The Journey To Improvement Begins With A Goal: Program Design Pt. 1

There are many nuances to creating an exercise program that need to be tailored in order to bring out the best in each individual athlete. However, I think that too many people (coaches included) fall into the “putting the cart before the horse” trap, where they worry too much about the small details and completely miss the very basics of program design. Let me give you an example;

Beginner Joe: “Hey brah, when hitting bench should I go 2-0-1-2 or 3-1-1-3 tempo? Also do you think I should throw in some bands or chains for ‘dat there accommodating resistance?”

Some of you are probably thinking that Joe should just go fucking bench first, work on technique and put on some quality muscle mass before he worries about any of that other shit. Be honest with me though brahs, you either know someone (or multiple someones), who approaches program design like this or, you yourself have probably fallen into this trap at one point in your training career, getting too complicated and fancy when you’ve only been lifting for a few months to a year. Personally, my answer to both questions is yes and it took one-too-many dumbass mistakes before I realized that the basics needed to come first before I drizzle in some of the details. To illustrate a clear picture, think meat and potatoes (basics) first before throwing in your seasoning (small details). Don’t get me wrong, the seasoning is important because it highlights the flavor of each of the main ingredients in the dish. Good seasoning can be the difference between a plain old meat and potatoes casserole and brisket hash, but ask Gordon Ramsey and you’ll probably get an earful of profanities if you talked about seasonings first before even mentioning the type of potato or the cut of beef you’re using for the dish.

So how do we approach program design to get the most gains for the time we spend in the gym? Well, that’s what we’re here to talk about. Let’s start from the very bottom of the pyramid to cover the basics and then slowly work our way up towards the top to where we’ll cover the details.

Part 1: Goal Setting

Designing an exercise program without a goal in mind is analogous to driving without knowing where the fuck you’re going. Good luck trying to get anywhere because you’ll probably end up going around in circles. Establishing goals gives both the exercise program and athlete direction. The more specific the goal the better. General fitness goals are ok too, but try to nail down exactly what you want (or if you’re a coach, what the athlete wants) to get out of training because it will make it that much easier for you to tailor programming so you (or they) get the most return for the time invested in training.

Example 1

“I want to increase my general fitness to improve my overall quality of life”.

There are many ways to accomplish this. For example, walking and eating a sensible diet can pay dividends on improving general fitness. However, there are other modalities that can also be used to reach this goal such as running, lifting weights, hiking, dancing etc. It’s important to find what type of exercise you enjoy and do it consistently.

Example 2

“I want to become stronger because my job involves a lot of lifting weights overhead of up to 50lbs”.

As a coach, I like this goal because it allows me to choose the proper exercise modality. In this case strength training and, more specifically, training movements to move loads (weight) overhead. We can even take this a step further and choose movements that improve and maintain shoulder health and overhead stability to minimize the risk for injury.

Example 3

“I want to compete in a powerlifting meet. I also want to qualify for USAPL Raw Nationals in the 74kg weight class.

In the previous example, the client wanted to improve general strength. In this scenario, the athlete competes in the sport of powerlifting so their exercise selection changes from a broad, inclusive list of movements to a more specific, exclusive set of exercise modalities that revolve around their sport. In powerlifting, those movements are the squat, bench and deadlift. Exercise selection will focus on the 3 main lifts and doing variations of that lift. Additionally, there are accessory movements that help improve positions and form during the execution of the movements which can also address weak points. As a powerlifter, we also know that the athlete needs to improve on maximal strength which indicates working within a certain intensity of their 1-rep max.

Lastly, because the athlete wants to obtain a qualifying total (the sum of their best squat, bench, and deadlift in competition) for USAPL Raw Nationals, we are able to train in a way that is directly in line with the requirements of the federation. For example, some federations allow the athlete to assume either a flat footed or heel up position during the bench press. However, because this person competes in USAPL, we must train bench in only the flat footed position as per USAPL federation rules.

Finally, since the athlete wants to qualify for nats via their total, we know how much we need to add to their current total in order to qualify as a 74kg lifter.

Notice, as the goal becomes more specific, we are able to include more details and get a clearer picture of where we have to go to reach that goal.


To summarize, as an athlete, recreational gym-goer, weekend warrior, etc., if you want to maximize the returns for the time invested in training, be specific with your goal setting so you know exactly what direction to take with programming. As a coach, the same thing applies but it also benefits you in client retention. Reaching specific training goals is an objective way to quantify progress. If your client sees that they’re continuously making improvements in training, they’re more inclined to stay with and/or recommend you to others.

If you’re still with me, that pretty much concludes part 1 of programming basics. Next week, I’ll cover part 2 of the series which includes choosing a start-end date once you’ve established specific goals and exercise selection. Until then, thanks for reading fam. Don’t forget to like, subscribe and share this post if you found it helpful in some way. Do it!


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