The Fundamentals of Self-Programming

Sometimes, the best program money can buy is the one written by the athlete for themselves.

Do you want to be your own coach? Perhaps you want the freedom to train whenever you want. Maybe you’re looking for more specificity than group classes or cookie-cutter programs. Maybe you need a less-expensive option than hiring a private coach. Or you simply are looking for a new challenge and ownership over your training.

But are you actually ready to do it? The number one aspect of self-coaching that holds athletes back is self-program design. Designing an effective program for yourself can be the factor that prevents you from striking out alone. It can also lead to plateaus and stagnating progress, if not done well.

Who Shouldn’t Self Coach?

Some types of athletes just shouldn’t program for themselves:

  • If you are just starting out or have significant imbalances or mobility limitations, you will highly benefit from working with a private coach.
  • If have very specific and higher-order sport goals, you will benefit from working with a private coach.
  • If you have little knowledge or understanding (or little desire for either) of what makes an athlete strong and capable, you will benefit from working with a private coach.
  • If you simply want to outsource the technical aspects and don’t feel you can be honest enough with yourself to program effectively, by all means don’t do it.

However, if have training for some time and have developed a strong understanding of how you move and feel, you might be ready to strike out solo.

Self-Program Design Fundamentals

These are set of guidelines that I use when designing highly effective programs for myself and athletes that I work with. They are in no way a definitive guide or the “best” way to put together a program. Consistency, variation, effort, and awareness supersede any of the technical details for nearly all people.

The Warm Up

An effective warm up should accomplish three things:

  1. Wake up your system with whole-body circulation. Be sure to include core engagement movements as well.
  2. Prepare your joints for movement and loading. Move as many joints as possible (especially those about to be loaded) through the greatest and most varied range of motion that they are capable. Seek out the dark corners of your mobility.
  3. Prepare specific tissue for specific demands. This is a fancy way of saying to do mobility work in the muscle groups and ranges of motion that you are about to train. For example, address your thoracic spine (mid and upper back) and shoulder mobility before any overhead or hanging work.

A warm up designed around these principles will both prepare you for the work ahead and leave you moving better than you were the day before.

Speed and Power

Perform speed and power work at the beginning of your training session. Power development hinges on the speed at which you perform the movement. It is best to plan these for before you wear yourself down with other intense efforts.

Schedule movements such as like sprinting, jumping, plyometrics, and Olympic lifts before any other strength and conditioning sets.

Strength Work

These will be the bulk of your training session. You can make these as long, specific, or intense as you like. I favor following five principles:

  1. Movement Quality: No matter what you choose and how many you perform, prioritize moving well through every rep above all else. You groove patterns ever deeper with every repetition. What type of habits do you want to make permanent?
  2. Mixing Pushes and Pulls: Nearly every movement can be categorized as either lower body or upper body, and a push or a pull. For example, a push up is an upper body push, and a kettlebell swing a lower body pull. I typically pair upper pushes with lower pulls and vice versa. You can design a block with only upper or lower body movements as well, but sticking to the model above ensures ample rest and recovery for the working areas. This will lead to better movement quality.Be sure to vary the planes of motion as well. The best illustration is the difference between a push up, an overhead press, and a dip. All are upper pushes but provide drastically different loading.
  3. Unilateral Movements: Very few athletic or daily functional movements are completely symmetrical. Build the bulk of your training around single-side or single-side-dominant movements.
  4. Freedom: When designing a strength set, allow yourself freedom to change or adjust it as you see fit. Just because you wrote down 10 sets on a piece of paper, doesn’t mean it is the most productive session for you today. I typically program loosely, with blocks that might say: 3-5 rounds of… with 6-8 reps of… rest as needed between sets. Use this free time to think about how each set felt, how you might move better on the next one, and for mobility work between sets. Think of each set as open practice, rather than written in stone.
  5. Variety and Honesty: Constantly mix things up, both for your own sanity and to deliver a variety of stimuli. Be radically honest with yourself about how your movements looked and felt. Videos and friends can provide amazing visual feedback, but nothing replaces your own sensation and awareness while you move.


I won’t say much about metabolic conditioning because it is both extremely complicated and exceedingly simple. To train for specific sports or efforts, look into energy systems training. It can be both interesting and invaluable to any self-coach.

If you simply want to be generally fit, just move quickly and vary the length and intensity of your efforts. Include short, intense bursts with interval work, as well as longer, sustained efforts. Any movement can be turned into a cardiovascular effort if you do it fast enough. This is your chance to bring some fun into your training.

It is best to schedule these efforts for the end of your training session, after you have put in your quality mobility, power, and strength work.

Move Your Own Fitness Forward

This is in no way meant to be the end-all guide to designing effective programs. But by beginning with these rules, introducing your own creativity, and maintaining a commitment to work on your weaknesses, you can continually move your fitness forward all on your own.

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