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How To Write a Training Program (and should you be writing your own programs?)

​0:00:03.3 Kim Schlag:
Welcome to episode 96 of the Fitness Simplified podcast. I’m your host, Kim Schlag. On today’s episode, I’m gonna talk all about programming your workouts. I get asked a lot, “How do you put together a workout? Can I put together my own workouts? If I do, how do I do that? What do I need to consider?” So we’re gonna chat through all of that today. Let’s go.[music]

0:00:25.9 Kim Schlag: Hello, how are you? Coming to you today, it’s a Thursday. I’ve worked out, I’ve gone for a walk in the beautiful spring air, I’ve played with my new puppy. I don’t know if you’ve seen her yet. If you haven’t, you have to check out my Instagram and you’ll see my cute new Lily May. She is a mini goldendoodle. She has been with us for a week and two days now. Wow, do I feel like a newbie? I do not know what I’m doing. We do not know what we are doing with this dog. We are sure trying our best. She’s 11 weeks old, super duper cute, really smart.

0:01:05.4 Kim Schlag: She gets out of every kind of baby gate situation we’ve tried arranging, so either she has to be in her crate, or our eyes have to be fixed on her every second because she just… [chuckle] If she gets left in the living room and somebody walks next door to the kitchen, she’s just gonna run. My husband had her in this cute little pen we have in the living room and ran upstairs… I don’t know, he went to get something, his phone, I think he forgot his phone… And he came down the steps and there she was in our front hallway, which is nowhere near our living room. So she’s smart, and we’re gonna try and learn to be smarter. Going to a trainer today. First lesson with Lily May. So that’s what’s new with me. Hope things are well in your neck of the woods.

0:01:49.3 Kim Schlag: So today, let’s talk about programming your workouts. Should you even be writing your own training programs? It’s a really good question, and the answer is, it depends, just like with many things. If you love learning about programming, and you want to read about programming, and study about programming, and practice and try different things to learn more about programming, sure. It’s a great way to learn. Program for yourself, read other people’s programs, and try things, and see what questions come up. It’s a fantastic way to learn how to program.

0:02:20.2 Kim Schlag: If you just want some results, you wanna get stronger, you wanna build muscle, you wanna improve your overall fitness level, you wanna lose fat, then no. Writing your own workouts is not the best way to go. It’s like fixing your own car. Could you do it? Sure. I’m sure I could fix my own car. I have zero idea how to do that, kind of like with my new puppy. I have zero idea what I’m doing. I’m sure I can be an expert at training this puppy soon. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could become an expert on fixing my minivan. Should I do that? Probably not. It’s not super interesting to me. I wanna have a great minivan to drive… Well, I don’t really want a minivan, but it’s what I have… But to do it right, you’re gonna need to spend a lot of time learning. Just like if you wanna put a new engine in your car, you’re gonna have to study a lot. You’re gonna be reading books, and talking to mechanics, and watching YouTube, and trying and failing and messing up. Is that what you wanna do? Do you wanna spend your time doing that, or do you just wanna pay a good mechanic, so they fix your engine and you just get to drive the minivan?

0:03:24.0 Kim Schlag: That’s what I would say. Same thing here. I would say most of you should be following a training program, not designing your own, but it can help a lot to understand more about what goes into designing a training program. So whichever camp you fall into, whether you really should be a person who’s following another training program, or whether you want to give a go at writing your own, I think today’s podcast episode will be interesting to you. And if you do wanna follow a training plan written by someone else, you don’t have to spend a lot of money. You can. You could hire a coach. I’m accepting applicants. I have a really long wait list, but you could certainly get on the list and I will program for you, but it doesn’t have to be expensive.

0:04:04.9 Kim Schlag: There are free programs out there that are good. There are low-cost programs out there, monthly memberships, but following a dedicated training program is going to get you really good results versus just trying a little of this and a little of that, and making up stuff. So whichever way you go, you want to have a training program that involves progression, that involves you doing the same thing week after week, minimum four weeks. You should be doing the same workouts, four to six to eight, you could go longer, but probably somewhere four, six, eight weeks, doing the same training programs. Each Monday, you do the same program, or each first day of your training week, you do the first… You do that same training program for a minimum of four weeks. So that’s really important, don’t just go grabbing a swipe workout you find on Instagram and then getting another one for the next week. It’s not gonna give your body the stimulus it needs to change.

