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How to improve fitness and performance

We program exercise for the average gym goer in a manner similar to how we program for athletes. By that, we mean we create a structured plan that takes into account situational factors of the clients (goals, physical condition, time constraints, etc.) and is progressive in design. Any trainer should take the same approach if he or she programs for you and you should take the same approach if you program for yourself. If you just wing it in the gym without a solid workout routine, you'll have some progress if you push hard enough and make enough of the right choices, but the progress will never be the best it could. If you go to a gym enough, you'll see the people who take this approach—these are the people who come in day after day, month after month, but never seem to have any real progress or the progress is lackluster. Don't be like those people. Instead, put thought into your program, whether it is a resistance training program to build strength and muscle or a running plan to lose weight. The basic tenets for everyone The basic tenets of exercise programming for anyone are:

  • Account for situational factors (goals, physical condition, time constraints, etc.)

  • A structured (periodized) plan

  • Progressive programming that takes into account changes in the client

There are several other things that are considered when programming for athletes that could be applied to the average person, but if you take into account the three bulleted items, you'll be on the right path. Account for situational factors (goals, physical condition, time constraints, etc.) When creating the structured plan, you must consider your situational factors. These factors include your goals, your physical conditions, time constraints, financial constraints, and other things that may need to be considered for your plan, such as the fact that you participate in a sports league. Many things can come into play here, and each person's situation is unique. The top three are and will continue to be:

  • Goals—what are you trying to achieve

  • Physical condition—how fit are you

  • Time constraints—what is your schedule

Goals Your program must focus on your goal. If you want to run faster, using a powerlifting program won't get you there. If you want to get stronger, a running program won't get you there. This might seem simple, as these examples are obvious, but some people make poor choices when it comes to exercise programming aspects such as exercise selection, volume used (exercises x sets x reps), load used, and other aspects, such as training frequency (number of days during which training occurs, number of workouts per day). A not so obvious example is someone whose only focus in getting stronger on the bench, yet they always complete sets of 15 reps. Sure, this will get you stronger with 15 reps, and if that is your goal, then good job. However, if you're trying to build maximal one-rep strength, you need to train low rep ranges, generally in the 1-6 rep range. While this section could be expanded almost infinitely, simply put, your plan must focus on your goal. Otherwise, you're never going to reach that goal or it is going to take forever. Physical condition If you can't run five miles, you shouldn't run five miles. If you can't squat 200 pounds, you shouldn’t squat 200 pounds. Seems straight-forward, right? Yet, a lot of people get this part wrong. They want to come in and do more than their bodies can handle. Sometimes it's because their mind is stronger than their bod—"I want to do it so I'm going to do even though my body is about to break!"—or they used to do something so they think they should still be able to—"I benched 300 pounds in high school 20 years ago so I should still be able to"—and they try to do more than their body is capable of. In a best-case scenario, a person gets frustrated and does not push as hard because they realize they can't. In a worst-case scenario, someone does something incorrect and hurts themself. You can only do what your body is capable of doing. To get past that point, you have to train the body to do more. However, loading up weight that is too heavy, trying to run too far, or otherwise using more intensity than the body can handle will only lead to problems. You have to know what your body is capable of doing—your physical condition—and create a program that accounts for that. Time constraints If you can only workout five days per week, don't program six days. If you can only workout for an hour, don’t plan for two hours. The plan you choose has to work with your schedule. You have to pick the time of day, duration of workouts, and frequency of workouts that work for your schedule while still allowing you to push forward. If you try to do too much or do too little, you're setting yourself up for failure. A structured (periodized) plan Periodization is the core of any good workout plans. You need to create a workout routine that lays out when you'll train, what you'll train, and how much you'll do. Again, you can't just go to the gym and wing it, doing whatever sounds good on a given day and expect to reach your goals. That's just not smart. To put things in perspective, when we create a program for a person, we create a 12-week training cycle, which is often split into four, three-week phases. Each phase often has 3-6 days of training. Each day focuses on a specific goal. Think of it like this:

  • 12-weeks of training

  • Weeks 1-3 are phase 1, week 4-6 are phase 2, weeks 7-9 are phase 3, and week 10-12 are phase four

  • Each week has 3-6 days of training depending on the goals, physical condition, and time constraints of the person

  • Day 1 focuses on one goal or aspect of a goal, day 2 focuses on another goal or aspect of a goal, day 3 focuses on another goal or aspect of a goal, and so on for the training week

Here's an example for a powerlifter:

  • 12-week powerlifting program

  • Weeks 1-3 are phase 1 (accumulate volume), week 4-6 are phase 2 (increase load), weeks 7-9 are phase 3 (push to heaviest sets, volume, or both), and week 10-12 are phase four (deload, test, taper, or competition phase)

  • Day 1 is heavy deadlift and bench, day 2 is heavy squat, day 3 is dynamic deadlift and bench, day 3 is hypertrophy, accessory work, or a light day focused on technique

