Exercise Program Design Fundamentals, Part Two

In Exercise Program Design Fundamentals, Part 1, you learned what to focus on in your training using Dan John’s Four Quadrants. You also learned the importance of finding your gaps and saw how the FMS could be used to shape a training program and attack weaknesses. You learned how to divide your limited training time up wisely and learned the importance of developing static postures before working on dynamic movement patterns.

In part 2, you will learn about the fundamental human movements, how to program sets and reps correctly, the place of corrective exercise and warm ups.

By the end, you should have a solid foundation for creating an effective training program that is able to deliver great and consistent results.

Work on the fundamental human movements

Adapted from Dan John’s book Intervention.

Some people design training programs around body parts. A good alternative to this is to design programs around the fundamental human movements. This approach treats the body as one piece and keeps the focus not on muscles, but their functional by-product: movement.

Using this approach, you can divide exercises into the following categories:

  • Upper body push, like bench press and push-ups
  • Upper body pull, like rows and pullups
  • Hinge, like deadlifts, good mornings or kettlebell swings
  • Squat, like front squats, back squats or goblet squats
  • Loaded carry, like a farmer’s walk
  • Everything else, like single-leg exercises, Turkish getups and core exercises

The goal of any training program should be to get stronger in these movements. Almost universally, getting stronger in the fundamental human movements is going to help with your goals, whether they be fat loss, hypertrophy or improved sports performance.

Of course, there can be such a thing as too much when it comes to strength, so you’ll have to refer back to the standards appropriate for your goals to determine when ‘enough is enough.’ The truth, however, is that most people never even get close to ‘enough.’

Let’s look at the human movements in more detail.


When we first talk to a client, we ask about training background.

With rare exception, the following is the first statement—My best bench is (insert amount).

After hearing literally dozens of people sum up their training with a bench press number, we see that of all the basic human movements—push, pull, hinge, squat and loaded carry—the last thing we should worry about is the push.


Sadly, most people spend too much time on horizontal pressing movements and ignore horizontal rowing. This leaves us with athletes who have their shoulders rolled forward, necks craned ahead and shallow chests. Not only does it look old and morbid, it really impacts athletic success.

The amazing thing is there isn’t anything easier to fix.

Now, people say all the time, “Hey, I do rows!”

Sadly, most people row in a way so dynamic that Olympic lifts seems slow in comparison. Doing rows too quickly not only puts the biceps and lower back at risk of injury, it also fails to work the key pulling muscle: the rhomboid.

The rhomboid retracts the shoulder blades, rolls the shoulders back, pulls the neck up and pushes out the chest.

If your clients want to look younger, start working the rhomboids. You can add years to their training and take years off their postures.

The Hip Hinge

The hinge is the single most powerful thing we can do, yet most people don’t know how to do it properly.

Heavy deadlifts will help develop the strength foundation we need to develop other athletic qualities.

Dynamic hip-hinge movements like the kettlebell swing can help develop explosive lower body power needed for sports, while also doing wonders for fat loss.

Swings are the most under-appreciated move in life, in sport and in the gym. Yet, many people feel back pain when trying to do them.

The reason why swings hurt people’s backs is because they’re not doing them correctly.

They bend their knees too much and try to squat the weight.

Bending the knees on the swing causes the kettlebell to go too low, which then directs all the force towards the lower back.

If swings are hurting your back, ensure that you have maximum hip movement and minimal knee bend.

The Squat

[Dan writes] Years ago, faced with four hundred athletes who couldn’t squat correctly, I attempted to teach the squat, move after move, lift after lift.

I failed each and every time.

I saw glimmers of hope from teaching one kid the Zercher squat, and a few picked up the pattern when we lifted kettlebells off the ground by the ball, called potato sack squats since they look like picking up a sack of potatoes off the ground. But nothing was really working.

Somewhere between a Zercher and a potato squat was the answer.

It came to me when I was resting between swings with the weight held in front of me like I was holding the Holy Grail. I squatted down from there, pushed my knees out with my elbows and, behold, the goblet squat!

Yes, the squat is that easy. It’s a basic human movement and you just have to be reminded how to do it.

Squats can do more for total mass and body strength than probably all the other lifts combined. However, doing them wrong can do more damage than probably all the other moves, too.

Start simple. Find a place where no one is watching and squat down. At the bottom, the deepest you can go, push your knees out with your elbows.

Relax and go a bit deeper. Your feet should be flat on the floor. For the bulk of the population, this small movement—driving their knees out with the elbows—will simplify squatting forever.

Next, try this little drill. Stand arms length from a door knob. Grab the handle with both hands and get your chest up.

Imagine being on a California beach when a swimsuit model walks by. When I have a guy do this, immediately he puffs up his chest, which tightens the lower back and locks the whole upper body. The lats naturally spread a bit and the shoulders come back a little.

