If you have serious fitness goals, following a quality training program can be the difference between great progress and constantly hitting disappointing plateaus. One of the wonderful things about the internet is that by doing a quick Google search, you can have immediate access to a multitude of different exercise programs. The programs range in price from free to hundreds of dollars. Conversely, the downside of having all of these options available is that it can be hard to pick the right one. It may be tempting to purchase that program that is really well-marketed and costs only $13.99, but what are the chances that you’ll progress consistently towards achieving your goals? It may be hard to fathom spending $100+ on another program that’s less gimmicky and maybe not as fun looking. In this blog post, I will go into detail about what to look for when trying to find a program that’s tailored to your needs. By the time you’ve completed reading, you should have a much better understanding of what makes up a quality program, along with red flags that can help you steer clear of wasting your time and money on a bad program.
There is no such thing as a perfect program. If you’re a beginner, you can follow almost any program and get results. Any training stimulus is novel to your body, and it’s difficult not to experience at least some improvements from following any program. However, there is certainly a hierarchy of programs available, and finding and sticking to a quality one will result in better progress. If you’re more experienced, finding a good program is even more important. If you follow the wrong one, not only will you not make progress, but you may even regress, get injured or overtrain. Many program creators have all the intentions of creating a quality one, they just don’t have the prerequisite knowledge on how to do it. Others have the knowledge but are either lazy or lack the integrity required to provide quality information. These are usually the most dangerous programs to follow. Fortunately, there are plenty of great coaches and trainers out there that create incredibly effective programs. These programs, although they may be quite different, generally share many of the same qualities. This blog post will explain 11 qualities to look for in a good program. If your program includes most or all of them, you can bet that you’re on the right track.
Bonus: You Can See What You’re Getting Into Before You Purchase
The first indicator of a quality program is the professionalism of the program creator. Does the person have integrity? Do they provide free, quality information on their social media and website? Do they even have a website? If so, how does the website look? These can all be indicators of whether or not you should proceed further. Before you purchase the program, you want to ensure that it is conducive to your own personal goals. Obviously, if your goal is to gain muscle, you don’t want to be purchasing a running or crossfit program. To help the potential buyer make an informed decision on whether or not to buy the program, the program creator should include a brief but detailed description for each specific program they have available. At minimum, this description should include the duration of the program, what the specific fitness goal the program is aimed towards (muscle gain, powerlifting, crossfit, tactical conditioning, marathon running etc.), the experience level required to complete the program, how long each workout should take, how many days per week you’ll be training, the format of the program (PDF, word doc, app, etc.), and the equipment you’ll need to have access to. If one or more of these details are not included, there's a chance you could purchase a program that you’re unable to follow. If these details are present, and you meet the prerequisites, you’ll then have to look at the price. Many people will search for the cheapest programs available. This is often a mistake. Good trainers and coaches understand the value they provide to their clients, and also how much time and effort they put into writing a quality, effective program. Because of this, they tend to charge more money for their service. Other trainers will take an hour or two to throw together some random exercises on a word document, call it a program, and put it on sale for $9.99 and hope to gain revenue from selling it in mass quantities. I recommend thinking twice before purchasing one of these. When you break down the numbers, A 16 week program that costs $80 is literally $5 per week. If you have lifetime access to this program, you can follow it more than once, and the price per week drops significantly. If you were to hire a 1 on 1 personal trainer in a big box gym, a single session would cost over $100. Keep that in mind when you see a higher proceed program. Once you’ve decided to purchase your program, you should look for the following 10 things to ensure that it’s right for you.
#1 The program layout
The layout of the program should be aesthetically pleasing and easy to follow. If you’re always getting lost or confused when trying to find what exercises you should be doing on a given day, the likelihood of you being consistent decreases. I personally think that PDFs and App formats are the most professional and easy to follow. I put my programs on a PDF because it enables the client to either follow along on their phone, OR print it off and have a hard copy. If your program is on a plain white word document, it may be an indicator that the program designer is lazy. I’m as technologically challenged as they come, and I still refuse to settle for writing my programs on a word doc. I’m lucky enough to have a very technologically savvy wife, but if i didn't, I'd rather put in the time to figure out how to get my program into pdf or app format, or I’d hire someone to do it for me. Although it may seem like a minor detail, the ability to follow along with the program without confusion could be the difference in how consistent you’ll be.
