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The Difference Between a Workout And a Program.. And Which One Is Superior

Picture this...

Personal Trainer: "Man, it's been a busy day"

Client: "Have you had a lot of clients today?"

Personal Trainer: "I've had 5"

Client: "Oh, that's it? That's not terrible"

Personal Trainer: **cringes** and replies "You're right"

.. However, what the personal trainer wants and should've said is:

"Well, I woke up at 4 am to take my first client at 5am. He was new, so I was up late last night creating his 10-week training program because his goal is to put 10 lbs of lean muscle on. Because he had a back surgery as well as some body fat to lose, I had to structure special progressions for him to be able to lift weight safely but still see results the first 2-3 weeks or else I'd lose him.But since his overall goal is to gain muscle and get stronger, his program needed to reflect that with exercises that would pack on strength. This means progressive overload in month 2 and 3. That took a few hours last night"

..and that, my friends, was just for client 1. He had 5 that day. Every good trainer has been here and knows the feeling of being mentally and physically exhausted; but you came to this trainer for results, and that's what you'll get.

Every good personal trainer knows that a well designed program is proven to show results. If your goal is to do 10 bodyweight pull ups, you should probably practice lat pull downs, band assisted pull ups, and lattisimus dorsi strengtheners. However, you'd be surprised at the people who chose to walk into the weight room and do bicep curls. How the heck is that going to help you do a pull up? (ok ok, maybe curls have a cross over with underhand chin ups, but you get my point).

Or take my friends who say they want to improve their one mile time. Every time they run three miles, they run it as fast as they can. How is running three miles going to help you get faster at your one mile? A well structured program would tell this person to run more one-mile timed workouts, some 400 repeats and maybe one, very slow, three mile workout per week.

It doesn't matter what your goal is or how long you've been working out. If you aren't following a plan that is designed to carry you to your goal then you are wasting your time trying to reach it.

So, what is the difference between a workout and a program?

A workout is just that... a workout. If I took my clients through purely workouts, each one would be different every time they saw me. They'd never see results because their body wouldn't change from repetition. A workout is fun here and there to break up routine; but if you're only doing one-off workouts as your form of goal-getting, then you're missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

A program is designed to show you progress. It will include consistent, similar exercises for weeks on end to show you true results. Programs involve progressions so you never experience a plateau. And lastly, programs are a means to an end. You may love going to your spinning class every Thursday, but you'll never hear your spin instructor say "Alas, this is your last spin day as you've reached your goal!" But a well-designed program will prove results as you see your 10lb fat loss or recent strength PR in the gym. It will show you that you actually accomplished your goal.

5 Parts To A Well Designed Program

#1 Your Program Should Reflects Your End Goal

What is your true goal? Sometimes, this gets hidden by smaller, more appealing goals that actually don't make a lot of sense. We sometimes get caught up in what society says we should do, like a weight loss goal or getting big in the gym. A great way to approach this curious thought is by asking yourself "Why?" five times. Here's an example:

"I want to lose 10lbs before my beach vacation in 5 months"


"Because I'd like to look good in a bikini"


"Because I am going with a bunch of college friends and I'd like to look good"


"Because if I look good, I'll have the courage to talk to some of the guys on the trip"


"Because I am single and would like to meet a guy who also likes to workout"

So at the end of the day, this lady doesn't necessarily care about losing 10lbs. She cares about looking like she workouts to have the courage to meet a guy who also likes working out.

Now that I know her true goal, I would spend less time putting her through a dramatic caloric deficit where she feels tired, lethargic and unable to bend any rules. I would spend less time worrying about what to do if she slips up on her diet or how many steps she's taking every day. Instead, I'd create a strength building program that'll show her some muscle definition especially in her core and legs. I'll teach her about carb cycling and how carbs can sometimes add water weight. I'll encourage her to do the program at a gym, in case she has chances to talk to guys who lift while she works out. This approach to her program is what will actually show success with what she wants. If she simply lost 10lbs, she'd still lack muscle, would not look like she lifted weights, and would be unhappy because vacation food wouldn't fit into her diet. She also would most likely not feel the confidence she desires to meet another single guy who lifts weights.

In summary, your program should reflect your true goal to show you successful results.

