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Program design "cheat sheet"

Alexander Cameron
Alexander Cameron
11 min read

Give someone a workout, and you train them for a day...

...but teach someone how to design their own strength training program, and you gift the ability to stay strong, mobile, and pain-free for a lifetime.

I want to give you that gift.

In this article, I'll go over the tried-and-true principles of program design that you need to know and how to apply these principles to your strength training program.

Right, here we go.

THE ASSESSMENT (AKA UNDERSTANDING WHERE YOU'RE CURRENTLY AT)

The individual assessment can take many forms.

For some people, performing a thorough movement analysis is enough.

For others, sitting down, thinking about goals, and understanding themselves as a person is what's required.

Either way, I think we can all agree that some form of assessment is better than no assessment. Otherwise, anything you do is guesswork. And you're not here to play guessing games.

Typically, a coach performs the assessment, as they have the advantage of being an objective set of eyes and ears. If you're serious about your health but you're not ready to commit to a coach, I'd recommend paying investing $80 to $100 for an initial assessment. That way, you have a solid baseline to build from, making the info in this article more valuable to you.

But if you're going to assess yourself, here are things to consider:

GOALS

"What do you need help you with the most? What does that look like to you?"

"Any specific training goals?"

"If you could define a successful outcome for today/this week/this month, what would that look like to you?"

All you're trying to do is get an understanding of why you're embarking on this adventure.

The keyword is "why".

If you're ready to start training, you need to connect that training with a deep, personal reason to keep you going when things get tough. This is your "why", which may take some deep introspection to discover.

MEDICAL AND INJURY HISTORY

You NEED to look at your medical history before stepping foot on the gym floor. Look at everything, even if it seems irrelevant.

Otherwise, you may end up hurting yourself, or worse.

TRAINING AND EXERCISE HISTORY

How long you've been training and what your training looked like will impact your program design.

For example, a former professional ice hockey player who has lifted weights for the past decade will train a lot differently than someone who's never touched a dumbbell before.

The hockey player has developed motor control and the ability to dig deep in their training. Progress comes slower and with more effort. On the flip side, the true beginner will become stronger just by hopping on the assault bike and nothing else.

Those are examples of the two extremes. You'll likely fall somewhere in between and shift along the spectrum as you move along your fitness journey.

In summary: Always Be Assessing.

LIFESTYLE

Your lifestyle habits play a massive role in your future success, both in and out of the gym.

Are you drinking enough water? Are you getting enough sunshine? How are your sleeping habits?

If you are staying up all hours of the night, spending your entire day in a windowless cube, and chugging coffee without ever mixing in a water, then these are the things that need to be addressed first.

These lifestyle habits are the foundation that you will build your castle on.

Please don't take them for granted.

MOVEMENT

This is where you need a trained eye to watch you move and determine your baseline.

Some things to watch out for:

  • Poor motor control
  • Muscle weakness or fatigue
  • Lack of mobility (or hyper-mobility)

Once you know what these are, you can begin to address them in the program.

If you're going to perform video assessments on yourself, make sure there is a purpose for whatever you're doing. If you want to back squat three hundy, you best be assessing your air squat.

PREFERENCES

Yes, you have preferences, and yes, you should include these preferences in your program design… to an extent.

Maybe sit-ups bother your back, and you'd prefer not to do them. Or you love hamstring curls, and you want to curl your hammies all day.

No problem.

But, if you're avoiding split squats because they're "too hard," I have news for you.

No one said training was comfortable.

THE 6 FOUNDATIONAL MOVEMENT PATTERNS THAT EVERY HUMAN BODY NEEDS

Thoughtful programming doesn't need to include every exercise under the sun.

If you want to develop a strong, lean, healthy body without overwhelming yourself with thousands of exercises like "barbell donkey squats" and "semi-trailer back lifts", then start thinking about movement patterns instead of exercises.

Why?

There are only SIX foundational movement patterns that your body needs. Touching on six movement patterns is a helluva lot more manageable than cramming every exercise ever invented into your program.

And when you work these movement patterns, you'll feel better, perform better, and look better naked:

SQUAT

The squat is just so damn important.

Imagine yourself at 85 years old, and you're trying to stand up out of your favorite chair. My only hope is that you spent a good chunk of your precious time on Earth squatting.

Exercises in this category are knee-dominant, include hip and knee flexion/extension, and work the quads more than the hamstrings.

Common exercises: Front squat, back squat, overhead squat, goblet squat, box squat, jump squat.

HINGE

Probably my favourite exercise, if I was forced to choose.

Why?

Deadlifts, that's why. There's nothing more "foundational" than picking something up off the ground.

Exercises in this category are hip-dominant, with a high degree of hip flexion/extension and minimal knee flexion/extension. These will hit your hamstrings harder than your quads, in contrast to the squat.

Common exercises: Deadlift, Romanian deadlift, hip thrust, swings.

