What makes a good exercise program?

How to build a good exercise program has been shrouded in mystery, some might say on purpose, by the fitness industry for decades. In this article, we unravel the mystery so you can feel confident building your own program. We’ll go over some key ideas for creating an exercise program that not only fits your needs and ability but progresses you along efficiently and with the most beneficial result possible. We will

What does good programming accomplish?

As we discussed earlier, the human body can change based on external influences from the environment. Muscles will grow as a response to lifting heavy things on a regular basis just as lung capacity and VO2 Max scores will increase as a response to performing intense, aerobic and anaerobic activities regularly. However, the human body will only continue to get better at lifting objects or running further by building muscle or increasing the lungs capacity to a certain point.

If you lift the same object in the same way over and over again, your muscles will eventually stop growing and stop getting stronger. This diminishing return results because at this point, for your muscles to grow or get stronger, the amount of energy required would be overkill and deemed wasteful for the task they are adapting to in the first place. The same goes for aerobic and anaerobic fitness; once your body reaches a certain level of adaptation to the demand, it will no longer continue to get better, as this would be over and above what is currently needed. You may have heard of people plateauing in exercise before. The diminished return from a familiar routine is what constitutes a performance plateau.

Good programming will get you around this problem. At its core, a good program contains the movements and exercises necessary to promote optimal health and fitness for the individual while having the foresight to know those movements and workouts will have diminishing results the longer a person continues to perform them. Continued adaptations in strength, endurance, and body composition can be ensured throughout a comprehensive program by changing specific variables over time, thereby forcing the body to readapt before a plateau can occur.

There are many variables which a program can manipulate, and any number of combinations thereof. Anytime you slow down or speed up your repetitions, increase or decrease the resistance of an exercise, change the amount of rest time between sets, or increase the overall number of sets you are performing in a workout, you are manipulating the variables of your program. Knowing how and why you change these variables based on your current level of fitness will dictate when you introduce them into the timeline of your program.

Two types of fitness

All of these variables will have different effects on the measures of your fitness, of which there are two main types; Health-related fitness and skill related fitness. If you neglect any one part in either of these departments, your program will be unbalanced and lead to weaknesses in your overall fitness level down the road.

Both health related and skill related fitness can be broken down into smaller components which can be measured and tested. When you measure and test these components of fitness over weeks and months, you begin to paint a picture of where your strengths and weaknesses lay. In so doing, you can make small changes to future workouts to bring all of these into a closer balance.

Health related fitness and your exercise program

Health related fitness is a measure of strength, cardiovascular ability, and body composition.

Health Related Fitness

Measuring strength, cardiovascular ability, and body composition gives you an idea of your fitness level as it relates to overall health. To measure strength you don’t just see how much you can lift in one maximum effort. Strength is a combination of a person’s ability to exert maximal effort in one repetition balanced with the capacity to move a smaller amount of weight for more repetitions over an extended time and through full ranges of motion.

Strength

Your program should eventually bring these three types of strength, maximal strength, strength endurance and strength through full range of the movement, into balance with each other. If the word strength scares you and you’re worried about getting too big and bulky, just remember that one pound of fat is about the size of two fists, while one pound of muscle is the size of one fist. Also, the more muscle you have on your frame, the faster your metabolism, leading to a more rapid loss of fat.

Cardiovascular

Cardiovascular fitness is your body’s ability to supply working muscles with sufficient oxygen for energy and the ability of those muscles to metabolize energy for doing the necessary work. When you run on a treadmill for any length of time or play a rigorous sport with friends, you are training your cardiovascular system. You can measure this marker of health by performing something called a VO2Max test, or a predicted VO2Max test, which essentially measures how efficiently your body is exchanging oxygen at the lungs when you exercise.

You should always take this measurement at the start of your program to serve as a benchmark for future tests, plotting your progress. The program you build should enable for a steady increase in your VO2 Max score, so it eventually lands in the average to above average score on the test chart. The higher your VO2 max score, the more efficient you are in metabolizing fat and carbohydrates as energy which means the faster you can burn excess fat.

Body composition

The final component of health-related fitness is body composition. Body composition is the ratio of lean mass like bones, organs, muscles, and fluids in contrast with fat mass. Body composition can be measured some ways, but the quickest way for you to get an idea of your body composition and the effect it’s having on your health is with a quick waist to hip ratio calculation. This test, however, will only be applicable if your waist is smaller than 35” for women or 40” for men. Don’t worry, If you fall below this waist measurement we will go over in further detail some other tests you can perform in a later section.

