With the New Year coming around, you may be looking at a new program to follow if your last program was not what you expected, or you may be looking to improve your own program design if you can't afford a coach and programming option. If these are the cases, there are three major aspects of programming you should look for....
3. Patterns and Consistency
The biggest mistake I see beginners do with programming is too much variation. Variation can be defined as "The manipulation of training variables to prevent staleness and injury and to magnify the long-term adaptive response to training." (Scientific Principles of Strength training). We can manipulate Variation through volume, intensity, exercise selection, frequency, to name a few variables. By manipulating these variables, we can change the goals of training. For example, during a work capacity/hypertrophy phase, we will have the highest amount of variation, usually in the form of exercise selection and frequency of training or interacting with these exercises.
The general drawbacks to Variation is that people either A) do too much variation and B) moving outside the requirements of your sport and C) not falling within the goals of the cycle (or having a goal). Sticking with our Hypertrophy/Work Capacity phase example, the variation of exercise selection will be the highest compared to a Strength or Peaking Phase of training. This doesn't mean that we want to use ever exercise in the book; too much variation in exercises, such as picking a new exercise each week, or using a new exercise for every day of the week, you won't create any kind of adaptation. Even if our goal is very general, such as improving leg conditioning, and we only have 3 days per week to train, sticking with the same weekly pattern of exercises will ensure that we are keeping the stimulus the same via movement patterns. So utilizing say Back Squat, then Front Squat, then Overhead Squats for each day of our 3 day per week training week, we keep one aspect of stimulus the same for our greater goal. From here we can manipulate a few other aspects of training, specifically auxiliary work, to help train leg conditioning, with more exercise variation, while maintaining a set amount of exercises for our foundation of training.
If you're training for a specific sport, your training should be able to reflect that, to a certain degree. Too many times, strength coaches or programmers mistake the weight room as an opportunity to do "sports specific" tasks with a dumbbell or barbell. Strength and conditioning apparatus are not meant to mimic the sport movements themselves. Unless you're in Powerlifting, Weightlifting, or CrossFit, exercises are not your sport, they are meant to increase certain aspects of fitness or athleticism to improve sports specific tasks. Whipping dumbbells in your hands while doing a box step up to mimic a tackle will not improve your ability to bring a running back down (yes, I've seen this done), and your time, your very limited time working with athletes, should be focused on making them stronger, more powerful, or last longer during workouts.
Probably the most common mistake after too much variation in exercise is too much variation in reps, sets, and intensities to where you're falling out of the goal of the phase of training. If you're in a hypertrophy phase of training, you'll typically stick between 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps between 60-75% 1RM; strength phases usually 3-6 set of 3-6 reps 75-85% 1RM; peaking 5-10 sets of 1-3 85-100% 1RM. This gets into a grey area of what kind of sets and reps and intensities work for sports like Weightlifting and CrossFit, where they are relatively new to the west and anecdotal evidence still reigns, but I've found that typically the intensity ranges for traditional strength ranges works for the same goals in Weightlifting (hypertrophy: 60-75%, strength 75-85%, peaking 85-100%) with higher volume strategies, like triples doubles and complexes, work for hypertrophy phases, while singles work for either strength or peaking phases, depending on the rest period.
Concurrent training and CrossFit training is a newer principle to me, as I was always taught it was impossible to get stronger while being able to do work, while some of the fittest individuals in the world are able to lift competitive numbers in their own weight classes. I could crudely describe the methods, but that would be a whole separate article in and of itself, so for further reading I would recommend The Hybrid Athlete and Fitness as Sport . For more reading of Variation, and other principles of Strength Training, refer to Scientific Principles of Strength Training .
2. Periodization and Planning
Building off of constraints within the goals of a training phase, your program has to have some kind of Periodization to it. Periodization can be a touchy subject for some people, because then it becomes an argument about who's methodology is better (conjugate vs block, linear vs undulating). The reality of Periodization is that, on a long enough time frame, your periodization will essentially be linear (high volume low intensity at the start of a training plan, low volume high intensity near competition), and the methods of periodization (conjugate, block, linear, undulating, etc) are all methods of scheduling and time management for a coach.