#2 The Program Structure
A good training program should be broken down into phases. Your body adapts quite quickly to certain stimuli, and if you’re doing the same exercises for the same amount of reps at the same intensity throughout the entire program, your progress will be disappointing. Changing exercises every 3-6 weeks will ensure that you continue to progress. Good coaches and trainers will phase their programs accordingly so that you can experience a novel stimulus before your body becomes adapted. If your program is 20 weeks long and not broken into phases, rest assured you will be leaving progress on the table.
#3 The Training Split
The workout split, or which body parts you’ll be training each day, is very important for any muscle or strength gain goal. For the purpose of this post, I will be talking about a weight lifting split, as other programs like those for running or crossfit do not tend to follow “splits”. For muscle gain, the most effective splits based on experience are as follows: beginners: 3 days/week full body. Intermediates: 4 days/week upper/lower Advanced: 5-6 days per week either upper/lower or push/pull/legs. Elite athletes usually have a personalized coach and program and often tend to split their training differently. AN ill advised split for most people is the bodybuilding “bro split”, where you only train one muscle group each day. This could look something like chest/back/shoulders/legs/arms. Training a muscle group once per week is not ideal for over 99% of trainees. If you’re trying to gain muscle mass, you should train each muscle group at least twice a week, or once every 5 days if you’re older or more advanced. If you’re following a powerlifting program, you should be benching at least twice a week, squatting 1-2 times per week, and deadlifting 1-2 times a week. Unless you’re elite (in which case you likely have your own coach or personalized program), following a powerlifting program without said frequencies of each lift will likely lead to slow or no progress. For muscle gain, hitting each muscle once a week only works well for those with elite genetics, decades of training experience, the help of performance enhancing drugs, or a combination of these three factors.
#4 The Right Exercises for Your Goals
This should go without saying, but you’ll want to ensure that the program you’re about to spend money, time and effort on is one that is in line with your goals. Whether your goal is to just stay strong, fit and healthy, or if you have specific performance (strength, speed, endurance, sports) goals, finding the right program for you as an individual is vital to your success. If you have goals to lose body fat, gain muscle, get stronger, or look better, you’ll want to ensure your program is primarily focused on resistance training. Many people have sadly been led to believe that in order to lose body fat and look better, they need to focus on cardio. While cardio has many many wonderful health benefits, it is one of the worst ways to sustainably lose body fat and improve your physique. As you do more and more cardio, your metabolism slows down and you’ll find yourself either having to drastically cut your calorie intake, or continue to add more and more cardio. This is unsustainable for almost anyone, regardless of your levels of discipline and self control. Resistance training, however, has the exact opposite effect, meaning your metabolic rate will increase, allowing you to eat more over time while improving your physique and not having to rely on large amounts of cardio and activity to burn calories. If your goal is to get into powerlifting, for example, finding a powerlifting-specific program is obviously the best approach. The same can be said for any goal that involves performing in specific exercise modalities. For most people reading this, a great hypertrophy program is the perfect place to start out. I have two programs that work great for sustainably building your metabolism, getting stronger and improving your physique, the Kickstart Program (for novices/beginners or very busy individuals), and the 19 Week Hypertrophy Program (for intermediate to advanced trainees). The big takeaway from this is that you ensure your program is tailored to your individual goals.
