Impose Boundaries for More Creative Workout Programming

When it comes to designing your workouts, too many options can distract from focus.

Of late, my training has consisted of very little strenuous efforts. I am now on the recovery upswing after an injury. The last several months have assumed the form of radical acceptance and lessons learned rather than intense exertion and focused efforts.

I write and teach heavily focused on how to be your own coach (or at least a strong self-reliant athlete to better partner with your coach). This injury also shapes my recent direction toward the gifts and lessons that injuries inevitably present. I’m struck that, despite my recent thinking about self-coaching and injuries, I never understood how limitations can actually provide a growth opportunity for those designing effective programs.

Injuries drive attention to areas not previously discovered or valued. They can demand that an athlete becomes more body-aware or develop a more conservative and accurate understanding of their limitations. They can help an athlete prioritize recovery, mobility, and movement quality. These benefits are immediately apparent once the initial shock of an injury subsides.

An injury, and the severe physical limitations during recovery can also give way to much more creative and effective programming by imposing creative boundaries.

Boundaries Create Endless Possibilities

Programming can feel daunting. Whether designing for yourself or another athlete, it feels difficult to know where to begin, which movements, combinations, and intensities to select, and how to periodically progress over weeks or months. The process inevitably becomes more comfortable and smooth with experience, but can still feel like trying to plot a course through an endless sea with no landmarks in sight.

When there are no boundaries, the possibilities can feel too large. Too many options can distract from focus. Anyone who has scrolled through the viewable options on Netflix can attest to this paradox of choice.

Effective programmers give themselves boundaries. This may seem confining and more difficult, but these bounds can actually drive creativity. Most effective programmers apply constraints without consciously realizing they have bounded their options. We see these as programming according to our (or athletes) physical and schedule limitations, available equipment, and goals. We also inherently remain within the bounds of our background, specialties, and values. However, we can intentionally apply even tighter bounds to drive our creativity further.

Creative Constraints

Through tightly confining boundaries we can fully explore the potential of the limited tools we have available. Coaches and athletes alike notoriously stick to what they know. We can underestimate the value of certain tools, movements, or methodologies. There are no good or bad, useful or ineffective, tools. Every option has a purpose and a set of benefits. It is difficult to fully understand any tools potential until we use it to near exclusion. Eliminating other options forces creativity with what we do have available.

My on-going recovery leaves me with few options to design my program. Doctor’s orders dictate nothing explosive or heavy, no intense core engagement, and no weights over 25 to 30 pounds, not to mention that many movement patterns and postures remain off limits because of my recovering tissue. At face-value, I am quite confined in my options.

While initially glum with my limited options, I soon found that with little available I was programming more creatively than ever. Each training session not only brought gratitude for my ability to simply train again, but I found fun and exploration than I have ever felt. I was exploring new movements to address my recovery and specific mobility. I was discovering ways to significantly challenge my system with relatively minimal weights. I focused on practicing “perfect” reps while feeling no pressure to push to more intense exertion. I was seeing possibilities for the tools available that I had never dreamed of.

With immense options available, we must consider myriad possibilities. Our thinking follows the age old “inch deep but a mile wide” approach. With creative constraints, we can sharpen our focus on only a few options allowing us to explore the depths of what we have available.

Impose Your Own Boundaries

If you have hit a training plateau, a mindset slump, or simply want to broaden your coaching or self-coaching horizons try intentionally confining your options. You’ll be forced to put together combinations, sessions, and programs differently than you ever have. You can develop a more nuanced understanding of previously less familiar tools or methodologies. It is unlikely that things will fall apart. You might need to push through some initial discomfort, but you will arrive on the other side a more balanced, broad, and bold coach with a more creative understanding of how to design a fun and effective program.

  • Try a few weeks completely neglecting your favorite tools.
  • Program a phase of entirely bodyweight movements.
  • Plan to work out in a park with only tools you can bring with you.
  • Select a piece of equipment you have never (or rarely used) and include it in every session for a few weeks.
  • Use only your favorite tool to exclusion to fully explore all of its possibilities.

I have seen many beautiful meals come out of a tiny kitchen. I have seen many stunning works of art created with only a pencil. I challenge you to confine yourself to as few options as possible to drive you to new levels of creativity.