Exercise Program Design Fundamentals, Part One

A well-designed training program is crucial for making continued progress both in the short and long term.

However, program design can be a confusing topic with a countless number of articles, tips, techniques, methods and programs to choose from.

In this article, you’ll find clear, simple and powerful guidelines to help you design exercise programs that deliver results without the need for outrageous gimmicks or special fitness fads.

Identify the right quadrant to train in
Adapted from Dan John’s book Intervention.

Back in the 1970s, every month brought a new wave of magazines filled with new tools, programs and movements all guaranteed to change the lives of athletes. We tested a few, laughed at couple and generally kept one or two ideas from all the pulp.

Today, through the internet, new ideas are presented to us virtually every minute. Because of this, most of us are swamped with new training ideas, programs and equipment. This can make it difficult to know what to work on in your training sessions.

To provide clarity, here’s a simple four-part quadrant grid that will help classify you as a trainee and show you what you should be doing in your training.

These quadrants are based on two continuums:

  • The number of qualities an athlete must have to excel at a sport
  • How good an athlete needs to be at each of the those qualities relative to how good any athlete can be at that quality


Quadrant One

A person in Quadrant One should spend the training time trying to pick up as many qualities as possible at a low level. The key to this quadrant is exposure and diversity, not necessarily performance excellence. People training in this quadrant learn the rules, skills and appreciation of games, sports and movement.

Most people only get one shot in life at this quadrant, which makes it a very important stage for future athletic development.

Quadrant Two

This quadrant houses the collision sports and occupations. A lot of qualities are needed, and the level of these qualities is quite high. People who would be classified in this quadrant include football players, rugby players and special forces soldiers.

Most people train in this quadrant, yet few actually should train in this manner.

The very nature of Quadrant Two, with the sheer volume of qualities and the high level of these qualities necessary just to show up, makes it tough to see whether or not a new idea, plan, supplement, program or concept is really making a difference.

Quadrant Three

Most people fall into this quadrant. This will sound odd, but in Quadrant Three, only a few qualities are needed…and at a low level.

Quadrant Three can be further divided into elite athletes, and everyone else.

It may surprise you to see elite athletes in this quadrant. You might ask, “Don’t elite athletes need qualities developed at a high level?”

Let’s take the example of an elite track athlete.

This athlete needs technique and strength. The strength levels are amazing, but not high when compared with someone who just lifts like an elite Olympic lifter.

A Quadrant Three elite athlete may need the absolute strength to deadlift 600 pounds. That’s a pretty big number, but let’s remember the world record is approaching twice that. It’s all relative.

With Quadrant Three athletes, you must understand this: Technical work is strength work; strength is technical. The two qualities flow into and build on each other. Mastery in the weightroom carries over to the ring, which brings knowledge that carries back into the weightroom and then back out to the ring. A strong person you teach to throw the discus or a good thrower you make strong will never throw as far as the thrower who seeks to master both aspects since these complement each other.

People in this quadrant who aren’t elite athletes should be spending the bulk of their time working on two things: hypertrophy—less fat and more muscle— and joint mobility.

Quadrant Four

Here in Quadrant Four, we find the rarest of athletes. These are people who need very few qualities, but at the highest levels of human performance.

Think 100-meter sprinters and Olympic lifters.

More of a visual learner?
Click here to view the Four Quadrants Infographic.

Find your gaps

Adapted from Dan John’s book, Intervention.

Identifying the right quadrant to train in will help you set the right goals and help focus on the right elements in training.

The next step is to find out where you are and where you fall short by using assessments.

There are countless standards and assessments covering mobility, flexibility, strength, power, speed, agility and sports skills. You’ll have to spend some time finding the appropriate standards and assessments for your goals, or those of your clients.

Once you’ve found the right assessments and standards, conduct the assessments, identify weaknesses and address them.

Retest regularly to make sure you’re on the right track.

An important point to remember in all this: What you’re not doing is what you need to do.

