The Guide To Program Design

May 30, 2015

We’d all like for our strength training programs to be effective and safe. This allows us to make gains from training and avoid wasting our time. To do that, strength training follows several fundamental principles. This post is going to begin by describing those principles. Then we will cover different approaches to organizing a strength training program. Finally, we’ll explore how to put everything together and include several examples.


Principles of exercise

There are five fundamental principles of exercise that you need to be familiar with before designing an effect strength training program. These are:

  1. Specificity
  2. Overload
  3. Progression
  4. Individualization
  5. Reversibility
  6. Exercise Order

The principle of specificity basically says that you get what you train for. In more complicated terms, the body adapts to exercise in the manner in which it is exercised. This applies to the muscles you train, the speed at which you train, the energy systems that you train, and the movements that you train.

The overload principle states that you have to make the exercise more difficult in order to make the body continue to adapt, doing the same thing every day will not enable you to make any gains from your training. This is done (making sure that you observe specificity) by increasing the weight, increasing the number of repetitions, decreasing the rest, changing the order of the exercises, or by changing the exercises.

Exercise is safest and most effective when it is progressive, i.e. it is done over a series of steps. This means developing fitness and good technique before progressing to more complicated workout schemes and exercises.

The principle of individualization is meant to remind you that everyone is different and this means that everyone responds to exercises and workouts differently. This is why cookie cutter workouts don’t work. For example, the length of your limbs, make-up of your muscles, insertion angles of your tendons, orientation of your muscle fibers, and the length of your muscle fibers are all things that impact how you experience exercises and workout programs – and you cannot do anything about many of the factors that I just listed.

The principle of reversibility states that the gains you make from exercise go away when you stop. This is because it is expensive to maintain all that extra muscle mass, so when your body doesn’t need it anymore it sheds it quickly. When you stop exercising your muscle fibers shrink, your energy stores dissipate, you lose bone mass, you gain fat, you lose flexibility, you lose speed, and all this takes about three days to begin!

There are a number of notable exceptions to the principle of exercise order. In general, however, those exercises that involve speed, power, or multiple joints should be done towards the beginning of the workout. Those exercises that are more isolation in nature should be done towards the end of the workout. The idea being that the more complicated and difficult exercises should be done at the beginning when you are still fresh.

The principles of exercise listed above are crucial to a successful strength training program. Programs are typically organized to accomplish one of three things; hypertrophy, strength, or power. The next section of this post will discuss those approaches.


Approaches to training

If you are lifting weights you are probably focusing on one of the following approaches to training:

  • Hypertrophy
  • Strength
  • Power

When you train for hypertrophy, you are training for bigger muscles. Hypertrophy also serves as the foundation for strength and power, so you’ll see this again when we discuss the other two approaches to training. Bigger muscles are expensive for the body to maintain, so the body does everything possible to avoid developing them. For this reason, it’s critical that the training be difficult enough, consistent enough, and be integrated with proper rest and nutrition for this to be successful. Hypertrophy training should be focused around multi-joint exercises, with isolation exercises to supplement and address deficiencies. Normally training is organized around body parts (for example, today is chest and triceps) or around a movement type (pushing, pulling, etc.).   In general you are looking at 3-5 sets per exercise at 6-15 repetitions per set. There should be around 30-90 seconds of rest between each set. This means training should be intense. Your muscles should be exhausted each set, not given much time to recover, then hit again on the next set.

When training for strength, the focus is on exerting as much force one time as possible. A number of factors that you can train influence strength. These include the size of the muscles (bigger muscles are potentially stronger muscles), your ability to recruit muscle fibers (i.e. your nervous system), and your skill in performing the exercises (better technique gives you the ability to be stronger). Strength-focused training is typically preceded by 4-12 weeks of hypertrophy training, to give you additional muscle mass to aid your strength. When training for strength, you are looking at 3-5 sets per exercise at 1-8 repetitions per set. Recovery is full in between each set. Training focuses on multi-joint exercises and typically revolves around a specific lift (for example, today is squat day).

Power involves applying strength quickly. A number of factors that you can train influence power; your strength (you have to be strong to apply strength quickly), your ability to recruit muscle fibers quickly, and your skill in being explosive (i.e. you have to practice being explosive). Power-focused training is typically preceded by weeks of hypertrophy training followed by weeks of strength training. When training for power, you are looking at 3-5 sets per exercise with a mixture of strength-focused exercises (maintain your strength levels) and explosive exercises such as the variations of the Olympic lifts or plyometrics. The variations of the Olympic lifts are usually done for sets of 3-6 repetitions (the focus is on perfect technique, being explosive, and avoiding fatigue) with full recovery in between each set.

