When people describe their training, you often hear the name of the program that they're following. One person may tell you that he follows a Westside program and another may say that she follows Sheiko. Some other guy may follow block periodization, Metal Militia, or 5/3/1. The names are endless. With this name dropping comes a lot of talk about which rigidly structured program is the best and then the person spouts off the exercises or the sets and reps used. However, sometimes what's missing are the ideas behind the how-and-why as opposed to the exercises.

On a larger scale, the entire training process and what is trying to be accomplished are often missing. Within this, many different styles of programming can be used as long as they meet these end goals. In order to do this, we need to develop a framework before any of the sets, reps, and exercises can be plugged in. In the first installment of this series, I'll discuss this framework and give ideas for how to develop a program once this framework is set.

I came around to this idea through my work as a coach. Currently, I work with football. When looking at the training of football players, many different aspects are borrowed from other disciplines to work on varying motor abilities and energy system needs. Unique football related movement patterns need to be learned in order to be successful on the field. So when we look at the big picture of the process, we'll need to do some general work for the varying levels of physical preperation and work on specialized strengths and skills through physical and technical preparation. Within some of the technical and tactical skills, certain things will apply depending on the game plan. This isn’t vastly different from most team sports, and this idea isn’t anything revolutionary.

Within the physical preparation of a football player, varying levels of strength training can be directed toward hypertrophy, maximal strength, explosive strength, and muscular endurance, which can depend on the needs of the particular player or the position. To achieve these needs, different concepts from strength sports such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, and corrective exercise similar to physical therapy can each have their part. Additionally, sprints, jumps, and throws similar to track and field disciplines can be used and can contribute to both the development of speed and strengths that vary depending on the player. Other needs such as aerobic system development can utilize a number of methodologies that may include tempo runs, cardiac work on bikes/treadmills/ellipticals, weight training modified for this goal, or drills with a level of specificity to the position. So within this development of the athlete, there can be a fairly diverse number of philosophies, movements, and programming styles, but the idea is to reach the same large scale goal.

Let’s take this example back to strength sports such as powerlifting. When people prescribe to only one rigidly structured training program, they may start to exclude many other principles from their training. By only thinking one way, you might leave out certain positive aspects of other programs. This is why I have a problem with people having a certain name of a program set in their head and describing their training in reference to that one name. One program may say always box squat and another says never box squat. Based on allegiance to a program, certain exercises can get completely thrown out. If a lifter has a need that can be corrected through box squatting or any other exercise, it may not be considered because a certain program didn’t call for it. This could be anything we want to throw in—bands, chains, rest pause sets, bodybuilding type isolation movements, and so on. Many people may go by only what is written within the template that they found in a book or on the internet and solely base their selection of exercises, volumes, and frequencies strictly on what is seen in a successful template without any basis for the decision other than it's what was written.

Take this back to the example of football players. Let’s say that I find a program that a very successful team uses. I decide that I'll use it because if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me. I can see that there are certain things that won’t work for my athletes and won’t accomplish small scale goals at certain points of the year to build on large scale goals. However, I choose to exclude things that I know we need because on paper, this program doesn’t have it. While this sounds like it doesn’t make a lot of sense, this is similar to what some people do in training for strength sports.

Instead, we need to examine the large scale goal and determine what small scale goals need to be accomplished so that we can achieve the large scale goal. From there, we need to establish a framework to provide proper planning so that we can reach these goals. Once this has been established, we can define our programming methods and plug in the exercise selections, volumes, intensities, and frequencies to satisfy our needs.

Defining goals of the training process

Within strength sports, there are different large scale goals. Within each of these large scale goals, small scale goals are defined that lead to the large scale result. These small scale goals can be as in depth as needed. To do this, it is best to use an outline system. Start with the large goal and then break it down into smaller goals with a sub-goal for each. As an example, we'll use a lifter who has the large goal of hitting a certain total at his next meet.

With this needs analysis and goal setting outline defined, the lifter can analyze what movements, volumes, intensities, frequencies, and so on need to be used. So let’s say that this lifter doesn't have a need to add any mass but has technical issues. He needs to determine whether or not the technical issue is strictly an issue of needing more practice in the lift or if there is a muscular weakness. If it's strictly form, the lifter can set a small term goal to correct this through practice, which may occur with a lot of work at submaximal intensities. In this case, it may be an inefficient use of time to direct a large volume of work at muscular weaknesses. If muscular weaknesses are the problem, bringing up a lagging area may become a short-term goal that will need to be balanced with the practice of the movement and planned accordingly. The style of programming may change, and something on paper wouldn't necessarily accommodate these needs.

