Program Design 101: Six Expert hints, the Answers are here and easy to fix.

Whether you are new to exercise or have been doing so for years, I bet there is something you are not getting from your exercise program that you really want. There are just so many magazines and such, and they all seem to contradict each other. I’m going to lay out the basic steps of program design. Because it is a design. It’s not one thing you do over and over and over. It’s a plan, with a starting point, and more importantly, an end, which is when you just start over with a new plan, but we’ll get into that later. I digress. As an expert in this subject with years of experience, these are the steps. You can’t skip any, you can’t add any, these are the steps.

  1. Core training.  Let’s talk about the inner core, the muscles you cannot see. The primary purpose of the inner core is to stabilize your lower back/lumbar spine and PREVENT MOVEMENT. The inner core is quite possibly the most important muscle group to focus your attention on. The inner core is a box. I’m not going to get all sciencey on you today, but I will come back to this, and I welcome your questions. Most have never heard of this mystery box.  These muscles are beneath the surface, protecting your spine, preventing injuries, and allowing you to get results you’ve only dreamed about. The core’s job is to prevent movement between the hips and the lower rib cage, not create it.  You can do crunches from now until we all win the lottery, and your core will not be stronger. In fact, by using movement in this area, you are working a secondary stabilizer, the one that’s supposed to keep us from falling over backwards. The damage to the lumbar spine, and the limits on your strength gains with this approach are equally terrifying. The core is supposed to reflexively contract before any movement occurs.  There are a multitude of exercises that do just that, from a plank, bridge, or a quadruped exercise.  If you develop upper and lower body strength without getting your core on board first, your results will be limited, you’ll hit a plateau, or worst case, you herniate a disc. There are many different ways to learn core exercises, and I will be back to talk about that soon. For now though, if you have never heard of this mystery box inside your abdomen that protects your spine, my preference is Dotfit.com. I’m sure there are many different ways to find this information sooner than waiting on me, but their program started as a way for personal trainers to help their clients do their workouts safely when they weren’t with their personal trainer. It is 100% based on science, and it works. It’s going to seem different, but that’s just because it’s never been on the cover of muscle and fiction. They strategically create a workout that takes you through the necessary stages of a successful program, and they start with the core. There are plenty of other sources, and you can pick whichever one works for you, but as a fitness professional, I would take the time to look at their program options. It just may completely change the way you perceive working out. They offer instructions and videos of correct form. They get my 100% stamp of approval. Your lower back will be very grateful.
  2. Endurance: This must be the next or concurrent step with core strength. Your body has to have the ability to increase oxygen and blood flow to working muscles where the oxygen is used for fuel and recovery. It’s not going to be the hardest exercise you’ve ever done…at least not until set 3 or rep 20 but maximizing oxygen usage early in your program creates a platform in which all other gains are based. There are two different energy systems in your body, and the one that involves oxygen delivery must be maximized.  Think about it….what do you do after you finish a heavy set? You sit there, and you breathe hard, really hard. That is endurance. Endurance is how you recover quick enough to do the next set in time. In this phase of training, the goal should be 15-20 reps, 20-45 second rest, with a weight that you would break form if you kept going.  The biggest key though is doing the exercise at a snails pace with absolutely zero movement anywhere else. You will be gasping for air by the time you are done if you have never done this before. Dotfit will lead you through this. I’m sure you can read it somewhere else, but like I said before, a program designed to keep personal training clients safe when their trainer isn’t around, well….that’s a really strong checkmark in their corner.
  3. Something that needs to be taken into account from the beginning of core training is self-correcting muscular imbalances. If you don’t have the experience in this department, don’t worry, Dotfit does. Building a platform of strength on a body with postural imbalances will only lead to injury (similar to hitting a bent nail with a hammer), and some of those injuries are not easy to come back from. Dotfit.com does a great job of describing Myofascial release, which is invaluable for releasing the muscles that are in a shortened position due to repetitive postures and activities that prevent your body from moving in the manner in which it was designed.  Stretching alone won’t get it done. When you are creating your program, think about the positions you are in the most, and then try to pick the exercises that move your body in the opposite direction. Those are the exercises you need.  It will take time before these exercises are easy, you will feel clumsy doing them because those muscles went to sleep a few years ago, but it will be worth it for postural balance long-term. If you want proof, ask one of your coworkers, with no future notice of this, to tell you if your ears are in front of your collar bone or behind it.  They should be behind. Or, when you are standing, do your palms face to the front, toward your body, or backward? Technically, they are supposed to be facing to the front. To the body is okay, but palms back is not good. Trouble is coming for those shoulders.
