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7 Steps to Writing Great Workout Programs

//7 Steps to Writing Great Workout Programs

I’ve instructed over a thousand people to become personal trainers, and one thing new trainers struggle with is the act of writing out a personal training program.  I am not talking about trying to decide if a client should perform bench press or perhaps push-ups, or if lunges are better than squats?  I am talking about the actual mechanics of constructing a workout program that is time efficient, easy to follow, easy to modify, and let’s clients make sense of the directions the trainer is trying to give them.  This is particularly important if you engage in online training.  If you are looking for ways to enhance and expedite your program design process, I have a solution for you.  Follow these 7 simple steps and you will be able to create impressive and consistent workout programs that clients will be willing pay for.  To be clear this post is not about the why’s of how the body works or what types of workout programs are best for certain clients.  This post is about how to properly write out and design strength training programs.

Step 1: Get Their Goals

npti-textbook It is important to have a couple of clear fitness goals that you will construct the program around for the next several months.  Prioritize these goals – be sure to delineate a number one goal that is most important to the client.  For more details on setting goals, refer to chapter 4 in the textbook NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training.  In short, make sure the goals are SMART and that they relate to a component of fitness.  Improving strength, building muscle, and enhancing muscle endurance are some of the most popular resistance training goals that clients will have.

Case Scenario: Let’s say we are working with an intermediate level male client that is 180 lbs and 35 years old.  After talking things over with him you discover he has the following goals, in order of importance:

Increase strength – take bench from 240 to 275 in 3 months

Increase size – improve flexed arm measurement from 15 to 15.75 inches in 3 months

Increase muscle endurance – be able to lunge around a track without stopping in 3 months

 

Step 2: List the Key Exercises

hos-final-1

The principle of specificity makes it clear that exercise selection is very important.  This is also clearly illustrated in my Hierarchy of Strength http://allaboutpowerlifting.com/hierarchy-of-strength/ – exercise selection is one of the most important variables that a personal trainer will have full control over in the workout program.  As such, list 5-10 key exercises that you want to make sure are included in the program.  Don’t feel as though you have to list all exercises the client will do and don’t worry about the order, right now just jot the exercises down.

Case Scenario:  For our client let’s be sure to include the following exercises in the workout program:

 

  To Increase Bench   To Increase Arm Size   To Increase Leg Muscle Endurance
  Bench Press

Incline Press

  EZ Curl

Pullover Skull Crushers

Closegrip Bench

  Lunges

Squats

BGSS

 

Step 3: Establish Training Schedule

This step is easy but important.  You simply want to figure out what days a week the client will train with you; or if you are just a creating a workout program for someone to follow figure out the days a week they will normally train.  Put this in column format as shown below.  For clarification purposes I am listing 3 options (a twice a week, three times a week, and four times a week option) but in real life you would just select the number of days the client is able to train each week and go from there.

Example 1:  Training 2 x week

  Tuesday   Thursday
   

 

Example 2: Training 3 x week

  Monday   Wednesday   Saturday
     

 

Example 3: Training 4 x week

  Monday   Tuesday   Thursday   Friday
       

 

Step 4: Set up Weekly Routine

Once you have the typical days each week the client is going to workout, now you want to decide what areas of the body or what movements you are going to train on those days?  Here you want to balance out two very important variables in a workout program: Frequency (how often something is performed) and Intensity (how hard is it).  In general those two terms have an inverse relationship.  If you can’t decide what to do, train everything twice a week.  If the person likes to workout a bit easier then go for 2-3 x week; if the person really likes to workout hard and doesn’t mind being sore aim for once a week.  See below for possible examples of how this could get fleshed out (there are many ways to do this and this is not the most important variable to consider, so simply trust your gut and go from there):

             Example 1:  Training 2 x week

  Tuesday   Thursday
  Total Body Routine   Total Body Routine

 

Example 2: Training 3 x week

  Monday   Wednesday   Saturday
  Push   Pull   Total Body

 

Example 3: Training 4 x week

  Monday   Tuesday   Thursday   Friday
  Chest

Arms

  Legs

Lower Back

  Shoulders

Triceps

  Back

Biceps

Note: Core could be trained once or twice a week on any day during this routine

 

Step 5: Fill in the Exercises

Now take the columns that you have created and fill in the exercises that you selected in step 2.  Put them where they belong, and then fill in any missing blanks.  Don’t overload the client with a massive number of random exercises, think quality over quantity.  Generally you want to perform a least 4 exercises per session and you will usually not perform more than 10 total exercises, 6-8 is a very common number for a one hour session.  For more information on which exercises are ideal to choose, see the Best Exercise Series found on allaboutpowerlifting.com http://allaboutpowerlifting.com/5-best-exercises-for-chest/.  If you want to worry about exercise order now, that is fine, or you can fix that in the next step.

Example: Let’s take option 3 from above and flesh it out with our sample client.