Progressive programming that takes into account change in the client Progressive programming simply means that the program moves you closer to your goals over time and accounts for changes in ability. The program should plan for regular increases in the difficulty of the workout, such as more reps, higher weight, etc., but should also take into account your changing ability. For example, the program might call for a weekly increase of 10 pounds for the weight used for a lift, which would be progressive. However, maybe 5 pounds is better for you or 20. You should go up 5 or 20, which makes the program progressive in that it considers how you should increase intensity over time instead of relying on an arbitrary number. The program can be progressive in several other ways too. At this time, we just want to mention one more: targeting weaknesses. If, during the duration of the program, you find certain areas lack, such as back strength or overhead power, then you likely want to work on these areas as they are weaknesses. A progressive program will adjust for needed changes such as these. This adjustment falls into what we call "intuitive adjustment" but that is the topic for another newsletter or blog. The take away Whether you’re the soccer mom, the doting dad, the college student, the office worker or someone else, you need a good program. Make sure you get one. Hire a good face to face personal trainer, online weight loss coach, or another fitness professional if you can't do it yourself. Otherwise, if you create your own program, make sure you consider what we mentioned here. While this piece does not provide all the ins and outs to exercise programming, it does provide you with a few good points to get started. The hardcore exerciser When considering programming for the hardcore exerciser, the basic tenets apply, but now we start to look at several other things that are considered when programming for athletes, since the hardcore exerciser will have more in common with the athlete than he or she will with the average gym goer. Let's define the hardcore exerciser The hardcore exerciser is dedicated, follows a structured training plan, and has a solid nutrition strategy. He or she is a person who sets lofty goals and works had to achieve them, making sure to rarely, if ever, miss workouts, who analyzes their workouts, tracks progress diligently, and understand that the process takes time. These people embrace the suck to become bigger, stronger, faster, higher performing versions of themselves. Exercise programming for the hardcore exerciser Due to the intense approach and lofty goals of the hardcore exerciser, not to mention the daily, weekly and monthly grind this person endures, we need to consider additional factors beyond the basic tenets and expand the focus of the basic tenets. We need to:

  • Look deeper at specific goals

  • Periodize in more detail

  • Dial in progressions

Consider additional training aspects such as max recoverable volume, peaking, max effort testing, deloads, active recovery, and sport-specific training Look deeper at specific goals The hardcore exerciser has more demanding and specific goals than the average gym goer. The average gym goer might want to lose weight, get a little fitter, and become a bit stronger, while the hardcore exerciser may want to squat 600 pounds, run a sub-seven-minute mile, and achieve single digit body fat simultaneously. To program for these goals, the training plan has to be better structured than the plan for the average gym goer. Periodize in more detail Since the plan has to be more structured to reach the loftier goals of the hardcore exerciser, periodizing for these goals is a given. What this means is laying out a training plan that targets specific goals in each phase or staggering goals during the same phase. This multi-tiered approach ensures that each goal receives primary focus at some point while the other secondary goals are still a priority, albeit to a lesser degree, and that the gains for the secondary goals are maintained when not a primary focus. Dial in progressions Progressions become more important, in that specific milestones are set for specific goals based on the structure of the program and the focus of each phase. It's not good enough to hope to see progress or say any progress is acceptable; now we must set targets and reach these targets. If we don’t reach these targets, we have to analyze why and adjust so that we may reach all future targets. Expected rates of progression, such as percentages of lifts targeted weekly, distances targeted weekly, and skill improvements targeted weekly, become very important. Consider additional training aspects such as max recoverable volume, peaking, max effort testing, deloads, active recovery, and sport-specific training As the hardcore exerciser is closer to the athlete than he or she is to the average gym goer, we start to consider approaches used for athletic training. These may include:

  • max recoverable volume—the maximum daily, weekly, monthly, or training cycle volume a person can safely handle and still make injury free progress

  • peaking—reaching maximal results at a specific time

  • max effort testing—testing the maximum effort a person can put out for a given movement such as runs or lifts

  • deloads—structured reductions in training difficulty through adjustment of volume, weight, or other training aspects

  • active recovery—days or weeks during which a person still trains but may take time off from primary training to give the mind and body a break

  • sport-specific training—the hardcore exercise likely has goals similar to those of athletes, meaning programming in a sport-specific manner is encouraged

While other things may be considered, these are some common ideas that become more important for the hardcore exerciser. The brief explanations of each are purposeful—you can't learn about these terms from a 3,000-word newsletter or blog post. Even if we wrote 10,000-word blog posts dedicated to each one, the concepts would still need expansion for true understanding. If you don't understand the above terms in great detail, then you are not the hardcore exerciser. If you aspire to be the hardcore exerciser but don’t understand those terms, you need a good coach. If you fail to consider these things, and hit the gym in hardcore fashion day in and day out for weeks, months, and years, you're setting yourself up for failure. You will either injure yourself, overtrain, or never reach the progress you seek—perhaps all three. The take away

  • This is a brief post. The key points you can take away from it are:

  • 90 percent of the people at the gym are not hardcore exercisers, even if they think they are

