Is your training program making you a better, more efficient athlete — or is it leading you straight to a frustrating plateau? In this article, I’ll highlight three big program-design mistakes that inevitably lead to stalled progress and subpar results. Plus, I’ll show you how to fix them by doing the opposite of what most athletes and trainers do.
Mistake #1: Trying to improve everything at once.
Solution: Narrow your training focus (especially if you’re a newbie).
When it comes to programming, one of the most common mistakes both coaches and athletes make is to try to improve too many different things at once. While it’s easy to think you can get stronger, improve your conditioning, build muscle, and burn fat all at the same time, it’s just not realistic for anyone but a beginner.
If you’re a beginner, then training many different areas of fitness all together does in fact work. That’s because when fitness levels are very low, just about anything works, simply because there’s so much room for improvement.
But as your level of fitness increases, continuing to train in the same way is a recipe for frustrating plateaus and lack of progress. That’s because the higher your fitness level, the more stress your body needs to change and adapt. Which means your training has to get more targeted.
The key to successful program design — especially for non-beginners — is to set the right goal from the start.
The single most important way to avoid frustrating plateaus is to start by building your entire program around a single training goal. The real key here is to make the goal as specific as possible.
Instead of saying, “I want to get stronger,” you need to be much more specific:
- Which lifts do you want to get stronger in?
- What type of strength do you want to develop?
- How much stronger can you realistically get in the next six to twelve weeks?
Why beginners should avoid “getting stronger”.
If you’ve been training five years or more, your strength goals need to based on a single lift or a single movement pattern. (Beginners can easily see improvement in strength across 4-5 different lifts in a given program.)
If squatting is your biggest weakness, don’t build a training program with the general goal of getting “stronger.” Instead, build it specifically around improving your squat.
Make the squat your primary exercise in two or three sessions per week. Build your accessory exercises around improving squat strength. Work on improving your squat technique.
The same thing applies to conditioning-based goals as well. Instead of starting with the goal of “improving conditioning,” first look at no more than two or three markers of conditioning and build your program around increasing those. Make your goal to lower your resting heart rate by three to five beats-per-minute, or cut 20 seconds off your mile time.
A narrowly defined goal — especially for more advanced athletes — will ensure that you actually make progress instead of spinning your wheels.
Mistake #2: Using too many methods and exercises
Solution: Use less variety
As a direct result of starting with goals that are overly broad, another common programming mistake is to use too much variety within the program itself. Think of it this way: if you’re trying to improve ten different things, there’s no way to avoid lots of different methods and exercises.
It may seem counterintuitive, but too much variety is the enemy of progress because the body doesn’t get the consistent and targeted stimulus that it needs to improve.
A lot of programs today are filled with endless variety — a consequence of Crossfit and group-fitness style training. But if “fitness” was simply a matter of shoving the most exercises into the shortest timeframe, then avoiding plateaus would be easy and everyone would be in great shape.
The truth, though, is that using twenty different exercises per workout and totally different exercises each and every workout, is a surefire way to quickly hit a wall.
Consistency, not variety, is what you should be aiming for when it comes to programming.
This means that another one of the keys to avoiding plateaus is to do the opposite of what most people think and use less variety. In fact, if you’re a high-level athlete, or are just in great shape, I suggest that you use dramatically less variety.
The higher your level of fitness, the fewer training methods and core exercises you should be using within your program. Again, to increase fitness to higher and higher levels means the stress you place on your body must be more and more targeted. Using too many exercises and methods spreads the stress out too much and reduces its effectiveness.
Here’s a good general rule of thumb to determine what’s appropriate:
- Low fitness: 4-5 methods, 12-15 exercises
- Moderate fitness: 3-4 methods, 8-12 exercises
- High fitness: 3-4 methods, 6-8 exercises
- World-class fitness: 2-3 methods, 4-5 exercises
For example. Let’s say you’ve already got a high level of fitness, but you want to improve your conditioning to an even higher level. Using the guidelines above, you’d want to focus on using no more than 3-4 primary methods. You’d want to select higher intensity methods like threshold training, cardiac power intervals, and high resistance intervals. (If you’re not familiar with these methods, you can learn more about them here.)
When it comes to exercises, again you’d want to limit them to no more than 6-8 and select them based on the chosen methods and where your specific weaknesses are. If you struggle with running, for example, you’d want to use one or two sprinting variations for the threshold and cardiac power intervals. Keep the same exercises throughout the program and resist the temptation to add variety just for the sake of variety.
Fewer methods and exercises means your body will see a much more consistent stimulus — and this consistency is what drives progress. Once you’ve set your goals and selected the minimum number of methods and exercises necessary, the final step to avoiding plateaus is understanding the relationship between intensity and frequency.
Mistake #3: Training like a beast all the time.
Solution: Train like a beast some of the time.
If the 1980’s were about big hair and aerobics class, the 2000’s have been about intensity. Everywhere you look, you see someone trying to interval themselves to death.
Who knows where it all started. Whether it was with the Tabata research, the explosion of CrossFit, or something else, the “no pain, no gain” motto has taken over almost every area of fitness and programming.
Though intensity is no doubt a big driver of improving fitness, it’s not the only one. Even more important to understand is that there is a direct trade-off between intensity and the other side of the equation: volume and frequency.
In other words, the higher the intensity, the lower the volume and frequency has to be. Try to put together a program any other way and sooner or later, you’ll not only hit a plateau, you’ll likely get injured.
The dark side of high-intensity training
I’ve talked about sympathetic overload before, but if you’re not familiar with it and its consequences, you can read this comprehensive article on Strength Hacking with HRV.
Here’s sympathetic overload in a nutshell: Intensity (how hard you work) drives high levels of sympathetic hormones like adrenaline. When these hormones get too high for too long, bad things happen. First, the receptors they bind to start to downregulate. Second, inflammation starts to become chronic.
In other words, high intensity has a downside. So you have to use it carefully if you want to avoid plateaus and injuries.
What to do next
What’s the best way to achieve the right balance of intensity, volume and frequency? How about we wrap this article up with a nice little bow and give you some direct action steps.
Here are some guidelines to follow:
- Look at your current training program (or your client’s program) and ask yourself: “What is the one single area of fitness that I really need to improve the most?”
- Design an 8-12 week training program where you spend roughly 70% of your total training time working on the particular training goal that you chose in step one. For strength related goals, you’ll want to train the core lift(s) and accessories that you’re trying to improve 3-4 days per week. For conditioning goals, you’ll need to up that to 4-5 days per week.
- Select the appropriate number of different methods and exercises based on the fitness level guidelines I mentioned earlier. Make sure to choose exercises that are specific to your individual weaknesses and goals — and don’t go overboard. Just pick enough to get the job done.
- Use high intensity in your training 2-3 days per week at most. This will prevent sympathetic overload, overtraining, and chronic overuse injuries. Always strive to use only as much intensity as necessary, rather than as much as possible.
In my experience, most people — whether coaches or athletes — tend to overlook simple fixes to make their programming more effective. But just like most things in life, the more you simplify and focus your efforts, the better results you get.