The movements you’re ignoring are the things you need to do!

Never ignore the strengths, but combine the time working on strong points, which is everyone’s favorite stuff anyway, with the less favorite, such as mobility, flexibility or tissue-quality work—the foam rolling and all of that.

If you are in Quadrant Three, you can find most of the assessment tools you need in Dan John’s book, Can You Go.

In the book, he goes into each assessment in detail and shows you how to integrate them into the rest of your training program.

To get you started, here are Dan John’s basic strength standards for men and women. These standards cover the five essential movements: push, pull, squat, hinge and loaded carry.

Push Expected = Bodyweight bench pressGame-changer = Bodyweight bench press for 15 reps Game-changer = Bodyweight bench press
Pull Expected = 8–10 pullupsGame-changer = 15 pullups Game-changer = Three pullups
Squat Expected = Bodyweight squatGame-changer = Bodyweight squat for 15 reps Game-changer = 275-pound deadlift
Hinge Expected = Bodyweight to 150% bodyweight deadliftGame-changer = Double-bodyweight deadlift Game-changer = 135 pounds for five in the back squat
Loaded Carry(at least 20m) Expected = Farmer walk with total bodyweight (half per hand)Game-changer = Bodyweight per hand Game-changer = 85 pounds per hand
Getup One left and right, done with a half-filled cup of water

What is meant by ‘expected’ in the standards above? It’s the shoulder-shrugging nod of, “Yes, of course, I can do that.”

An untrained man can often do these standards on the first training session, and someone detrained (he took a few years off to build up some belly fat) might be able to do most of these anyway.

If you can do all six movements at a game-changer level, your concerns are not in the weightroom. 

If you’re dealing with a body fat problem, it’s diet. If you’re failing in sport, it’s technical or tactical, but it isn’t a weightroom issue. You are clearly strong enough and balanced enough to do practically anything.

These are general standards, of course, but the idea is, if you max out one test and fail miserably on the others, it indicates your weakness and your best direction.

Using the FMS to find movement gaps

The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is another great tool you can use to find gaps in your training.

The FMS is a simple but powerful screen of movement quality that takes less than 10 minutes to do.

This following case study, adapted from Alwyn Cosgrove’s section of The Future of Exercise Program Design, is an example of how the FMS can be used to shape the design of a program.

FMS Program Design Case Study, a 51-year-old woman

Before designing a training program, let’s look at the important information gleaned from the intake questionnaire and initial FMS screening.

Personal History

  • Female
  • 51 years old
  • Accountant
  • Taekwondo background, intermediate rank
  • Participated in 5K runs

Medical History

  • Overweight by 20 pounds
  • Other findings normal (vitals, heart rate, etc.), cleared for exercise

Specific Interests and Targets

  • Fat loss
  • Feel better about herself
  • Improve muscle definition
  • Improve posture

Other information

  • Highly motivated, has an important event coming up
  • Has lost weight before
  • Only has two days to work out

In this case, our client is cleared to train. She has no risk factors in her medical history.

So our job now is to help her reach her goals. We have four weeks to deliver the fat-loss results she wants. She doesn’t care about her leg raise improvement. She doesn’t care about her squat looking good. She only cares about getting into her skinny jeans in 28 days.

If the jeans won’t fasten in 28 days, she’ll fire you and tell the whole world your training program didn’t get her the results she wanted.

Looking at her FMS screen results, we see that she’s healthy movement-wise. She has a score of two on all movements and has no asymmetries.

