9 Step-by-Step Tips for Designing Workout Programs
You can’t just stumble into a great program, it takes knowledge, experience, and wisdom.
Charisma, communication, and leadership all make a difference in training but one can come by them naturally; even a novice to training can possess these qualities innately without any effort to develop them. Designing effective programs, however, is a skill that must be learned through study and honed through conscious effort.
Why is program design so important?
Your clients’ successful achievement of their goals hinges on your ability to make the crucial decisions of what to work on, how often to work on it, and how hard. After all, the body only adapts to the physical demands we place on it; not our intentions but our actions determine whether we achieve the desired result.
If you’re strapped for time, Exercise.com has you covered. Our Workout Plan Creator provides trainers with the ability to create workout plans using various built-in integrations, tools, and more. Book a demo today!
We’ll explore the steps of designing the best workout programs for your clients. Whether you specialize in online training or work exclusively with in-person clients, these tips will help you upgrade the effectiveness of your programs and your clients’ results.
Know Your Client
The logical way to design a program is from the top-down and the clients themselves are always the top. Sure we can have our preferences as trainers but once you’ve accepted a paying client, their needs must become the priority. Knowing who they are and what they’re seeking is our launch pad for designing their training plan.
What’s their goal?
The client’s goal is the primary piece of information we want to gain during the very first interaction and our main directive as their trainer. It’s up to you, of course, to decide how to go about achieving it and you’ll most likely see more things they need in addition to what they want (more on this in the next tip).
Are they an athlete who wants to perform better on the field of play? A single guy looking to improve his appearance and confidence for the dating scene? A grandmother who just wants to be around longer for her grandchildren?
Bonus Tip: The Five Whys
The motivational interviewing technique known as the “Five Whys” is an incredibly valuable tool in the trainer’s toolbox. Learn what truly motivates your client by asking “why?” to their initial goal and again to each reply. Follow this process to its conclusion (5 times) and you’ll have peeled away the layers to reveal their true motivation; maybe something they didn’t even realize!
What’s their history?
Where they’ve been is just as important as where they want to go. This must-have information encompasses exercise experience and medical history.
A novice trainee who’s never stepped foot in a gym will require a totally different approach than the former college athlete based on their existing fitness level and how quickly they pick up new techniques.
Additionally, knowledge of past and ongoing medical problems, surgeries, and medications can affect the intensity of work they can tolerate initially or may mean that exercises will require modification. It’s best to learn this now before any workout planning so you can get it right the first time, not play catch-up later.
While this process can be tedious, it yields necessary information and helps establish in the eyes of the client that you’re a professional at what you do and are concerned for their well-being.
How will training fit into their life?
There’s no point planning a training program your client won’t be able to adhere to because of their schedule, nor one that fails to account for where training fits on their priority list.
Often times, we can be tempted to plan for the ideal scenario with just the right timing and dosage of training but no flexibility. But let’s be realistic, we’re training people in the real world not the laboratory. Our challenge, therefore, is to accomplish ideal results despite less-than-ideal situations.
The best way to do this is by setting a realistic expectation for each client based on their time commitment, personality, and attitude toward exercise. Of course, we’ll be helping them develop discipline and find enjoyment in regular activity, but long term success (and your sanity) may hinge on being conscientious of the fact that your client is a human being, not a robot.
Perform a Needs Analysis
Many important facts about your client are learned during a consultation, but it’s just as important to assess where they stand physically in order to have enough data to create a meaningful plan for their training. Personalization simply cannot take place without you learning what your client is currently capable of.
A performance assessment serves to identify the client’s needs related to achieving their stated goal and reveal to the trainer whether there are other issues needing work even if the client did not identify them. Here’s an example of how this commonly happens:
A client comes to you with an interest in powerlifting; he’s seen some videos online of monstrous guys moving huge weight in the squat, bench, and deadlift and he’s fired up about doing it himself. You’re happy to teach him about barbell training but your assessment reveals some issues:
- The client gets exhausted quickly and loses mental focus on the technique
- He lacks the shoulder mobility to place a bar securely on his back for the squat
- He has poor body awareness and doesn’t realize when he’s in spinal flexion
Based on this, there’s some prerequisite work to be done as a foundation before the client is ready to aggressively train the barbell lifts. He needs to improve his conditioning, his mobility, and develop basic coordination through some low-risk movements.
