Home Blog Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding

Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding

Written on February 1, 2011 at 1:29 pm, by Eric Cressey

Can I just add some sets and reps of direct arm work?

How about cardio?  Would a few 30 minutes interval training sessions work?

What if I did extra rotator cuff stuff every day?  Just a little tubing, you know?

I’m going to add two extra days of calves, abs, and forearms.  It shouldn’t be a problem, right?

These are just a few of the common questions I receive from people for whom I write strength training programs (plus all the other components of a comprehensive program).  And, it's these kind of questions that make me appreciate just how challenging it is to teach someone how to effectively write strength and conditioning programs - and why everyone gets all flustered when they first start writing training plans.


Very simply, most people don't understand the concept of competing demands.  Everybody wants to add something to their weight training program - but not everyone is willing to take something away in order to do so.

How many elite powerlifters or Olympic lifters do you know who regularly do interval training as part of their quest to get strong?

How many elite triathletes do you know who just want to add a few sets of biceps curls along the road to improving endurance performance?

The answer is, of course, none.  And, it's because - whether they appreciated it or not - these high-level athletes were effectively managing competing demands.

In some cases, different fitness qualities compete with one another; an example would be extensive aerobic training while trying to increase strength.  You can't get strong quickly if you're doing hours of cardio each week.  Somewhat similarly, in an overhead throwing population, it's challenging to regain shoulder internal rotation and flexion range of motion (ROM) and pec minor length when an athlete is throwing - so you have to do your best to get the ROM during down-time in their training year.

In other cases, you may have multiple qualities that contribute to an overall training effect, but you can't prioritize all of them at once.  For example, my professional baseball clients need a host of different qualities to be successful, but the body has limited recovery capacity, so their training programs have to target their most readily apparent weaknesses - and do so at the right time of year.  We cut back on the medicine ball and upper body strength exercises and volume when their throwing volume increases.

And, we can't do as much lower body strength exercises when guys are doing more sprinting and change-of-direction work.  Stress is stress, so you have to apply it judiciously.

Taking this into consideration, I think that one of the best drills for someone looking to get better at writing programs is to take a full-on comprehensive weight training program with supplemental conditioning/movement training where someone is training 6x/week - and then cut it back to 3x/week.  Assume that there is a whole lot of of "other" stress in this athlete/client's life - whether it's work, illness, family issues, or just being an in-season athlete - and figure out how to scale a program back in order to make it productive and safe for that individual.

Lots of factors have to be taken into account: the volume and intensity that individual can handle, how long each session can last, and what specific factors one needs to address most.  A good example to check out would be the differences between the 4x/week, 3x/week, and 2x/week weight training programs (and accompanying optional supplemental sessions) in The High Performance Handbook.


There are loads of factors you have to take into account when you write a comprehensive training plan - from the weight training program, to soft tissue work, to mobility work, to movement training, to energy systems training.  The most important consideration, though, is how they all fit together synergistically to make the program as a whole effective.

So, try the challenge I listed above and see how you do; I think you'll find that it's a lot harder to subtract than it is to add to your weight training programs.

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19 Responses to “Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding”

  1. Richard Bell Says:

    This article is right on point, as I always add and drop certains things from my clients training programs every 3rd or 4th week. I do this with all clients wheather they’re an athlete or not.



  2. R. Smith Says:


    How apropos that you write this blog now. I remember you telling me back in Dec. 2009 that I can\’t have everything at once.
    Each month I\’ve set different goals (e.g., additional horizontal pulling, more closed-chain upper body movements), and that has worked well. It has kept me from having training ADD and enhanced my ability to see a task through to completion.

    However, it was just THIS WEEK–yesterday, in fact–that I realized the need to do LESS, not more, when it comes to interval work. I could feel that my body was not adequately recovering from the 4x week TUOS training manual program I\’ve been using.

    Just more Cressey Magic 🙂


  3. Clement Says:

    It’s really interesting that you would write about this, as I have been struggling to add conditioning into my routine.

    I’m doing Nate Green’s Built For Show programme am in his Fall season workouts. It alternates between an upper and lower body workout and conditioning of any form is not prescribed as the focus is on gaining strength and size.

    However, I also am a Sunday League soccer player and you know that we need our shuttle drills, aerobic intervals and speed work to stay sharp.

    When, in your experience, have you found it best to add these conditioning sessions in?

    I’m thinking of performing two 30min conditioning sessions on top of my 3 workouts per week.

  4. joseph Says:

    Organizing a program…man

  5. Tavis Says:

    @Clement: I think you missed the point of the article dude.

    I think what Eric’s trying to say is that you can’t have it all at once. Based on what you’ve written you have two conflicting goals: improving muscle strength/hypertrophy and optimizing aerobic capacity. You can’t always have the best of both worlds.

    In your case it would be best to assess your current priorities. If building a bad-ass physique and some strength to boot is what you’re looking for then stick to what Nate prescribes in “Built for Show”. Otherwise, if maintaining strength while optimizing your preparedness for Sunday games is most important to you then perhaps you need to adjust your current program to suit those needs.

    Where you add you must subtract… so to speak. Just my two cents!

  6. Tania Says:

    Excellent…as always! Thanks Eric.

