Q & A: Writing Training Programs, Part 4: Try Things Yourself, and Borrow and Steal

Q. One thing I was wondering, and maybe it’d be a topic to write about … how do you come up with workouts?? Do you make stuff up?? Have a “grab-bag” of moves and pull out of that?? Borrow and modify from other trainers??  I always wonder where trainers come up with new ideas.

4. Before Giving Something to an Athlete or Client, Try it Yourself

One of the things I pride myself in as a strength coach is never giving someone an exercise or program that I haven't tried myself. Well, most of the time.


One such instance in which I failed to do this happened a little over a year ago. I was doing the programming for Ron, who was in the middle of a "get shredded" phase. I had progressed him through the basic planking exercises, and wanted to spice things up a little. Sitting at my keyboard, Ron's excel file open and perhaps a bit too much caffeine running through my blood, I had a vision of a more challenging plank variation I wanted to give him. It was a single-arm PUPP with the feet suspended in the TRX (see picture on the right).

No, I hadn't actually tried this myself at the time, but I figured, "How hard could it be? Ron's a beast and he'll love this one."

Well, the following week, I'm on the coaching floor and I hear some laughing followed by grunts of frustration coming from the corner of the gym that Ron was using. I turn around to only to see him face down on the floor, feet suspended in the TRX, laughing a bit to himself. He then looks up at me and shouts across the gym for everyone to hear:

"Steve, have you actually TRIED this exercise, you inconsiderate, good-for-nothing, bag of fart???"

That was not verbatim.

So I stood there, stammered for a bit as everyone else around waited for my response, and then replied, "Ummm, yes of course I have....well, kinda....okay maybe I haven't actually tried it."

Come to find out, it was a pretty darn hard challenge even for me to do! I'll admit it took me a few tries to get it, as you literally have to fight for your life to prevent yourself from being barrel-rolled 180 degrees in the air and thrown onto your back.

Now, fortunately Ron is very good-humored and knows how to laugh at his own expense (he also never forgets to remind me of that fail of mine with his programming). We figured out a modification so that he could do something similar, and we moved on. He also never hurt himself in the process.

But what if you're working with someone who's not-so-good-humored? What if the athlete ends up getting hurt because you didn't try something beforehand? I really don't feel I need to explain the "why" behind trying an exercise or program out yourself before giving it to someone else, as I feel it's pretty self-explanatory.

The key is to set people up for success. Make it challenging, but at the same time ensure that you match the appropriate progression/regression to the individual so that they can see and experience themselves succeeding as opposed to failing.

And the best way to do this is to yes, practice writing programs and coach people on a regular basis, but also try everything yourself before giving it to someone. You'll discover a number of things this way:

  • Some programs look MUCH easier on paper than they actually are in application
  • What supersets really suck, and others that don't
  • Exercise sequencing that is brilliant, and sequencing that is not-so-brilliant
  • What exercises make you unnecessarily sore (that will negatively impact a subsequent training day and/or sport practice and competition)
  • The ideal set and rep range depending on the movement/where it is in the program

Etc., etc., etc.

5. Yes, Borrow and Steal

You asked if I ever borrow and modify from other trainers/coaches. In a word: Absolutely, and shamelessly.

But rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll direct you to this post by Mike Boyle (seriously, read it, it's short) as he discusses the very topic:

Should You Stick to the Recipe?

HOWEVER, remember that other strength coaches and trainers are only human. They still make mistakes, and not everything they say should be taken as pure, liquid gold.**

Following the programs of other trainers can be fantastic start (assuming you don't pick a doofus to emulate), but eventually, once you become a "chef," as Boyle said, you need to be confident in you're own program writing skills. In fact, I find myself disagreeing, on multiple occasions, with the opinions of many of the world's current "renown and expert" coaches. Does this mean these men/women are inferior and less knowledgeable than me? Of course not. But you have to be careful to avoid falling into the trap of blindly following every word they say without doing some critical thinking of your own.

Another note is, once you have taken a look at a number of trainers and coaches, only pick a few to follow. Often we quickly experience paralysis by analysis by continually looking at too much "stuff." You'll begin to spin round and round with no direction if you try to follow everyone out there.

A book that holds a special place in my heart is The New Rules of Lifting by Alwyn Cosgrove and Lou Schuler. It was the first book I read that took me away from the stupid, brought me over to the Dark Side, and opened my eyes to the beauty of good training habits. If you're brand new to the field, I highly recommend this. Is a bit of it outdated? Yeah. But if you're still programming 3 sets of 10 for everything, reading Flex magazine and Bodybuilding.com for your primarily sources of information, it's a great place to start.

If you've been in the field for a while now and/or have a solid base under you, I honestly can't recommend Easy Strength, by Dan John and Pavel, highly enough. The book is easily worth its weight in gold, and I honestly think that the price is a steal for what it provides. If you train anyone, be them elite athletes or pure newbies in the weight room, do yourself a favor and read it.

And that's it for now. I'll be back on Friday discussing the pitfall of Perfectionism. And yes, I realize we're bordering on a marathon here with this series so I promise you I'll save you from your misery soon enough.

**Unless they're the SAPT staff.