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Fundamentals of Exercise Programme Design

Exercise Programme Design

Training is in constant evolution. The search for bigger, faster, stronger, leaner and healthier never ends and constantly throws up a new approach to exercise programme design.

Ironically, many of these approaches are merely variations on a centuries-old theme. Rather than look snootily down on these re-inventions of old methods, we should look more at what we have learnt this time around, and how new knowledge can improve old methods.

Take resistance training for example. Using a load to progressively increase muscle strength, size and capability is far from a new approach to training. Ancient Greeks, training for their Olympic events used resistance training. Aristotle urged the ancient Greeks to exercise, highlighting the beneficial effects of exercise on health. Armies were formed using strict training regimes and methods written down and passed globally.

According to some sources, the Mongol armies used a form of kettlebell to train with – long before they were claimed as the latest Hollywood fitness craze. The point is, although the barbell may be a relatively new invention, resistance training isn’t.

So where am I going with this? Essentially my point is that although we may be reinventing the methods of the past, we are adding to them all of the time. We are applying new information and knowledge to improve them.

Let’s be honest – there are a handful of movement patterns and ways we can train, so if we were looking for something new every time, the well of ideas would have run dry a long time ago. By this point in time, we are almost exclusively refining previously-used methods, not inventing new ones. The fundamentals of exercise programme design have barely changed.

I have returned from a number of seminars recently, where I listened to Paul Chek and Charles Poliquin, among others. One thing that they had in common (despite many differences in approaches) was the use of whole-body, functional exercises and programmes in a wider fitness setting.

The current trend at the top level of fitness thinking is more towards high-intensity, functional training and away from the more stereotypical body building routines of old. I personally have trained like this for a couple of years now, wishing to focus my gym efforts on all round physical capability rather than specifying strength or size as my primary exercise goal.

exercise programme design, Steve Hoyles, Personal Training Stockport, Personal Training Poynton, Personal Training Wilmslow, Personal Training Alderley Edge, Deadlifting, Weight Training Fitness Weight Loss Exercise Fitness

If we are going to be pedantic, anyone using exercise to improve their physical appearance is by definition, a bodybuilder. Typically, a bodybuilding programme will look to stress the muscles to the physical limit in search for hypertrophy. This type of training is for aesthetic purposes only – nobody trains like a bodybuilder because they want to improve their all-round athletic performance. To the general gym user though, aesthetics is the number one reason for their gym membership anyway, so training like a bodybuilder makes sense, right?

Well not really. According to Paul Chek, most bodybuilders (professional or not) are unhealthy. He cites their training and lifestyle as leaving them suffering from…

  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Stressed internal organs
  • Chronic musculoskeletal pain syndromes
  • Mental/emotional disorders

These may be exaggerations (Paul Chek has his critics when it comes to exaggerating health problems) but if we look at them in detail, I bet they aren’t far off. In the past when I have followed more typical bodybuilding type programmes, I know I have certainly suffered from musculoskeletal pain, and probably stressed internal organs. Common sense dictates a person can’t exist or train with these problems indefinitely, so there comes a point when something has to change.

To clear up the confusion surrounding the term ‘functional’, this is the slightly-edited criteria that are used to categorise exercises as functional.

These criteria are used by Chek himself…

Comparable reflex profile (Righting and Equilibrium reflexes)

When moving across any object, stable (earth) or unstable (surf board), the body uses reflexes to maintain your upright posture. A functional exercise must test the reflex profile. Essentially, balance must be tested.

Maintenance of your center of gravity over your own base of support
Balance is a fundamental life-movement ability. Functional exercises should require the trainer to display balance.

Generalised motor program compatibility

The most functional exercises use movements that have a high carryover to work and sport. The best functional exercises have a relative timing profile similar to many other activities.

Open/closed chain compatibility

If you push against an object and you cannot move it, such as performing a chin-up, the chain (muscles/joints) is closed. When performing a lat pull down you are overcoming the resistance and thus, the chain is open.

Improves relevant biomotor abilities

Each exercise is composed of “biomotor”, or “life-movement,” abilities. According to Bompa, biomotor abilities are strength, power, endurance, flexibility, coordination, balance, agility and speed. An exercise is most functional when the biomotor profile most closely approximates the ability lacking in the athlete’s body or when it most closely resembles the task being trained for.

Isolation to integration

Bodybuilding has plagued athletic training and rehabilitation with the urge to “isolate” muscles and make them BIGGER! It should never be forgotten when trying to improve functional performance, the brain only knows movements, not muscles.

If we are using exercise as a health improvement tool, we need to look beyond pure aesthetics and move more towards function. Slowly, training fashions are moving away from bodybuilding routines and more towards functional routines. Using the description of the functional movements listed above, how can we look to add these into training regimen we follow?

