SMART TRAINING – Part 3 ‘Program Construction’

When constructing a program, whether for you or someone else, it is important to remember that everyone is different. Sounds obvious, but is often forgotten. Personally I think it is more successful if you sit down with someone, friend, instructor or partner and together work through designing a program, much like constructing a contract. You need to be honest and realistic, both with your goals and time available. To help you, here are some important areas to consider:

1. Initial Assessment.

An initial baseline fitness assessment will help provide an indicator of your current level. Ideally you want as much information as possible to allow future comparison for progression, and should include specifics to their sport and goal though will depend on facilities available. Preferably should include all areas of fitness; strength, speed, stamina, suppleness and skill.

Medical and injury history should also be noted, to set any limitations. Finally a clear understanding of what someone ultimately wants to achieve, so will allow you to start breaking down what their goals are. You need a starting point.

  • If you aim at nothing, then you’ll hit nothing every time.

2. How often can you train?

This is possibly the most important question and answer. How often someone is able to train is different to what they ‘hope’ to train! When I first meet a new client, one of my first questions is how often and how long can you train, there is no right or wrong answer to this. I then ask them to tell me when they can do this. I want to see if what they hope to do is ‘realistic’, when considering work, commuting, family, children, commuting, social etc. If it’s not, then we need to reset, there’s no point starting with unrealistic targets, or I am just helping to set them up to fail.

If someone is new to training then just getting them to commit to once or twice a week is a great start. If someone is used to training 5-6 times a week, then can discuss what they have done before, what worked, what didn’t. A good program should write itself, with the participant giving key information, rather than me telling them.

  • Be realistic, otherwise you are setting yourself up to fail

3. Duration

Contrary to popular opinion, longer isn’t always better. By far and away, quality is far more important than quantity. Someone new to exercise doesn’t need to be spending 2hours+ in the gym; this will be too much both physically and mentally. I would recommend 45minutes, including a warm up and cool down. As they progress, then so can the program, initially it is important just to get into the routine of training. Someone more experienced, can train for longer, but again, there becomes a point when benefits gained are outweighed by fatigue and poor technique. A weights program, especially dumbbells, should be completed in 45mins, plus any cardio work, totalling 90mins max. Frequency and intensity are more important than duration. There is no point doing a two hour workout, to then not attend for a week, as any benefits gained would be lost.

  • Quality not quantity. Train don’t strain, not no pain no gain

4. Injuries

Much like medical history, if not sure seek professional advice. However, often clients are able to let you know if they have been told to avoid or follow certain exercises which can then discuss further. If something is uncomfortable, it is often worth checking someone’s technique. If though is just one they don’t like, then find something different

  • There is always an alternative.

5. Motivation

This is what a program and a trainer are for. If someone has low motivation, then it won’t be long before there training will suffer. Quite simply, at the start include exercises that they enjoy and are comfortable with, as will be more inclined to work and progress. This is an on-going issue, and one that should be addressed every 6-8 weeks depending on the program.

Motivation isn’t just about shouting at someone, it is knowing the person, understanding the sport and setting appropriate goals, and why it is important to them to achieve it.

  • Progress and achievement will always keep people wanting more.

TreadmillActual program construction can be a very personal thing, and there is certainly no one correct method. The following are general guidelines, though should considered by those new to exercise:

Exercise sequence:

  1. It is advisable to work the larger muscle groups first, i.e. thighs, pectorals, glutes, before incorporating the smaller ones, i.e. arms, shoulders, calves etc. Firstly because they require more blood, so makes sure there is an increased blood flow around the body and thus warms up. Secondly, as they are larger they fatigue slower.
  2. Similarly, especially for someone new to training, you wouldn’t work the same muscle group in succession, i.e. squats followed by lunges. This would be very demanding on the person, and the muscles would fatigue very quickly, which may then also compromise technique. However for an experienced person, who exercises frequently, this may be on benefit to allow a high intensity workout, in a relatively short duration.
  3. Obviously a lot depends on how often someone trains, so as to how much variety you can incorporate. Therefore would often recommend alternating muscle groups, eg, legs, back, chest, legs, back, chest. This will ensure that no one muscle group becomes too fatigued, and also requires the body to keep re-directing blood flow around the body so keeping it warm and providing a more aerobic workout. This is known as ’Peripheral Heart Action Circuit’ (P.H.A.C), typically used for beginners, though works well for everyone.