0:05:00.1 Kim Schlag: Alright, so let’s hop into this. Step one. What do you need to do if you’re gonna write your own training program? Step one is to get clear on your goal, because the goal determines the training. Do you wanna run your first 5K? Do you wanna have defined arms? Do you wanna do a pull up? Do you wanna lose weight? Do you wanna get super strong? Now, look, I don’t program for running at all. I do support runners with strength training programming. My discussion today is going to be around specifically strength training, getting strength, gaining muscle, general fitness and fat loss. One super important point about that last one, about fat loss, fat loss is going to be mostly nutrition, mostly nutrition. So whatever your training, you need to be dialing in your nutrition, and I have a ton of podcasts about nutrition. We talk nutrition here a lot. Alright, so you’re gonna figure out your goal.

0:05:52.0 Kim Schlag: Step two. So as I said, we’re not having as a goal with the rest of the discussion here, we’re not having as a goal like, “I wanna run a 5K,” or “I want to learn to climb a mountain like we’re talking specifically, strength, muscle building, general fitness, fat loss here today. So next we’re gonna figure out your training frequency, most of my clients train either three or four days, I do have a few who train two, you could also train five or six days. You have to have rest days, minimum one rest day. Training every single day isn’t gonna get you better results, it’s actually gonna get you worse results, and more days in a week training is not better than fewer days. What is best is to choose a training frequency that is going to work in your life. So if you know that you can commit to three, but in your mind, it would be better to commit to four, and so you program for four, but really you only do it three times, you’re not getting as effective a workout in across that week as if you had just programmed for three workouts, right? So if you program all the work to take place on three days, you’re gonna get all the work done, whereas if you program for all the work to take place over four days and you routinely skip one of those four days, you’re not getting all the work out. So more is not better.

0:07:15.1 Kim Schlag: Next step, we’re gonna have you decide your workout split. So if you’ve decided you’re gonna train two days per week, it’s obvious what your training split is going to be, and that is you’re going to do two full body days. Okay? Two full body days. Give me just a second. I hope I just didn’t have a feeling that… No, for a second, I was worried I wasn’t recording, but I am. Okay, so that’s two days full body. If you choose to train three days per week, there are a couple of good options, I’m gonna give you two here. My favorite is the upper body, lower body, full body split, so it’s just what it sounds like. One day you’ll train, I usually start with lower body, so first training day of the week, we have you do lower body, second training day of the week we have you do upper body, and then the third day the week we have you do full body. Another really good option is to have three days across the week that are all full body, also a really, really good option. I tend to go for the upper, lower, full just so there’s more recovery time between the lower and the full, so I put lower first then upper then full, so that people who…

0:08:22.5 Kim Schlag: They get pretty sore doing lunges and squats and things have some more time before they get back to doing something like that again on their full body day versus having maybe just one day in between training those same movements, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Full, full, full is a great training split. If you’ve chosen four days a week to be your training frequency, some options for you, my favorite option would be the upper, lower, upper, lower split. It’s a really great split, so you train upper body twice, you train lower body twice. If you wanted to train five or six days, which again, I’m just gonna keep saying this, ’cause everybody seems to think more days is better, it’s not necessarily better, but if you are gonna train five or six days, a couple of options, you could have that same basic four-day split I just told you, upper, lower, upper, lower, and then have a fifth day, which is a specialization day, so it could be whatever you wanna work on. So if you wanna work on building your glutes, you wanna work on building your shoulders, you wanna work on your triceps, or your biceps, whatever it is, you could have one day that’s a specialization day.

