Program design is one of those topics that is overwhelming both to read and write about. Most literature is necessarily nebulous and vague, and individuals interested in learning more often find themselves inundated with a collection of concepts that fail to fit together easily than with a set of practical rules they can implement.
So instead of talking about ideas in this article, I want to run through the process of actually designing a real program and discuss the rationale for various decisions. The athlete whose program I’ll be using as my example is probably fairly well representative of many Performance Menu readers with regard to age, obligations, recovery and the other factors that contribute to her particular difficulties. For our purposes here, we’ll call her Brooke.
Brooke has been part of our lifting team for several months. She’s in her mid-thirties, works a very stressful job, tends to take on additional hours, never sleeps enough, and usually fails to eat enough. However, she is extremely motivated and committed to lifting.
Technically she is quite good. There are a few issues that plague her, though, and have been extraordinarily frustrating. For example, as she reaches 85-90% or more snatching, she will begin shifting forward into the bar, cut off her pull and try to swing herself under the bar; in her cleans, she will again cut her pull short and drop out from under the bar, allowing it to pull her forward and crash on her. With regard to strength, her pulling is very strong relative to her classic lifts, but her squatting is comparatively weak, despite squatting being her favorite thing to do.
The way programming works with our team is that I write one team program that all lifters follow with minor individual modifications until they reach a point at which a completely individual program is necessary or warranted. Until this point, Brooke has been on the team program, but her progress has ground to a halt despite occasional off-the-cuff modifications to account for fatigue and technical issues. Following Nationals, I gave her a week off, during which she actually trained two days just doing light hang work and squats, and she began a program of her own this week.
When designing the program, I obviously wanted to take advantage of the fact that it was for her alone and could individualize it entirely. This means I could address her strength deficits, her technical needs and her recovery limitations exactly as I wanted to (short of making her quit her job, eat perfectly and sleep 14 hours a day).
The Basic Structure
Brooke’s most pressing need is improving her leg strength. She has essentially brought her classic lift ability to the margins of her available strength. Because of her limited recovery capacity, I needed to reduce the volume and intensity of her other training in order to emphasize this strength development. At the same time, she needed to continue improving certain technical flaws.
I decided to use a squat cycle created by Tim Swords of Team Houston. This is a 7-week cycle that has her squatting 3 days each week, uses both front and back squats, and is fairly low volume. I’ve had success with it in the past with other athletes and like the principle behind it. This squat program created the foundation for Brooke’s cycle. I will be monitoring her squatting efforts each day and considering the possibility of reducing the weight occasionally based on how difficult I expect a given squat session to be.
The lifting team trains Monday-Thursday and Saturday. I placed her squats on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for even spacing and because there is no consistent pattern in the cycle that would have the heaviest session falling on a certain day each week. Because recovery is a big issue, I kept other heavy lifts to these days, and left Monday and Wednesday reserved more for lighter technical work that wouldn’t tax her unnecessarily, but would keep her moving and give us opportunities to improve technical elements that we needed to work on.
Volume & Intensity
The first week of the cycle, the volume comes in at just under 200 reps, which is low, but not extremely so—much of the volume is coming from light technique work, so I’m less concerned with its effect. This will reduce week to week for a few weeks, probably jump up a bit again, and then reduce until the final week of the program. I’m keeping this flexible and will adjust as I go in response to her performance.
The only weights I’ve prescribed for the entire cycle are for her squats, according to Coach Swords’ program (which again, I may adjust slightly if needed). For the remaining exercises, I’ve prescribed only reps and sets. I will control the weights day to day according to how Brooke is lifting. The goal with these exercises is ensuring excellent and consistent execution, not reaching heavy weights—her squatting will take care of strength development during this cycle.
Brooke is prone to getting a little carried away with core training if left unsupervised, and will rack up quite a bit of additional volume hammering away at ab and back work. For this reason, I’ve prescribed exactly the core work I want her to do, and she knows to do only this.
With the foundation of the squat cycle in place, I needed to consider Brooke’s remaining needs and work within my limited volume and intensity constraints to address them as well as possible. The most frustrating issue for Brooke is her stalled progress on the snatch; this frustration arises more from the fact that her failure to snatch heavier weights appears to be more of a mental and technical issue than a strength or speed issue. That is, as she approaches her maximum snatch weight, she departs from her previously sound technical execution and resorts to chasing the bar with her hips, shifting onto the balls of her feet too early, quitting her leg drive completely, and trying to swing the bar around and duck under it.
As a former volleyball player, Brooke’s vertical jump was quite good. At present, it is about 17”, which is decent for her height, but also indicative of a need to improve her explosiveness. This is also very clear in her heavier snatch and clean attempts. In order to work on this, I tacked on box jumps immediately after each set of squats. The number of jump reps will reduce over time as the squat cycle gets more demanding. Box height is selected to be comfortably under a maximum, but high enough to warrant some effort. Too high of a box, and athletes tend to cut their jumps short in order to reach their feet up to the box; this is a problem across the board, but particularly in this case, considering that one of Brooke’s primary problems is quitting early on the leg drive of her snatch and clean. On Saturdays, I also have her doing box jumps as the first exercise in her workout as a way to try to get her firing both physically and mentally.
Brooke’s cleans are considerably better and more consistent than her snatches, so far more emphasis is being placed on the snatch. Further, her jerk is outstanding and needs minimal practice. Generally I like to balance work between snatch and clean & jerk pretty evenly, but in the case of limited work capacity and recovery, it’s important to prioritize.