#5 The exercise sequencing makes sense for your goals
Exercise sequence, meaning the order in which you perform exercises on a given day, is often overlooked by trainers and coaches when building their programs. This is unfortunate, because aside from poper mechanics and proper recovery, this can be the difference between you getting injured or remaining healthy and progressing consistently in your training. If your program does not have the proper exercise sequencing for each training session (especially for advanced lifters and/or older individuals), you’re putting yourself at risk for either acute injury, or nagging aches and pains throughout the duration of the program. Why can improper exercise sequencing cause injury? Generally speaking, if you’re doing your most high risk lifts at the wrong time during the workout (think squat, bench, deadlifts and all of their variations), your joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons may not be ready to handle whatever load you’re moving at that time. There are three main reasons for this. It can either be due to the fact that you’re not warmed up enough, you’re too fatigued to perform the exercises safely, or you’re using too much weight than you should be for the given exercise. You’ll notice the 1st two points appear to contradict one another, and here’s why. Depending on your experience level, the sequencing of exercises should be different. If you’re a beginner and trying to get stronger and more proficient at big compound lifts, you’ll want to ensure that they are programmed for you to execute at the beginning of your training session (after a good warmup, of course). You have spent less time under heavy loads and your joints and muscles are less degraded from years of stress. Additionally, newer lifters are generally less strong and muscular than more seasoned lifters, so even though they’re performing compound lifts, their relative load will likely be far lighter. However, as you become more advanced, and especially as you get older (past the age of 30 or so), doing your bigger, heavier compound lifts should occur in the middle, or even towards the end of your workout. Unless you’re a strength athlete (powerlifter, strongman, Olympic weightlifter etc.) starting your workout with, say, heavy deadlifts can be very detrimental to your health and progress. Why is this? If you’ve been lifting weights properly for a long period of time (over a decade), your joints and connective tissues have experienced quite a bit of stress under heavy load. While compound lifts are still the best options for muscle and strength, even for older and more experienced lifters, doing them after a few sets of less intense, lighter loaded isolation movements will pose two very important benefits. Firstly, you’re warmed up, and you have plenty of blood flow to the working muscles and joints. And second, you’ll be forced to use lighter loads than you would if you did them first in the training session. Let’s use squats as an example. Let’s imagine that you can usually squat 315 for 4 sets of 8 if you were to perform them as the first exercise in the workout. This may be perfectly safe for you to do today, next week, or even next month. But over time, you may find your knees or lower back start to ache a bit the next day or 2. Most of us lift weights to improve our daily life, so having nagging aches and pains is the exact opposite of our goals. But imagine if you had started your workout with 2 or 3 sets of leg extensions, hamstring curls, lunges and single leg RDLs. No you’re very warmed up, and perhaps even somewhat fatigued. Since you’re a seasoned experienced lifter, and not an ego-lifter, you no longer care about how much weight you can squat (and you know that no one else in the gym does either), and you load the bar with 275 lbs instead of 315 for your sets of squats. You’ve gotten just as much leg stimulation because you’ve already trained them with other exercises beforehand, and you have far less weight on your back compressing your spine and tracing your joints. You complete the workout and leave the gym better than you did beforehand. You can wake up tomorrow and go for a long hike if you wanted with no pain and less fatigue. If you’re an average person who wants to be consistently fit and healthy, this should be your goal. Keeping this in mind before you dive into a program will help you stay motivated, healthy, and consistent all while providing you with the best results possible.
#6 Exercise Substitutions
Because everyone has different needs, goals, abilities, and equipment access, a good program must provide the trainee with options for exercise substitutions. No matter how great a program is, it’s inevitable that it will include at least some exercises that some people can’t perform. Giving the trainee other options of similar exercises to the ones prescribed will allow them to tailor the program to fit their needs. For example, not everyone is capable of doing deadlifts, whether it’s because they have an injury, movement restriction, or lack of access to the necessary equipment for deadlifts. Instead of them having to search for another option on Google that they can sub in for deadlifts, the program should provide this information for them. This eliminates the guesswork and makes the program easier and less of a hassle to follow. The same can be said for any movement. If you’re following a program with no options for exercise substitutions, your likelihood of staying consistent decreases drastically. The best programs have an “exercise substitution library”, where the trainee can find the specific movement he or she cannot perform, and easily find something to replace it with.
