When we analyze our training programs, we should focus on the individual athletes and the specific adaptations we want to induce rather than the arbitrary rules of thumb that they satisfy. This way of thinking will help us dig deeper into our programming and the impact we have on our athletes.
A question interns and other coaches ask me all the time—and one I come across more and more online—is simply: What is the best strength and conditioning (S&C) program?
It’s a great question in one sense, but it’s also so context-specific that it’s incredibly difficult to give a straight answer. Many people have come up with inventive tools and philosophies to help answer such questions, and many of these provide good examples of how to program.1, 2, 3We cannot treat these, however, as absolutes. There is no definite, best way to program, and we should recognize that these are all just rules of thumb. The key question, therefore, is: What is the correct level of analysis for programming?
The good thing about rules of thumb is that they help us make decisions quickly and easily by skipping some of the difficult details involved.4The downside is that by skipping the details, by definition we miss out on a level of analysis that may be vital.
Some common examples of programming rules of thumb are:
- The number of sets and reps—3×10, 4×8, 5×5, etc.
- The percentage of intensity—80% for 8, 85% for 5, 90% for 3, etc.
- The split to use—upper and lower, push and pull, squat and hinge, etc.
- The order of the exercises—large muscle groups first, etc.
- The number of days a week—2, 3, 4, etc.
These can be great tools in some ways because they follow the basic rules of thumb that have been developed through experience and research. Consider, for example, having an athlete who is only available to train twice a week. They only have 45 minutes with you and little training history. You can use these rules of thumb to generate a program that should hit all the main areas. So, you decide to train on a Monday and a Thursday with squats on Monday and RDL’s on Thursday. You do a vertical push on Monday and a horizontal push on Thursday. You continue building your program according to these rules of thumb, and it all looks good.
This probably would be a fairly successful method of programming, but it’s not optimal. The reason? You’re using tricks to generate your program, bypassing the real question at hand. That question, of course, is: What is the adaptation caused by these training methods?
Exercise Categorization vs. Exercise Adaptation
Exercise selection is a common area of confusion regarding programming. Again, the topics of the best exercise for this or the best exercise for that come up. We should be asking: What is the adaptation that occurs due to a given exercise?
For example, I’ve seen arguments over whether an exercise was a squat pattern or a hinge pattern. It’s commonly assumed that a deadlift is more of a hinge exercise, and therefore automatically gets categorized into the hinge pattern box. But we know that the deadlift can vary massively by technique.5
Take a trap-bar deadlift, for example. Depending on the starting position of the hips, it can be a squat movement or a hinge movement. It doesn’t particularly matter that it’s from the floor. If the hips are lowered and the knees bent, then it’s more of a squat movement. Instead of the bar being on the back, it’s gripped in the hands. (This bar position might have a minor effect on muscle activation, but not enough to be worth worrying about in most cases. The major difference would be with the potential unloading phase on the floor, but this could also be achieved in the squat by using pins.) Ultimately, we should consider which muscles are stressed and the training method’s long-term effects on structure and function.Exercise selection: consider the muscles stressed & the long-term effects on structure & function, says @Langford_Andrew. Click To Tweet
We can also think about this when we look at performing a hip-dominant exercise as a key lift on Day 1 of a training program and a knee-dominant exercise on Day 2. This is good advice overall, as long as we think about it properly and consider the outcome. Performing a heavy hinge may result in a great deal of fatigue in the posterior chain muscles, such as the hamstrings. If we train these a lot in one session, then the next day it’s probably not appropriate to train them heavily again. Perhaps a knee-dominant exercise on Day 2 would be better because it should stress the anterior chain, such as the quadriceps, more than the hamstrings.
This rule of thumb seems useful here, as long as we remember that even if we normally classify one exercise as knee-dominant, there still may be a significant amount of posterior-chain recruitment and training effect. Our mental picture of the training week should incorporate this to determine the levels of fatigue our sessions are causing and their long-term effects.
