3 Questions to Make Program Design Easier

by | Jul 14, 2015 | Articles, For Fitness Pros | 4 comments

(Last Updated On: September 24, 2019)

Program design seems like a lost art, yet it can be the difference maker for your client’s results. Designing programs that meet all the needs of your clients is challenging. It can also be extremely frustrating when something just doesn’t seem to be working the way you thought it would. I always liked the challenge though and enjoyed playing with all the variables to see what got the best results. Program design can either be your secret weapon or it can be a challenge you almost always have to overcome.

Trainers and coaches are always looking for ways to fine tune, overhaul or improve their program design. All to often I see them completely overhauling it and doing it much too frequently. Most of this is due to their own insecurities and boredom with their current program.

Sometimes Too Much Knowledge Makes You Second Guess Yourself

business-19156_1920I get it though! I still fight it when I am writing up a program, creating a new product or putting anything together that someone else might see or use. I worry if it will get the results that I am looking for or if it will fail. I wonder what the big names in the industry might think if they see it. I second-guess myself and worry that I might have left out that one important exercise.

These feelings are perfectly acceptable and normal. That is why you create, implement, test and reassess your programs constantly. You should be trying to find better ways to get results.

The worst trainers, well second worst because the worst ones have no program design at all, will use the excuse that their clients aren’t following the program and that is why they aren’t getting results.

While this might be true, it tells me that the clients don’t trust the program or it is too challenging for them to follow for one reason or another, which is the trainer’s fault as well. As a trainer and coach it is important to own the responsibility of delivering results. When the client trusts the trainer and believes they will have success usually that belief becomes a reality.

Giving a solid effort relies on the client but the trainer is there to motivate, challenge, and ensure the client is improving.   It can’t always be the client’s fault.The most ineffective programs I have written were those that made the client feel as if they could never complete all of the sessions on time or see any success within the program for one reason or another. That same program for a different person may have been great, but I missed the boat on what that particular client needed.

Adherence and compliance are topics that deserve a post all their own, so let’s get back to the topic at hand. How do you design a program that you can use to produce great results?


You define your principles of training, create a system to implement those principles and then adjust it to fit the individual or goal of the program.

Okay, I get it! That sounds easier than it really is right?

Let’s make it easy by asking and answering a few questions….

Question #1: What training principles do you want to instill in your clients?  

When I think principles I am thinking of things that never change in your programs. This might be that all clients are athletes, everyone should move without pain, or everyone needs a certain level of conditioning.

For me I know that when I write a program or create a program for you all to implement with your clients I base it off a few things.

#1) Strength is king.


I will manipulate a program to be based around strength if possible because I feel that it is the most important thing for someone to master. There is no need for every client to bench press their bodyweight, but a basic level of strength should be created to develop a good foundation. Until I am satisfied with the level of strength I will not place the training focus anywhere else.

#2) Each individual should have a base level of conditioning.

Everyone doesn’t need to be able to run a 5k but they shouldn’t be breathing hard after walking up a few flights of stairs either. That includes those that are focused on strength only and especially athletes.

I have seen the negative impact that being an out of shape strength athlete can have on a person- I have been that athlete! It isn’t fun and there is no reason for it.

#3) Master the basic movements.

Admittedly I am not a corrective exercise guy. There are lots of ways that I can coach a movement but when it comes to correcting dysfunctions I would rather leave that to people who are much smarter than myself. My bread and butter lies in transformations.

I know just enough to be dangerous, but I also know when to refer out. Knowing your limitations and sticking to
your principles is the key!

For any corrective exercise or assessment info I go to the experts. weights-869225_1280Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey, Dean Somerset, Mike Reinold, Evan Osar and Smart Group Training (just to name a few) have put out amazing information on corrective exercises and assessments. I refer to their products and info when I need help. Nearly everyone should be able to perform a bodyweight squat, hinge, push and pull without much restriction.. You don’t need perfect but you need to start working towards mastering those basic movements, even if that means unloaded.

In my programs we use movements as the foundation and not exercises. Find the best movements and patterns for a client and they will quickly master them.

Find the best movements and patterns for a client and they will quickly master them

Those 3 principles anchor program design for myself. With so many variables to manipulate for a client based on type of program, experience, results of an assessment and their goal it is impossible to layout every thing you might have to change or adapt in a program.

Question #2: What type of client/program are you writing this for?

The answer to this question will dictate the design of my program. Is the program for group training, personal training, small group training? In any program you must consider the time you have available both in each session and weekly, the equipment available and the space you have. In a group training or bootcamp program you must consider the flow of the program and each workout to ensure that the program is balanced. Knowing your clients schedule allows you to work with training splits that might be appropriate for them.

If I only have two days to train a total body program is probably the most effective, but if I have 4 or 5 days to train that might change how I layout the program. Sometimes you have to make concessions as well. In a group program you need to design it for the majority of people so that you get the best results possible, but in a personal training program you can adapt the training to fit the client’s exact needs.

Also consider the goal of the program in general. For most group training or boot camp programs it is fat loss. Are you designing sessions based on that goal? This is where you start to narrow down your variables such as rest periods, training splits, volume and more.

Question #3: Do I think this is the optimal program for the client(s)?

This is the most important question of them all. Based on what you know about the client from their current lifestyle, training availability, experience and goal do you think this program will deliver the desired results? In a group training or boot camp environment you need to review if you are progressing experienced clients or giving them the chance to challenge themselves while still providing a great experience for beginners that may be in your program.

For personal training you need to consider all the variables and determine if the client will be able to complete the program successfully and see the results they want. If the answer is no, then you need to re-evaluate the program or revisit the client’s expectations on achieving their goals. When you are writing your programs and creating your program design system sometimes it helps to see what others have used.

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