One of my clients recently went a bit AWOL and wrote his own programming. He’s a type A, very driven personality who has had an incredible amount of success building and running his own businesses.
He is highly stressed though, and working 12 hour days. In his last email he mentioned that he’s having digestive issues, having trouble relaxing and winding down at night and it’s impacting his sleep.
All of these signs already point to someone who is burning the candle at both ends. So when I asked him to show me his programming, I was quite shocked.
The amount of volume he had programmed for himself was astronomical. Just for chest and shoulders alone, he was doing over 60 sets a week. He was deadlifting and squatting heavy within 48 hours of each other, and in addition to all of this volume, he was trying to lose weight.
I immediately emailed him back and mentioned that his programming was excessive and would lead to an injury.
The next day I received a message from him saying that he had inflammation in both bicep tendons, and the worst of his arms was going to have to be in a sling for a week or two.
Unfortunately, he had to learn the hard way how not to write a program.
But a lot of the mistakes he made are incredibly common, and often, you don’t realise the mistakes you’ve made until you’ve injured yourself. In fact, many people don’t understand the mistakes they’re making EVER – they just keep doing everything under the sun EXCEPT what they should be doing, wondering why they aren’t getting results but never changing their approach or seeking help.
If you are writing your own programming, here’s the three biggest mistakes you’re likely to make and why they’re so important to address.
1. Your program isn’t specific to your goal
There is a saying “you can’t ride two horses with only one ass.” Whilst it is possible to cover multiple training goals in one program or session, it’s not possible to maximally achieve both.
What this essentially means is that you may marginally improve your fitness / strength / muscle mass or other factors over the course of a training cycle, if you wish to maximise the results of ONE of these, you should focus on that ONE.
For example, if maximal muscle mass is your goal, cardiovascular work will be limited (for most people).
If you want to build your strength, you need to increase the amount of weight on the bar, and keep to lower reps.
If fat loss is your goal, you probably won’t be able to get jacked at the same time. Aim to do enough work that muscle mass is maintained, but not so much that your calorie deficit is so high that you’re losing muscle loss, impairing sleep, increasing your stress response and predisposing yourself to injury.
Choose ONE thing to focus on at a time if you want that one thing to be dramatically improved, and make sure you’re eating in a way that your goals are going to be bolstered. You cannot get dramatically more jacked when you’re eating too little, nor leaner when you’re eating too much.
I often find too, that many people like to start with a program they’ve written, then add little things in each week. A little bit more biceps, a little bit more core, a little bit more cardio. What may have started out as a good program initally, is now a kitchen sink style approach.
If a lack of focus sounds like your problem – do some research into periodisation techniques, and think of what you need to prioritise first.
So if you’re quite overweight at the moment, but want to get strong and jacked, it would be a good idea to address your overall physical fitness in your first phase, then work on hypertrophy, then work on strength. Don’t try to do it all at once.
Most people reading this need to start by getting healthier – reducing their resting heart rate, increasing cardio fitness, sleeping better and eating better. Read this article for more details on why it’s important to be physically fit now in order to become stronger, leaner and more muscular later.
2. You’ve chosen the wrong exercises
It’s important for EVERY goal that you work on your weaknesses. The stereotypical gym junkie with a massive upper body and fuck all legs comes to mind here. If you have one very well developed body part, but the opposing muscles are weak – don’t program in a bunch of work on things you’re already strong at.
You also need to understand which muscles are engaging during specific movements, so that you don’t overload some areas at the expense of others. For example – every time you do an upper body pushing motion, you’re engaging your anterior delts. If you have a rounded upper back and sit at a desk all day – a lot of chest and shoulder work is going to make your problems worse and potentially cause overuse, tendonitis and joint injuries (as my client found out).
Be cautious programming very taxing, heavy or intense exercises too close to one another. For example, any barbell deadlift is going to be taxing on the lower back. It would not be a good idea to program multiple days of heavy deadlifts, then try to squat in the same session or on the next day. If you’re going to deadlift and squat heavy, you need a few days between the two sessions, especially if you’re very strong and the amount of weight you’re moving is significant. You can even investigate undulating periodisation techniques where you have ONE heavy squat OR deadlift session a week.
I could write a book on this topic, but the best takeaway is that you should find where you’re weak and focus there. Stop doing the exercises you’re already strong at – do the ones you suck at. Stop overtraining the muscles and movement patterns that are already really developed and train the ones that are puny and neglected instead.
Keep to this mindset and you’ll find your programming becomes much, much more effective.
3. You’re doing too much and resting too little
I have noticed time and time again that most people, when writing their own workouts, go absolutely apeshit with the frequency, volume and the amount of sets they think they need to do. Instead of getting a lot of quality work in, they get some quality sets and reps and then the rest of the program is bullshit filler exercises. Why be in the gym for 2 hours every day doing a bunch of stuff that has no real value, when you could be in and out in 45 minutes over three days, working hard and feeling like you achieved something?
It’s not uncommon for me to have to work with clients for months on this mindset. You are NOT lazy if you only train 3 or 4 days a week instead of every day.
You’re just doing it in a more effective manner, which allows for the rest and recovery which is essential for growth and adaptation. There is a basic principle in sports science called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The GAS theory states that when there is no stimulus, there is no change. But once there is a stimulus, there are a series of stages which we go through – all of which can be affected adversely if not enough rest is present.
So in order for us to get fitter / stronger / leaner etc, we need the stimulus. This is not just a stimulus for training but also includes our nutrition, stress management, sleep etc. It’s the context, or environment we create and it’s specificity to our goal.
Once that stimulus is achieved, we then need to make sure it’s of sufficient intensity to create a response. This means we need to work progressively harder towards our goal in order to continue to achieve it, however, if the volume, intensity or frequency, or a combination of all of the above is too overwhelming and we do not adequately recover, a number of things can happen;
– our release of corticosteroids increases, AKA our stress response. We produce more cortisol and are more prone to inflammation.
– This increase in cortisol affects our sleep quality, which can then affect our appetite, digestion and have systemic or far-reaching implications for our recovery,
– Instead of having an increase in strength / fitness / muscle mass etc, we can often find the opposite begins to happen – and we have worked our asses off only to de-condition ourselves.
Withou adequate recovery, instead of compensating and overcoming the stimulus, we descend into fatigue.
More is NOT more when it comes to training. You need to be realistic and refer back to the first point about having a SPECIFIC program. An effective program pushes you, but doesn’t annihilate you.
Make sure you’re training hard enough, and then once you are – make sure you’re RESTING hard enough. If you’re getting disgusting farts, sleeping like shit and cannot wind down – you don’t need to add more volume or intensity to your workouts – you need LESS. For more information on this, read the biofeedback article.
Let me help you with your next program
I hope you’ve realised a few of the mistakes you’re making and have a greater understanding of how complex programming can be.
Let me take the guesswork out of it for you by writing a program on your behalf.
In addition to your results being far better, spending less time doing useless training methods and using pointless exercises, I’ll also explain WHY we are doing what we’re doing and how it’s going to benefit you. You’ll be less likely to be injured, better rested and seeing far better results overall.
A coach can not only guide you in the right direction but can educate you along the way – so that after a couple of programs you will be able to write your own much more confidently.