Another common example is the argument over whether cleans, clean pulls, or some other exercise such as jump squats are better. The term better requires far more clarity and must be considered in terms of adaptation. Even the question about which is the best power exercise is poorly formed. There is no part of the body that we label as the power muscle. Power is the observable outcome of force expression. To produce more power, we need to produce more force in the minimal time possible.In S&C, the term better requires clarity and must be considered in terms of #adaptation, says @Langford_Andrew. Click To Tweet
Our bodies can do this when we increase the number and recruitment pattern of high threshold motor units and improve the movement’s coordination. The question we should ask is: What adaptation does this exercise cause compared to a different exercise? We can then easily see that the clean, clean pull, and jump squat will offer slightly different benefits depending on what we want to overload, and therefore what adaptation we can obtain.
We should also consider where to place other aspects of training. I’ve seen people try, with difficulty, to determine where to put plyometric exercises or sprinting activities because they can’t quite determine whether they are knee or hip dominant, etc. In these cases, I always advise to once again think about the training effect and the potential adaptation.
Sprinting is likely to place a large stress on the hamstrings.6Do we want that stress before or after a hamstring-dominant session? The important factor here is that we’re getting caught up in the specifics of the rule of thumb—knee or hip dominant—rather than concerning ourselves with what’s important: the adaptation occurring.
We can say the same for using percentages when training. I know many coaches who would never use a 4- or 7-rep strategy, but they couldn’t give me a good rationale why not. Similarly, if we prescribe 85% for a bench press, does it matter if the athlete ends up doing 84% or 86% instead? It’s frustrating when I see a coach notice a change of 1-2% in an exercise and say that they’re looking at a different quality, say strength-speed instead of speed-strength. Again, our confusion is that we’re being very specific with the rule of thumb instead of simply using it as intended—to serve as a rough guide.When programming S&C, consider the effects of your options on #adaptation, says @Langford_Andrew. Click To Tweet
In all of these instances, we should look at what the actual differences mean in terms of the effect on adaptation. We would surely all recognize that a 1% change in any one area would have a small effect on any intended adaptation. So we can see that a 7-rep strategy may not be vastly different from an 8-rep strategy. Likely, it’s just a slightly higher intensity, which would mean slightly higher recruitment of high threshold motor units and slightly less fatigue and structural damage if the same number of sets are performed.
We can then consider what effect this would have throughout a block of training, such as a slightly higher force production and slightly less hypertrophy. I like the graphic below, which highlights reps and intensity on a continuum, showing how the gradual change in intensity contributes to different effects.
We can use the same thought process throughout a block of training. We know that the adaptation effect of one training session is minuscule. But the effect of many training sessions can be substantial because the adaptation process is gradual and cumulative.7 We must understand that, even if we use perfect technique and plan a single session well, if we then focus on something totally different for the next session and don’t stress the same factors again for a long time, there will be no adaptation response.
This is where our testing and reviewing protocols are important. We can use some of these tools to evaluate our outcome measures, such as strength and power, to see if our training aims have been successful.
Programming at the Level of the Sport
A major common error is looking only at the needs of the sport and not the needs of the individual. As a result, we may neglect the individual qualities of the athlete we’re working with, failing to understand what they specifically need to address to become better at their sport.7 We know that being able to jump high is important for basketball. But purely focussing on a beginner athlete’s jumping drills from Day 1 of a program is likely to lead to injury.6, 7
It’s also difficult to ensure there’s a transfer of training to sports performance. Transfer of training is commonly considered the gap between the physical changes we make during the athlete’s S&C training and their performance in their sport.8The difficulty is that performance occurs in seconds and milliseconds, whereas adaptation occurs through gradual accumulation during weeks and months.
We must consider how much time to spend trying to ensure that a given movement, specific to their sport, is overloaded to the extent that an adaptation will occur. And how much time is better spent elsewhere. It’s not possible to train every possible movement that may occur in a given sport. Even sports coaches can’t train for every possible scenario. But they can create examples that mimic likely scenarios and drill their players, so they become comfortable making decisions in these scenarios.
