A practical guide to programme design

Applying these principles of training in a proper sequence leads to the desired goals. These guidelines create a sound system of training and create a well-developed athlete.

Overly crowded gyms, small gyms, or the lack of proper or specific equipment are not conducive to performing certain exercises due to the limitations.   -  G. P. Sampath Kumar

Helping bridge the void between science and application is a huge challenge for strength-and-conditioning professionals. Designing and application of a programme is a multidimensional combination of art and science protocols. And if physical training is both an art and a science, periodised programming is really the art of applying the science.

The programme designed can be for an individual athlete or a team. Either way, each athlete is taken as an individual entity and specific goals are set for them. The programme cannot be copied from another sport or sportsperson.

Training philosophies vs training systems

Training principles should precede training methods. A well-designed training programme follows the four principles discussed below.

Many strength-and-conditioning professionals claim they base their programmes on the foundational principles of training. But many of these same professionals will look at a training programme and judge it as “good” or “bad” simply based on whether their exercises or training methods are used or their prejudice toward a particular exercise regime.

What programme design is

Programming is truly a process of decision-making. The decision-making principles should be based on these four simple and important questions to be asked by the strength-and-conditioning coaches in a sequence:

1. What are the athlete’s training goals on each cycle and what types of exercises and training procedures need to be applied to achieve these goals progressively?

2. Which of these types of specific exercises and training methods will the athletes be able to execute or not based on their capabilities and training environment and needs?

3. How can a progressive overload be provided to these exercises and training methods to ensure progression without any injuries?

4. How can these exercises and training methods be varied to continue to create a positive adaptation to the training programme without reaching the point of plateauing?

The principles of training

These four universal principles of training need to be addressed at every stage of programme design according to the goals in a specific order. These principles of training need to be approached in an integrated manner than a generic one.

1. Specificity

2. Individuality

3. Progressive overload

4. Variation or variety

The principle of specificity dictates specific adaptations to imposed demands on the body through specific stimuli in achieving the desired goals. The goals set ultimately determine the types of exercises and methodologies that need to be part of the workout design.

Specificity in training can be accomplished by targeting muscle groups, energy systems, movement speed, plane of movement, and range and angle of muscle action.

For example, if an athlete’s goal is to become more explosive, the programme should include explosive exercises. If the athletes have multidimensional requirements, such as improving physique, performance and overall competence, then their programme requires several training components because no single type of training will sufficiently address all of their demands.

The principle of individuality

Analysing what type of exercises and methods will best fit the individual’s ability and training environment is very critical.

One of the most major and common training mistakes comprises trying to fit the individual to the exercise instead of fitting the exercise to the individual. Some exercises are not suited for certain bodies. Each human being moves differently, based on size, shape and skill, which is dictated by each individual’s unique skeletal framework and body proportions. In addition to any injury, loss of muscle mass or any degenerative processes in joints, among other things, can influence how individuals move. For these reasons, trying to fit every person into the same exercise movement is potentially dangerous. If doing so goes against an individual’s movement capability, it could cause a new problem or aggravate an existing one. For example, overly crowded gyms, small gyms, or the lack of proper or specific equipment are not conducive to performing certain exercises due to the limitations. In that scenario, the strength-and-conditioning coaches should devise an exercise programme suitable for each athlete accordingly to get the best out of the situation.

The principle of progressive overload

The principle of progressive overload refers to the systematic modification of a training program over time — exercise intensity, frequency, exercise selection, difficulty of exercise.

Improvement in volume, intensity, movement speed and quality, recovery and tempo should be noted in the application of overload.

The principle of overload should be in tandem with the desired adaptation of goals. The entire system works on a very specific individual mode rather than a predetermined model.

Inappropriate overloading principles can cause serious injuries and niggles, which can be career threatening, too.

Apply variation

Variety is the spice of life and applying an appropriate planned introduction to break the adaptation stimuli or plateauing is an art.

Adaptation causes a decrease in performance and the probability of injuries increases due to certain other factors.

Variation requires planned changes in exercise selection and training variables. This usually involves changing the exercises in the programme and/or modifying the order of the exercises with sets, reps, load or tempo and recovery patterns. As a general guideline, changing the programme every three-four weeks may provide the body enough time to adapt.

It is important to note that when applied professionally, variation does not conflict with the specificity and progressive overload principles. This is because any good, long-term training programme should have enough reliability to allow for continuous progress and variety to prevent boredom, staleness and plausible repetitive stress injuries.

Improved neuromuscular coordination and increased muscle hypertrophy have been shown to occur in the early stages (the first three-five weeks) of a training programme or when starting a new programme. However, the programme becomes stale and less beneficial for peak performance.

It is most important for the strength-and-conditioning professional to remember that a multitude of exercise variations is not only to diversify a training programme, but also to provide variations to account for individualised movement patterns and skills.


Applying the above principles of training in a proper sequence leads to the desired goals. These guidelines create a sound system of training and create a well-developed athlete.

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