Now, lower yourself down.

What people discover at this instant is a basic physiological fact. The legs are not stuck like stilts under the torso. Rather, the torso is slung between the legs. As you go down, leaning back with straight arms, you’ll discover one of the true keys of lifting—

You squat between your legs. You do not fold and unfold like an accordion—you sink between your legs.

Loaded Carries

In my career of coaching and lifting, nothing in my toolbox has been a game-changer like loaded carries.

A few years ago, I worked with a guy named Ted (not really, but you get the idea). Ted’s issue was interesting: He was a fairly solid powerlifter (bench press, squat and deadlift), and very good at the two Olympic lifts—the snatch and the clean & jerk.

When he came to visit with me for advice, there wasn’t a ton I could help with in the weightroom. A point here and an idea there, and I was pretty much finished. So, being finished, we went outside to do what some people used to call a finisher.

“Would you rather do carries, walks or sleds?” I asked.

“I’ve never done any of that kind of thing.”

Good, I thought. I can help.

Within seconds of his first attempt with the farmer bars weighing 105 pounds each, he was like a stumbling drunk.

He could pull hundreds of pounds off the floor, but didn’t have the stability—the cross-strength—to handle more than a few feet with the bars.

We tried a heavy carry, and he was gasping for breath by having to squeeze the 150-pound bag so he could move. Literally, his human inner tube had almost no range past five seconds.

A few weeks later, I answer the phone, “Dan, you’re a genius. My deadlift has gone up (low 500s to high 500s) and I am just thicker all over.”

If you aren’t putting loaded carries in your program, chances are, you’re missing out on a lot.

Master the fundamental movements

In Intervention, Dan John gives you an effective 4-stage teaching progression for each of the fundamental human movements. This teaching progression will help you master these movements faster or help you address certain weak spots.

Click here to find out more about Intervention.

Program realistic reps

Adapted from Dan John’s book Intervention.

Here are the program design process in a nutshell.

  1. Determine which postures and patterns to do (what exercises)
  2. Determine the number of movements to be done (sets and reps)
  3. Determine the load to use on the movements (what weight)

When it comes to designing a strength training program, you first need to establish the correct postures and patterns. After that you should figure out a reasonable number of sets and reps to do for each movement. And only after those have all been sorted, should you look at the load.

Most people end up doing the reverse. They focus too much on lifting more weight at the expense of good form and overall movement quality.

Reducing the weight on the bar or spending more time working on the movements we’re weak at is never fun. But these are often the things we need to do to continue to make progress and to stay safe.

So the question remains, how many sets and reps should you do of a particular exercise?

What’s a reasonable number to program that will still yield good gains?

Here are some guidelines that have stood the test of time.

The Rule of 10

The rule of 10 is a handy guideline for the following exercises.

  • Push (for advanced trainees): Bench press, incline press and military press with a barbell
  • Pull (for advanced trainees): Rows with a barbell
  • Hinge: Deadlift, deadlift variations, cleans, snatches with a barbell
  • Squats (for advanced trainees): Front squats or back squats with a barbell
  • Loaded Carries: Farmer walks, prowlers, car pushes—heavy loads and short durations
  • Whole body: Turkish getup, snatch, clean and jerk

The rule of 10 simply means to program 10 or fewer reps per training session. You can organize this into different rep and set schemes, like—

  • Three sets of three
  • Five sets of two
  • Two sets of five
  • Five-three-two
  • Six to 10 singles

You’ll find these set and rep schemes in many training programs.

Picking a rule-of-10 lift and going heavy on the basics works, but you need to build in some easy days and cycle the load.

If attempting to do a workout with nothing but the rule of 10, be sure a few of the movements are relatively light and easy.

The Bodybuilding Movements (Half-Body Moves)

For half-body moves, 15-25 total reps is a good guideline and provides enough volume while keeping the weight challenging.

The basic moves, including nearly all the presses, are best done in this range. The goblet squat seems be perfect around 15-25 reps per workout. If you’re benching 600 and military pressing 300 or 400 pounds, refer to the rule of 10.

Patterns and The Explosive Kettlebell Lifts

If you want to work on the fundamental movement patterns with a light or no load, or to do explosive kettlebell lifts like the swing, a total of 75-250 reps works well.

Just make sure you ensure quality of movement for every single one of these reps. Ten good reps is far better than dozens of crappy ones. If you’re finding that form is breaking down after 10-20 reps, simply break it up into more sets to get the volume you need without sacrificing movement quality.

When in doubt, err for less. You can always aim to increase the number of reps over time.

The Place of Corrective Exercises

Adapted from Dan John’s book Intervention.

Following the 80/10/10 rule, 10% of your training time should be focused on getting stronger. The other 10% of your time should be spent on correctives.

Here’s the issue with correctives: Most people think correctives are simply strange-looking exercises.