Realize that the three approaches to training aren’t exclusive, you can do all three within a training session or during a week. In fact, organizing them into the week is how I approach the training of collegiate and post-collegiate track and field athletes. It’s not unusual for me to put a workout week that looks like:

  • Monday: Maximal strength
  • Tuesday: Power
  • Wednesday: Hypertrophy
  • Thursday: Power
  • Friday: Hypertrophy

All three could also be organized into a training session. For example, the following workout incorporates all three approaches:

Power Clean, 5x3x60% (power)

Back Squats, 5×2-6×90% (strength)

Leg Press, 3×12-15 (Hypertrophy)

Leg Extensions, 3×12-15 (Hypertrophy)

Standing Calf Raises, 3×12-15 (Hypertrophy)

So far this post has covered the principles behind exercise as well as discuss the three major approaches to training. The rest of this post will discuss how to put all this information together.


Putting it all together

Now that we’ve done some of the foundational work, it’s time to jump into the nuts and bolts of putting a program together. When you are getting ready to put your strength training program together, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Determine what is most important: What is the most important thing to you? Is it bigger arms? A bigger squat? Figure that out and plan it first, plan everything else around the most important thing.
  • Observe specificity: Once you know what is most important, put your workout together, deliberately, so that you can achieve your goals. Success isn’t accidental.
  • Observe exercise order: The fastest and most complicated exercises should be done first, when you are freshest.
  • Build in progression: Set your program up so that as you move through it things gradually become more complicated and more demanding. Build your base first!
  • Build in overload: Yesterday should be the only easy day, your program has to become more difficult over time or you will not make gains.
  • Remember you are an individual: You respond differently to training than everyone else, discover what works for you.
  • Get enough rest and recovery: There are exceptions, but in general you want to get 48 hours of rest before training a muscle group again.

With the above in mind, there are several ways to organize your strength and conditioning program:

  • By body part: This is pretty self-explanatory, normally this is organized to provide enough rest between sessions. The table below shows an example of doing this using chest, shoulders, and triceps in one workout.
  • Around movements: The most common approach for this is a three-day split where one day involves pushing movements, one involves pulling movements, and one involves lower body training (usually squatting or deadlifting as the foundation exercise). The table below shows this type of workout organized around a pushing workout.
  • Around exercises: With this approach, each workout is organized around the idea of improving performance on specific exercises (for example, bench press, deadlift, squat). Usually the main exercise is first, followed by the supplemental exercises that are designed to improve the main exercise. The table below shows an example of this type of workout with a bench press focus.
  Body Part Movements Exercises
Workout Chest:Bench Press, 3×6-10×80%

Incline Dumbbell Press, 3×12-15

Dumbbell Flies, 3×12-15



Seated Military Press, 3×6-10

3-in-1 Shoulders, 3×10 each



Dips, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Pushing:Bench Press, 3×6-10×80%

Dumbbell Bench Press, 3×6-10

Superset: Dips & Push-Ups, 3xMax each

Seated Military Press, 3×6-10

Close Grip Bench Press, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Bench Press Focus:Bench Press, 5×4-8×85%

Eccentric Bench Press, 3x4x70%

Dumbbell Front Raises, 3×12-15

Floor Press, 3×12-15

Seated Rows, Bench Press Grip, 3×6-10


                  When looking at the above table, notice that all three workouts involve the bench press, yet they are all very different. The body part workout has a higher volume (i.e. more exercises and more repetitions), the bench press focused workout at the end has a lower volume but is more clearly geared towards increasing your bench press. The one in the middle does a little bit of everything. Truthfully, the body part and movement workouts could be identical. The workout focused on the bench press is designed to address deficiencies on the lift.

                  The body part or movement approach to organizing your workouts is going to be more effective for pure hypertrophy training. The exercise and movement approaches are going to be more effective for pure strength and for power training.

So how do we do this, step by step? We’re going to build three sample programs around three very different goals. Each goal is going to assume that we’re going to train four times a week. The first goal will look at gaining muscle mass, the second at improving our deadlift, the third at becoming more explosive.


