Is this program good? Is that program bad? What is the best program?
Every athlete on the planet has a personal opinion about what the best training program is. For some, the best program could be the one that drove the best results. For others, the one that caused the fewer injuries. Still other will simply prefer whatever the favorite coach or athlete endorses.
Irrespective of everything, though, it is clear that, as long as we do not set an objective way to evaluate programs, we are only debating about personal preferences and experiences.
However, is it really possible to determine which program, among all, is the best?
Is It Really Just The Program?
The first thing we should acknowledge is that, whether a program will work or not, does not primarily depend on the program but you and me.
Think about that. We can hire the best trainers in the world and have them preparing the best program in the world for us. Yet, that program would do absolutely nothing for us unless we actually follow it. Furthermore, we cannot expect any program to magically instill the necessary motivation and consistency to achieve our goals into us. These qualities have to come from inside, not outside.
The best athletes get the best results regardless of their training programs. Be it superior genetics, hard work, or determination, they simply know how to make the best of what they have. I bet my money that Michael Phelps would have made something good even out of the worst program on earth.
Am I cheating? Maybe a little bit. It is obvious that such gifted people would make everything work. However, this is exactly my point. What is true for the greatest champions is true also for you and me. We make the programs work. Every program works to some extent. Only a fool would argue with that. Even if not the best option in the world, it will still drive some sort of adaptation.
This is not to say there are no bad programs around, mind you. Unfortunately, there a quite a lot. However, let us see why thinking of them in terms of good and bad might not be the best approach.
Good, Better, and Best
Is this program good? Is that program bad?
Asking ourselves whether a program is good or bad is probably the wrong reference point from which to approach the subject of program evaluation.
As we said earlier, most programs work. As long as they are not completely retarded, or completely inadequate for our training advancement, they will produce some sort of stress and adaptation. You can read more about this in my article on The General Adaptation Syndrome.
However, the truth is that some programs work better than others do.
For example, we can take a completely untrained beginner and improve his 1RM on the squat by having him ride a bike or sprint uphill. Alternatively, we can put a barbell on his back and teach him how to lower and raise his body under a heavy load. Both strategies will improve his maximal squat strength. Nonetheless, one clearly works better than the other does.
Therefore, because every program works to a certain extent, there are not bad programs in this sense. For this reason, instead of good and bad, it is wiser to think of programs in terms of good, better, and best. As proposed by Fred Hatfield, every program falls somewhere along a good-better-best continuum.
Again, I am not saying bad programs do not exist. I am simply suggesting dropping the bivalent black-or-white approach, and starting seeing the world in shades of gray. If a program is not good, that does not necessarily make it bad. Moving along the continuum, there will be better programs just like there will be worst programs. Of course, we are interested in what works better.
Good, Better, or Best?
To recap, we just established that programs are not either good or bad, as most of us would think. Rather, a better approach is to evaluate them along a good-better-best continuum.
So, the next logical question is how exactly do we differentiate between good, better, and best? It is clear that as long as we do not set an objective way to evaluate a program, we are only debating about personal preferences or experiences.
As suggested by Coach Mark Rippetoe, there are at least four basic principles that every good program should address. They are training specificity, progressive overload, fatigue management, and individual differences.
Given that each of these principles is worth an article on its own, and that a full coverage is beyond the scope of this article, let us briefly discuss them.
Once our goals are established, training must be relatively specific. Meaning, the exercise program should pertain specifically to our sport. You can read more in my article How to Set SMART Goals.
We should always remember that the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is only going to work in our favor if the stress we place on the body causes adaptations that are specific to improving our sports performance.
For example, by properly using the GAS, we can dramatically improve our vertical jump height. However, this is not going to do much for our 1RM on the deadlift. Or better, not as much as a program specifically designed for improving maximal repetitions on the deadlift.
Similarly, if strength and muscles are our main goals, training on a program originally designed for marathon runners does not sound like the best choice. This because the adaptations coming from endurance type of training are diametrically opposite to those which strength athletes and bodybuilders typically look for.
The bottom line is that to optimize adaptations training must be specific to our goals. If not, the risk of producing a sub-optimal result increases exponentially as we lose specificity.
In fact, just as programs exist on a continuum ranging from worst to best, specificity exists along a continuum ranging from general to specific. The closer we are to the specific end of the spectrum, the more our sport-specific performance will benefit from our training. The further away, the higher the risk for diminished rates of transference between the two.
In other words, if you want to become good at something, you have to practice it a lot. A concept I explain better in my article Frequency in Weight Training. This is not to say there is no place for variety in our training. However, specificity is paramount.
