Results Proven Program Design Methods
There are numerous Program design methods. There are more and new “names” coming out regularly. I’ve found it’s the way of the world nowadays–putting a new spin on something old and calling it your own.
I was being interviewed around 2004 on my training methods and how I was training athletes from my garage, the backyard, and local playgrounds. When I was asked how to describe my training I responded, I don’t really follow a specific system, I don’t really follow any rules. We’re Underground.
My friend said, That’s It! You’re “The Underground Strength Coach!”
Honestly, I look back and sometimes think the name/brand stuck, yet it didn’t truly convey the science of what I was doing or how powerful the training was. It was as if we were being labeled as subpar. Perception is the reality in this world.
So what do I focus on? RESULTS. Not coming up with a cute name or trying to sell you on fads or gimmicks. I have NO respect for the BS I see being peddled out there. The eccentric, wild training you see on YouTube or Instagram can rarely be applied to training the general public. That type of training is reserved for the genetic freaks.
I don’t train genetic freaks. It’s very rare for an athlete to show up at The Underground Strength Gym and be able to jump right in, including experienced D1 athletes. If I look at some of the most powerful NFL players, they are attacking barbell, dumbbell and bodyweight basics. Genetic Freaks or not, the Basics will never let you down!
Before you get caught up in what program design method you are using, know the REAL key is consistency. Nothing will save you if you train on again, off again. You can’t get strong by sitting on the couch. Training is to be done YEAR-ROUND.
The unfortunate truth about athletes is they do not train year-round. Only the best train year-round. At the college level, we have a solid 4 month “optional training” period and athletes can completely opt out of those 4 months. Believe it or not, even at The D1 level, some do not show up at all!
Out of fear of mediocrity or struggling to handle practices, I would NEVER skip lifting. I would want to be as prepared as possible. But this is what I call The Human Food Chain. Some want to be great, others are happy with good enough and others simply don’t care. It is The Law of the Jungle. Not everyone can be or wants to be The Lion!
I’ve heard similar in the pro sports. Many pro athletes are simply such genetic freaks they can get away with it, but the best of the best always train.
Read the book Relentless, by Tim Grover. Tim does an amazing job outlining the difference between good and great by sharing stories of the great athletes doing the work when no one is watching.
How should you train?
What are your goals?
What are you training for?
The above are the basic, yet crucial questions, that will guide your training plan. Then come the fine details that will also guide your training plan.
What are your weak areas?
What is your training age/experience?
What is your injury history?
More things to consider if you’re a Coach:
- Are you an independent strength coach where athletes tend to come and go?
- Are you at the collegiate level with more consistency?
- Are you working at a high school, seeing the student-athletes 10-11 months consistently?
Cycling your training (Periodization) means changing the focus of your workouts, changing your intensity, changing the way you split and organize each workout as well as any other changes you focus on. Cycling or Periodization allows the body to improve on a regular basis if applied correctly. There are so many variations of periodization it can get confusing.
Changing the focus of the previously mentioned principles (strength, power, muscular endurance, etc.) is what many people do in time frames of 4-week training blocks. This is not my favorite method, but it is a popular one in the United States. It is called Linear Periodization or Block Periodization.
The training blocks tend to change in focus, for example:
- January: Muscle Building / Hypertrophy
- February: Strength
- March: Explosive Power
- April: Muscular Endurance
Looking at the above you can see how this can work but there are downfalls. For example, if I am working only on Muscular endurance in April, I will likely lose absolute strength and explosive power.
My preference is the conjugate or concurrent method. Both methods encourage the constant varying of exercises yet having a day focused on strength and another day focused on speed / dynamic effort.
After your strength and speed exercises, you choose exercises based on your weak points and perform them in a bodybuilding/repetition method. This builds muscle and strengthens joints / connective tissue, helping to reduce injuries.