Initially we can look at what Paul Chek refers to as ‘primal movement patterns’. He says there are 7 primal movements…

  • Squat
  • Lunge
  • Bend
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Twist
  • Gait (walk, run, jog)

Here is my son performing a primal movement – the squat, perfectly. He has never been taught this, it is an in-built ability that we all have.

boy squatting, child squat, exercise programme design

From here we can build programmes around these patterns. For now, sets, reps and tempo can be left aside – it is the fundamentals of the programme we are focussed on, not the minor details.

A truly functional programme will cover all of the movement patterns, occasionally with bias towards the movements, skills or abilities lacking in the client. It is common sense to spend more time working on a weakness, and this should always be remembered. If you are fundamentally weak in a particular area and suffer from recurring injuries as a result, not addressing the problem and continuing your usual training regime will be next to useless when it comes to improving your condition on a long term basis.

Fix your problems, don’t patch them up.

The differing needs of individuals is where the bespoke element of exercise programming comes into play. It makes no sense to follow a generic routine if you have particular needs, and looked at closely there are almost certainly muscle imbalances on all of us, meaning tweaking our routines is not only wise, but quite often essential.

When working with individuals on a long term one-to-one basis, lots of decisions have to be made about the programme they will follow – as I have mentioned earlier, this should be specific to them and not ‘one size fits all’ approach.

A trainer has to overcome the ability versus skill obstacle – you have to ensure that the person you are training (be it yourself or a client) has the ABILITY to perform the SKILL you are asking them to do. The reason this is important is because if a personal habitually performs a movement incorrectly, it is very difficult to change at a later date and could lead to chronic injury. Make sure programmes evolve from their most basic starting point.

A good exercise programme will work for the individual on a life level too – not just a fitness level. What movement patterns do they perform on a daily basis? How can you improve this ability using exercise? Can you personalise a programme further than just assuming squats will cover every single example of leg use? Of course. Be creative when adding exercises to programmes – invention is a good thing.

In his lecture, Paul Chek talked about the importance of exercise sequencing. To a relatively well-informed exerciser it may seem obvious to complete the compound exercises before the more individualised work, but many people don’t always follow the advice, starting a work out with bicep curls as a ‘warm up’. The truth is, there is much more to exercise sequencing than just performing compound exercises first. The advice given by Paul Chek was to stick to the following order of importance…

Most to least complex.

A squat and a power clean are both compound movements, but the power clean is far more complex, requiring more muscular and neural recruitment. It is important that the exercises with the most complex movement patterns should be performed earlier in a workout when fatigue is less of an issue. Remember, fatigue affects more than just muscle tissue, so concentration and motor ability are affected in the later stages of an intense workout.

It is very important to remember however, the most important exercises in the programme may not be the most complex so ensure the important exercises feature at a point in the workout when they are not going to be jeopardised by fatigue.

To use Chek’s work as a reference again, he bases all of his client programmes around the same order of progress. He makes sure all of his clients follow the same pattern of development to ensure each stage of their training is based on a solid foundation provided by the work they have completed before. As part of the ‘Chek Success Formula’, all clients will work through the following stages, where he makes sure they are competent at each stage before progressing onto the next one….

1. Flexibility
2. Stability
3. Strength
4. Power

Stretching and core work are two fundamentals to the Chek plan. Paul Chek is the man credited with introducing the Swiss ball to the wider fitness market and turning it into a legitimate training tool.

exercise programme design,, hip flexor stretch, cycling stretches

Regardless of your opinion on ‘core’ strength and exercises, his results and position make him a very difficult man to argue with. If after 30 years, thousands of clients, book sales, seminars, TV demonstrations and a multi-million dollar training programme business he is still basing his work on the original principles, they must be fairly sound!

To conclude, there is no such thing as the perfect programme – there are just programmes that are more effective than others. As I said at the start of the article, training is in constant evolution – that should apply to everyone. You will never have a perfect plan, but you should be looking to make your training as functional and as successful as possible. Move away from your bodybuilding routines – experiment with new methods and really listen to your body.

Exercise should be your tool for a better life, not bigger arms. A well designed plan will improve your physique anyway, but don’t let your strive for body beautiful cause detriment to your overall health.

So, to sum up the fundamentals of exercise programme design, we have to…

  1. Start with a functional programme, not a bodybuilding one.
  2. Follow the 7 primal movements.
  3. Fix your movement problems – work on flexibility and stability.
  4. Sequence your exercises properly – most to least complex.
  5. Order the progress in the following way – Flexibility, Stability, Strength, Power.

Stick to these fundamentals of exercise programme design and you won’t go far wrong!

By the way, I’ve now started a VIP email list with discounts, offers, tips and news. You can subscribe at on my homepage! Click here to sign up (blue box at the bottom).

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Owner of Personal Trainer, Father and fitness copy writer. Working hard making the world fitter and healthier!

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