Updated 30 September 2014

How to choose a fitness programme

If you’re exercising with a particular goal in mind, you need to follow a programme that’s designed to progress you towards that goal in the safest and most effective manner possible. So how do you know if your fitness programme is right for you?

Roland Jungwirth, a Cape Town-based strength and conditioning coach has been in the industry for long enough to be able to spot a good programme from a bad one in his sleep. For the rest of us however, it’s not so simple.

Here are some basic tips on how to make sure your programme is not only progressing you in the right direction, but is also safe, relevant to your goals and sustainable.

“Exercise programming is more than just exercise selection, it needs to take the client's lifestyle into consideration and should be adapted accordingly. Although we can group most fitness goals into clear categories, the effectiveness of a plan to reach these goals depends on the person's current and previous lifestyle choices and the adherence to the plan,” he says.

The good, the bad and the totally unnecessary

Roland says that the base of any good programme has to be a goal, and as a trainee, it is important that you define your own goals. Whether your goal is to lose weight, get stronger, or to train for a specific event, the primary aim of your programme is that it is designed specifically for you and said goals.

According to Roland, the basic concepts a good programme should involve are the following:

Function over form: We all have seen people that look incredible but don't move gracefully. Although we all want to look good naked, in order to lead a healthy life, we need to be able to function properly.

Safe: Be sure that your programme does not deteriorate your health. After all, reaching your goal today and then falling apart tomorrow should never be the goal.

Periodisation (Cycles or Time structure): As with any endeavour, we need to give ourselves rest from pushing our limits. A good programme is one that periodises the training volume (in the context of the goal). Don't fall for programmes that tell you that you need to push hard all of the time, this is counter productive and will come at a cost. The price will be either (overuse) injury, adrenal fatigue and/or health problems later in life. Also, you are in this for the long haul, taking a week off does not impede your progress, it will help it. As with everything in life, there is a time to push your work output and then there is time where we need to rest. This gives us the opportunity to assess our progress, reset our mind and let our body rest. This means taking a week off of training every six to eight weeks. For the fitness enthusiast this is very hard to understand, as they think they need their "daily fix". We have this mindset as we are being consistently told that any training is better than none, which - depending on the context - can be incorrect.

Improving bad joint positioning: Approximately 90% of people sit most of the day. This results in bad posture and will increase incorrect spinal alignment, tight hips and rounded shoulders. "I see the effect of this daily, chronic lower back pains, limited shoulder mobility and tension headaches. Any good programme will address these bad daily habits through specific mobility and stability exercises."

Strength: We all need to get stronger. Not only will this make us more useful in any real life scenario, it will increase our bone density, increase our anabolic hormone release (this keeps you younger) and brings with it a great sense of achievement.A good programme needs to make you stronger – for example you need to be able to lift more weight off the floor after four weeks on a programme than when you started.

Simple exercises done at relative high intensity: With the advent of "advanced" strength and conditioning programmes, we see beginners do technically advanced movements at high intensity. These movements have no place in a beginner's programme. If you cannot do an exercise perfectly for at least 5 repetitions, you won't be doing it better when you increase the speed or the weight.

Adaptability: Every programme needs to accommodate for life happening. Remember most of us are not paid athletes, so our training programme needs to allow for those days where you did not sleep enough or other stressors make training senseless.
How to spot a bad programme

If you are already following a programme but you’re either not seeing any results, or maybe not seeing the results you wanted to see, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your programme and see if it really is right for you.

Roland outlines some tips to spot a ‘bad’ programme:
  • Any programme which leaves you constantly injured - this includes chronic taped up body parts. If you’re not a professional athlete you shouldn’t be getting injured so often.
  • A complex programme - anyone can trash somebody by throwing together a number of exercises and repetitions. Yes, this will get you sweaty and tired but even this is not a good marker for a good programme. Remember that the magic comes in the simplicity, so go for the simple programme.
  • Any programme that does not result in measurable improvement – if you’re not getting stronger or faster than you did at the beginning then it’s time to rethink your programme.

 No short-cuts

 “We are all looking for the magic pill that will make us healthy, happy and look good naked. But short-cuts will always come at a cost (if they exist at all) and we need to manage the risk and assess whether the reward is worth the worst case scenario. So take a good look at what you are doing and whether this has brought you any closer to your goal. If not, it's time to change your plan of action,” he says.

However he does concede that ‘any plan is better than no plan’ and points out that any good plan needs to involve a specific goal, preferably with a time constraint and a way to keep you committed and accountable.

The first thing to do is define your SMART goal. Then find someone who is qualified to design you a programme to help you meet your goals within a set time-frame and in a safe and structured way.


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