As coaches, we all have to write programs.
But if you’re anything like me, I didn’t really learn the “rules” of program design, even with six years of higher education.
And perhaps most importantly, what I did learn never really held up when it came to start writing real programs that worked!
In this article, we’re going to talk about the specific variables you have at your disposal to dominate your program design.
Whether your train high level athletes or fat loss clients, once you understand the underlying principles and physiology of program design, every program you write will immediately become clearer and more effective.
This article is designed to piggyback directly off of this video on program design.
Program design invariably leads to a ton of questions:
- What set/rep scheme is best?
- How much rest do I need?
- What is tempo/time under tension, and how does it affect my adaptations?
The big issue here is that we’re trying to answer the question in a black-and-white fashion, when everything in training is really gray scale.
And to confound things even more, even in that gray scale there’s room for artistic expression.
Which is why all of this program design stuff is so much fun!
When it comes to program design, there are five primary variables we have at our disposal:
- Exercise selection,
- Number of sets,
- Number of reps,
- Time under tension (TUT/tempo), and
- Rest period.
The topic of exercise selection goes far beyond what I can cover here, so I’m going to omit that for the sake of brevity.
But let’s dive in and take a quick look and how those other four variables can be manipulated and pieced together to write a complete program.
The Neural Metabolic Continuum
Many years ago, I was introduced to the neural-metabolic continuum by strength coach Ian King.
The premise here was simple:
When you are writing a program, you are either chasing neural/nervous system adaptations, or muscular/metabolic adaptations.
Period, end of story.
What you’ll find is that when you start to think in this fashion, it immediately clears up a ton of confusion with regards to your programming.
If you’re chasing a neural based adaptation (such as speed, strength or power development) then you need to:
- Perform fewer reps per set,
- Crank up the load/intensity/contraction speed, and
- Take a longer rest in between sets.
If you’re chasing a metabolic based adaptation (such as fat loss or hypertrophy), then you need to:
- Perform more reps per set,
- Use a more moderate load/possibly slow down the contraction speed, and
- Rest less between sets.
It sounds pretty simple when we whittle it down like that, right?
Now let’s dive in and look at all those variables as the unique flowers that they really are.
Sets and Reps
I just mentioned that I was going to break these variables up, but sets and reps are like peanut butter and jelly.
You can talk about them as individuals, but those just fit so nicely together!
In all seriousness, sets and reps really feed off of each other. When you’re looking at the neural metabolic continuum, here are two general paths you can follow:
Fewer Sets + More Reps/Set = More Metabolic Adaptations
When you think about taking really heavy weights, and/or producing maximal power, the sets and reps look something like this:
3×3 @ 90%
2×2 @ 95%
OR 5×3 @ 50% but performed as quickly as possible
On the flip side, when you chase metabolic adaptations, you go in the opposite direction.
And as you’ll see later on, when you start doing the math (reps x TUT) for each set, you’ll start to have a better idea of why we get the adaptations that we do.
Time Under Tension
I first read about time under tension (aka TUT or tempo) very early in my career.
And I used TUT prescriptions for years to write some pretty awesome programs, without ever truly grasping how it changes things.
Quite simply, when you start to play around with TUT, you are shifting your adaptation to either a more reactive/elastic adaptation, or to a more muscular focused adaptation.
Think about it like this: When you really slow a rep down, taking a three or four second eccentric, or perhaps throwing in a pause, you put a ton of stress on the muscle tissue to control and own that movement.
If you want to maximize muscular involvement, here are a few things to try:
- Slow down the eccentric portion of the lift,
- Pause at one (or numerous) points during the lift, and/or
- Slow down the concentric portion of the lift.
On the flip side, when you are trying to be as fast and explosive as possible, this puts a premium on elasticity, the stretch shortening cycle (SSC), etc.
If you want to maximize elasticity, then do the following:
- Be fast/explosive on the eccentric,
- Minimize the amortization/transition phase, and
- Be as explosive as possible on the concentric.
Quite simply, when you start to dabble with TUT, what you’re really doing is determining how much influence you want the SSC to contribute to the movement.
But when you tie the right tempo prescription in with the right set/rep scheme, now you’re really setting your athlete up for success.
Last but not least, we have rest period. And before I give you answers, just think common sense.
You’ve just completed a heavy triple on the squat. You’re out of breath, your eyes are bulging, and your pulse is racing. Do you really want to do that again on 60 seconds rest?
Now let’s flip the scenario. You’re really trying to get leaned out and shredded for the summer. You’re in the gym, and you crushed a set of 10 reps like it was your job. But now you see an old buddy and you talk to him for the next 10 minutes.
Is this going to help you get the body composition changes that you want? Probably not.
This is why choosing the right rest period is the icing on the cake.
If you’re chasing nervous system adaptations, it takes the nervous system time to recover from intense bouts of exercise.
Muscularly you (or your athlete) could feel recovered, but this nervous system is not.
And when you talk metabolic adaptations, then you need to get comfortable working on incomplete rest.
If you’re not huffing and puffing a bit at the end of your training session, then you’re doing it wrong.
Now that we’ve got all the primary pieces in place, let’s look at this through a slightly different lens, which will hopefully make all of this a bit easier.
The Dirty Secret of Program Design
If you’ve been here from the start, I actually mentioned this in our very first month of IFAST University:
All training is energy system training.
While we tend to think of EST as specifically conditioning, everything we do in the gym is energy dependent as well.
Think about a heavy set of 3’s on the squat. It might take 6-8 seconds to finish the set, and then you need to take a full recovery to allow the nervous system to recover.
So you’re looking at 8 seconds of work, with 5 minutes of rest. That’s about as alactic/aerobic as it gets.
Now consider a fat loss protocol where you’re performing 12 reps on a 301 tempo (48 seconds of work), interspersed with 60 seconds of rest.
When you combine the 48 seconds of work (where you’re tapping into the glycolytic pathway), and combining that with incomplete rest, you’re got a very glycolytic focused workout.
In the short term, start thinking of all your programs in terms of what energy system pathway you’re training.
If you want a nervous system adaptation, are you writing a program that features:
- Alactic energy pathway contributions (10 seconds or less),
- Fast and explosive contraction speeds, and
- Full and complete rest?
If you want a muscular system adaptation, are you writing a program that features:
- Glycolytic energy pathway contributions (>30 seconds),
- Controlled contraction speeds (and possibly slowed eccentrics/concentrics), and
- Incomplete rest?
This is just another way to look at the neural-metabolic continuum above. Regardless of which way you settle on, it behooves you to start thinking in this fashion as it will help you streamline all of your variables.
I’m a firm believer that program design is one part science, and one part art.
This article has given you the basic physiological principles that underlie a solid training program. And while you might work around them for a short period of time, you can’t cheat these rules for long without consequences.
As Dan John has famously said:
“Everything works, but nothing works forever.”
What makes this so fascinating, however, is that once you have the scientific rules in place, there’s still a ton of room for interpretation and individual expression.
You’ll notice I gave very few specifics in this article, and for good reason.
Once you know the rules, you’re free to pick and choose from the exercises, set/rep schemes, time under tensions and rest periods that work best for you and your clients.
I sincerely hope this article gives you a better idea of how to dominate your program design. If you have any follow-up questions whatsoever, please post them in the Facebook group!