The time of year I tend to go into a small block of focus is post-season for 4-6 weeks for high school and college athletes. For example, after Football or Wrestling Season, these athletes have lost some muscle, they are a bit stressed from the physical AND psychological battles of their sports. Therefore, it is not wise to go into heavy strength work. They are not mentally ready to train at high intensity in the immediate post season.
Instead, I use moderate weights and reps to rebuild muscle, very similar to what bodybuilders do, except I implement less volume. The rebuilding of muscle helps with regaining strength. The moderate loads and moderate intensity gives the athlete an emotional rest which is crucial for long-term success and motivation.
You simply cannot go all out, all the time. The athletes have great fun with this style of training because it’s not stressing them emotionally and they get a big pump every workout. If you can learn how to keep athletes excited about their training, you are on the road to victory with them.
After 4 – 6 weeks of lightweight, bodybuilding work, the athletes are usually ready to return some heavier lifting. The concurrent method blends strength, speed & hypertrophy in each workout. Conjugate has a focus each training session; strength or speed / dynamic effort.
The body easily adapts to an exercise program. Many athletes get bored of training much quicker than a Coach will, so changing the angles or style of an exercise is fun for them and works the body from different angles. Keep doing the same training split with the same weight and the same reps, same exercises and the same rest periods, the body simply stops responding.
Here’s a sample of how I rotate through upper body pushing/pressing exercises using the conjugate method:
- Bench Press with Thick Bar / Swiss Bar
- Bench with Bands (straight bar, Swiss bar)
- Incline Bench (straight bar, thick bar, Swiss bar)
- Different Height of Incline Bench
- Floor Press + Chains (Vary the bar, Vary the amount of chains)
- Overhead Press (Push Press or Strict Press) / Straight Bar, Thick Bar, Swiss Bar
- Landmine Press
- Heavy Med Ball Clean & Vertical Throw
- 1 Arm DB or KB Clean & Press
- Log Clean & Press
- Pause Bench (Pause on Chest, pause mid-way down, Vary the length of Pause on Chest)
- Heavy DB Bench (Flat to Various Incline Heights) – Elbows Out or Palms In
I can vary the list of exercises above by varying the barbells, the angle of the bench, pause on the chest, different bands, more / less chain weight, different hand positions on the barbell, different rep tempo, etc. We can press flat, incline or overhead with bands & KBs suspended as well. This allows the variations to be never-ending.
If you’re a Coach, get out a sheet of paper and come up with 10 different variations for each exercise:
- Overhead Press
- Bodyweight Push
- Bodyweight Pull
- Unilateral Lower Body Exercise
I tend to switch up the training every 2 weeks with what I call a mini cycle at my gym. At the college level, I might switch them every week. Just a slight variation to their exercise keeps them excited and reduces overuse injuries from using the same bar and the same angle and the same exercise.
I will often have athletes switch accessory movements in the same training session.
- 5 sets of DB Bench or Floor Press: Perform 3 sets flat, 2 sets incline. Or 3 sets palms in, 2 sets elbows out. Or 2 sets with KBs, 3 sets with DBs. The athletes LOVE this variety.
- 5 Sets of Clean Pulls: 3 sets clean grip, 2 sets snatch grip. 3 sets from the floor, 2 sets from the hang. You can also vary the hang positions from above or below the knee.
I look back to my own training in the early years all the way until I started my own garage gym. I NEVER used anything but a straight bar. That alone likely took a toll on my shoulder health.
When I trained with Matt Wenning, he told me he switches the main lift every week. In fact, when we benched together, he changed the bench variation 2 or 3 times in the same workout.
He paused the bar in different places, changed the rep tempo and even added reps on the final set. The more advanced the lifter, the more variation is often needed to keep him/her excited to train and to create a stimulus.
Some athletes are creatures of habit and love the basics with little or no variation. Way back in the 60s, Bill “Peanuts” West had his garage gym where men were setting powerlifting world records. This was the original Westside Barbell and Bill had the lifters using variety all the time.
