5 rules to help you choose the right strength program

You only have to search for ‘powerlifting program’ on Google to see that there are hundreds of different protocols available out there from a whole host of experts, world record holders and coaches. It is therefore understandable that one of the questions we get asked most frequently is ‘Which strength program is the best?’

The truth is that the best program is the program that works for you! This may seem a bit non-answer, but as with diet it is the method or philosophy that we can be most consistent with that will get the best results.

However, we’re not going to let ourselves off the hook that easily. There are still a large number of considerations that we need to look at in order to make an informed choice on a program, or when to maybe ditch a program and try something else. So with that said, let’s take a look at 5 key factors that are most likely to affect your ability to successfully complete a training program and make the strength gains you want.

1. Time

When looking at a program you need to consider the time that the program takes. Obviously, if you are a busy person who works long hours and has a family, then spending 3 hours a day in the gym is probably not achievable. When we look at elite athlete programs it’s easy to forget these guys and girls may very well be full-time athletes and unfortunately that is not the case for most of us, so a program should still fit in with your lifestyle and commitments, unless you are of course looking to become one of these elite level, full-time people.

The truth is, even in this case it will probably take years of not being able to train full-time in order to get to a point where you can earn money from a strength sport and even then many people at the elite level still have at least a part-time job.  You do strength sports for the love, not the money! So when evaluating a program, look at the intensity, volume and number and type of exercises and think ‘is this something I can stick to?’ And even if it is, this is only the very first consideration you need to take into account when picking a training protocol.

2. Genetics

For the elite level lifters, there is also one other thing that gives them the edge over us lesser mortals... we have to accept that they are genetically gifted. Genetics from a strength perspective covers a lot of things; the fibre types we have that will determine our capacity to produce force, the structure and alignment of the body and how this effects our movement patterns, the technique we should use to optimise our levers for each individual lift, the amount of muscle we can carry and the rate at which we can develop muscle, our ability to recover and injury risk.

We can work hard, we can work smart and we can always progress, but if we choose a program that falls outside our genetic limitations, then at best we could be putting ourselves at risk of not progressing in the manner we would like, and at worst we could be leading ourselves towards a path of serious injury and months away from training. 

Does this mean we should accept our genetic limitations? Of course not. For most people with the right training structure, they can still make exceptional progress and become very strong and competitive at a good level. But awareness of our genetics can help guide our training, our technique, inform our nutrition and recovery protocols and allows us to maybe think a little (or a lot) outside the box with our training to get the most out of it.

This is again a risk of choosing programs chosen for or designed by elite lifters; those with not only freaky genetics but years of experience. So for those starting out in strength sports or trying to build a solid foundation then using more simple methods is probably a wiser option, something like a 5 x 5 protocol is an oldie but goodie for a reason!

3. Injury Risk

This is one of the main issues many people have when selecting a program or when designing their own programs without the right input and experience. Depending on your training age, the types of training you have done and that pesky genetics, these can create a melting pot for injury if selecting a program that doesn’t allow adequate recovery, has too much volume, or too high an intensity for an individual at their current level. There are so many factors that can affect injury risk that, in due course, we will discuss in greater detail, but when starting our selection or design of a program (or when to leave one behind if the body starts to break down), this should be an essential consideration.

4. Your foundation

Brutal hard training can take its toll on the body and some people can handle it more than others. This might not be genetics but two important, controllable and often neglected factors – your foundation and your nutrition and recovery. For example, having a training partner is great; it provides accountability, support and motivation, but should a beginner really be using a program of a training partner with a ton more muscle, better technique, decades of conditioning to the demands of heavy lifting, and through better diet and general lifestyle factors have a better opportunity for recovery?

For some people skill transference from one sport or activity to another means they can jump in at a higher level than others. For example, a bodybuilder with ten years’ experience of lifting heavy weights, good nutrition and recovery habits and experience of their own body’s mechanics for lifting weight, is likely to be able to jump in at a much higher level, with tougher training protocols, than someone who is a complete beginner if they were to take up powerlifting at the same time.

Although many training programs use baseline measures of intensity to define a protocol, which in theory should make no difference in who uses it, this, in reality, is not the case so check who the program was designed for before jumping on board.

5. Goals

Many people often select the incorrect training style for their goals or try and combine multiple training styles to achieve multiple goals at the same time. Most training programs have some crossover with other ‘training zones’, for example, powerlifters will do some bodybuilding training and vice versa, however, we always need to make sure that training programs are aligned as close to possible with our goals.

Obviously, a strength program should make us strong, but we need to identify in what way we want to be strong. Do we wish to get bigger and stronger? Is our size holding us back from being stronger so needs to be a focus? Is size not the goal but strength and maintaining weight? Each program will have a slightly different niche, so make sure yours are bang in line with what you are after.

Training programs are often designed in isolation, meaning that if you want to get stronger, but a better 10km run time, then using training programs that are targeted to both goals at the same time, are likely to water down and inhibit the positive effects of both.  There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with cross-training but ultimately it’s up to you to be specific about the goals you wish to achieve and figure out how close to the mark a program is at helping you reach those goals.

In summary, choosing a correct training program will be dependent on several factors that are important to consider before committing to the plan. In order to make better decisions about the right training program for you, including more detail of some of the terms that we have used within this article, or to help you design your own program, then please check out our ‘principles of training’ series that describes in detail all the main components that need to be considered in this process.