There are about 17 gajillion (that’s a real number, trust me) different training programs out there to pick and choose from. Traditional Bodybuilder Splits. Russian Powerlifting 1RM Percentage Training. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine Regimen. Overtraining. Undertraining. HIIT. Spartan Workout. Fasted State Training. Jason Richardson’s Jump Program. High Rep/Low Weight. High Weight/Low Rep. Run A Lot. Just Kidding, Don’t Run A Lot. All You Need Is Squats. No, That’s Stupid, Of Course You Need More Than Squats.
You get my point.
If you can think it up, someone has written a program for it. The same applies to athletes, maybe even more so, across a variety of different sports. Brilliant strength and conditioning coaches have paved the way towards stronger, faster, more mobile athletes. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at what has worked for others in the past and applying it to your clients, whether it ends up being sport specific or not. HOWEVER (notice the bold font on the however please), people don’t respond to anything exactly alike. Let’s think of it in terms of dessert: I love Key Lime Pie. My wife does not. Neither one of us is right or wrong, but we each have a preference. And the way we interpret a menu, make a decision on what to order, consume said order, and think about it afterwards is entirely unique to each of us.
If I don’t see key lime pie on the dessert menu, I put it aside and get the check. Easy. But, dangle the prospect of that delicious sugar bomb in front of me and chances are I’m taking the plunge into food coma territory (as long as it’s homemade, of course). And I will commit whole-heartedly to that key lime pie. If that key lime pie is made right, I will savor every bite and when I’m done systematically vacuuming up every last crumb of crust, I will sit back and pat my stomach with no regrets, pleased that I train hard enough I can afford to splurge every now and then on my favorite dessert. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is such thing as a bad piece of key lime pie. And when I get a crappy piece of key lime pie put in front of me, it really sucks. I’ll usually have a couple bites and then put the fork down early, leaving most of it on my plate and even being a little pissed at myself for ordering it in the first place because I didn’t really need key lime pie.
But, man oh man, there are so many ways to make key lime pie that I actually do like! So many different kinds of textures and flavors that a key lime pie can possibly consist of. Sometimes it’s super sharp. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Sometimes the crust has a little extra somethin’ somethin’ on it. Sometimes there’s a lovely dollop of full fat whipped cream on the key lime pie. There are so many ways to make a piece of key lime pie that I will enjoy. And there are also a lot of ways to make a piece of key lime pie that I will absolutely hate. Now, I’m no chef (my brother happens to be an EXCELLENT chef, though. Dangerously good key lime pie, too…) so I don’t know what ingredients go into a good piece of key lime pie. But, I do know a thing or two about programming.
Think of programming like a piece of key lime pie. Or choose your favorite dish; makes no difference to me. There are so many ways to make a delicious pie just like there are so many ways to write a program that an athlete will benefit from. But a lot of times, we as coaches end up pigeon-holing ourselves by staying within a rigid framework that has either worked for someone in the past or is designed with a specific goal in mind. And the dessert that one person may enjoy turns out to be a mouthful of regret for someone else. We all have different taste buds when it comes to pie and we all have different taste buds when it comes to training.
All of us know the guidelines set out by the coaches and researchers that have come before us. But there are a lot of different things that work in different ways based on the goals you are looking to achieve. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the options and once you start adding your own flair into original programs it’s even easier to prescribe way way way too much for an individual. And before you know it, you’re staring at a monstrosity of a program that tries to do everything and ends up doing nothing. So, how do you determine what is best for your client while staying inbounds of reality and what has worked for other great coaches and athletes in the past? It’s not easy and it takes a lot of practice, but there are a few things you can think about that will help along the way.
