Everything you need to know about programming (well, enough to program for yourself).

James Plumb

There is a modern phenomena of information overload that leads people to believe it’s difficult or impossible to find a solution. Programming has very much started to fall into this category, with 100s of programs online and 1000s of coaches offering programs.


Do you need a program?

No. Not at all. Many would argue it’s the shortest path to success (ie, muscular growth or strength) and many say ‘I have enough stress in my life without another set of rules’.

Members of the team here have functioned well under programs, but openly admit to being overwhelmed by programs when they have other stress in their lives.

Unless you have a comp coming up, there is no necessity for timelines, deadlines and pressure.

Everything you need to know about programming (well, enough

Programs for beginners and advanced

When you are a beginner, you just need stimulus, rarely do you need specific stimulus. When you are advanced, you rarely need a program to tell you what to do, you know how to create stress on your body.

Advanced people aren’t likely to need this, so we’ll focus on a beginner.

Step 1- Take the day of the week you have the most time to train, that is squat day

Step 2 – 3 days from squat day is deadlift day

Step 3 – Choose another day for bench

Step 4 – If you feel like it, add a day for accessories


Sunday – Squat

Monday – Bench

Tues – Off

Wed – Accessories / Off if you are tired

Thurs – Deadlift

Fri and Sat – Off


How to program each workout

Beginners can hugely gain on straight linear progression. Patient beginners can flourish on beginner linear progression for years.

Always train at 9RPE or less (ie, if you really had to, you could do one extra rep).

Your only goal on the top set is to do one extra rep than last time, and when you get to 10 reps, add 2.5kg (or less if you have change plates on the bench).

If you can squat 80kg for 6 – and add 4 reps per month (basically a rep per week) that’s 110kg for 6 at the end of one year. 30kg on a lift is HUGE.

This is also entirely realistic, doesn’t require you to rearrange your life and isn’t going to smash your CNS so hard you die. If you choose to deload (more below) you would still be in the range of 20kg per year.

Set 1 – is your 9RPE progressive set, set 2 – X is your back out sets – you do 60-70% of the reps of the first set until you deem you’re done. Do at least 2 more sets, do 10 more if you want. If you are still over 60% of the reps from the first set, it’s good work.

You get a lot of rest days here. When you are at the gym or your home setup, its time to put in work. Get off your phone, get focussed, write down how many reps you are going to do on your top set and execute.

Everything you need to know about programming (well, enough

Why simple progressive linear works

We’ve said this so many times. Only two factors. Sufficient stimulus, sufficient recovery. This applies to everyone, from beginner to Olympian. In the above case, for beginners (and really intermediate if they have an honest work rate), this is sufficient stimulus.

Why is it different for beginners?

Beginners get three aspects. Skill acquisition, increase muscular strength and also increased muscular recruitment.

As you progress, you really are only getting increased muscular strength.

This is the prime reason nothing is going to failure, back out sets are moderate and the overall load is dictated by the trainer. Its enough.

We are very against beginner programs that don’t have a high level of repeated exercises. 

You may think you can learn how to squat by doing it mixed in with leg press or smith squats, we think you are wrong. It’s a grind. It’s a skill. It’s a mental game (for the strong-minded). If you want to get strong, you need to learn to show up every week and put in work.

Why programs fail

Insufficient stimulus or insufficient recovery. It really is that simple. If you are smashing yourself and not recovering, you will never get anywhere. If you spend the whole time doing cable work, your stimulus is likely to low.

Insufficient stimulus is often the inability to execute. Give us a moment to get on a soapbox, but you can’t give an exercise the focus it needs while being on Instagram between sets. Task-based focus in real, it’s a valid area of neural research, and you are not the exception.

In an example of two people. One scrolls insta between sets, then second sits quietly and thinks about what is going to happen in the next set, how it will feel, how many reps they will get, and reassures themselves constantly that are up to the task.

Many many people do not realise your brain is often a jerk, and you need to be proactive in acknowledging the upcoming challenge, and how you will face up to it.

