Now I know I don’t need to be the one to tell you that an effective training program is critical for success and making performance improvements (no brainer, right?) — but you may be wondering where to start. Well first, it’s important to understand that each program will vary by sport and an individual’s training status, goal, and age. And when designing a program for yourself or an athlete, there are several aspects to consider including periodization, exercise order, recovery, tapers, sets/loads, rest periods, warm ups, and so on. Therefore, it’s critical to start thinking how exactly each of these will affect an individual, so let’s cover some basics first.


Goal and Periodization 

First question: What is the athlete’s goal? For example, with powerlifting, maximum strength is specific to the sport. The overarching goal a program should be to enhance strength, reduce injury risks and peak appropriately for competition. Now, different types of periodization can produce significant increases in maximal strength. So another example, if a traditional linear periodization model is used, higher volumes and lower intensity are used at the beginning of the cycle. Then, as the cycle progresses volume is reduced and intensity is increase as an attempt to match a meet setting, which has been shown to help achieve optimal performance (Tan, Benedict, 1999). Not to say that this is superior to another model, that’s just one example.

It may also be helpful to note, that periodization will help regulate intensity, which goes beyond simply increasing the number of sets. In advanced athletes, increases in volume may be counterproductive, but the appropriate manipulation of volume and intensity can produce optimal performance gains while avoiding injuries, plateaus and overtraining (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014).


Exercise Order

For any athlete, all exercises chosen should follow a priority system, meaning the exercises that are most important to a powerlifting meet are performed first so they can be performed with maximum intensity for the desired amount of reps. Order of exercise is important as using larger muscle groups first can also stimulate a larger increase anabolic hormone circulation (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014). I’ve talked in great length about this before, and you can read more about order exercise here.


Recovery Period

Every athlete’s program should include a recovery (aka a “deload”), where volume/intensity is reduced. The importance of recovery phases for the purposes of adaptation is well known. As an athlete becomes more experienced, with it comes greater volume and loads; therefore, the need for planned recovery sessions is vital (Turner, 2011). It’s important to understand that the purpose of a recovery phase is to dissipate accumulated fatigue, not advance the athlete’s level of fitness (read that again). This is a planned recovery that can help with performance, reduce the risk of overtraining or overuse injuries. You can read more about the importance of a deload here.



Don’t worry, not forgetting a taper, one of the most important aspects of a training program. A taper is a reduction in training to allow the athlete to recover prior to a major competition. There should be a planned week following their program (week before their meet) in addition to reducing intensity/volume on all accessory work to prioritize primary lifts and minimize fatigue (Tan, Benedict, 1999).


Muscle Groups and Movements


Seems like an obvious element, but think about what should be trained — really think about it. Because competition lifts include squat, bench, deadlift, the main muscle groups that should be trained include: legs (quadriceps and hamstrings), back (lats), chest
(pectoralis major) and gluteal muscles. Other muscle groups that will contribute to primary lifts include shoulders (deltoids and scapular muscles), arms (biceps and triceps) and abdominal muscles. Essential exercises should include: Squats, squat variations, bench, bench variations, deadlift, deadlift variations, upper and lower body accessories and core work. Options are endless, but let’s not forget the basics here.



Onto the fun stuff. When choosing set and load schemes, keep in mind that research has shown that multiple-set systems work best for developing maximal strength gains in comparison to single-set programs. Typically, three to six maximal sets per session are used to achieve optimal gains in strength. When considering trained athletes, approximately, 80% of 1RM will result in optimal maximal strength gains. For RM training zones, loading should vary within the 1-6RM zone for maximum strength. Typically, I like to program RM training zones because it can be considered superior compared to percentages, but again this will vary by athlete. Consider this when designing a program.


But what about training until failure?  

Some researchers suggest the need for MVMA’s to bring about maximal strength gains, however during 16 weeks of training the athletes who did not perform sets to failure showed results of lower resting blood cortisol levels indicating a more anabolic nature when MVMA’s are not used.  No clear advantage has been shown using MVMA’s, be careful when considering its usage in a training program (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014). But this does not mean, don’t keep it challenging every set.


Frequency/Split Body System

For advanced athletes, keeping mind that training frequency will vary depending on intensity, volume and goals. However, optimal frequency of two days per week per muscle group has been shown. Many intermediate lifters fair well with an upper/lower body group split routine. Thus, many times I like to use a upper/lower body group split, with a dedicated day to deadlifts. For recovery purposes, primary exercises should have sufficient recovery times in between (i.e.: heavy squats shouldn’t be followed by lighter squats the next day). Also, deadlifts are taxing and I prefer to give clients enough time to focus on the lift instead of being rushed and fatigued.


Using this split body system, where upper and lower body exercises alternate throughout the week, will allow more exercises per muscle group and train muscle groups twice a week while still allowing sufficient recovery time. This can help spread out volume throughout the week and give more attention to high intensity when needed. Research has shown a split body, periodized 8 week RT programs has demonstrated significant increases bench press 1RM in men (Kerksick C. M., Wilborn C. D., Campbell B. I., Roberts M. D., Rasmussen C. J., Greenwood M., & Kreider R. B, 2009). This among many other studies I could include but i’ll just leave it at that.



