How to Write Exercise Programs Pt. 1

How to Write Exercise Programs Pt. 1

Writing exercise programs is a fitness coach’s bread and butter. It’s how they express themselves creatively and it’s what makes them so valuable to their clients.

Well, at least it should be.

But it’s not always that simple. Fitness coaches in all different parts of the industry struggle to write exercise programs. 

By understanding a few solid principles fitness coaches can take the guesswork out of program design. Here are four ways you can begin to write better exercise programs today.

How to Write Exercise Programs

Define the Function by the Individual 

Why do clients exercise? Think about this for a minute. 

Unless they’re an elite athlete, exercise is usually not the main focus of a client’s life. It is probably done to support something else, whether that be playing with their kids, or performing better at their intramural softball league. Athletes, on the other hand, are training to win at their sport. That is why OPEX coaches define function by the individual. 

What is function? Function is the purpose of a given thing. With a client, function is their physical purpose in daily life. (E.g. to be a mother, a business leader, a football player, or a welder.) Learn how to define your client’s function by using consultation and assessment systems here.  

When choosing which exercises and energy systems to include in a client’s program, a coach must match them with that client’s function.

Scaling Does Not Equal Progression

The second way coaches can write better exercise programs is by understanding that scaling does not equal progression. 

Let’s define the two terms. 

Scaling is the act of reducing something proportionally. In fitness, scaling is reducing a workout to fit a client who cannot complete the workout as written. For example, using a band to complete a WOD with pull-ups.

Progression is the act of gradually moving towards an advanced state. In fitness, a progression is workouts over time that gradually build a client towards their goal. For example, programming dumbbell rows, gravitron pull-ups, and bicep curls, and increasing volume and intensity until a client can do pull-ups unassisted. 

Scaling does not equal progression because reducing or cutting down a workout for a client to be able to complete it is not the best way to help a client reach their goals. Those banded pull-ups may get the client through the WOD, but they’re not moving them closer to the ultimate goal of doing unassisted pull-ups. 

The best way to help a client reach their goals is to execute an individualized progression, that meets them at their current abilities and moves them to their goals over time. Learn the basics of creating individualized progressions in this coaching course.

Earn the Right

Thirdly, remember that clients have to earn the right. 

Often the most difficult and highest skill workouts are positioned by the fitness industry as the most effective and fun. For example, snatches, muscle-ups, and sprints performed for time is sexier than 30 minutes steady-state on the bike. While the media is constantly portraying visuals of ‘athletes’ performing these types of workouts, the reality is that most clients have not earned the right to perform them safely and efficiently.

Earn the right refers to the idea that clients need to spend adequate time in certain stages of training before they can move on to the next stage. For example, before a client can do Olympic lifting they must spend enough time doing absolute strength work (slower strength movements) and have adequate mobility to earn the right to snatch a barbell. Not only is this for the safety of the client, it is also necessary to develop the prerequisites for long-term progression and potential.

Consistency Over Intensity

The fourth key to writing better exercise programs is consistency over intensity.

For the best results for both the coach and the client, the goal of an exercise program should be consistency over intensity. While intensity might give the client more short term results, consistency will be what leads clients to reach their goals in the long term.

When writing every training session a coach should consider, “can my client express, recover, and adapt from this stimulus.” If training is too intense and a client can’t recover and adapt between sessions, they will enter an overtrained state, plateau, and even regress.


When writing an exercise program it is easy to get lost in the ‘buzzwords’ (HIIT, intervals, supersets, etc.) and forget the basics. But the truth is most ‘buzzword fitness terms’ are short-term fixes that are ultimately ineffective.

Sign up for our free Professional Coaching Blueprint and learn how to create better exercise programs.


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