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The 7 R's of Program Design (Part I): The New School Approach to Creating Programs


Exercise programs for personal training clients have evolved radically over the past 15 years. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, it was not uncommon for the entire “program” to look something like this:

The lifestyle of a personal training client has changed radically over the last 10-15 years as well. Their lives are increasingly more sedentary and they sit more than ever before. Even more detrimental, clients are under more stress and generally less “healthy” than in previous decades. As a result, exercise programs have evolved to help combat the dysfunctions and limitations resulting from this sedentary lifestyle. No longer can clients complete a routine such as the one listed above and expect to offset the damages they incur everyday from their lives. Instead, a more well-rounded and holistic approach is necessary to maximize success both in, and out of, the gym.

A 21st century exercise program is not just focused on building muscle or losing fat, but also on decreasing stress, improving flexibility and mobility, and helping clients maintain their health versus simply “looking good.” This article will outline the 7 R's of program design, 7 components that should be included in each client's exercise program to ensure a more well-rounded and holistic approach to conquering their goals and enhancing their well-being.

The 7 R's of Program Design: Part 2 will explore each component in greater depth, including specific exercises or activities that may be utilized during each component (R1 through R7).

A New Approach to Training

Think of the entire training program as traveling along a bell curve.

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All too often, clients and/or other gym-goers are inclined to jump into resistance training (R4-5) while eliminating, or not placing enough emphasis on, several other critical components of their workout. Perhaps this is because they perceive the resistance training to be the most important, and are unaware of the positive impact of other program components. Perhaps clients are inclined to "skip" the program components preceding or following resistance training (R4-5) because they are in a hurry and want to "get it over with." However, in order for a client to reap the maximum benefit from their exercise routine, and engage in an holistic approach to their fitness and well-being, several program components should be addressed before and after the resistance training component.

The bell curve above represents the expected intensity levels for each of the 7 components of program design (R1 through R7). The highest point of the curve indicates the greatest intensity of the program. This bell curve can be used as a visual to communicate the program activity, as well as the activity's intensity level, to the client during exercise.

The Release (R1) and Reset (R2) components of the workout are there to shut off stubborn “toned up” muscles that won’t relax. More specifically, this is a gateway to the central nervous system, which is the master control switch for our body. From there, start ascending the curve. The Readiness (R3) component includes a warm-up and prepares the client for the training session. The Reactive (R4), Resistance (R5), and Regenerate (R6) or metabolic training, components are the top of the curve and are the true “meat and potatoes” of the training session. Last but not least, the Recovery (R7) component is much needed to kick-start the recovery process. The goal during this Recovery component is to shift the client from a sympathetic, “fight-or-flight” mentality to a more parasympathetic, “rest and digest” mindset.

The remainder of this article will explore each component of the workout in more depth.

R1 – Release

“Release” is the first component of the exercise program. The goal of the release is to "shut off" muscles that may be inhibiting other muscles from functioning or firing properly, or at the very least, decrease tone. Clients intuitively know that massage feels good and allows them to move better, but most are not willing (or able) to get massage on a regular basis. While foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and Tiger Tails do not relieve myosfascial adhesions or provide the specific tissue quality benefits that a skilled body worker can, they are useful for decreasing tone and relieving those stubbornly tight or stiff muscle groups.

Before moving on, it is important to have a brief understanding of “tone.” Think of tone like a light switch on a dimmer. Just as certain amounts of light are appropriate at different times of day, certain amounts of tone are appropriate during various tasks or activities. If a client is always “toned up,” working on a foam roller or lacrosse ball can bring them closer to normal levels. The typical “Type A” client that walks in the gym needs this the most. They describe themselves as “high strung,” “lots of anxiety,” “trouble sleeping,” “stressed out,” etc. Incorporate foam rolling, or some form of myofascial release, into the beginning of the client's workout, R1, and they will immediately move and feel better as a result.

R2 - Reset

When a computer crashes or is not functioning optimally, the fastest way to get it working again is to reboot it. The body is a lot like a computer, and the “Reset” component of the workout is similar to a reboot of your neuromuscular system. Specific muscles and joints may be "out of whack," whether it is due to an ineffective exercise routine or postural adaptations that have developed as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. A “reset” puts the client into more optimal posture and alignment before the real work begins.

The Reset (R2) component can be as simple as a hip flexor stretch to inhibit the overactive hip flexors and parapsinals. As a result, the stretched hip flexors now aid in facilitating the abdominals, glutes, and the hamstrings. Quite simply the Reset bridges the gap between the Release (R1) and Readiness (R3) components of the program. The goal is to optimize alignment and function before any loading of the body occurs.

