Training Program Design 101: Fundamentals

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Program Design Fundamentals and Meathead Math

Designing training programs for athletes is such a fascinating endeavor. There are endless opportunities to infuse and mix time-proven resistance training methodologies, and perhaps even create your own. Ask any coach here at TSG, we will be the first ones to tell you that there is no correct way to train.

But there are more effective and more intelligent ways to train, which is what this article will be covering.

The disparity between a good program and a bad program is extremely large. Giving a bad program to a motivated athlete could lead to the athlete adding 5 lbs to his/her squat max in 4 weeks, thus frustrating the athlete and creating an environment of distress. Whereas giving a good program to a motivated athlete could lead to him/her adding 40 lbs to their squat max in 4 weeks. The differences between a good and a bad program lie in the details, or lack thereof.

The Fundamentals of Periodization

What is periodization? Periodization is planning. Creating training programs is all about planning. When do we have to peak our athlete? How do we peak our athlete? How much volume does it take too overreach an athlete? Well, by the end of this article you will have the answers to all of these questions. To go about answering these questions first we have to understand the basics on how groups of workouts, entire training programs, and groups of training programs are divided amongst each other.

• Microcycle: A typical microcycle would be 1 week of training sessions.
• Mesocycle: A mesocycle is a group of microcycles, often combined into 4-6 week periods and referred to as a “training block”.
• Macrocycle: A macrocycle is a group of mesocycles, the macrocycle can last anywhere from 4 months to 4 years depending on the level of sport and the goals of the athlete.

How we manipulate variables in the microcycle, mesocycle and macrocycle will ultimately determine the effectiveness of the athletes training regime. Before we go any further in depth into program design, understand that I will be teaching program design using a “top to bottom” approach. So let’s first analyze what goes into creating a training philosophy.

Creating a Training Philosophy

The training philosophy is the single most important aspect of program design.

If we don’t have a good philosophical understanding of why we are doing something, how can we have a good understanding of what we are doing?

The training philosophy is a short statement that describes what training-related concepts are important to you. Our training philosophy here at TSG is to work primarily in the 60-80% ranges on classic compound lifts. The reason why we work in the 60-80% range so much is because working in this rep range allows us to prescribe higher volume to our athletes without accumulating a ton of central nervous system fatigue. This is an important concept in program design and will be touched upon later in the article.

Once we have a training philosophy, we now have the means to continue on in the program design process because we have identified what concepts are important and what concepts aren’t important to us. Next up, let’s look at planning the training macrocycle.

Considerations in Organizing the Macrocycle

When planning the macrocycle, our aim is to achieve a long-term goal. Whether that goal is setting a 50 lb. PR on the Bench Press, or winning a competition, goal setting has to be the priority of the macrocycle. Once we have goals and a training philosophy, we now have the two tools that we need to design a protocol that will help us reach the goal. Planning the macrocycle is very simple on the surface, and yet can get very complex as we get more in depth into periodization. The basic question that we need to ask ourselves when planning a macrocycle is “how can I make this all add up?” Depending on the overall intensity and volume of each mesocycle, our progress or lack thereof can follow three distinct patterns.

So much of training is about the summation of adaptations. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we have to take this same approach to program design. Every mesocycle needs to build off of the capacities that were improved or established in the program that came before it. -Depending on the developmental stage of the athlete and his/her sport schedule, we can either prioritize a small amount of capacities and specialize the athlete, or we can improve a larger variety of capacities for more general development.

How to Specialize Athletes

The general consensus for specializing athletes is that off-season training is the time and place for cross-training and general skill development. As competition gets closer training needs to become more and more specific to the demands of the competition. By following this basic model the athlete can maintain important general fitness capacities while also receiving the performance enhancing benefits of specialization.

So how can we progressively specialize an athlete over the course of a four-month training macrocycle? Let’s use a competitive Powerlifter as an example.