0:09:26.2 Kim Schlag: I’ve had a client with this training split, they did upper, lower, upper, lower, and they had a chin-up specialization day to get more practice in undoing their chin ups. You could also, with five or six days do a push, pull, leg day, and you rotate through those, so push day, pull day, legs day, push day, pull day, leg day. If you are a beginner, if you’re like, “I have not even been training very long,” or if you’ve just been training very sporadically, don’t go for five or six days. You don’t need that. Go for three or four days if you are a relative beginner or even an early intermediate go for three or four days. Alright, our next step is going to be for to have you consider the total volume. Volume is the amount of work being done, okay. So it is a key factor in the effectiveness of your workouts, if you have too little volume, you’re not gonna have the stimulus you need for change, change being building muscle. If you have too much volume, you will not be able to recover appropriately, and that is going to inhibit your results. It can even be dangerous when we take it to an extreme.

0:10:43.5 Kim Schlag: So extreme training volume is not your friend and not getting enough volume is not your friend. So how much volume should you be doing? A good rule of thumb, a nice sweet spot is 10 to 21 effective sets, so we don’t want just mean, when I say effective sets, what I mean is to bring enough intensity, so if the set is supposed to have 10 reps, rep 10 should feel like I can’t do more than one or two, if you just hit rep 10 and stop even though you could do 14, that’s not an effective set, so we want 10 to 21 effective sets per muscle per week. Okay. Do you want me to say that again? 10 to 21 effective sets per muscle per week. If you are a beginner, you can skew towards the low end of that, and if you are a more intermediate you can go higher. When you’re a beginner, any stimulus is going to be enough to cause adaptation, and so if you’re doing 10 sets per muscle per week great, great. So there you go with the volume, next step, you’re gonna think about what exercises to do. I wonder if you were like, “Wait a minute. We have not even… We are on step five and we haven’t even talked about names of exercises yet?”

0:11:56.5 Kim Schlag: It’s ’cause there’s a lot that goes into this and we’re just barely touching… I’m just barely scratching the surface of each of these topics, we could go on and on and do a full episode on each of these topics. I’m just giving you a broad overview here. So first time we’re even talking about which specific exercises should you do, we’re already at step five. So which specific exercises should you do? You should across your training week each week have some variation of a squat, so we’re talking… It could be a goblet squat, it could be a barbell back squat, it could be a front squat, it could be a Bulgarian split squat.

0:12:29.5 Kim Schlag: Some variation of a lunge, and that’s a squat pattern, so we’ll put that with the squat patterns, so it could be a static lunge, a reverse lunge, a forward lunge, a walking lunge, any kind of lunge. Okay, so you wanna get those varieties in there. You wanna get a some variety of a hip hinge, so those would be your deadlifting movements and your pull through movement. So Romanian deadlift, kettlebell deadlift, conventional barbell deadlift, sumo barbell deadlift. Also, hip hinging would be, like I said, like a cable pull through. You wanna have an upper body vertical push, so an upper body push that’s going vertical, all of a sudden I forgot what vertical meant.


0:13:11.5 Kim Schlag: I was like, “Wait. Which is vertical?” So we’re talking things like overhead presses, military presses with a barbell, any kind of pressing movement, so vertical push, and then you wanna have an upper body horizontal push, so we’re talking bench press, dumbbell chest press. You wanna have those in there, you wanna have an upper body vertical pull, so that could be a pull up, it could be a chin up, it could be a lat pulldown, and then you wanna have an upper body horizontal pull, so that could be a dumbbell row, a bent over barbell row, a batwing row. So you wanna have those variations in there, did I get them all?

0:14:00.7 Kim Schlag: Core, you wanna have some core in there. Now, a lot of these exercises I’ve just named, you’re gonna use some core, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to actually program some core as well, it doesn’t need to be a ton. It should follow the same guidelines. So doing 10 sets of core is plenty. You do not need an entire workout day dedicated to your abs, you don’t… Alright, that literally is as far as exercises, do you want to take into consideration of where you’re at in your ability, you don’t need to have a barbell back squat on your training plan, you can just as well do a goblet squat and get a good training effect.

