With a multitude of exercise options out there, it can be confusing as to which exercises to give your clients to keep them safe while maximizing their training time and giving them a great workout experience.
Here I’m showing you my exact system for determining which exercises to give clients and athletes.
The Strength Zone Training System
Regardless of who I’m training, these two rules guide my Strength Zone Training system on a weekly basis because this system will cover your bases by building an all-around stronger, more adaptable body capable of performing at a higher level in any environment… not just inside the gym.
Rule 1: Train The 8 Main Movement Patterns
Sports and life rely on specific movements for performance. Those actions are derivatives of the eight main movement patterns:
- Jumping and Landing
- Throwing and Striking
- Knee Bending
- Hip Hinging
This means, unless someone is injured or is unable to do so; every week we do at least one exercise from each movement category.
Rule 2: Use Isolation Exercises to Fill Gaps Left by Compound Lifts
Compound (i.e., multi-joint) exercises provide a great foundation for strength-training programs. However, just doing the big basic exercises leaves lots of gaps in your strength.
For example, due to the mechanics involved, squats, deadlifts, and lunges create plenty of tension on the glutes when the hips are flexed at the bottom of the movement. However, there is very little mechanical tension on the glutes at the top when you’re standing upright and the weight is close to in line with the hips. Similarly, pressing exercises like the bench press or push-ups create little to no mechanical tension on the pectorals when they are in their shortened range, like when your arms are straight out from your torso.
“So what?” you might be asking. “I’m not a powerlifter struggling with locking out my deadlift or bench press. Why does this matter to me?” Here’s why: Life and sports don’t always happen in “compound exercise” ranges of motion.
If you only do compound exercises like squats, RDLs, and lunges for your lower body, you might find that you’re less capable of producing, reducing, and controlling force when your hips are in the shortened range of hip extension—which, in any sport, they often will be. This means you’re leaving muscle gains on the table, but it might also mean you’re building unbalanced strength. That can mean you’re leaving yourself open to pain or injury.
This is where isolation or “single joint” exercises can be truly helpful. They can help you achieve full-range strength by allowing for training in angles and ranges of motion that are not optimized by multi-joint exercises.
How to Individualize Workouts: My 5-Step System
Now that you understand the foundation of the strength zone training system, we can dive into my process for individualizing programs.
I have a training system that guides my programs for everyone, but I’m not systemized because not everyone gets the exact same program.
Think about it like Starbucks. In that, Starbucks has a certain way their drinks taste, which is based on their type of beans, the types of flavorings they use, etc., along with the system they use to prepare drinks that ensures your drink meets the same standard of taste whether you’re in Boston or Beijing. However, you’re still able to fully customize your drink to your liking.
So, it’s your drink, but it’s still a Starbucks drink.
Like Starbucks, I have a proven training system that repeatedly and reliably gets elite results, while also having procedures in place that allow me to address each person’s individual needs so everyone gets the best training experience.
So, it’s your workout, but it’s still a Strength Zone Training workout.
Step 1: Movement Performance Assessment (MPA)
Since all exercises are merely variations of the 8 main movements patterns, and since the categories they’re in are general, I select (and deselect) exercises from each category based on performing my Movement Performance Assessment (MPA), which is a simple tool for determining which exercises best fit your client, and which they should avoid.
The MPA is my version of things like the FMS. However, I don’t use the FMS, NASM assessment and the like because I don’t think they look at the things that matter most because you’re still left guessing which variations of the main lifting movements best fit each person you train.
I developed the Movement Performance Assessment to easily assess the movements that matter most so you know exactly how to create safe, pain-free training programs that address each person’s deficiencies while creating fun and challenging workouts that achieves their fitness and performance goals.
Step 2: Beginner 123 Program
I use the results of the Movement Performance Assessment to make any substitute to any of the exercises the program originally calls for in order to better fit the client or athlete. I also do the same for the Base Programs (see step 3) and for the SPE Programs (see step 5). This way, you’re still using the proven programming system while individualizing the workouts to each person’s structure, current ability, and medical profile.
