Fundamentals of Program Design: Introduction

29 Dec

The most common topic that I am repeatedly asked about is strength training programs.  Wendler’s 531, Madcow 5×5, Starting Strength, and Smolov are just a few that get mentioned quite frequently.  If you sampled enough people you will find a person that has attained good results with each program.  Within that same sample you will find another person that had a negative experience with each program.

When asked about my thoughts on a specific training program, my answer is always “it depends.”  I cannot give a short simple answer.  It depends is the best answer because it is honest.

I cannot determine whether “program X” is optimal for Johnny Bravo without obtaining more information about the athlete such as, training status, previous training volume, training frequency, training schedule, training goals, and competition timeline.  The list could go on and on.  All of these factors must be accounted for when determining which training program should be utilized.

Would each of the programs mentioned above work for the normal strength training athlete?  Quite possibly.  But are you wanting something that works or are you wanting something that is optimal?  You want your hard work in the gym to yield the best results possible, so you need a program that will optimize your training.  I don’t believe there is one perfect training method, but I do believe that some are more optimal than others depending on each athletes specific needs.  Before we start discussing what makes a program effectives, we need to understand the purpose of training in the first place.

Strength is one of the five components of fitness.  Fitness is the body’s ability to cope with a specific task under certain conditions (Siff 2003).  We use training as a means to achieve fitness.  By incorporating physical loading we are able to stimulate our neurological and muscular system to induce a positive training effect.  The training effect is specific to the task being performed.  This principle known as the Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID principle) explains how the body will adapt to a specific stimuli imposed on the body.  This concept is very important when constructing a training program.  The outcome of the training program will be directly affected by the specific stimuli provided.  In order to have a continued positive training effect, the training stimulus must occur above the habitual level.  This is the principle of progressive overload.  If Johnny Bravo goes into the gym and does 3 sets of 10 on the bench press at 225lbs once a week for 3 months, his body will have already adapted to that stimulus. In order for him to progress, he would need to increase the weight on the bar, number of reps, number of sets, or number of times the movement is performed each week.  There are many variables that can be manipulated and we will discuss that more as we get into the other parts of this series.

When we stress our physiological systems by imposing certain demands, our body responds by adapting to the environment.  You have certainly experienced this if you have been training for at least a couple of weeks.  The fact that you are able to perform a certain number of repetitions with a greater amount of weight is your body’s expression of adaptation.  Hans Selye created a model (Figure 1) that shows the response to stressors within a living system (Selye 1956).  There are many factors that can act as stressors and affect our ability to recover (Figure 2).  Because exercise is commonly used as a stress relief tactic, most people do not realize that it is actually a stressor on the body.  Depending on the intensity and volume of training, it can be a major stressor on the body. Selye’s model of General Adaptation Syndrome is commonly used in understanding the development of strength training adaptations (Siff 2003).

General Adaptation Syndrome Picture

As a stressor is presented, initial decrements in performance will occur.  During this phase, you will probably notice muscle soreness and fatigue.  Recovery is the process of the athlete returning to the same physiological state as before the exercise session (Stone 2007).

Here is an example: Johnny Bravo performs a 5 rep max on the bench press and achieves 275 lbs.  Three days later, he returns to the gym and attempts to a 5 rep max with 275.  If he is able to able to get all 5 reps than he has fully recovered from the previous exercise session.  However, if he achieves 6 reps, than a positive training adaptation has occurred.  His previous training stimulus has caused his body to “compensate” and increase his bench press strength.

If the stress of training is within our body’s physiological adaptive capabilities, we will compensate with greater strength.  However as you can see in the decompensation phase, decreases in strength can occur if the stressor is maintained for long periods above our body’s adaptive capabilities.  If maintained for long enough, this phase can lead to a state of overtraining. Being able to manage training variables is crucial to providing the right amount of stress in order to attain a supercompensation of strength.  For this reason, having a periodized training plan is vital if you seek to increase your competition lifts.

Stressors Affecting Recovery Picture

Periodization is the logical planning and manipulation of training variables in order to increase the potential for achieving specific performance goals (Stone 2007).   As stated, periodization involves planning.  If you are preparing for a competition, your training must be planned to lead you into peak performance on the day you step on the platform.  Periodization also involves the manipulation of training variables.  Training intensity, volume, and frequency must be prescribed according to the needs of the athlete.  The use of periodized training helps to achieve two goals: 1) reduce the potential for overtraining and 2) peaking for a specific competition (Stone 2007).  This is where cookie-cutter programs fail.  They are too generic, and are not individually tailored for each specific athlete.  For “athlete A”, program X may be too much of a stressor that pushes him/her into a state of extreme fatigue that requires a greater length of time to recover or adapt.  However, the same program may not provide enough of a stimulus for “athlete B” and no positive training effect will occur.

Throughout the rest of this series, we are going to discuss the components of a periodized training plan and how to appropriately organize training intensity, training volume, and training frequency.


1. Selye, H. The stress of life. , 1956.

2. Siff, MC, and Verkhoshansky, YV. Supertraining: Special Strength Training for Sporting Excellence: A Textbook on the Biomechanics and Physiology of Strength Conditioning for all Sport. School of Mechanical Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand, 1993.

3. Stone, MH, Stone, M, Sands, WA, and Sands, B. Principles and Practice of Resistance Training. Human Kinetics, 2007.


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