Mondays are a snatch focus day. Brooke starts with a snatch high-pull + muscle snatch complex. The snatch high-pull accomplishes two primary goals—to encourage her to finish driving with her legs all the way to the top of the pull, and to elevate the elbows maximally rather than dropping them early to swing the bar. Brooke’s snatch turnover has been weak and unaggressive historically, and one of the biggest problems with snatch turnovers in general is the absence of an aggressive initial pull against the bar with the arms to both accelerate the lifter down and set the bar and body position ideally to turn the arms over into the final overhead position.
Muscle snatches are also a commonly poorly-performed exercise, with athletes dropping the elbows and simply pressing the bar up awkwardly. The point of the muscle snatch is to strengthen the movement of the turnover—unless the positions and movements are correct, it will fail in this goal. Performing a snatch high-pull immediately before a muscle snatch is a reliable way to get a lifter to perform the muscle snatch with the necessary elbow elevation. The goal for the muscle snatches is to both drill the proper turnover movement and to strengthen it so it’s less likely Brooke will deviate from it as her snatch weights increase.
In addition to this, the pull and muscle snatch both provide opportunities for Brooke to focus on her start position, in which she tends to keep her shoulders behind the bar rather than above it, and on getting back onto and staying on her heels.
The weight for this exercise is taken up gradually, and at the heaviest weight that is moving well and her elbows are reaching full height, I will stop her and have her perform the prescribed number of sets.
After this comes a snatch high-pull + snatch complex. Already Brooke has drilled the muscle snatch and snatch pull movements, so these parts of her snatches will be quite sound. Preceding each snatch with a snatch high-pull again encourages proper weight balance on the feet, complete leg drive with her extension, and the aggressive and complete elbow extension necessary for a good third pull.
Brooke will take the weight up gradually and I will choose the weight I want her to use for the prescribed sets and reps—this is a weight that she can perform as close to perfectly as can be expected.
She finishes Monday with a few sets of hanging leg raises.
On Tuesday, Brooke starts with mid-hang power cleans. The purpose of this exercise is to have her practice the proper finish for her cleans, to encourage a more aggressive change of direction and pull under, and meeting the bar with the shoulders higher. Like in the snatch, Brooke tends to slide forward on her feet and cut her leg drive short as her clean weights increase, and drop out from under the bar in an effort to get under it, which cause it to crash on her and limit her ability to recover.
Starting her in the mid-hang position lets me place her in the perfect second-pull position and allows her to feel where her balance should be on her feet and where the bar and her shoulders should be. This starting position also forces an aggressive extension, quick change of direction, and aggressive pull under because of the limited distance to accelerate the bar; forcing a power receipt increases these demands even more. The power clean additionally encourages her to receive the bar as quickly and as high as possible, and to aggressive resist the downward force, rather than pulling down indiscriminately and allowing the bar to fall and crush her.
Next Brooke performs 3 halting snatch deadlifts + 1 snatch pull. The focus for this exercise is the positioning and balance of the first and second pulls—more specifically, keeping the shoulders over instead of behind the bar off the ground; shifting back onto the heels immediately and staying there all the way to the top; and staying over the bar as long as possible. The halting snatch deadlift stops with the bar in the crease of the hips, the knees very slightly bent, the shoulders slightly in front of the bar, and the weight back on the heels. After 3 of these, she performs a snatch pull. The idea is that this pull will be consistently better because of the immediately preceding position practice with the halting deadlifts. Again, I control the weight of these to ensure quality execution. My goal is to be able to continue increasing the weight on these for the duration of the cycle, likely dropping the number of halting deadlifts as we go.
To finish the day, Brooke performs the week’s first squat session.
On Wednesday, we start with 3 sets of 5 mid-hang muscle snatches. This is set up to really develop turnover strength—by starting from mid-thigh, the acceleration possible with the legs and hips is reduced and the shoulders and arms must do more of the work. Each rep must be done precisely.
Next, Brooke does mid-hang snatches. The rationale for these is similar to that described previously for the mid-hang power cleans; that is, we want to force correct position and aggressive and complete extension and turnover. The muscle snatches before help her keep the turnover strong and accurate.
She finishes the day with planks, weighted as needed to keep her times between 30-60 seconds. This keeps Wednesdays a fairly short and less-taxing day to give her some recovery room for Thursday’s squats and the rest of the week.
On Thursday, Brooke gets a clean focus day. She starts with 3 halting clean deadlifts + 1 clean pull to accomplish the same thing described for the deadlift + pull complex on Tuesday. She then moves on to a power clean + clean complex. After the deadlift + pull complex, her positions tend to be better and more consistent. The power clean before the clean encourages her to be more aggressive at the top and with the change of direction and turnover, and also it gives her a reference point for the height at which she should be receiving the bar for the clean. Weights are again controlled by me according to how she’s lifting. Brooke finishes the day with the week’s second squat session.
After a rest day on Friday, Brooke gets to snatch and clean & jerk on Saturday without any drill work other than the 3 sets of box jumps she starts the day with. Weights will change week to week. On the first week, Brooke takes both up to the heaviest single she can do well that day. On week 2, she snatches to the heaviest single possible for the day, but does only 60% in her clean & jerk for 5 singles. On week 3, she will do the opposite of week 2. This will repeat, and on the final Saturday, she will get to take both to a max for the day. She then does her last squat session of the week, and finishes the day with more planks.
One of the primary themes of this cycle is flexibility. This is a tough one for many athletes and coaches, who have meltdowns at the thought of deviating from a plan. The reality of programming, however, is that it involves elements of estimation, guesswork, prediction and plain old luck. The chance of even a relatively short cycle, such as this 7-week one, going its duration without any unexpected problems is low. A great way to prevent progress is to force a rigid program onto a constantly changing set of circumstances. Having a plan is critical, but planning to adjust and adapt will allow that plan to be successful.