Programming for Snowflakes

The best program is one written just for you, but when does personalization become counterproductive?

If someone told you that everyone should follow exactly the same training program from now until doomsday, you’d probably dismiss them as a crank, and you’d be right to do so. “Everyone is different” is a truism as obvious as “the sky is blue,” and the best program will inevitably be one that’s personalized for you.

Still, if you get caught up celebrating the unique shape and color of your personal snowflake, you will find yourself majoring in the minors, unnecessarily limiting your progress by designing a program around your imagined distinctions.

In a previous article, we looked at how technique can be improved by attending to the individual differences that matter and ignoring the ones that don’t. Now we’re going to take the same approach to programming. First, we will consider of some of the personal elements that affect programming, and then review ways we tend to get it wrong.

Everybody’s different, but what differences actually matter enough to change your programming?

Individual Factors That Affect Programming

The individual differences that make a program “right” or “wrong” for you have a short lifespan. This means that your ideal program a month from now may look vastly different than it does today. It is important to respect and understand the methodologies that make a training program work, but these four factors will have a significant impact on the type of program that works best for you.

  • Talent: Talent is often overrated, and no one who has been training for less than a few years is anywhere near their genetic limit for performance. Still, there are some elements of your makeup that don’t respond well to training. A 5’6″ man with a 14″ standing vertical jump is unlikely to be in the NBA. If being a champion is your goal, you have to play to your strengths.
  • Goals: Too often we dismiss how our goals affect our training program. All athletes need strong legs, but a runner’s strength program will look completely different than one designed for a powerlifter. Similarly, if you compete in an endurance sport with an exhausting training schedule that won’t allow for weight gain, maybe increasing strength isn’t an ideal goal for you at this time. The more specialized you’re willing to become, the more specific your program will have to be.
  • Life: Great athletes find ways to train around everyday commitments, but when disaster strikes, even the best lose out on their daily performance and recovery. I learned this the hard way while standing 1800-0600 watches in the Navy. Either the programming bends or you break.
  • Prior Training History: Where are you in your strength progression? A novice trainee can make improvements under a wide variety of programs, but a world-class champion lifter needs a more nuanced approach. Where are you in relation to your next big meet, milestone, or sports season? How much fatigue can you handle in a session? The newly retired all-star running back can put in more volume than the sedentary real estate agent whose last great touchdown was during recess.

How to Get it Right

All of these factors are malleable to a certain degree. Your choice of sport may reflect or ignore your talents. Short- and long-term goals require different effort. Your efforts outside of the gym affect your recovery from life’s curveballs, and though you can’t change your past in time for today’s workout, every day is another element of tomorrow’s training history. Still, we often look at these elements and imagine them as fixed truths. We get stuck staring in awe at our individual snowflake.

The first sign of this is usually a variant of the age-old cry: “I’m just not talented.” We accept underperformance and continued mediocrity because we think it’s our destiny. And that’s absolutely, unequivocally wrong. If you want to get out of this trap and make progress, start with these steps:

  • Choose the Right Program: First, start with a program that’s not an irredeemable mess. If you’re new to training and your program is in the general direction of optimal, you’ll make progress. More experienced athletes who are stalled will likely need to find a coach or thoroughly review the principles of programming in their sport. If your coach doesn’t care about your background or goals and pulls a plan out of a magazine, find a new coach.
  • Streamline Your Goals: A common mistake people make when choosing a program is to “chase two rabbits,” meaning they pick two goals that compete against one another. If you’re training to build strength and muscle mass, layering a couch-to-5K program on top of your gym routine won’t be effective and may compromise your strength goals.
  • Follow the Plan: You can’t know if a program works if you don’t actually do it and keep track of your progress. Don’t even consider bailing on a program unless you’ve been practicing it for at least four months. Having a consistent routine allows you to compare your performance at different points in your progression. Before you even do your first workout, commit to following the plan and decide how you’re going to track your progress.
  • Make Adjustments Slowly: When progress starts to slow or stall (and it will), make one adjustment at a time and observe the effect for at least a week, preferably longer for more experienced athletes. Too many changes at once will make it difficult to isolate the variable that caused you to stall in the first place. Slow adjustments allow you to pay attention to how your body responds to change, and every adjustment will bring you closer to finding your “best” program.

Life Changes, So Should Your Training

Programs are dynamic, and no fixed routine will give you long-term success. People often treat popular models like 5-3-1, Starting Strength, and Westside as fixed templates, failing to learn the principles, details, variations, and exceptions that make them work. If you’re going to use one of these systems, really dig into them, and then adjust them as you progress as a lifter.

When it comes to programming for your personal best, one question should predominate: “Am I getting better?” If not, maybe you took the wrong approach from the start, you’re not being consistent, or you need to up your recovery and nutrition game. Whatever the case may be, if you always drive toward answering that question with an accurate assessment of where you are and a clear vision of where you’re going, you will move in the right direction.

More on Personalized Programming:

Photo courtesy of CrossFit Stars.

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