The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Program Design

A Unified Theory of Fitness Programming

The Legacy of Lee

  • "Absorb what is useful; reject what is useless." – Bruce Lee

For those of you who've been living under a rock for the past thirty years, Bruce Lee was (and is still) the most well know martial artist that has ever lived. Bruce Lee died in 1973. That was over 31 years ago, yet he arguably has made a bigger impact on the martial arts world than any other single individual.

To understand what Lee meant by his "absorb what is useful" statement, we need to go back to the martial arts world of the late 1960's. In Lee's day, martial artists practiced only one discipline: karate fighters performed karate, judo athletes did judo, etc. Cross training in different martial arts was unheard of. Yet that was what Lee meant by this statement. In learning the best that the different martial arts had to offer, he formulated the first ever "mixed" martial art – his own system which he called Jeet Kune Do.

Fast forward to the mid-nineties and the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. This event pitted the best of each martial art against each other. Initially, the overwhelming dominant art was Brazilian Jiujutsu, so people assumed grappling was superior. But within a few years the dominant fighters came from kickboxing. Did that mean striking was superior? Not necessarily. In the next wave, wrestlers using a "ground and pound" philosophy dominated.

Today, in order to compete in these types of events (in fact, to even survive), you need to cross-train in several systems. There are fighters nowadays who've never learned anything but a mixed system. This approach has been dubbed "Mixed Martial Arts" and has become a mainstream term.

Thirty years since his death, Bruce Lee's message has finally gotten through to the masses: There's no single correct answer; there's no single best system. An integrated approach will always be superior.

The Unified Theory

Unfortunately, the search for the best "system" still continues in the fitness training industry. Years ago, aerobic training was the dominant training modality. We've cycled through weight training, Nautilus training, machine training, one-set-to-failure, multiple sets, functional training, yoga, Pilates, back to free weights, kettlebells, strongman lifts, and the list goes on.

The reality? There's no correct answer or single best system in fitness training either! Instead of trying to find the perfect single tool, the fitness professional or avid gym-goer would be better served by increasing the size of his toolbox.

That said, I'm sure this message will fall on deaf ears. So until you can accept the premise that you need to "liberate yourself from the classical mess" (another Bruce Lee line), I present my Unified Theory of Program Design. We've recently seen a plethora of advanced program design concepts here on T-Nation, but this is a "back to basics" program design article.

The interesting thing is that coaches and trainers with different philosophies analyze each other's programs and focus (or more appropriately, argue) on the differences. Yet if you look at the top coaches and what they're doing, you can see certain programming similarities across the board, regardless of the "type" of training they prescribe.

It's been said that small minds talk about people; mediocre minds talk about events; and great minds discuss concepts. In my opinion, small-minded trainers argue about whose program or style of training is the best, and mediocre trainers debate the differences between programs. Great trainers, however, cast aside the differences and see the common underlying similarities.

It's the same as punching in fighting sports. Regardless of the differences in approach, what it all comes down to is using the knuckles of the fist as a weapon. Once you strip away the differences we get to the heart of what works. That's the stuff I'm going to present to you.

It's these similarities – the common underlying successful denominators – that I've chosen to focus on. So regardless of your personal training philosophy, the principles I'm about to present remain valid.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Program Design

1 – Bodyweight Before External Resistance

I've said this before in a bunch of articles. Other coaches and trainers have said this before in a bunch of their articles. Yet this remains the step that most people will ignore. Regardless of your goals, one thing is for sure: You have no freaking business using a load if you can't stabilize, control, and move efficiently using only your bodyweight!

Unless your bodyweight is way too much or way too little resistance, then there's very little room for external loading. This is not to say that external loading isn't important. Of course it is, but it has definitely been overemphasized.

Unless you can perform twenty pushups in good from, get your ass off the bench press. Too easy? The same rule applies to the single leg squat. If you can't perform 8-10 good reps, then why are you using two legs to squat with external load?

2 – Train with Free Weights (Destabilized)

Once bodyweight has been mastered, the superiority of three dimensional free weight training is unparalleled. Single joint fixed axis machines – like the leg extension and the preacher curl machine – are quite honestly outdated. Other than rotational movements, which can be trained effectively using a cable column, every other movement can be performed better with bodyweight or a free weight rather than with a machine.

