Writing programs is easy. You just need to do between 1-20 sets of 1-100 reps per muscle group at between 5-120% of your 1RM and rest for 1-300 minutes between sets. It’s science. This is obviously an exaggeration of what is written in most textbooks, but most textbooks provide general guidelines but fail to explain how to individualize those numbers for your client.
This is what textbooks are meant for, though. To give you a general idea of how to write a workout based on what is effective for the majority of the population. So, if you follow the guidelines listed, you’ll likely provide some decent results for your client, but what’s next? Do you just add weight to the bar? Do you perform more sets? More reps? What happens if they don’t get better, or even worse, decrease in performance? Do you just go back and repeat the previous program?
The reality is that most humans will respond similarly to various types of stimuli. If you lift heavy, they’ll get strong. If you do a lot of volume, they’ll get big assuming they’re eating enough (read The Ultimate Guide to Muscle Gain and Hypertrophy).
What differs is their starting point, how much volume/intensity they require to see adaptation, and their ability to recover from training. Implementing the concept of structural balance, INOL, and utilizing a general training framework while adjusting to fatigue can help you design an initial program and provide you the data to successfully write future programs.
What is Structural Balance?
First, let’s define terms. Structural balance merely implies that your total body musculature is balanced. So, the muscles on the anterior side of your body aren’t overpowering the muscles on the posterior side of the body, and you don’t walk around like a gorilla with a massive upper body and undersized lower body.
To determine if a client is structurally balanced, you should do two things. The first thing is a simple postural assessment. Depending on how comfortable you are with the client can determine how in-depth you can get. For example, an athlete you’ve worked with in the past who is extremely confident might not have an issue with taking their shirt off so you can see how their scapula move.
An overweight 40-year-old woman who is already super anxious about training will likely be made that much more uncomfortable if you ask her to remove her shirt. Regardless of whether you have your client keep their shirt on or off, you can generally see major imbalance like overly kyphotic T-spines or internally rotated shoulders.
The second would be by performing a variety of different exercises and comparing their maxes or calculated maxes. It should be noted that you would only do this with a client who has some degree of a training history or a client who has been through a movement emphasis training block with you like Block 0. So, if the client is capable of performing maxes, or rep maxes, you can see where their imbalances exist.
The Intensity Number of Lifts (INOL)
The next definition we need to look at is INOL. INOL is shorthand for the intensity number of lifts. It takes a look at the intensity from a %1RM standpoint and the number of lifts performed at those percentages. The actual calculation used is (Reps/(100-Intensity)). This provides you with a score for a certain lift.
In his paper, How to Design Strength Training Programs Using Prilipen's Table, Hristo Hristov has recommendations regarding what score won’t cause enough stress for adaptation, what causes enough stress for adaptation, and what causes too much fatigue for effective adaptation. Even if you don’t utilize his specific numbers, utilizing INOL is an effective tool for gauging how much volume and intensity your client adapts to most efficiently.
Autoregulation: Adjusting Your Training to Your Needs
The final definition is autoregulation. Autoregulation allows you to adjust your program based on things like your recovery and CNS readiness. There are a variety of different ways to utilize autoregulation which we’ll get into later in this article.
The terms are defined, so what do we do with them? Well first let’s look at our structural balance. When looking at structural balance I recommend utilizing exercises that are pertinent to your client’s goals. For example, if they’re a weightlifter, or you have an athlete that will regularly be utilizing the Olympic lifts, you can test the snatch, clean, and jerk.
If you don’t plan on utilizing the Olympic lifts then there’s no reason to include them in the structural balance test. If this is the case, I recommend testing the conventional deadlift, back squat, front squat, bench press, overhead press, and barbell row.
Since maxing out, or performing AMRAPs, on multiple exercises is very fatiguing, I would split the exercises up between 2-3 days with 1-4 days in between. After getting all of your maxes, or calculated maxes from your AMRAPs, you can see what the correlation is between lifts and where your client’s imbalances might be.
To determine how each lift should be correlated, you can look at the work of people like Charles Poliquin, Christian Thibedeau, and Travis Mash. They’ve all written about the importance of structural balance and what constitutes structural balance.
Exercise Selection and Baselines
A possible example of structural balance would be utilizing the back squat as your reference lift. If your client back squats 100 lbs, then to be structurally balanced they should be able to front squat 85 lbs, conventional deadlift 110 lbs, bench press 75 lbs, barbell row 52.5 lbs, and overhead press 45 lbs (read Know Your Ratios, Destroy Weaknesses).
Now when looking at your structural balance assessment, you need to also take into account the anthropometrics of the client. If you have a client who has extremely long legs and short arms, they are most likely not going to be able to deadlift 110% of their back squat.
If they have a massive chest and super short arms, then they may be able to bench press greater than 75% of their bench press due simply to the shorter range of motion they need to move the bar. So, use the numbers of your structural balance assessment as your baseline, but adjust it as needed due to the anthropometrics of your client.