- Determine what the primary and secondary priorities for training should be for your client. Conduct a completely unbiased assessment. What does your client need the most, regardless of what he or she thinks they need? Maybe it’s body composition improvement. Maybe it’s strength. Maybe it’s size. Maybe it’s speed. Maybe it’s power. Maybe it’s mobility or functional movement. (In fact, it’s probably mobility and functional movement; at least as a secondary priority). Decide what needs to be addressed in order to improve the client and help him or her achieve their goals. You’ve got the big picture. But the path to that big picture is radically different for each individual. Now you need to think about the smaller details.
- Figure out how your client thinks they can best achieve their goals. You do this by TALKING TO YOUR CLIENT. It amazes me how many coaches either totally bungle this or choose to ignore it completely. One of the easiest ways to get people on board with your training is to ask them what has worked for them in the past. Almost 100% of the time, their answer will provide you at least a little bit of insight into how they like to train and what kind of training they’ve done in the past. Adapting a couple things here and there within the construct of your program that they are familiar with and are good at will only help you build their trust and their confidence. At the beginning, your client is a square peg and the perfect program you can design for them is a round hole. Don’t try to put the two together immediately. That being said…
- Start whittling the square peg and the round hole to make them fit together. This is not to say you need to profoundly change your program in order to please your client. In fact, don’t do that. Because you know what’s best for them. That’s why they’re paying you and not paying themselves. But, like any relationship, the coach-client relationship is worthless without trust and respect. And trust and respect is a two way street. If your client thinks that doing an overhead barbell press puts them at serious risk for injury even though you know otherwise, would it absolutely hamper their progress if you kept that exercise out of their program? Maybe replaced by single arm kettlebell clean and press or dumbbell presses or even handstand pushups if they think it’s cool? No, their progress will not be hampered because you showed them respect and they will show you the same in return by following your program more closely. And after time, you will be able to show them and coach them as to why an overhead barbell press may actually be pretty great for them. The square peg and the round hole will start to fit a little bit better together.
- Training is not linear, so trust in the process. It is very easy for coaches and clients alike to become disheartened without immediate results or max effort workouts regularly. But, we all know that if you were to max out every day, you run a huge risk of hurting yourself as well as limiting your adaptations to training. Especially with your total workhorse clients who love reducing themselves to puddles of immobile sweat on a daily basis, it’s difficult to resist the urge to help them do just that and even more difficult to convince them to resist that urge, themselves. Training hard is important, but so is training smart. People must buy into this and no matter what your credentials are, chances are they won’t buy into it just because you say so. At least not at first.
- Don’t be afraid to stray from your training program every once in a while. Sometimes, people have bad days. Bad days can lead to really awesome workouts or they can lead to really terrible ones. Girlfriends dump you, family friends die, dogs run away, and shit happens. For some people, the gym is an escape from all of that and a bad day can lead to a new PR. For other people, a bad day can lead to a lack of concentration, a lack of effort, and a wasted workout. If you are talking with your client before his or her lift and you notice something is up and they are dragging ass when they normally like to bring the thunder from the word go, what’s wrong with taking an extra 20 minutes to do some more mobility or soft tissue work on a foam roller? You can spend that time actually being a human being, building some trust, getting to know your client better, and proving that you actually do give a damn. You can also determine how to make the most out of the session instead of just sticking to the rigid plan and wasting the day. Some people may walk in pissed off at the world and they don’t want to talk; they just want to blast music, pick heavy stuff up, and put heavy stuff down. On the random occasions that this happens, it’s alright to oblige them as well. One day off program in the grand scheme of things won’t make a negative impact. But done right, it will almost definitely strengthen your relationship with your client.
Obviously, there is a huge difference between ordering dessert and creating a training program for someone. But, the principle is the same: nobody is the same and what works for one person may not work for another. If you get to know the people you train with, care about them, and build their trust and confidence, you will be able to apply what you know to their unique situation and help them achieve their goals intelligently and efficiently. So the next time someone seeks your professional opinion on how to get __________ (insert random goal here i.e. ‘jacked,’ ‘ripped,’ ‘faster,’ ‘better at soccer,’ etc.) you can give them the best answer in the book: “Well, that depends…”