  Monday   Tuesday   Thursday   Friday
  Chest

Arms

  Legs

Lower Back

  Shoulders

Triceps

  Back

Biceps

Bench

Incline

DB Incline Fly

DB Hmr Curl

Reverse Curl

3 Board Press

Tricep Pushdown

 

Lunges

Squats

BGSS

RDL

GHR

Pullover Skull Crusher

Closegrip Bench

DB Mil Press

Leaning Lat Raise

Cable Lat Raise

Dips

EZ Power Curl

Pull-ups

45 Degree Row

DB Row

Strict Curl

DB Power Rear Delts

Smith Machine Shrugs

 

Note: The bolded exercises are the ones we listed in Step 2 as key exercises

 

Step 6: Fill in the Nuts and Bolts

The nuts and bolts of exercise program design are the specific variables you are going to apply to the exercises you have selected for the client to perform.  These variables include: exercise order, warm-up sets, work sets, reps, weight used, rest time, as well as any intensity techniques you might employ (supersets, drop sets, pre-exhaustion, etc).  For more detail on why certain variables should be set up certain ways, see this post: http://virginia.nationalpti.edu/blog/nptis-exercise-program-design-chart

Example: Let’s take day one and fill out the nuts and bolts for it:

  Monday   Nuts and Bolts
 

 Bench 3 w/u sets

 

 Incline

 

DB Incline Fly

 

DB Hmr Curl

 

Reverse Curl

 

3 Board Press

Tricep Pushdown

 

95×12; 135×8, 155×6

175×8, 190×6, 205×4, 185×6-8

95×8

135×8, 145×8, 155×8

25×8

35×8-12×3

25×8

35×8-12×3

40×8

60×8-12×3

135×6, 165×6, 185×6, 205×6

80×8-12×3

Note: Italicized sets are warm-up sets

You would follow that process of filling in the nuts and bolts for each day and for each exercise.

 

7. Incorporate Progressive Overload

I referenced earlier that the principle of specificity is one of the most fundamental training principles that personal trainers must keep in mind when they are creating workout programs.  The other extremely key variable is the principle of progressive overload, which essentially states that you must make the workout harder over time to improve the client’s fitness level.  If you don’t follow overload, you will not cause the desired adaptations in the client.  Well planned out overload is the one of the key differences between simply working out and actually following a training plan that is going to lead you to a specific goal.

For the vast majority of clients, you want to incorporate overload in every subsequent session or at least on a weekly basis.  To help with this process, I like to think about where I want the client to be either at the end of the training program (mesocycle) or at the end of the month.  Then I will program backward to where they are now.  For example, we have our client benching 205×4 on the first day of the plan.  That should be quite doable for a client who can bench 240.  On that phase of the program, we can likely just add 5 lbs to each working set each week.  You can’t do this forever but it is very reasonable that we can do that for the first month, at which case the client is now going to do 220×4 on week 4 which is good progress and they likely can’t do that set now.

However you can’t just add 5 lbs a week to every exercise forever, often that rate of progress is not realistic.  For example if we did that to the incline fly that would put them at using 50 lbs for 8-12 reps on week 4, 70 lbs on week 8, and 90 lbs on week 12.  Generally you need to be benching well over 300 lbs to use 90’s on an incline fly with good form so that is not realistic for our client.

If the total weight used is lighter and/or if the rate of adaptation isn’t expected to be that fast, it is often ideal to add reps instead of weight.  This is typically done using rep range progression which is where the trainer picks a desired range of reps (that relate to the goal), the client starts out hitting the minimum number of reps and then builds up to the maximum.  Once the maximum number of reps is hit, a small amount of weight is added, the reps drop back down to the minimum and the process repeats.  This style yields small results initially but over time it can lead to very significant gains in strength.

There are many other types of overload including adding sets, changing exercises, decreasing rest time, and using intensity techniques – but adding weight and adding reps are the most common ways to introduce overload.  They are also very easy to measure and sure to produce results.

For clients following a take home plan, or for the trainer looking at a monthly progression, it is easiest to show this in table format.  Take the workout that was created and then create a column for week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4.  Then fill in the expected overload.  You can’t always predict these things perfectly but a trainer will develop a sense of the type of progress a client will make over time.  As experience builds this becomes easier and easier.

Day 1 – Chest and Arms

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
  Bench 95×12; 135×8, 155×6

175×8, 190×6, 205×4, 185×6-8

95×12; 135×8, 160×6

180×8, 195×6, 210×4, 190×6-8

95×12; 135×8, 160×6

185×8, 200×6, 215×4, 195×6-8

95×12; 135×8, 165×6

190×8, 205×6, 220×4, 200×6-8

  Incline 95×8

135×8, 145×8, 155×8

95×8

140×8, 150×8, 160×8

95×8

145×8, 155×8, 165×8

95×8

150×8, 160×8,

170×8

  DB Incline Fly 25×8

35×8 x 3

25×8

35×10 x 3

25×8

35×12 x 3

25×8

40×8 x 3

  DB Hmr Curl 25×8

35×8-12×3

25×8

35×10 x 3

25×8

35×12 x 3

25×8

40×8 x 3

  Reverse Curl 40×8

60×8 x 3

40×8

60×10 x 3

40×8

60×12 x 3

40×8

65×8 x 3

  3 Board Press 135×6, 165×6, 185×6, 205×6 140×6, 170×6, 190×6, 210×6 145×6, 175×6, 195×6, 215×6 150×6, 180×6,

200×6, 220×6

Tricep Pushdown 80×8 x 3 80×12 x 3 85×8 x 3 85×12 x 3

 

