The methods used to design a training program differs between resistance and aerobic training, so its important to address the two separately.  

The steps taken to design a resistance training program are different than those taken for an aerobic training program, and so its important to address the two separately.  However, there are 3 foundational principles that apply to both: specificity, overload, and progression.

Specificity: train in the specific manner for a specific adaptation or outcome, for example the movement patterns, training season, goals, and speed of movement.  

Overload: assigning a greater intensity than accustomed to.  This is commonly seen in baseball when batters will warm up with 2 or 3 bats.

Progression: progressively increasing the intensity of training over time.

Resistance Training Program Design

There are 7 steps for designing a resistance training program

  1. Needs analysis

  2. Exercise selection

  3. Training frequency

  4. Exercise order

  5. Training load and repetitions

  6. Volume

  7. Rest periods

Needs analysis

As the health professional, it is your job to evaluate the characteristics and requirements of the sport, as well as to assess the athlete.  Evaluating the sport consists of analyzing the physiology, anatomical movements, and energy systems involved, as well as the potential for injury.  Another important thing to note is what season the sport is currently in, because that will greatly influence your training goal.  Assessing the athlete consists of categorizing their current training status, physical testing and evaluation specific to their sport, and establishing their primary training goals.  Here are some tables to help visualize the needs analysis step.

Classifying an athlete's resistance training status

Classifying an athlete's resistance training status

General training goals based on sport season

General training goals based on sport season

Exercise Selection

There are 4 general principles to consider when choosing exercises for a resistance training program:

  1. Purpose of exercise: is the exercise a "core exercise" that targets large muscle groups and involves 2+ joints, or is it an "assistance exercise" that uses smaller muscles and involves single joints? Core exercises are thought to be more important to improving sport performance.

  2. Sport specificity: it wouldn't make sense to create a program for a quarterback or a pitcher made up mostly of lower body exercise with only 2 or 3 that target the upper body. It's also important to maintain muscular balance across joints and between opposing muscles because disparities could lead to injury.

  3. Exercise technique experience: always check that the athlete can properly perform the exercises that you've assigned them before sending them off on their own.

  4. Availability of equipment and training time: this seems very obvious, but all gyms are different so make sure the athlete has access to any equipment they need for the exercises, and has enough time to complete all of the exercises you want to give them.

Training Frequency

When assigning the frequency of training, its important to consider the athlete's age and training status, the sport season, the training load and exercise type you're assigning, and any other concurrent training the athlete might also be doing.  Training status is the most important out of all of these factors:

  • Beginners: 2-3 sessions/week

  • Intermediate: 3-4 sessions/week

  • Advanced: 4-7 sessions/week

Its important to include at least 1, but no more than 3, recovery days per week. Although advanced athletes can train 7 days a week by using a split routine, meaning they train different muscle groups on different days rather than doing full body workouts everyday.  This gives the athlete time to recover from leg day during back day, and visa versa.

The sport season should be taken into consideration when deciding the training frequency:

  • Off-season: 4-6 sessions/week

  • Preseason: 3-4 sessions/week

  • In-season: 1-3 sessions/week

  • Postseason (active rest): 0-3 sessions/week

Exercise Order

The order of exercise should be mainly based on how an exercise affects the quality of effort or technique of another exercise, therefore most programs start with the most difficult and technical exercises.  There are many different methods to determining the order of exercises, but here are the 4 most common:

  1. Power, other core, then assistance (aka: must-joint then single joint, large muscle areas then small muscle areas): power exercises require the most skill and are the most tiring, putting them later in the session puts the athlete at a higher risk of injury.

  2. Alternate upper and lower body (aka circuit training): improves recovery and recruitment between exercises and delaying muscle fatigue by making sure the same muscle group isn't used in successive exercises. This is ideal for athletes just beginning or returning to a training program.

  3. Alternate push and pull exercises: similar reasoning as alternate upper and lower, just a different way to categorize the exercises.

  4. Supersets and compound sets: a superset is a set of two exercises that stress opposing muscles or muscle areas, while a compound set uses two exercises that work the same muscle or muscle group. Both methods same time but are more demanding, and aren't appropriate for untrained athletes.