As old person as it sounds, most of us leave our phones in our bag and away from us when training. Its 60-90 minutes, and if you can’t last that long without a phone, training may not be your primary issue. *steps off soapbox*

Everything you need to know about programming (well, enough

How to program a comeback

Training is addictive and you need to be aware of dopamine loops, your expectations, and your results. Dopamine is sometimes simplified as the ‘reward’ molecule but it could be better described as the ‘seeking’ molecule.

Your body remembers stuff it likes, and in incredibly simplified terms, your brain is trained to seek it.

Many of the people reading this have been in a feedback loop of lifting for a long time. Train, PR, feel pumped, train more, PR again, feel pumped.

We are entering the most bizarre time ever. With home setups becoming more common, gyms reopening with weird rules and most of us with months of detraining our lifts, but retraining our minds to enjoy food, Netflix and buying things more than lifting.

You need to understand this (and give yourself a break) returning to lifting with a home gym or back at a facility will be difficult to maintain and will take a solid mental effort.

Strength training is hard. Being resilient enough to get close to your genetic ability is very hard.

We STRONGLY recommend that you reset your goals away from PR’s and move them back to basics. We have been suggesting the below

Step 1 – Train 4 times a week – even if its curls for 15 minutes

Step 2 – Train 4 times a week – at least for 45 minutes

Step 3 – Train 4 times a week – including bench, squat and deadlift

Step 4 – Train 4 times a week – and work up to a 7 rep ‘max/9rpe’ on bench, squat, dead

Step 5 – Run a program to increase those maxes over 6-10 weeks

Take as long as you want for each step. The idea is just to set goals you can hit, and get back in the swing of things in a fun and progressive measure. We use 7 reps, because nobody has a current 7 rep max, so you can’t compare yourself to earlier marks.

how to Deload

Mental fatigue or physical fatigue usually occurs after stress. People often don’t understand that your body will be quite strong against challenge during times of high adrenaline and cortisol, but when things calm down, that’s when you get sick, run down and lose the will to train.

It’s absolutely fine, and deloading every when needed is recommended. If you don’t need to deload, don’t.

In the context of this article, running a deload of weight at a % is not necessary, take a week off or do curls. Come back a few KG lighter on each lift and get back to it. 

Everything you need to know about programming (well, enough

How to program for intermediates and those that like spreadsheets

We would highly recommend you start from a great resource like Candito. He has spreadsheets for free, and understand the relationship between volume and intensity.

In the broadest terms, intermediates use blocks where the focus moves from volume to intensity, based on a peak of strength / max out. To start to program these blocks yourself, you need to measure total tonnage of working sets in contrast to intensity (ie, how close you are to max weight).

If you want to program for yourself, the best way to do it is to start on one of these free programs, and take detailed notes where you think it succeeds and fails, and start to modify for yourself.

If you take myself for example

  1.   I am far more responsive to many sets of low reps for deadlifts. In my own programming, I’ll use 10 sets of 4, 3 or 2 reps
  2.   My bench needs a lot of stimulus, and I’m most successful with two bench days, one rep, one low rep
  3.   I gain more from a lower intensity squat, for 5-6 than higher intensity

That knowledge is 15 years in the making, from programs in pads since I was 14. Its your responsibility to know what works, and some people just need a lot of volume (to the extent it almost seems unfair) to put on muscle. These people are generally ectomorphs, and require years (like, 5-10 years) of constant work for their body to become accustomed to size. As unfair as it sounds, many ectomorphs will lose progress so fast that a month off leaves them almost at square one.

The endomorph got the short end of the stick body fat wise, but in general will add muscle more easily, and hold that strength for a long time.

Mesomorphs just got lucky.

The Wrap-up

We strongly believe that many modern programs have too many elements, and are ruining the experience. If you can at your gym, or at your house, squat sessions with a few buddies are fun and the shared challenge builds lifelong friendships.

The biggest part of training is to keep training. Offer to give people a spot and gym to make buddies. Invite anyone that has any interest to come train at your house. 

Ask for a spot when you bench heavy. Like most things in life, 90% of getting strong is showing up, so don’t stress on the minutia, stress on getting to the gym, and being focussed while you are there.

    Comments (2)

    Peter Railton
    Tom Waters

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.