The Cloud Atlas of Program Design

You have to figure out what you want in life. Not what you say you want, but what you actually want. I don’t really know what I want at this point. I have ambiguous thoughts about things that would be nice. These are things I might say to myself inside my own head right now, like…I’d like to be really strong…I’d like to learn a lot of powerful information in regards to being an awesome strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer, and mentor…I’d like to be financially successful and well marketed within the fitness industry…I’d like a lot of people to know who I am and to think very highly of me. Are any of these things truly tangible goals? Not really. Do I have specific actionable steps to put in place to help me reach these vague things? When I’m honest with myself, the answer is no. I’m floating in some ways. What I need is a specific goal to reach. What I need is a plan to get there.

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Should I pick one thing and focus my energies on that objective if I want to ensure the greatest likelihood of reaching that goal? Most people would probably say yes, that is a wise course of action. Should I completely forget about every other element of life and blindly go down one track? Certainly not, only a fool would be that narrow minded. Is this starting to sound like the training process yet? I hope so, because life and training are very similar to one another.

When I was working as a professor in Exercise Science and I was teaching about program design, I always began the unit by saying that good program design and healthy relationships were very similar to one another.

Perhaps the worst thing that could be thrown into a burgeoning relationship is mixed messages. These are very confusing and they tend to lead to excessive stress and things going nowhere. Be clear to the other person what your intentions are if you’re actually interested in making things work long term.

Second, don’t go overboard with things. You’re going to get really excited at first. Everything is new and shiny and great. Relax a little bit. Force yourself to give a little space. Back off. Third, don’t back off so far that you’re not present at all. You’ve got to be somewhere in the middle in terms of presence. You need to find the sweet spot in the beginning between too much and nothing at all if you want things to actually go somewhere long term. Fourth, don’t switch things up just for the sake of doing something new. If something is working, stick with it. Don’t be in a rush to mess things up. Fifth, when that newness wears off, that’s when the real hard work begins.

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When you’ve fallen into a comfort zone, now you have to actually go out of your way and try, or maybe mix something new in every once in a while, otherwise things become stagnant. The parallels to training are pretty clear. Just understand that this applies to a new person just starting training, or even an experienced person who’s just starting a new training block.

The concept of being well rounded is an interesting one when it comes to athletics. Overall from a physical fitness construct perspective, good programming generally develops things in the following order: variability, capacity, and power. Children and young athletes should have lots of sports variability. Children need to develop a wide range of movement patterns and motor programs before specializing later on in their athletic career.

Beginners in a strength and conditioning training environment need to learn lots of different exercises. Beginners need to do plyo’s, change of direction, Olympic lifts, basic barbell exercises, unilateral work, and they need to do different conditioning drills to develop glycolytic and oxidative systems.

Intermediate people tend to do well when capacity becomes the focus. If you have the proper biomechanics for a sports move, do a lot of that sports move and do it well if you are an intermediate who wants to move to the level of advanced.

Once you’re advanced, the primary focus should be power. Power is confusing for a lot of people as a training concept. I prefer to think of it as, “game speed” more than anything.

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The order of developing variability, capacity, and power is incredibly important. You need to have enough movement variability in order to develop a specific capacity. If you don’t have enough movement variability, you likely don’t have the adequate range of motion and coordination to build specific sports movements up. Once you have sufficient work capacity within a given motor pattern family, now fine tune it and accentuate it to its highest form of expression with intensification work.

Intermediate level athletes need to maintain variability while they focus on capacity. Advanced level athletes need to maintain variability and capacity while they focus on power.

Classification is of paramount importance from an applications standpoint within the world of programmed exercise. In strength and conditioning, most coaches use the same taxonomy of loaded movement patterns, and they are familiar with the fact that a deadlift is a potential exercise within the hip dominant category, just as the bench press is an exercise within the horizontal push category. The more that we as a fitness community can develop a taxonomy for classification of exercise, the greater the likelihood that trainees will receive an appropriate dose of the appropriate training modality.

In biology, we have the following taxonomy to determine what living things are.

Life (the construct) broken down into:

Kingdom

Phylum

Class

Order

Family

Genus

Species

Life on Earth can be very diverse, and each creature is here because it came from ancestors who were successful at surviving on this planet. Some forms of life look very bizarre and different from what you might be accustomed to. Regardless of what you think about it, that life form is here because it makes sense on some level (even if you don’t understand why).

If we are better at breaking down the specific components of a life form, then we can study it more accurately and understand it much more clearly. I don’t think fitness development is all that different from the life taxonomy. There’s a million different ways to exercise, and everything probably has a little bit of validity to it, otherwise it probably wouldn’t be here at all. Here is a sample of something that I think could work as a model.

Fitness (as the construct)

Fitness Kingdoms

Variability

Capacity

Power

Training Means

General

General-Specific

Specific

Training Methods

Submaximal Effort Method

Repeated Effort Method

Maximal Effort Method

Dynamic Effort Method

Fitness Patterns

Locomotion

Hip dominant

Knee dominant

Horizontal push/pull

Vertical push/pull

Core control sagittal

Core control frontal/transverse

Explosive heavy

Explosive light

Loaded carry

Exercises within Patterns

Progressions

Regressions

Lateralizations

Work to Rest Ratios

Work output drop offs

Biomarkers values (HR)

Arbitrarily decided sets and reps

Restoration and Recovery

Nutrition

Therapeutics

Pharmacology

Sleep

Periodization

Once such a taxonomy is put into place, decision making capacities of coaches become easier when trying to figure out how to design training plans for specific athletes.

If I have a 15 year old female coming in who reports that she is a soccer player, she will be performing fitness development primarily within the scope of variability. Her training will be general in the weight room. She will utilize exercise within the frame works of the submaximal effort method. Every movement pattern will be addressed. She’ll start with a fairly low level exercise along the regression/progression continuum and we will make advances in her training by moving her up along this continuum rather than by increasing the intensity of exercise. Her work to rest ratios will be primarily based on her heart rate responses, and we will try to maximize cardiovascular and peripheral tissue oxidative adaptations during her initial training blocks. We will educate her on appropriate amounts of sleep, food, and ways which she can balance her life overall.

This would be a very different approach than that which I would take with a 25 year old male looking to win a world championship in power lifting.

I’ve never really wanted to tell people exactly what to do from a details perspective. I just like giving people big picture models to help guide them.

I recommend that you implement the exercises that you know how to coach the best and that you consistently see your clients performing well. The things that you are currently doing in your own training and with the training of your clients are probably the best case idea for you to implement at this point in time in each case, otherwise you’d probably be doing something different.

The world of exercise is very Darwinian. Diversity will always reign supreme, and that which gets results and which people like doing will stand the test of time. Coaches need to figure out what category best suits the individual that they are trying to help reach certain goals. The best coaches are the best at analyzing the athlete/client/individual and providing the right dose of the right exercise at the right time.

About the Author

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pat davidson

-Director of Training Methodology and Continuing Education at Peak Performance, NYC.

-Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, 2009-2011

-Assistant Professor, Springfield College 2011-2014

-Head Coach Springfield College Team Ironsports 2011-2013

-175 pound Strongman competitor. Two time qualifier for world championships at Arnold Classic

-Renaissance Meat Head