Advanced Program Design Part 1

Jul 25, 2022


(Originally posted in Dec. 2008)


My recent experiences with Crossfit caused me to put some ideas down on paper. I think it is important to write down what you really believe just so you have to think about what your philosophy actually is. 

In my Advanced Program Design DVD set, I expanded on a lot of these concepts. I think the real key to program design is not to adopt someone else's philosophy but to develop your own? What does this mean? This means that coaches need to do what's best, not what's trendy. Coaches should not simply copy someone else's system. In order for a coach to do this they need to do three very important things.

Think- What will work best for my athletes?
Question- Don't copy. Ask yourself "why is this exercise in my program?"
Analyze- Look for programs that get the type of result you want.

Creating a Great Program

To create a great program it is important to have some underlying goals or objectives. Your goals or your objectives should be simple and reflect your fundamental beliefs.

Objective 1- Prevent Injuries in the Actual Training Process

I used to believe that the assumption above was so basic and common sense that it did not need to be mentioned. However, the proliferation of programs that flirt with or cross the line between safe and unsafe makes me realize that objective one needs to be stated clearly. In order to prevent injuries in the actual training process coaches need to minimize risk. This does not mean eliminate risk, only minimize it. Everything you want to include in the program must be analyzed in terms of risk/ benefit ratio. Simply put, is the benefit of the exercise worth the risk inherent in the exercise ? This ratio of risk to benefit changes with age and, with levels of experience. Things like squats, deadlifts, and Olympics lifts, although excellent choices, may not be for everyone.

There are two simple things we need to accept to become better coaches:

1- Injuries in training are our fault
2- No one should be injured while training

Vern Gambetta, speaking at a seminar nearly fifteen years ago, stated that coaches need to accept responsibility for injuries in programs they design. That statement was a turning point for me as a coach. Up until that day I would have classified myself as just another meathead strength coach. I believed that " real lifters" should have sore shoulders and sore backs. I believed it was just a by-product of training hard. Upon leaving that seminar I think I took my first step toward becoming a real coach. I made a conscious decision to make my athletes better on the field and, keep them healthy in training. I am ashamed that this was such an epiphany.

Bottom line, no one should ever be injured in training. Does this mean we train with machines and take no risks? No, it means that we constantly balance risk/ benefit ratios. What I do with a young healthy twenty year old is different than what I do with my 35 year NHL clients. What I do with my 35 year old NHL clients is different than what I do with my 55 year old personal training clients. One size does not fit all and neither does one exercise.

This is the reason we do front squats versus back squats and, never use box squats. It is the same reason we Olympic lift from a hang position above the knees rather than the floor. As coaches we must constantly make choices that balance the risk/ benefit ratio.

Objective 2- Reduce Incidence of Performance Related Injury

The second objective of quality strength program is to reduce the incidence of injury in performance. I used to view this as goal number one, however recent developments in the field have made me adjust. Notice I said reduce versus prevent. No coach will prevent injury. Injuries will happen. However it is critical to realize that our primary goals are to prevent injury, not improve performance. In both the NFL and the NHL strength and conditioning program success is measured by the strength and conditioning coaches ability to keep the best players playing. The NHL uses a stat called Man Games Lost, the NFL uses Starters Games Missed. In either case, the great teams have their best players playing.

Objective 3- Improve Performance

The biggest take-away point of this article is this is not objective one. First, we need to keep training as safe as possible. Then we need to work to prevent/ reduce injury potential. Finally, we get improved performance. I know there are many that disagree. I can't tell you how many times I have heard coaches talk about the need to "take risks", "lay it on the line" etc. etc.. I can only tell you that those who advocate risk usually work in the area of fitness where they can brainwash clients and dispose easily of the injured. In the world of sports, coaches take injury very seriously and strength and conditioning coaches who encourage their athletes to "lay it on the line" in training end up in a different line, the unemployment line. However, there needs to be balance. A vanilla machine-based program with no risk will not reduce the incidence of performance related injury. The key is developing the ability to balance risk/ benefit ratio. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

If you are interested in the Program Design check out Functional Strength Coach 7 or, the whole Functional Strength Coach series at