The Language of Strength Training Program Design

Fitness Professional Online

Much like writing software or music, a universal language of program design is required for strength training. Trainers need to have a consistent prescription format in order for trainees to obtain consistent results. Your program may be exceptional, but a haphazard interpretation will lead to haphazard results. To remove the variability, specific training parameters must be defined. This is the system that I propose to maintain consistency among practitioners.

Strength training programs should be listed in the following manner:

Sequence. Exercise: Sets x Reps @ Tempo, Rest Interval

For sequence, four main scenarios exist:

  1. Station training, e.g., A, B, C, D, E – Perform the prescribed number of sets of the “A” exercise first. Then, perform the prescribed number of sets of the “B” exercise, and so on until all exercises are completed.
  2. Double station training, e.g., A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, D1, D2 – Perform one set of the “A1” exercise, then one set of the “A2” exercise, and repeat until the prescribed number of sets for each of the two exercises are completed. Follow the same process for the other exercise pairs.
  3. Triple station training, e.g., A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, C1, C2, C3 – Perform one set of the “A1” exercise, then one set of the “A2” exercise, then one set of the “A3” exercise, and repeat until the prescribed number of sets for each of the three exercises are completed. Follow the same process for the “B” and “C” exercises.
  4. Multiple station training, e.g., A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2, B3, B4 – Perform one set of the “A1” exercise, then one set of the “A2” exercise, then one set of the “A3” exercise, then one set of the “A4” exercise, and repeat until the prescribed number of sets for each of the four exercises are completed. Follow the same process for the “B” exercises. Circuit training is an example of multiple station training.

Exercises are typically listed with the body position first (e.g., standing, seated, 45-degree incline, etc.), followed by the grip or stance width/orientation (e.g., close-neutral-grip, wide stance, etc.), followed by the training implement (e.g., barbell, dumbbell, cable, hex-bar, etc.), followed by the movement pattern (e.g., squat, leg curl, triceps extension, etc.) In some cases, an additional apparatus (e.g., preacher, rack, step, etc.), direction of movement (e.g., to neck, sternum, midline, etc.), or unilateral movement (e.g., one-arm, single-leg, etc.) will be indicated.

Generally, a detailed description is given for each exercise, although there are some exceptions. For instance, a standing mid-stance heels-flat barbell back squat is simply known as a back squat. The same concept applies for a front squat except, of course, the barbell sits across the shoulders in “front” of the neck instead of behind it. Bent-knee and semi-stiff-leg deadlifts are conducted with a mid (clean) grip and shoulder-width stance unless otherwise indicated.

Sometimes an exercise orientation is assumed. For instance, most arm and wrist curls are performed with a supinated grip (barbell, dumbbell, or cable) or semi-supinated grip (EZ-bar). For these exercises, a reverse grip reflects the opposite grip. In other words, reverse-grip arm curls or wrist curls are performed with a pronated grip (barbell, dumbbell, or cable) or semi-pronated grip (EZ-bar). By the way, a hammer curl is just another name for a neutral-grip dumbbell curl.

Also, many variations of chin-ups and pull-ups exist. The standard chin-up is performed with a supinated grip (both palms face you), however, chin-ups can also be done with a neutral grip (both palms face each other) and a mixed grip (one palm faces you, the other palm faces away). A pull-up, on the other hand, refers only to a pronated grip (both palms face away).

leg exerciseExercises such as leg curls/extensions and calf raises should be performed with the feet roughly hip-width apart and in a neutral (straight) position unless otherwise indicated.

There may be some exercise names that sound foreign, such as a Sicilian crunch, Zottman curl, tiger bend push-up, dragon flag, and so on, but over time these will become common strength training terms.

The number of sets is typically listed as a single digit, although a double-digit number may be prescribed in some high-volume (e.g., 10 sets x 10 reps) and high-intensity (e.g., 12 sets x 3 reps) protocols. If a range is indicated, it’s best to perform the lowest number of sets the first workout and add one set per workout until the highest number is achieved. Also, just as a side note, although a certain number of sets are prescribed, that doesn’t mean all those sets are conducted. If there’s a significant drop in performance (e.g., 3 reps or more from one set to the next), then you should finish that exercise for the day even though all sets may not have been completed.

