What Makes a Good Exercise Program?

If someone asked you to create them an exercise program, what would your end product look like? I recently heard that someone said a paid exercise program isn’t worth doing if all the exercises can be found on the internet for free. To clarify, they didn’t mean that if the program can be found for free on the internet that you shouldn’t pay for it, they meant that if the exercises on the program existed elsewhere in other programs or demonstration videos on the internet for free, that there was no point in paying for the paid program. If you’re a logical person, yes that means they were suggesting that you should only pay for an exercise program if the exercises listed are completely original and have never been seen before.

I can empathize with this way of thinking because I was once very uneducated on what all is truly involved in a good fitness program. In my mind, there were only two ways to do fitness: build muscle, or lose fat. If you wanted to build muscle, you lifted weights. If you wanted to lose weight, you ran or did a “cardio” machine. It didn’t matter how you ran, if you walked or ran at all you would lose weight. If you lifted weights, no matter how you lifted them you were building muscle in the area you were working. The progress in either of those things I knew was a little related to diet, but like a lot of people I figured genetics dictated you pace of progress and if certain things worked or not.

It’s easy to think this way when you just flat out don’t know much about the physiology behind fitness. Just because you’ve been exercising for a number of years does not mean you know much about fitness, the same way just because you’ve been reading your whole life doesn’t mean you know how to write a book. Going from consumer to creator is a night and day contrast, probably much more so than vice versa.

Rather than describe all the different ways to write a good exercise program, I’m instead going to describe all (well, most anyway) of the different considerations trainers and coaches have to take into account when it comes to writing an exercise program. This will give you some insight into just how much you should be considering in your own fitness decisions, as well as validate the quality of some fitness programs you may choose to pay for in the future. Let’s get started!

What is the Goal?

Obviously before we can start, we need to know what the objective of all the work ahead is for. Are we trying to lose fat, build muscle, rehabilitate, get faster, get strong, increase agility or quickness, perform a sport better, or a combination of these things? Every single one of these different goals has a different ideal training program than the other (and you can bet there will be at least a bit of redundancy in the exercises listed on each program, but they’ll be prescribed differently)!

Who is the Client?

Age, sex, weight and height are going to dictate nutritional recommendations more than anything, but here I want to emphasize that we need to know where the user comes from. Does he/she enjoy exercise? What do they enjoy, what don’t they enjoy, what are they familiar with, what’s completely new territory, are they competitive, are they motivated, are they reluctant? All of the answers to these questions affect how aggressive the program might be, what movements I’ll intentionally include or exclude, and even which parts of their gym I’ll have them in to avoid potential embarrassment or self-consciousness! Who the client is really needs to be taken into account when laying out their road map around the gym and through their workout, as well as how it ties into their daily life before and after each session.

What is the Equipment?

What does this person have access to? Are they at home with absolutely no exercise equipment? Are they at the purple palace with nothing but light weights and machines? Do they have tires, sleds and other unconventional equipment to make their movements more exciting? We can’t start writing exercises if we don’t know what the person even has!

When is the Workout?

What time of day is this person going to be working out? Are they going to be fresh and awake in the mid afternoon? Slow and sluggish at 5 a.m. in the morning? Is it going to be 5-7 p.m. when the gym is packed, space is limited and so are certain stations? How long will it have been since they last ate? You can bet all of these things will affect the person’s performance, and therefore should influence what you program.

What is the Frequency?

How many days a week is the person available? Six days a week leaves a lot more room for variation and flexibility than one or two days a week. Amongst other things like how often will this person miss those workouts, it’s important to consider that the progress someone can make working out 5 days a week is going to be significantly more than someone who works out only once every 4 or 5 days. Needless to say the pace at which you can progress the exercise of one is going to be vastly different than the other.

What is the Duration?

Similar to frequency, what can be accomplished in only 15-20 minutes of available time is going to be astronomically different than what can be completed in 1-2 hours. This (in no particular order) affects how primed their body can get, how many different movements they’ll have time to accomplish, how many calories they’ll be able to burn, muscles they’ll be able to stress, and their active recovery time at the end of the workout.

Exercise Selection

NOW we can start thinking about the actual exercises we’re going to choose! That probably took a lot longer than the aforementioned person thought it would take, but like I said, there’s a lot more that goes into an exercise program than just the exercises.

Pending equipment, this is where we decide how simple or advanced we want the movements to be. Do we want to challenge the person’s balance and stability by choosing more open circuit or unilateral movements? Is the primary goal strength, making closed circuit, bilateral movements more appropriate? Has the person ever done a Low Bar Back Squat? Do they have the self-awareness to know when their form is breaking down on a deadlift? Are we training for athleticism that would warrant faster and more plyometric movements for power production, quickness and agility? These are yet again just a few of the things good coaches think about.

