The Puzzle of Programming Training for Humans

I regularly engage in mentoring coaches and practitioners, and the universal starting point in this process is a 'SWOT analysis', allowing the individual to identify areas where they require development. A frequent response and common theme relates to the process of planning or programming training. Before we get into the puzzles to solve when programming physical preparation, let us begin with a revelation: athletes are humans not machines. Input does not necessarily equal output. When working with athletes we must understand that we are dealing with inherently complex and highly dynamic biological systems. Designing a training plan for an athlete or a group of athletes is therefore far from straightforward.

In this post we will unmask the flaws in the conventional wisdom that relates to planning and programming, including periodisation models. We will uncover the realities we face when programming training, explore the puzzles involved, and define the challenges we must resolve. Finally, we will outline a road map approach to guide planning physical preparation in a way that acknowledges the uncertainty, along with some strategies to help navigate the unknown and shifting terrain, to allow us to steer and adapt our course as we go.


In a previous post, we discussed the training system 'trap'. Fundamentally, there are flaws in any model. The practice of adopting a single stereotyped approach, and applying it to all individuals and situations, is by definition inherently flawed.

@@Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful@@...
— George E.P. Box


As identified by John Kiely, arguably the preeminent free-thinker on the topic, training systems and models for planning and periodisation rely upon a collection of shared assumptions. Any template or model by definition assumes that the response to training is (1) universal, (2) uniform, and (3) predictable. Whilst this textbook account of training adaptation presents a reassuring story for coaches and practitioners, it is nevertheless quite false.

The reality is that the response to training differs widely between individuals. Moreover, the training response is variable even within the same individual. Finally, training stress responses are influenced by a host of dynamic and interacting factors; all of which makes things inherently unpredictable.

Returning to the revelation we opened up the post with, @@humans do not respond in a stable or predictable manner whereby input equals output@@. @@Taking a machine approach to training humans is clearly inappropriate@@.

At face value, most would agree it is obvious that humans should not be treated as machines. Returning to John Kiely's writing, each athlete represents a 'complex adaptive system'. Despite this, @@coaches and practitioners still commonly employ a spreadsheet approach to prescribing training@@. The notion that the athlete will be ready to lift 110% of their 1-RM on an arbitrary day or date simply because it was specified in advance as a 'very heavy day' on the programme is nonsensical. Nevertheless we see this approach practiced all the time.


In this excellent essay on training stress models, John Kiely describes how @@perception is a powerful mediator of training stress responses@@ that is overlooked by conventional models of training theory.

Essentially, how the athlete anticipates, perceives and therefore experiences the training stimulus has a profound effect on the training stress response. The critical element of perception shapes the responses that are elicited post training, even at a hormonal level. This affects the athlete's responsiveness to a training bout, and will also have implications for the athletes' readiness for subsequent sessions.

As Kiely identifies, @@a host of psycho-social factors can influence the perception and experience of training@@, and therefore the ensuing training stress response. As such, there is far more to consider beyond simply manipulating conventional training variables, such as mode, frequency, intensity and volume.


Challenge #1: Consistency/Monotony Paradox

There is a need for consistency in training input in order to elicit adaptation. Conversely, there is a need for variation, not least to guard against monotony. The difference between 'consistent' and 'monotonous' as it relates to the experience of training may to some extent come down to perception...

Challenge #2: Managing Perception

Understanding that perception of training is a powerful mediator of the response to the training stressor, how do we use this knowledge to manage how the athlete perceives and experiences training? Making the athlete clear on the purpose, and engaging them in the process, might permit more consistency in the training stimulus, whilst avoiding the negative aspects of training monotony.

Challenge #3: Diversity and Variability of Training Responses

Finally, the magnitude and time course of the response to training differs between individuals. These aspects also differ within the same individual, according to timing and previous exposure. How do we account for this when planning and programming training?


Relevant to both challenges #1 and #2, with a bit of guile and lateral thinking it is possible for the practitioner to provide variety within and between training cycles whilst still providing a very similar training stimulus.

For instance, incorporating variations and permutations of a training mode which are essentially equivalent can provide a superficial sense of variety or something different, whilst still basically working on the same elements. This is an example of accounting for perception in a way that supports effective training prescription and facilitates a more optimal experience of the training performed in order to enhance training readiness and responsiveness.


We can identify three pillars of physical preparation, in relation to desired outcomes:

  1. Building #Capacity - engine capacity, horsepower, structural integrity

  2. Developing #Capability - ability to express the above qualities (traction, gearing, manoeuvrability /'handling')

  3. Creating #Context - facilitating motor learning, supporting skill acquisition, technical model

Considering different approaches to training in relation to these three distinct elements can be helpful in guiding how to assemble a training plan and selecting training modes.


Taxonomy represents the process of classifying items or species in a systematic way. Famously, this approach has been used to create a hierarchical classification system to describe, categorise and organise all species of plants, animal and micro-organisms in the natural word.

The same approach can also be employed to create a classification system, and categorise training modes or menu items in an organised and coherent way, which can greatly assist planning and programming.

A practitioner can quickly populate their toolbox simply by coming up with different variations and permutations of common movements or training menu items, based upon certain task parameters.