#2 Your Program Should Show Repetition

Whenever I have new in-person clients, I break down what it looks like to train with me. I describe programs and how they will show results. Partially, I want them to know they're in good hands. But, I also want to warn them that I will not be doing a different workout every time they come. Your program should have consistent exercises, reps and sets for at least 4 weeks. By doing the same Monday, Wednesday, or Friday workout for 4 weeks, you will notice that you have gotten stronger, move better and are less fatigued compared to the first week of doing those same workouts. For example: in my personal program, I squat on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I will squat 4 sets of 10 for the next 6 weeks. That workout will remain the exact same for almost two months! What will change is the weight on the bar, the energy I am exerting, possibly the tempo I am squatting at, or the rest periods between sets. Over the next six weeks, I'll see my glutes grow firmer, ankle mobility see greater range of motion, core get tighter, and overall lift heavier loads. This is how you see progress. You keep variables the same and watch your strength build overtime. What doesn't show progress is doing a different workout every Wednesday and Saturday. I would have no way to measure, no results to show, and lack any form of consistency.

#3 Your Program Should Have Phases

"But what about when I plateau?"

..A-ha! This is why I said "at least 4 weeks". A well designed program will phase your workouts to change before hitting a plateau. Let's take my personal program's example; after 6 weeks of squatting 4 sets of 10, I'll transition into a phase of unilateral work for 2 weeks, followed by a phase of heavy barbell squats for 6 sets of 5 reps. This shows that before I move into much heavier squats, I'll spend time de-loading and focusing on. balance and symmetry. This will make my next heavy phase safer and stronger. The following heavy phase will last another 6 weeks so I can see that progress we discussed earlier. By de-loading, my body will rest and repair. Following the de-load, my body will work to lift much heavier weight in hopes to see even more strength gains in my lower half.

I don't expect my clients to follow the what and why behind phasing; but your program should reflect phases that give you results. If your phases always look the same, your body will become adapted to the stimulus and not change. You want to make sure you're constantly improving and moving towards your goal.

Phases are also a chance for you to try a different modality of training. Sometimes I come across clients who have "lifted the same weight for xxx years" yet they wonder why they don't see changes. This might be a good time to look at your exercises and programming and consider making a change. Would you benefit from a program that emphasizes power and explosiveness? Would you see results if you practiced a few months of power-liftng? Or, have you ever decided to lift reps of 15-20 even though you're constantly seeking gains? These minor changes don't need to mean "forever", but changes and phasing your program will result in changes to your body.

#4 Your Program Should Be Different Than What You're Currently Doing

"But, I run every single day. Why am I not losing weight?"

Well first off, I don't want people running in order to lose weight. Running is an athletic endeavor, and there are way more productive ways to lose weight.

I digress. You know what I won't program for this client? Running. Because what they are currently doing, is not working.

You also see this many times with people who "on and off" diet. I'll hear, "I skip breakfast and have a very late lunch so I can avoid the calories when I'm not hungry. However, I tend to overeat at dinner and before bed because I've earned it and I am hungry".

These people have not "earned" anything but the body fat they cannot lose. What they are currently doing is not working. So, in their meal-planning consultation, I'd have them start eating breakfast. Starting their day with protein and healthy fats will keep them comfortable until lunch, and that will keep them super comfortable until dinner. Not to mention, they've now spaced their meals out to incorporate more rest-and-digest into their schedule.

Your program should be different than your current habits. It will take work to get use to; it's never easy saying goodbye to your beloved group fitness class or your balls-to-the-walls running, but if you truly seek a change, you must then change your current routine.

#5 Your Program Should Keep You Consistent

A calendar is included in every program of mine. I find that many people who follow programs are already self disciplined enough to train on their own, so having a calendar to follow for every day of the week is icing on the cake. There are other ways to remain consistent besides using a calendar. But, having a set plan for the week allows you make special arrangements to include the plan for each day and not make excuses as to why you ran out of time.

As I said in the beginning, programs work because they show repetition and consistency. The same goes if you were to start a program and "loosely" follow it. In my vocabulary, that option does not exist. You should work with your trainer on what days of the week work best for recovery or high-volume workouts. You want this program to mold the life you have and to compliment your other obligations. If you currently only have time for a workout 3 times a week, following a 6 day split routine would be absurd.

What if I only workout to feel good?

.. that's great! I've worked with many clients who don't need to lose weight and simply enjoy working out as their lifestyle. Workout makes everyone feel good no matter what your goal is! But, doesn't that mean you'll feel good by being stronger? Tell me, will you feel even better when your clothes fit absolutely perfect? Or, what about when you notice your sciatic nerve pain suddenly disappeared? Programs are for everyone; it doesn't have to require a body composition change or race training.

Following a program is non-negotiable for anyone who is desiring to lift weights. It's the only way to see the fruits of your labor. And if you've never followed a strength building program, your journey has yet to begin. Welcome to the Fit + Fearless team.

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