What makes a strength training program good?
Is it good if it makes you sweaty, nauseous and leaves you incapacitated for several hours? Fortunately no, sweat and nausea can be produced by eating tainted Indian food (or any bad food); temporary physical symptoms are not a guarantee of an effective program.
A good program is a well-designed program that achieves a specific goal for the participant; the key word here is DESIGN. Design suggests planning with an end goal in mind. Randomly combining a bunch of difficult exercises does not qualify as design; design requires a specific goal from the participant or participants.
You may think, “What does design have to do with me looking awesome?” Well, it has a lot to do with it; poorly designed programs are neither efficient nor sustainable. So, if you plan on having an attractive, well-functioning, pain-free body for a lifetime, design matters. Good design is mandatory for those who desire improvements in efficiency and productivity.
All this talk of design stems from an interesting article I read about a German industrial designer by the name of Dieter Rams. Rams made his mark while working as a designer for Braun (a consumer products company) where he produced several game-changing products that were efficient, functional, and attractive. Rams is credited with coining the phrase “less, but better” and is well known in design circles for his Ten Principles of Good Design, which details his operating principles. Rams’ Ten Principles made me evaluate my own profession and ask; what makes a strength program good? Industrial design and strength training may not have a lot in common, but good design whether it is a product, structure, or a strength program, can benefit the end user tremendously.
So, in a tribute to the great work of Dieter Rams, I’ve organized some of my own principles of “Good Design,” which are based on my 20+ years as a personal trainer and strength coach. Instead of using “good design” to designate my principles, I’ll refer to my principles as “optimized training”.
Ten Principles for Optimized Training (Good Design)
Optimized Training stimulates a positive muscular adaptation
Positive Adaptation occurs when a muscle is stressed to the point where it must remodel (come back bigger and stronger) in order to meet the applied demands. Muscular adaptation is stimulated with high-intensity strength exercise, and this is what causes you to burn more body fat and build lean tissue. If the goal is to look better and perform better, focus on building muscle. Performing an exercise to muscle fatigue, while using good technique, is necessary to achieve the desired results.
Optimized training enhances joint heath and obeys the laws of joint mechanics
A well designed program should enhance joint function and range of motion (flexibility). Only poorly designed programs cause a loss of flexibility.
Optimized training addresses postural needs
Good posture is important not only for aesthetic purposes but for movement efficiency as well. Poor posture is associated with poor joint mechanics and inefficient movement patterns. A well designed strength program can address postural needs.
Optimized training is simple to understand but challenging to complete
You should not need a calculator and a dictionary to complete an effective routine.
Optimized training will work universally for the majority of participants with similar goals
An optimized program should achieve satisfactory results for the general population. Since all optimized programs follow the laws of joint mechanics, individuals who are free of any joint limitations should be able to participate with correct instruction.
Optimized training is time efficient
A good program should accomplish a high amount of work in a relatively short amount of time. A well designed program should take no longer than 50 minutes (after warm-up) to complete. Do as much work as possible within a specific time frame. Unless you are training to compete in a strength sport (Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, throws), fast-paced workouts are best.
Optimized training utilizes ergonomically correct tools
A good program should utilize tools that are designed to fit the human body. The safety squat bar, trap bar, and properly designed weight machines are tools designed around the human body. A straight barbell is not an ergonomically efficient tool for back squats. When available, use tools that are designed around the structure of the human body.
Optimized training achieves measurable and qualitative results
Programs of good design should achieve results you can see, feel, and measure. Individuals on a successful program should achieve a loss in body fat, an increase in lean mass, and an improved sense of well-being.
Optimized training uses innovation and variety to accelerate results
Achieving better results in less time by using more efficient methods is a sign of innovation. Using old and outdated methods in an effort to replicate what our ancestors did on a daily basis, suggests a lack of imagination and creativity.
Optimized training prioritizes the weaker side first
Uni-lateral (one side) strength exercises should always begin with the non-dominant or weaker side. A good program should emphasize bringing up the weaker side prior to moving on to more complex exercises.
If your program does not meet these criteria, I would suggest hiring an experienced and reputable personal trainer or strength coach to evaluate and possibly design a program specific for your needs.