With the growth of the Internet and the ever increasingly diverse amount of information, understanding how to program effectively for clients seems to be becoming more confusing rather than less. In fact, visit most commercial sites and you’ll find articles talking about the conjugate method and it’s value in strength training, post activation potentiation (PAP) and it’s importance for power development and the importance of rest periods specified to the nearest second to maintain metabolic stimulus.

The reality is that the majority of personal trainers have clients for whom a 0.2 second improvement in their 100-metre sprint is significantly less important than their waistline measurement or the continuing niggles in their lower back. Because of this, very few members of the general population genuinely warrant the level of programming that is often discussed in training forums.

This article therefore is designed to get back to basics and cover the critical components of program design, because if you’re missing these, all the PAP in the world won’t get your clients the progress they deserve.

Any personal trainer should be able to determine the primary purpose of a programme, just by looking at it. After all, if the goal isn’t apparent at this level, the body will struggle to interpret it correctly.

To ensure that the purpose of the training session is clear enough to elicit a specific and appropriate adaptation, it is worth remembering the following:

Whilst at face value this may seem similar to the purpose, it relates more to the structuring of the programme.

Determining the priority or order of exercises within a programme involves a number of factors:

Prioritising both the workouts and also the exercises correctly will help ensure clients respond optimally to each session.

Often overlooked by newer coaches, preference is an important factor in optimal programme design. In recent years, many coaches have felt that as the experts, their knowledge should trump a client’s preferences. The reality is that with the exception of physical preparation for athletes, clients are looking to personal trainers for exactly that: a personal service.

The skill for coaches lies in having the ability to satisfy a client’s wants, whilst addressing their needs. Obviously there needs to be some authority in the process, for example a male client who only wants to train their chest will never achieve optimal muscular balance and may predispose themselves to shoulder impingement issues. Likewise, a female client who is reluctant to lift weights may struggle to get stronger. That said, a good coach should have the skill to cater to a clients personal preferences and promote compliance at the same time.

In the modern day and age, some clients are exposed to stress levels in excess of those experienced during world wars. As a result, a client’s ability to deal with a particular training approach may be compromised.

Some clients will turn up to a training session ready to give it their all, others will arrive after a stressful day at work or ahead of a return home to an angry spouse. Recognising the state of an individual’s preparedness is a valuable skill. To help with this, the following are some things to look out for when a client arrives at a session:

The important thing here is to recognise that a programme is a plan or strategy for a training session and as a result, should have some fluidity or malleability to it. Whilst programme hopping is rarely productive, persisting rigidly with a workout when a client’s mind-set is wrong is just as inappropriate.


Depending on whom you speak to, progression is either the most important programming consideration or the least. The former is true because, without it there can be little in the way of results. The latter is true because, as people exercise their inherent ability to do more will increase naturally.

That said, every programme should at least plan or propose some progression. The main ways of achieving this are through volume, density and intensity.

Volume – This simply refers to the total amount done, which is typically expressed as the sum of weight x repetitions. Therefore a set of 10 repetitions with 50kg in a given exercise would have a volume value of 500kg per set. A more accurate method is to multiply that number further by the time under tension divided by 10 for that set. So if as in the previous example, the time under tension were 40 seconds, the equation would be:

10 x 50 x 4= 2000

Assuming that the progression was based on volume, the following workout should have an equivalent set with a volume rating higher than 2000. This can be achieved by increasing the repetitions or time under tension.

Repetition Method: 12 x 50 x 4= 2400

Time Under Tension Method: 10 x 50 x 5= 2500

Alternatively, for advanced clients who are at the threshold of their strength, you may choose to combine modifications, i.e. reduce the repetitions and increase the time under tension:

9 x 50 x 4.5 (5 seconds per repetition, totalling 45 seconds of time under tension) = 2025

As displayed above, each method produces a significantly different modification to the volume of work

Density – This simply refers to the amount of work performed in a given amount of time. There are two methods of manipulating the density: increase the work or decrease the time. Consider the following complex:

A1: Barbell Deadlift x 10

A2: Barbell Bent Over Row x 5

A3: Barbell High Hang Power Clean x 3

A4: Barbell Push Press x 5

A5: Barbell Back Squat x 10

If a client performed this circuit as quickly as possible for 5 rounds and recorded the time it took to complete, resting as necessary, they would then need to complete the same amount of work in less time on their subsequent session.