As a responsible professional you insist on this path. It’s not abandoning the client’s vision of engaging in heavy lifting; it’s the appropriate track to help him be successful at that goal in the long run because it’s based on what he actually needs right now.
Exercise.com can help you assess your clients’ needs with Performance Health Software. With this tool you can create custom questionnaires and assessments that will help you gain valuable insight about new clients and demonstrate progress over time through retesting.
This platform helps you record and save data for clients you assess in person or it can be used to send assessments automatically to your remote clients. Regardless of how you reach your clients, you’ll need all the info on their current ability to formulate the best possible program.
Let the team at Exercise.com show you how to grow and manage your fitness business better!
Follow These Universal Principles
You’ve reached the part of your programming where you transition from gathering information to designing the program. As much as you may have wanted to get straight to the sets and reps, the aforementioned steps are what distinguish you, the coach, from every meathead trying to give your clients advice at the local gym.
What’s more, you know as a professional that trying a bunch of exercises and seeing what happens is neither effective nor acceptable for your clients. That’s why we always keep in mind a framework of principles that guide our decision making in program design.
Setting a simple program made of easy-to-understand workouts will be best for the client’s results and adherence. For a novice trainee, in particular, very simple training made up of a handful of high-value movements and progressing one variable at a time will yield greater gains than an artificially complex plan with dozens of exercises and a convoluted formula for determining weights.
Sure the plan will require adjustment over time as a client progresses out of that novice phase, but even the intermediate to advanced client is best served by training they can understand and, therefore, buy into.
The adaptation that results from a particular type of work is specific to that work. This is also referenced with the acronym SAID meaning Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.
In short, the work you assign to the client should always directly contribute to the training goal or set them up for future success in the goal. It’s our job as trainers and coaches to not just assign work but assign the right work in the right way.
For physical work to yield improvement, that work must be a great enough stimulus to challenge your client’s current capability.
This seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how often trainers lose sight of the basic need for a measurable increase in the required work to keep their clients progressing. Instead, many will merely get people sweaty and call it a job well done. Others will keep clients entertained with constantly changing exercises but fail to actually ramp up their performance on any of them.
In practical terms, make sure that of all the variables that pertain to an exercise (load, volume, duration, etc.), one is always increasing with every iteration of training.
Create a Program ‘Skeleton’
With the overall goal and needs established, you’ve gathered all the information you need and it’s now time you put pen to paper with planning the client’s program. But before you jump into the nuts and bolts of an individual workout, formulate an outline or skeleton for your program.
This is the broad overview of the program where we look at each workout in terms of the training effect we want to achieve before zooming in and fleshing out the details. Here’s an example:
|Rest||Upper Body (Strength)||Lower Body (Strength)||Rest||Upper Body (Hypertrophy)||Lower Body (Hypertrophy)||Rest|
The biggest benefit of taking this step is keeping you on track to reach the overall goal as the program evolves. You now have a direction for each day; so, as you tweak the details, you don’t lose sight of the big picture.
Additionally, this is a good way to help you manage numerous clients who have different schedules and goals. Rather than getting lost in the weeds when you look at their workout logs, you can remind yourself of the general direction of their training every time you review and update their plan.
Some of the country’s top coaches are using Exercise.com to stay organized while managing their clients’ training. With our platform, Dean Somerset has been able to add clients and scale up his business without sacrificing the quality of his coaching. In his words:
“Working with 20-30 individuals who each have specific goals and restrictions can be challenging, but your platform makes it easy to organize everyone’s programs and put a plan together that will get them the best results possible.”
Select and Order Exercises
The next level down as we work from the overview through the finer points is selecting which exercises to include based on effectiveness and relevance to the goal. With this, we start to fill out the skeleton of the program and get into specific workouts. Let’s go over some guidelines for exercise selection:
— It’s not how many exercises you can fit in a workout, it’s the magnitude of the training effect they achieve. For example, a workout consisting of squats, lunges, leg press, leg extension, and Bulgarian split squats is not necessarily superior to a simpler workout of squats and deadlift only for the same total work volume.