0:14:39.5 Kim Schlag: It doesn’t have to be the most advanced exercise to get you a really good training effect. Alright, step six, how do we organize those exercises we just discussed, there’s not one way to do this, but there are general guidelines. So let’s talk through those. You want to start, if you’re going to program power exercises, those would come first. I do not give most of my clients power exercises on most of their training programs, I do train, I do program them, but not for everybody all the time. So power exercises, these are ones that are involving not just strength, but strength and speed, okay, so there’s going to be explosiveness here, so we’re talking about things like cleans and snatches, speed deadlifts, box jumps. The reps with these should be low, so you should not be doing a ton of reps, you could do a ton of sets, but the rep should be low, they can even be as low as one… I’ve had one reps a lot on training plans, 10 sets of one of various kinds of jumping that I do, so the rep should be low, one, two, three, four, and the sets can be…

0:15:48.5 Kim Schlag: They could be anywhere. They could be three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, like I said, even 10. You want to get full recovery between these sets. You want to be able to generate that explosive power, these are our power exercises, so you wanna have enough rest, so we’re talking two, three, four minutes of rest between your sets. Those are gonna come first in your training plan if you put them in, you do not have to put them in. The power will come first. Next step after that is going to be your strength exercises, and these are going to be done in the one to five rep range, okay? The intensity is going to be hot, that means it’s going to be heavy, you’re going to be lifting heavy weight for this low rep range, one to five reps. These are things like barbell squats, barbell deadlift, both conventional and sumo bench press variations, hip thrust variations. So we’re talking heavy weight, low rep, again, you want to have enough rest time to fully recover, so two to three minutes of rest, time your rest periods, so you give yourself that full time, so those would come next in the training plan.

0:17:00.3 Kim Schlag: One or two, you don’t need to do… Don’t… You shouldn’t be doing more than two of these strength exercises. One is fine, two is good as well. After that, we move into our… It’s so funny, whenever I see this word written, I wanna say it wrong, I’m thinking, “I know how to pronounce the word.” Hypertrophy. This means muscle building. The muscle building range, now, research shows us you can build muscle in all of the rep ranges. You can build muscle in that one to five rep range, you can. You can also build it in the 12 upper rep range. The issue why this rep range, this eight to 12 rep range is called the muscle building rep range, the hypertrophy rep range… Well, first of all, it was once believed that’s really, that was the only place you could really build muscle, you just built strength at the lower rep ranges, and you just built endurance at the high rep ranges. What research has shown us is that is not true. You can build muscle in all of the rep ranges, this is a really optimal range because it is just so efficient at doing that, to get in the amount of volume you’re gonna need to build muscle in those low rep ranges is not going to be easy if you’re doing sets of three, you’re gonna need a lot of volume there, so get that in for your strength and of course it’s still building muscle, and then the same thing with the other end of the spectrum, because the deal is you can’t…

0:18:15.7 Kim Schlag: You still have to be lifting close to failure, so if you want to use a light weight, okay, think about doing a body weight squat to get to failure or close to failure, you’re gonna have to do a lot of squats… Imagine doing a body weight squat, how many could you do before you really couldn’t do another one, or were very close not being able to do another one. That’d be a lot of squats. Okay so it would be more efficient if you just held a heavy dumbbell and did fewer and then you could do work in that six to 10 rep range. I feel like I’ve changed the numbers here on you… The rep range, we’re talking about this muscle building rep range is anywhere that six, seven, eight, nine, 10 rep range, even up 11 and close to 12, pretty much above 12, that’s your muscle endurance rep range. But in this rep range, we’re talking about the six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 rep range, you’re going to be doing both compound and you can do some isolation exercises in here. The first set, the strength exercises, those are your compound movements, this part is going to be mostly compound, there could be some isolation in here.

0:19:30.1 Kim Schlag: What did I miss telling you about here? Usually I have three to five exercises in this rep range, in this six to 12 rep range, three to five exercises, 60 to 90 second rest. So your rest period can come down a little bit. So these would be… All kinds of exercises can fit in here, so you could be doing Romanian deadlifts, you could be doing dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, you could be doing lat pull-downs, you could be doing dumbbell rows, barbell rows, you could be doing single arm pull-downs, you could be doing seated cable rows. Lots of exercises that can work in this rep range. The idea is, with all of these rep ranges, you want to go close to failure, if not right at failure, depending on the exercise. I don’t want you failing at the barbell back squats. That can be dangerous.

