5 program design tricks that work

As career trainers, we all gather a few best practices as we go along. Whether it’s learning from your peers, attending a conference, or basic trial and error, you’ve definitely picked up a thing or two that’s made your coaching better. But what about program design? 

You could come up with the best program on paper, but on the gym floor it’s a different story. What if your client decides to skip every third session? What if they struggle getting up off of the floor? Surprises happen to the best of us. So rather than send you to the drawing board solo, I’ve collected five program design tricks for you that actually work. 

Program design trick #1: Make their first session success a priority

I know you’ve put together a weight loss program that’s battle-tested to drop pounds and increase mobility. And it will – if you can keep them around. 

The first session for clients is terrifying. They probably don’t like exercise, or at least don’t have positive associations with the gym. Your primary job during that first session is to encourage and keep them safe. Keep them moving enough so they break a little sweat, sure. But try not to absolutely destroy them, and guide them through progressions they can do comfortably.

Program design trick #2: Fit each individual session into the big picture

A session is only good if it fits in the big picture. What are their long-term goals? Nothing occurs overnight – not pain relief, longevity or wellness, weight loss, strength, nor muscle mass. Find the lead domino and keep the focus there. 

It might not even be gym-related. Your crazy hard session might actually be detrimental to their stress-management, diet, or sleep. It could cause them to have a crappy week, fall back on old comforts, and skip out on the next session. Instead, when designing a program, make sure sessions build upon each other over the course of weeks, months, and years.

Program design trick #3 – Say one thing, make sure they get it, then move on 

The amount you have to cue directly relates to exercise selection. Of course, you’re going to correct a thing or two with each new movement. But if you see way too many things to correct, you probably chose the wrong exercise in the first place. Don’t be afraid to regress and reassess just because you wrote something else down. Coaching involves a delicate balance of guidance and exploration. You’ve only got an hour or so with them. How can you keep them safe, challenged, and moving throughout? Spending 30 minutes cueing and correcting isn’t it. 

Program design trick #4 – Avoid treating your clients’ programs as a mirror

As trainers, we have to realize we’re at a different level than most. Our lives are spent in a gym, so 25 sets of eight different lower body movements might be a normal Tuesday. For them, however, 3-4 sets of one leg exercise equals barely being able to walk. Think of your clients’ activity level and lifestyle, and work up from there. If they’ve sat around for most of their lives, any movement will be taxing. Of course, as they get fitter or their goals change, you can adapt their programming. But don’t train yourself – train your clients. 

Program design trick #5 – Keep the goal the goal

That being said, soreness might not even indicate progress. It might mean you’re building up their strength when they really just want to lose a few pounds. Novel exercises will cause soreness. Eccentric movements will leave them aching for days. They might “feel” it, but are your tempo rear-foot elevated goblet squats really helping them lose fat?

Whatever their goal is, program around that. Sure, we all want our clients to move better. We all know the benefits of corrective exercise. Pepper those in here and there to keep them healthy, but don’t lose sight of the real goal. Clients don’t care if their lower traps are firing. If they aren’t seeing the results they want, they won’t come back, and you lose the opportunity to truly help someone. 


Detric Smith, NSCA CSCS, ACSM EP-C, Pn-1 is the owner of Results Performance Training (www.resultsperformancetraining.com) in Williamsburg, VA. He has a BS in Kinesiology from Virginia Commonwealth University and specializes in Sports Performance Training and Fat Loss Transformations. For over 15 years he has gained experience at various sports performance centers and personal training studios, as well as coaching and teaching physical education from elementary school to high school.