If someone is just starting out, or if it’s been a while since they’ve done any strength training, I start them with my Beginner 123 workout program. If, on the other hand, they’ve been regularly using moderate levels of resistance training, I start them with the next phase (Base Programs), which are discussed in Step 3.
My beginner 123 program is fully detailed in my Practical Program Design Mastery online course.
The Beginner 123 Program gets its name from the systematic training progression it utilizes. This program takes 3 to 6 weeks to complete, depending on whether you’re training two, three or four times per week.
The main goal of this phase, as its name suggests, is to familiarize your body with the demands of performing basic exercises—primarily, to help your brain learn how to engage your muscles more efficiently as you progress through the early stages of the program. These neural adaptations often bring rapid strength improvements during this phase. However, even though neural adaptations are primarily responsible for increased strength in the early phases of training, research has also found that changes in muscle size are detectable within the first three or four weeks of resistance training (1, 2).
Step 3: Base Programs
If they’ve finished the Beginner 123 Program, or if they’ve been regularly using a moderate level of resistance training, then they’re ready to use my Base training programs.
My Base Training Programs are also fully accessed in my Practical Program Design Mastery online course.
The Base Training Program is a systematic training progression that consists of three-phases:
Phase 1: Muscle Base
Phase 2: Strength Base
Phase 3: Power Base
Each phase take 3 to 6 weeks to complete, depending on whether you’re training two, three or four times per week. So, my Base Training Program is a total of 9 to 18 weeks depending on how many days per week you train.
The primary goal of the Muscle Base phase is to add a fatigue element to your training. Doing so familiarizes your body with reaching muscular failure and achieving a muscle “pump” in order to focus on adding muscle tissue and increasing connective-tissue strength.
For the Strength Base phase, the primary goal is to familiarize your body with lifting heavier loads in order to increase motor unit recruitment and force output (i.e., strength).
For the Power Base phase, the primary goal is to familiarize your body with performing faster, more explosive movements by improving your rate of force production (i.e., power).
Step 4: Strength Symmetry Evaluation
Once they’ve completed the Base Programs, they now possess a solid training and fitness foundation they need to be able to more safely and effectively perform more demanding (advanced) workouts. So, they’re ready for this crucial, but often missing, stage in giving them the best programs for their needs: The Evaluation!
You see, you need to do both an assessment and an evaluation. The assessment, which is the MPA is done on their first day because it tells you what your client currently can safely do. Whereas an Evaluation, which is the Strength Symmetry Evaluation (SSE), tells you what your clients need to do in order to address their strength imbalances that can limit their functional performance and increase injury risk.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just programming a handful of unilateral exercises and hoping for the best. That might actually make the problem even worse. Plus, how do you know which asymmetries or imbalances to fix and which to leave alone?
By using 8 easy to perform tests, with the SSE you’re able to identify and correct sub-optimal strength imbalances, program and prescribe the right exercises and volume for ideal strength symmetry, so you can be precise in where and how you build strength in your clients.
With the Strength Symmetry Evaluation, you know exactly how to advance your clients once they’ve built a solid fitness foundation so you’ll spend less time guessing and more time progressing.
Step 5: Ask Your Clients These Three Key Questions
Once the client or athlete has completed the Base Programs, they not only have the foundation needed to do the SSE, they also graduate to being able to have informed input into how their workouts go on an ongoing basis.
You see, although some beginners may prefer more variety, they’ve first got to achieve competency in an exercise before adding intensity or complexity to it. Just like in boxing, you don’t get into throwing punch combinations until you’ve first learned the basic boxing stance and how to throw a proper punch. Advancing in any skill requires a foundation.
To build a training foundation, you’ve first got to be able to demonstrate good technique and use deliberate control on each rep. Building a foundation of competency will happen as a result of these two things:
- Finding a limited number of non-complex, pushing, pulling, knee bend, and hip hinge exercises that best fit their current ability and that they’re able to do pain-free.