Day 2 – Legs and Lower Back

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
  Squats 45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×8,

175×5, 195×5, 215×5, 185×10

45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×5

165 x 15 x 4

45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×8,

180×5, 200×5, 220×5, 190×10

45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×5

165 x 20 x 4

  Lunges 25×12, 35×12, 45×12 BW x 100 x 2 30×12, 40×12, 50×12 BW x 110 x 2
  Bulgarian Split    Squat 25×8

35×8 x 3

15×15 x 3

 

25×8

35×12 x 3

15×20 x 3

 

 Romanian  Deadlift 95×8, 135×8

165×8, 195×8, 225×8

95×8

155×20 x 3

95×8, 135×8

175×8, 205×8, 235×8

95×8

165×20 x 3

Glute Ham Raise BW x 6 x 4 BW x 8 x 4 BW x 10 x 4 BW x 12 x 4

 

Day 3 – Shoulders and Triceps

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
 DB Military Press 25×8 x 2

40×8, 50×6, 60×4, 45×8-12

25×8 x 2

40×10, 50×8, 60×6, 45×8-12

30×8 x 2

45×8, 55×6, 65×4, 50×8-12

30×8 x 2

45×10, 55×8, 65×6, 50×8-12

 DB Leaning Lat Raise 25×8 x 4 25×12 x 4 30×8 x 4 30×12 x 4
 Cable Lat Raise 20×8 x 3 20×12 x 3 25×8 x 3 25×12 x 3
 Closegrip Bench 95×8, 135×8

165×8 x 3

95×8, 135×8

165×12 x 3

95×8, 135×8

175×8 x 3

95×8, 135×8

175×12 x 3

  Dips +20×10, +40×8, +60×6, +30×8-12 +25×10, +45×8, +65×6, +35×8-12 +30×10, +50×8, +70×6, +40×8-12 +35×10, +55×8, +75×6, +45×8-12
 Pullover Skull Crushers 50×10

80×12 x 4

50×10

80×15 x 4

55×10

90×12 x 4

55×10

90×15 x 4

 

Day 4 – Back and Biceps

Exercise Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
  Pull-ups +10×8, +20×6, +30×4, +15×6-10 +15×8, +25×6, +35×4, +20×6-10 +20×8, +30×6, +40×4, +25×6-10 +25×8, +35×6,

+45×4, +30×6-10

  45 Degree Row 135×8

175×8, 190×6, 205×4, 185×6-8

135×8

180×8, 195×6, 210×4, 190×6-8

135×8

185×8, 200×6, 215×4, 195×6-8

135×8

190×8, 205×6,

220×4, 200×6-8

  DB Row 50×10

80×8 x 4

50×10

80×12 x 4

55×10

90×8 x 4

55×10

90×12 x 4

 DB Power Rear Delts 30×10 x 3 30×15 x 3 35×10 x 3 35×15 x 3
 Smith Mx Shrugs 135×8

165×10, 185×10, 205×10

135×8

175×10, 195×10, 215×10

135×8

185×10, 205×10, 225×10

135×8

195×10, 215×10, 235×10

 EZ Power Curl 65×10, 75×8, 85×6, 65xAMRAP 70×10, 80×8, 90×6, 65xAMRAP 75×10, 85×8, 95×6, 75xAMRAP 80×10, 90×8, 100×6,

75xAMRAP

 Strict Curl

 

60×6 x 3 60×10 x 3 70×6 x 3 70×10 x 3

Notes:

It is written weight x reps (x sets if multiple sets of that weight are listed)

Warm-up sets are italicized

Progression is estimated but reasonable.  If this program was followed for more than 1 month progression would need to slow at some point (for example go 8 reps, then 10, the 12 instead of 8 to 12 reps the next session)

AMRAP means complete as many reps as possible with good form

Format can get a little funky going from Word to WordPress for articles, so if this was a paying client’s program tighten up the format to make it look neater

 

The goal of this article was to show you the steps to follow in creating an exercise program.  We started with a simple idea – come up with a workout for a male that wanted a stronger bench, bigger arms, and better muscle endurance in his legs.  We ended up with a very solid one month plan that would likely yield very good results and be reasonably enjoyable to follow, all of which could be completed in 4 workouts a week, 60 min each.  Maybe after looking at all of that a trainer decides to go back to a push/pull routine.  You can simply take the exercises and then rearrange them to match that routine, not a huge amount has to change.

Trainers tend to spend a lot of time on workout program design, so when possible look for ways to become more efficient and streamline the process. Time is money, and when you can come up with the same end result in less time you just saved yourself some money.

 

 

 

2017-12-05T16:48:06+00:00 January 30th, 2017|