• Mesocycle 1: Training is focused equally on improving the bench press, squat and deadlift, and there are a variety of accessory exercises put in place to help accomplish this goal.
• Mesocycle 2: Training is still focusing on improving bench press, squat and deadlift, however a larger percentage of the overall volume is going to be allocated to the athlete’s weakest lift. Accessory exercises are now becoming segments of the main lifts.
• Mesocycle 3: Training is still focused the 3 main competition lifts, now rep ranges and rest periods are also becoming more similar to competition. Accessory exercises are minimal in order to develop specific motor patterns.
• Mesocycle 4: Training is similar to competition with occasional accessory exercises. Rep ranges are extremely low and as a result the athlete will be experiencing central fatigue. Working to establish and improve upon motor patterns for the squat, deadlift and bench press will also tax CNS. As a result we need to taper volume off approximately 2 weeks before competition.

Structures of the macrocycle in the non-competitive periods of the athlete’s sport are much different, as specificity is not the goal and instead we are looking to improve and maintain a variety of capacities. Due to the change in goals, exercise variety is encouraged and numerous cross-training tools may be beneficial towards improving the performance of the athlete.

Next, let’s examine two of the most important variables in programming, exercise selection and loading parameters.

Loading parameters are heavily dependent on the training philosophy. In the sport of weightlifting, countries such as China, Bulgaria, Iran and Russia all hang their hats on a different set of loading parameters. With that being said, all of these countries have had success in competition, which is only further evidence to show that there is no perfect way to go about training. However there is a basic science to developing programs. Let’s get ready for some meathead math, as we dive into the process of selecting and defining your own training variables.

Step 1: Divide training load into six zones and determine the goal of the program. Next we must decide which two percentage ranges are most conducive to the goal of the training cycle. In this scenario we will be building a volume based strength program for a lifter who is two training cycles away from a powerlifting meet. Therefore we will be focusing our efforts in zones 2 and 3.

Step 2: Select the number of repetitions that will be performed during the training cycle. Here are some of our guidelines for selecting repetition ranges during four-week strength programs. It is important to note that repetition count is entirely dependent upon the intensity of the reps. These guidelines are for volume-based strength programs with the majority of the work being done in zones 2 and 3.

• Beginners: 600 – 800 reps
• Novice: 800 – 1000 reps
• Advanced: 1000 – 1500 reps
• Overreaching: 1500+ reps
• Taper: 800 reps

Step 3: Select the number of exercises and identify the areas that need most improvement. Allocate the percentage of total reps to the primary focus exercises of the program. Be sure to focus the majority of repetitions into the two zones that we have identified as most conducive to our goal in step 1. In this example our lifter needs to improve his bench press, so a larger percentage of the program volume is allocated to that exercise.

Step 4: This is the time and place where we decide which periodization model we are going to use for the program. Are intensities going to change each week, or are they going to go up in a linear fashion? The periodization model that you use will go a long ways towards determining the adaptations that the program provides. For this program we are going to use a reverse linear periodization model. Training volume (sets and reps) will be highest in week 1, and lowest at the end of the program in week 4. However program intensity will be lowest in week 1 and highest at the end of the program. Reverse linear periodization models are a great way to transition from higher volume periods of training too higher intensity periods of training.

Volume Distribution for Reverse Linear Strength Program
• Week 1 – 35% of repetitions (highest volume – lowest intensity)
• Week 2 – 28% of repetitions (high volume – moderate intensity)
• Week 3 – 22% of repetitions (high intensity – moderate volume)
• Week 4 – 15% of repetitions (highest intensity – lowest volume)

Step 5: Use the numbers that we have assembled above to build a periodized training program.

Program design is a highly organic process. Every program needs to be tailored to the athlete, his/her goals, and the current trained state of the athlete in order to attain best results. There is no optimal program for every athlete, because every athlete is not the same. Follow the principles and fundamentals of meathead math so you can hopefully discover the optimal program for you. Stay tuned for part 2 of our exclusive program design fundamentals series on Fit Over Fat, as we will be covering various periodization models, tempo training, percentages, loading schemes and more.

If you are interested in purchasing an individualized training program from The Strength Guys, please contact thestrengthguys@gmail.com for more details on our services and rates.