Home Blog 2 Key Strategies for Creating Effective Strength and Conditioning Programs

2 Key Strategies for Creating Effective Strength and Conditioning Programs

Written on June 14, 2011 at 8:38 am, by Eric Cressey

One of the questions I’m asked the most frequently is “How did you learn how to write strength and conditioning programs?”

Unfortunately, while it’s a tremendously common question posed to me, I haven’t yet determined a quick and easy response that would work for everyone.  While this may make it seem like I haven’t learned anything in this regard, the truth is that I get more and more effective and efficient with creating programs every single day.  What’s my secret?  Well, I actually have two of them.

1. I NEVER reinvent the wheel.

Our philosophies are constantly evolving, and I’m always working to integrate new concepts into our programming to improve outcomes for our clients.  These ideas may come from things I’ve read, seminars I’ve attended, other programs I’ve observed, or – most importantly – feedback our athletes have given us.  I absolutely, positively, NEVER overhaul a program, though.  Why?

If you change everything, you learn nothing – because you can never appreciate what modification it was that worked (or didn’t work).

2. I build on previous successes, rather than starting from scratch with every new client.

I absolutely loved the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath.  I read this book back in early 2007, and I still refer back to it all the time.

One of the key points that the Heaths make in this book is that an idea will always be more readily accepted if it is incorporated into an individual’s existing schema.  As an example, if I give you the letters TICDGFASOH and then ask you to list all the letters I included to me 20 minutes later without writing them down, most of you won’t be able to accomplish the task correctly.

However, if I reordered those letters as CATDOGFISH, you’d accomplish the task easily.  You know the words DOG, CAT, and FISH – so it would fit into your existing schema.  This applies to strength and conditioning programs, too.

When I attend a seminar, whenever a new technique is introduced, I try to immediately apply it in my notes and in my brain to an existing client of mine.  How can that subtle modification make this individual’s program better?

And, when I evaluate a client for the first time, I ask myself how this client is similar to a previous client of mine.  I’ll look back to that old client’s program to see what we used to get results – and then I’ll tinker accordingly based in the new client’s more specific individual needs.  I absolutely NEVER open up a blank Microsoft Excel template and write something from scratch, as it’s always easiest to tinker with what’s worked in the past.

What does this mean for the up-and-coming strength and conditioning program author?

Get out to as many seminars as possible.  Visit other coaches and observe their programs.  Read books and watch DVDs to learn about how others incorporate different strategies and strength exercises in their weight training programs.  Your goal is to expand your existing schema as much as possible and – in the beginning – create the strength and conditioning programs that will end up becoming the foundation for all future programs.  After the first few months, you are simply “tinkering,” not overhauling.  Never reinvent the wheel, and always build on previous successes.

Want to see how a comprehensive program is set up? Check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better.

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19 Responses to “2 Key Strategies for Creating Effective Strength and Conditioning Programs”

  1. philip edah Says:

    Simple yet extremely informative. These are things we should intuitively know as trainers yet it’s great to hear this affirmed by a master trainer. Thanks for the info(ps just so you know, I constantly and regularly “borrow” from you as per strength and conditioning training and I’ve never been off…not once)

  2. R Smith Says:


    Damn fine post, sir.
    Reminds me of my bio/psych research days (and of something nutritionist Alan Aragon has said): Try to manipulate as few variables at once as possible.

    As someone who is always tinkering with diet (but NEVER your programming!), this advice has worked well.


  3. Alex Scott Says:

    Great post. Definitely good advice for a coach getting their start in the field. Will keep these strategies in mind when creating programs in the future.

  4. Eric L Says:

    As far as strength and conditioning books go, what books on program design would you recommend?

  5. Dean Somerset Says:

    “If you change everything, you learn nothing – because you can never appreciate what modification it was that worked (or didn’t work).” Couldn’t have said it better myself. This goes along with a thought Mike Boyle had of training being like cooking, where experienced chefs can create and modify a recipe based on their tastes, whereas novice cooks should stick with a recipe and not deviate. An experienced trainer can look at a program and figure out which exercises may have presented the biggest problems or resulted in the best devlopment based on their experiences with those movements and specific populations. Novice guys should just buy Show and Go and save themselves the hassle. Great post!!

  6. Grant Says:

    Thanks for the tips Eric.

    I believe most people want to reinvent the wheel just in case it pulls off so they can claim it. Unfortunately 99% of the time it never works.

  7. Jerry Flynn Says:


    I wish you would have written this post long ago. For years I’ve been trying to create that perfect all-encompassing program on paper. Having you design me a few programs and studying your products I have a better handle on your style. Thanks for sharing your expertise. The industry continues to get better for your generosity.

  8. Risto Says:

    I have the same question as Eric L has; what programming books do you recommend? I currently have read Get Buff by Ian King, Practical Programming, Muscle Mechanics, Muscle Gaining Secrets, and Functional Training for Sports. Any other good programming books out there?

  9. Jan Says:

    Great post. It is very re-assuring that I as a coach are doing exactly the same as you and that my thought process is of a similar mind. When assessing new clients, I try to relate that person to other athletes/clients I have worked with and the program we used that generated the best results. Programs obviously need to be specific to individual needs so a little ‘tinkering’ is the wy I approach things.

    In my mind, the ‘perfect’ program does not exist.
    Thanks for the great info.

  10. Juan Says:

    Hi Eric,
    Great advice as always. I know you’re a big advocate of keeping maximal strength movements in a program (I believe it’s called the conjugate method of periodisation,correct me if I’m wrong),as am I,but how do you back-off apart from deloading to let joints/body/CNS recuperate without losing your gains in strength?

    Thanks for your time.

  11. Matt Says:

    Thanks for this post, Eric. Very encouraging and also very helpful.

  12. Brian Says:

    Always great advice when one says don’t recreate the wheel. This method of beginning with a template and modifying it depending on the client’s needs is an efficient programming technique. Thanks for the wisdom.

  13. Eric Says:

    Thanks for this post. This is a key concept in education/pedagogy that few trainers get in their pre-practition training. The licensed educators out there that are also cpt/cscs (there are a few of us) recognize this as Piaget’s assimilation/accommodation/ theory. Not only is it key for self learning; applying it to teaching your clients improves your results.

  14. Chris P. Says:

    Very informative post! @Risto from June 14th…add the following to your library at some point:

    1) The Westside Barbell Book of Methods
    2) 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler
    3) Strong(er) series by Dave Tate
    4) Practical Programming by Kilgore & Rippetoe
    5) Show & Go…(obviously)!
    6) Accelerated Muscular Development by James Smith

    Read all of the stuff on this website as well as spending plenty of time on elitefts.

    @Juan from June 21st:

    1) rotate your max-effort exercises every 2-3 weeks
    2) make sure your nutrition is as good as can be
    3) make sure you’re doing your foam rolling and mobility exercises

  15. Joseph Sinagoga Says:

    Hey Eric
    Great post as usual. I have been recommending you to every baseball player I know here in NYC.
    Joseph Sinagoga

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Joseph!

  17. Conor Says:

    Great post! I know you’re an advocate for making programs individualized but out of curiosity, are there any similarities throughout all of the strength training programs you write?

  18. Aaron Doyle Says:

    Hi Eric,

    You’ve just saved me some time!! Booom!

  19. Eric Cressey Says:

    Absolutely, Conor…loads of them! I talk about some in this old interview I did for Chad Waterbury:


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