How Strength Coaches Build Training Programs

STACK Expert Joe Lopez explains how he designs specific training programs for athletes.

One of the questions I often get asked is, How do I create strength programs for my athletes? Most people don't understand how much effort goes into writing long-term strength programs. There are many factors to consider, including each athlete's individual needs and the latest research and trends in the industry.

One of my favorite quotes is: "Anyone can make you tired. A strength & conditioning coach teaches movement and improves performance." This article discusses exactly what goes into building a program for an athlete. Learning how strength coaches approach training will help you understand why workouts call for certain things. Maybe one day you'll be able to modify a program to fit your needs, or even make your own workouts.

RELATED: How to Design Strength and Conditioning Programs for Youth Athletes

What sport and position do you play?

This is a crucial threshold question. It doesn't so much determine what exercises you will do as which ones you should avoid. For example, I won't prescribe Barbell Overhead Presses (or other exercises that might cause shoulder issues) to an overhead-throwing athlete such as a baseball pitcher, volleyball player or swimmer.

We also look at the metabolic demands of the sport. A wide receiver needs to condition differently from a lineman. If you gave them the same workout, the receiver would get slower and the lineman would get weaker. They need to conditioning their anaerobic and aerobic energy systems like they're used on the field.

It all comes down to the functional application of the program. A football lineman doesn't need to run two miles, and a cross country runner doesn't need to work on his 1 Rep Max Squat. Each athlete has different needs, and they must be addressed when creating a program.

RELATED: Baseball Exercises: Should You Lift Overhead?

Think about the Individual

I evaluate every athlete who steps through my door—whether in a formal evaluation before training starts or just by watching him complete a dynamic warm-up. Movement quality is so important, not just for injury prevention, but also for growth within training. Poor movement quality can result from an injury not quite healed or from years of poor movement patterns.

I try to correct issues before overloading a movement pattern with weight. If an athlete can't get his or her shoulders fully flexed overhead, I would not have him/her do heavy Shoulder Presses. An athlete with a poor movement pattern probably won't be able to execute a dynamic and coordinated movement in that pattern under load anyway. This is called muscular inhibition. The brain simply won't allow the body to put itself at risk of injury.

The second part of the evaluation involves athleticism. Is the athlete strong? Quick? Explosive? My general rule of thumb is to attack weaknesses with training. For a strong kid who has heavy feet, I would program a lot of speed drills and a lot of plyometrics. For a kid who can run all day and has a high motor, I would train for strength.

RELATED: Why You Should Get a Functional Movement Screen

Exercise Sequence

I always start with a thorough and lengthy warm-up that includes dynamic movements, injury prevention drills, and core and glute activation exercises. Then I have the athlete work on corrective exercises, if any are needed, such as specific mobility or flexibility work geared to the individual. Finally I almost always have the athlete perform a core lift.

I believe the Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift comprise every athlete's foundation for strength. In 90% of my programs, the athlete first does one of those exercises (or a variation) for multiple sets of 4 or 5 reps. If the athlete is doing an Olympic lift, I may substitute it for one of these core lifts, although some athletes are just starting to learn Olympic lifting skills and others don't Olympic lift at all.

The first core lift is the only one where I have the athlete complete all sets without starting another exercise. I think this sets the tone for how important this is and requires the athlete's full attention.

I also try to incorporate all the basic movement patterns into my programs. I believe that for a complete strength training program, you need to incorporate Squats, Presses, Pulls, Hip Hinges and Carries in more or less equal doses. This creates a balanced athlete with total strength, and it makes him/her less likely to get hurt.

After the initial core lift, all of my strength training is usually done in circuits, which may include a mix of strength training, conditioning, skill work and mobility.

In order to avoid fatiguing the athlete for strength training, I often save high intensity work for the end of the workout. If I program a high-intensity interval of Wall Balls and Burpees, or if I have an athlete push a sled, I make sure they are done toward the end of the workout. I save my core and abs work for when I want a programmed break to help the athlete recover and catch his/her breath. Sometimes this is in the middle; sometimes it goes last. At the end of of the workout, I have the athlete foam roll and static stretch for at least 10 minutes.


Traditionally, strength & conditioning coaches are taught to make sure their athletes peak in time for their season by following a linear periodization model that looks something like this:

  • General Prep period, when the athlete is introduced to the basics and performs a mix of strength training while getting re-acclimated to training.
  • Hypertrophy / endurance phase (3-6 weeks), when the athlete performs 3-6 sets of 10-20 reps at 50-75% of his/her one rep max.
  • Basic strength phase, when the athlete performs 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps at 80-90% of his/her one rep max.
  • Strength and power phase, when the athlete performs 3-5 sets of 2-5 at 75-95% of his/her one rep max.
  • Transition period (pre-season just before peaking), when the athlete performs 1-3 sets of 1-3 reps at 93% of his/her one rep max and above.
  • In-season, the athlete would do maintenance work consisting of 2-3 sets of 6-8 at 80-85% of his/her  one rep max.
  • Another transition period of active rest during the post-season.

This sounds all well and good for training a one-sport athlete with a training age of at least two years, no movement deficiencies and lots of free time to dedicate to training. However, that is not often the case.

An athlete new to strength training, no matter his or her chronological age, might be better served in a general prep period for almost a full year. Within the first two years of training, I often program a less traditional nonlinear approach. I use the same phases as the linear approach, but I change them from week to week. The non-linear approach, instead of building toward a season, has the athlete going up and down throughout.

For example, one week the athlete could be in a strength power phase, and the next week in a hypertrophy/endurance phase. This non-linear approach lets athletes deload from time to time, allowing for active recovery, which might be necessary for an athlete who is new to training. Research suggests that non-linear training programs are effective, but more research is needed. You can work your way up to a peak with a non-linear approach, because your peaking and transition periods would be written into your program.

If you want to find a coach who uses scientific principles and practical information, and who has the experience to create a comprehensive workout program for you, come see us at Inception Sports Performance in Madison, N.J., or go to and find a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist in your area.

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