A Quick Review of Programming Principles

Why Should You Understand Programming Principles

Why do we need to understand programming principles? Understanding the process further allows for more potential buy in from our athletes. Personally, I have found that curious athletes often get better results than their “just tell me what to do” counterparts. I think this is largely because they buy into the process of training. They want to learn the overall flow, design, theory, art, and science behind training and programming, at least as it pertains to their results.

As coaches, it’s critical to understand programmatic principles whether you’re writing programs or using stock, cookie-cutter programs you’re getting online. How can you know if someone will respond better to 5/3/1 or the Texas Method if you don’t understand the methodologies and rationale behind either program? What if the answer was neither, what if the optimal program was something different all together? Would you be able to put together the program? Understanding programming principles is mandatory for coaches.

This first thing that you need to do in order to effectively evaluate programs is to first have a goal. You MUST know what you want to accomplish. Pro tip, your wish list probably should NOT look like this:

  • Run a sub 5 min mile
  • Squat 2 x bodyweight
  • Abs

It’s unlikely that any single program will deliver all of those results unless you are a genetic freak of nature in which case none of this discussion matters and you should carry on doing whatever you’re already doing because again, it doesn’t matter for you. For the rest of us, however, it does matter. The material we’re going to talk about today should help you better evaluate programs in the future. If you’re training with us, this information will also serve as an inside peak behind why your programming often looks the way it does. Here are our 5 programming principles.

(1) The General Adaptation Syndrome

Much of programming theory that is popular today is based in some way, shape, or form on Hans Seyle’s General Adaptation Syndrome or “GAS”. According to Seyle, an exposure to a potentially harmful or noxious stimulus creates a disruption in homeostasis. The organism then goes into an alarm or defense stage protecting against further damage. Finally, repairs are made to further protect the organism from future (potential) damage that could result from a similar exposure.

In the weight room, repetitions are completed as weights are lifted. These repetitions lead to micro trauma or tears in the body’s musculature, resulting in elevated chemical (hormonal) responses. When athletes leave the weight room, go home to eat and sleep they initiate the repair process. Ultimately, this stress / recovery / adaptation process will complete itself resulting in an improved performance down the road. The athlete is more resilient to the previous stress. Squatting 315 for a heavy triple will be less “heavy” down the road after some amount of training has been completed that is specific enough to the task of squatting 315 for a triple.  

(2) Specificity

As noted above, to reap maximal benefits from the General Adaptation Syndrome, programming needs to be specific enough to the task at hand in order to drive that particular response (adaptation). If your goal is to squat more weight, riding your bike will only make your squat go up if you’re untrained and lousy at squatting. However, performing sets of 3-5 reps of squats a couple times per week is much more specific to the desired outcome and thus more likely to lead to heavier squatting.

Specificity has implications for the programming of our athletes. In order to see measurable progress in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, we need to have programming that involves heavy doses of those exercises. Additionally, if we seek “1 rep max improvements” in those lifts, we need to be doing singles in our training. Taken even further, training adaptations are specific to muscles trained, types of contraction, joint angles, speed of contraction, and energy source utilized during the training program. If you want to be fast you have to train fast, if you want to be stronger in the bottom of your squat then you need to train the bottom of your squat, and if you want to be a better bench presser then you need to train the muscles utilized during the bench press.

Specificity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however, but rather a continuum. Take exercise selection for example. The stiff-legged deadlift is an exercise in which the athlete picks a loaded bar off the ground.The aim is to pick the weight up with a “high hip position”, thus working the low back, hip, and hamstring musculature very hard. Because of it’s similarity to the conventional deadlift, the stiff-leg deadlift is very likely to transfer (carry over) to the conventional deadlift, however, slightly less transferable to the squat. This is because the joint angles are not as similar in the squat. This continuum is what leads many to use programs that are less effective at supplying the specific stress needed to achieve their intended outcome. We are not claiming that using a less specific approach is always sub optimal, it’s simply always less specific. This may be entirely appropriate, given context of the athlete timeline, training level, personal goals, and other factors. Finally, it is likely useful to intentionally be less specific at times to allow for physical and mental re engagement, i.e. avoid burnout.