— Pay attention to Scalability. Which exercise has the most room for potential improvement and can be adjusted as your client gains strength/endurance? Consider the difference in scaling up the Dumbbell Goblet Squat versus the Barbell Front Squat which is highly similar in purpose. In the goblet squat, the weight must be supported in the hands in front of the torso.
This serves as a serious limitation to the development of leg strength because your client will hit the limit of what the hands can support well before the legs have reached their potential. Therefore, the barbell front squat in which the barbell is racked across the shoulders is preferable as it can be scaled in proportion to leg and torso strength without any other limitation.
— Cover all the primary joint actions and movement patterns. Though not necessarily in every workout, somewhere in the program all the major movement patterns should be trained. A knee-dominant movement like the squat, a hip-hinge movement like the deadlift, horizontal pushing and pulling, vertical pushing and pulling, and rotation are all present in a well-rounded program.
While they may be performed in different ratios based on priority, none should be completely neglected. Even when your client just wants to get a six-pack, it’s up to you to implement a plan for their all-around health and performance.
— Prioritize exercises that use a large amount of muscle mass. These are the highest bang-for-your-buck from any perspective. For strength, these will elicit the biggest training response due to the high neurological stimulus and stress to the muscles. For fat loss, such exercises are valuable for burning more calories than individual muscles working in isolation.
You can tell if an exercise meets this criterion by observing joint movement as it’s performed; multiple active joints are a good indicator that multiple large muscle groups are working. The exercises in question are often referred to as compound movements.
To be clear, I’m not referring to combo exercises that are a mash-up of unrelated movements and appear to be the creation of Dr. Frankenstein. Things such as Squat with a Lateral Raise or Deadlift-Bicep Curls may feel like you’re killing two birds with one stone or working efficiently but in reality, you’re probably just working at 50% effectiveness of two exercises, if even that.
The problem with these exercises is that the weaker part of the movement severely hampers any effective work being done by the stronger one. In the above example, it is the lateral raise which dictates that the weight must be very light, much too light for the legs to be adequately stimulated. Remember progressive overload; those legs may be moving but they’re not being trained.
— Be realistic about your strengths as a coach. If you don’t have expertise in a particular mode of training or with certain equipment, don’t try to train your client on it. Far too often you find trainers who believe their certification automatically imparts on them knowledge of all types of training. When talking to potential clients they become the Yes Man who claims to have the solution for everything.
The reality is trainers do not have advanced knowledge on every mode of training and it’s important that we’re honest with clients: when you don’t know something, don’t claim to. Besides, many clients are just seeking a solution to their problem; they aren’t usually coming to a trainer for a specific exercise but for a specific result. Choose from what you know to best achieve it.
How are you selecting and organizing exercises in your clients’ programs? If its scribbling in a beat up notebook you need an upgrade that will make your process more efficient and professional.
With Exercise.com you have a vast library of movements to choose from and can add your own custom exercises. You’ll be able to deliver your clients a workout complete with video instruction from your custom-branded app.
When it comes to setting the order of exercises in a workout, the most important thing to consider is how they’ll affect each other. In conditioning workouts, for example, we want the client to be able to sustain movement with minimal rest or loss of technique.
The best practice, therefore, is pairs or circuits in which adjacent movements focus on different muscle groups like alternating between upper- and lower-body dominant exercises (example 1). In this way, the client can avoid one single muscle wearing out and putting the brakes on the entire workout.
Another similar strategy is to perform opposing muscle actions back to back such as a hip flexion exercise followed by a hip extension exercise (see example 2). This is useful for full-body exercises that don’t fall into the simple categories of upper or lower.
Assign Sets, Reps, and Rest
Equally as important as what movements you perform is the strategy under which you employ them. After all, performing an exercise for 3 sets of 10 is vastly different from 10 sets of 3; know what you’re aiming for with each exercise and what strategy aligns with that goal.
As a trainer, you’re already familiar with the theoretical purpose of various rep counts: low reps with heavy weight for strength, high reps with light weight for muscle endurance. Let’s first go over one important element that often gets lost in the practice of training:
No matter what set and rep scheme you choose to employ, the work has to be hard. Sets of five may be an appropriate range for training strength, but lifting 225 for a set of 5 when you could have done 10 doesn’t elicit strength, it just isn’t a great enough stress compared to your capability.