Movement Health (FMS Score Sheet)

  • Total: 14, no asymmetries
  • Deep Squat – 2
  • Hurdle Step – 2
  • In-line Lunge – 2
  • Shoulder Mobility – 2
  • Active Straight Leg Raise – 2
  • Trunk Stability Push-up – 2
  • Rotary Stability – 2

An example program for our client would look something like this:


  • Dynamic Warm-up
  • Core: Plank, Chop & Lift
  • Power: Medicine ball throws, Kettlebell swings
  • Strength
    • Squat – Goblet squat
    • Lunge – Step up, single-leg deadlift
    • Single-Leg Stance – Bodyweight split-squat
    • Hinge – Kettlebell sumo deadlift
    • Push – Pushup, pushup variations
    • Pull – Inverted row
    • Twist – Anti-rotation press
  • Metabolic work

Our client doesn’t have a problem with rolling, so we can select core exercises like the plank and chop and lift. These are great exercise choices for someone of her level.

We choose a split-squat over a dynamic movement like the lunge because she’s a beginner in the weightroom. Moves like overhead lunges would probably be too much to start off with. Remember, you’re here to get her fat-loss results, not to make her exercise moves look awesome.

Push-ups and push-up variations are a great choice for someone of her level.

For pulls, inverted rows using a TRX are a great choice, too.

And finally, we have the anti-rotation press for the twist movement.

This would be an example of a quality program for someone whose movement is healthy.

Let’s now look at how the FMS can inform program design by looking at the case of someone who has issues in movement. Let’s say that her FMS results changed to the following:

Movement Health (FMS Score Sheet)

  • Total: 12, no asymmetries
  • Deep Squat – 1
  • Hurdle Step – 2
  • In-line Lunge – 1
  • Shoulder Mobility – 2
  • Active Straight Leg Raise – 2
  • Trunk Stability Push-up – 2
  • Rotary Stability – 2

The only change is the deep squat and the in-line lunge, both of which have gone from a two to a one score.

Everything else is the same.

The one scores on the deep squat and in-line lunge tell us that our client cannot perform these movements properly and has stabilization issues.

Taking this information, we simply go back to the program we designed before and find what we need to modify according to what her real needs are.

There’s no need to redesign the entire program—and that’s the great thing about using the FMS.

What do we need to change?

Here’s a clue: Our client can’t stabilize on the lunge. She can run a 5K—which is the equivalent of 4,500 short-step lunges—without pain, but she cannot do one regular lunge.

What major muscle group may not be working properly?

Her core? No.

It would be her glutes. Her glutes aren’t firing properly and she’s getting her stability from either her quads and hamstrings or her lower back.

So how do we activate her glutes?

Should we use isolation work? No, because that may not transfer well to dynamic movement.

Should we do glute bridges? That might activate the glutes, but it may not transfer to a standing position.

The answer is to put her in a kneeling position.

If you put her in a tall-kneeling position, the quads are stretched and the hamstrings are short, so neither can provide stability.

You’ll be then able to coach the lower back to get the core and glute firing properly.

Knowing this, we can change the chop-and-lifts to tall-kneeling chop-and-lifts. We do the medicine ball throws from the tall-kneeling position.

We also lighten the load on the split-squat since the lunge is a problem. We change it to an assisted split-squat.

The hinge and the push-up aren’t a problem, so we don’t have to touch them. But for the push movement, we can do tall-kneeling pressing overhead to get in more glute activation.

For the pull movement, we change it to cable rows in half-kneeling and half-kneeling pulldowns.

The anti-rotation press is a great choice to start with, and we make it even better for the client by using a half-kneeling position for the exercise.

We didn’t need to write a completely new program. We just used the FMS results to make small but significant changes that really targeted the movement deficiency in the client.

But how does this help a person lose fat?

The ‘1’ scores on the FMS show the person has muscles that are not firing correctly in basic patterns. This movement deficiency equates to a metabolic deficiency.

By addressing the movement deficiency by improving the ‘1’ score to a ‘2,’ you automatically create a metabolic increase. This means more fat loss in the same amount of time, and a very happy client.