Similarly, if we want to improve someone’s jumping ability in basketball, the S&C coach is probably not going to spend a lot of time looking at every possible jumping strategy with and without the ball. Rather, they’ll improve the muscle qualities that allow an athlete the potential to jump higher in any given scenario. As S&C coaches, we’re giving athletes the prerequisites to performance. These prerequisites are trainable, and we can determine the specific adaptations that need to occur to improve them.S&C coaches give athletes performance prerequisites & decide which adaptations will improve them, says @Langford_Andrew. Click To Tweet
I often see this thinking error regarding programming with speed and agility drills. A good example is the use of speed ladders. We may be able to get an athlete to move their feet very quickly and perform movements that look something like the sport in question, but we won’t be replicating, or indeed overloading, the forces required to improve the movement and therefore won’t induce any meaningful adaptation.
Programming at the Level of the Team
An extension of the sport-based programming issue is programming at the level of the team, which means designing a program purely for the benefit of the whole team. Obviously, this is common within team sports and often somewhat necessary due to time constraints and access to facility space and similar issues.9
We can take into account key adjustments, however, and should individualize when necessary. To ensure that our training is as effective as possible in a group scenario, we often use supersets—paired exercises that might not be optimal—and order sessions to suit the group dynamics. While this is often unavoidable, we must understand how it affects the adaptations we are trying to achieve.
This is where we can see the skill of experienced coaches. They’re able to pair together individuals with similar needs and structure the program to minimize the deleterious effects of group training. The coach can also allow a level of individualization within the program by tailoring the sets, reps, and intensities accordingly.
Research and experience tell us that individuals are unique in how they respond and adapt to training. Five sets for one person may work well, but may make another person sore for a week and not able to make the next training session. By building a good picture of the individual athlete, including their weekly schedule and personal needs, we can adjust the program or allow some autoregulatory training to take place.10It’s also where tools such as GymAware can be useful, as they give real-time feedback and allow greater opportunities for individualization.A training program is only as effective as its #outcomes and the adaptations that occur, says @Langford_Andrew. Click To Tweet
Don’t get caught up in the idea that the group or team is the most important factor when programming. We must remember that the training program is only as effective as its outcomes, which are dictated by the adaptations that occur.
A New Way of Looking at Programming
The purpose of this article is to address some common mistakes and oversights when looking at programming and to offer examples of how to think differently. The argument I’ve made is that the correct level of analysis should focus on the individual athlete, or strictly speaking, the level of the specific adaptation we wish to induce. This is not to say that any of the training methods and program templates out there are useless. They’re actually very good, and some of them take many factors into account that all help us program effectively.
Rather, the value of this way of thinking is to help us dig deeper into our programming and truly consider what impact we’re having on our athletes. This thinking also applies to analyzing new exercises we see posted online and when designing a new exercise. Using this rationale, we can state that we should always judge our programming based on the adaptation that occurs, rather than the arbitrary rules of thumb that it satisfies.
1. Boyle, M. (2016). New Functional Training for Sports, 2nd Edition. Human Kinetics.
2. Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. (2014). Designing Resistance Training Programs, 4thEdition. Human Kinetics.
4. Baumol, W., & Quandt, R. (1964). Rules of Thumb and Optimally Imperfect Decisions. The American Economic Review,54(2), 23-46.
5. Bird, S., & Barrington-Higgs, B. (2010). Exploring the Deadlift. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 32(2), 46-51.
6. Yu, B., Queen, R. M., Abbey, A. N., Liu, Y., Moorman, C. T., & Garrett, W. E. (2008). Hamstring Muscle Kinematics and Activation During Overground Sprinting. Journal of Biomechanics, 41(15), 3121-3126.
7. Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2015). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th Edition. Human Kinetics.
8. Young, W. B. (2006). Transfer of Strength and Power Training to Sports Performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 1(2), 74-83.
9. Gamble, P. (2006). Periodization of Training for Team Sports Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(5), 56-66.
10.Mann, J. B., Thyfault, J. P., Ivey, P. A., & Sayers, S. P. (2010). The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1718-1723.