What you, as the athlete or designer, should be looking for when it comes to periodization are, does the training plan reflect the period of training and the goals laid out by your coach? If you're 6 months out from a meet, and your coach wants to get your work capacity up, does it make sense to be doing 10x1 Block Snatches at 85% for weightlifting? If you're 2 months out from the CrossFit Open, and your coach is beginning a peaking program, does it make sense to have your weightlifting and strength work be 4x8 @ 60%? Are you working up in either volume or intensity, or both, during and accumulation phase and then having a deload period to prepare for the next phase of training, or are you just going all out all the time?
The style of programming is less important than the content of the programming. If your program doesn't have the basics of Program design, then you won't know how to properly stimulate the body to get the desired physiological outcomes. If your coach gives you workouts on a day to day or week to week basis, and is unwilling to share the plan in the long term (monthly or more) so that you can plan things around your training (work, diet, etc) then maybe it's time to get a new coach or program.
For more reading on Periodization check out these articles.
There is Only One Kind of Periodization pt. 1 by Greg Nuckols
1. Foundation in Research
Probably the most tedious and irksome quality of the fitness and strength and conditioning industry is the attempt to reinvent the wheel, or to shine up a program with a clever name, or to try and create something entirely new. Much like Hollywood, there's not a whole lot of original ideas out there, and trying to say you've made the break through discovery in training principles probably means you didn't read Bondarchuk and his 30 something periodization models, or any other Russian programs. There are very few training plans, programs, or principles out there that haven't been discovered or talked about already, and pretending to do other wise is more about narcissism than it is reality.
There is nothing wrong with trying to reinvent the wheel, that's how humans came up with concepts like the wheel, and the internet, but these principles usually came in relation to principles that preceded them., and some of them ignore the updates in scientific principles since the Russians came up with 30 something training programs, which in reality, may fall into the 4 main Periodization Plans mentioned earlier in the article. Such things like the Keto-diet for athletes, Squat Everyday, Bulgarian Training, and other fad training styles sit on small batches of information while ignoring the overall science. Yes too many carbs are bad, but all athletes need carbohydrates to be able to properly recover; squatting every day may be effective in getting people super strong legs, but if their lifts or performance on the field isn't going up, is it really working, and how many people are not getting stronger, but getting hurt from squatting everyday; Bulgarian - really? You still think maxing out all the time is good?
While these programs may work for some people, there is a literal sea of information out there that shows that there are just as effective programs with less risk, and more benefits from them by taking into account for things like nutrition, recovery, being drug free. While there may be 10-20 articles out there that support these methods, how many hundreds are out there that show at best it does nothing more than the traditional model, or worse, hurt you?
The final thing to look out for when looking at a program or the reasoning behind it is the proponent's response. If they respond with "well this is what the X do" or "this is what the best in the world do" then you should immediately leave them. Since they cannot properly explain why they are using this program, they are at best mimicking what elite level athletes do, which is fine, if you know what is going on in the system. The only person I would trust to explain and design a Bulgarian training system would be Max Aita, since he is the only person I know of that trained the Bulgarian system, with the progenitor of the system itself, Ivan Abadjiev. Obviously he is not the only person who knows the system, but he's one of the few who has lived it and studied it long enough to understand the nuances and methodology.
Training and Exercise has moved beyond just the stereotypical imagery that movies like Rocky and Remember the Titans portrays, of just working the athletes to death day in and day out. You have to be equal parts mad scientist and researcher as well as strength coach to get optimal results out of an individual. It's no longer enough to say "this is how what the best are doing" since 99% of the time, you aren't working with the best, or you yourself aren't the best. What the best are doing, and what you are doing are two different things separated by worlds of training.
Much like buying a new car, you're not just going to go get the fanciest looking car on the lot, you're going to do your research, learn about the engine and system, look up reviews of the model, see what the pros and cons are. Getting into a physical training program is very similar, since there are hundreds (if not thousands) of programmers and coaches out there, and you have the right to get information before you buy. If the programming has no pattern or consistency to it, overall plan to it, or the coach is just hopping from fad to fad or unwilling to explain themselves, you might as well save your money and move on to the next plan.