Different types of benching, different box squats, deadlift variations always changing. It kept the lifters from getting injured and kept the training exciting. Too often, coaches get so caught up in science and forget that training should be FUN. They also don’t know how to utilize their own thinking to blend with science. Experience is a powerful teacher if you’re open-minded.
I’ve seen too many Coaches try to impress me with their power point presentation. Then I see them coach or see their athletes perform and I am unimpressed. You can’t fake results! I’ve heard of these programs that develop superior strength, speed, and athleticism. I’ve seen the teams of these Coaches compete and I don’t always see the superior results they are touting.
On the flip side, if the athlete does not buy into the program, the results will NOT come. For example, I’ve trained some high-level athletes who believed certain things they saw online, i.e. “special speed training”, etc. These athletes consistently LOST to stronger, tougher athletes because they heard from and believed their favorite athlete who said, ‘strength training is bad.’
Again, results don’t lie. And, not all athletes listen to their coaches. Program Design is one thing. Culture and athlete belief/buy-in is another. I can’t change everyone. The lore of fads and gimmicks is, unfortunately, sometimes the winner over consistency and hard work at the basics.
Avoiding squats, deadlifts, heavy rowing, carries has always helped the athletes I’ve worked with. If you’re thinking that squatting is bad for you, and instead you want to stand on a physio ball, close your eyes and throw a 5lb medicine ball instead, you will get DESTROYED by a stronger athlete. Stop falling for fads and gimmicks.
The same can be applied to sports technique. The basics have always produced the best results.
I’ve mapped out mini cycles of 2 – 4 weeks in length but I’ve learned that even that is sometimes too long to plan ahead. Almost every training session gets some changes on the fly. Maybe a slight tweak to the warm-up and maybe a slight tweak to the exercise variation and the load (strength or speed).
Athletes and individuals go through stress every day, and, our body doesn’t discriminate against a certain type of stress. It simply feels stress. For example, what feels more exhausting, that gut check 20 rep set of squats or the argument you had with your significant other?
When I warm up the athletes, I pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues. I look at facial expressions and body language. Is Johnny grabbing his shoulder after pushups? Is Johnny squinting in pain during bodyweight squats or lunges? Grabbing his knee?
Or…is this group showing signs of great energy? Smiling, laughing, showing me, they are hyped up? You must take this ALL in and be ready to change on the fly.
If you planned on testing athletes in the 1RM Squat but you can tell they are mentally crushed, then it makes zero sense to test them! On the flip side, as a Coach, can you recognize this, warm them up a bit and then talk with them about stepping up during tough times? If they show that they can pull through, maybe you get them going with a different warm up, you notice they’re getting hyped up, maybe you can test them.
THAT is The Art of Coaching.
Not a coach and training yourself? You must learn how to listen to your body and react accordingly. On high energy days, you can train heavier and push yourself more. On low energy days, you can perform an easier circuit and use lighter weights or simply take the day off. Sometimes resting IS the training.
On the days you feel middle of the road, perhaps do a light circuit to get warmed up, some bodybuilding to get the blood flow and some chins and dips for low reps. This will get your mind and body warmed up and then you can decide after 10 minutes which direction you want to take that day. Watch a powerlifting highlight or sports highlight on YouTube, sometimes that gets the fire going!
I have found that a properly performed warm up (approximately 10 minutes in length) can completely change the way the mind and body feel. Do not skip the warm up! This is pure laziness and can also increase chances of injury during the workout itself.
After so many years of following rigid programs, in my early 30s, I started doing whatever I wanted in relation to how I felt with great results. I basically focused on full body workouts or upper / lower focus workouts and just kicked ass when I felt strong and went easier when I felt tired. This is called auto-regulation. This style of training allows the body to undergo less stress than if you were to push very hard on a day that you felt weak.
For more information, you will want to review the Underground Strength Coach Certification.