Fitness Program Design Primer

Let’s talk fitness program design for a little while. There are workout routines all over the place. You can hire someone to write one for you, download one from a website, get one out of a book or magazine, or even write one yourself. But do you know how to make sure you’re getting what you need?A fitness program can, and probably should, be a highly personalized thing. Even if you don’t want to write your own fitness programming, there are some things you should know to make sure the programs you’re following are right for you. Without some basic knowledge it will be difficult at best to know if a program will get you were you want to go.

Defining Goals

Step one when setting up a fitness program is defining goals. I’m not here to tell you what your goals should be. I’m here to tell you what a crap goal is and what a good goal is. Goals need to be specific and tangible.

Goals like I want to lose weight, I want to get stronger, I want to be leaner, or I want to be more healthy… They’re all crap goals. None of these are specific. There is no starting point and there is no ending point. Essentially, they are unreachable and will just frustrate you.

Instead you need good goals. Some examples would be… I would like to lose 10 pounds, drop 3% body fat, squat 250 lbs, or workout 4 times a week for at least 30 minutes. These are well defined and achievable goals. You know when you’ve met them so you can move on to a new priority or set a new goal!

Set Reachable Goals

Next, goals need to be reasonable. I’ll be the first to admit that anything is possible, but the likelihood of it happening is important for goals. You may lose 100 pounds in 4 weeks, but the odds aren’t good. Not to mention the less than pleasant side effects that would cause.

Set goals that are possible for you to reach. If a goal seems impossible once you’ve defined it, see if you can break that goal into smaller goals that are easier to meet. Most problems when broken down into smaller pieces become much easier to mentally accept .

Say you want to run a marathon. You could just set your goal as run a marathon in a year. But it would be much more manageable, and rewarding, to break this into several goals. Maybe run a 5K in three months, a 10K three months after that, a half-marathon in another three months, and finally the marathon to finish out the year.

In this example, the final goal is still the same, but each goal achieved along the way gives you more momentum and confidence toward the final goal. You’ll be much more likely to hit your ultimate goals this way.


You absolutely have to figure out which goal or goals are most important to you. Honestly, if you have more than three priorities, you really aren’t prioritizing and even that’s a bit of a stretch. I try really hard to not have more than 1 main goal and rarely more than 2 these days. I’ve been guilty of not prioritizing enough a ton in the past.

A major goal of mine is improving mobility. Yup… It’s a crap goal. It’s also not specific. I’ve decided to prioritize improving my shoulder range of motion. I’ll focus on other joints when I have returned my shoulders to the their previous level of mobility. Everything I do outside of rock climbing right now is designed to meet that one goal.

You can train to win the powerlifting meet and run a new PR marathon at the same time. It is possible, but that’s a very complex training program that requires serious commitment and dedication. It also requires very advance exercise routine programming.

You’re much more likely to be successful if you pick either the powerlifting meet or the marathon. Accomplish one goal, re-prioritize and then accomplish the other.

Now For the Program

Now that you’ve ironed out your goals, picked way points and destinations, and have a direction, you’re ready to design that program. If you don’t want to design a program that’s fine! But now you are better prepared to evaluate a program to make sure it will move you toward your goals. If you’re having someone design a program for you, it’s almost impossible to get a good, useful program without taking care of the above goal steps.

If you’re designing your own program, make sure the program focuses mainly on your highest priority goal or goals. You may even design a second program to adopt once you’ve reached your primary goal and are ready to move onto the next one.

If you’re purchasing a program rather than designing one, look at the program and ask yourself, “does this program look like it’s working toward my goals?” Does the source providing the program offer any support? Will they explain why you need to do certain things in the program? The more you understand about the program, the better you will be able to evaluate it and the more likely you will get your money’s worth.

Programming Basics

I’ll talk very quickly about the very basics or program design so that you will better be able to evaluate your program. Some of this may seem self-explanatory but I’ll try to add enough detail so I can clarify.

To get stronger, you need to move heavy things. Just because something initially feels heavy, doesn’t mean that it really is. Something is heavy if you physically can’t move it more than 6 times. If you can move it more than this, it’s not that relatively heavy. To get really strong, you should be moving things that you can’t move more than about 3 times. You should also take lots of rest in between work periods, up to 5 minutes and a minimum of 2 minutes. You want to make sure you’re fresh to give the next effort your best go.

If you want bigger muscles, then you need to be moving things you can’t move more than about 12 times. Any more than this and you’re starting to get too much into endurance and you’ll minimize muscle growth. Unlike strength programming, you do not want to be fresh when you start your next effort. The goal of this programming is to fatigue as many muscle fibers as possible to maximize growth. You shouldn’t be resting more than 60 seconds between efforts, but but try not to rest less than 30 seconds.

To improve endurance, you should be performing activities that you can do many times. If we’re talking moving things, we’re talking 20 to 30 times. Rest times between efforts should be very short, in the neighborhood of 30 seconds. In the case of things like running or walking, you need long-term sustained efforts. Start with short work periods that are comfortable and slowly extend the work time over weeks and months. Don’t go too fast because you increase the risk of injury. Slow and steady wins the race here.

For weight loss or body fat reduction, your program needs a strong diet component. As the saying goes, “abs are made in the kitchen”. If you’re trying to lose weight with exercise alone, you will most likely be very disappointed. It’s important to increase your physical activity, but to really lose weight, you need to change your eating habits.

This is a very simple overview of the very complex process of fitness programming. However, I think it’s enough info for you to start evaluating programs and find one that will work for your goals. If you’re a little more advanced and want to try designing your own program, go for it! It can be a lot of fun, especially when you hit a goal with a program of your own design.

The Wrap

Go forth and conquer your world! With clear goals and an understanding of the basics, you can accomplish a lot. There are tons of resources out there to help so don’t be shy about hunting down what you need. Just learning to set useful goals can be a huge step toward improving your health and well-being.

Program design can be incredibly complicated, but if you’re not an aspiring body builder or a serious competitive athlete, it doesn’t have to be. Work toward your goals in a thoughtful and dedicated way and you’re sure to get there!

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