3 Golden Rules of Strength Programming
Strength programming can often be a headache to learn for the very first time.
Most generally aren’t sure where to start, and doing basic internet homework only makes the problem worse. There’s often so many different ideologies being presented to you at once, and somehow all of them claim that they are the best and ONLY way to program.
Despite what some online coaches may want you to think. There are a thousand and one ways to do this, and they all have the potential to work. While strength training programs can look drastically different from one another, any good program will follow some basic fundamentals.
So long as these basic fundamentals are in place in some way, shape, or form, you will have the beginning structure for a sound program.
1. Stay Specific
Specificity rules the entire creation process of a program.
Basically every question you have, “what exercises do I pick”, “how many sets?”, “how many reps?”, etc. can be answered by being specific to whatever goal it is you have in mind.
This is why it’s important to establish at the very beginning of program creation what your goal is. Going even further than that you want to narrow that goal down to something clear and refined.
The most common programming error you’ll see from someone building a program for the first time is they are trying to be too many things at once.
They have power lifting principles, interspersed with pure hypertrophy training, interspersed with a completely different side skill like Olympic weightlifting. Oh and apparently they want to medal in their age group in the upcoming local marathon. Got it.
“May I present to you my powerbuilderwhoaslooccasionallyolyliftsandkind’vewantstobeastrongmanandmaybedoatriathlonontheside V3.0 program”
One of the biggest band-aids you have to rip off early if you want to get good at programming is you can’t have the best of everything wrapped up in a single program.
Every program ever made will have pros and cons.
Take power lifting programming for example. Ideally, good power lifting programming will get you really strong at performing 1 maximal rep for the squat, bench, and dead lift. Unfortunately, what this programming will usually lack is substantial hypertrophy progress.
Same thing could be said about a bodybuilding/hypertrophy program. Ideally, this style of programming with higher volume and frequency will build up a whole bunch of muscle. However, lack of practice at low rep high intensity lifts leaves the con of a bodybuilding programming being decreased strength performance.
This is OKAY!
The reason a true “powerbuilder” program can’t exist is because it’s two opposite goals with adaptations that both require a different stimulus to achieve. Trying to do both at the same time is like pulling your body in two different directions at once.
You will always see faster and more consistent progress when you have 1 clear and focused goal. If that goal is strength focus on building strength. If that goal is hypertrophy, focus on building some muscle.
When you do see those “powerbuilder” programs pop up, understand that, yes they will work. However, you are subjecting yourself to slow “middle of the road” progress focusing on multiple goals at once.
This doesn’t mean if you train strength you can never train hypertrophy again or vice versa. (In fact training of each is beneficial to the other). Just focus on one at a time.
When you hear a power lifter talk about their training they will mention “oh I’m focusing on hypertrophy right now”, or “yeah I’m in meet prep right now”. They are cycling in specific programming for specific periods. Not just trying to drive up progress in all areas at the same exact time.
2. Progressive Overload
Following right up behind specificity in importance level is “progressive overload”.
Put simply, progressive overload just means that, over time, you are requiring more “work” from your muscles.
This could be in the form of added weight on the bar, added sets to a training day, added training days in general, harder exercise variations, you name it. There’s a lot of ways to progressively overload yourself.
Basically, as long as your program has some system in place to progressively overload your muscles, to some extent, the program is going to work.
Hopefully that takes some pressure off you yeah?
Where people tend to mess this up is they solely focus on “adding weight to the bar” as their source of progressive overload. This works for beginners who are consistently able to add weight, but for an intermediate using “weight on the bar” as your only metric can leave you frustrated and feeling light your not making any progress.
Consider other variables that could add to your progressive overload. As an example, say you complete 5 sets of 5 reps at 100lbs one week with 5 minute rest intervals. The next week you come back next and complete the same reps and sets at the same weight but this time with 4 minute rest intervals. You just progressively overloaded yourself. While weight on the bar didn’t change, you demanded your muscles do the same “work” in a shorter amount of time.
Don’t just get stuck on the absolute weight on the bar.
Another common question you’ll see is “how do I know how many reps and sets to do?”
While this is in part determined by specificity as we talked about above, everything else can be determined by this basic idea. You want just enough work that acts as a stimulus to create the desired adaptation you are looking for.
This means if you are currently a beginner and seeing progress squatting, benching, and dead lifting just once a week you can chill there. When that stops being a good enough stimulus you add more work. Maybe you add a few more sets to your workout, or you add an additional day to up your training frequency with the lifts.
You are essentially just riding out the least amount of work you need to do until it stops working. Yes, written out like that this sounds lazy but it’s for a reason.
This serves two functions, first it gives us a route to sustainable progress over the long term. If you start a beginner out squatting 7 days a week you don’t have too many options to progress from there.
Second, it keeps injury risk down to a minimum. Despite what people will usually spout about your poor technique, muscular imbalances, or lack of mobility (blah, blah, blah) causing your injuries, the most common way you’ll see someone injure themselves is simply by doing too much too soon.
By keeping ourselves limited to that “just enough” stipulation in terms of workload we minimize the chance of overreaching with our training. Where this can get dicey is when you have a competitive athlete, where you will want to push up right a long that line just before reaching “too much” training to maximize their performance. But from a strictly “sustainable” standpoint if the current workload you are using is working, just stay there.
Obviously the more advanced you get the more complex this will have to become and the more creative you have to get. There’s only so many times you can just add another training day, or add another set.
Many people will look to “maxout” their training program from the get go. They want to be hardcore and train as much as physically possible, and as hard as physically possible.
I would urge against this.
It’s an excellent way to burn out and end up resenting an otherwise great sport. It’s much more impressive to me to watch someone quietly build themselves up consistently over the years than it is to watch someone #SENDIT for a whopping 5 years then complain about their mangled body and how they “just aren’t the same as they used to be”.
A lot of this will come down to what’s called “individual response to training”. Meaning what works well for one person may not work at all for another. That’s why it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty that any given program is going to work for you. These are basic principles. When you start to design really great programs is when you both have these in play AND start to notice patterns of what you respond to best. Maybe your favorite YouTuber swears by dead lifting 3 times a week, but you’ve got personal data supporting 2 times is right for you. Always stick with what works personally to you.