R3 - Readiness

The Release(R1) and Reset (R2) components serve as the fine tuners of movement quality and improve alignment. The goal of the Readiness (R3) component is, quite simply, to prepare the body for resistance training. The primary focus is on physiology and below are three goals of the Readiness component:

In cold temperatures, it may be beneficial to have clients perform a very general Readiness (R3) activity before they begin the Release (R1) component. This Readiness activity can include low intensity walking on a treadmill, riding a stationary bike, etc. These activities help increase the client's body temperature, improve joint lubrication, etc. However, these exercise mediums do not prepare the body for the specific loading and range of motion demands that the clients will be exposed to during the Resistance (R5) portion of their workout. In addition to this low intensity cardiovascular activity, clients should perform dynamic stretching or mobility exercises through a progressively larger range of motion, focusing on the muscle groups and joints that will be trained that day. Upon completion of the general mobility and flexibility exercises, the client should transition to more specific drills (i.e. performing a specific exercise such as squats with a light resistance.)

Once the readiness portion of the workout has been completed, the client is prepared to begin the "meat and potatoes" of the workout.

R4 - Reactive

Following a warm-up, most trainers would assume it’s time to hit the weights, right? Maybe – but maybe not. Research has shown that power is one of the first physical qualities to decline as we age (Metter et al., 1997). Instead of focusing solely on strength, putting an emphasis on developing or increasing power can make training sessions more enjoyable, and give clients the feeling that they are training “like an athlete.”

So what constitutes reactive training? The most obvious choices would be various power exercises, such as plyometrics – jumps, bounds, etc. This is great for athletes and some clients, but maybe not ideal for overweight clients, or clients with low levels of athleticism and body awareness. Instead, consider incorporating medicine ball exercises into the training sessions. Medicine ball throws and slams can help improve or maintain power, while simultaneously elevating heart rate and cranking up the metabolism. Furthermore, these exercises work like an extended warm-up. Instead of completing a few mobility drills and moving immediately into the resistance training, a client is often more prepared to train from a neural and metabolic perspective after they have engaged in some power work.

R5 - Resistance

The Resistance (R5) training component of the program is the bread and butter. Regardless of whether the clients’ goal is to build muscle, lose fat, get stronger or become a better athlete, the bottom line is they need to be working with some form of resistance. There are literally thousands of articles and textbooks discussing program design, and summarizing them here would be an exercise in futility. However, here are three simple tips that can be employed to help make resistance training programs more effective:

  1. Program twice as much work for the upper back (horizontal and vertical pulling) versus the chest and shoulders (horizontal and vertical pressing). 
  2. Program twice as much work for the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) versus the anterior chain (quadriceps). 
  3. Last but not least, program twice as much work for the anterior core (rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, transverse abdominus) versus the posterior core (paraspinals/spinal erectors).

By following these tips alone, personal trainers can see an improvement in their sedentary client’s posture, and a decrease in the number of injuries experienced by the client.

R6 - Regenerate

The Regeneration (R6) component, sometimes referred to as metabolic training, has been a hot topic for many years now. In the past, it was popular for a trainer to have their client complete some sort of steady state cardiovascular activity immediately following the resistance training, to help further their fat loss. More recently, the trend has evolved into having clients complete high-intensity glycolytic intervals.

So which method is more effective? Should clients regenerate by completing longer duration “aerobic” training, or shorter duration “glycolytic” training? As always, this depends on the specific needs and goals of the client. If a client’s only goal is to shed body fat, glycolytic intervals (1:3 work to rest ratio, or less) can be very effective. However, if a client is an athlete, and/or their goal is to improve sports performance, chances are they need a high degree of aerobic fitness. Not only will this help them perform optimally, but it will enhance their recovery off the field as well.

In his book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, Joel Jamieson outlines 8 types of training for the aerobic system, only one of which consists of long-duration, low-intensity training. Quite simply, there are numerous ways to develop the aerobic system and long-duration, steady state work is just one of them. This is a vast topic and one that cannot and should not be covered quickly, but suffice it to say that it is critical to prescribe the right type of energy system training given the clients’ specific needs and goals.

R7 - Recovery

When it comes to the Recovery (R7) component, all the hard work is already done. The client has already completed the most intense portions of the workout and now it is time to kick-start the recovery process. Coming back to the bell curve idea, this is the portion of the workout in which the client is cruising down the backside, enjoying the ride. The Recovery activities may involve another bout of foam rolling, some gentle static stretching, or just 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths. Whatever activity is selected for the Recovery component of the workout, it should be consistent with the recovery goal of shifting the body from a sympathetic, “fight or flight” mentality to a parasympathetic, “rest and digest” state.

Consider having your clients lay on their back with feet elevated and take 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths. Focus on not only a full inhale, but also a full exhale with a 3-5 second pause at the end of each breath. The client should feel cool, calm and collected before they walk out the door.

Summary

Program designs have evolved considerably over the last 10-15 years. A modern day exercise program now calls for more than a simple warm-up followed by resistance exercises. These evolved programs focus on all of the various needs of a client who live in a society that engages in less physical activity than ever before. Incorporating the 7 R’s into a client's program design can create programs that are more holistic and effective. Last but certainly not least, clients will not only move and feel better, but also simultaneously achieve their physique-related goals, making for a true win-win between client and trainer.

References

  1. Metter, EJ et al (1997). Age-associated loss of power and strength in the upper extremities in women and men. J. Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. Sep; 52(5):B267-76.