0:20:27.5 Kim Schlag: Okay, where am I at now? So the 12 and up rep range, that’s the muscular endurance rep range. There’s been a lot of myths out there saying, “This is the toning zone. If you wanna tone your body, if you wanna burn fat, and look lean and toned, this is what you should be doing. High rep, low weight.” And that’s actually not at all true. It’s not at all true. That is… I don’t care what Gwyneth Paltrow’s trainer tells you. It is not the case. You do not build lean, long muscle at high rep ranges. That doesn’t make any sense. There’s no such thing as long, lean muscle. Your muscles have attachments and insertions. They are where they are. If you build muscle, you build muscle, and that’s gonna make you look toned. If you have fat on top of that muscle, you might look bulkier, and so that’s a matter of losing fat. Does that make sense? Think about that for a minute. Your muscles can’t get longer. Not doing pilates, not doing high rep, like Gwyneth Paltrow… What is her trainer’s name? It’s all of a sudden escaping me. You know who I mean. She’s always talking about her.

0:21:36.1 Kim Schlag: But that’s not to say that this higher rep range is useless. It’s not at all. It’s great for doing isolation moves, so things… So we’re talking reps of 12, 15, even 20 and more, so things that are isolation exercises. So things like biceps and triceps, tricep extensions, bicep curls, lateral raises, rear delt raises, face pulls, all of those kinds of things working these isolated movements. So when I’m talking about… We’re not talking about multi-joint movements. We’re talking about single-joint movements… These are fantastic for that, these isolation exercises in these higher rep ranges, and I do include these in most if not all of my training plans for my clients. A couple, one, two, three exercises in this rep range, at the end of the training plan. So the order that I have given these to you in is the order that I put them in in a training plan.

0:22:32.1 Kim Schlag: I know this is a lot to digest, and I’m sure it sparks many questions in your mind. You can hit me up on Instagram DMs, you can send me an email,, and we can talk more on another episode about the questions that this has brought to mind ’cause I’m sure it has brought many. One I know I am going to get for sure ’cause I get it all the time is, “How can I learn about this? How did you learn about this, Kim?” I did learn some of this in my personal training certification, but not nearly as much as you might think. You might be surprised. I certainly learned a few important training principles, the principle of specificity, progressive overload. I learned about what the muscles are in the body and what they do… That was a big piece of it… But a lot of this other stuff, I learned by self study, studying other coaches, studying articles, and studying their training plans. So I started many years ago reading articles by Tony Gentilcore and Molly Galbraith and Eric Cressey, Nia Shanks, Sohee Lee…

0:23:32.3 Kim Schlag: Of course, my coach, Jordan Syatt. I have poured over his training plans for hours and hours at a time, and then peppered him with questions, and to this day, I do this. I love learning about this stuff. I literally right now in my phone notes have some questions about training for him… We have a call tomorrow… And I’ll be asking him some training questions tomorrow. So it’s a really good way to learn is to study other coach’s programs and ask them questions. One of the best ways to do it is to hire a coach, do their programming, and then ask them questions about it. It’s a fantastic way to learn. I’ll ask Jordan all the time, “Why did you program this this way this time? And it’s very different from how you usually do it. Here’s my thoughts. I think you’re trying to do X. Is that right?” And often I’m right, but sometimes I’m not. Sometimes, he’s like, “That’s not at all what I was doing.”

0:24:19.2 Kim Schlag: A couple of book recommendations for you. Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training are useful. Nia Shanks’s book, Lift Like a Girl, and Sohee Lee’s Eat, Lift, Thrive, also incredibly useful. Mike Matthews’s Thinner, Leaner, Stronger is a book that I used years ago that I learned a lot from as well. Alright, I hope that this has helped you. I hope that it has given you food for thought and helped you consider what you might do in your training to get the results that you are looking for. Alright, I’ll talk to you next week.


0:25:02.0 Kim Schlag: Thanks so much for being here and listening in to the Fitness Simplified podcast today. I hope you find it educational, motivational, inspirational, all the kinds of -ational. [chuckle] If you enjoyed it, if you found value in it, it would mean so much to me if you would go ahead and leave a rating and review on whatever platform you are listening to this on. It really does help to get this podcast to other people. Thanks so much.