Designing a Programme – What is Best?

Article by Andy Tsang, Personal Trainer, The Varsity Gym

Programme BasicsOne of the common questions I get asked is “Andy, what kind of programme should I do and which one is best?” Or the other famous one, “I’m using the blah method/system, do you think that is better than the blah method/system. Now it is fair to say that assessments and testing is staple in any decent trainers arsenal of tools and using a good trainer will definitely be worth its weight in gold. Having a screen to find out what kind of things that you should be working on and were your strengths and weaknesses lie will always trump going at it blindly. If anything at least you will have a clear starting point. There is however certain things you can do yourself in order to help with designing your own programme if you cannot hire a trainer. Here are 5 tips to help you with your own training.


Any person that has spent considerable amount of time in the gym will tell you that in order to see any decent gains, the bulk of the programme should be based on big compound movements. Big exercises like squats, bench press, deadlifts, pull ups, dips, rows and its variations should be the only concern in your train regardless of whether you’re a beginner or an advanced trainer. The same applies even if it’s for fat loss or strength gain. In the popular Westside method they advocate that you should change up the stimulus by using different exercises and variables every week but not the actual movement e.g. changing a bench press to a close grip bench. For the beginners they should stick to a ‘big’ lift for at least 3 weeks before changing the stimulus since they will respond better by getting more familiar with a certain movement. By making programmes based around compound lifts, you will find that the results will come rapid. So stop sitting on the mats doing butt clenches and get in the squat rack.


Lift HeavyTwo identical twins of same weight, height, leverages etc walked into the gym and both go for a 10-rep max on a squat. One can squat 50 kg for 10 and the other can squat 170 kg for 10, who do you think will recover first? For the majority of people who enter the gym and this is true for even some of the more experienced guys, they are still of novice ability. This means that their neuromuscular system and its capability are no where near that of an elite athlete. Make no mistake though as this means that since you are still classed as of ‘novice’ ability you can take to far much more volume of training since it will be less neurally taxing. We have used as much as 40 working sets per session for people who are less neurally efficient and seen some significant results with them in a short period of time. Furthermore Mark Rippetoe author of Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training has expressed that the first few months of a novice lifter should make the most of their training since a novice lifters capability of recovery is much more faster and has better growth capability. Most people can actually train a lot harder and take to much larger amounts of volume.


I am a big believer that majority of people who train shouldn’t get too caught up on a certain rep/set scheme. They also shouldn’t get too focused on a certain method of training as we all know life, work, kids, commitments etc will get in the way of training. If you are looking for longevity and consistency to your training, which is key to success, you need to be able to auto-regulate. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘go for how you feel’. Too many times I hear of people doing such and such a method of training or using some sort of percentage based programme were they have no room for error since it is so regimented. Again this is not a bad thing but if say for example you were working on a project for your job and required a few sleepless nights, it could throw out the whole programme. Famous strength coaches, William J Kraemer and Steven J Fleck, have written about the benefits of non-linear periodization and how they change up programmes based on individual(s) level of fatigue and recovery as long as they stuck to the basic principles. For example let’s say for instance you were on a strength based programme and looking to build up muscle mass and strength, due to the accumulation of fatigue and lack of sleep on the day you were scheduled to go to the gym you were tired but have a heavy leg session. With the non-linear approach you can now look into either drop the volume and maintain the weight, drop the weight, drop weight and volume, or use a less neural taxing leg session for example using single joint exercises. This way you are less likely to hit overtraining/overreaching and can alter your training protocols accordingly yet still continue to make progress.


Absolute Strength
Strength Speed – Speed At The Aid Of Strength E.G. Olympic Lifts
Strength Endurance – Ability To Perform With The Aid Of Strength E.G Push Ups For X Amount Of Reps
Speed Strength –Strength At The Aid Of Speed E.G. Baseball Pitch
Absolute Speed
Flexibility – Passive Range Of Motion E.G. Hamstring Stretch
Mobility – Dynamic Range Of Motion E.G. High Kick

Look at the above descriptions on the various types of qualities one has to have in order for maximal performance. If you are not an athlete or participate in any given sport, you then are what we call ‘an everyday’ athlete’. What you want to do is to look at your own training and what qualities you lack in. Similarly though, this type of thinking will also benefit the professional athlete. Even though it might be specificity involved, using this method can help you to reach you potential a lot more effieciently. Let me explain, say for example you have been going to the gym for a while and you have been focused on training using a traditional bodybuilding method. Your goal is for size and strength, and you are using the popular sets of ten reps for each body parts for a multiple of sets, with a cadence of two up and two down. If you look at the qualities above this would suggest that possibly the boxes that you are ticking would be:

Some absolute strength
Strength endurance
Some strength endurance
Some endurance
Some flexibility
Some mobility

One would then suggest if you are starting to plateau, chances are you are not using maximal force enough and therefore could be not tapping into your fast twitch muscle fibres as much. This isn’t a good thing since fast twitch muscle fibres have been shown to have the largest potential for growth. Incorporating some power work (speed strength, strength speed and absolute speed) like med ball throws and maximal strength training (1-3 rep maxes) you could bust through your plateaus and constantly make gains. Another example would be if you look at your flexibility, if you are too tight in certain motions this could ultimately cause you to become too active and the antagonistic muscles will stop you from getting stronger, moving better and eventually could cause injury. This will be also true for the majority of all training whether it be sport or just for getting better gains. If you can look to see where your qualities are and where they lack, you can train towards them. I guarantee you will reap the benefits since it will give you consistent gains.


This one is pretty self-explanatory. In for any programme to work it has to adhere to certain things. One of the main things is recovery, there is no point in designing a workout that will leave you lying in a pool of puke everyday or doing sessions which is full of big massive super sets and contrast methods yet you still haven’t recovered from the previous session(s). Make sure when you are training you use a good post workout shake, have a clean diet and utilise methods like contrast bathing, foam rolling, sports massages and sleeping well. Design your own programme based on your work capacity and adjust it accordingly. There is no point constantly adding and adding to your programme if you cannot recover therefore will ultimately become counterproductive and lead to overtraining.


Starting Strength 2nd edition – Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore
Supertraining 6th edition 2003 – Mel Siff PhD
Elite Fitness Systems – Tour de force seminar 2003
Elite Fitness Systems – Westside Basic Training PDF
William J. Kraemer Steven J. Fleck Optimizing Strength Training – flexible non linear periodization
Eric Cressey the absolute speed absolute strength development
Steve Shaw understanding auto regulated training
What is Autoregulatory Training?

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