Start by taking a tailor’s tape measure and measuring the circumference at the widest part of your hips. Note the measurement. Take another measurement at the waist just above the bony ridges of your hips, noting it down as well. Be sure that the tape measure for both of these measurements stays horizontal, not going up or down on an angle. When you have these two measurements, take the number you got from your waist and divide it by the number you got from your hips. The resulting number is an indicator of your current body composition and the risk it imposes to your health. This chart indicates the healthy and at-risk zones for both male and female.

Male waist to hip ratio Women waist to hip ratio Health risk
.95 or below .8 or below Low risk
.96 to 1 .81 to .85 Moderate Risk
1.0 and above .85 and above High Risk

Skill related fitness for an exercise program

It’s important to build a well-rounded exercise program allowing for improvement in all areas of skill related fitness: Agility, balance, coordination, speed, power, and reactive ability.

Skill-Related Fitness

As I said before, a good program takes into consideration all of the measurable parameters of fitness and makes an effort to bring them into balance with one another. Bringing into balance the components that make up a person’s skill related fitness is often overlooked. Many people focus on one or two of the factors at the detriment to the development of the others.

Someone who trains to increase their physique might develop a significant amount of power, but their agility, coordination, and reactive ability may end up underdeveloped. Someone who trains to get better at skiing may increase their balance, agility, and coordination, but lack speed and power. It’s important to build a well-rounded program allowing for improvement in all areas of skill related fitness: Agility, balance, coordination, speed, power, and reactive ability.


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Building an exercise program

We can liken the exercise programming to the business plan a well-led company creates to hit quarterly and yearly targets. The company starts the fiscal year by quantifying where they currently stand, then use realistic, data-driven goals to determine where they would like to be by years end. Once they have their goals in mind, they break down the year further by creating milestones to hit every quarter, then developing methods of keeping on top business practices so as to reach those milestones on time. The further they break down the fiscal year into smaller, more manageable chunks, the more finely tuned the necessary steps become and the more likely they will hit their intended targets and goals.

The business plan uses the same approach good coaches and trainers take with their clients and athletes and will become the method you use to achieve your success. Once you understand the principles of a good program design and how to use it to achieve your fitness goals, you can take these same concepts and apply them to other, non fitness related ones.

The Macrocycle

To start any effective program you will need to decide where you would like to end up at the program’s completion. As an example, let’s use losing 30 pounds of fat Now you have two pieces of information, those being where you are today and where you would like to be once you have achieved your goal. We will take these two events and plot them out on a long time bar called a “Macrocycle.” The start of the time bar is today and the end of the time bar is the date you plan on achieving your goal. Looking great so far, but you still don’t know the length of time the Macrocycle bar should represent.

You should not end the duration of the Macro arbitrarily. Instead, it’s important you pick an end to the Macrocycle that is realistic in it’s achievement time. You should aim not to undershoot or overshoot your target, but rather be as accurate as possible.

Having a small buffer of time for achieving your goals is ideal, as this can accommodate for any of the minor hiccups and setbacks which you will inevitably encounter. However, the reason you don’t want to undershoot excessively is this can cause you to spend too much time in certain stages of the program you could have progressed from much earlier, as well as stagnate the achievement of your future goals. Likewise, you do not want to overshoot the time to achieve your goals as this will lead to frustration and potentially cause you to give up.

The next obvious question is how do you decide what the time frame of the Macrocycle should be? The answer is you work backward by applying expected results based on what science has told us a person can achieve through training. Since our goal is to lose 30 pounds of fat, we will need to know how long it will take to lose 30 pounds of fat safely. 

Weight loss on an exercise program.

I suggest backing the expected weight loss down to 1.5 pounds per week on their exercise program.

A good target for most people to shoot for when losing fat is 1 to 2 pounds per week, with two pounds per week being on the more ambitious side of things. An important thing to note is that many people lose a significant amount of weight, sometimes up to ten pounds, in the first week of following an exercise and nutrition program. The initial extra weight loss can usually be attributed to the loss of excess water as they clean up their diet and will normalize after a week or so. Once they are on their plan, exercising regularly and eating within their nutrition plan, the person can expect to lose between one to two pounds per week consistently. Knowing that if you were to lose two pounds per week, you could just divide the 30 pounds to be lost by two pounds per week, giving you fifteen weeks until you reach your goal.

