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Gym Program Design: You're Doing It Wrong

Gym Program Design: You’re Doing It Wrong

Written by
July 22, 2016
Updated January 10, 2022
Category: Fitness

Anyone that has been training for any length of time has probably used and written a thousand different gym program designs. Some to get strong, some to cut up, some to gain mass, blah, blah, blah…

In the end, however, pretty much everyone, myself included, has most likely been designing their programs wrong. Sure there is probably a nicer way to say it, but it’s true.

Most programs aren’t made to last more than a week and the lengthy ones are so rigid that if you missed a day the entire universe would collapse.

First, let’s discuss a few basic program design methods and where they go wrong, then we’ll get into a better way. On one end of the spectrum is a completely random program.

Some people call this muscle confusion. The problem is that they are usually the ones that are confused. I’m not talking about variety but random, hard, shit programs that end in someone puking or getting hurt.

Many professional trainers are guilty of this. It does’t matter if the program is really hard, what matters is whether or not it produces results. Variety defineitly needs to be included, but systematically.

If you are ever around a guy that gets off on crushing their clients, run far, far away.

The other end of the spectrum would be the rigid, long-term, linear periodized programs and straight block programs. Simply put, these would look like the bastardized Eastern Block programs of the 1980’s.

Right now I’m raising my hand to freely admit these were what I used to design my early powerlifting programs. I sometimes had my poundages calculated a year in advance.

I could almost never follow these programs for any length of time, as I often overtrained, and I never accounted for any of life’s little bumps such as illness, injury, or my girlfriends dumping me.

The other big problem with this type of program is that as you tapered your training you would loose some of the great attributes you developed along the way.

You would lose a ton of the mass you gained in the beginning of the program and any kind of endurance you built would be gone as well. I can remember thinking my squat is awesome if I could only walk up a flight of stairs without having a coronary. Fear not, there is hope!

There is absolutely more than one way to write a great program but this method has worked extremely well for my clients and myself. If you need to label what I will outline in this article I would say that it is similar to a non-linear or undulating periodization.

That is just a complicated way of building in systematic change. I can honestly say I have made great gains since I have changed to this method of program design.

In addition, I have not had any major injuries nor have I exhibited the symptoms of overtraining. Another big plus is that the variety makes this type of training quite fun.

Imagine that achieving the training outcomes you seek are like putting coins in a jar. Assuming that you stay injury free and life doesn’t throw you any curveballs (Big if!) you fill up your jar rather quickly. This is you making great gains at first then hitting a major plateau.

Aside from microscopic gains thereafter, you have gotten pretty much all of that particular attribute out of your body. Some of you might argue that you will just switch gears and train for something else or just switch around some exercises.

That sounds a lot like the block periodization programs we already decided were more likely to lead to injury and/or overtraining. In addition, how will you hold on to the gains you made if you really change things around?

Now, imagine you have three separate jars. Every training session you throw a coin into a jar. True, it will take you longer to fill your jars but eventually you will. Now you have three full jars or three nearly maximized training outcomes.

For the majority of us that are no longer concerned about a four pound difference in our bench press we are leaner, bigger, faster, and have a more well rounded arsenal of strength and power.

To design your own long-term, multi-outcome program you will need to include specific goals, flexibility, variety, and keep it really simple.

Gym Program Design: You're Doing It Wrong

Gym Program Design Rule #1: Goal setting

Keep the end in mind. What I mean by that is that you will need to have more than your immediate goal clearly defined. You will want to know where the entire program is heading. Not just next week or next month, but the end game. Where do you want to ultimately be.

For those of you that can’t decide what to order for breakfast, let alone what your lifelong training goals are, you will need to pick one or two long term attributes which you desire to obtain.

Are you after maximum strength in a particular lift, basic overall performance strength like that of a grappler, muscular endurance, mass, etc…

Gym Program Design Rule #2: Flexibility

The second condition for designing a kick-ass, long-term program is flexibility. I can’t tell you how many times I was forced to take a day off from training only to have it royally screw up my training. If you miss a day with this program you just pick up where you left off.

Barring serious injury or illness, strive to get in three or four training sessions per week, but don’t be afraid to miss a day when you need it. Listen to your body and give it the optimal stress recovery so that you can make optimal gains.

Gym Program Design Rule #3: Variety

Third, you will want to build in variety. If you are training for multiple attributes, then variety is really very simple. Each training session should have a theme. Assuming these outcomes are not in conflict they should be relatively similar.

For example, when simultaneously training for strength and power you might use similar lifts such as kettlebell snatches and cleans. Strength day might involve heavy three repetition maximum (3RM) lifts.

Power day might utilize many low repetition sets of light moderate weight. If you needed to add muscular endurance or HIIT just set aside a training day for that. (I recommend, however, never training for more than three attributes at any one time.)

Gym Program Design Rule #4: Simplicity

Fourth, keep it simple. If you start with the basic premise that your body will respond specifically to what you do to it, then it is really very easy to train for a specific training outcome or multiple outcomes. Start with the basics.

If you want to be strong to lift heavy objects, then build in heavy work. If you want to be able to move explosively again and again, then build in power-endurance work such as high repetition kettlebell snatches.

If you desire to be able to maintain a near maximal heart rate for an extended period, make sure you include high intensity interval training (HIIT). The best programs are simple.

Over the years I have come to believe that the surest way to screw up a good strength training program is to overcomplicate it. Simple programs, when performed with enough intensity, volume, variety, and proper recovery, will produce the best results.

The more complicated you make it, the more likely something will go wrong.

Gym Program Design Rule #5: Long-term

Last, think about the big picture. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest craze or to try a program because some jacked guy uses it. Follow the few basic training design programs listed in this article, find out what works for you, and stay the course.

Sure, you’ll want to mix things up once in a while (I recommend changing out some of the auxiliary exercises few weeks) but the foundational program should stay the same as long as your goals haven’t changed.

Just to recap. Define your goal or goals. Be flexible in taking days off and listen to your body. Build in variety. Keep is simple. Last, think long-term. Sure, mixed training programs produce mixed results, but isn’t that a good thing?

Very few sports are pure except in cases such as powerlifting, sprinting, and endurance. Most things demand a variety of attributes that are necessary year round, at a moment’s notice, and require the individual to maintain great overall strength and fitness.

By making frequent, but systematic changes in your training variables you can not only make great long-term gains, but you will also be less likely to overtrain and get injured. In addition, you will be able to tap into different types of strength all while maintaining great stamina and endurance.

Part 2 this article will outline a multi-objective plan include a sample training program.

Alex Zinchenko is a personal strength trainer, strength athlete, fitness information provider, founder and owner of The goal of Rough Strength is to provide fitness information and help other people in reaching their health and fitness goals rough. And by 'rough' I mean without any luxuries and conveniences. Pure raw strength is of course the number one priority.
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