It seems obvious but trainers and the general public seem to often forget that the conventional wisdom about benefits of various rep ranges (1-8 for strength, 8-15 for hypertrophy, 15+ for endurance) assumes that the work performed in any range is maximal effort.
With that basic law covered, let’s now talk about the practical aspects of applying different schemes and what you can accomplish with manipulation of the sets, reps, and rest variables.
Sets: The purpose of manipulating sets is like anything else — to achieve progressive overload. The addition of sets to an exercise is a great tool to do so because it can be done with little sacrifice to weight load, thus we can gain additional volume of work while still staying close to the client’s top-end strength.
For instance, if my client has performed 3 sets of 8, with a weight at which 8 was maximal, trying to increase to 3 sets of 10 would require lowering that weight. I can, however, increase the workload by adding a fourth set which, even if the reps fall short of 8, creates additional volume of work to force strength adaptation.
A less obvious but very practical benefit to adjusting sets is keeping the quality of movement high because the client gets to do more first reps. By that I mean, more reps which come fresh off a rest period so they are more mentally focused and less fatigued.
Reps: While performing more reps against a given resistance is indicative of strength, this variable is more relevant to the improvement of endurance and hypertrophy.
Our goal in training those two characteristics is to create metabolic stress. Unlike pure strength training where we’d want the work performed under as little fatigue as possible, here we can allow our clients to use a reduced weight load in favor of intentionally inducing that fatigue with a longer set.
To best apply manipulation of reps as a means of progress, trainers should be mindful of which movements lend themselves to significant variations in rep scheme and which do not.
For highly technical movements and structural exercises, such as the Clean and Jerk and Back Squat respectively, lengthy high rep sets can be a safety risk or simply be ineffective as technique breakdown will be the limiting factor on each set.
Instead, simpler exercises and those with little risk of injury are best suited to rep changes as the primary method of improvement. Examples of such exercises include bodyweight exercises such as Push-up and Lunge as well as easily controlled weighted movements like Leg Press and Bicep Curls.
Rest: The duration of rest between sets is an often-overlooked element in programming with many trainers leaving it to chance or letting client’s figure it out “by feel” but to do so leaves potential progress on the table.
Intentionally manipulating rest to either dissipate or promote fatigue can be a useful strategy for different types of training goals. For example, a common error in strength training is taking too little rest between sets which causes fatigue carryover and inhibits the expression of a lifter’s actual strength. They will benefit from more recovery time between efforts.
On the other hand, if we want the client to work in a fatigued state as a means of building stamina, we can assign a strategy in which rest is tightly controlled and work must be performed at a given time regardless of readiness. Common examples of this are the Tabata method and Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM) workouts.
Plan the Warm-ups
Getting your client prepared for training with a warm-up may be the first step on a day-to-day basis in the midst of your program, but when designing that program it should be one of the final steps. Here’s why:
The role of the warm-up is preparation for the movement that’s to come in the workout and must, therefore, be specific to what those movements are. It should also prepare the body for the right intensity and duration of exercises as determined by the sets and reps. Covering both of these needs requires that we’ve already decided upon what the workout will consist of.
A generic assignment like “ten minutes on a stationary bike” is not adequate preparation for strength training, nor is jogging adequate preparation for anything besides more jogging. Here’s what we must accomplish in the warm-up:
- Increase blood flow to muscles being trained
- Elevate core temperature to aid tissue pliability
- Prepare muscles and joints by moving them through a range of motion similar to the coming exercises
- Ready the nervous system to engage powerful muscle activation
The order of activities in a warm-up should be such that it moves from general to specific in relation to the training movements. For a session in which the primary movement is the Barbell Back Squat, here’s an example:
Each of these serves one or more of the warm-up’s four goals. All of them contribute to increase blood flow, elevate body temperature, and improve joint ROM. Box Jumps in particular engage and prepare the nervous system due to the powerful, high-speed muscle contraction of jumping. And finally, the most specific is the Barbell Squat itself which we’d ramp up from an empty bar to the highest weight for the day.
While the planning of warm-ups should be an in-depth process, that doesn’t mean warm-ups need to be lengthy or complex. In fact, a well-thought-out warm-up where every movement is there for a reason will get your client prepared quicker than a random assignment that wastes time and energy. The above example is a process of only 5-7 minutes.