Training Load and Repetitions

Training load is the amount of weight assigned to a set and the repetitions is the number of times the exercise is performed.  The load is thought to be the most important aspect of a resistance training program and is typically based on a percentage of the athlete's 1RM.  You have to consider the type of exercise when deciding the repetitions.  For core or power exercises that increase strength, less than 6 repetitions is typically assigned.  For assistance exercises aimed at hypertrophy, more than 8 repetitions is typically assigned.  Keep in mind that the training load and repetitions are inversely related.

There are a few different methods to incorporate variation while assigning training load.  The two most common are heavy-light-medium and 2-for-2 rule. The heavy-light-medium method is exactly as it sounds.  The "heavy day" is maximum effort for power or core exercises one day a week, then next is the "light day" at 80% of the heavy day, then the "medium day" is 90% of the heavy day.  The 2-for-2 rule is the most conservative method for the progression of load.  If an athlete can perform 2 or more repetitions over the rep goal for a certain exercise in the last set of 2 consecutive workouts, weight should be added.  For example, if an athlete is assigned a leg press at 3 sets of 10 reps, but performs 12 reps in the 3rd set for 2 consecutive workouts, then the athlete has proven they've adapted and weight should be added.

Guidelines for load, repetitions, and sets based on training outcome goal

Guidelines for load, repetitions, and sets based on training outcome goal

Training Volume

Training volume is the total amount of weight lifted in a training session, and can be calculated by multiplying the sets, reps, and weight. When assigning the sets in a training program, consider the athlete’s experience. Single sets are best for novice lifters, while multiple sets are better for developing the athlete’s strength.

Load Volume = Sets x Reps x Weight

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Rest Periods

The length of a rest period is dependent mostly on the training goal, but the relative load lifted and training status should also be considered.


Periodization is known as “preplanned, systematic variations in training specificity, intensity, and volume organized in periods or cycles within an overall program”. It’s comprised of macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. A macrocycle is the overall training program and can last a few months to a few years. Mesocycles are units of a macrocycle and last several weeks to months, depending on the structure of the macrocycle. And then mesocycles are further broken down into microcycles, which last about 1-4 weeks and focus on short-term goals.

Before we dive deeper into the details of periodization, its important to understand the ideas that it’s based on. The General Adaptations Syndrome (GAS) describes the body’s adaptation to stress and breaks it down into 3 phases. Periodization tries to time out these phases of training to optimize an athlete’s performance for a certain time frame. If implemented correctly, a trainer can essentially manipulate the body’s natural process of adapting to stress and “schedule” their peak performance for a specific competition or sports season.

The three phases that make up the GAS method are the alarm phase, resistance phase, and exhaustion phase. The initial alarm phase begins when the body goes through a more intense or entirely new stress, and is marked by soreness, stiffness, and decreased performance as a result of hard training. The resistance phase is where adaptations by the neural and muscle tissue takes place, and the body is able to meet the new, strenuous demands. This is known as super-compensation and can only be accomplished only if the training stimulus is appropriate and structured, not excessive. The athlete will move into the exhaustion phase if the stimulus is too much, and the athlete’s performance will probably decline below what it was before training. They will exhibit overtraining symptoms and have similar responses to exercise as in the alarm phase.

Methods of Periodization

There are two different methods of periodization: linear and undulating. The linear method consists of specific goals during each of the 3 phases of training: preparatory, competition, and transition. The heavy, medium, light approach is applied within each of the phases, so that the reps and sets remain the same throughout the program and the load varies. The undulating approach uses variations in load and volume within a microcycle, based on the specific goal outcome of the athlete.

The preparatory phase is the time for the athlete to develop a general, base level of conditioning. Training volume is based on the performance goals of the athlete. Low intensity at high volume is recommended for hypertrophy and endurance: 3-6 sets; 10-20 reps; at 50-70% 1RM. High intensity at moderate volume is best for basic strength: 3-5 sets; 4-8 reps; at 80-90% 1RM. High intensity, low volume, and sport specific exercises should be used for strength and power: 3-5 sets; 2-5 reps; at 75-95% 1RM.