It’s important to note that any eccentric work for athletes should be eliminated last several weeks approaching the meet to ensure proper recovery. Although eccentric training can be appropriate when the goal of a training program is to increase 1RM, it does run a greater risk of delayed onset soreness and muscle weakness (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014). Learn more about eccentric training here.


Rest Periods

Rest periods for primary lifts (including squat, bench, deadlifts and heavy variations) should require a 3 – 4 minute rest period. This is because after an intense exercise bout it takes 3 – 4 minutes for the majority of depleted ATP and PC intramuscular stores to be replenished (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014). The ATP-PC energy system is the major source for maximal lifts as well as heavy sets. Without recovery time, the lift would not be completed or the athlete may not have proper technique or speed. Therefore, heavy and maximal loads will need a longer rest period, where moderate resistance exercises, which will include accessory work, can usually use a shorter rest period of 1-2 minutes unless noted for a particular goal.


Warm Up

A warm-up should consist of sub-maximal aerobic activity (such as jogging or cycling) followed by slow movements (examples include: neck rotations, arm rotations, trunk rotations), then by large muscle group dynamic stretching and sport specific dynamic movement (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014). Dynamic stretching can be described as an antagonist stretched by dynamic contraction of agonist. It involves a dynamic movement during the stretch that results in movement through the entire joint ROM. Examples include: side to side leg swing, active standing adductor stretch, multi-planar lunges with reach, active latissimus dorsi stretch and tube walking.

Warm ups should help warm up core temperature and help get the athlete into a better starting position. It is important to note that a warm up is not the time to work on flexibility, therefore, static stretching should be avoided prior to training because it can inhibit sport performance. Lower body training days should be preceded with lower body dynamic stretching and slow movements. Upper body training days should be preceded with upper body dynamic stretching and slow movements.

It’s also important to note that prior to heavy sets, a proper sequence of warm up sets should be used before loading into heavier working sets. Warm up sets should be tailored to the individual based on their needs and how their body is feeling that day. I’ve talked about warm ups, stretching and cool downs in great length here. 


Cool Down

Within 5-10 minutes after training, the athlete would ideally perform static stretching to help facilitate ROM improvements when the body is warm (this is not intended to relieve soreness, which is semi ambiguous). Static stretching, when an antagonist is moved slowly to the limit of ROM, should be performed three to five times and held from 15 – 30 seconds (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014). If the athlete trained upper body that day, then static upper body stretches should be performed post training. If the athlete trained lower body that day, then static lower body stretches should be performed post training.

An example of cool down stretches I may include:


  • Upper trapezius static neck stretch
  • Doorway static chest stretch
  • Static thoracic extension
  • Static Latissimus Dorsi Ball Stretch
  • Static shoulder towel stretch


  • Kneeling static hip flexor stretch
  • Seated static piriformis stretch
  • Pigeon Pose (static)
  • Static Gastrocnemius Stretch
  • Static standing TFL stretch



Prehabilitation, an effort to prevent injuries, is an important part of any athlete’s program. So to continue on with my example, powerlifters are highly susceptible to back, shoulder and hip injuries. That’s why, in addition to the program, it may be advised to perform back, hip and shoulder health exercises and mobility 1-2 times a week. These may include 1-2 of the following for three sets of 6-12 repetitions:

  • Shoulder: Y-T-W drills, banded pull apart, internal/external rotation.
  • Hip: Banded clams, up and overs, fire hydrants, monster walks.
  • Back: Modified curl ups, cat/cow.
  • Core: Weighted carry holds, kettlebell marches, weighted planks, ab wheel roll outs, palloff presses.

Note on core exercise selection: Static positions that stay in one plane of motion may not be sufficient to resist force in all directions. Under max loads, the athlete may not find their body isn’t easily held steady. Therefore, it may be most beneficial for this athlete to include anti-rotational, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion movements that resist all forces from all directions.




Whew! A lot right? These are just the basics. We will get into details of program design soon (stay tuned). But hopefully these considerations will get you thinking a bit more on you can effectively increase maximum strength levels, reduce injury risk and peak at the appropriate time.


Happy training friends!









Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2014). Designing resistance training programs (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Kerksick C. M., Wilborn C. D., Campbell B. I., Roberts M. D., Rasmussen C. J., Greenwood M., & Kreider R. B (2009). Early-phase adaptations to a split-body, linear periodization resistance training program in college-aged and middle-aged men. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (3):962-71. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a00baf

Soria-Gila M. A., Chirosa I. J., Bautista I. J., Baena S., & Chirosa L. J (2015). Effects of Variable Resistance Training on Maximal Strength: A Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (11):3260-70. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000971

Tan, B. (1999). Manipulating Resistance Training Program Variables to Optimize Maximum Strength in Men: A Review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,13(3), 289. doi:10.1519/1533-4287(1999);2

Turner, A. N. (2011). The science and practice of periodization: A brief review. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(11), 34-46.

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