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Most Effective Fitness Program Design

Building the most effective fitness program for yourself or your clients is important to be able to reach your goals safely and sustainably in the shortest amount of time possible. There’s a big difference between a workout out and a training program.  A workout is a singular day of training whereas a training program is a strategic plan and execution of workouts to get you closer and closer to your goals.  A training program is the culmination of multiple workouts that all follow a similar goal in order to achieve progressive overload. The goal from person to person will vary, but whether it be weight loss, building a better physique, getting a stronger squat, building a bigger bench, or a sport-specific performance goal, the same rules apply. Regardless of your goals, you want to be able to maximize your gains without the risk of injury and reach your goal in the shortest amount of time possible. 

Progressive Overload: Linear vs Undulating Periodization

We know we need to continue to challenge ourselves in order to continue to make progress towards our goals. This principle is called progressive overload. We can accomplish this in one of two ways: 

  1. Linear Progression
  2. Undulating Progression

Linear progression occurs when we take one variable (typically the amount of load or resistance) and make it progressively more challenging. 

Undulating progression on the other hand occurs when we manipulate at least two variables that have an inverse relationship to each other. This typically entails adjusting the load which is a percentage of your 1RM and the number of reps/sets which will ultimately manipulate the volume.  

So let’s dive into how you build a training program using progressive overload to help you build the most effective fitness program and reach your goals in the shortest amount of time.

How to Design the Most Effective Fitness Programs 

So first you need to have an idea of how to build a singular workout using your 1 rep max.  If you don’t already know how to do that, be sure to check out this video, where I walk you through it!

Linear Progression

We have a couple of different scenarios and examples..so make sure you read through to the end to see what works best for you.  

Let’s start by taking a look at an example of linear progression as it is the easiest to understand.

So week 1, you do 3 sets of 10 at 68% 1 Rep max

Week 2, is 3 sets of 10 at 70%1 rep max

Week 3 is 3 sets of 10 at 72% 1 rep max

Week 4 is 2 sets of 10 at 75% 1 rep max

**Side note, you cannot keep adding weight each week without running the risk of injury, so a good rule of thumb is 1 week out of the month is a deload week to let your tendons, ligaments, etc recover as your muscles tend to recover faster than these tissues.  This really lets you limit the overall volume accumulation from progressing too quickly.

In a perfect world, we would continue to add resistance and volume each week and our bodies would continue to adapt and we would get infinitely stronger.  But the truth of the matter is, we have to do this strategically so we don’t get injured and really halt our goals as muscle growth actually occurs outside of the gym.  The gym is just the stimulus to allow for growth to occur while you recover. 

Undulating Progressions

Now let’s discuss undulating progressions where we manipulate both the load AND the volume.  The load and reps are both changing each day.  These daily changes in a variable are known as daily undulation.  

In this scenario the load progresses each week similar to linear progression; however, as resistance increases the number of reps/sets decreases.  This is because there is an inverse relationship between intensity and volume.

For that reason, we want to make sure the program lays out a good plan for about 12-16 weeks, as that’s about the length of time it takes for our bodies to really adapt, but if we can focus on an even longer block such as 4 to 6 months long, that’s even better.  

What’s the Best Progression Strategy?

It completely depends on the person. The way you respond is different from the next person.  Also, if you target strength vs hypertrophy that changes as well.  In general, I like to have clients spend twice as long in hypertrophy than in strength.  By default, you have more flexibility with hypertrophy than strength as you have more reps to play with.  This chart is a great framework to start with but would be adjusted differently to each person to help them reach their specific goal, previous training history, past injuries, etc.

Strength Hypertrophy Chart

Pros and Cons

There are benefits to both linear and undulating programs.  Linear progressions are much easier to understand and to do on your own because you are only focusing on one variable and not two.  This is a great way to learn If you are new to exercise and want to see progress with your weights week to week or if you are learning to write your own training program.

Undulating programs on the other hand have the benefit of not being as monotonous and letting you train hard without thinking the only way to get better is more resistance.  As a physical therapist, this is a myth I see far too often in the gym, where athletes feel the only way to get better is by adding weight, and that is just not true.  By default as the weight increases technique tends to break down and having good technique with higher loads becomes increasingly challenging. 

Recap

To review, linear progressions focus on one variable whereas undulating focuses on two.  

Both linear and undulating progressions can be incorporated and are often built into many programs.  A helpful tip: Don’t overcomplicate a training program.  The goal of any training program is progressive overload. As long as you are progressively overloading the tissues, you are moving in the right direction to design the most effective fitness program for you and/or your clients.

Joseph Rosi, DPT

Dr. Rosi is a performance orthopedic and men’s pelvic health physical therapist. He has a passion for helping people get out of pain, recover from an injury, and increase performance. He believes everyone should take the time to learn how to move optimally before injuries ever occur. Outside of working with clients, he spends time with his wife and loves to travel the world.

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