It’s 2021 and I still hand-write my exercise programs. Here’s why

Programming is an art form; there is no doubt about that. A person who shows keen instincts, flexibility, and creativity in a finely tuned program is a talented coach / trainer. Many of us coaches get bogged down in systems and software. Tucking in Exercise A here and Exercise B there may add convenience, but the art form is lost.

The methods that worked like a charm 10 years ago are relics by today’s standards. The teaching methods and coaches are evolving, as are the software programs for cutting out the biscuits. The convenience of these programs is gold in many ways. But do we lose some of the magic when we do it this way?

Photo courtesy Chris Holder

My coaching story

I can’t speak for all coaches because I don’t know what they’re up against. My story is a little unusual for a college strength coach. I’ve paid for my coaching fees in a unique way. I started as an intern at Eastern Kentucky University in the spring semester of 2000. After six weeks of my internship, my Head Strength Coach, Mike Kent, took over the head job at the University of Louisville and had to leave. Due to the relative novelty of his position at EKU, the administration was unprepared and asked me to fill in until a search for a replacement for Coach Kent could be carried out. I worked alone for three months trying to keep an exercise department strength program going.

One of the most difficult tasks for him when filling out was programming, how he programmed. Get this: Kent handwritten every single program. Each team had either a sheet or a series of sheets that that team would wear for a month or two. He created each plan in Excel, where the exercises were built into the frame of the sheet. Then he spent his weekend hand programming loads for each athlete across the sports department. A red pen followed by hours of work. Kents Careful programming ensured that each athlete received the level of individual attention they felt they needed.

The difference between sheets and whiteboards

The coach-athlete relationship is interesting. When it comes to compliance, athletes have to show up whether they like it or not, and have no say in their programming. If you’re a private trainer or own a gym / box, your clients have more say. But one thing is clear in all situations – the people exercising in your room want to feel like they are being given the attention they deserve, not just as members of a group, but as individuals.

There are few instances where using a whiteboard is acceptable in my facility. Most of the time we use whiteboards when teaching. When we’re trying to dial in techniques and loads aren’t necessarily a priority, the first month or so is a good time to rely on a whiteboard. Again, in my very specific situation, we will also keep a team on the whiteboard if the team members don’t show a certain level of commitment. Let’s face it, nobody on campus takes weight training as seriously as I do, and there are some teams that “do the moves.” I advise my assistants to act accordingly. There’s no need to devote hours and hours of programming to a team that doesn’t put in an acceptable amount of effort.

Team of athletes lifting weights together in a gymSydra Productions / Shutterstock

Again, I understand that most clients in a CrossFit box can be temporary and not as consistent as a college team that has to show up. That makes the individuality piece more of a headache since you don’t know when your customers will next show up. But nothing tells your customers you’re with them like giving everyone a sheet of paper 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 a difference between a lackluster and a Herculean effort.

Computer programming vs. hand programming

Never have I ever used a computer to run percentages on any of my programs. I’ve always done it by hand. And frankly, I’ve never used a set percentage to allocate loads other than to determine the loads to start a cycle of hypertrophy based on a newly coined maximum for a repetition. The method I use is one that Coach Kent taught me and it is based on the natural evolution of this method after 16 years of doing it.

Percentage computer programming makes some pretty bold assumptions for me about the length of a training cycle. If, like me, you use a linear method, you probably write eight to twelve weeks at a time. When I write a twelve week hypertrophy / strength / strength program for a soccer player, code the weeks with prescribed percentages, and then type in a maximum rep of one rep as the basis for the percentages, I am asking the athletes to be perfect with their diet, their calm, their exertion – at all times. And let’s be honest, none of them are. It is almost impossible for a person to be so dialed in all the time.

One man cranks the barbell while another man guides him through the repetitionFrame Stock Footage / Shutterstock

Hand programming gives me several advantages that a computer will never offer. First, even though I use an algebraic formula in my head to determine loads, I have the flexibility to adjust on the fly. You need that flexibility with Joe Blow rolling his ankle the previous Friday. Manual programming gives me a way out when I realize the whole team is on the verge of going nuts and requires an impromptu Deload week. It allows me (or really forces me) to get a complete picture of each one and it keeps my ass by the fire to keep in touch with each of my athletes. At any point in any training cycle, you can ask me what the weight on the bench of so-and-so is on the second set, and 99 times out of 100 I will know what’s going on.

How do I program

If you watched my show it would look like this: I have a pile of papers and everyone gets the signature “pause and think”. I need to look at the athlete’s name and quickly check and remember what that person did last week. Then the writing begins. In some training phases I will program a sheet twice a week, once for the first half, then once for the second. It keeps me as up-to-date as possible for each individual.

When it comes to coaching, I sell an idea. I am selling a formula. I ask my athletes to trust me completely when I make decisions for them. The way I operate gives my athletes complete freedom not to think. They come into play and their job is to be focused and present and, most importantly, to be willing to perform. I do all the thinking for them days early so they can just come in and kick their ass.

This also includes manual programming. If I give you a sheet of computer-printed numbers, you’ll be as excited as if you were combing your hair or spreading mustard on your sandwich. But if I give you a piece of paper with my handwriting on, you should see someone working with you. The handwriting tells the athletes that I took the time to think about them every day and every week.

Featured image: Chris Holder

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