Exercise Order

So we’ve picked out the movements we want the lifter to do, but which do they do first? Which do they do next? I can tell you that the heaviest lifts and/or the fastest lifts need to be at the front of the workout and the easier, safer movements near the end, but it’s not always easy to order that first movement if both a heavy and a fast movement is on the workout, nor is the most ideal subsequent movement always (if ever) obvious. This is one of the reasons you can ask 100 experienced coaches to all write a program for the same person and never find any duplication between programs.

Intensity of Exercise

This refers to the level of stress the body will be under during each movement and depends on things like the fitness level of the client, their familiarity with the movement, their preparedness going into the lift on that particular day and time, and the desired adaptation (strength, hypertrophy, work capacity, stability, etc.).

Range of Motion

Full range of motion is always ideal, but not always appropriate. Depending on the movement and the lifter’s skill level, partial range of motion may be prescribed. Range of motion can also be manipulated to work on a lifter’s sticking points, emphasize a particular part of a muscle (bodybuilding), or to mix things up and make a common exercise ore interesting by segmenting it, which will increase the lifter’s skill with that movement.

Tempo

Tempo refers to the pace the movement is executed and typically specified the duration of the 1st phase of the movement, the time before the 2nd phase, the length of the 2nd phase, and the time to wait before repeating the movement again. Like range of motion, this is useful for improving skill of a movement, hitting the muscles differently (great for hypertrophy), but it can also be a good way to make the lifter safer by instructing them to take certain parts of a movement slowly, or even not spending too much time in certain positions.

Rest Interval

So we’ve figured out everything above, now how long should the person rest between sets? For people looking to burn more calories (fat loss), they’ll usually want to rest less but that may not be safe for every fat loss client. Likewise more advanced clients may get frustrated if you ask them to rest longer than they desire. Hypertrophy clients are usually advised to rest between 30 and 90 seconds, but the more complex or compound a movement is, the more rest they’ll need. Strength athletes usually need several minutes of rest between sets. Those taking stimulant medications will need more rest than they would otherwise, along with people on blood pressure or other heart-related medications.

Contraction Emphasis

This relates more to hypertrophy clients, but there are 3 primary times of contractions we consider when stimulating muscle growth: concentric, eccentric and isometric. Isokinetic is a 4th, but the equipment capable of creating this contraction is extremely rare. Depending on how a lifter’s muscles are responding to certain movements, shifting emphasis to and from these 3 types of contractions can stimulate the muscles more effectively, delivering the client better results.

Maximal Recovery Volume

You don’t want to overload the client more than they’re capable of recovering. This is called over-training or over-reaching, but it’s simply stressing the body beyond what it’s able to recover from before being stressed again. This is not unlike taking 2 steps forwards and one step back, and can quickly turn into completely backtracking if you lead them directly towards a serious injury.

Nutrition

Ok we’ve got the exercise side of things down, but that’s only HALF of the picture! What is the client supposed to eat for their first meal of the day? Second? How many meals should they eat? When should they eat them? When should they eat relative to their workout? How does that change with certain types of workouts? How does it change on days where there’s no workout? Now take into account how committed this person realistically is to eating what you tell them to and adapt your recommendations to their realistic commitment level.

Progression and Periodization

We got a whole week programmed, great! Now what do we the next week? The next month? Where do we want to be in 6 months? 2 years from now? How long will we do the same movements? What changes will we make week to week in those movements?

Design / Medium

On top of all this, what is the program going to look like? Is it a spreadsheet? Is it color coordinated? Is it easy to understand? Is it a piece of paper that can be lost or damaged? A .pdf? A website? An app? Can participants track their results? Is it easy for them to do so?

There’s a seemingly endless amount of things to consider that as a consumer, you just don’t realize. It’s not until you’re on the creative side of the table that you start to comprehend what goes into a great program that the user can understand, enjoy, execute safely AND still get great results that will leave them happy with their investment.

 

Conclusion

That’s all there is to it! LOL

There are a great many things that go into creating an exercise program, and since formal exercise has been around for centuries, hardly any if any at all of today’s greatest exercise programs (a subjective judgement) utilize movements that have not been empirically proven effective. There are literally millions of movement options available considering all the different equipment options available today that can be combined or swapped to create exercise variations. With all the variables mentioned above, no one out there is trying to re-invent the wheel. Nowadays, professionals are paying attention to the increasing quantities of research that are providing coaches, trainers and health professionals invaluable insight into how these movements and loading variations that we’ve been using for decades (if not centuries) actually affect our bodies on a microscopic level. This is helping us better select and implement options already available, negating any need to come up with new movements.

Thank you for reading this article! If you found it informative, helpful, or have any critiques you would like to suggest, please let me know in the comments below!

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