Muscle Balance:

It is very important that muscular balance is achieved in the program, i.e. chest and back, quadriceps and hamstrings etc. The muscles are referred to as the agonist (one being worked), and the antagonist (opposing muscle group). This can be achieved by working the muscles separately, eg bicep curl and a triceps pushdown, or by incorporating them together in the same exercise, eg leg squat (quads and hamstrings). As long as a balance is achieved in the final program either way is fine.

Intensity (repetitions):

This will depend upon the objectives of the individual. The intensity can be estimated by obtaining the 1RPM (one repetition maximum) and depending on the aims of the individual, a percentage of that 1RPM can be set. However, rather than submit a beginner or more elderly client through this ordeal, an experienced trainer should be able to estimate the weight required.

Program Type

% of 1RPM


Rest period



15 – 25

15-30 secs

Figure shaping, weight loss, stamina & endurance


12 – 20

30-45 secs

Body Building & Strength Development


4 – 12

45-60 secs


For a beginner one set is fine to allow them time to learn the program, and the movement patterns, whilst not putting too much stress on their body. As they progress, so their program will need to, one way is to alter the number of sets worked. Typically one to six sets are used, with three to six sets to achieve optimal gains in strength. However, it has also been shown that one set to failure can elicit equal strength gains as multiple systems.


Progression of exercises is the core of everyone’s development. If the program isn’t updated then the client will eventually plateau at one level, become bored and with no new improvements eventually stop. To progress a program there are many options. Already mentioned are reps and sets, you can also adjust the time of exercises, rest periods, style eg interval / fartlek, add new exercises or more simply develop the existing exercises. For example the press-up, how many different ways are there? Incline, decline, ¾ length, wide, narrow, unstable platform………..lots! It’s all about imagination; every exercise can be adapted and manipulated. If training is to remain effective and stimulating over long periods of time, there is a need for variation in training stimulus.

So why have a program? The main benefit is that it helps to focus your goals and objectives. A good program will provide motivation on those days when it may be lacking, and minimise you wasting time on activities on no benefit. Furthermore by recording results will help highlight any progress made, and where future changes should be aimed. If in doubt, always speak with a qualified instructor.


Variety is as beneficial for the body, as it is for the mind!!



Previous articleSMART TRAINING – Part Two ‘Setting a Goal’
Next articleSMART TRAINING – Part 4 ‘Monitoring & Progression’
Ben Goodridge - MSc, BSc (Hons), Dip ST, VTCT. Ben has over 20 years experience working within the sports industry, in both private and public sectors and from amateur to elite level. After leaving college he worked as an instructor in a private gym and left five years later as Fitness Manager. He then attended university graduating with 1st class (Hons) in Sports Therapy, and was awarded a four month internship at Virginia Commonwealth University (USA) in their sports medicine complex. Upon returning to the UK he combined his time, working at Alexandra Sports, Southampton Football Club, Hampshire Cricket and England Cricket. He then accepted a place at Trinity College Dublin on their highly accredited MSc Sports Medicine course. Following this he worked for the NHS and a private clinic, whilst also lecturing at Chichester University. In 2008 Ben moved away from full-time Sports Therapy, and joined the fire service. He is now a whole-time frontline firefighter as well as a PT instructor, and maintains a strong interest in all aspects of sport, health and wellbeing. His main areas of specialization are strength and conditioning, fitness training and sports therapy / rehabilitation. He enjoys participating in all sports including weight training, rowing, triathlons, football and badminton. He says his biggest achievement was completing the 1994 London Marathon, and most rewarding completing it again in 1999 with six gym members whom he had trained. Whilst studying for his MSc he joined the boat club and made the crew for Trinity College in their annual ‘Colours’ boat race against UCD. In 2012 he organized and completed a big charity challenge, where he swam across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, cycled 70miles around and then kayaked back.