The number of repetitions should be listed as follows:

  1. Specific number, e.g., 6 – Select the appropriate load that will allow you to reach momentary muscular failure at the prescribed number of repetitions. The load may need to be adjusted over sets to stay at this figure.
  2. Range, e.g., 10-12 – Select the appropriate load that will allow you to reach momentary muscular failure within the prescribed repetition range. The load may need to be adjusted over sets to stay within this rep bracket.
  3. Pyramid, e.g., 7,5,3,7,5,3 – Perform 7 reps for the first set, 5 reps on the second set, 3 reps on the third set, and so on. Make sure to use an appropriate load for each set.
  4. Drop set, e.g., 6/3/3 – Perform 6 reps. Then, immediately lower the weight and perform 3 reps. Right after that, lower the weight one more time and perform 3 more repetitions. Make sure to use an appropriate load for each drop set.
  5. Rest-pause, e.g., 3+1+1+1+1 – Perform 3 reps, rest for 10 seconds, and then perform 4 singles with 10 seconds of rest between each one all with the same weight. Rack the bar while resting.

The tempo refers to speed of execution (in seconds) and is represented by a four-digit number: the duration of the eccentric (negative or lowering) action, followed by the duration of the isometric (pause between negative and positive) action, followed by the duration of the concentric (positive or raising) action, followed by the duration of the isometric (pause between positive and negative) action. An “X” value in the concentric range refers to an eXplosive action. Here are some examples:

  1. 50X0 – Take 5 seconds to lower the weight, no pause, explode the weight upward under control, no pause, and then immediately begin the next repetition.
  2. 4020 – Take 4 seconds to lower the weight, no pause, 2 seconds to raise the weight, no pause, and then immediately begin the next repetition.
  3. 3210 – Take 3 seconds to lower the weight, pause for 2 seconds in the stretched position, 1 second to raise the weight, no pause, and then immediately begin the next repetition.
  4. 2011 – Take 2 seconds to lower the weight, no pause, 1 second to raise the weight, pause for 1 second in the contracted position, and then immediately begin the next repetition.
  5. The rest interval should be listed in seconds as a specific number (e.g., 90s) or a range (e.g., 30-60s). If “10s” is specified, move swiftly from one exercise to the next – it should take you exactly 10 seconds from the end of the previous set to the beginning of the next set. Similarly, on unilateral exercises such as a split squat or one-arm row, take 10 seconds to rest between the completion of one side and the start of the other side. Make sure to begin with the weaker side first. If no rest is listed, then it means that you’re performing only one set of an exercise and there are no exercises following it.

Here’s what a sample program would look like:

A1. Bent-knee high-handle hex-bar deadlift: 4 x 10,8,6,6 @ 3-2-X-0, 90s
A2. Mid-neutral-grip chin-up: 4 x 6-8 @ 5-0-X-0, 90s
B1. Standing wide-stance good morning: 3 x 8-10 @ 4-0-1-0, 60s
B2. 60-degree incline neutral-grip dumbbell press: 3 x 8-10 @ 4-0-1-0, 60s
C1. Standing mid-grip EZ-bar curl: 3 x 10-12 @ 3-0-1-0, 10s
C2. Flat close-grip barbell press: 3 x 10-12 @ 3-0-1-0, 120s
D1. Seated single-leg calf raise: 2 x 12-15 @ 2-1-1-0, 30s
D2. Supine cable knee-in: 2 x 15-20 @ 2-0-1-0, 30s

Strength training program design must be treated in a professional manner with a consistent prescription format among practitioners. It is important to detail and control as many variables as possible in order to gauge whether a program is truly successful. In addition to the sequence, exercise name, and number of sets and reps, tempo and rest interval are two often-neglected parameters that can have a significant influence on the training effect and should be included in every program. Following the system outlined above will ultimately lead to more consistent interpretation and results for your clients.

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013 and 2014, John Paul released three new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design, Body Composition Strategies, and The Business of Personal Training, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For more information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.

John Paul Catanzaro

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored a book, The Elite Trainer (2011), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and WarmUp to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts.

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