Integrity of Programming

TAGS: Matthieu Hertilus, Integrity, programming, 5/3/1

When we were younger, we were programmed to follow certain rules. Most, if not all of them, were for our own good whether we liked it or not. “Sit up straight,” “Brush your teeth before you go to bed,” “Eat your vegetables.” We realize the importance of these rules now and still follow them as adults. Hopefully. It makes me wonder why we still break certain rules as adults that are for our own good. “Buckle your seatbelt,” “Don’t smoke,” “Follow your training programs.”

Granted, I added that last one, but I’ve seen many programs fail, barring other factors (i.e. injury or poor nutrition) because people didn’t give the program a chance. They quit too soon or changed things up to the point that it wasn’t what was intended anymore. Planned recovery sessions turn into an attempt to destroy the body more than you did the day before, proper central nervous system (CNS) intensive work turns into CNS annihilation by adding too much volume, or reactive training (plyometrics) ends up killing your joints and burns out your CNS instead of stimulating it. While our lives shouldn’t be so confined to rules and social norms (my normative influence professor would kill me if I didn’t throw that in there), many times they’re there for a reason. How does this apply to you—the lifter trying to get bigger, stronger, leaner, or more athletic? It’s simple, and I need only reference The Matrix for your answer: “Some of these [rules] can be bent. Others can be broken” —Morpheus. You just have to know when, how, and if to break these rules.

I admit I get antsy when it comes to programming. I imagine many lifters get that way as well when still under the illusion that there’s one magical program to make them as big, strong, and athletic as they could possibly be. When it comes to sticking with a program, I’ve come across three categories of people:

1.      The “true believer”: The rare category of lifter who sticks to the plan, gives it time, and sees what works and what doesn’t work. Sometimes just being on a program is good experience that you can store in your lifter memory bank. You can say, “I did this program and it [worked or didn’t work] because…”

2.      The “program hopper”: This is the person who jumps from program to program either out of sheer boredom with following a “routine” or due to impatience because he hasn’t mutated into a different being after following the program for two weeks.

3.      The “Picasso”: This is the one who takes whatever program he’s considering and makes modifications because he’s a unique snowflake. So he adds an extra day at the gym, jacks up the volume on all the exercises, or thinks the leg press is just as good as the squat (while that depends on your goals, you see where I’m going with this). While every program can be tweaked provided there’s an understanding of how every part contributes to the whole, most trainees don’t know how to do this correctly. That’s what strength coaches and trainers do.

The importance of a good coach
I’m reminded of the turbulent relationship between a young Allen Iverson, about to set the NBA world on fire, and a successful, journeyman coach in Larry Brown, someone who still clings to his “old school” philosophy. Conflict was inevitable. You have the player (the one with all the tools and little idea of how to use them) and the coach (the man with the plan who’s trying to help the player use those skills efficiently). Without going too in depth about their six-year relationship, their tenure together basically went like this—they constantly butted heads, found some success together, and later realized how much they needed each other for the success of the team.

We all lift and train to push past our limitations, and we’re all blessed with certain strengths that set us apart from others. But without a proper way to hone those strengths, challenge ourselves on a consistent basis, and apply the knowledge needed to succeed, we shortchange all our efforts into average results. That’s why you read Polquin, Cressey,and Tate and follow their programs. They know how to use the same tools you have collecting dust in your garage. While one can only hope to reach their level of experience and knowledge, you can stop throwing the wrench at the car and learn how that wrench can make your car work again.

“But I love to bench. Don’t take that away from me.”
I have a client who wants to increase strength and size and loves to bench (what 20-year-old college male doesn’t?). However, he had shoulder surgery a few years ago and still has a hard time doing full range pull-ups (i.e. chest to bar), dips, barbell military presses, and full range bench press. One might look at this guy and say that something like Wendler’s 5/3/1 protocol is out. Not necessarily. The integrity of the program can stay intact just by making some careful modifications.

For one, I had him doing board presses (if you don’t have any 2 X 4s at your gym, either find a new gym or use plates as a substitute) in place of the bench press and one-arm dumbbell presses in place of dumbbell chest presses. I also had him working his back a lot more than his chest when it came to accessory movements (something to the tune of four sets of back work for every two sets of chest work). In terms of his accessory chest work, push-ups were his best option as a nice, natural movement to complement the heavy bench movement. Lastly, he’s also doing a ton of pre-habilitation work before every workout, not just on upper body days. If he wants to bring up that weakness, I have him doing it every workout (YTWLs, scap push-ups, the works).That’s one way to tweak a program while still keeping the integrity of it in mind.

Being injured or hurt is tough to deal with, but keeping in mind 5/3/1’s goals of increasing strength applying the KISS principle, the integrity of the program remained intact even with a few tweaks. For a more in-depth perspective from others who know better than me in this area, look to Tony Gentilcore’s Creating a Training Effect When You're Injured or Nick Tumminello’s Three Work Arounds for Physique Success. If you’re truly injured, you should always get it checked out by a doctor first to know the extent of what you’re dealing with. This isn’t coming from a physical therapist but rather from someone who’s seen and made these mistakes before I was informed.

