Determining Training Needs

Posted: December 18, 2013 in Training
Tags: , , , , , ,

One of the things I enjoy most about being a strength coach is the challenge that comes from figuring how to best address the needs of the athletes I train. I’ve always been good at (and enjoyed) problem-solving, and a large part of my job is exactly that. I know it sounds weird, but I look at every athlete I train as a problem to be solved. Every athlete is unique, in that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and may have different goals as well. Most people will fall into one of a few general templates, but everyone has their own little athletic quirks, so they all require individual attention to make sure their program is as effective as possible.

Terrell Owens was such a clown

Some athletes apparently require a lot more attention than others…

So what defines an “effective” program? In my mind, an effective program is one that simply produces the desired physical adaptations that allow an athlete to reach their goals. The challenge isn’t necessarily just to create an effective program, but to create the MOST effective program possible. To do this, we need to figure out not only WHAT the athlete needs, but HOW MUCH of it they need.

Minimum Effective Dose

“Minimum effective dose” is a term that’s typically used in a pharmacological setting; it refers to the smallest amount of a medication that is required to produce the desired effect in a patient. For example, if somebody’s headache can be cured by taking 3 pills, that would be considered the minimum effective dose and any extra pills beyond those 3 should be considered unnecessary.

...or you can put a hot water bottle on your head like this man who doesn't seem to understand how headaches work.

…or you can put a hot water bottle on your head like this man who doesn’t seem to understand how headaches work.

One of the hallmarks of good training programs is how they address specific training needs. Good programs focus on attaining a goal in the easiest way possible, without any extraneous or unnecessary exercises. In other words, they provide the minimum effective dose for achieving a fitness goal. When training for such a goal, there may be several ways to succeed, but there is always one way that is best or will lead to reaching a goal the fastest.

Prilepin’s Chart is a good piece of info to have when trying to determine the minimum effective dose for different training intensities. As you can see from the chart, the “ideal” number of reps to perform at 90% or greater intensity is 4 reps. So if I can get the training effect I want from 4 reps at 90% intensity, is there really any reason for me to do 8?

More people should know about Prilepin's Chart.

More people should know about Prilepin’s Chart.

 The key to effective training is to deduce which training plan provides the minimum effective dose and to implement that plan in the best way possible, because I often don’t have a whole lot of time to work with.

The Time Issue

I typically only get to train the athletes I work with 3x per week, for about 1 hour at a time. I see some people 4 days a week, and some 2 (which I hate), but the norm is 3. Since I only have 3 hours per week to work with each person, I have to prioritize some exercises and leave out others which may only be slightly less important. The key is to figure out which exercises are going to provide the most benefit to each athlete. For example, throwing athletes who display poor rotator cuff stability may need to spend more time strengthening their cuff muscles at the expense of other exercises such as squat assistance work. The squat assistance work may be very beneficial to them, but the more pressing issue is their cuff weakness since throwing athletes with weak rotator cuffs typically don’t stay healthy for long.

Kerry Wood knows a thing or two about rotator cuff weakness and being unhealthy.

Kerry Wood knows a thing or twelve about rotator cuff weakness and being unhealthy.

I could be naive and tell athletes to work on things like cuff strengthening exercises at home and just trust that they’ll do them. But the reality is that I have to assume they aren’t doing them. At-home compliance is one of the hardest things to police, and a lot of people (especially younger athletes) will just not do their at-home work. Some will do it diligently, but the lazy ones ruin it for everybody.

"What's that? Blackburns? Oh yeah, I'm actually doing them right now. Yep, really feeling the burn. Thanks, coach."

“What’s that? Blackburns? Oh yeah, I’m actually doing them right now. Yep, really feeling the burn. Thanks, coach.”

So, knowing that I only have a limited amount of time to work with each athlete, and also knowing that I need to create a training program that helps them reach their goals as quickly as possible, here’s the basic process of how I build programs:

Step 1: Determine the Goal

It’s literally impossible to design an effective program for somebody if you don’t know what their goals are. Goals can be concrete (“I want to run a 4.5 second 40 yard dash”) or abstract (“I want to get faster”). I prefer concrete goals, but the abstract ones are fine too. Sometimes, an athlete will have several goals that may or may not be related. For example, they might want to get faster while also building lower body endurance. Since training for muscular endurance can stunt power development, this would not be an ideal training situation. In cases like this, you need to decide which goal is more important by figuring out how they will affect the athlete’s performance in their sport, and focus on that one.

Step 2: Test

Test. Everything. Strength, power, joint mobility, flexibility, rate of force development, explosiveness, posture, etc. Every piece of information you can get is a weapon in your problem-solving arsenal. The evaluation process tells you what the athlete needs, and also what they don’t need. For example, I’ve had a few athletes this year fall into the “Super Lax” category this year, meaning that their joint mobility is off the charts. When I see an athlete with crazy joint laxity, that means I can go ahead and cross “static stretching” off their to-do list. Instead of wasting time stretching to improve their mobility, these athletes perform exercises to increase joint stability, which is a much better use of their time.

"This stretch seems... unnecessary."

“This stretch seems… unnecessary.”

The other reason for testing each athlete thoroughly is so that we have a baseline against which to measure their progress. I typically re-test my athletes every 6 weeks to see if everything is going according to plan. If they’re not making the gains I’m expecting, then I need to figure out a way to fix that instead of just waiting around for things to change. If you don’t perform the initial test, and then re-test periodically, you really can’t say for sure if a training program is working or not.

Step 3: Determine the General Plan

To figure out the best way to proceed with designing a training program, you need to combine the information you gather during testing with your knowledge of the athlete’s goals. Although many athletes come to me with the same general goals, they go about reaching those goals in many different ways. The key is to figure out what aspect of fitness they are lacking in.

For example, if an athlete who wants to get faster is quick and bouncy but can’t squat the bar, he should work on building strength. If another athlete who wants to get faster can squat the gym but only has an 18 inch vertical jump, he should work on explosiveness and acceleration strength. If yet another athlete wants to get faster but is overweight, he should probably work on losing weight more than strength or explosiveness. Each of these 3 athletes will run faster as a result of their training protocol, even though they’re each using different methods to achieve their goal.

Chris Christie's main exercise every day would be "Donut Throws Into Trashcan"

Chris Christie’s main exercise every day would be “Donut Throws Into Trashcan”

Again, this is where the problem-solving aspect of being a strength coach comes into play. You have to take all of the information you’ve gathered and come up with a plan of attack that will cause the desired physical adaptations in a specific athlete. It can get complicated, and it doesn’t always work right off the bat. But if you know what you’re doing and know how to interpret the information being presented to you, there’s always a way to make it work.

Step 4: Fine Tune

Once we’ve determined the best general course of action to take for a given athlete, the last step is to determine how to organize their training. This involves writing up a periodized training schedule that leads up to the beginning of their competitive season, including set/rep schemes, loading schemes, deload days, etc. Having a well thought-out plan is a necessity, since the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach is a historically bad one. This can be tedious and somewhat time-consuming, but it’s well worth the time and effort when a training program that you’ve designed does what it’s supposed to do.

Wrap Up

Designing good strength and conditioning programs isn’t about copy-pasting workouts from books or the internet. Or randomly inserting exercises you saw on Youtube. Or saying “Screw it. Everybody do the same thing.”



Designing good strength and conditioning programs is about defining goals, rigorously testing and re-testing your athletes, and making sure that each athlete is getting the minimum effective dose without wasting time and energy. Remember, there are many ways to skin a cat, but there’s only one BEST way.


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