#7 Appropriate Amount of Training Volume
Your program should have the right amount of volume for your goals and experience level. For the purpose of this blog post, this paragraph refers to a hypertrophy-centric program. Literature has shown across the board that for hypertrophy (muscle growth), there is a certain number of sets per muscle group, per week that is most effective. The range is quite large, and like most things in fitness, can also depend on experience levels. For muscle growth in particular (not necessarily strength increases), this range is 12-20 sets per week, per muscle group. The sets and reps you perform per over a day or week is called volume. For hypertrophy training, volume is usually calculated by sets (hence the 12-20). Although muscles can grow from training in any rep range, it’s widely agreed upon that 6-20 reps per set is the most conducive range. For strength progression, it’s important to calculate sets, reps, and weight because making strength gains, especially for more experienced lifters, actually requires far more precise and individualized programming than that of hypertrophy programming. If you’re a beginner, while you can still make great progress with less than 12 sets per muscle group per week, I prefer programming more volume (at least more sets, but further from failure) for beginners so they can develop the neurological pathways (aka skill) of certain movements through more practice. It’s also a common belief that advanced lifters require more volume in order to continue growing. While this may work for some, I like to recommend moderate volume, and training in close proximity to failure (high intensity) for more advanced lifters especially as they age. You’ll also have to account for the fatigue distribution of certain exercises, especially those which work the lower body. If you tried to perform 20 sets of quads, 20 sets of hamstrings, 20 sets of glutes, and 20 sets of calves each week, and trained with any semblance of intensity, you’d be wrecked (even if you were on PEDs). A more sensible approach is cutting those numbers in half (plus or minus) so you’re doing 10ish sets for each of the muscle groups (calves and quads can usually handle more). Keep in mind that although some exercises are mainly focused on one muscle group, there are other muscles that also receive stimulus as well. This is referred to as indirect volume. For example, the dumbbell chest press is primarily a chest exercise, but the front delts and triceps are also assisting in the movement, and therefore are receiving indirect volume. If your program has 20 sets of mostly compound chest movements, having 20 additional sets of tricep or front delt isolation movements would be overkill. In summary, if a hypertrophy program has 20+ sets of volume per muscle group, per week, you’re probably going to burn out, get injured, or at best not make any progress. If your program has fewer than 12 sets (unless you’re very advanced, it’s a personalized program and most sets are at or close to failure), you’ll likely maintain your current levels of muscle and strength and avoid injury, but you’re leaving progress on the table.
#8 Properly Distributed Volume for Each Muscle Group
Now that you’ve ensured your program has realistic volume prescriptions for your goals, you’ll want to ensure the exercises programmed are appropriate in the way they’re distributed. Generally speaking, the program should have about the same amount of push exercises (chest, triceps, front deltoids) as pull exercises (all back muscle groups, rear delts, biceps), and approximately the same amount of posterior leg exercises (glutes, hamstrings) as anterior leg exercises (quads). Because most people have overdeveloped pushing muscles, and the back muscles can generally handle more volume than most other muscle groups, a good program will likely have slightly more pulling volume than pushing volume. Additionally, many people will have overdeveloped quads compared to their hamstrings and glutes, and although the quads can generally recover from more volume than the hamstrings, a good program will have the volume evenly distributed or slightly in favor of the posterior legs compared to the anterior legs. There are other muscle groups in the body that can handle relatively more volume in general. These include the calves, quads, glutes, delts, arms and upper back. Good programs should either account for this in the exercise prescriptions, or allow the trainee to have an optional “focus day” (as seen in my 19 Week Hypertrophy program) where they can add extra volume to muscle groups they want to improve. Muscles that need more volume are commonly the calves and arms for men, and the glutes for women. Ways to add more volume include some extra sets at the end of some of your workouts, or an entire extra training session dedicated solely to your lagging body parts. Another important aspect of a program is that the upper and lower body exercises are evenly distributed. If the program has 4 upper body days and only 1 lower body day, you should probably look for a new program. A good hypertrophy program should include 2-3 upper body days per week and 2-3 lower body days. Examples of effective splits on a 5-6 day/week (intermediate to advanced) program are:
-push/pull/legs x2 with rest on day 7
On a 3-4 day/week program:
full body 3-4 days/week
push/rest/pull/rest/legs/push/rest (rotate each week so that you train the push, pull, or legs twice in a week every 3 weeks, so week 1, push is trained twice, week 2 pull, and week 3 legs).
