Single Workout List
I don't advocate randomness. This is simply a different form of balanced programming. In other words, choose exercises sensibly – Push, Pull, Hip, Quad, Hamstring, Rotator Cuff, or whatever best fits your goals. Here's an example:
The List Looms
It's nice to see everything laid out in front of you. You can attack at your own pace and feel accomplished as the pile dwindles. Not everything is best suited for a scratch list, but there's undoubtedly a place for it somewhere within your overall training program.