Design Your Own Workout Program
What does the story about Goldilocks and the three little bears have to do with fitness? It’s hard to know how much exercise to do to get the results you want. The ‘poppa bear’ is that too much exercise could lead to overtraining. The ‘mama bear’ is that not enough exercise won’t produce any results. The ‘baby bear’ is identifying the optimal amount of exercise AND applying the right recovery strategies, to get the results you want. Get the results you want from exercise, here are 7 tips for how to design a workout program that works for you.
First, here are a few questions to ask yourself about your workouts:
How long have you been following the same exercise program?
How long have you been taking the same classes, doing the same exercises, using the same equipment or running the same route and distance?
When doing strength exercises how long have you been using the same amount of weight?
Stop the Insanity!
Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results (not the best name for an exercise program, but that’s a topic for another day). Doing the same workouts repeatedly, not changing the exercises or not adjusting the amount of weight used are some of the most common mistakes that could be sabotaging your workout program.
Following the same program for too long
Using weights that are too heavy or too light
Doing exercises that are too easy
Doing really hard exercise and not allowing enough rest afterwards, or
Changing workout programs too often.
Paradox of Exercise:
Here lies a fundamental paradox of exercise: we need to follow a workout plan long enough so that it creates the desired physiological changes to the body, yet if the same program is followed for too long the body will completely adapt and will stop making the desired changes (commonly called reaching a plateau).
7 Ways That Exercise Changes Your Body
Here are 7 things you should know about how exercise changes your body so that you can design an exercise program that is just right for your needs.
Exercise is Movement
Exercise is a function of movement, and movement is a skill that must be developed over time; therefore changing exercises with every workout does not allow your body to learn the movements of the exercises you’re doing. In order for muscles to adapt to an exercise program there must be some consistency for a period of time; at least 6 weeks or so. The General Adaptation Syndrome, developed by an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, tells us that when a new stressor (exercise) is introduced the body it will experience a ‘shock phase’ that can last a number of days before going through an adaptation phase where the tissues of the body change in response to the exercise. After a period of six-to-fourteen weeks (every person is different) the body has experienced the adaptations and could hit the dreaded plateau where no more changes will be made.
Periodization is the term used by us exercise geeks to describe how to alternate different phases (periods) of exercise based on volume, intensity and movement complexity. The greatest benefit of periodization is that it uses rest as a means of allowing for adaptation to the physically demanding stresses of training. Wait, rest? Many die-hard exercise enthusiasts consider that a four-letter word, but here’s a little secret: Your body makes changes in the time after the workout, not during it. Exercising too hard for too often will not give your body the time it needs to make the changes you desire. Allowing your body to rest and properly recover so that it adapts to the exercises you do doesn’t mean staying at home binging on Netflix, instead it means alternating between hard, moderate and easy workouts. Specifically, it means structuring your workouts so that you consistently adjust for training complexity – the level of difficulty of the exercises, intensity – the amount of weight or the level of exertion and volume – the total amount of exercise performed in a workout which is a product of the intensity and number of reps and sets completed. This blog explains strategies that could help you recover quicker.
Metabolic or Mechanical
Resistance training causes two specific types of stress on muscle tissue: metabolic and mechanical, both of which can provide the necessary stimulus for muscle growth. However, the research is undecided on which type of stress provides the greater benefit. A properly periodized program can alternate between phases of heavy weight for low reps to create mechanical stress and phases of light-to-moderate weight for high reps to induce metabolic stress. Learn more about how strength training changes your muscles!
Apply the Right Type and Amount of Stress
The purpose of periodization is to manage the amount physical stress applied to the body; when training intensity is low – i.e., doing bodyweight exercises, the volume in terms of reps and sets can be high. As the intensity becomes more challenging by using heavier weights the volume can be reduced so you’re doing fewer reps or sets. The goal of periodization is to manipulate the training stimulus to focus on either creating metabolic fatigue, mechanical overload or a combination of the two in order to allow optimal adaptations over an extended length of time.
Consistency is Essential
The actual exercises you do in your workout should remain consistent to allow for efficient learning, however the amount of weight used, number of reps performed, length of rest after a set and the number of sets completed should all be adjusted in a progressively challenging manner. It is well established that physical adaptations to exercise, including muscle growth and definition, depend on the application of these variables. By systematically changing them you’re applying different stimuli to the body which is essential for creating the changes you want.
