Guest Post: 3 Principles of Program Design

4 Apr

Today I have a BEAST post by my boy Jamie Smith. I know a lot of people have questions on how to design a program that makes sense. Like so many other things, it comes down to the basics, and a firm understanding of them. Below, Jamie does a fantastic job of laying it out for you. Don’t skim through this, and make sure to download the tables, they are something worth saving to keep as a reference. Additionally, I linked to some past posts on overload, accommodation, and specificity, if you want more information.

Adaptation is a very important concept because without this mechanism “we” (humans) would not exist. We are always adapting to whatever life throws at us. The same holds true to any strength and conditioning program you are implementing. The primary objective of any strength and conditioning program is to elicit a positive systemic response. The Science and Practice of Strength Training (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer) states that Overload, Accommodation, Specificity, and Individualization are the basic concepts of physical training. To obtain your short and long term goals you must follow these basic principles of program design.

Accommodation occurs when there is a constant stimulus placed on a living organism.

This is the reason you haven’t seen any improvements using that same “bodybuilding” program over and over again. To create a positive stimulus one must have some type of overload. Properly organized programs that are sequenced with varying volume, intensity, and density will avoid the negative aspects of accommodation. There are many different ways to plan a program. For the purpose of this article I will not go into great detail about all the different schemes. In short, there are two major schemes, Concurrent and Concentrated. A concurrent approach is when you train all of the different methods at the same time. The concentrated approach focuses on only training a specific method for a length of time. There are many variations of each model, but from my experience the concurrent, with an emphasis approach, is the one of the most efficient ways to train. This style of training will include all of the different methods, but the training load will be determined by that day’s objective.

The first principle of programming is to develop an overload. There are many ways to produce overload. The first step is to determine the training means or exercise selection. When choosing exercises its best to organize them into different movement patterns.

Squat Pattern

Free Squat

Hip Hinge Pattern

Trap Bar DL

Horizontal Push


Horizontal Pull

DB Row

Vertical Push

OH Press

Vertical Pull


Posterior Chain Dominant


Single Leg Movement


Then prioritize the movements that will be dependant on one’s goals. Here are some different examples:

TABLE 1 <– Click Me To Get Table

After you prioritize your different movements, then you can implement a specific method that will help you reach your goals. The methods can be organized in 5 different categories.

Table2(m)<– Click Me To Get Table

The second principle, individualization, is an important concept to understand. Everyone will respond differently to each method because of different life-styles (stressors), weaknesses (muscular imbalances, asymmetries, and sticking points), and psychological state (motivated, lazy, or “work-aholic”). This will go hand and hand with the third principle of program design, which is specificity. When planning and organizing a program you must be as specific as possible. Your program must have a realistic objective and a purpose. If you have an increase in specificity then there will be a high transfer, which will produce better results. The program should use the means and methods that will produce improvement of your specific objectives. There are a lot of misconceptions out there but you must realize that all of the methods are related in one way or another. They all are built around foundational strength development. Depending on your objective/ goals you must realize that the development of basic strength will positively carry-over to all of the different methods. For example, if your goal is fat loss you will benefit much more if you spend a specific duration developing foundational strength levels through the max and sub-maximal effort methods. Then you can implement and wave in the other methods that are specific for fat loss. The reason for focusing on foundational strength is to allow your body to perform more work at a higher level without over-stressing your system. Depending on your focus you can implement all of these methods at once – but must pick and choose which method you want to emphasize. The emphasis approach is manipulated by the amount of volume each method has throughout the program. It is important to note that while improving the foundational strength levels, you can still perform some type of conditioning (work capacity) during that same training session. But if your emphasis is on improving strength you must back off and control the volume of your conditioning. You can’t serve two masters, but over-time with a properly organized program you can reach all of your short and long term goals.

The last piece of the program design puzzle is management. This is the most important aspect when it comes to program design. What I mean by this is after you organize your program, what’s next? It looks great on paper but what if your lifestyle won’t allow you to positively respond to this type of programming. Management is how you handle day-to-day stressors. This includes getting proper sleep, eating healthy, managing relationship situations, and/ or handling work-related stress levels. All of these factors need to play a role in how you manage your program on a daily basis. This will not only play a role for each individual training session but if not managed properly over-time all of the fatigue will accumulate and have a negative impact. When it comes to program design the whole purpose of planning your training is to develop optimal results.

The next time you sit down and organize a program really think about these principles. Make sure you set specific objectives that are attainable. Once you establish the purpose of your training program then you can pick and choose the different means and training loads. After putting all the pieces together you must manage all of the different variables that life will throw at you. There will be good and bad days but please remember no matter how thorough your program design, results are impossible without passion and dedication.

By Jamie Smith 2012

Jamie coaching the press.


One Response to “Guest Post: 3 Principles of Program Design”


  1. 25 Lessons From My 25th Year « Greg Robins - May 4, 2012

    […] A good training partner will change the way you train. Thanks to my boy Jamie Smith (Dale […]

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