- Consistently practicing these exercises to achieve basic competence.
This is exactly what is accomplished in a systematic way with my Beginner 123 Program and my Base Training Programs.
That said, great long-term programming involves factoring in elements that’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll stick to it by blending universal training principles with their individual preferences.
To accomplish this, I ask clients the following three questions that ensure I nail down the right training plan for them that’s sustainable and enjoyable in the long run
#1 – What areas of your body do you what to focus on most (and least)?
It’s a mistake to have a “balanced” training program that dedicates roughly the same amount of volume and training days to your weaker, less-developed muscle groups as it does to your stronger, well-developed muscle groups. The SSE shows us this from their areas of need from a functional perspective, and asking this question tells me what areas they want from a physique perspective.
A good workout plan isn’t about balance. It’s about addressing individual needs and helping you reach your particular goals. Your training program should be imbalanced to some degree in order for you to dedicate more overall training to the areas you’re trying to develop most.
I select exercises based on the muscle groups (or lifts) my clients need to (based on the SSE) and want to develop the most and give them more overall work volume each week. And make sure you’re not spending too much time hitting muscle groups or lifts that need the least amount of volume.
#2 – Are there any exercises you really love or really hate?
Since our clients get excited to do exercises they love, it’s important to make those exercises staples in your programs. For people to work hard, they first have to want to come to work.
By the same token, it’s important to either eliminate or at least minimize the use of any exercises they hate. Unless they’re training to compete in some form of lifting competition, there’s no single lift you must do to improve because no exercise has magical powers.
I reject the idea that you should emphasize exercises you hate. Contrary to popular belief, hating certain exercises doesn’t mean they’re what you need the most. There’s probably a good reason you hate them and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lazy. It means you need alternatives. The same goes for your clients.
To make progress, you just need to create mechanical tension across tissues and joints – that’s all strength training is – and do so with intensity, specificity, and consistency.
There’s no reason to force anyone to do an exercise when there are plenty of other viable pushing, pulling, lower-body, arm, shoulder, etc. exercise variations you can choose from.
#3 – Do you prefer constant exercise variety or a lot repetition?
If your goal is to participate in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or strongman, you certainly need to be consistent with the lifts you must perform in competition. Those require mastery.
But what about the rest of us who are in the gym for athletic performance, muscle growth, and general fitness?
Put simply, exercise consistency and variety aren’t mutually exclusive; they can be done together to individualize your programming.
I show you exactly how to do this in Practical Program Design Mastery.
As you’ll learn in PPDM, there’s a big difference between exercise variety and randomness. Randomness is failing to plan, which means you’re likely to leave a lot of gaps in your programming when you fly by the seat of your pants.
On the other hand, what I’m talking about above is planned variety to ensure you cover all of the main lifting movements. Your clients get the exercises they need while also getting the variety they crave.
A good ongoing training program should have enough consistency to allow you to see progress while also having enough variety to prevent staleness and boredom. This means using the same basic exercises but in different ways.
Step 5: SPE Programs
SPE stands for Strength, Power and Endurance.
The SPE programs are my training system for ongoing programming that builds elite fitness in my clients and athletes, while always giving them a dynamic and interesting workout experience. they love.
My SPE Training Program are also fully laid out in my Practical Program Design Mastery online course.
I use the results of the SSE along with their answers to the three above questions to tailor the SPE workouts to their areas or need (SSE) and want to work on most (their preferences), while still making sure I stay true to the training the 8 Main movement patterns, and using isolation exercises to fill in the strength gaps.
This way, the continue to address their deficiencies and get high-quality training while loving each work and wanting to keep back for a long-time to come. Not to mention, also being excited to tell all their friends.
1. DeFreitas, J.M., et al. 2011. An examination of the time course of training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. European Journal of Applied Physiology 111 (11): 2785–90.
2. Seynnes, O.R., et al. 2007. Early skeletal muscle hypertrophy and architectural changes in response to high-intensity resistance training. Journal of Applied Physiology 102 (1): 368-73.