Coaching Athletes – Programming

I had a muse that inspired me to write on this very fine Saturday morning — I just finished writing the next block for one of my powerlifting clients. I get a good amount of scattered questions asking how I choose to do different exercises, when, and with what sort of rep scheme. I have a few guiding principles that help me determine exactly what I’m going to do:

  1. What is the overall goal of the program?
  2. What is the goal of this specific training block?
  3. What fat needs to be trimmed (or added!) from the prior block?
  4. How will this tie into the next block?
  5. What kind of feedback did I get from the last block?
    This includes Fatigue management (were they consistently beat up one day of the week?), time constraints (was the average workout going way too long, or was it a waste of gas to only lift for 20 minutes?), and overall enjoyment (does my client like doing sets of 10 on squats or are they just really compliant?).

To illustrate these points, and because I currently lack the creativity to make up a fictitious athlete due to not having eaten yet, I’m going to use the athlete whose program I was designing this morning, about 15 minutes ago.

What is the overall goal of the program?

My client is a powerlifting athlete, thus the overall goal of the program was incredibly simple: they want to get stronger in the Squat, Bench and Deadlift, specifically in the one rep max range. This means that whatever work I put into the program, I will look back at this principle and ask myself, “How exactly is this accomplishing that goal?”

This is extremely helpful when programming for yourself or a client. It will keep you focused and honest. Adding in exercises because they sound cool might be fun, but it is not efficient or particularly useful. You should be able to explain your reasoning behind every exercise and how it plays into your goals. People might disagree with you or have critique, but that’s okay! As long as you at least have a reason for what you are doing, you can utilize criticism to make better decisions and let yourself be convinced towards a more logical decision. Or, if you are sure in your choice, you can argue logically why you think their criticism is invalid and be more confident in your choice.

An example: why do I program pull-ups into my client’s program for both a hypertrophy block and a transitionary strength block? First, I think pull-ups are excellent at developing the back, I think the stabilization needed to adequately perform a pull-up without swinging is valuable for core stability, and I think it’s a great way to improve the strength and coordination of one’s forearms/grip strength. As an accessory movement, I think it adds a lot of benefit for the amount of fatigue it generates. It’s not the sole supplemental lift, so I think it accomplishes everything it needs to for the role it plays in the program.

What is the goal of this specific training block?

The block my client is moving into is a transitionary strength block. The purpose this block servers in the grand scheme of things is to ease my client from the hypertrophy modality to a strength oriented modality. Juggernaut Training Systems coined this as “Phase Potentiation”. Simply, we’re taking advantage of the current adaptations of the body. Sets of six are more similar to sets of ten than sets of one or four. The similarity allows us to carry over more of the strength from ten’s to sixes rather than forcing the body to change to an entirely different modality (singles or something in that ballpark). Training styles like West Side disagree with this model, but I’m fairly convinced by the science regarding adaptation and specificity that slowly transitioning from one modality to the next allows for the maximum carry-over from one block to the next. Strength gains in a hypertrophy block will always carry-over, but I think that you can maximize that carry-over if you transition slowly. So the overall goal of this block is to transition to a more strength oriented block. Finally, we want to avoid running into “Adaptive Resistance”, another concept introduced to me by JTS. Due to the biological principle that the body seeks to maintain homeostasis (resisting change one way or another), that resistance becomes more severe as time goes on. This is why we can’t progress forever just doing singles. Sometimes in order to progress you have to add reps before you add weight.

What fat needs to be trimmed (or added!) from the prior block?

This is more of a sub-point on the previous point. I included many accessories dedicated to increasing volume on a by-muscle basis in the hypertrophy block. The goal there was to simply provide as much stimulus as possible. In this transitionary block, the exercises will now be geared towards 1) specificity with regards to the main powerlifting movements and 2) keeping joints healthy. This means I’ll be programming more pause squats in place of split squats, less dips and more direct tricep work, and will continue to add things like face pulls for shoulder health after benching and hamstring curls to keep the hamstrings healthy and have comparable volume to the quads.

I will also start to program a mix of “top sets” and singles. The weeks will generally begin with top sets, really playing off of the final weeks of the previous hypertrophy blocks. As the weeks go on, I will start to program singles instead as we begin to ramp up towards a pure strength block.

How will this tie into the next block?

As I hinted at in the previous point, this block will begin to introduce singles into training. It also introduces more technical accessories that are aimed at fixing certain technical errors or bringing up muscles that appear to be the weak link in the lift. This block will also serve as a observation period where I can better pinpoint specific errors in every lift. Those observations will then determine what I program for the next block. Additionally, this block is getting the athlete ready for lower rep sets. In the next block, I will have the athlete move to sets of fours and threes. While it’s not drastically different, it will be enough to allow the athlete to keep progressing.

What kind of feedback did I get from the last block?

The feedback from an athlete is paramount. You need feedback. You need different kinds of feedback. I watch my clients videos of their lifts religiously. What did a max effort lift look like? What was giving out? What did they do the day or week before they missed something I anticipated them hitting? How tired are they? Are they sleeping well, and how are their eating habits doing? Are they feeling mysteriously stressed all the time, or are they feeling pretty normal? How were they rating their fatigue day to day? Were they enjoying the exercises, hating them, or wishing they had one particular one they found interesting? If they were looking particularly strong, how much stronger was it than usual? Do they seem to have a range of deviation that’s discernable when they have highs or lows? Do they seem to be predictable? To some degree I would say this is the most important aspect of coaching, but if you don’t have the fundamentals down, I don’t think gathering this type of feedback is even possible anyways.

In Conclusion

These are all the questions I consider when programming a block. Taking all of this into account is how you coach someone well. Training someone is almost entirely science, whereas gathering data has a bit of an art to it due to its heavy reliance on communication and observation. The more data points you gather that you can meaningfully interpret, the better off you’re going to be.

You might think, “Good lord, that’s so much! I’m just starting out, and this is super overwhelming.”

You’re right! It’s crazy overwhelming as a beginner. But, that’s also why you shouldn’t be coaching someone without first having put a lot of time into learning. Like, hundreds of hours of time. I’ve put in time becoming certified (which was honestly the easiest part since I did it last), consuming educational content from trusted, verifiable sources (follow scientists on instagram! They’re underappreciated and are incredibly responsive/valuable in my experience). I’ve been subscribed to and read multiple journals in their entirety, e.x. I’ve been subscribed to MASS and have literally read and listened to every single article/roundtable except for maybe two or three.

I’ve read any textbook I could get my hands on that related to powerlifting, and I still remember counting down the hours until I could order Boris Sheiko’s powerlifting textbook that was translated by Mike Israetel.

The crazy part is that while I am convinced I am good at coaching, I will always be years behind the people who came before me, such as the aforementioned scientists/coaches. There’s a reason I haven’t coached an elite world champion and Boris Sheiko has. That should be something that gives all younger coaches pause when thinking they might know a lot – we’re young, science is evolving, and we lack the experience of those that came before us. So buckle up, listen close, and always continue learning and loving the subject. You can simultaneously be a great coach and still have incredible amounts left to learn, but there are certain fundamentals you need to have locked down before you should be asking people to trust you with their body.

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