The competition phase is the time to peak and maintain sport-strength. While the specifics of this phase should be individualized based on the sport and the athlete’s skill development, the overall idea is to increase strength and power by increasing intensity and decreasing volume. A sport strength peak will only last about a week or two, while most sport seasons can last a few months, making maintenance programs very important. During the peak period, athletes should use very high to low intensities and low volume, for example: 50-93% 1RM, 1-3 sets of 1-3 reps. The maintenance period uses moderate to high intensity at low to moderate volumes, for example: 85-93% 1RM, 2-5 sets of 3-6 reps.

The transition phase is also known as active rest, unloading week, or restoration, and acts as a shift between the prep and competition phases. This is a time for the athlete to refresh both physically and mentally, and to deal with any injuries that may have occurred. Keep these phases under 4 weeks to not jeopardize any improvements in strength and skill.


  • Volume and intensity are inversely related

  • Always plan recovery: 3 weeks of accumulating fatigue should be followed by 1 week of recovery to avoid overtraining and reduce injury risk

  • Peaking for competition: lower volume, maintain intensity

  • Progression, overload, variety, and specificity are all key

Aerobic Training Program Design

When designing an aerobic training program, there are 3 important concepts to understand. The VO2max is the maximal aerobic power and is highly correlated with aerobic performance.  The lactate threshold is quantified as a percentage of the VO2max, and represents the point of exercise at which blood lactate begins to accumulate. It’s related to, but slightly different from VO2max, and is therefore a good predictor of performance. Exercise economy is a measure of energy cost at a given exercise velocity, and it’s been shown that improving exercise economy can enhance VO2max and lactate threshold.

Aerobic Training Program Design Steps

  1. Exercise mode

  2. Training frequency

  3. Training intensity

  4. Exercise duration

  5. Exercise progression

Exercise Mode

The activities performed during training should have movement patterns that mimic whatever sport the athlete is training for. Consider the muscle fiber types and energy systems used when selecting the training modes.  The more specific the training mode is to the competition, the greater improvement in performance.  Cross-training is useful if the athlete participates in multiple sports or is just interested in generally improving their aerobic endurance, as well as avoiding injuries because of overuse.

Training Frequency

Training frequency is referring to the number of sessions per day or per week, and depends on the interaction of intensity and duration of exercise, the athlete’s training status, and the specific sport season.  It's also important to always include recovery from individual training sessions through rest, rehydration, and consuming enough carbohydrates to refuel energy sources.  Look back at the nutrition section to recall the specific amounts for the athlete.

Training Intensity

Choosing an appropriate training intensity is very important; it must create an overload for there to be any improvements in performance. The athlete will fatigue too quickly if the intensity is too high, or will just not improve if the intensity is too low.  Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) is the most frequently used measure for aerobic exercise intensity because it relates to a percentage of VO2max. HRR is the difference between max heart rate (HRmax) and resting heart rate (RHR). HR max is calculated by subtracting the athlete’s age from 220, and RHR can be easily taken while the athlete is relaxed before any exercise. The target heart rate is calculated by adding the RHR to the product of the HRR and exercise intensity, which can be low, moderate, or high and is just quantified as a percentage of the max heart rate.

HR max = 220 - age

HRR = HR max - RHR

Target HR = (HRR x exercise intensity) + RHR

Exercise Duration and Progression

The duration of exercise is inversely related to the intensity, and should be based on the intensity. The progression of exercise should be based on what was chosen for the exercise frequency, intensity and duration. The only guidelines for progression are to not increase any factor more than 10% each week and to include at least 1 rest day per week. Other than that, its up to the trainer’s discretion.

Other Factors to Consider

Cross training: good for injury recovery, off-season, and general conditioning

Detraining: the athlete’s training results will regress if the conditioning levels aren’t maintained

Tapering: systematic reduction in training volume or intensity to peak performance for an event

Resistance training: can reduce the risk of injury, muscle imbalances, aide in recovery, and may provide performance improvements

These are the most common different types of aerobic training.  The other days of the week should be composed of other training types and rest-recovery days.

These are the most common different types of aerobic training. The other days of the week should be composed of other training types and rest-recovery days.

This is an abbreviated example of an aerobic training program based on an athlete’s sports season.

This is an abbreviated example of an aerobic training program based on an athlete’s sports season.