The newest trend from the machine companies is to create thousand dollar machines that replicate free weights! Save your money. Despite the advances in technology and in drug use, I think the average trainee's strength and size is less than in the past.

3 – Train Functionally

"Functional" means training for performance, not for the "pump" or standing on a ball or some other activity. Multiple joint lifts and combination lifts such as the squat and press are all real world functional activities.

Life and sport take place primarily on our feet. It's how we were designed to work. Our training programs need to reflect that. It seems to me that I've said this a thousand times, but it doesn't make it any less true: a muscle group allocation is pointless. Why would the muscles of the chest need their own "day" for training? If you split up the body into parts, how do you decide what parts to include?

Typically we see splits of chest, shoulders and triceps, back and biceps, and legs. Why don't we see splits like rhomboids and hip flexors, quadriceps and rotator cuff, sternocleidomastoid and pec minor? Because that wouldn't make bodybuilding "sense." But in my opinion, any split routine based on a random allocation of muscle groups to certain days of the week defies all logic.

Consider the following example: Hold a dumbbell in your right hand and raise your arm out to the side until it's parallel with the floor (a position known as a lateral raise in the fitness world!) Which muscles are working? The classic answer is the medial deltoid and the trapezius.

True. But maintain this position and just touch your obliques on the left side with your free hand. They're contracting maximally in order to stabilize your torso and spine, thus preventing you from tipping over. So the oblique has to contract so hard in order to stabilize your entire upper body (plus your arm and the dumbbell) that it becomes clear that this exercise forces more work from the oblique muscles, the tensor fascia lata, and the quadratus lumborum than it can from the medial deltoid!

So is it still a shoulder exercise? Or is it a total core and shoulder exercise? What body part day is this movement supposed to be trained on? Hopefully this helps you realize that the body will always work as a unit.

And I don't mean to "bag" on bodybuilding. One can't help but be impressed by top athletes in any sport. But the fact that it is a sport is also an important thing to remember. Bodybuilding is a unique sport unto itself. For the general fitness enthusiast (i.e. not a competitive bodybuilder) to develop and implement a fitness program using bodybuilding theory and bodybuilding type exercises makes as much sense as using soccer training or racquetball to design that same program. And while most people recognize that this is idiotic at best, we still continue to talk about splitting up "body parts" and following a bodybuilding-based program.

Now, that's not to say we don't use exercises or ideas from all sports and systems (remember, absorb what is useful...) To do so would be closed-minded. But to adopt any one single philosophy is just as closed-minded.

If you rank an athlete's qualities for their sport from 1-10 on a scale and find that they have a very poor flexibility score but a very good maximal strength score, then a strength based program may not be the best choice. Similarly, if my client is a golfer, a powerlifting specific program isn't warranted.

Again, we need to train according to the demands of life and sport. Athletes such as Serena Williams, Brandi Chastain, Linford Christie, Pyrros Dimas and Roy Jones have better physiques than most, but they've never trained for aesthetics; they've trained for function.

4 – Train Unilaterally and Multi-Planar

The majority of training programs take place in the sagittal plane (an imaginary "line" which divides the body into left and right halves – all pushing and pulling movements occur in this plane) with bilateral movements such as barbell bench presses and barbell curls that work in that plane. However, life and sport takes place in all three planes simultaneously with primarily unilateral or single-arm loaded movements

It isn't uncommon to see a fitness trainer spend an inordinate amount of time teaching a beginner to squat with a perfectly parallel stance and perfectly even loading. Yet watch that same client load his gym bag over one shoulder and walk to his car, where he gets in using an offset loaded, single leg rotational squat! Or move boxes in his garage with an offset stance and a rotational reach. We all have the story of the jacked guy who blew out his back helping you move a couch. Just be aware of real life function.

Below is a table of the entire "core musculature" (from Dr. Evan Osar's Form and Function). As you can see, the majority of the core muscle fibers run in the transverse plane. Sagittal divides the body into left and right halves; frontal divides the body into front and back halves (side to side movements); and transverse divides the body into top and bottom (for rotational movement).

