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Great Programme Design: The Fundamentals

It's not all about the science! Read this article to see how understanding your clients 'training stage' is critical to great programme design

Why is a well designed exercise programme so important?


Nearly 30% of new members visit their fitness club less than once a week in the first month after joining and by the third month 40% fail to visit once a week or more.  It’s shown that low frequency users who increase their usage between months 1 and 3 also increase their annual retention rate.  There is a clear dose response relationship between the frequency of visits in month one and the 12-month retention rate in clubs.

We all play a part in helping new and existing members use their membership.  As you can see above, if a member visits regularly, they stay!  There are many factors that ‘tip’ a member to stay in, or leave a club but it can be argued that the quality of the work all fitness professionals (personal trainers/fitness consultants) do with clients, it’s frequency, and the results of that contact are absolutely pivotal. 

By the time you come to design a programme you programme design imageshould know your client well enough to greatly influence how often they will visit your club because they know you, feel they belong at the club, and have a practical programme which is realistic, productive and tailored to their individual needs.

Programme design is actually quite easy!  I bet you never thought you’d hear that!  But, what seems to hold true is that if you understand the exercise sciences (anatomy and physiology, the fitness principles and components, motor learning, biomechanics, human behaviour) and your client, then designing the programme is a process of logic, and simply ‘filling in the boxes’!

Understanding your clients training stage

What is important to realise and represent within your programme is an intimate understanding of what it is that every individual client actually needs.  As part of this we tend to classify clients as either beginners, intermediates or advanced. 



What they don’t have


(estimated as 70% of club membership)

Beginners are defined as ‘not having exercised at least 3 x every week for the previous six months’. 

Consistent exercise behaviour

Intermediate (estimated as 15% of club membership)

An intermediate is a person who ‘has exercised regularly for the last six months but isn’t getting the results they want (or haven’t actually defined exactly what it is they want)’



(15% of club membership)

An advanced person is someone who ‘is training regularly, getting results and is happy about it’.

New challenges

personal training happy clientsBeginners are defined as ‘not having exercised at least 3 x every week for the previous six months’.  That means the underlying aim of the programme and exercise plan designed for a beginner is to help that client create a consistent exercise habit at all costs.  This brings heavily in to play designing a programme that caters to their preferences (FITT), their current state (social, emotional, cognitive, physical), and addresses any identifiable barriers they may have.

The bottom line is that with a beginner you must first help them tolerate exercise sessions, and then adhere to those sessions regularly.  Only then can you spend more time worrying about creating the ‘most’ effective exercise programme to change their body.  The first thing you need to do with a beginner is cater to their mind.  We believe that over 70% of the typical fitness club population fits this category.  You’ll find these people are either new members at the club, are at home, or have recently come back into the club to attempt to use their membership regularly again.

personal%252525252520training%252525252520consult%252525252520with%252525252520clientAn intermediate is a person who ‘has exercised regularly for the last six months but isn’t getting the results they want (or haven’t actually defined exactly what it is they want)’.  Typically these people are your frustrated masses who are adhering but not progressing and essentially they need ‘tuning up’.  That is their programmes usually need to be ‘re-focused’ on selecting more effective training approaches and/or looking at other factors (goal setting, nutrition and stress management) in order to make progress.  Often the intermediates will be experiencing plateaus, frustration, doubt, and boredom – essentially a myriad of ‘middle ground’ emotions that need to be investigated before you even consider altering their programmes. 

The key for these people is to get serious to get results.  That doesn’t mean dour faced and ‘smash em into shape’ style personal training; it means smarter training with more fun in it.  We estimate that around 15% of the typical fitness club population fits in this category.  You’ll find them at the club and/or slowly disengaging from the club (look at the attendance patterns where visit frequency is dropping over the month).

An advanced person is someone who ‘is training regularly, getting results and is happy about it’.  They usually want to know more about what they are doing, to try new things and look for really skilled personal trainers.  We call them the ‘x-factor seekers’.  They want to squeeze what they can from their efforts and typically will want to extend themselves and seek out variety.  We think that about another 15% of the club population fit into this category and you’ll find them training keenly at the club.


The major objectives of programme design


Ultimately the main objectives when designing a programme for a client are:

  1. Help them get to the next stage by slanting their programme to tolerance, adherence or results based factors depending on their current stage.  Typically you either set them up for success (build confidence, belonging and enjoyment), consistency (build mastery and focus) or challenge (build variety and volume)
  2. Provide a programme which meets their preferences (FITT) and personal characteristics (levels of social, emotional, and cognitive ability) as exactly as possible.
  3. Provide enough flexibility to cater for the bad day and good day (the time and effort required within a workout should be flexible especially for beginners).
  4. Build in expectations that can be monitored easily.


When should programme design take place?


Programme design will usually occur after the consultation/screening and exercise planning has taken place or after a progress review has been completed with a client.  Given the need to have new clients and existing clients utilise the club it is vital that programme design occurs as soon as practicable after the consultation/screening. 

If you remember your first car, you wanted to drive it as soon as possible, as often as possible.  When someone joins a club – it’s often the same.  Delays will definitely lead to client frustration and unmanaged (potentially dangerous or simply ineffective) exercise.  Not the sort of thing you want a client to do early on in their club experience!

The pages in these folders that deal with programme design outline a ‘basic’ approach and we acknowledge there are far more complicated ways to design training programmes. However we recommend keeping it simple as much as possible as most clients are beginners or intermediates and therefore don’t require complicated programmes but rather simple and efficient ones which promote enjoyment, adherence and results.

How do you get good at designing exercise programmes?


Programme design takes time and constantly evolves.  So, you will be better at it in a year from now if you concentrate on what the client needs and what is possible (this requires a constant expanding of your training skill set – e.g. adding boxing, facilitated stretching, adapted agility, strength, balance drills, rehabilitation / pre-habilitation exercise etc).  

As personal trainers better understand their clients and the myriad of training options available to them, programming tends to evolve to be more targeted and varied.  However, it appears through our work with some of the best personal trainers and fitness consultants, that a simple programme executed perfectly is much better than a complex approach executed poorly.  In general it seems that if the exercise principles are applied well and that training is thought through on the basis of the clients’ preferences and the fitness components being targeted, the programme generated may be simple and very effective without being overly complex.  The key thing with programmes is that people must do them enough times to get the benefit, so a great programme is really one that a person enjoys, can tolerate, repeats and then gets results from – remember the beginner and intermediate clients make up over 85% of the typical fitness club population.

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