Something to consider when you are setting your targets is leaving room for the odd hiccup or setback in your training or nutrition adherence. You may miss a day or two of exercise one week or find yourself overeating at a friends party three weeks into a program. As a way of accounting for these possible hiccups, for my clients, I suggest backing the expected weight loss down to 1.5 pounds per week. This minor adjustment will increase the time frame slightly to twenty weeks, giving you a larger margin for the inevitable small setbacks most people will experience along the way.

You’ve now set our time frame for losing thirty pounds over the next 20 weeks. If your Macrocycle timeline starts on January 1st and losing 30 pounds was your only goal, then you would mark your end point for the calendar at May 21st.

Now you are getting somewhere, but you still don’t know what you will be doing for the next twenty weeks. To do this, you will fill in your macrocycle with smaller, more manageable and detail oriented sections called mesocycles.

The Mesocycle

A mesocycle is a chunk of time, usually two to six weeks, in your training devoted to focusing on and improving one parameter of your fitness, such as strength endurance, power, or speed, or anaerobic and aerobic capacity. I am not saying every exercise in a mesocycle, without exception, will be oriented to one particular parameter of fitness. However, the majority of the exercises in a mesocycle should be selected based on their similar effects on one’s fitness.

A mesocycle typically will last between two and six weeks before moving into the next mesocycle. When to transition from one cycle to the next will be based on Macrocycle timeframe and your overall goal. As we discussed, the body will only continue to adapt to a particular point with exercises before plateauing. Regularly introducing new mesocycles prevents the body from plateauing by continuously providing new forces necessary for it to adjust.

Mesocycles in your exercise program.

Regularly introducing new mesocycles into your exercise program prevents the body from plateauing by continuously providing new forces necessary for it to adjust.

This series is centered around helping those who are new to exercise. As such, we will use an example of the four mesocycles I would lay out for a client of mine who is new to exercise. We will not go into extensive detail as to the exercises for each phase or the science of the physiological adaptations as I will be leaving that for later sections where we can focus on each mesocycle in depth. Let’s instead briefly summarize the different cycles and their rep ranges, load type, and rest periods. Also, each mesocycle should compliment itself with some form of aerobic activity, such as speed walking, running, or hiking one to two times per week.

The Foundation Phase

When you are a beginner, It is important to devote your first mesocycle to learning correct form and the development of a higher level of body awareness. This first mesocycle, appropriately called the foundation phase, should last about six weeks and only needs to be performed once. Long term success will come much more efficiently and with less chance of injury if you devote yourself to this first foundational phase.

During the foundation phase, I would have my client perform basic, full body, compound movements like squats, hip hinges, presses, and pulls in high rep ranges and with less weight. The goal is not to exhaust yourself by the end of each set. Instead, you should be able to perform the last repetition with the same attention to good form as your first repetition. You’re attempting to build good motor patterns now, so you don’t have to think about it when you load more weight in the future.

Think about riding a bicycle. When you first get on a bike, it seems incredibly difficult. However, with time you develop the motor patterning to the level where you don’t have to think about it, you just ride. This motor patterning is what we are accomplishing in the foundation phase. However, if you pattern improper form now it will carry through to the next cycle, creating a greater chance of injury when you load it. This is why it is so imperative you pay attention to practicing good form in this first mesocycle. The great thing is, if you focus on the proper form you will never have only have to do this mesocycle once.

Build phase in your exercise program.

We call the second mesocycle in an exercise program the build phase as it is the heavily focused on building muscle size and increasing strength endurance, a process called muscle hypertrophy.

The Build Phase

We call the second mesocycle the build phase as it is the heavily focused on building muscle size and increasing strength endurance, a process called muscle hypertrophy. By adding resistance and decreasing repetitions to the same or similar exercises you performed in the foundation phase you cause the need for your body to regenerate muscle protein at a greater extent than before.

Building muscle during this phase is important regardless of your end goal, as more muscle on your frame equates to more energy burned through the day and ultimately a lower body fat percentage. As an example, if in the Foundation’s phase you were doing a bodyweight squat for 20 repetitions, you could now progress to a barbell squat. A barbell adds the necessary additional resistance to the squat pattern that fatigues the muscles with a lower number of repetitions. This mesocycle should last six weeks. You will perform the exercises with ranges of 10 to 15 repetitions each set and a rest time of one to two minutes between each set.

Strength phase in an exercise program

In this strength phase of your exercise program the adaptation will be an increase of strength through less time and fewer contractions or of moving more weight through fewer repetitions.