In a Linear Periodization scheme volume, intensity and movement complexity are inversely related; over the course of training cycle as the intensity of the or the complexity of movement gradually increase, the volume should decrease. A Linear program can be organized into various components based on length of time for each training phase and should include occasional periods of off-loading or active rest for optimal adaptation to the training stimulus. In a Linear periodization program the segments of time can be organized into short microcycles of one-to-two weeks, intermediate mesocycles which include a block of microcycles and long-term macrocycles that work towards a specific goal. For example: you have a goal of looking great for a vacation that is twelve weeks away – that is the macro cycle. You can organize your workout into 3 periods of 4-week mesocycles. In each 4 week mesocycle you can do 2 2-week microcycles. Mesocycle 1 (month 1): 2 weeks of 3 sets of each exercise for 8 reps, 2 weeks of 4 sets each exercise for 8 reps. Mesocycle 2 (month 2): 2 weeks of 3 sets of 12 reps, 2 weeks of 4 sets of 12 reps. Mesocycle 3 (month 3): 2 weeks of 5 sets of 12 reps, 2 weeks of drop sets.
The Non-Linear model organizes adjustments to the acute variables on either a week-to-week or a training-session-to-training-session basis. Non-Linear models apply varying levels of training stress which can induce metabolic challenges while allowing for rapid neuro-endocrine adaptations. Changing the applied demands of training on a more frequent basis can high intensity training for one or two sessions per week while allowing for lower intensity workouts on the other days of the week which can reduce the risk of overtraining for clients who feel they must exercise everyday. For a while I’ve been using a non-linear model of a heavy strength or power workout followed by a bodyweight workout followed by an energy system workout – if I go hard on day 3 I take a rest day, if I go easy on day 3 I go right back to the strength or power workout. This model yields 2-3 hard workouts a week and 2-3 moderate workouts which is perfect for maintaining my current fitness level.
Non-Linear models allow for more frequent variations so they may be better for your needs. The idea is to alternate between easy and hard workouts so that you allow for proper rest and do not do too much damage to your body. Linear models are better if you are working towards a specific goal with a hard deadline, you will want to gradually increase training intensity to allow proper adaptations to the training stimulus. Whichever model you choose make sure to apply the appropriate recovery strategies so you get the required rest after each workout.
Learn How to Design Workout Programs that WORK for YOU!
This course is based on the latest research; it teaches you how to design exercise programs from the core on out and provides workout solutions for core training, endurance, strength and power. You will learn exercise techniques used by top trainers developed by a leading educator who has written programs for Nautilus, StairMaster and the American Council on Exercise. Fitness professionals, personal trainers and group fitness instructors earn continuing education credits, CECs, for taking this course: 0.4 – ACE; 0.5 – NASM; 5 – AFAA. Includes the Functional Core Training e-book.
If Top Athletes Do It, So Should YOU!
Most professional and elite athletes follow one of these periodization models, if periodization works for a person who makes a lot of money playing a game, it will work for your needs. The main two pitfalls to avoid are doing too much work which could lead to overtraining or not working hard enough to make the desired changes to your body. Just like Goldilocks had to try all three bowls of porridge to find the one that was just right for her, you will need to try a few different variations to identify the best application of periodization for your needs.
Here’s a sample program applying the above information:
Kettlebell RDLs: 3 sets x 12 reps
One arm kettlebell overhead presses: 3 x 8
Kettlebell clean and presses: 5sets x 6reps, rest 1 min. after both arms
Kettlebell swing snatches: 4 x 5
Kettlebell swings: 4 x 12-15
Kettlebell goblet squats: 3 x 12
Pull-ups: to fatigue
High planks: 45 sec. x 3
Side planks: 45 sec. x 3
1 leg hip bridges: 3 x 10
Medicine ball lifts: 4 x 12
Medicine ball chops: 4 x 12
Medicine ball transverse lunge to lift: 3 x 10
Single leg squats: 3 x 12
2 hand-cable press: 3 x 12
Mountain bike ride, or 15 min of steady state on a rowing ergometer and 15 minutes of steady state on a Stairmaster Airfit bike
1 full rest day per week (okay, not total rest, I do go and play with my kids at the playground)
Covers what you need to know to create a fully periodized workout program; includes sample workouts for endurance, strength and power.
(originally written in 2019; updated in 2021!)