For full-body weight training, use the same criteria and add warm-up movements as needed to prepare for other exercises. In certain types of training, like bodyweight-only conditioning workouts, the exercises themselves can serve as the warm-up. Simply have your client complete a warm-up round where each exercise is performed at a comfortable pace and low intensity.
Let the team at Exercise.com show you how to grow and manage your fitness business better!
Make a Plan of Progression
Although you have taken the time to create actionable workouts – you’re still not quite done.
A program isn’t a collection of stand-alone workouts to be done once and discarded, nor will the same workout be repeated with the exact same numbers (not if your client is progressing). We still need some forethought as to how we’ll progress each element of each workout as the client moves through the program and advances.
Your next task is to establish criteria for advancement. Do this for each exercise in the program. It may be based on any of the variables present for a given exercise; weight, reps, time, or even the exercise itself. Here are some examples:
Weight: when the client can successfully complete 3 sets of 5 reps on the bench press with technical proficiency we advance the weight by 5 pounds.
Reps: the client will be expected to add 2 reps with each repetition of the max effort set of push-ups.
Time: each station of the conditioning circuit will progress from :30 work, :30 rest to :40 work, :30 rest then :50 work, :30 rest.
Exercise: when the client can complete 10 reps with 100 pounds on the Lat Pulldown, he’ll advance to the Band-assisted Pull-up.
Having this type of plan established from the outset of the program will help you be more efficient in making adjustments to training and will help prevent your client from getting stuck in a rut; the last thing you want is to look at your client’s logs and realize time slipped by and no progression has happened!
Ask Yourself the Tough Questions
Finally, before implementing the program with a client, take a step back and try to examine it from an outsider’s perspective. Put yourself in the client’s shoes and go through all the questions they may have about the program.
The main query you must be prepared for is “Why?” If for any aspect of the program you are unable to answer this question, that’s a sign that you need to revisit it and give more thought to what you’ve assigned.
For a professional trainer, having an intelligent process for creating workouts and programs is non-negotiable. It needs to, additionally, be something you can scale up to implement with more clients as your business grows or teach to other trainers if you take your career in the route of owning and operating a training facility.
The more time and energy you expend in wasteful, inefficient processes the less you have to interact with clients, hone your coaching skills, and promote your business. Take a step back from your day-to-day routine and objectively assess whether your programs are truly the best they could be and whether you’re making the best use of your time. For most people in our industry, both answers are no.
The best way to improve your service and streamline your processes is to utilize a platform like Exercise.com’s all-in-one Business Management Software which helps you manage all the sales and financial aspects of your business in addition to upgrading your fitness assessment and workout programming capabilities.
Using Exercise.com, you can implement all the tips in this guide. Here’s a quick walkthrough to show how easy it is to create and deliver your training programs:
1) From the Plans tab, select Create New Plan to display this dialog box where you’ll create the program outline.
Give your program a name, and assign frequency and objectives. Give it a checkout description so your online customers can register for the program through your customized mobile app.
2) Here is the week view of our program, Beginner Strength Training. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday now have empty workouts, next let’s fill those in by selecting Build Workout.
3) Now, in the workout creation area, we’ll add exercises from the left sidebar. You can type the name into the search bar which will pull results from the exercise library or select from the Favorite and Recent Exercises tabs that the software automatically generates based on what you’ve used.
Having added the exercises, you can fill in all the details on each one; sets, reps, rest, and even tempo. By default, each exercise will show the collapsed view which saves space on-screen until you expand it (if needed) to add extra details like variation between sets and technique notes.
4) Back in the week view, we now have ready-to-go workouts which can be easily duplicated to more weeks or moved with a simple drag and drop feature.
The new program can be assigned to clients and published to be available to new clients online.
To learn more about leveling up your training and business with Exercise.com, schedule a demo call with our team today. On the call, they’ll show you how our software is helping elite-level trainers with customized business solutions and what it can do for you.
Colton Tessener is a Strength & Conditioning Coach and gym owner from North Carolina. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from UNC-Wilmington and has 10 years of hands-on experience in coaching clients of all types on improving physical performance. His gym, Arise Athletics, has been recognized locally as Small Business of the Year and named one of the Best Gyms in Wake County (Raleigh, NC).