Strength Phase

The third phase is called the strength phase and, as the name implies, focuses on building strength and muscular force production. Although the build phase increases a person’s strength, the primary adaptation is one of strength endurance or increased strength over increased time and repetitions. In this strength phase, however, the adaptation will be an increase of strength through less time and fewer contractions or of moving more weight through fewer repetitions.

The strength phase causes the muscle fibers to get better at firing together in one contraction, creating the potential for more explosivity and power through dynamic movements in the future. You will likely notice your muscles feel more firm to the touch after completing this phase, as though the muscles were denser than before.

This strength focused mesocycle should last around four weeks, no longer than 6. Repetitions in a strength phase typically range from 2 to 6 reps. However, I always recommend keeping the reps between 5 and 8 the first time you go through this phase. Rest time between sets is also longer, between 2 and 3 minutes, as the extra weight is more taxing on the central nervous system and requires additional recovery time.

Metabolic training in your exercise program

The metabolic phase in your exercise program is going to put all of that muscle you worked so hard for to good use, burning through fat much quicker than before.

The Metabolic Phase

The fourth and final mesocycle is called the metabolic phase. This phase will have you drowning in sweat and breathing heavy. The high intensity of this phase is going to put all of that muscle you worked so hard for to good use, burning through fat much quicker than before. You may have read that last sentence and thought, “Why don’t I just skip right to the metabolic phase?”

The only way this phase will work as well as it can is if you have built the necessary muscle mass and motor control in the first three phases. Think of it as a quarter mile drag race. If you show up to the race with a 1989, three cylinder Pontiac Firefly you’re not going to come in first. If you continue to run that car down the track three or four days a week for the next four weeks, then you’re likely going to see your car blow up before the end of the month.

If instead, you take the time to build up a proper race car, steadily adding high-performance engine components and electronics, eventually it will have transformed into a supercar and be ready to compete in the quarter mile.

The metabolic phase will improve your ability to generate speed, force, and agility at peak levels of performance. The exercises are much more dynamic than the three phases before, often utilizing only bodyweight exercises that allow for rapid movement in all planes of motion. Balance, speed, agility, and coordination are all trained during this phase.

The metabolic mesocycle should last no longer than four weeks. Repetitions and weight are not critical. Rather, the goal is to push yourself to make it through each set with maximum intensity. Think of it this way; No matter how fit a person is they will always have a maximum amount of effort they can put forth. During this phase, it’s your responsibility to put the maximum effort you are currently capable of into the workout. Therefore, the workouts never get easier. You just become better capable of performing more work.

De-Loading

Following this final phase is what we call a de-load. The de-load offers your body some much needed time to rest and recover while still keeping you active and not allowing for strength or flexibility and mobility to decrease. During a de-load, you will be performing the exercises from the build phase in the same rep range, however only using between fifty and sixty percent of the weight.

As an example, if you were squatting 100 pounds twelve times during the build phase, you would squat fifty pounds twelve times during the de-load phase. The reps should be slowed down with a heavy focus on proper form.

If you followed those five mesocycles, you would have over five months of training logically ordered and programmed in advance. By the end of five months, you would have achieved an entirely new body, with a potential for losing over forty pounds of fat, increasing your strength by over 100 percent, and developing a lean, muscular physique. The great thing about this style of programming is that, once you have completed the build, strength, and metabolic cycles, you go back to the build phase and repeat. Every time you come back to the build phase you are stronger, more coordinated, and more mobile, allowing for the inclusion of more challenging exercises in your routines. This regular, periodized programming ensures you are continually progressing.


As always, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article. If you got something from it, or  you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share.

If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles or videos, please leave me a message in the comments or reach out to me on social media!

And remember, with everything in life the secret to success is getting started. So get started!

Other articles you may like:

Why do we exercise?

How to create SPECIFIC goals

What makes a good exercise program?

Free weights, body weight, or machines. Which is best? 

Do these two studies prove once and for all that coffee is good for you?


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About the author

I switched careers from a mechanic to a personal trainer and life coach after seeing the difference one made in the life of my mother. I watched as she transformed herself, changing her path in life to one that allowed for the enjoyment of what she loves most. Our family saw how powerful an impact her trainer had on her health and happiness, and we couldn't have been more grateful. From then on, I knew I wanted to help others take back their lives the same way her trainer had helped her. 

Taylor Patterson

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