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Athlete Programming: 5 Rules To Follow



Programming for an athlete can be tricky. Most young athletes have a training age of 0 and a schedule that is all over the place. That’s why I put together 5 rules to abide by in order to write an effective program. I am sure you can add a few, but these are my top 5, and yes, they are in order of importance.


1. Do no harm/prevent harm

  • As strength coaches, sometimes it is easy to get caught up in athletes throwing weight around. We always have to remember that their sport ALWAYS comes before the weight room. They are here to get better at their sport, not to be powerlifters. For example, having an athlete perform a one rep max deadlift usually is not the smartest idea. Always think of risk/reward. We want to program movements that have minimal risk with the highest reward possible. In addition, we want to program exercises that will prevent harm. For example, a pitcher in baseball experiences a lot of stress in the shoulder and elbow. We need to embrace this, and program arm care exercises to do our best to avoid harm from occurring. We cannot prevent everything, but we will do our damn best to try. To sum it up, stay away from harm!


2. Human first, sport second

  • This rule piggybacks on everything stated in the previous rule. We have to look at the athlete objectively and take the sport out of the picture when assessing to determine what they need to prevent any harm. This can get lost when you have a parent saying "my son needs to throw the baseball 90 mph", but he has limited external rotation and a scapula that doesn't move well - this can be a recipe for disaster. You must always make sure the movement of the athlete precedes anything else.


3. Less is more...usually

  • When I first began programming, I found myself crushing kids with volume because I wanted to make it hard and looked for them to say “I was so sore, that was a great workout!” That was very dumb. Neural adaptation is the most important goal with athletes, especially when they are first beginning a program. If you program back squats 5x15, they will get crushed and I doubt they will move well through the entirety of the set. It is always better to program less, and you can ALWAYS change it. In fact, athletes love when you say “wow, you have progressed so quick, let's make this set 8 reps instead of 6.” It gives them a confidence boost and it is a safe way to go about your programming. Likewise, with volume, exercise selection should not be a jumble of different movements. You need to give the athletes the ability to learn and understand a movement. Too many exercises will result in little to no adaption. As previously mentioned, neural adaptation is extremely important!


4. Stress=Adaptation

  • Alright, ready for me to contradict myself? In order for an athlete to see progress, they need to be stressed. And there needs to be enough stress in order to make a change. Programming 3x3 of air squats is awesome, but probably will not be enough to make any true change. There is no “magic number” for this to happen - each athlete is unique and will require a different amount of volume in order to see the change. If I had to say a set/rep scheme, usually 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps for a new athlete is a good starting point, obviously depending on exercise and person. You want them to be getting a good sweat, but not have them face down on the floor gasping for air.


5. Nothing is perfect

  • If you look at every single one of my programs, you will find an exercise crossed out and replaced, switched reps, and other random notes. It's because I may write something up thinking it is perfect, but then realize it needs to be tweaked or changed for the betterment of the athlete. Do not be held to what is on the paper. Nothing is perfect, you will make mistakes when writing programs, we learn from it and strive to be better next time!


I hope these rules help you, they certainly help me. I keep them in mind every time I am sitting down typing away with programs. Feel free to comment below your thoughts and let me know what rules you think are important!

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