Goal #1: Gaining muscle mass

When trying to gain muscle mass, either the body part or movement approach is going to be most effective. Since we’re going to be training over four days a week, we’re going to take the bodypart approach. The goal is to gain muscle mass all over, so we don’t need to prioritize any particular areas. As a result, the program is going to be organized as follows:

Day One: Legs

Day Two: Chest, triceps

Day Three: Off

Day Four: Back, biceps

Day Five: Shoulder


The next table shows the individual workouts.

Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five
Workout: Back Squats, 3×8-12×80%Leg Press, 3×8-12

Leg Extensions, 3×12-15

Romanian Deadlifts, 3×8-12

Leg Curls, 3×12-15

Calves, 5×12-15

Bench Press, 3×6-10×80%Incline Dumbbell Press, 3×8-12

Dumbbell Flies, 3×12-15

Dips, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Off Pull-Ups, 3×8-12Seated Rows, 3×8-12

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows, 3×8-12

Barbell Curls, 3×12-15

Concentration Curls, 3×12-15

Seated Dumbbell Press, 3×8-12Superset: Front and Standing Side Raises, 3×12-15 each

Superset: Seated Side Raises and Bent Over Rear Delts, 3×12-15 each

Shrugs, 5×6-10

Each workout has a moderate volume (6-15 repetitions per set). The focus is on multi-joint exercises with some notable exceptions (leg extensions, leg curls, calves, biceps, triceps, and shoulders). An important consideration is that the overload principle must be obeyed. This means that over the 4-12 weeks that you would stay on this program, you would need to increase the weights and the number of repetitions staying within that 6-15 rep range.


Goal #2: Increase the deadlift

There are a number of areas that are potential limits to deadlift strength. These include grip strength, ability to lift the weight off the floor (i.e. leg strength), or the ability to extend and stand upright (i.e. lower back, hamstring, and glute strength). Knowing that, a workout program will need to address those areas. Since our priority is the deadlift, it is done first. We’re going to blend the approaches to training here:

Day One: Deadlift

Day Two: Pushing

Day Three: Off

Day Four: Squat

Day Five: Pulling


The next table shows the individual workouts. Keep in mind that overload has to be applied over time to keep these workouts effective.

Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five
Workout: Deadlift, 5×3-6×80-85%Deadlift, Bar Above Knees, 3×3-6×80%

Romanian Deadlift, 3×8-12

Reverse Hyperextensions, 3×12-15

Calves, 3×12-15

Bench Press, 3×6-10×80%Dumbbell Bench Press, 3×6-10

Superset: Dips & Push-Ups, 3xMax each

Seated Military Press, 3×6-10

Close Grip Bench Press, 3×12-15

Triceps Pushdowns, 3×12-15

Off Back Squat, 5×3-6×80-90%Eccentric Squat, 3×3-6×60-70%

Glute/Ham Raises, 3×12-15

Calves, 3×12-15

Pull-Ups, 3×8-12Seated Rows, 3×8-12

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows, 3×8-12

Barbell Curls, 3×12-15

Concentration Curls, 3×12-15


Goal #3: Increase explosiveness

When trying to increase explosiveness, we need to train that quality while maintaining or increasing strength. This will involve a combination of variations of the Olympic lifts, plyometrics, and strength-focused training. Done over four days, our training will look like this:

Day One: Power

Day Two: Strength

Day Three: Off

Day Four: Power

Day Five: Strength


The next table shows the individual workouts. Remember to apply the principles of overload and specificity over the weeks that you may use this workout.

To be effective, strength training programs must observe certain fundamental principles and they must be organized deliberately. Failure to do these things will result in programs that (at best) are ineffective wastes of time and energy and (at worst) are dangerous.

Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five
Workout: Power Clean, 3x4x70%Clean Pulls, 3x6x75%

Push Press, 3x4x60%

Vertical Jumps, 3×10

Medicine Ball Throw, 3×10

Back Squats, 3×4-8×80-90%Romanian Deadlifts, 3×4-8

Incline Press, 3×4-8×80-90%

Bent Over Barbell Rows, 3×4-8

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press, 3×6-10

Off Power Snatch, 3x4x70%Snatch Pulls, 3x6x75%

Push Press, 3x4x60%

Standing Long Jump, 3×10

Medicine Ball Throw, 3×10

Deadlifts, 3×3-6×80-90%Front Squats, 3×3-6×70-80%

Bench Press, 3×4-8×80-90%

Pull-Ups, 3×4-8

Military Press, 3×6-10