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Design Yourself: A Guide to Program Design

I’ve spent many years following training programs.

Coincidentally timed with this very post, I stopped back at my parents house over the weekend and dug out some of my old training folders, notebooks and binders. I could have spent hours going down memory lane as they brought me back to certain seasons of grind and were a huge source of motivation to me.

On the cover of one of my notebooks, written in black sharpie, is one of my favorite quotes (still to this day) from Martin Rooney’s book, Train to Win. It says:

“The essence of training is the experience of training and what you learn about yourself through it. Training is about the process. You will get there and there is one simple thing to do it. Consistency.” 

Training is an awesome gift you can give to yourself. It’s personal time, a social time, an opportunity to better yourself, learn about yourself, it’s an outlet, a confidence booster and the list goes on.

We receive a lot of requests from beginners who want to know where they can begin their strength training journey. This is fantastic because that means more and more women are interested and want to the waters.

designyourself-whowhatwhenwherewhy-450x340As a beginner to weight training however, it can feel a bit confusing or intimidating when it comes to structuring your strength training routine.

Who do you listen to?
What exercises do you choose?
Where do you start?
How do you put choices together?
How do you do the exercises?

With all the information circulating the internet, not to mention your fellow gym experts sharing their opinion in your ear, it can feel a bit complex and overwhelming. The last thing we want is for you to get stuck with paralysis by analysis.

designyourself-journeyof1000miles-450x340The following is geared towards beginners (or anyone, for that matter) to help shed some light on the simplicity of putting together a training plan so you may begin! If you’re really new to training and this helps you build a workout, great!

However, when I say “program” I am referring to a bigger picture and the layout of your workouts over a given period of time. Below you’ll find the bare bone basics to help you start putting the pieces together.

1. Have a Solid Warm-up in Place

Your warm up is valuable. Not all warm ups are created equal. Stepping onto a piece of cardio equipment for five to 10 minutes will certainly elevate your body temperature, but you won’t get the same benefits as implementing a series of various movements patterns.

A movement prep warm-up will not only increase your body temperature, but it is an opportunity to transition both your mind and your body into activity and performance. Your warm up is a time to integrate foundational movement patterns, mobility work, range of motion, muscle recruitment and coordination.

Keep the exercises light. Your warm up doesn’t need to fatigue you. Perform a general warm up followed by some specific movements that may lead into your session.

You can reference this post from Molly dated back in December on Warm-Ups plus another great series of warm-ups by Andrew Heffernan for an Experience Life article titled The Perfect Warm-Up (modeled by yours truly).

These certainly fit the bill for increasing your body temperature, incorporating mobility work, and muscle prep. Plus, it’s time efficient.

2. Include Foundational Movement Patterns / Lifts for the Bulk of Your Program

As a beginner, you want to build a foundation of quality movements. Forget flash, focus on the basics. Remember, you have to crawl before you can walk.

To keep it simple, consider the following four movement patterns to include:

  • Squat – a movement with a lot of hip and knee bend (flexion).
  • Hinge – a movement with a lot of hip bend, less knee bend
  • Push – pushing away from you: horizontal, angled and or vertical
  • Pull – pulling towards you: horizontal, angled and or vertical

Now, you’ll find many variations with these movement patterns. Don’t be confused by all the possibilities. Strip down to the basics and become great in your foundation. The following are a few basic choices to plug and play:

Squat – Goblet Squat (other basic movements to choose with knee dominant exercises: lunges and step ups).

Molly Galbraith demonstrates a goblet squat.

Hinge – Dead lift pattern with a Kettle Bell (other basic moves for hip extension: the hip bridge or hip thrust).

Molly Galbraith demonstrates a hip hinge.

Push – horizontal (push up) and vertical (overhead press)

Molly Galbraith demonstrates proper alignment for the push-up.

Pull – horizontal (row – TRX, Dumbbell, Cable) and vertical (cable pull down, chin up)

Molly demonstrates an inverted row.