Alternatively, consider the next complex:

A1 Burpees x 10

A2 Push Ups x 10

A3 Get Down Get Ups to Back x 10

A4 Inchworms (static feet) x 10

A5 Vertical Jumps x 10

  1. Purpose
    1. Whatever you do first, you do best – The first exercise/super-set/complex in a programme should be the biggest clue as to its purpose. Not only are people less prone to fatigue and therefore technique breakdown, but the body will also prioritise its response on a first come first served basis.
    2. Consistency is king – If the purpose of the programme is to improve strength, every element of the programme should support that in some way. If the goal is fat loss, the repetition ranges, rest periods and overall volume should all be biased towards that objective.
  2. Priority
    1. Neurological demands

      These are determined by two factors, the intensity of the exercise as a percentage of the clients 1 Rep Max (1RM) and the complexity or coordination demands of the exercise. The higher either of those is, the closer to the start of the programme they should be.

      NB. This applies to both sessions and the programme as a whole. Clients should perform heavy sessions at the start of the week when they’re typically most recovered and higher volume work towards the end of the week. Likewise, the first exercise in a workout should be the one with the greatest neurological demands.

      On some occasions this is more straightforward than others. If performing 5 sets of 5 reps for the deadlift using 85-95% of 1RM in a workout, this would be the first exercise post workout as it would be foolish to try following this with anything more intense due to neural fatigue. A client performing walking barbell lunges however, may be better off performing that exercise first because of the higher balance and stability demands of the exercise. Other exercises score high in both respects, the Olympic lifts being obvious examples, having both high skill requirements and also the potential to be performed with heavy weights.

    2. Focus – As the session progresses, blood flow will be diverted away from the brain and towards muscles. For this reason clients will lose focus and technique or commitment may be compromised. Consequently it’s important to ensure that the mental demands of the exercise diminish as the session progresses.
    3. Work capacity – The more experienced or the fitter an individual is, the greater their ability to sustain a certain level of work. Therefore beginners should finish their workouts with lower intensity and complexity activity such as cardiovascular or corrective exercise. Despite many strength coaches concern that cardiovascular (CV) exercise after strength training may compromise the effectiveness of the session, there is little evidence to support this, provided the CV is not excessive.
  3. Preference
  4. Preparedness
    1. Handshake – if you greet your clients at the start of their session, the handshake can be a valuable assessment tool. Is it firm or weak, is there energy in it, or is it listless? A weak or listless handshake may indicate that a client is not in a ‘give it their all’ state. Consequently, you should take steps to either address this if appropriate or adjust their session to factor their energy levels into account.
    2. Appearance – whilst incredibly subjective, there is still a lot of worth to simply asking yourself whether your client ‘looks’ tired or ready to train. Skin tone, posture and general demeanour can all provide insights into the client’s mental state.
    3. Punctuality – clients who arrive early are generally keen to put a lot into their sessions, although this isn’t always the case. Clients who arrive late however, are often distracted or unfocussed and it’s therefore worth taking a few minutes to get them back on track and in the zone.
  5. Progression

In this case, the client may have 5 minutes to go through the above sequence as many times as possible and then record the total number of repetitions performed. All exercises have to be done in order and you can only move on to the next exercise once all repetitions on the current exercise are complete. The progression here is in getting a higher number of repetitions in each set in subsequent workouts.

The key when manipulating density is to look at the overall workout, rather than individual sets. A client may perform an additional 12 reps in their first set, but 4 less in their next set and the same amount in their final set. Overall this still represents progress, so it is important to make clients aware that the overall result is the end goal, irrespective of individual sets.

Intensity – This typically refers to the load used relative to an individuals 1 repetition maximum (1RM). This means that a set or workout where the loads used were greater than of the previous training session would be classed as higher intensity.

Whilst not always true, as the intensity of the session increases, it is advisable to decrease the volume. This assumes that loads of 85% of the individuals 1RM or greater are being used and that an increase in load would prevent the same number of repetitions from being completed. Decreasing the training volume, whilst also increasing intensity, can also help to prevent overtraining and/or neural fatigue.

Most clients will progress simply as a result of the increased activity and associated challenge to their bodies, certainly in the initial stages. However, once the rapid adaptation period is over, it’s important to plan progression into their programme and monitor their development in line with it.

Try and avoid getting caught up in online debates about the value of wave loading patterns in fat-loss programmes and instead focus on getting really good at the basics. Unless you train competitive athletes, your clients expect a personal training service. It should be one that treats them as individuals and adapts and develops according to their wants and needs on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. Do that and assuming that all of the above 5 factors are considered when designing a client’s programme, you’ll be giving them the service they want and deserve.