Utilizing your structural balance test, you can determine which exercises you want to emphasize within your training block. Determining exercise selection can be done a multitude of ways. One simple way is to train each movement category all three days of the week with your primary weakness earliest in the workout and your strengths later in the workout to ensure you’re getting the highest quality reps for your primary weakness.
If we split our movement categories into deadlift/Olympic variation, squat/lunge variation, upper body push, and upper body pull, we can then include an exercise from each of those categories in the workout. Since all exercises are not created equal in regard to the stress they impose, it’s a good idea to utilize exercises of descending stress throughout the workout.
So instead of utilizing the highest stress exercises in each movement category and including conventional deadlift, back squat, bench press, barbell row you can use exercises of descending stress like a conventional deadlift, front squat, overhead press, chin-up.
Determining Individualized Intensities Using INOL
Now that you have your exercises selected, we can take a look at intensities. Utilizing the concept of INOL, and Hristov’s numbers, we can see that you want at least a score of 0.4 in a workout during week 1. Anything below this generally doesn’t cause enough stress to cause positive adaptation.
0.4-1 is considered very doable and optimal if you’re not accumulating fatigue and 1-2 is considered tough, but good for loading phases. I’m a big proponent of utilizing the minimum effective dose to get strength gains and think it’s always better to undershoot and increase training stress rather than overshoot it and potentially set yourself back.
With this in mind, I’d recommend using a score of 0.8 initially for your primary exercise. So whatever loading parameter you utilize, whether it’s straight sets, wave loading, working up to something heavy and performing back-down sets, when you put it into the equation (reps/(100-intensity), it should come out as 0.8.
This number can be increased by up to 10-20% initially for your primary exercise, but you’ll need to decrease some of your other exercise categories by the same percentage. With each week, you can decrease the volume and increase the intensity. After each training block, increase the INOL of week 1.
If the previous training block was effective, then increase the week 1 INOL to 0.88. If that ends up being effective, then increase it to 0.96. Keep increasing it until you no longer see a positive adaptation. If INOL ends up being too great in a single training session, and you routinely can’t recover enough for another hard training session that week, then it’s better to decrease the volume on that day and add another training session within the week.
It’s at this point when you look back at your training logs, and see what week 1 INOL your client had the greatest improvement on. Utilize that amount of training volume the majority of the year, while occasionally going above and below it to overreach and recover at times, and you’ll be setting your client up for their best opportunity for success since the volume is individualized to them.
It’s important to remember that when you train, you’re not training in a vacuum. What happens on day 1 affects day 2. With this in mind, we want to have the ability to auto-regulate our client’s training based on what we are capable of on a given day.
There might be days where your client didn’t get enough sleep, didn’t eat enough calories, their significant other broke up with them, or the previous training session was too stressful, so they can’t hit the numbers they’re supposed to hit on that day. This can become very obvious once the client starts training, and you can make an adjustment then, but ideally, you want to be able to adjust their training before the training starts.
To make the call on whether or not to change the plan, you’ll want to utilize some type of procedure for measuring CNS readiness. There are a variety of options. One option would be to test heart rate variability (HRV). There’s a variety of tools you can purchase to measure HRV, but they’ll end up costing you anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Another way is by measuring bar speed at a reference percentage for a reference lift. The equipment for this also would cost you a couple hundred or a few thousand dollars. These are great tools to utilize, so if you have the resources, then I would recommend getting them since they’ll provide you with a ton of training data.
If, however, you don’t have the money for an HRV or accelerometer equipment, then you can utilize cheaper methods like a hand dynamometer. In Thomas Kurtz book, Science of Sports Training, he discusses measuring grip strength to test recovery since grip strength is correlated with CNS readiness.
He states that if an athlete has a decrease of grip strength more than 2 kg, then they are under-recovered. A hand dynamometer can be purchased for as little as $20. The important thing is that you utilize the same hand dynamometer every time you test because if you use different ones, it will decrease the reliability and validity of your test.
Another thing to consider is that if you have a lot of training that taxes your grip then you might get a low score due to peripheral fatigue instead of systemic fatigue. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have a secondary test like a countermovement jump height.
If your client is under-recovered and needs a lighter training session, then you can utilize the ‘rule of 60’ and decrease training volume load to 60% of your original plan (read Supertraining). Instead of decreasing the volume in the form of sets/reps, I’d recommend decreasing it by training intensity (%1RM) since the under-recovered athlete's max for that day is likely lower and this still provides plenty of practice with the movement.
Continuous Assessment and Adjustment
Utilizing INOL with your auto-regulation protocol will also help you plan for the future. At the end of each training block, take a look at the adjustments you had to make and what the INOL your client ended up doing as a result of those adjustments. This will give you a better picture of what training volume your client can actually adapt to and allow you to more efficiently plan future training blocks.
Initial training programs for any client is always an educated guess, but utilizing these tools in a bottom-up approach, will allow you to use more of a top-down approach in future programming for your client. Seeing how they adapt to a certain program allows you to better understand them and create more individualized plan overtime.
Everyone adapts similarly to similar stimuli but having the ability to individualize a program to each client will increase their chance for continuous optimal results. Set yourself apart from other coaches and utilize your tools to provide the best program for your clients.