Let us consider a squat. Load can be applied at various points on the athlete's body (e.g. front squat, back squat, overhead squat, hip belt squat etc. etc.). Various forms of load can be employed - for instance, barbell, dumbbell, kettle bell, cable, weighted vest. Stance can be varied, depth can be varied, tempo can be varied, ballistic variations (i.e. jump squat) can be employed. This example illustrates how you can quickly come up with a host of variations and permutations for a single movement, simply by manipulating a selection of task parameters in a systematic way.

Returning to the three 'C's, we can use these elements (Capacity, Capability, and Context) to help sort and apply our new taxonomy of training modes.

Training modes most geared to building capacity will sit at one end of the spectrum. Applying this to strength training, the variations that allow the most load to be handled and highest forces will comprise the 'capacity-building' end of the spectrum. Variations and progressions that develop capability will essentially form the middle portion of the continuum. At the other end of the spectrum will be coordination-oriented variations of the training mode that show the most resemblance or dynamic correspondence to the activity in the sport - i.e. the most context-specific.


Training variation is recognised as a critical component of successful training plans. As we have spoken about, variety is generally beneficial for maintaining engagement. Exposing the athlete to a greater array of training modes also helps create a wider movement playbook; hence a 'mixed methods' approach is particularly geared to developing capability. These benefits are apparent from a neuroplasticity viewpoint.

Equally, concerted application or exposure to a training stimulus is required to sustain adaptation, which is critical for building capacity in particular. Excessive variation or shotgun programming will fail to provide this consistency, and so will not allow for meaningful adaptation or increases in capacity.

The timing with respect to initiating progression should reflect the time course and degree of adaptation, which in turn is likely to vary between individuals. Clearly this will be very difficult to predict, and so is likely best managed in a responsive manner based upon ongoing observation and monitoring. Intensity can be manipulated (both up and down) on a day-to-day basis. Decisions on when to introduce new progressions of training modes will be made on a more periodic basis.

It is important that there is some coherence in the manner in which variations and progressions of training modes are presented in the training plan. More specifically, it is important that the exercises in successive training cycles do not lurch from one end of the spectrum to the opposite end.

An example of this, which is sometimes observed in track and field athletics, is lurching straight from a concerted training block of heavy resistance training directly into a training cycle of plyometrics. From a coherence viewpoint, as well as taking best advantage of residual training effects and avoiding abrupt changes in the stimulus which might predispose to injury, it is important there is some step-wise progression in between.


A major part of managing how the training is perceived by the athlete is to ensure they are clear on the 'why' for everything in the programme. It is unsafe to assume the purpose is obvious; we must make the effort to connect the dots so that the athlete has absolute clarity on the rationale and desired outcomes.

Similarly, relating each exercise or element of the programme to the athlete's sport or the specific demands they encounter in competition can be very powerful. Investing the time and making the effort to communicate this information - essentially presenting the case - can have a profound effect on how the athlete perceives the training prescribed.

Once the athlete has been part of the environment for a time, and attained a level of experience and understanding, it is important to allow the athlete some input on the programme. This will allow them to begin to feel it is a shared endeavour, rather than perceiving the programme as something that is dictated to them. Being more invested in the training plan positively impacts how the athlete perceives, experiences, and responds to the training they perform.


As noted in the previous section, the timing and rate of progression will differ between individuals. It follows that the way programmes are administered should include the facility to accommodate the time course of adaptation for individuals within the group.

All members of the group might begin the training year from approximately the same starting point and initial programme. Thereafter the practitioner administering the plan must allow for individual paths to deviate, based on how they respond. Essentially, the aim is that all members ultimately converge on the same end point at the culmination of the training year or macrocycle.

Practically, from experience athletes can be broadly grouped into archetypes, based upon where they sit on the 'responder' continuum and also how quickly they recover. This understanding of the athletes in the group may make the task of progressing training at different rates and time points more straightforward. That said, there will always be an ongoing need to monitor each individual's output and subjective measures of training stress, readiness and recovery.


Devising a route begins with identifying (1) point of origin, and (2) the final destination. The first task for the practitioner therefore is to evaluate the starting position or entry point for each athlete. The next step is to define the desired end point, within the time-frame concerned (e.g. culmination of the training year or competition season).

Thereafter we must recognise that there are a number of potential routes between these two points. It is important to be adaptable in our planning and programming to allow for that.

Similarly, whatever route is chosen initially, it is possible to divert as the need arises to negotiate unforeseen issues, yet still continue to progress towards the desired final destination.


@@Plans are of little importance but planning is essential@@
— Winston Churchill

@@The dynamic and unpredictable nature of training athletes calls for adaptable planning and responsive programming@@. We must of course establish start-point and map end-point in advance. However, whilst the practitioner might sketch out the steps in between ahead of time, practically the future is unknown and the path cannot be fully anticipated. With a final nod to John Kiely, we must recognise the topography and terrain are constantly changing. Practically, it would seem sensible therefore to restrict timelines when providing programmes in advance.

Critical components for adaptable planning and responsive programming include regular feedback and review mechanisms to inform and refine the ongoing process of training prescription. As mentioned previously, those athletes who possess sufficient understanding should also be afforded the opportunity to input on the ongoing programming process.

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