The Purpose of a Program

A few guys were recently asking questions about linear progressions in the comments. The discussion even got so specific guys were saying, “I like the Greyskull LP better than Starting Strength.” I find this distinction trivial, because 100% adherence to a program is not necessarily a good thing. The “cookie cutter approach” would state that a given program should be implemented with everyone or with a person in a specific group (i.e. a “novice”). Being a cookie cutter trainee and blindly following a program may not be optimal.

Perhaps internet readers are pressured into adhering to a specific program. Maybe it represents a devotion to the person who created the program. For example, Mark Rippetoe had to shout, “Do the fucking program,” because there were former bodybuilders, CrossFitters, or non-lifters who would try to add or change too much to the Starting Strength linear progression that it no longer was a simple strength progression with barbell movements. That “do the program” message was probably necessary around 2008 and 2009 because it was irritating to see people not making progress and asking why, or maybe even doing something that was no longer ‘Starting Strength’ and still calling it by that name.

My perception is that lack of adherence to a program doesn’t happen much anymore. Perhaps Rip influenced that by convincing people to just do Starting Strength like it’s listed, but CrossFit had to have helped too. CrossFit started as a, “Just do whatever workout shows up on this home page,” kind of thing. As many of us in the CF community realized that strength training needed to play a predominant role to increase performance or be better at CrossFit, various gyms started programming their own stuff. These gyms became popular and other people “followed their programming”. Let’s ignore the fact that a good program is tailored to an individual, so programming for an entire gym — or thousands of people — is not specific and inherently not optimal. The result is that hard training folks have gotten in the habit of “following” programs.

But programming is not intelligently putting exercises in a weekly schedule. Programs featured online usually have a goal — aiming for strength, power, and conditioning — but without the context of the population it remains a schedule on a calendar. Sure, some guys can put some Olympic lifting, some strength training, and not-retarded looking conditioning workouts and get results — many things can work. But true programming is what works optimally for the person doing it. 

I get comments, messages, and e-mails from CrossFitters asking, “What is the 70’s Big program? I can’t seem to find it.” There isn’t a 70’s Big program. I may have what I call a “strength and conditioning” program or The Texas Method (and advanced), but there is not a single program that people come to this site to do. Why? Because I actually program. I take into account the person’s current state of adaptation (which includes their body type, age, nutrition, recovery, injuries, current or past programs, etc.) along with what they need and want (i.e. goals). From there I devise a plan for someone to accomplish those goals.

There are existing programs that work well for a type of person. For example, linear progressions work with ‘novices’, Texas Method stuff works with ‘intermediates’, 5/3/1 works with ‘intermediates’ or ‘advanced lifters’ who want or need to avoid volume. Factor in the desire or need to do conditioning and it can complicate the application of these programs.

But this isn’t about my ability or difference in programming. It’s not about what coach or program is good or bad. It’s about the type of program you select and how you implement it. Instead of thinking of “doing a program”, think about “using a program”. Programs are not indentured servitude where the user cannot tweak it for their goals; a program is an outline, a tool, to use to accomplish your goals. 

Let’s assume a person who decides to use the Starting Strength program. Unless you are in your late teens or early twenties, it’s likely that squatting 3 times a week in a linear progression (i.e. increasing the weight every session) will be too much work. Does that mean you have to “switch programs” to something like the Greyskull LP? No. Just stop fucking squatting 3 times a week. And if you want to deadlift on Wednesday and squat Monday and Friday, does that make it the Greyskull LP. No, it’s just arranged similarly.

Use programs as a template or foundation for structuring your training. Pay attention to the good and bad in a program, or more specifically what is helpful or not to you. For example, if you are weak on the bench and press and you are making progress from alternating them each training session, then you don’t need to drop them for weighted dips or push-press. But eventually just alternating the bench and press won’t be enough to continue progress. Another example is that the stock Starting Strength template would have you deadlifting every other session. If you’ve never lifted before and are weak, then this will be fine for 8 weeks or so. But eventually the frequency will need to drop to deadlifting once a week.

If I were structuring a generic novice’s training, their program would modify every 4 to 8 weeks to accommodate their progression. Since I’m not programming for all of you individually, you need to understand that you are allowed to make tweaks — it’s your program after all. Just don’t be stupid with your changes, and, as I stress in the Texas Method e-books, just make one small change at a time in a program instead of of revamping it entirely.

I try to teach basic principles through this website, but you can learn a lot about programming by reading the Texas Method books or FIT (which is basically a manual on programming strength and conditioning). I honestly feel that reading both Practical Programming and FIT creates an excellent foundation on how to program (and not just because I authored one and know the authors of the other).

It’s hard to wade through bullshit online, but try and take advice from people that not only have success with their programming, but regularly teach and challenge your knowledge of it. Develop a working understanding of physiology and how it adapts to training stress. Consider the stress/adaptation relationship when looking at your own programming. And for gods’ sakes, don’t feel like you’re trapped in a program.