SINGLE LEG

Unilateral training (both upper and lower body) is underrated AF and often neglected, which is a shame because unilateral training is the key to a robust and resilient body, particularly single-leg exercises.

Exercises in this category follow the same formula as the squat pattern, but now you're using only one leg. They will build stability, correct imbalances, and allow you to lift more in your squat and deadlift.

Crazy stuff, I know.

Common exercises: Lunge, reverse lunge, split squat, rear foot elevated split squat, box step up, pistol squat

UPPER BODY PUSH

How much ya bench?

Upper body push exercises build boulder shoulders and rock-hard chesticles, which is why they're seen as the holy grail of lifting.

Now I think UB push exercises kick ass but remember that they're only ONE piece of the puzzle when sculpting your physique.

Exercises in this category can be broken further into vertical push and horizontal push. These work your pecs, delts, and triceps.

Common horizontal exercises: Bench press, floor press, push-up
Common vertical exercises: Seated press, strict press, push press

UPPER BODY PULL

Spending the majority of our days hunched over a desk doesn't do our body any favours. Our shoulders slump forward, and our necks start to hurt.

The cure? More pull!

I'm inclined to prescribe a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing.

Again, exercises in this category can be broken further into vertical pulls and horizontal pulls. These work your lats, traps, rear delts, and biceps.

Common horizontal exercises: Bent over row, chest supported row, ring row
Common vertical exercises: Pull-up, chin-up, lat pulldown

LOADED CARRIES (& EVERYTHING ELSE)

Do you want a strong core? Lift something heavy and walk for distance.

Look at a farmer's physique. All they do is toss bails of hay around and they are fucking JACKED (obviously, this is not all they do, but trying to prove a point).

Loaded carries have the added benefit of undoing the stress that is placed upon your posture while sitting at a desk and driving to and from work.

Everything else is accessory work.

This includes planks for anti-extension, a half-kneeling Pallof press for anti-rotation, or hammer curls and tricep extensions for arm care. Use "everything else" to shore up deficiencies and add a bit of fun.

Common exercises: Farmer’s carry, overhead carry, offset carry, sled push/pull, plank, Pallof press, sit-up, hanging knee raise

TRAINING FREQUENCY AND SPLITS

Training frequency is how often you'd like to train per week. Usually, this is either 3, 4, or 5 times per week and, in exceptional circumstances, 2 or 6 times per week.

A training split is how you "split" the work you need to do throughout the week.

Decide on a training frequency that fits your life first, and this guide will steer you towards the right split.

Remember, being consistent matters far more than the frequency and split you decide to do.

TRAINING 2-3X PER WEEK

This is my preferred frequency for busy professionals and true beginners who have limited time and can only get into the gym 2-3 times per week.

Even though you're spending less time in the gym, the workouts themselves tend to be longer.

Effective Split: Full Body
  • This is precisely how it sounds. You won't be hitting specific body parts or movements and each workout will be designed to work the whole body, head to toe.

TRAINING 4X PER WEEK

This is another favorite frequency of mine because it allows for a ton of customization and shorter workouts than 3x week.

It's still doable for most intermediate to advanced lifters who are busy but want to kick things up a notch.

Effective Split: Upper-Lower
  • This split separates the work into "upper body" and "lower-body", usually with two days for the upper body and two days for the lower body.
  • Program in terms of your main lifts and don't fret too much if the lower priority accessory work isn't upper or lower. But be purposeful in your selection.
  • For example, if Monday is a Lower Body Strength day, I might program a variation of the squat and maybe some single-leg work that will help improve my squat. But if tomorrow is an Upper Body Strength day, I may throw in some push-ups on Monday to prime my body for Tuesday's bench press.
  • Core work is free game for any of the days, so take a look at your week and program appropriately.
Effective Split: Push-Pull
  • This split separates the work into "push" movemement patterns and "pull" movement patterns.
  • "Push" days will emphasize quads, glutes, pecs, triceps, and anterior delts because these muscles are used heavily when performing "push" type exercises, such as squats, lunges, bench presses, overhead presses, and tricep extensions.
  • "Pull" days will emphasize hamstrings, glutes, lats, traps, biceps, and rear delts because these muscles are used heavily when performing "pull" type exercises, such as deadlifts, chin-ups, bent over rows, hamstring curls, and bicep curls.
  • I've personally never programmed Push-Pull. Hammering legs 4 times per week wouldn't be optimal for increasing strength due to the lack of recovery in between days.

TRAINING 5-6X PER WEEK

I won't spend much time discussing these frequencies.

Unless you're a bodybuilder, these frequencies are not overly effective or realistic when playing the long game–too much volume and too little recovery for the average person.

Effective Split: Body Part Split
  • This split separates the work into individual body parts.
  • Useful for bodybuilders and advanced lifters, who also have the time to hit the gym 5-6 times per week and spend a shitload of time recovering.

EXERCISE SELECTION AND ORDER

Now, we're getting into the nitty-gritty of what you'll be doing in the gym.

You can use some creativity here as you gain increased knowledge of specific exercises and their intended purpose.

