The Pellarin Approach to Program Design

  I believe that progression towards a specific goal is the only reason that any of us allocate a portion of our limited resources towards a training program. You may try and find an exception to this supposition, but the more I think about what motivates individuals to become involved in fitness, the more convinced I am that my hypothesis is correct.

     Now, this does not mean that every goal is intelligent, healthy, or that the individual is even consciously aware that they are pursuing it. Nor does it mean that everyone must have an ‘ends goal’ such as losing a certain amount of weight or being capable of running a predetermined distance in a specific amount of time. For some people a ‘process goal’ like learning to enjoy the physical sensations involved in training may be enough to keep them motivated. However, this scenario is rare, because when you do not have something to achieve, you remove your incentive to work, and inevitably drift away from the gym. In order to prevent this outcome, as soon as one goal is achieved you must be prepared to set, and work towards, another. This is where most people fall short. They lack the skillset to create a flexible, multi-year program with escalating goals built into it. Ideally, this is where a trainer steps in.

     Thomas Kurz opens his book The Science of Sports Training with a succinct definition of the purpose of any training program. Kurz writes:

“The purpose of training is to achieve the highest possible sports result for a given individual. Training is efficient if this result is achieved with a minimal expenditure of time and energy.”[1]

     According to this definition, a skilled coach or trainer should be able to prepare a program that not only allows an individual to progressively move towards realizing their athletic potential, but one that does so without undue trauma. Minimizing the expenditure of time and energy is especially important to individuals who are past their days of competitive athletics. Lawyers, doctors, executives and any other high performers already have many stressors in their lives. They need their training to be supplemental to their daily vitality. For this reason, trainers working with busy professionals may be forced to sacrifice some short-term, incremental gains by reducing the overall training load.[2] Conversely, competitive athletes may be more apt to sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to optimize their athletic progress.

     Given these variances in the needs of different populations, how is it possible for any one trainer to accurately design strength and conditioning programs for the vast majority of them?[3] The answer is that the trainer must have a well-defined procedure for planning out a client’s program. The diagram below summarizes our procedure for doing so.

The procedure summarized in the flowchart above is designed to be as versatile as possible, as well as practical for use in a client-trainer setting. The process begins during the initial client interview where we use both written and verbal prompts to clarify what the client’s goals are. While the average person, who goes to a mass-market gym, may not be able to articulate what they are working towards, usually, an individual who has sought out the services of a trainer will have more clarified goals. Ideally their goal is quantifiable. If the goal is not measurable, we would work with the client to find a measurable proxy. As an example, if you were a competitive basketball player your goal may be to become more explosive on the court. We could reframe this goal by being more specific and saying that you want to be able to dunk with only one dribble from the three-point line. This would give us a tangible metric for success. With a quantifiable goal agreed upon, we can then move to an assessment of the individual’s existing fitness level.

     Before spending time creating a program for a client we will put them through a battery of tests. At Pellarin Performance, testing usually spans two sessions. In the first, we go through a variety of movements to see if the client has any mobility restrictions which would make performing the given movement dangerous under load.[4] In the second, we would take some general maximum effort measurements in order to establish the client’s baseline. Although a time intensive process, by performing a thorough assessment we are able to narrow down the specific training metrics to focus on with each individual client. Let us continue with our previous example of the basketball player who wants to dunk; in order to achieve his goal, he will need to rapidly transition from an explosive forward movement (his first dribble towards the rim), to an explosive vertical movement (his jump up to the rim). If, in the course of the assessment, we find that he can squat well and jump well from a standing start but has trouble arranging his feet from a running start, we should begin by addressing this lack of coordination.

Many times, the training metric will differ from the measurable goal because the target is something that either has a non-immediate response (think fat loss) or cannot be measured in our gym (like dunking during a basketball game). With this in mind, we would choose a substitute that ideally has a highly causal relationship to the achievement of the client’s goal.[5] In the case of our basketball player, it is fairly simple. He needs to be able to dunk a basketball from the three-point line off one dribble. To try and mimic what his body will have to do during the course of a game, we could have him perform different plyometric box jumps from a running start with a medicine ball in his hands. This would help address the client’s lack of coordination. The goal would then become, to increase the player’s box-jump height until he reaches a comfortable surplus of what he would need to dunk a basketball. We would then move on to the next step and select a methodology that supported this training goal.