  7. Jimmy Lamour Says:

    I agree with Eric. This is where most people go wrong. They think adding more is always the solution, but sometimes do not take into consideration what their immediate goals are. They also do not consider what exercises will best help them accomplish that goal. The older I get the more I realize that I have to make mobility, health a priority, while gradually increasing strength. For instance, I knew that I would be playing a flag football game, so I made sure not to do any cardio,high rep training, or lactic acid training the day before. Examine than prescribe. Nice work Eric.

  8. Jim Bathurst Says:

    Was reading up on Ivan Abadjiev today. There’s a legendary coach. When he started training the Bulgarian team, they were doing 19 exercises in their training. He eventually dropped that down to 5. Ultimate specificity.

  9. chris lesage Says:

    Hi Eric I am a personal trainer and have used your max strength routine for myself and some of my clients thankyou for all the helpful tips you placed on your website I have learned alot from you and mike boyle your two of my favorites I have a question for you I have played alot of jumping sports when I squat or lunge my knee hurts just to touch the top of my patella any more their is pain my left knee turns inward real bad during wall ankle mobilization is their any advice you could give to me thanks

  10. Jose Lopez Says:

    “Can I just add some direct arm work?”

    I love this line. After completing the show and go workouts properly, the last thing I want to do are bicep curls. I wasn’t completely exhausted but I felt like I wasn’t wasting any time in the gym.

  11. Clement Says:

    Thanks, Tavis.

    My goal is to look like a badass and move like a badass. And I’m not going to continuously add more and more conditioning in.

    I just have at the most 2 sessions of conditioning for half and hour each, including the warm-up. It may be as little as 10 repeats of 100m sprints or basketball suicides.

    It’s not going to be 3×1.2km@4.5min each with 5min rest runs every single session, or as intensive as last year, when I was in my college soccer team.

  12. Jumping for Fitness Says:

    Interesting info – I am not a personal trainer, but I am my own trainer when it comes to fitness and my body, so I like to know these uncommon fitness tips so that I can apply it to my own workout regiment.

  13. Christer Says:

    I wrote something similar on my blog a while back. It is so hard to get people to understand this. I have a lot of “weekend warrior” guys who want to get strong, yet they insist on doing spinning class after spinning class, or endless running in addition. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I harp on about how they have to make up their minds if they want to get somewhere, because they worry too much about losing qualities they’ve created or simply about getting fat. Convincing them that this will only happen to a small degree if you train those qualities a little for maintenance is very hard. It actually seems to be one of the more difficult psychological hurdles people face. And yet the real world solutions are so simple.

  14. Glynn Loeb Says:

    After years of over-training (running, swimming, cycling and lifting); I’m FINALLY at a training level that is reasonable. I”subtracted” a lot and am in better shape, aerobically and strength-wise, than ever!

  15. Conor Says:

    Great article Eric,
    I’ve just started working with my first groups of clients, a highly ranked midget hockey team up here in Northern Ontario. Our area doesn’t provide the most opportunities for working with trainers, so I’m trying to become “that guy” here. My clients practice up to 3 times per week as a team and usually play on weekends, so I’m trying to focus purely on strength since they get so much aerobic and anaerobic conditioning during the week. Any advice or constructive criticism as I’m currently only working with them twice a week for an hour each time?

  16. Joseph Cohen Says:

    This advice is simple yet very effective.

    I used to be a long distance runner before becoming a personal trainier. Reading maximum strength it changed my outlook on training completely. I now limit conditioning sessions to either one circuit or SAQ session a week as I sometimes play football. The most important thing is that I still feel strong and fresh in matches not burnt out!!

    There are also exercises I love such as, single leg straight bb deads, but it doesn’t mean you have to include them in every programme.

    Thanks as always Eric

  17. Laurie Burns Says:

    Eric, as a newbie 800m sprinter after being solely a long distance runner, our weight conditioning training is sport specific. We are definitely doing less than I used to, and its hard to not add those old hammer curls, etc there. You have to look at the benefit that each exercise does-the complex ones like squatting also benefit the core. Those are the best! I had to get used to going to a 2 to 3 (more stretching this day) day a week lifting routine and not running as many miles. Plus I can only do two days at the most on the track. This 57 year old body can do anything for years to come if I keep reexamining and adjusting my schedule.

  18. John Says:

    I have to say I did this when I first started out as a strength coach, I wanted everything. I realized real fast it wasn’t going to work. At times I still find myself doing a little when I program. I throw in everything then scale back to fit the needs of current athletes/time of year.
    It seems simple, the less is more, but almost everyone wants to add in more and more.

  19. Adam L Says:

    @Laurie, I had a similar experience as an 800m runner in college, except it was about understanding the difference between training like an athlete vs. training like a body builder (nothing wrong with that, unless you’re running 65miles a week including 2-3 hard interval days!!!). I was doing lots of extraneous assistive work. That’s just how I had originally learned to work out so I didn’t know any better, till one day my trainer buddy breaks it down for me.
    So I went from a dozen or so exercises each gym session to about 3, without including core work. So no more leg curls, leg extensions, calf raises, etc. Just Power Cleans & Squats; sometimes lunges. No more arm curls, cable flys, tricep extensions, etc. Just Bench Press, Overhead Press & Weighted Pullups; sometimes dips &/or rows.
    I immediately got much stronger and much faster at the same time. Around 205# Bench (25# + increase in a few weeks), while running 800m consistently at or below 2:00. Neither of those marks are the stuff of legend, but it was huge for me and certainly a compelling anecdote in support of that old adage “Less is More”.

    Thanks for the re-reminder, Eric!

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