Coaches Prescribe Programs, But Often Don't Use Them
I'm going to go ahead and say something as a trainer who's confident in his knowledge and abilities that may catch you off guard. I haven't followed a set program in a very long time.
Sure, I've put something together for myself time and again in order to have a loose structure to adhere to, but as for a legitimate set program that I use while hawkeyeing my results, recording my progress, and charting my progressions, it's been a while.
The more veteran coaches in the industry I open up to about this, the more I'm amazed that so many admit they feel the same way. They believe the need to train intuitively grows as you learn your body, experience setbacks, and mature as a lifter.
Here are some reasons many of us veterans have abandoned programs, followed by an explanation of how to do "program-free" training.
We Have a Life Outside the Gym
Many popular programs can deliver the kick-in-the-pants that a new lifter needs. Many of those same programs also assume that a lifter has a bill of clean health, gets adequate amounts of rest at night, minimal amounts of stress during the day, and has the time to devote to a balls-out program.
That works just fine... for 90 percent of the 20-year olds who weigh in at 155 soaking wet. But it applies to a much smaller demographic of, say, the 30-plus crowd who may have an erratic gym schedule, families, stressful jobs, shorter sleeps, and of course, much poorer recovery time for all of the reasons above. And of course, their bodies are at least a decade older.
Don't get me wrong, if you can get all your ducks in a row so you can follow a demanding structure, more power to you. But chances are, that won't happen, and that's the reality of our industry.
Programs Aren't Really Designed for YOU
There's another huge part to this equation that everyone's afraid to talk about. Some people's personalities just plain don't do well with structured programming that asks for repeats of similar cycles week after week.
Someone who's more prone to mental fatigue, muscular injury, or losing motivation would definitely benefit from variety in what he or she is doing in the gym.
Another thing to keep in mind is that well-known strength and size training programs are renowned because they're effective, but that doesn't discount the fact that it's still someone else's program and wasn't designed for you specifically.
If you have a history of injuries, contraindications, and more, you need a program that's tailored specifically for your needs and physiology.
Programs Are Stressful
Adhering to a program design takes discipline and consistency, but can become another stressor if you let it. The drudgeries of planning your meals against certain training days, or seeing if your new PR happened at the prescribed time, can begin to chip away at a lifter mentally, especially if he or she identifies with fitness and not much else.
It sounds trite, but it can be liberating to have fewer "responsibilities" where the gym is concerned, allowing you to train based on how you feel instead of blind devotion to a programmed schedule and a percentage-of-1RM chart.
What's Wrong with Just Getting and Staying Strong?
Too many coaches preach the idea that you should perpetually try to get stronger, regardless of your levels of development and ability, and regardless of your training age or history.
Not enough of us preach the idea of getting strong and then staying strong. That takes a mindset towards maintaining levels of strength and not constantly pushing PR's. That's also something most programs don't support, since they often take you to a goal you haven't yet reached. That's perfectly fine, but that's not what this article is about.
Program-Free Training: How to Do It
Before you think program-free training means embarking on a completely unplanned free-for-all whenever you step into your gym, remember that this idea is for lifters with years of training experience under their belts. A novice lifter in dire need of muscle and strength has no business doing anything but following a regimen that will build them the foundation they seek.
With that out of the way, here are general guidelines every program-free trainer needs to observe:
1 – Keep primal movement patterns in your workouts.
Don't eliminate important lifts like squats, deads, and overhead pressing, or important movement patterns like pulling work, rows, and lunges. You don't specifically have to do back squats, conventional deadlifts, or seated rows, but there are plenty of other options that satisfy the need to do each pattern.
2 – When you're feeling it, pump up the volume.
This is where your time in the trenches comes in handy. Some days you'll feel like you can lift the world, and other days you'll feel like trash. Use your intuition to take advantage of the good days and reach for a bit more.
3 – Don't go heavy on back-to-back workouts.
Your central nervous system will need time to recover after a heavy week of lifting, but more importantly, you have to acknowledge that going heavy on a fairly regular basis is something that's more conducive to a structured program than being off of one.
If your accessory work or weekly volume is changing week-to-week, then it may hinder your ability to hit lifting numbers you'd like on a consistent basis. Training based on how you feel is far less about moving numbers and more about a rate of perceived exertion and the training effect that lifting delivers to your body.
4 – Recognize what rep ranges work for you.
Connecting your mind to your muscles and being aware of what delivers the best pump for your body will probably reveal that sets of 3 won't give you the same feeling from muscle group to muscle group. Neither will sets of 12 across the board. It'll vary.
Personally, I love high-rep training for my back and going heavy for chest, traps, and shoulders. If I train arms, I go for volume at lighter loads while treating big, lower-body dominant lifts like squats and deadlifts as technical vehicles for heavy sets of 3-6.
Accessory lower body movements like leg presses, lunges, and leg extensions get plenty of reps and never see single digits. If you've been training for a long time and still aren't sure what elicits the best response for you, start paying more attention.
5 – Use indicator sets, especially for strength work.
An indicator set represents a load during your ramping phase (on a big lift) where you're most in-tune with the bar speed, fluidity, and feel of the weight as you're lifting it. It won't, however, be the empty bar or even your first weighted set.
For me, during squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, the indicator set was always 275 pounds. It was far off of my maxes, but it was a significant number that let me know how my joints felt that day, along with how fast I was moving (in other words, how "easy" it felt to lift for the day).
Some days it moved like butter. Other days it moved slower than molasses. Let your indicator set dictate whether you adjust the weight or volume you use for your working sets. It's an invaluable tool to know when to back off.
6 – Finish on a high note.
Ending a workout (or an exercise within a workout) in a place where you feel excellent, pumped, strong, and properly fatigued is the best possible motivation you can get.
And before you think I mean you can get away with doing one set of work, I don't. An experienced lifter will know when they've reached the high note of their workout. The second you have to convince yourself the next set of work is still a good idea, you've missed my point and probably shouldn't be doing it.
Ride the wave, and know when to get off while you're still on your feet.
Program-Free Program "Design"
As far as "planning" your weeks, it's smart to classify your week not by muscle and not by movement, but actually by the lift itself. Choose one lift to which you'll devote most of your training volume and then program two to three more lifts to complement that lift as accessory. Example:
- A. Strict Press (main lift): 45x6, 95x5, 115x3, 135x3, 155x3, 165x3, 175x3, 185x3, 195x3, 205 for 2x3
- B. High Pull (complementary lift): 5x3
- C. Dumbbell Seated Press (complementary lift): 5x10
- D. Lat Pulldown (complementary lift): 5x10
- A. Deadlift (main lift): 45x6, 135x3, 185x3, 205x3, 225x3, 250x3, 275x3 (indicator set), 315x3, 365x3, 385x3, 405x3 (and so on, depending on results of indicator set)
- B. Pull-Up (complementary lift): 6x8
- C. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row (complementary lift): 5x12-20 per arm
- D. Bodyweight Dip (complementary lift): 4x max reps
All of the above could change based on how you feel. If the pulldowns or dips are creating the best pump of your life, you can double the volume if it suits you. Remember, there are no rules beyond the basic stuff I wrote earlier.
Use Your Head
I can already foresee people missing the forest for the trees, thinking this concept provides an escape from hard work or, worse yet, saying that having no program is a program in itself.
It's time to break the stigma that comes along with not following someone else's program. If we've been in the gym lifting smart for over a decade, chances are we're not looking for specific, numerical gains all year round.
Whether you take this advice as your plan for the next six weeks, or for the next two years, I can guarantee that as long as you play the game by the general, very broad rules, you'll be happy you gave it a chance.