The GAS can only continue to work in our favor if we provide the body with a stress that is significant enough to disrupt the homeostasis. This will not occur unless the stress does not either change or increase in magnitude over time.
If we keep on doing the same things repeatedly, we will eventually get used to them. At some point, the body will inevitably adapt to a certain weight, certain movements, a certain sets-repetitions scheme, and even to a certain exercise order. As a result, we will stop making progress.
This happens because of the General Adaptation Syndrome. In fact, the ultimate purpose of the GAS is to prevent the body from undergoing the same damage when exposed to a given stress for multiple times. If the stressor does not change over time, the body will eventually figure out it already has what it takes to deal with it. Hence, it will not adapt because it does not need to.
As I explain in my article The General Adaptation Syndrome Part 2: Training, the same thing can happen in the gym because even training is a form of stress. Therefore, we have to change the training stimulus over time in order to keep making progress.
In general, this means doing more volume than we have done before (principle of overload). However, if, on the one hand, we need to progressively overload the body with incremental amounts of stress, on the other hand, an excessive amount of stress can be detrimental to our progress.
This means our program has to meet two requirements. First, it must prescribe an increasing amount of volume to keep driving progress over time. Second, it must prescribe a workload that matches our current level of training advancement to avoid causing overtraining.
As we know from the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), training is only going to produce results if the workload is enough to disrupt the body’s state of homeostasis.
When this basic requirement is met, training overload triggers the recovery-adaptation process. First, the body needs time and resources to recover from the stressful event. Eventually, it will adapt by growing bigger and stronger than before. We call this full process supercompensation. Again, you can read more about it in my article The General Adaptation Syndrome Part 2: Training.
A key concept to understand is that the time the body needs to recover depends on the magnitude of the overload. The larger the overload, the more stress the body will accumulate, the more time it will need to recover.
In addition to that, fatigue is cumulative. If we neglect enough recovery, workout after workout, fatigue will stack up to the point of “intoxicating” the body. This is Stage 3 of Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome, also known as overtraining. Something we want to keep at a distance.
At the same time, though, if we rest too much between two consecutive workouts, we will start to go backward. This time, we are detraining because we are not doing enough to maintain our level of fitness.
This raises a conundrum. On the one hand, to keep progressing, we have to stress the body with progressive overloads. This produces more fatigue, which cumulates over time and requires longer times of recovery. On the other hand, we have to avoid resting too much or we will start to detrain.
Fatigue Management is the delicate art of balancing these two conflicting needs. A good program must provide an effective way to manage fatigue in order to optimize training and maximize adaptations.
The principle of individual differences is certainly one of the most neglected aspects of programming, if not the most. This makes it the single element that, more than anything else, is able to make the difference between a good program and a better program.
There is an endless amount of training programs out there for all sorts of goals and purposes. However, most of them have a rigid structure with little or no room for personal adjustments. Same exercises for everyone, same sets and repetitions schemes, same intensity, same volume, and so on and so forth. Everything is fixed and supposedly right for everyone.
These programs are known as “cookie cutter” programs. The general idea behind them is that, if we all do the same things, we will all get the same results. Unfortunately, we all know this is never going to be the case.
Age, genetics, gender, training advancement, recent and old injuries, stress levels, motivation, dietary status, and the list goes on. Too many things add to the equation and make it impossible to predict exactly how we will respond to training. Yes, we are all similar one to another. At the same time, though, we are all different and respond to training differently.
Slightly differently, I should say. Doing pull-ups will not develop a strong back in one person and big calves into another one. However, even if two individuals follow the same exact program, they will never get the same exact results.
Everyone is different from everyone else. Everyone has different biomechanics, different workload capacity, and different recovery ability. In fact, even the same person has different needs on different days and too many programs simply ignore this fact. To be optimal, a program must be individualized to some degree.
So, what is the best training program?
This one million dollar question will never have an answer for the reason that it is too generic. First, we should ask the best program for what? Then, we should ask the best program for who?
Just like it is not possible to determine a single diet that works best for everyone, it is impossible to determine a single program that works best for everyone. The reason being, we are all different and train to accomplish different things.
That being said, it is certainly possible to evaluate programs objectively and determine which program is the best for a specific purpose and a specific individual.
All programs that thoroughly address the four principles of program evaluation are unquestionably better programs. Among them, the best is the one that excels in all four areas (specificity, overload, fatigue management, individual differences) and delivers the most results, safely, in the shortest amount of time.
Ultimately, the best program is the one that works best for us.