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How to programme your own gym sessions - a guide.

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Since the dreaded Coronavirus kicked off in 2019, we have seen a rise in people not attending gyms anymore or simply realising that they can stay fit and healthy without necessarily feeling that they NEED the programming of a particular gym or professional coach – unless wanting to get super specified people have realised that it doesn’t HAVE to be super complex so could probably do it themselves.

Now, I will say early that there are many, many variables involved in designing a successful training programme which is why I have studied long and hard for the knowledge that I have as a personal trainer and continue to do so. There are also a number of variables between individuals that need considering including injuries, age, gender, what else they have going on in their life, stress, nutrition, mobility, what they are actually training for…. the list is just about endless! A good coach or personal trainer will consider ALL of these individual elements when designing your programme alongside your personal weaknesses and imbalances that require work. This is, of course, supremely beneficial. If you have a coach or PT that you suspect isn’t doing these things then you need to put them in the bin and find someone that will!

I have, however, been asked to write a blog containing a few hints and tips for those that have taken to going it alone in the gym and I would much rather, if they have made that decision, be programming safely for themselves, so here goes!

First things first you need to be clear about your goals, what specifically are you training for? Why? What are your weaknesses? These could be endless! Some are training simply to be able to perform daily tasks better, to get through their days pain free, to excel in a sport or team game, to compete. ALL of these things would benefit from individualised guidance but that isn’t possible for many, I know. So firstly, you need to ask yourself what is it you’re after from your training programme? You need to bear that in mind every time you plan a session. Do you need to do sport specific exercises and training? What time to you need to ‘peak’ if working for a particular sport and time in the season? You can’t be on your absolute a-game all year round. Are you hoping for better mobility through your joints to help you be pain and injury free? Better balance so that you aren’t falling when you reach an older age? Strength goals? Running a marathon? Be really clear about what it is you’re training for and what you, personally, need to do to excel in those goals.

Many go too complicated too soon. It doesn’t have to be super complex. We don’t all need to be doing 1-leg bosu ball squats holding a plate above our heads. Keep it as simple as you can focussing on one element at a time – you need to consider many things, warming up and cooling down must be properly planned of course, mobility and flexibility exercises should be popped in there somewhere for everyone, lots and lots of things but just break it down, one at a time, it will come.

It is advisable to programme your sessions in a block – don’t just ‘wing it’ and programme one at a time based on what you fancy doing that day and don’t avoid the things you don’t like – most of the time you don’t like them because you’re no good at them and they are therefore the things you ought to be doing the most – one of the reasons it’s often a great idea to outsource your programming.

Another of the reasons we programme in blocks is to ensure that we are putting in progression over time – that may look like increasing the weight you’re using to lift, increasing the number of repetitions or sets of a particular exercise you do, adding a balance challenge to specific exercises, reducing the amount of time you rest between sets, essentially increasing the intensity of what you do be it strength training, cardiovascular based work, anything – there are many ways in which this can be done but progression over time is really important. It’s also key that if you’re going to squat – you repeat that time and time again over your block to see that progression – if you don’t, squatting just once in months is unlikely to be overly beneficial.

An all-round strength training and constantly varied fitness programme is going to give you the most ‘bang for your buck’ if you have fairly general goals but even if you have specific goals you must consider from day to day the primary muscles that you’re aiming to train and mix this up – don’t simply train upper body 5 days a week. You will not, if you do that, give your muscles sufficient chance to recover and adapt optimally from the training stimulus that you’re putting them under. The same applies to all types of training including cardiovascular based training, if you’re running 5 days a week, don’t go long every day, mix it up, sprints one day, intervals another, long run another, recovery run another – you get the idea. If you’re doing metabolic conditioning type training which is fabulous if you’re short on time – I did a video on this on my Facebook page not so long ago, go and check it out, then doing a long AMRAP one day, then some sprint-based work the next with body weight exercises then incorporate some heavy lifting into a medium time domain the next day – variance in a training programme is so important.

It is important to be able to be flexible with whatever you programme – I programme way ahead of time for my clients but am always able to adapt it even mid-session if required. This could be based on unexpected time restraints, injuries or niggles picked up, what nutrition, sleep, stress has been like – you need to be able to adapt based on how you feel from day to day to keep your body healthy and get the most out of your training.

While we have spoken about not overcomplicating your programming, it is important that we consider exercise order when planning a session in relation to those conducted in a ‘standard’ gym style. Any coach undertaking your programming if they know their arse from their elbow should be programming the ‘big’, compound exercises in first after your warm up when your body is freshest. Those are the things that are going to take quite a lot out of you, use multiple joints in the body – think squats, deadlifts, heavy Olympic lifting perhaps, all that good stuff. We should then look to implement other things like power-based movements, core and accessory work.

We should very rarely be going to our absolute maximum effort leaving ourselves in a heap on the floor – it is no good for our bodies to do this so often, we can’t recover properly and it takes a lot out of us. Many struggle with this as when they see others training they often only show their hardest efforts – topically, we only see athletes work to their absolute maximum at the Olympics, we rarely see the training sessions where they work to their ‘threshold’ in order to get fitter or their ‘backing off’ recovery sessions as these aren’t that sexy for them to show us. There is, however, a reason they are having weeks off at the end of their peak at the Olympics. We shouldn’t be failing lifts every day or ending up in a sweaty heap on the floor everyday – CrossFitters, I’m looking at you!! That said, the more intensity we put into our training the more we need to rest, that is both long-term and short term. Lifting heavier in a given session? Rest longer. Doing 3 high intensity sessions a week as opposed to one? You’ll need to recover harder.

Quickfire - other things you need to consider:

· Perhaps pairing or grouping exercises together using opposing muscle groups will save time – e.g., Pairing a set of bicep curls with triceps extensions then resting once you have done both rather than resting between every set of curls AND triceps extensions which will obviously take longer.

· Consider setting yourself a few benchmarks to test at the beginning of your training block and then retesting in a few months just to ensure your programming is on the right track. This could be strength tests, run times, things like that.

· Think about the frequency in which you are able to train AND more importantly, feel adequately recovered.

· One thing that people LOVE to overcomplicate is thinking that there must be a magic number of sets and reps that will make them progress – newsflash – there isn’t. Sorry. Can’t give you that magic pill. Don’t overthink this. We are not trying to go to failure each time or hit our absolute maximum heart rate on our fitness watch – find a threshold that is challenging but not taking us to failure each time. Ensure you’re progressing over time and run with it – I promise you’ll see improvement this way.

· Ensure that your technique is absolutely spot on if you’re training without the watchful eye of a jolly good coach.

· DELOAD – popping in a week where you back off the intensity every fourth week perhaps is SO important. Even if you feel you don’t need to at the time, I promise you, you will progress quicker if you do.

Who has forgone their gym membership and is programming their own burpees on the kitchen floor these days? Talk to me!

Any questions or anything I can help with, please just shout as ever.

Peace and love, A x

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