7 Steps to Writing Great Workout Programs

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60-Minute-Circuit-Workout

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     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

 

95x12; 135x8, 155x6

175x8, 190x6, 205x4, 185x6-8

95x8

135x8, 145x8, 155x8

25x8

35x8-12x3

25x8

35x8-12x3

40x8

60x8-12x3

135x6, 165x6, 185x6, 205x6

80x8-12x3

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 205x4 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 220x4 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

95x12; 135x8, 155x6

175x8, 190x6, 205x4, 185x6-8

95x12; 135x8, 160x6

180x8, 195x6, 210x4, 190x6-8

95x12; 135x8, 160x6

185x8, 200x6, 215x4, 195x6-8

95x12; 135x8, 165x6

190x8, 205x6, 220x4, 200x6-8

  Incline

95x8

135x8, 145x8, 155x8

95x8

140x8, 150x8, 160x8

95x8

145x8, 155x8, 165x8

95x8

150x8, 160x8,

170x8

  DB Incline Fly

25x8

35x8 x 3

25x8

35x10 x 3

25x8

35x12 x 3

25x8

40x8 x 3

  DB Hmr Curl

25x8

35x8-12x3

25x8

35x10 x 3

25x8

35x12 x 3

25x8

40x8 x 3

  Reverse Curl

40x8

60x8 x 3

40x8

60x10 x 3

40x8

60x12 x 3

40x8

65x8 x 3

  3 Board Press

135x6, 165x6, 185x6, 205x6

140x6, 170x6, 190x6, 210x6

145x6, 175x6, 195x6, 215x6

150x6, 180x6,

200x6, 220x6

Tricep Pushdown

80x8 x 3

80x12 x 3

85x8 x 3

85x12 x 3

 

Day 2 – Legs and Lower Back

Exercise

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

  Squats

45x12, 95x8, 95x8, 135x8,

175x5, 195x5, 215x5, 185x10

45x12, 95x8, 95x8, 135x5

165 x 15 x 4

45x12, 95x8, 95x8, 135x8,

180x5, 200x5, 220x5, 190x10

45x12, 95x8, 95x8, 135x5

165 x 20 x 4

  Lunges

25x12, 35x12, 45x12

BW x 100 x 2

30x12, 40x12, 50x12

BW x 110 x 2

  Bulgarian Split    Squat

25x8

35x8 x 3

15x15 x 3

 

25x8

35x12 x 3

15x20 x 3

 

 Romanian  Deadlift

95x8, 135x8

165x8, 195x8, 225x8

95x8

155x20 x 3

95x8, 135x8

175x8, 205x8, 235x8

95x8

165x20 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

25x8 x 2

40x8, 50x6, 60x4, 45x8-12

25x8 x 2

40x10, 50x8, 60x6, 45x8-12

30x8 x 2

45x8, 55x6, 65x4, 50x8-12

30x8 x 2

45x10, 55x8, 65x6, 50x8-12

 DB Leaning Lat Raise

25x8 x 4

25x12 x 4

30x8 x 4

30x12 x 4

 Cable Lat Raise

20x8 x 3

20x12 x 3

25x8 x 3

25x12 x 3

 Closegrip Bench

95x8, 135x8

165x8 x 3

95x8, 135x8

165x12 x 3

95x8, 135x8

175x8 x 3

95x8, 135x8

175x12 x 3

  Dips

+20x10, +40x8, +60x6, +30x8-12

+25x10, +45x8, +65x6, +35x8-12

+30x10, +50x8, +70x6, +40x8-12

+35x10, +55x8, +75x6, +45x8-12

 Pullover Skull Crushers

50x10

80x12 x 4

50x10

80x15 x 4

55x10

90x12 x 4

55x10

90x15 x 4

 

Day 4 - Back and Biceps

Exercise

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

  Pull-ups

+10x8, +20x6, +30x4, +15x6-10

+15x8, +25x6, +35x4, +20x6-10

+20x8, +30x6, +40x4, +25x6-10

+25x8, +35x6,

+45x4, +30x6-10

  45 Degree Row

135x8

175x8, 190x6, 205x4, 185x6-8

135x8

180x8, 195x6, 210x4, 190x6-8

135x8

185x8, 200x6, 215x4, 195x6-8

135x8

190x8, 205x6,

220x4, 200x6-8

  DB Row

50x10

80x8 x 4

50x10

80x12 x 4

55x10

90x8 x 4

55x10

90x12 x 4

 DB Power Rear Delts

30x10 x 3

30x15 x 3

35x10 x 3

35x15 x 3

 Smith Mx Shrugs

135x8

165x10, 185x10, 205x10

135x8

175x10, 195x10, 215x10

135x8

185x10, 205x10, 225x10

135x8

195x10, 215x10, 235x10

 EZ Power Curl

65x10, 75x8, 85x6, 65xAMRAP

70x10, 80x8, 90x6, 65xAMRAP

75x10, 85x8, 95x6, 75xAMRAP

80x10, 90x8, 100x6,

75xAMRAP

 Strict Curl

 

60x6 x 3

60x10 x 3

70x6 x 3

70x10 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.

 

 

 

Comments

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