  • The hardcore exerciser has special demands the average gym goer does not

  • Additional programming consideration must exist for the hardcore exerciser

  • Failure to focus on these considerations is a recipe for failure

  • If you don't know, get a coach

There you have it. If you have questions or comments, send us an email right now. The athlete The athlete is a different breed of client. Aside from basic concepts such as commitment, periodization, etc., they have nothing in common with the average gym goer. The hardcore exerciser, or gym rat as they are often called, have more in common with the athlete. Yet still, the demands of the athlete are far different. Let's define the athlete. The athlete is not the guy or gal who occasionally runs a Tough Mudder or competes in the local 5K. The person who competed one time is not an athlete. The person who follows the program created by an athlete is not an athlete. While the hardcore exerciser trains hard and may have similar levels of desire and commitment, he or she is not the athlete. The athlete is a person who competes regularly on a defined schedule with ongoing goals looking usually a year or longer in advance. The athlete is a person who places their physical training and nutrition as a top priority, if not the top priority, and doesn't make excuses. The athlete either is very good at programming or has a coach who is very good. The athlete is the competitive powerlifters we've worked with, the competitive runners we've worked with, and the college athletes we've worked with. The basic tenets still apply When considering programming for the athlete, the basic tenets apply. Also as with the hardcore exerciser, we need to consider additional factors beyond the basic tenets and expand the focus of the basic tenets. We need to:

  • Look deeper at specific goals

  • Periodize in more detail

  • Dial in progressions

Consider additional training aspects, such as max recoverable volume, peaking, max effort testing, deloads, active recovery, and sport-specific training Of the bullets listed above, the one that becomes the most important is the fourth: consider additional training aspects, specifically sport-specific training. Sport-specific training Sport specific training is the most important part of the approach to training athletes. While a general strength and conditioning program can work across all sports, athletes achieve the best results when the programs are tailored to them and the sport in which they play. Simply put, the further away a training program is from sport-specific, the less it improves someone for their specific sport. For example, training like a powerlifter is not ideal for a sprinter, just as sprinting is not ideal for a powerlifter. Sure, powerlifting will make the sprinter more powerful and more resistant to injury, but it does directly focus on the physical traits needed to excel in sprinting, just as sprinting can help improve the powerlifter's cardio function, which may help during longer high-intensity training sessions, but it does directly focus on the physical traits needed to excel at powerlifting. Those examples may seem obvious, but let's consider not so obvious examples. Many people believe football players benefit most from strength and conditioning programs that include aspects of powerlifting. This is true to a degree, but players such as running back also benefit from training like a sprinter, since speed comes into play. However, plyometrics training can benefit these players as well, due the benefit plyometric provides to explosive moving ability employed during evasion and quick direction changes. The same idea applies to basketball players, as while they can benefit from resistance based exercise, sprinting and plyometrics will develop sport skill abilities that improve their game. Programming for sport Some sports, like football, have well-defined approaches for sport-specific training. The many strength and conditioning programs available online and in book form display this. However, not all sports, such as tennis, have such defined protocols. It then falls to the coach to develop a plan of action. When considering a plan for an athlete in any sport, whether specific protocols exits or not, the coach has to look at the strengths and weaknesses of specific athletes. Weakness and strength need to be identified and a plan of action formulated based on these. The exact approach varies based on the athlete and the coach. The abilities presented by the athlete help determine the strength and conditioning plan, but the interpretation of how to do this is determined by the coach. This interpretation can result in drastically different approaches. Some coaches believe the focal point for programs should be improvement of weakness, others believe improving strengths should, and still others believe improvements in both should have equal importance. Proponents of focusing on weaknesses may believe bringing up weaknesses improve an athlete as a whole which makes them a better player. Proponents of focusing on strengths may believe bringing up strengths will compensate for weaknesses. Proponents of focusing on both may believe that while bringing up both at the same time may still result in an imbalance, the improvements in both may negate any possible issues associated with only focusing on one at a time. We focus on improving strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. Now, that does not mean we teach somebody to be good at everything. Again, this is sport specific training and unless your sport is CrossFit and you're trying to make it to the CrossFit games, the physical traits we look at are limited (programming for CrossFit is unique and a conversation unto itself). For example, imagine a powerlifter who comes to us as a client. We assess him and discover his cardio sucks. Do we need to work on this? Only if it affects his powerlifting. The same idea applies to any athlete client; we program for strengths and weaknesses that focus on his or her sport, not another sport. We do consider general fitness in the equation, but only so much as to make sure he or she has the basic fitness level needed for daily life. The takeaway If you want to reach your training and nutrition goals, if you want to improve fitness and performance, you need a good plan. Whether you will complete at home workouts for general fitness, go to the gym to lift big weight, or want to engage in running to lose weight, a structured plan will be the best way to get there. If you are not sure what to do, research online for at home workouts, find an app that provides online workout plans, or hire an online personal fitness trainer. The time, money, and effort invested will be worth it for reaching your goals, whether you are a soccer mom, doting dad, recreational athlete, collegiate athlete, or any other person trying to reach a goal.

Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA. 

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