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5 Limitations of Fitness Programming - And How To Overcome Them

Ever gone to the gym and just done whatever you feel like doing? Yes? Me too! But that was way back before I achieved any results - and that was part of why I didn't achieve any. My training took on a 'hit and hope' or 'spray and pray' approach, and it was very ineffective. The problem always comes down to progression. To achieve results from your fitness endeavors, you must be following a progressive program. A program that increases in intensity, volume or frequency - in a sustainable way, long term - is the only way to compound adaptations so changes continually manifest, either in body composition and/or performance. Seems simple right? Far from it. Enter 'Fitness Programming'. Specific exercises, weights, sets, reps, tempos, range of movement performed with a specific intensity, volume and frequency.

While programming is an incredibly effective way to quantify, measure or govern our training, it can all get a bit confusing or worse... distracting. It would be foolish to go back to the stone age and train just on intuition, without having precise goals or aims, but we can certainly use more of our innate intuitive instincts to help us stay in the moment, and not be unwittingly controlled by the numbers on our program. See below for a few ways fitness programming limits us when it comes to achieving the very best results.

1. Gym Equipment

Gyms are equipped according to the clientele they cater to, as well as the kind of results they want. Leisure centers will have some standard resistance machines, with the main bulk of their equipment being cardio machines. The demographic is 'general population' who aren't interested in other forms of exercise. Super clubs will tend to have a huge range of equipment like weights, resistance and cardio machines as well as tracks, studios and funky monkey bar stuff, but no hyper specialised areas. A good bodybuilding gym will have many variations of exercises available with their equipment, which is usually specialised for isolating a select muscle group. It's a niche environment for niche results. How can we ever quantify/measure our training in each of these gyms? A machine in a bodybuilding gym might isolate a muscle group more intensely than a piece of equipment in a leisure center - and that will impact how much you should be exploiting that exercise. Different equipment will limit our exploitation in this manner so we should use our intuition to determine what is challenging and what isn't - despite what the program says.

2. Numbers

Mathematics is the language of the universe - we get it - but numbers alone do not tell the entire story of the Human experience. Just because your program says 8-12 reps it doesn't mean that's all that's required of you. What is required for continued progression is intensity, not a specific amount of reps. 12 reps of easy training never changed anyone long term. Instead of using numbers to determine outcome, use them as a guide to aim at while prioritising absolute exhaustion of the target muscle/ body system, whatever rep range or weight that might end up being. In other words, don't stop at 12 if you can do more and lower that damn weight if it's too heavy (either in general or on the day). That way you train much more in the moment, rather than having a 'special' number in your head all the time. This will ensure an effective workout every single session, even when you're having a bad day and not hitting your 'usual numbers' - which we all have every now and then.

3. Rate of Perceived Exertion

RPE - 'Rate of Perceived Exertion,' is a self diagnostic tool for measuring how exhausted you are. It's one of the few attempts to include intuition into training, albeit inaccurately. You simply decide for yourself a rating out of 10, usually overestimating your feelings of exhaustion. In reality, you're probably capable of much more exertion than you think, especially if it's targeted. In the 'programming' world, you don't spend too much time above 8 out of 10, which is ambiguous at best. 8 out of 10 is different for everybody and likely not pushing the threshold for adaptation. The trouble is that RPE instills the belief that sweating and breathing hard means you're training effectively - without the need of pushing to the absolute limit (e.g. 10 out of 10 RPE). It's better to ignore RPE all together and define the session in a different way. Think of the phrase 'Stimulate don't annihilate,' meaning; exhaust the target muscle/body system completely, instead of stimulating the target system just to induce sweat and heavy breathing.

4. Phases and Periodisation

Phasing and periodisation might be 2-3 months of strength training, followed by 2-3 months of power training, followed by a period of hypertrophy specific training. This tends to be the approach for most sport conditioning programs. Bodybuilding might adopt a similar structure but periodise changes in volume, frequency and intensity for muscle growth, instead of performance goals. How periodisation limits the athlete is via the individual's propensity for adaptations within each phase and the rate these adaptations manifest. Changing the stimulus when the athlete is still on an upward curve may stunt long term adaptations. They may need longer to accumulate adaptations or excel in a training system they're dragged away from. One good thing about phasing is that it ensures a change in stimulus, which is vital for long term progress. Conversely, a change in stimulus without an increase in intensity is not going to be as beneficial as an increase in intensity on the current program. As the saying goes, if it feels good, stick with it!

5. Pre-programmed Maximal Recoverable Volume

Muscle groups respond and recover differently from one another so you can see how a rigid amount of volume on a program can impact adaptation negatively. Everyone's maximal recoverable volume is different, and depending on how much a muscle has been stimulated, recovery times can alter quite a lot even from week to week. A rigid plan is worlds better than no plan at all, but why restrict yourself to the program when you can recover from more stimulus? Part of it of course is tempering over-reaching; there's no point in training super high volume today when it could prevent you from training hard tomorrow. But after a while on a program you should notice which muscles/systems are responding the best, those are probably nearer to matching volume with recovery on your program than the others. Consider changing the volume of non-responding muscle groups, you could be doing too much or too little - use your intuition to rewrite your program 'on-the-fly' to exploit recovery as much as possible. If you can't recover, you're over-reaching.


1. All equipment is not created equal. It's up to you to exploit the equipment to maximum effect!

2. Let numbers guide you but priotise exhausting the target muscle/ body system above numbers!

3. Sweat means nothing, Stimulate Don't Annihilate!

4. Don't try to predict adaptations ahead of time, if it feels good just ride the wave!

5. The sliding scale of your own maximal recoverable volume requires intuitive on-the-fly changes!

Thank You For Reading!

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