Yes, they can be. But correctives can also include moves that you’ve simply never done, or have neglected. For example, if you’ve never done a loaded carry, farmer walks would be a corrective.

They also don’t need to consume the whole workout. If you’re doing sets of bench presses, you can slide correctives between sets.

You can also put correctives in your warm-up. Some movements, like the goblet squat, swings and getup, serve as great correctives for many people. If you’re learning the squat, a set of goblet squats between a set of military presses is quite instructive. It develops the pattern, certainly, but it also provides some extra time to master the movement.

If you give this a try, you’ll be amazed at the simplicity of this game-changing tweak.

And of course, correctives can include specialized mobility work like we those find in the Functional Movement System’s library of movements. These can include foam rolling and general flexibility work, too. Instead of resting between sets, you’re actively battling your issues.

For most people, training with a 1:2 ratio in volume for the push and pull is a good idea. Many people ignore pulling and have issues with posture and shoulders. Increasing the volume ratio of the pull helps with this.

People often think of corrective exercise as unimportant, unchallenging stuff. Don’t let them deceive you. though If you do the right correctives properly, they can often cause more sweating and exhaustion than the actual training, and also allow you to get much more work into a training session.

Correct Exercise Versus Corrective Exercise

It’s also important to keep in mind the idea that corrective exercise is supplemental. Far more thought should be put into designing a program that maintains movement quality.

Injuries and imbalance will always be present, so correctives will almost always be a part of any program.

However, prescribing the right exercises, emphasizing proper form and keeping a reasonable load on the bar will go far in maintaining movement quality and minimizing the need for corrective exercises.

When it comes to corrective exercise, prevention really is better than cure.

Build Your Corrective Toolbox

For those wanting to dive deep into corrective strategies, Gray Cook’s Movement is a detailed and comprehensive resource.

In this book you’ll be taught a system that provides a standard operating procedure and a common language for movement-pattern screening, assessment and correction in fitness and rehabilitation. It will allow you to better identify potential risks, and to create better rehabilitation and exercise programs based on each person’s unique movement profile.

Here’s some of what you’ll learn to help build your corrective toolbox:

  • How to increase the difficulty of a corrective exercise without increasing resistance
  • The Six Ps: a simple checklist to help you make the right corrective exercise decision for your patient or client
  • Corrective strategy for special populations—corrective strategy considerations for those under medical care, the severely deconditioned, weight-loss patients, athletes, young and old
  • Passive, active and assisted stability and mobility corrections
  • Corrections for fundamental stability, static stability and dynamic stability
  • Examples of stability corrections to improve postural control—using the half-kneeling, single-leg stance, quadruped, and single-leg deadlift positions as corrective exercises
  • Advanced corrective strategies: what to do when someone has the required mobility and stability, but still can’t perform a movement pattern. Reverse patterning, reactive neuromuscular training, conscious loading and resisted exercise examples.

Click here to learn more about Gray Cook’s Movement book.


Adapted from Dan John’s book Intervention.

A common problem when it comes to designing a strength training program is that the warm-up doesn’t actually prepare a person for the actual workout.

The warm-up is ‘X’ and the workout is ‘Y.’

The warm-up and the workout should blend into one another. They should be seamless.

You want your warm-up to support all of the other stuff you’re going to be doing in your

Warm-ups are also a great place to add some correctives or to work on weaknesses. If you’re at a point in your life where you can’t press for fear of injury, do some extra push-ups and planks in the warm-up. If today’s not a bench press day, do some extra push-ups in the warm-up.

The idea of the warmup is to move through all the basic human movements, to lubricate the joints with strength exercises, mobility and flexibility movements, and to challenge the cardiovascular system a little.

It’s a method that addresses the ‘lean’ part of lean body mass, and provides an easy way to work on joint mobility.

Here’s a warm-up I did with a weekly workout group at a local park. It requires just one kettlebell per person.

Dan John’s Simple Group Warm-Up

  • Waiter walk with the non-dominant hand, then turn and return with it
  • Repeat the walk with dominant hand
  • Bottoms-up press walk as far as you can, switch hands and return
  • Goblet squat, get into the bottom position and then add a few curls
  • Hip flexor stretch followed by a cross-body lower back stretch, then a variation of the windmill, pushing the heart to the sky
  • Goblet squat
  • Hip flexor stretch followed by a cross-body lower back stretch, then a variation of the windmill, pushing the heart to the sky
  • Various wrist mobility moves
  • Can-opener stretch for the piriformis and QL
  • Tactical frog stretch
  • Scap push-ups, what we used to call horizontal shrugs
  • Downward dog pose, and then move through it
  • Dolphin pose, and then move through it

If you want to make this harder, do a set of 10-20 swings after each movement.

Share Your Exercise Program Design Insights

If you have exercise program design insights or tips you’d like to share with others, write it in the comments below!


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