     Choosing the proper methodology for each individual is vital. You cannot train a powerlifter the same why you would train a baseball pitcher or a lineman in football - although there may be significant overlap in some cases. To further complicate matters, the methods used should vary based upon the developmental stage of the athlete. I think it is safe to say that a generally accepted heuristic is to start with mastering generalized movements and move towards increasingly specialized movements as the athlete raises their level of fitness. Basic movements include exercises like pushups, pullups, and jumping rope. More directed exercises might include the previously mentioned box jumps for a basketball player or explosive sled work for football linemen.

     On the fifth step of our process, we arrive at the conventional notion of what a trainer does: write out day by day programs for the clients. At Pellarin, we start with a timeline we think is realistic for achieving the selected goal. We then work backwards from this finish date, setting smaller benchmarks to aim for along the way. Most of our client’s programs work on three week cycles, meaning that the movements for each workout are all swapped out after three weeks. This prevents accommodation to the training, as well as, gives us ample flexibility to alter the program to reflect the client’s realized response to training.

     Despite the time and effort we spend in preparing our client’s programs, it is impossible to predict with one hundred percent accuracy what any one person’s response to a particular training load will be. Additionally, there are often factors outside our control which influence how an individual’s body responds. For example, a female athlete with a newborn baby is obviously going to have a compromised ability to recover quickly from rigorous training. Just as, an athlete who lives on a diet of frozen burritos is likely to progress slower than an equivalent athlete who eats only grass fed meats and vegetables. Reasons like these are why it is necessary to constantly monitor how much, if any, chronic fatigue a client is experiencing as they advance through their program.  

     Due, in part, to these types of uncontrollable variables, we frequently re-test our chosen training metric to monitor how our client is progressing. If there is prolonged stagnation or regression, then we must go back and re-develop the program in a way that addresses the likely causes of the negative results. However, if the progress made is satisfactory, we stay the course originally planned. With luck, we will reach the stated goal on, or before, the planned date. When this occurs, it is time for the client to reassess the situation and decide if they want to pursue the same goal at a higher level, choose to pursue a different objective, or decide that they have gotten all they wanted out of training for the moment.[6]

     The above summarizes why and how we go about testing and programming for our clients. I hope that in explaining the procedure we have added another voice to the many who advocate for going far beyond the bare minimum of program design. We are nowhere near the first to come up with a procedure for designing our client’s programs. With that said, we are confident that by constantly seeking out the best information and continually adjusting our programming to incorporate that information, we are on track to create a versatile system that will both produce results at the highest level and expend the least amount of our client’s time and energy.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kurz, T. (2001). The Science of Sports Training. Vermont, USA: Stadion Publishing Company.

[2] Everyone involved in the fitness industry assigns words like load, intensity, maximal, submaximal, volume, etc. slightly different meanings. I prefer to think of the training load as a subjective measure of the combined training intensities and volumes used during any given cycle. If a client is motivated to do so, tracking a metric like heart rate variability upon waking can also provide a guide for optimizing the training load.

[3] Obviously no one coach can work with every population. Those with highly specialized medical or other needs should seek out a specialist. I am also referring very deliberately to strength and conditioning training and not the skill training needed to compete in any particular sport.

[4] For example, a series of bodyweight squats provides us with information about a client’s ability to safely perform barbell squats.

[5] Determining specific causality in strength in conditioning training is often impossible due to the number of confounding factors and the limited sample size available. Additionally, there is the issue that everything works up to a point. Beyond that point, high level college athletes and professional athletes, the number of measurements that any one gym or trainer can take becomes miniscule.

[6] The third outcome covers people like those who have chosen to temporarily become involved in fitness to look a certain way for their wedding or pursue another ephemeral goal.