First, allow me to explain the difference between training for strength and training for hypertrophy.

STRENGTH VERSUS HYPERTROPHY

Training for strength will get you STRONG AF.

In my opinion, everybody should aim to get stronger. There is no downside.

To gain strength, you'll want to train with loads that are closer to your maximum potential, which means you'll be moving heavier loads for fewer repetitions.

Training for hypertrophy will grow those muscles and get you SWOLE.

To build muscle, train with loads that become challenging around the 6-12 repetition range. This is because muscle growth responds better to a higher volume of work.

Note: These goals are not mutually exclusive. If you're getting stronger, you're going to build muscle and if you're building muscle, you're going to get stronger.

To summarize:

  • Strength is 1-5 repetitions with high load
  • Hypertrophy is 6-12 repetitions with moderate to high load

Okay, let's break down what goes into an individual workout:

POWER EXERCISES

These exercises are performed at the beginning of the workout because they require the highest level of skill and concentration, which is most affected by fatigue.

Power exercises focus on speed and rate of force development.

Except for some basic power movements, they are usually reserved for athletes or people who have been training for a few years.

Common Exercises: Snatch, hang clean, power clean, med ball slam, med ball toss, depth jump, lateral bound

PRIORITY EXERCISES

Priority exercises are the meat and potatoes of your workout.

They are the most important piece in your program and consist of compound movements that target large muscle areas (chest, back, legs) and multiple joints (knee, hip, shoulder, elbow).

Generally, these exercises focus more on building strength, which means you'll be lifting a higher load for less repetitions. These are HEAVY and should only consist of 1-2 exercises for the day.

Common Exercises: Back squat, bench press, overhead press, trap bar deadlift

ASSISTANCE EXERCISES

Assistance exercises are great for developing structural balance and hypertrophy.

They focus on more volume, which means you'll be lifting a moderate load for more repetitions. This will help avoid taxing your body too much after performing heavy strength-focused exercises.

Assistance exercises consist of 2-4 exercises for the day.

Common Exercises: Reverse lunge, half-kneeling kettlebell press, lat pull-down, goblet squat, Romanian deadlift

Some ways to incorporate these into your workout:

  • Unilateral training (single-leg or single-arm) will help create more balance in your body and will get you breathing heavy without using an extreme load. Your spine will thank you.
  • Supersets or compound sets. Supersets involve performing two exercises sequentially with opposing muscle groups: a bicep curl and a tricep extension. Compound sets involve performing two exercises sequentially with the same muscle group: a barbell bicep curl followed by a dumbbell hammer curl. These sets allow you to squeeze in more volume in less time.

ACCESSORY EXERCISES

This is where you get your core work and other corrective exercises done.

Accessory exercises include higher repetitions in the 12-20 rep range and isometric exercises for time or distance that help build muscle endurance.

These usually make up 1-3 exercises for the day and can also be included in the warm-up.

Common Exercises: Farmer’s carry, plank, side plank, half-kneeling Pallof press, GHD back extensions, hammer curls, lying tricep extensions

TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

All this information means fuck all if we don't apply it to our program design and do the work.

There are a million possible ways to design a million different programs that can be equally effective. So, for this article, I'm going to focus on the most relevant splits, which is 3-4x per week and 5-6 exercises per day.

Exercise #1

  • Strength-focused (heavy)
  • 3-5 Sets
  • 1-5 Repetitions
  • Rest 2-3 Minutes
  • Exception would be Power exercises because these should be performed before anything else.

Exercises #2 and #3

  • Strength or hypertrophy-focused
  • 2-4 Sets
  • 8-10 Repetitions
  • Rest 1-2 Minutes

Exercises #4 and #5

  • Hypertrophy-focused
  • 2-4 Sets
  • 10-12 Repetitions
  • Rest 60-90 Seconds

Exercise #6

  • Core or accessory
  • 2-3 Sets
  • 12-15 Repetitons or For Time (Isometrics) or For Distance (Carries)
  • Rest 30-60 Seconds

SAMPLE FULL BODY SPLIT

A. Front Squat

5, 4, 4, 3 Reps, Rest 2 Minutes

B1. Single Arm DB Bench Press

8-10 Reps Per Side, Rest 30 Seconds

B2. Chest-Supported DB Row

8-10 Reps, Rest 60 Seconds, 3 Sets

C1. Box Step Ups

10-12 Reps, Rest 30 Seconds

C2. Nordic Hamstring Curls

10-12 Reps, Rest 60 Seconds, 3 Sets

D. Band Resisted Deadbug

15 Reps Per Side, Rest 30 Seconds, 3 Sets

I hope this article has shed light on what an effective strength training program might look like for you.

The principles are the foundation that smart strength training programs are built upon, and understanding and internalizing these principles will never fail you.

Don't spend your time trying come up with the "best training program" because it doesnt exist.

Practice, gauge your results, assess how you feel, and use these principles to guide you.

Let the gains begin.

physical health

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