Keys for the injured:

  • Know what you can do first and build off that.
  • Look to substitute main movements for those that don’t impede on the injured area (i.e. substituting bench press with floor presses or back squats with good mornings).
  • Do your pre-habilitation and rehabilitation work.

I really want to focus on [insert body part]
Another way to tweak programs is to allow time to bring up those lagging body parts. Similar to the first example of the 20-year-old college lifter who told me he was looking to bulk up and get stronger, another 20-year-old college male I’m helping wants to focus on his arms (this is almost too easy). For a great bulking program, I looked to Dan John’s Mass Made Simple plan. While there isn’t any direct arm work in the program, I understand there are those lifters who can’t live without a biceps curl in their routine.

For a short, effective routine, I prescribed an arm specialization day based on the fatigue cycling principle, a routine outlined in Pavel’s (no last name needed here; if so, brush up on your fitness literacy) book Beyond Bodybuilding. I won’t go into all the details of the program (I’ll save that for another article or let you buy the book), but this method was used for him to focus on a weakness without sacrificing the integrity of the programming. If a situation arose where he was lagging on his main lifting days, it could be one of two problems—he wasn’t recovering, meaning we’d have to take a look at his nutrition and sleeping habits or we’d have to adjust something on the main lifts day (i.e. lower the volume a bit on the complexes or drop the complexes altogether, lower the weight on squats, etc.). There are a ton of short sessions you can do without dragging yourself to the gym. For some references, refer to Chad Waterbury’s 100 Reps to Bigger Muscles or Nick Tumminello’s  Six New Tabata Workouts for Fast Fat Loss. Both are short and focused and mostly require little to no equipment.

Keys for the lagging body part:

  • Include extra sessions just for one or two body parts that are lacking.
  • These extra sessions shouldn’t impede on your ability to give maximum effort on your main training days. If so, lower the intensity or volume on these extra sessions or drop an exercise to compensate for the extra work.
  • Add these extra sessions slowly. There isn’t any need to do five extra mini-sessions a week if one or two will get the work done initially.


You have too much time on your hands
If it’s still not in your head that rest and recovery are essential to making progress, there are some options for extra work that won’t kill your progress—two-a-days. Let me explain this one first before you think that I’ve just blatantly contradicted myself. You can practically smell the fresh cut grass as if you were back on your high school football team all over again. However, this time two-a-days are going to be done a bit differently. You’ll want to read Chad Waterbury’s Perfect 10 Training if you’re someone who just can’t stay out of the gym and looks to increase the number of sessions you’re doing (ala Eastern European style) the right way.

Keys for the obsessed lifter:

  • Channel your focus into HFT the right way, and you’ll enjoy new growth and satisfy your lust for the iron.

Every day can’t be the day
Some days you got it, and some days you don’t. You have to accept this fact of lifting because it’s a part of the bigger picture. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep the night before or you’re particularly stressed that day, but you can’t neglect the ultimate X factor—life! When life happens, there’s not much you can do about it except put on the attitude that I will be better next time.

I was reading a great article by ESPN’s Bill Simmons, which described the killer instinct elite NBA stars need to truly be great. In one part of the article, he says, “You need to lose a few times, need to lick your wounds and taste your own blood, need to sit in silence in the locker room of another lost season wondering what went wrong, and then you need to say, ‘Never again, not ever. I am not letting this happen again” (Simmons, 2010). If you can’t follow the program verbatim because it’s just one of those days, dust yourself off and go at it again. Lower the volume, reduce the weight, or just call it a day. Realize this isn’t a total failure. Life happens. In all other cases, trust the program. Trust guys like Jim Wendler, Eric Cressey, or Charles Polquin who took the time to test these programs that have produced results. Be patient and give it time. If your nutrition is in line with the goals of the program, you’re set. But other than rare occasions when careful modifications are needed, don’t mess with the engine.

Keys for dealing with poor performance:

  • Take a cue from guys like Allen Iverson and Dwayne Wade—no matter how many times you get knocked down, get back at it again and again!

This is how you modify a program—two for physical limitations and two for the mental aspect (an area that I believe is underappreciated and simply not discussed enough). When it comes to programming, every part contributes to the whole, and when you affect one part, you have to take into account how the other parts will be affected. If nothing else, you have a compendium of useful articles right here that fit together in this context. Hopefully, you can connect all these concepts into your next training program and thus your transformation from player to coach—the happy medium where you have the best of both worlds.


  • Simmons B (2010) We are all witnesses. Retrieved from on Jan. 10, 2001. At:
  • Tsatsouline P (2005) Beyond Bodybuilding. St. Paul, MN: Dragon Door Publications.
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