The Art of Programming

Some say programming is an art and some say that programming is a science.  I tend to believe that it is a bit of both.  Think about how programs are created.  There must always be a sound reasoning for why you prescribe something, at least there better be!  But, within that program comes historic experiences of what has worked and what hasn’t, assessment of that specific athlete, consultation with that athlete that leads you to either include or exclude volume/intensity/specific movements.  What happens if you happened to catch your client after a tough day at work and your consult with them pointed you in a direction that they were over worked?  Would you over program them with work?  Of course not.  Without continued learning, over time, around your clients you will not be able to get them moving in the right direction immediately.  Sure, sometimes a program just hits the mark spot on right away, but the program should always organically improve as you learn about your client’s tendencies and as your client learns about his/her capacity for the training.  So, to be a great programmer you must think scientifically and creatively in unison.

With that programming thought fresh in your mind I ask you this question:

Is your program for your gym taking into account who you are trying to help make progress?

Look around your gym….what do you see?  If the answer is that you see people of all types then you are like most coaches, normal!  In 99 out of 100 situations your gym will NOT be made up of CrossFit Games Athletes.  But, are you programming with that understanding or are you trying to take your clients and make them into Games competitors when nothing about their structure or lifestyle point to that route being a successful one?

It’s time that you program for your intended audience.  If you are marketing to the masses and you succeed you will get, well, the masses.  You had better program as smartly for them as you can.  There is nothing wrong with going after athletes but that talent pool is small.  There is nothing wrong with targeting the masses either.  But, in either situation, you owe your group the best training possible and we both know that both of those targets require different help.

Take a moment to reflect on your current audience:

Who are the EXACT people you serve as a coach (if you don’t have the people who you ultimately want, you need to look at your marketing and your business but that is another article for another time)?

What are their current abilities? Strengths? Weaknesses?

More importantly, what are their current goals?

Often times, unfortunately, coaches will program for clients based on multiple underlying factors outside these considerations, including:

  • What the coach thinks he or she should do (i.e. ‘Everyone needs to learn how to snatch’, or ‘CrossFit is all about high-intensity and met-cons’ or ‘Never do the same thing twice; always keep it constantly varied’).
  • What other people and boxes are doing around them (“we’ve got to beat those guys”).  Often times this comes from over watching Facebook or Instagram!
  • What their personal biases or goals are (“Everyone wants to be a better athlete right?”).

Far too often, coaches ‘spin their wheels’ by trying to write programs with no real end goal or gains in mind or by designing programs based on their personal, one-track minded goals…that they miss the boat on actually doing what it is their job title reads:

A coach (noun) is:

: a person who teaches and trains an athlete or performer

: a person who teaches and trains the members of a sports team and makes decisions about how the team plays during games

: a private teacher who gives someone lessons in a particular subject

Are you really teaching, leading and guiding your ‘players’ (i.e. gym members, class members, trainees) in how to make progress…in fitness, with their personal goals, in their lives and health (outside the gym)?

For instance, take the workout “The Murph”—a classic Memorial Day favorite at affiliates across the globe, entailing a:

1 mile run
100 pullups
200 pushups
300 squats
1 mile rune

Murph, no doubt, is a challenging workout—one of those workouts that makes you dig deep and find your ‘inner athlete’ or ‘inner strength’ when the going gets tough.  While it is a wonderful idea to honor our fallen soldiers this specific workout simply isn’t a smart idea for a “normal” client.  At a minimum they aren’t improving their fitness.

Instead, for your average gym member, your common clients could get so much more out of a workout such as:

Row 250 meters
15 incline pushups
20 ring rows
25 air squats

x 4 rounds

Is this workout perfect?  Of course not.  But, it is similar in aerobic nature, it takes the eccentric component off of people who have no business running a mile (especially in a weight vest), it reduces the total rep count, and it allows for better technique in the push ups.

“But my workouts are scale-able,” said most coaches who program most of their workouts in any group affiliate model.

However, the level of ‘scaling’ most commonly taught is to ‘Build a workout to crush an Olympic athlete and then make a version for the normal clients that is the hardest version that they can do.’

In reality though, your clients’ workouts should not be the ‘hardest versions they can do.’

Your best, most resilient clients may not get hurt or risk injury…but what about the others?

Maybe they can’t do 100 pull-ups…heck they can’t do one pull-up on their own…so the next best, ‘hardest’ option is strapping them in a band and having them go for it?

Yet…without the ability to even get the chin over the bar in a band…or full lockout position at the bottom of the pull-up…or the ability to do more than 5 at a time…those 100 pull ups are going to go south fast.

Scaling at the ‘hardest level possible’ is probably not the best choice for them.

Instead, coaches should base their program designs around meeting their clients where they currently are, and no matter what, keeping form, stability, strength and progression at the foundation of it all.

Progress workouts based on the adaptation of your clients (rather than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole with poorly executed versions of the ‘substitute’ or scale you’ve been told is the ‘next best option’ in the first place).

This could look like, for someone who is unable to complete pull-ups efficiently…

  • Taking out the pull-ups altogether for a time…and working a strength piece of over-the-bar chin holds for short bursts x 4-5 rounds.
  • In a conditioning workout, this could be 10-15 ring rows, with a 2-second pause at the top and strong, neutral core and spine throughout the movement (driving home an ‘impeccable form’ philosophy), followed by 10 negative push-ups and a 60 second Air Dyne sprint x 5 rounds

Recognize what your program, as well as your client’s outside lifestyle factors, are doing (and can be doing) to affect the people you are working with…and then work with these to truly impact those clients and allow them to make progress.

Most people really don’t need you to break them down.

Allow your programs to get to their priorities.

Not sure what their priorities (or true abilities, baselines, strengths and weaknesses are)?

Well, that is exactly where assessment and testing comes into play.

Collect data.

Perform a comprehensive series of baseline fitness assessments.

And…ask their goals…and the why behind those goals.

Chances are…’look good naked’ and ‘get stronger’ will come up more than once (i.e. lose weight, improve body composition, drop body fat, gain muscle).

Is your program aligned and allowing progression towards improvement?

Or is it a random, varied melting pot of various movements, occasional strength (no real system or method to the madness), benchmarks and ‘intense’ workouts thrown together.  Dig a little deeper folks.

Program Design is where the true secret sauce, the magic, lies.


– Coach Jim Crowell

Fitness Assessments for New Clients