It’s 2021 and I’m still writing my training programs by hand. Here’s why


Programming is an art form; there is no doubt about that. A person who shows sharp instincts, flexibility, and creativity ua fine tuned program is a talented coach. Many of us coaches get stuck in systems and software. Joining exercise A here and exercise B there can add comfort, but the art form is lost.

The methods that acted as a charm 10 years ago are relics by today’s standards. Teaching methods and trainers are being developed, as well as software programs for cutting cookies. In many respects, the practicality of these gold programs is valuable. But do we lose some of the magic when we do it this way?

Photo courtesy of Chris Holder

My coaching history

I can’t speak on behalf of all the coaches because I don’t know what they’re struggling with. My story is a bit unusual for a faculty strength coach. I paid my coaching dues in a unique way. I started at Eastern Kentucky University as an intern in the spring semester of 2000. Six weeks after my internship, my head strength coach, Mike Kent, took over a major job at the University of Louisville and had to leave. Due to the relative novelty of his position in the ECU, the management was unprepared and asked me to fill until the search for a replacement for coach Kent began. I worked alone for three months, trying to keep the athletic department power program float.

One of the most difficult tasks while filling for him was programming the way he programmed. Understand this: Kent wrote each individual program by hand. Each team would have either one sheet or a series of sheets that the team would carry for a month or two. Each plan was made in Excel, where the exercises would be embedded in a worksheet. Then he would spend the weekend in manual programming loads for each athlete within the entire athletic department. One red pencil, followed by hours and hours of work. Kent careful programming ensured that each athlete received the level of individual attention they felt they needed.

The difference between leaves and white plates

The relationship between coaches and athletes is interesting. When it comes to complianceAthletes have a mandate to appear whether they like it or not, and they do not have the right to vote in their programming. If you are a private coach or own gym / boxing, your customers have more words. But one thing is clear in all environments – people who train in your space want to feel like they are being given due attention, not only as members of a group but as individuals.

There are only a few cases where the use of whiteboard is acceptable in my facility. Most of the time we use whiteboards when teaching. When we are trying to introduce techniques and where workload is not necessarily a priority, the first month is a great time to rely on whiteboard. Again, in my situation, which is very specific, we will also keep the team on the whiteboard if team members do not show a level of commitment. Let’s be honest, no one on campus takes it weight training as serious as I am, and there are some teams that “go through the moves”. I advise my assistants to act accordingly. There is no need to dedicate hours and hours programming for the team it will not give an acceptable effort.

A team of athletes lifting weights together at the gym
Sydra Productions / Shutterstock

Again, I understand that in a CrossFit box, most clients may be transient and not as consistent as the faculty team that must appear. This makes individuality a bigger headache because you don’t know when your clients will show up next time. But nothing tells your clients that you are all with them, as if you are handing everyone a sheet with their name on it. It’s a simple gesture that speaks volumes about your commitment to their progress. Yes, it can be time consuming, but it can also be the difference between gloomy and Herculean effort.

Computer programming vs. Manual programming

I’ve never used a computer to run percentages for one of my programs. I always did it by hand. And honestly, I’ve never used the set percentage to assign a load other than to decide on loads to start a hypertrophic cycle based on the newly formed one repetition max. The method I use is the one I was taught by Coach Kent, and it is based on the natural evolution of that method after 16 years of leading that way.

Computer programming based on percentages, in my opinion, gives some rather bold assumptions for the duration of a training cycle. First of all, if you use a linear method like me, you probably write eight to 12 weeks at a time. If I write twelve weeks hypertrophy / strength / power program for a football player, code the weeks with the prescribed percentages, then tap the maximum of one repetition to be our base for the percentages, I ask the athletes to be perfect with their diet, their rest, their effort – at all times. And let’s face it, none of them are. It is almost impossible for a person to be constantly involved.

A man twists a weight while another trains him through repetition
Frame Stock Footage / Shutterstock

Manual programming gives me several advantages that a computer will never provide. First, although I use what looks like an algebraic formula in my head to determine the load, I gain the flexibility to adjust on the go. You need that flexibility when Joe Blow rolled over his ankle last Friday. Manual programming gives me an out when I realize the whole team is going to bang, and do it improvised load week is what is needed. It allows me (or really forces me) to fully read each individual and keeps my ass by the fire to stay engaged with each of my athletes. You can ask me at any point in the training cycle how much weight is on the bench of this and that in his second set, and 99 out of 100 times, I will know what is going on.

How I Program

If you watched my program, it would look like this: I have a bunch of sheets and each one has a “stop and think” signature. I need to look at the athlete’s name and quickly review and remember what that person did last week. Then the writing begins. I will program the sheet twice a week in some phases of training, once for the first half, then once for the second. This keeps me as relevant as possible for each individual.

When it comes to coaching, I sell the idea. I’m selling a formula. I ask my athletes to have complete confidence in me as I make decisions for them. The way I act gives my athletes complete freedom not to think. They come in and their job is to be focused and present and, most importantly, ready to run. I think instead of them days earlier so I can just walk in and break my ass.

Manual programming is part of that. If I give you a sheet of computer-printed numbers, it will excite you as much as combing your hair or putting mustard on a sandwich. But when I give you a sheet with my handwriting, you should see someone who is a partner with you. The manuscript tells athletes that I took the time to think about them every day of the week.

Featured image: Chris Holder


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