(3) Overload

Progressive overload is the easiest programming principle to examine. After all, if a program doesn’t ask you to increase the sets, reps, or weight over time most would recognize this an inferior approach. The concept of progressive overload was first discussed by U.S. Army physician Thomas Delorme in the 1940s during his rehabilitative work with World War II soldiers. The term progressive overload refers to the gradual increase of training stress that placed on the body during any physical training program. This concept is most readily discussed in strength training programs but also applies to aerobic and various other forms of training. Looking back at the General Adaptation Syndrome … we must do more as the body will “adapt” to previously seen exposures over time. Continuing to squat 315 for a triple will only drive progress in the squat to a certain point. Eventually you’re going to need to squat 320 for a triple or hit 315 for 3 x 2 or perform some other permutation that asks for more.  

The most common form of progressive overload is to “add more weight to the bar” for a given number of repetitions, however, this is not the only form of progressive overload. The following are all examples of overload:

  • More reps with a given resistance
  • Increased speed of concentric contraction
  • Shortened rest periods (referred to as training density)
  • More sets with a given resistance

Any combination above can constitute an overload event. As a side note, it may be useful to increase rest periods when aiming to increase maximal strength to allow for additional recovery between sets. Theoretically, the additional recovery will make “putting more weight on the bar” a more likely possibility.

(4) Fatigue Management

As we get stronger in the weight-room we become more capable of creating greater concentrations of stress and fatigue. Not only are we capable, we actually need more stress to be created (see overload). It should be obvious that we can’t simply keep repeating the same exact workout over and over, just adding a few pounds. At some point, the athlete will need to generate a lot of stress to drive further adaptation and thus need more recovery following that bout of stress. Sessions will eventually need to be dosed and timed effectively to continue driving adaptations in the athlete. A simple example here might be giving our “novice athlete” a “light day” in the middle of his training week. Thus, his programming layout is now Heavy / Light / Heavy whereas it was initially Heavy / Heavy / Heavy. This concept is a useful and is continued in more advanced programs.

Our post-novice programming uses a simple wave approach to stress and fatigue:

  • Week 1 = low stress (or light)
  • Week 2 = medium stress
  • Week 3 = medium stress
  • Week 4 = high stress (or heavy)

Where our novice was operating on a weekly timeline, our post-novice trainee will now spend a month accumulating fatigue and stress. Fatigue management is nothing more than attempting to create a reasonable approach to accumulating stress while allowing for that stress to dissipate enough for the athlete to display the training adaptation.

(5) Individual Differences

The individual differences principle states that training adaption occurs on a continuum (not unlike specificity). Everyone is likely on the continuum somewhere, as coaches we just aren’t initially sure where. Each athlete will bring different genetics, hormonal profiles, anthropometry (limb segment length), dietary practices, sleep habits, training age and a host of other variables that is entirely too long to outline here. For these reasons, training adaptations will always occur on a continuum. That is to say, some will reap larger benefits from similar training bouts (i.e. they are more training sensitive) and others will derive less benefits (i.e. they are more training resistant). This is important and should be considered the next time you see your favorite internet star selling their program and boasting about how it works so well for EVERYONE. Don’t be duped into thinking you’re going to get their results because you did their program … unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.


Hopefully you found this brief review of training principles helpful. Remember that you must have a goal in order for training principles to mean anything, otherwise it’s just exercise. And … while exercise is certainly not the enemy, it’s not necessarily all that product given the right context. At Brentwood Barbell we use these principles to create better programs for our athletes. Programs that efficiently meet their needs and address their goals. Ultimately, we use these programs to rate our work as good, better, and best. Of course we’re always trying for the best but that only comes with attention to detail and continued work. Good luck with your training!


Baker, A. & Rippetoe, M. (2013). Practical Programming,3rd Edition. Wichita Falls, Tx: The Aasgaard Company.

Narvaez, I. (2018). Programming to Win, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from: www.powerliftingtowin.com

Kraemer, W.J. & Fleck, S.J (2007). Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics.