15 Keys to Safe and Effective Programming: Part 1

By djpope

June 8, 2014

Dan Farmer CropI once heard some fantastic advice about passion and goal setting from someone who’s name I’ve since forgotten.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to butcher this but the advice was something along the lines of pursuing what it is in life that distracts you from what you’re supposed to be doing.  For example:

If you read through my college notes you’d find 3 things:

  1. Some relevant note taking that helped me study and learn
  2. Some irrelevant notes containing intricate doodles and cartoons
  3. Programming (You’d find the words squat, deadlift and overhead press all over the place with all types of sets and rep schemes)

I’m pretty much obsessed with programming.  It’s something that runs through my mind pretty much every single day of the week.  When I’m distracted and day dreaming it’s usually because I’m thinking of the next thing I’m going to be doing in the gym.  I’ve been programming for myself, friends and patients since I was about 16 years old.  I love it.

Good programming takes a lot of thought.  Earlier in my competitive career all I cared about was performance.  How do I get stronger, faster, bigger and better conditioned?  Then I started personal training, strength & conditioning and physical therapy professionally and became more concerned about injury prevention.  Also, after pounding weights like a madman for over a decade I realized how important longevity becomes once some nagging injuries start rearing their heads.  I was also influenced from some of the brightest minds in the therapy and strength and conditioning world about what safe and effective programming should look like.  All of these events really changed my mentality and approach to programming.

As a therapist there are only so many things you can do to control your patients.  I can perform manual techniques, instruct patients in a home exercise program, perform mobility assessments, give advice on what exercises to perform and what to avoid and troubleshoot technique issues.  One big missing piece of the puzzle I was seeing was a lack of proper exercise programming on the patient’s part.  This was why I started writing programming for this population.  I wanted to ensure that these patients were returning to a smart program following successful rehabilitation.  In time they did, and are staying healthy.  I started posting the programming on my site.  Over time this grew into programming that’s now used in gyms all across the world.  Here are my 10 critical keys to safe and effective programming that I ensure are a major focus every time I write the month’s programming:

assessment info1) Screening and Assessment

I’ve been on the inside of several crossfit gyms that do an excellent job of keeping their members safe.  They have excellent programming, options for mobility classes, great introductory classes, great modifications, great referral systems for when people get hurt and optional classes for new inexperienced members.

However, I’ve never seen a gym that has successfully implemented some sort of screening and assessment system to determine which exercises an athlete should and shouldn’t perform at the start of their experience at a specific gym.  In a group exercise setting this is absolutely essential but often overlooked.  Most people are going to have some specific limitations that keep them from being able to perform exercises correctly and this really should be addressed.

A good screening and assessment system should find these flaws, find where they are coming from and lead to a corrective strategy for the athlete to correct these faults.  On top of that a good screening and assessment system should tell the athlete which exercises they should not be performing until they’ve hammered out these faults and which exercises to substitute in place until they’ve done so.  Overhead pressing, squatting and snatching should be exercises that you earn the right to perform.  If you’ve got some glaring mobility restrictions or asymmetries then performing these exercises might just be inviting injury.

Y-balanceI don’t know that there is a specific screen or assessment that is going to be perfect for every population.  I personally like the functional movement screen and Y-balance test.  I also have several specific assessments that I like for the crossfit population including overhead squatting, snatch grip deadlifting, front rack assessment as well as overhead, ankle and hip mobility.  If you’re interested in seeing my assessments you can find it with a subscription to my programming.

2) Program for Your Population

Knowing your population’s goals is paramount and your program is a roadmap to those goals.  Do you have a gym full of competitors?  Are your gym members just looking for something fun and challenging without being too technical?  Is your priority keeping people safe or building tremendous athletes?  This is a decision to make based on the people who are performing your workouts.  Another few things to keep in mind is your patient’s injury past.  Are you dealing with people with a large history of injury with severe mobility restrictions or is your population a bunch of healthy fit 20 something year olds?

elderlyI just watched Mike Boyle’s latest edition of the “Functional Strength Coach.”  One of coach Boyle’s biggest gripes with crossfit is performing olympic lifts in a population that has no business olympic lifting (i.e. kyphotic adults).   I think what coach Boyle might not understand is that most crossfit gyms don’t contain a huge population of older kyphotic, forward shoulder athletes.  Most crossfit gyms see mostly 20-40 year olds who are still fairly mobile and able to perform these lifts well.

If your gym contains mostly older adults with a lot of mobility limitations (40+ years old – sorry for generalizing what “old” might mean) then maybe you should think twice about how much olympic lifting your gym does.  This is really going to be up to you to decide what is reasonable for your population.

3) Education and Expectations

A huge aspect of staying safe in any fitness program is learning to listen to your body.  We all know the importance of good technique.  We also know that it probably isn’t a good idea to push through pain.  I’m willing to bet that you also know some people (or maybe yourself at times) that will push through some poor technique or push through some pain when they shouldn’t.

Crossfit uses a clock and a group setting to help push people through challenging workouts.  This can be a blessing and a curse.  There should be a some ground rules set at the start of your workouts.   Getting through the workout quickly is going to give you a great training effect but we should be striving for great movement.  The old adage of performing your first rep exactly the same as the last rep comes to mind here.  I’m a big fan of telling people to rest in the middle of workouts.  Rest until you’re able to perform the next repetition with good technique, or drop the weight and modify.  I feel that this should be a ground rule of your workout.  These are the expectations of your athletes set at the start of each session.  Setting an expectation of proper technique above speed and times is paramount.

Crossfit4) Managing Exercise Frequency and Volume

Crossfit contains a whole lot of squatting, deadlifting and overhead patterns.  I think the community really embraces the importance of perfect technique but it’s important to understand that overuse can still occur with the best form.  One good example is in the shoulder.  Our shoulders go through some degree of normal subacromial impingement every time we place our arms overhead.  This is a normal occurrence.  However, if do this too many times per week / month / year then you could be increasing your chance of that impingement eventually leading to a painful tendinopathy or rotator cuff tear.

When I see a strength athlete, meathead or crossfit athlete come through the door with shoulder pain, one of my first questions is asking what their programming looks like.  What’s the frequency of overhead lifts, how many sets and reps?  Do you ever deload?  How many days per week are you training?

Sometimes I’ll go through a physical therapy evaluation with these athletes and they’ll move extremely well but still have nagging pain.  If this is the case then it’s a sign to me that maybe the issue isn’t so much technique, mobility or motor control necessarily but maybe it’s just coming from too much work in general.  Decreasing the volume of certain lifts can be very valuable from an injury prevention perspective.  This can either come from performing an exercise less frequently, decreasing the amount of sets or decreasing the amount of reps.

Now, there is a plethora of research to show that if you’re trying to improve strength then you’re going to have more benefit if you increase the frequency and volume of performing a given lift throughout the week.  My point is that not everyone is cut out to be performing a high volume of these exercises.  There’s a risk reward spectrum and the risk of injury can outweigh the benefit of a small increase in strength past a certain point.

I put a great deal of thought into the frequency and volume of overhead movements, jumping movements, running, deadlifting and squatting patterns.

If you’re interested in seeing how I implement the first 4 concepts of safe and effective programming into a done for you monthly subscription service then click HERE:

 I just did a 2,000′ elevation gain hike on my “active rest” day, smart idea?

Dan Pope DPT, CSCS

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