If you want a little more clarity to break down of a few of the foundational movements listed above, see the following posts:

Note: As a beginner, if you’re not at chin ups yet, that’s okay! That, however is not a reason to avoid TRYING! and be sure to include additional pulling exercises to begin building strength in your back.

3. Add in Strength, Stability and/or Rotation

Again, keep it relatively simple. In addition to your main lifts, include a few exercises to emphasize core strength, stability and or rotation.

See 10 Ways to Train Your Core without Crunches

4. A Few Basic Design Rules

Balance – When choosing exercises for your program, look for some balance in your movement patterns. For example, if you have a horizontal push (push up) include a horizontal pull (row). If you have an anterior (front) dominant, lower body exercise (ie: lunge), include a posterior (backside) dominant, lower body exercise (ie: hip bridge).

Photos from the New Rules Of Lifting: Supercharged (a great book and series by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove).

Photos from the New Rules Of Lifting: Supercharged (a great book and series by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove).

 

Exercise Selection – after your warm up is mapped out, select 4-7 exercises to perform in your training session.

Placement – place your biggest or most technical lifts first. This is to ensure your body and nervous system are most fresh and can perform these lifts optimally.

Volume – as a beginner, start “middle of the road” when it comes to set and rep volume. No need to go extreme on one end of the spectrum or the other when it comes to volume. Perform two to three sets with 8-12 reps. Remember, this is to establish a starting point. Build a foundation of quality patterns through crisp form and some repetition.

Load – while we want you challenging your strength, we also encourage you to choose a weight that you can perform well without breaking down your quality in execution.

Flow – you can pair exercises in a superset (1a, 1b… 2a,2b…3a, 3b…etc.) or you can put them in a circuit form and move through rounds (1a, 1b, 1c, 1d…repeat).

Bigger Picture – build your program to span the week (Sunday through Saturday) and keep your weekly program consistent (average 4-6 weeks). Make sure you are consistent long enough to gain familiarity with your lifts from week to week. Afterwards, you can revisit the drawing board to begin another 4-6 week block. Keep in mind, rather than a complete overhaul of what your previous training block was, keep the structure similar and swap out some of your selected exercises or see where you can add a slight progression to existing ones (for progressions see below).

Measure – Track your training and your progress. It’s hard to know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been!

5. Keep It SIMPLE

Remember, “simple” does not equate to “easy,” and simple does indeed get the job done. Take the pressure off yourself and stop over-thinking it all. You do not  need a gourmet meal to receive the nutrients from food, you just need quality food. Same goes for training.

As a beginner, focus on a few things and do them well.

Last but not least, be present in your lifts, be consistent with your training and be patient with yourself. You will progress.

*Bonus Tip*—Earn Your Progressions

As you begin to build your foundation of strength training, you can then see where it’s appropriate to incorporate progressions. Progressions can be in the form of:

  • Tools used for resistance – barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, bands, bodyweight, etc
  • Load of exercise – placement of the load (front loaded, back loaded, contra-laterally, etc) or increased load.
  • Tempo – performing the lift faster or slower for more time under tension
  • Volume – increased or decreased sets and reps
  • Rest periods
  • Bilateral vs unilateral variations
  • Grip position – overhand, underhand, mixed grip, wide grip, close grip

Know that there are plenty of places you can take your program. Coaches may differ in strategies but many still have similarities in principles. Once you gain the basics, there are many ways you can continue to evolve, learn and shift your goals and fitness program.

I truly hope this cleared some confusion and provided you with some useful tools to start formulating your own understanding of program design. Dig in, design yourself and have fun with it!

If after reading this article, designing your own program still sounds a bit overwhelming or confusing, let us help. With our combined decades of experience helping women get the results they’re looking for, we know how to help you get the most out of your training program.

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About The Author: Alli McKee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at www.allimckee.com.

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