From this example, it's easy to see why certain programs can be used for certain goals. In the case of the lifter who may have a large amount of muscular weaknesses that are contributing to poor form, certain styles of programming such as Sheiko, Korte, or others that focus on movements at the expense of direct accessory work may not work as written. For a lifter who needs a lot of practice on the movements to either learn or correct form, a style similar to that popularized at Westside with rotating movements, maximal efforts, and accessory movements directed toward weak points may not be the best choice.

Establishing a framework

To define the framework, you should use principles based on your programming that allow a logical progression to your end goal. This framework should take into account the goals defined in your outline and should establish the small scale goals that lead to the large scale goal. Some of these goals will be things that need to be worked concurrently through the entire process, but others may have to be done in succession. Within this framework, different styles of programming can be utilized as a means of achieving certain goals.

As an example, I'll use my own training. My framework is based off principles of block periodization such as progressing from general to specialized, concentrated loading, accumulated fatigue, and delayed training effects. However, within that framework, I use a variety of programming styles and things that I borrowed from various templates to reach the end goal and satisfy the principles of my framework.

So let’s say that I wrote an outline for myself and certain muscular weaknesses or imbalances are present. In the early stages of preparation, I may use a variety of exercises that I borrowed from bodybuilding or rehabilitation protocols to strengthen these areas. Because of this, the early part of my training may have some exercises and loading that share similarities to rest/pause protocols in DC training, myo-reps, or certain accessory movements for areas that Westside-influenced protocols include. Later down the line, when I'm concentrating on technical proficiency of the competition movements, I may have a block that shares similarities in exercise selection, loading, and frequency to Sheiko or Korte programs but may also include movements that could be seen from other programs to build the lift in segments such as board work, box squats, deadlifts either off blocks or deficits, accommodated resistance, and so on.

This is an example of my training, not a platform that I think fits everyone. The framework should always take into account the needs of the individual. I'm all for someone using whatever he needs to accomplish his goals both in the short and long term. However, he should be able to justify why a particular program was selected and how it addresses his needs at that point. For example, a lifter with poor technique and low training experience may need to evaluate whether or not he should be performing maximal effort work week in and week out just as a lifter with numerous weaknesses, mobility issues, and pre-existing injuries will need to assess the order of priority when fixing technical errors. In some cases, underlying causes will continue to cause technical errors regardless of how frequently a movement is performed. In both these examples, the framework may have to be altered and programming will need to be changed to accommodate this.

Let’s go back to the lifter with no true underlying cause but poor technique. Rather than use a system of programming year round that won't address his need to practice the movements, his framework could include programming for a certain period of time with a high frequency and number of lifts at submaximal intensities to work technique. Once this becomes refined and is no longer an issue, certain points in his training can then use maximal effort training, rotating movements, weak point training, and so on as long as the technical proficiency of his competition movements stays intact. For this, a program based off principles like Sheiko or Korte could be used early on and a transition could be made to something else that may address any segment of a lift that may need work.

For the other lifter with underlying issues, his framework may have a different structure. He may need to concentrate on corrective exercise, mobility, and general strengthening of weak muscles in addition to previous injuries and then gradually transition to practicing the lifts with varying frequency. Then he can start to determine how to intensify the lifts. With this lifter, his framework should correct underlying causes and then incorporate practice of the movements while still addressing any underlying causes. Then he can consider increasing loading. Without correcting the underlying causes, practicing movements could be an exercise in futility because technique may not improve until weaknesses, injuries, or mobility are addressed.

Various programming styles and means, including accumulating volume, intensity, frequency, or a combination of these variables, can increase loading. Many programs focus on this in different ways with maximal efforts in specialized exercises (programs similar to Westside principles), training maxes in the competitive exercises (Bulgarian-influenced programs), repetition maxes (5/3/1 and similar styles), or the accumulation of volume/frequency at given percentages and the fatigue that mounts (Sheiko and similar style programs). Within a framework, these styles of programming can be used and modified. However, all of it will go back to the outline that a lifter writes for his needs along with the small and large scale goals.


Most beginning and intermediate lifters struggle with the idea that programs aren't simply written down and followed to the letter indefinitely. The idea that a program is as simple as “exercises x reps x sets x series” is an oversimplified interpretation of the training process. Programs aren’t templates to be followed as gospel, and the needs of a lifter should be assessed just like the needs of athletes in any other sport should be assessed. Additionally, exercises shouldn’t be validated or condemned strictly because a certain program includes or excludes them. There aren't any absolutes and everything can have a purpose.

We need to examine the loading parameters of a program to see if they have a place within a framework based on the needs of the individual. Within these needs, we need to set priorities and work to achieve small scale goals to ensure the accomplishment of the large scale goal. By setting a sequence that is logically planned, training can be more efficient and the lifter won't have to back track due to underlying causes.

In part two of this series, I'll discuss preparatory and competitive periods and how they influence programming. I'll discuss which types of programs may fit into each context along with modifications that can be made in reference to different needs.