Whilst many of the worlds top strength coaches and trainers have different methods for achieving the same goal, most of the principles remain the same.
Therefore, for the impatient among you, here are my ten programming essentials, scour the list first then read the notes afterwards if the reasons for the choices aren't glaringly obvious. Items are not in any particular order, because I believe they should all be in a programme.
- Hip Hinge Movement
- Triple Extension Movement
- Thoracic Extension Movement
- Scapular retraction and depression movement
- Fast Movement
- Uni-Lateral Movement
- Anti Trunk Flexion/Extension/Lateral-Flexion
- 3/2 Pulling/Pushing Movements
- Metabolic Component
- Strength Component
Now, some of you may be wondering why there are no exercises in there. Simply put, no one exercise ticks enough boxes for me to use it at the expense of all others. Not only that, but every exercise becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns at some point, meaning the longer you do it, the less effective it becomes.
The more observant among you will have also figured out that many of the above essentials can be achieved with the same exercise. One of my favourites is the kettlebell reverse lunge with the kettlebell held in the rack position. This ticks essentials No. 2, 3, 4, 6, and 9 (possibly 10 too, but it's not really an exercise I'd choose for true strength development, mainly because it's uni-lateral).
So, that said, here's my rationale and further information on the choices above:
- Hip Hinge Movement - Although I said the list was in no particular order, I believe hip hinging movements are one of the most under-used tools in the box. To clarify, this could be anything from a hip bridge in the warm up, to a 1rm deadlift or kettlebell swings. The key here is to activate the muscles of the posterior chain (the back of the body), particularly the glutes. In just over 20 years as a trainer, I've seen very few people, whether athletes or members of the general public, with strong butts. If you get really good at the exercises that improve hip extension, you'll suffer less back pain, be stronger on other exercises and be generally healthier.
- Triple Extension Movement - Any movement that involves extension of the ankle, knee and hip, i.e. squat, step up, lunge, etc. As obvious as this one may seem, I do have a few qualifications for it. Firstly, it must involve full safe range of motion at all three joints. There's no point in doing an ass to grass squat if you look like Gollum at the bottom. Equally, there's very little benefit for most people in the 2-4" squats I see in most commercial gyms. Secondly, you've got to have good spinal alignment and position. If you haven't then pick a variation that forces good technique or displaces your centre of gravity enough to allow it. Goblet squats are an excellent way of achieving these as are front squats if you can do them.
- Thoracic Extension Movement - This is either a movment that involves either achieving thoracic extension or maintaining it. My personal preference is for the latter, however many people need the former. In truth there are very few exercises that don't require or benefit from thoracic extension. My favourites include any kettlebell squat or lunge variation with the kettlebells racked or overhead. As an aside, when using kettlebells with my clients I do not use the racked position favoured in kettlebell sport. Rather the objective is to maintain an evenly balanced and upright torso. Similarly I prefer chin ups over pull ups (underhand vs overhand) as they allow for a healthier position of the shoulder when done using full range of movement.
- Scapular retraction and depression movement - At some stage in everyones workouts, there should be an exercise or movement pattern that reinforces scapular retraction and depression. In truth, I tend to put these in the warm up unless the client or athlete has particular shoulder issues. The rest of the time I focus on reinforcing this position as a component of technique. Good examples of this are packing the shoulders in the bench press, keeping the shoulders down, back and in during the deadlift, and pulling the sternum up to the bar in a chin up.
- Fast Movement - With so much focus on controlling peoples speed when weight training over the last few years, fast movements have almost become taboo in some gyms. My ideal choice for these movements are plyometrics, (appropriately loaded), sprints, or timed circuits. Regardless of the method, the principle is that people need to practice moving fast, otherwise they'll get fitter, stronger and slower.
- Uni-Lateral Movement - Others far smarter than I have long extolled the virtues of uni-lateral training whether it be on a suspension trainer, with dumbbells or a barbell or even bodyweight. The truth remains that the little muscles that control proprioception, stabilisation and regulate force output, get more of a workout on uni-lateral movements. Again, I'm not suggesting they become the mainstay of a workout, just that you have some in your programme. Favourites include single arm unsupported rows, single leg deadlifts, and any lunge variation.
- Anti Trunk Flexion/Extension/Lateral-Flexion - Anything that forces/challenges you to keep an aligned trunk/good posture. My hands down top three are the following: 1. loaded carries, farmers walks in particular, 2. Stir-the-pot on a swiss ball and 3. paloff presses. There a many others I like, but these are my top 3.
- 3/2 Pulling/Pushing Movements - This one's really simple, for every 2 pushing/pressing movements or reps, do 3 pulling movements/reps. Way too many people have protracted shoulders because of too much benching or too much pressing. This one's here to simply redress that balance.
- Metabolic Component - Another simple one. Somewhere during your session, your heart rate has to be up and you have to be short of breath. Most coaches I know tend to either achieve this through finishers at the end of a workout or metabolic circuits as the workout for fat-loss clients. Regardless, somewhere in your programme has to be something that makes you fitter and leaner.
- Strength Component - Definitely not my last one in terms of priority, somewhere in your programme has to be something that challenges your body to get stronger. Otherwise, what's the point? Now to clarify, this doesn't mean you have to aim for a 500lb deadlift, just that at the end of each month you can either lift more weight with good technique or you can lift the same weight for longer/more reps. When it comes to strength exercises though, I'm a fan of the basics. Deadlifts, Squats, Chin Ups and Overhead Presses. I'm not including the bench press for two reasons; 1. heavy benching can beat up your shoulders and 2. I suck at benching. Whichever you choose though, the key is to make the last few reps of each set hard work and keep reps below the 8-10 mark depending on training age and objectives.
So there you have it, my 10 programme essentials. Remember, these are programming essentials, not workout essentials (unless you're working out once a week). It's not necessary to fit them all into one workout, nor would I recommend trying. Some of the points have a lot of latitude and that's deliberate. As I said at the start, everyone will programme differently and most people need different programmes, despite that, everyone will benefit from ensuring all the above boxes are ticked.
"As to the methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble". - Ralph Waldo Emerson