Modified Program

  • Dynamic Warm-up
  • Core: Plank, Chop & Lift
  • Power: Medicine ball tall-kneeling chest-throw, half-kneeling side throw
  • Strength
    • Squat – Goblet squat
    • Lunge – Step-up, single-leg deadlift
    • Single-Leg Stance – Assisted split-squat with the TRX
    • Hinge – Kettlebell sumo deadlift
    • Push – Incline push-ups, tall-kneeling overhead press
    • Pull – Half-kneeling cable row, half-kneeling pulldowns
    • Twist – Anti-rotation press in tall-kneeling
  • Metabolic work

The FMS helps us find the gaps in a client’s training and allows us to make a huge difference in results just by identifying the right tweaks to make.

For more FMS exercise programming case studies

Click here to see the rest of Alwyn’s section in The Future of Exercise Program Design. In The Future of Exercise Program Design, Alwyn Cosgrove, Gray Cook & Lee Burton will show you how to use the FMS to get success with your clients by identifying their weak links and addressing them.

To find out more about the Functional Movement Screen

Click here for a comprehensive infographic on the Functional Movement System.

Or click here to get Gray Cook’s popular Movement book, where he goes in depth into the principles behind the Functional Movement System. He also details the two tools, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and its medical counterpart, the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA).

If you’ve ever thought about implementing the FMS in your own facility, this book is a great resource that you will constantly refer back to.

Divide your training time

Adapted from Dan John’s book, Intervention.

Everyone has limited time to train. It’s important to divide your time wisely to maximize the results. The 80/10/10 rule is a valuable tool you can use when categorizing training time.


Simply spend 80% of your time on training toward your goal.

If your goal is to lose fat, spend 80% of your time on shopping, cooking, measuring, weighing and preparing your food.

If you are a thrower and your goal is to throw farther, spend 80% of your time throwing.

If you’re a basketball player, spend 80% of your time practicing free throws, playing the game and doing basketball drills.

Then divide the remaining 20% of your time equally into strength training and corrective work.

For example, if you have 10 hours a week to train, spend eight of those hours practicing your sport. Spend one hour on strength training and one hour on correctives.

This time division keeps training focused, while providing enough time on strength training and correctives to support the pursuit of the goal.

Make consistent progress with Dan John’s Intervention system

In Intervention, Dan John unpacks the exact system he uses to assess and improve the strength, conditioning and fitness of the people he coaches.

The Intervention system is the result of 35 years experience training and competing as a field athlete, and coaching all kinds of clients from high school students to people looking to lose a few pounds, to older athletes wanting to move without pain, all the way up to professional athletes in the elite categories of sport.

In Intervention you’ll learn just about everything you need about designing a training program, from assessments to rep schemes to exercise selection—all presented as a logical, coherent step-by-step process.

You’ll be finally able to see exactly what you need (and don’t need), and what to do next.

Click here to learn more about Intervention, the book, or Intervention, the DVD.

Work postures before developing a pattern

Any movement pattern is just a dynamic posture. It’s important to ensure that your client can hold a posture before you work to develop a pattern.

When designing a training program, make sure proper posture is developed before doing movement pattern work. This will ensure that your clients are able to walk before they run.

Most people have poor posture due to thoracic and hip mobility issues, often caused by too much sitting. A great way to remedy this is the tall-kneeling position. This takes away use of the knees and ankles in the movement, and forces people to relearn how use the thoracic spine and hips.

Gray Cook and Dan John discuss this in the following video.

Drills to develop postures and patterns

In Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums, Gray Cook and Dan John show drills you can use to develop postures and patterns.

They also explain how to use the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) results to categorize training priorities. Some of what they cover include:

  • Exercise choices for power, work capacity and metabolic load
  • How to evaluate movement health, competency, capacity and complexity
  • The difference between an exercise continuum and a training progression
  • Minimum standards to progress, hold or regress

If you’re wondering about which areas to work on, or how or when to progress or regress certain exercises, you’ll find Essentials of Coaching and Training Functional Continuums a great resource for designing exercise programs.

Stay Tuned for Part Two

In Part Two of Exercise Program Design Fundamentals, you’ll learn about the fundamental human movements, programming sets and reps, and the place of corrective exercise in your training programs and warm-ups.


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