Core Musculature Sagittal Frontal Transverse
Rectus Abdominus X    
External Obliques     X
Internal Obliques     X
Transverse Abdominus   X  
Psoas     X
Iliacus     X
Rectus Femoris     X
Sartorius     X
Tensor Fascia Latae X    
Iliocostalis     X
Longissimus     X
Spinalis X    
Multifidii /Rotatores     X
Quadratus Lumborum     X
Gluteus Maximus     X
Gluteus Medius     X
External hip rotators     X
Hamstrings X    
Adductors     X

5 – Train with Balance

Train with balance – balance between motor qualities and balance between movement patterns (e.g. horizontal push-pull). A training program in general should be balanced in terms of sets, reps, total time under tension, and volume throughout the entire body, but particularly in opposing movement patterns.

If, for example, you're doing 2 sets of 10 reps in the bench press, and 2 sets of 10 reps in the seated row, this isn't necessarily balanced. You could be pressing with 200 pounds – that's a total volume of 4000 pounds – and rowing with only 150, a total volume of 3000 pounds. This is actually a major imbalance and would need to be addressed. An imbalance in volume like this, left unaddressed, will end up causing a major shoulder girdle problem.

In an ideal situation we'd be using the same sets, reps, and loads in all antagonistic movement patterns, unless of course we were purposefully using volume to create an imbalance in order to correct an existing one. It's also important, although beyond the scope of this article, to understand that other motor qualities, including flexibility and cardio respiratory endurance, also need to be considered in the total scheme of programming.

6 – Use a Method of Periodization

Periodization just means planning. However, most trainees seem to ignore that simple concept and jump mindlessly from program to program without a clear picture of the long-term plan.

I'm not concerned with which method of periodization you use, but you do need to use some form of long term plan. Good coaches write programs for long-term success; poor coaches write workouts for short-term success but inevitable failure. The fact that most people will probably just jump from one program to another without planning their "big picture" makes success even more unlikely. So, for those of you who have primarily aesthetic goals, an alternating periodization model will be the most appropriate.

Let me explain. When using linear models (e.g. 6 weeks at 12-15 reps, 6 weeks at 8-12 reps, 6 weeks at 6-8 reps etc.) we tend to lose the qualities we initially sought to improve. For example, if we were to undertake 6 weeks of endurance (12-15 reps), 6 weeks of hypertrophy (8-12 reps) and 6 weeks of strength emphasis (4-6 reps), then at the end of the sixth week of strength emphasis it will have been 12 weeks since we were exposed to any endurance methods (twice as long as we spent developing it).

So we'll have lost portions of that quality! This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if we felt that the quality was important enough to train, then it's certainly important enough to maintain.

A better system would be to alternate the phases. So we'd perform a 12-15 rep phase, followed by a 4-6 rep phase, then an 8-12 rep phase. Using this method of alternating the accumulation and intensification phases, we never spend more than four weeks going in one rep "direction." Therefore, we avoid most of the problems of linear periodization.

For a more complete look at periodization, and specifically the limitations of the linear method, checkout Dave Tate's excellent Periodization Bible series.

7 – Use a Time-Outcome Based Approach

You have to know how long a workout takes. The big equalizer in training is time. We all have a limited amount of time to train. Yet most training programs tend to ignore this and begin with an exercise menu approach. (Warning: The following portion contains math!)

Let's say we have one hour total to train. We begin with 60 minutes. Subtract warm-up time (10 minutes) and rehab concerns/stretches (10 minutes). We now have 40 minutes of lifting time left.

Average length of a set in this phase is 60 seconds, rest period is 120 seconds. That's three minutes per set total (work set plus rest period). If we want to do two sets of each exercise, we're looking at six minutes per exercise. That allows us to perform only six exercises in this workout.

I've lost track of the number of trainers I've heard mindlessly say "you must get your workout done in under an hour" who then go on to design workouts that quite simply can't be performed in that timeframe! When you've finished designing your program, take the time to do the math and see if your workouts are even possible.

Conclusion: The Good Stuff

So that's basic program design in a nutshell. If you start to look at most successful long term programs, regardless of the differences, you'll start to see the similarities. More importantly, when you try it you'll start to see the effectiveness. And that's the Bruce Lee philosophy – cutting through the junk and filtering to get the good stuff!

Alwyn Cosgrove co-authored nine best-selling fitness books and is a member of the Nike Performance Council. Alwyn co-owns Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California, which was named one of the top ten gyms in America by Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines. Follow Alwyn Cosgrove on Facebook