Today’s article is written for a new trainer or someone who wants to gain a greater understanding about what a good program should contain. One of my friends has just started in the industry so after outlining the basics with her it gave me some ideas about what parts of programming cause confusion.

The main expertise in programming is managing stress. That’s the key. Understanding your goals, your stressors and making them complement each other not crush each other. This is one of the many negatives with cookie cutter programs and a lot of the high intensity group fitness classes. Having people show up each day and just smashing them isn’t sustainable.

Your body cannot keep maxing out everyday you train. It doesn’t work that way. Imagine you drive a car with the foot to the floor all the time. It’s not going to last half as long as driving a car properly. Your body is no different. Most of the time you drive at a safe consistent speed. You go through times when you can open up and put the foot down but you must also slow down at traffic lights and going through built up areas.

Proper programming is what allows you to continually improve week on week, month on month over years. It does this by paying attention to the “rules of the road”.

A good program manages stress properly, gets the client closer to their goal and fixes muscular imbalances and injury. You need to have a selection of movements that will help realign the persons body and balance out whatever issues you may have encountered dustin the  assessment.

I work with mostly general population all of whom are at a desk for 8-10 hours each day. 8/10 of the people I screen have tight chest, rounded shoulder and tight hip flexors. This is the major issues that I need to resolve with them. It’s about improving mobility and trying to offset the negatives of 10+ hours a day of sitting.

What movements do I pick?

The fundamental movements that all programs should address are the following.

1. Push

You can do any of the numerous press variations (military press, floor press, etc.)  You can even combine push and counter-rotation by doing a one-sided floor press. If you don’t want to use a bell, you can do push-ups (of which there are numerous variations).

2. Pull

Any of the row variations (rows, renegade rows, single-leg rows, batwings, etc.) or pull-ups fall into the pull category.

3. Hinge

Deadlifts, swings, cleans, and snatches all are hinges.

4. Squat

Goblet squats and front squats are the most common. The more practiced strength students can perform pistols (weighted or unweighted).

5. Everything else

Farmers carries, racked carries, waiter’s walk (overhead carries). Crawling, turkish getups.

This five movement patterns are from Dan john.

How do I split movements into sessions?

Picking what movements to put where depends on how many session a week a client has available and how much time to train in each session.

On average my clients do 3 x 30 minute sessions a week. For my client base with habit based nutrition coaching this is sufficient. None of them will be doing a physique show anytime soon but this is where we need to understand the importance of programming correctly for the population you’re working with. It’s also why most newbies get no results with the programs they follow designed  for pro bodybuilders.



When deciding what movements to put I use an X split routine. This means I use exercises that don’t compete with each other. So if I’m doing a back squat which is a lower push, I’ll pair it with a row variation which is an upper pull. Likewise if I deadlift (lower pull) I’ll pair it with something like a pushup (upper push).

Pair upper push with lower pull

Pair upper pull with lower push

How to I know what to do first?

Now you know what movements to use and how to split them up the next thing to understand is how to know where to put each movement.

The general hierarchy for what training to address first are as follows

  1. Skill work
  2. Explosive
  3. Strength
  4. Conditioning

Skill work is best put first as you are learning new skills. This requires both physical freshness and cognitive freshness. You don’t want to do skill work when you’re tired. Conditioning goes last as it uses movements that the individual is already proficient at a higher intensity.

Handstands are best done at the start of your session.

How many reps and sets do I pick?

This depends on the client’s goals. A fatloss client will do a higher volume progam (more reps and sets) than someone looking to build pure strength.

Below are the reps schemes based on what you want to achieve.

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength (called myofibrillar hypertrophy).
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build a somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular endurance.
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance and size (this is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).

Unless the person is training for something specific like a powerlifting comp it’s best to have a combination of rep ranges. 

How do I know what weight to use?

I don’t use percentages and don’t really think they’re necessary unless the person is more intermediate to advanced. Even then I think the RPE works best. RPE stands for rating of perceived exertion. Below is an example of how it works from

10: Maximal, no reps left in the tank

9: Last rep is tough but still one rep left in the tank

8: Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2–4 reps left

7: Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied to the weight; “speed weight”

6: Light speed work; moves quickly with moderate force

5: Most warm-up weights

4: Recovery; usually 20 plus rep sets; not hard but intended to flush the muscle

An RPE below four isn’t important.

Sample 3 Day Template

Day 1.