49 thoughts on “The Purpose of a Program

  1. Awesome post. I followed SS for about 6 months strictly, and then started tweaking it after that (RDL/GHR, pullups/chins, or altering squat volume if I felt gassed), and had multiple friends and people freak out on me asking why I wasn’t doing it strict. Sorry that it’s hard to squat 1.75x + BW for 3×5 every single time you go to the gym, and keep on adding weight. While on a college schedule with lack of sleep, lots of schoolwork, and partying on the weekends. I’ve learned that tweaking programming one thing at a time and seeing what works often works better than blind following, now that I’m no longer a complete beginner.

    Anyways, I just started doing TM last week, and I have a question about programming deadlifts for Justin or anyone else with knowledge.

    To put it blankly, my deadlift blows. I can squat 375×5 (BW 185-190), but 340×5 strapped is the most I’ve ever pulled. I’ve tried multiple stance widths, hand widths and the like, but I can’t seem to get my form as solid as my other lifts. My main problem right now is that I can’t keep my hips down after I start the pull. My hamstrings are MUCH stronger than my lower back, and I can basically straight leg pull it after it’s off the ground about 3 inches. Obviously though, I won’t get as strong as possible doing this, and coupled with my arms being short as hell, this annoys me. Also, I don’t enjoy sumo, so let’s stick to conventional for now. My stance width is shins (bar mid or just behind midfoot) touching just inside the start of the knurl, with pinkies on the ring, brushing my outer thighs lightly. Justin suggested this a few months back due to short arms, but I’m thinking that maybe the narrow stance is making it harder to get my hips lower due to my legs jamming into my stomach?

    So, any suggestions on either: cues/stretches/stance changes to keep my hips down, or ways to program deadlifts that will fix whatever is lacking (I’m assuming its my lower/mid back strength)?

      • Narrow feet still and pushing my knees out, or widen my stance? I try to push them out with a narrow stance, but the wider they go, the wider my hands go, and since I have extremely short arms, its a trade off, because then I have to get deeper to grab the bar and make it a longer pull.

    • I assume you mainly low bar squat; have you done much in the way of high bar/front squatting? If not, it may be your quads that are the weak point; since low hip pulling utilizes the quads more than pulling with high hips does.

      • I haven’t been high barring lately. My quads are pretty strong though, but they do feel…shaky(?) during the setup, and it’s hard for me to sit in the bottom position.

        There’s a video of my deadlift in a post below this, and if it matters, here’s a leg pic in case you’re curious if my quads are lacking.

    • Try setting up slightly away from the bar if you feel your hips are too high to get anything off the ground.

      Basically what I mean is instead of setting your feet under the bar at like your shoe knot. Setup with your feet cut in half or even slight more towards your toes. This way when you go to grab the bar to start pulling you can start with a lower hip position. If you need extra low back work. I and several others have gotten a ton of progress out of doing ROUNDED back extensions with weight. Youtube search for Cal Strength Extensions and do them how Pendlay shows you to in that video.

      also post us a video of your deadlift!

      • I used to do pulls with the bar farther forward, and that actually was worse in terms of hips. That made my back basically horizontal, and caused me to pull almost completely straight legged. My hips are lower in my pulls now, but they’re still too high in my opinion. Here’s a video of that over summer to show you what I was doing before. I’ll record a video next time I deadlift and repost it.

        • That set look damn near ideal to my eyes. I think you just need to really focus on some extra low back, spinal erector work and make your back a strong point and your dead will take off. Weighted Round Back Extensions and Pendlay Rows can help this big time. At least it did for me.

          I would use the form you were using in that video and just get your back huge and stronger especially the erectors.

  2. the best post I think that outlines this is the football template from peter at shire speed and strength (I may be wrong in the name of the gym). he put a huge emphasis on the fact that it was a template, not a program.

  3. Thanks Justin, much of this hit me right in the face. For an aging creep working out in my garage it makes a man feel good to have a canned program, at least for awhile. I liked to think of myself as a pretty strong novice rather than a jellydicked intermediate, a few tweeks to the SS program makes alot of sense.

    Say what you will about the tenets of linear progression but at least it’s an ethos.

  4. Justin, I’ve read both of your TM books, and they have been really pivotal in helping me continue progress when I began to hit a wall in Starting Strength. Rip’s Practical Programming book is also really awesome. That’s actually the book that got me interested in the TM, and ultimately resulted in me downloading your books.

    Question: I just added Power Shrugs on my assistance day, because I am obsessed with developing a yoke. I noticed in SS 3rd Edition, Rip says that these should only be done once every two weeks, for one work set, because they are so stressful to the body. Just wondering if you are of the same opinion or not. You don’t seem to be as cautious about them in your TM book.

