Programming – the what, why and how to

It’s true that you can just work out for health and for fun, but for the serious and dedicated, going to the gym with no purpose is very unproductive. Therefore, programming is a great way to have a plan for your journey and keep you focused. In addition to that, it gives you goals that you can keep in mind to guide your training.

What is programming:

Programming, as the name implies, is the planning of an end product. For weight training programming is going to have an end goal in mind that differs from one person to another. Programming can be about gaining muscle, gaining strength, getting better at the technique, or rehabilitation. A programme will mostly consist of a set of exercises, added rep and set schemes to perform each day. These schemes and sets are referred to as programme design variables and carefully managing these variables is what can get you from point A to point B.

Programming for powerlifting and strongman:

A common way to programme for strength development is to include what is called a linear progression. What this means is that it is going to start from where you are nowand progress to a stronger version of you when you finish the programme. The beginning is focused on developing your base level of strength, this is essentially the foundation which is applied for more complex work later on. It entails pursuing improvements in overall muscular strength, as well as strength of associated structures e.g. bones, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. This is also an opportunity to develop and further refine the technique of various complex, compound lifts e.g. bench press, squat and deadlift. Typical of a linear progression, you will start with high volume (sets and reps) and low intensity (amount of weight lifted). Overtime you will progress to programmes with low volume and high intensity. Simply put the amount of reps will reduce as the weight lifted increases to near maximal and maximal levels. Volume and Intensity share an inverse relationship – when one is high the other is generally low.

Popular programmes such as 5/3/1, starting strength, the cube, strong lifts 5 by 5 all have a base where reps and sets continue to diminish and the weight on the bar keeps getting higher. There are other ways to programme such as with blocks of training, the Westside method, and undulating method. Blocks are all about reserving specific weeks for specific purposes, for instance, there is usually a “size” block where you focus on muscle building, a “power” block where you focus on heavy weights, and a “speed” block where you focus on explosive performance. These programmes try to help you achieve many things at the same time such as getting stronger, more muscular, and faster at the same time.

Overall, programming for strength development is crucial for powerlifters. Having a programme in place will ensure that you develop a solid base first before raising the intensity and progressing. By establishing clear goals from the beginning, programmes can be designed to help you achieve the desired end product and will do so by carefully managing programme design variables, providing you with specific exercises, weights, sets and reps

Programming for bodybuilding:
Strength is something that can be measured with weights; weight trainers know that the programme works because by the end of the programme they have achieved new personal records. With bodybuilding, it’s much harder to quantify (although there are tools to quantify progress). Programming for bodybuilding places more importance on the diet, caloric surplus and caloric deficit can be necessary, protein intake, hormonal balance, overall health, nutrient timing, hydration and other facets are important to consider.

Training for bodybuilding does need some form of programming where you increase the intensity and the weight often. This is known as progressive overload. This is essential to keep in mind for beginners; however, advanced and professional bodybuilders focus on other things such as the stretch, squeeze, the pump, stimulating the muscle and time under tension.

Why you should programme:

There many reasons why you should programme, but the most essential reason is that you have a road map for your progress. Having a programme implies that there is an end goal in mind and a starting base. Here are a few reasons why you should programme:

  • Create a solid base: Programming is crucial for establishing a solid base to start on when you advance. The base can be considered as the off season where you can build muscle, correct some bad habits, learn the technique, and correct some weaknesses.
  • Progression: Progression is critical to long term success. If we do the same thing every time, we go to the gym then at some point our progress will stagnate. We need to be progressively overloading our training plans to ensure that we continue to move forward. Progression is also important because if we go from 0 to 100 too quickly, without having developed an appropriate base level of strength, then we risk injury and burning ourselves out through over training.
  • Motivation: Programming helps you stay motivated because you have a goal in mind, and you have progressed. In addition to that, it lets you look back at the start reassuring you that you have gotten better every week.
  • Consistency: Programming is also very important at making sure you are consistent in training. For many people, having a programme that tells you exactly what you need to do, what weight, and how many sets and reps is very beneficial for when you don’t know what to do.

How to programme:

Programming needs to have an end goal in mind, and most programming is about being able to perform better. Therefore, writing the programme down is very important. The first step is to write down how many weeks you want to programme for. The next thing you need to do is to figure out what is your goal; if it’s about strength, then define what area: is it to bench more, deadlift more, or squat more? If it’s about bodybuilding, then you should look into your weak areas, if your lats are lagging behind or if your legs are under trained, then prioritise them in your training.

The third step is to quantify your start as much as you can. For power and strength, write down your one rep max in each of the lifts you are trying to optimize. For bodybuilding, measure your muscle size on areas such as your arms, thighs, calves, shoulder width and chest width. These numbers will help you see your progress at the end of the programme.

The last thing to do is to write down a programme that will help you move from your start to the visualised finish. For strength lifters, start with the base. This will help you build the necessary muscle and perform the movement better. Doing a lot of sets and reps will help you get used to the motor patterns and neurologically reinforce the movement. Week by week, make smaller adjustments to move from higher volume to lower volume at a higher percentage of your one rep max. This gradual process should be done very slowly so you can get used to the movement and load.

Things are slightly different with bodybuilding; two of the most important variables for bodybuilders are frequency and volume. Intensity should be maintained and slightly increased, but volume and frequency matter more to stimulate the muscle more as studies show that training a muscle two to three times per week is optimal for growth.


You should always programme your training and know what to do every session. It is okay to go outside of the programme and take it up a notch when you are feeling good in the gym or tone it down if you suffer from an injury, but you should always have an idea of what you should during every session so you can track your progress and make sure you are moving in the right direction.