  4. Strength Training: Although core strength, muscle balance, and maximized oxygen utilization are required, many people start here, which leads to increases in postural imbalance and increases the chance of injury. A true strength/hypertrophy training program is 12 reps with a weight (75-85%) that you would lose form on if you tried to keep going, proper exercise technique, and a rest period of 45-90 seconds. The key to increasing Growth Hormone and Testosterone is to pool lactic acid (the burn), rest for as little as you can, and hit it again. Cheating cannot be allowed. Joints should never be sacrificed over weight. You only have one of each…. protect them. This is where one legged and one armed exercise come in very handy to increase force-coupling around a joint. Force-coupling is when all the muscles around a joint contract at the right time with the right amount of force to keep that joint in alignment.  Muscles doing their job to protect your joints, I love it! Multi-joint movements are also recommended to build strength throughout the body, not in one individual muscle group. (Combining an upper body and lower body exercise together has the added benefit of tricking your brain into burning a whole lot more calories. Hmm…sounds good to me.)
  5. Power: When a stable base of core stabilization, postural balance, endurance and strength have been created, controlled increases of speed can be added to the workout.  Perhaps the population that benefits the most from this phase of training is the elderly. I believe that we are held back from using power exercises in this demographic because we are afraid of causing harm, and as a result, we are causing harm. Studies have shown that introducing power exercises in the elderly population (with appropriate progression from endurance), translates into activities of daily living, i.e. decelerating a fall, maintaining cardiac output to the brain, and coordination. Progression needs to be monitored and programmed accordingly, but many older adults can do deadlifts, power cleans, etc. These exercises translate into their daily life. I realize that certain medical conditions can slow this progress, but there will still be progress, including an increase in bone mineral density because of axial loading.  Don’t be the reason you deny them power. 
  6. Plateaus- Oh so frustrating for people who exercise regularly. With plateaus, we have gotten comfortable with the workout we are doing. We may or may not be supplying the necessary supplements to guarantee or goal, especially branch chain amino acids like Leucine. Leucine is an amino acid that our body cannot make on its own, and it is critical in muscle development.  It’s boring to stay in the same place forever. The key to avoid this is to constantly be changing up your workout. Periodization is the term for this, and it involves starting off with endurance, moving into strength, and then into strength and power. It simulates preseason, season, postseason, and offseason. You spend about 3-4 four weeks in each phase, and then you start again, giving your body the appropriate time to recover. You increase the speed of results, reduce overtraining issues, and continue to challenge the human body.  Each time you start over in endurance, you are starting off higher than your last endurance level. You drop down a bit, but you are still far above your starting point and continuing to grow. Over time, this is the quickest way to obtain, maximize, and maintain results. The body cannot go 100% in one category every day. It’s just not built that way. It has to recover and adapt. So, if you’ve been doing the same workout for five years, do something entirely different during your next workout and notice how tired you are afterwards, or perhaps, you may just be sore in a muscle again.

I realize I have mentioned Dotfit.com several times during this blog. They are not paying me. There are many ways of finding this information through searches on Google, Youtube, etc. The reason why I’ve mentioned them so many times is because I have been in the trenches with people after injuries, with super frustrated clients, with confused clients, or with people still thinking a 2 hour workout on just biceps is a good idea. I am mentioning them because they are an all inclusive source of information that could take weeks to find. It’s all in one place just waiting for you to pick your goal. I am mentioning them because I have seem it work and I respect their integrity.

As always, please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or leave your comments below. I look forward to helping all of you achieve exactly what you are looking for.

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