If cardio is part of the program, make sure it’s not excessive, or poorly timed. For example, you should not do hill sprints the day before a heavy lower body workout. Additionally, unless your goals are endurance performance focused, you should spend a maximum of half the time per week doing cardio as you do lifting. So if you’re in the gym doing resistance training 5 hours per week, you’ll spend no more than 2.5 hours per week on cardio. 80-90% of your cardio should be done at a moderate to low intensity. To summarize, a good program includes evenly distributed volume between lower and upper body muscle groups and allows adequate time to recover from each training session.
#9 There Is Consistency In the Exercises so You Can Track Progress Effectively
Many programs attract buyers and followers because they're unique, fun looking, or unconventional. They keep the trainee guessing by providing a variety of different fun and unique workouts in hopes to eliminate boredom. While following this type of programming is better than sitting on the couch and doing nothing, you’re leaving tons of progress and results on the table. The body adapts to the stimulus of resistance training over time, but changing the exercises, reps, and workouts each day or each week is far too frequent. Doing so makes it nearly impossible to track progress whatsoever. There is a difference between working out and training. If you have no desire to achieve tangible progress goals, you may benefit from a program like this. If you want to see progress and get better results, however, you should ensure the program you’re following emphasizes consistency in it’s exercise and rep range prescription for at least 3-6 weeks at a time. This enables the trainee to track progress, develop skill adaptations to certain movements and exercises for weeks at a time. Then, before you fully adapt and your progress stalls (known as a plateau), you’ll switch to different exercises, different rep ranges, different intensity techniques like supersets or drop sets, varying rest time between exercises, or a combination of all of them. If your program is split into multiple different phases that each have consistent exercises, intensity techniques and rep ranges, you know you’ve found a program where you can effectively measure your progress. If your program “keeps the body guessing” by changing things up constantly, I'd suggest searching for a new one.
#10 Intensity and/or Effort Prescriptions
Just telling a trainee to do a certain exercise for a certain amount of reps and sets can lead to great progress if the trainee is knowledgeable and experienced. For inexperienced and beginner trainees, however, it can lead to lackluster progress. If the program doesn’t provide any sort of guidelines for intensity (how hard or easy each set or each exercise should be), how are you supposed to know what your intent is for that training session? For beginner programs, the best way to prescribe intensity is by using a % effort-based approach. Telling a beginner to perform a lift for 3 sets of 10 is not enough. Providing them with a % effort they should shoot for will ensure they're actually putting enough stimulus on a muscle. For beginners, anything from 70-90% intensity is generally a good ballpark. Most noobie and less experienced trainees tend to undershoot their intensity because they don’t necessarily know what “hard” feels like yet. Although they’ll still likely see some results because they’re inexperienced, if they know they need to put in a certain percentage of effort into each set or each workout, it will help them make far better progress. For more advanced lifters, an RPE (rate of perceived exertion) or RIR (reps in reserve) is a great approach. It’s also important that intermediate and advanced lifting programs have increasing intensity week to week (often followed by a deload following the highest intensity week). This enables the lifter to remain healthy, motivated, and progressing as best they can while avoiding the potential burnout or injuries that can accompany training too hard too often. If you want to maximize progress as much as possible, ensuring your program has intensity prescriptions is a must.
Not all programs are created equal. Some are cheap, some are more expensive. Some are visually appealing, some are basic and plain. Some will result in client success, some disappointment. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. My goal is to make people aware of what to look for when deciding which program to purchase and follow. If your program is missing one of these 10 things, chances are you’ll still see results. Sadly, you’ll find many programs out there missing most or all of them. I hope that by reading this blog post and applying it when you’re choosing a program for your fitness goals you can avoid the disappointment, or at worst, injuries that can accompany a poor program.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What do you look for in a program? Which of my tips are ones you’ve never considered? Do you prefer writing your own programs or following someone else's?