A1.   Squat 3-5 x 5 – RPE 7-8 – rest up to 3 minutes

A2. Mobility – modified camel – 3 x 10 breaths

B1. Bent over row 3-5 x 8-12 – RPE 7 – rest 30 seconds

B2. Inverted press 3-5 x 8-12 – RPE 7 – rest 60 seconds

C.   Loaded carry 3-5 x 40 steps – RPE 7 – rest 60 seconds

Day 2.

A1.  Bench Press 3-5 x 5 – RPE 7-8 – rest up to 3 minutes

A2. Mobility – hip flexors – 3 x 10 breaths per leg

B1. Kettlebell swings 3-5 x 10-20 – RPE 7 – rest 30 seconds

B2. Shrimp squats 3-5 x 30s – RPE 7 – rest 60 seconds

C.   Hollow body holds 3-5 x 30s – RPE 7 – rest 30-60 seconds

Day  3.

A1.   Deadlift 3 x 5 -RPE 7-8 – rest up to 3 minutes

A2. Mobility – calves – 3 x 10 breaths

B1. Chin ups 3-5 x 30s – RPE 7 – rest 30 seconds

B2. Split squat 3-5 x 8-12 – RPE 7 – rest 60 seconds

C.   Locomotion 3-5 x 30s – RPE 7 – rest 60 seconds

This routine works very well. It’s hitting everything the person needs. There are elements of strength, flexibility, motor control and skill in the movements and for the most part it’s enjoyable. I have 3-5 rounds down depending on time.

If the person is new to lifting then they’ll easily get through 5 sets of everything because they’re not lifting any weight. When a client is stronger it will take them longer to warm up and hit their working sets for that day.

What do the letters stand for?

The letters mean the exercises are grouped together (supersetted). So if A1=5×5 and A2=4×5. That means you complete A1 for 5. Rest and complete A2 for 5. You then rest again and repeats until you’ve completed 5 sets of A1 and 4 of A2.

A2 is a mobility exercise. This exercise will target what ever areas came up tight in their screening. So if they have tight calves and stiff ankles we’ll do a mobility exercise for their calves. It may also be an exercise that will make the exercise they’re doing easier.

With the mobility just make sure you are not doing a mobility exercise that won’t further tax the A1 movement. So if they’re doing squats don’t hold a deep squat as a mobility exercise.

Push Pull Ratio

There is also a mixture of horizontal and vertical pulling and pushing movements. It’s best to use a 2 or 3:1 pull to push ratio in my programs. So for every push I will do 2-3 pulls.

If I do 1 set of 8 in a bench press. I should be doing 3 sets of 8 in  a bent over row. The main reason is we spend most of our lives in flexion. Whether we’re on a computer, driving or cooking. We are in a flexed position. Pushing makes this more pronounced. So the more you push the further into flexion you will go. This puts the shoulders further forward and makes the posture worse.

You probably spend enough time in this position each day, don’t make it worse with more pressing.



Gender Considerations

I find that male clients seem to fare better with less total movements and lower reps while female clients respond better to volume this is because women use more fat at any given exercise intensity making them more resistant to fatigue. Greg Nuckols wrote a great piece on gender differences in training here.

“Finally, as far as training goes (though we’ll get more into training as this series progresses), odds are pretty good that you can do more work and benefit from more work than a guy can.  Your muscles are inherently more glycogen-sparing and fatigue-resistant.  You can probably do more reps with a given percentage of your 1rm before fatigue sets in, and do more total work (relative to 1rm) before you hit a wall due to higher proportion of Type 1 muscle fibers, greater proportion of fat being burned instead of glycogen, and lower glycolytic capacity.” – Greg Nuckols

Using Timed Sets

You can also see that I use a combination of reps and timed sets. I prefer timed sets for the bodyweight movements as it gets the client to focus on control and quality as opposed to hitting the number of rest no matter how ugly it gets. I get the individual to do the movement as slow as possible.

I still think it’s better to use weight as a determinant in the big 3. But the emphasis is always on quality of movement. I don’t want clients to lift heavy if it looks bad. It has to look really good before they progress.

Wrap Up

Programming is a rabbit hole and is something you can get really deep into. The most important thing is to keep it simple. Focus on movements from the 5 fundamental movements above and focus on mastery in all of them.

Increase weight, reps and movement quality and you’ll get results. Watch out for you push pull ratio and focus on movements that help address imbalances and rehab injuries. All of this along with the RPE scale will help you with sustainable progress long term.

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