  5. I’ve had a rule all of my life: I only take advice from and follow people who are better than me. At work it means always dressing as well as my boss even if it’s casual/no tie day. In social settings it means observing the timing and tact of funny people. In lifting, it means only taking advice from people who are stronger than me. This always seems to work out. I’ve never had an issue with skipping around with programs and being reactionary in changing my set up because every strong person I’ve ever asked has already figured out that won’t work.

  6. This is the kind of thinking that led me to join a powerlifting gym and seek programming from an experienced coach. I’m sure down the road I will run my own programming but for now it has been easier to work with someone more experienced who can tweak and adapt training blocks based on what I am doing well or struggling with.

  7. Along with what you are saying about Rip and sticking to programming, I also remember Wendler with comments about 5/3/1 like if you do your own thing then what your doing isn’t actually 5/3/1. What you are saying about tweaking programs to the benefit for an individual makes sense and I think what Rip and Wendler are mainly saying is that you can’t drastically change things from the template and call it the same workout and to stick with a program for at least a few months and not switch all the time.

  8. I call it fit-nest, in that most people are like little baby birds that just chirp and chirp and chirp all while waiting for someone to deliver the goods. Instead of taking the time to learn from leaders in the industry or try out a program or template and see what works and what doesn’t specifically in regards to their goals. Finding strong people who have time under the bar is a great resource, if running is your gig finding someone that actually runs/coaches other runners and doesn’t just throw up a 13.1 sticker on their car is another avenue.

    • The most comfortable pair of jeans I own are ‘Urban Star’ jeans from Costco ($15). I find they have a bit more room in the thigh and also have a bit of a stretch to them.

      Another wardrobe problem I have is I am constantly wearing holes in the crotch of my underwear (boxerbrief style) and jeans from my legs rubbing together when I walk. The last 4 or 5 pairs of jeans I’ve had to get rid of have been for this reason. I do a fair bit of walking, but does anyone else have this problem?

      • For jeans, go to a store like Buckle or another store dedicated to jeans. They typically have a bigger selection of fits than a department store. Also, if you’re in OKC the Shepler’s cowboy clothing store has an ungodly assortment of jeans. Yes, you will be paying more, but really, how many pair of jeans do you need?

        Are you wearing cotton underwear? Those wear out quickly with me for the same reason. I don’t have trouble with synthetics, so a good pair of Underarmor boxer briefs lasts me forever it seems.

        • This ^^^
          I have numerous amounts of under armour boxer briefs and compression shorts. They work amazing and last a ridiculous amount of time. Cinch jeans from the country western stores fit me the best!! I also like the Old Navy jeans as well. Plus they’re cheap. Sometimes though I just have to get the next size up so that my damn thighs will fit comfortably in the jeans and thank god for belts.

  9. Justin how should I incorporate this exercise into the Texas Method? Can I do it on Volume day or should this only be done after squats on intensity day instead of deadlifts? Please respond.

  10. “Use programs as a template or foundation for structuring your training.”

    I think this sums it up for me regarding programming. Use the strengths of a program and if it isn’t working slowly tweak it to aid in the big lifts.

    Like you said the tough part is mixing in something like conditioning while not hurt your progression. That’s been the biggest problem for me.

    Solid post.

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  12. As a recovering program addict, this was a good read. I am doing something GSLP-ish, and tweaking it to fit my needs and goals. I like the base program, but I’m happy to change things as they need to be changed. All I want is the biggest bang for my buck.

  13. dont do gslp sets to failure.
    if you do, have fun taking everyset to failure, and even on a deload, trying to push rep records and killing your CNS for when you hit heavier weights.

  14. This. I found that doing squats more than five has been bad news for me. And on the presses I just go until I see a serious slow down. Progress is still good. I don’t like failing, it makes me feel shitty about the session.

    • whenever i did rep out sets on the final set, and got to a weight i stalled at previously, i always ended up adding 5 lbs to it, and then crash and burning from there. sets to failure work really well on steroids, (which JP blasts and cruises large amounts of test, and still looks like shit. dont believe me? does this guy even look like he lifts?

      a natural trainee will start feeling the fatigue of a heavy set of 8 around rep 4/5 and then fail at 8, when an enhanced trainee will feel fatigue around rep 6 and fail around rep 11.

        • I’m not going to comment on the steroids things. I have no opinion. My point was that the purpose of a GSLP reset is not only give you the opportunity to hit a rep PR while working back up, but it also adds a volume stimulus to help break through.

          That worked great for me on the presses (as did moving them to first in the workout), but it wore the fuck out of me on squats. Doing 340 for 8 wore me out hard. I’ve gone back to fives and feel better and I think the reset will still be successful.

          Also, I think going to actual failure (like he suggests) is not really my speed. Since this is about modifying programs so they work for you, I thought it was worth noting, since I’m tweaking the program and still making progress while feeling better physically.

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