Strength Training Programs: 10 Factors to Determine Which is Best for Your Athletes

With access to the internet, there are a lot of programs out there that can seem overwhelming to choose from when deciding what’s best for your athletes. There’s Conjugate training, Triphasic training, APRE training, Velocity-based Training (VBT), 5/3/1, 1×20, undulated periodization, linear periodization, block periodization, Texas Method, and even your classic Bro-Splits/body part splits. Point is, there are a lot of different ways to train your athletes, but which is the best one for them? That’s what we are here to find out!

The Answer: It Depends

If you have been asking your peers questions about training, exercises, periodization, etc., and their answer were “it depends” and found yourself even more frustrated and confused, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. My piece of advice is if you’re constantly getting that answer, you’re simply not asking the right questions and/or not being specific enough. Every exercise selection, periodization strategy, and set and rep scheme will be completely dependent on the athletes that you have in front you. Here are 10 factors to help narrow down (in no particular order) what type of athletes you have in front you and what periodization strategy might fit best for them.

  • Training age And Biological Age

Training age refers to how many years of weight room training an athlete has. The more experienced athletes (>2 years of consistent weight room training) will require more advanced training due to high level of adaption and the weight room losing its novelty. The opposite is required for beginners (<6 months of training) where the program is more technique and proper movement focused. Biological age is also important, because a youth athlete’s training should look quite different than a college athlete in their early 20’s. It wouldn’t make sense to do a Triphasic program with a middle school athlete that barely knows how properly perform a back squat. Look at the different periodization programs available at your disposable and understand the context of the training age and biological age the programs are designed for.

  • Injury history

Past injury history should be a high priority factor when determining a periodization/program strategy. If an athlete is just coming back from injury, it’s important to make sure the injured body part is back to full strength and even stronger to ensure re-injury is less likely before going back to more advanced training. Communication is imperative between Physicians, Athletic Trainer’s, Strength Coaches, and the Head Coaches to ensure the proper program is in place for the athlete to get back to 100%. Some injuries may leave athletes with improper mobility or stability of the injured area which may influence what they can or can’t do in the weight room. Do your best to bring back full function of the injured area, but if it’s not possible, adjust your exercise selection to accommodate it. For example, if someone injured their ankle and have very limited ankle mobility, which will influence squat form, you can add squat wedges or 5-10lb plates on their heels to accommodate their lack of mobility and still safely squat without the knees having to compensate. In short, injured athletes will most likely need more basic programs first and will probably need accommodating exercises until they are back to 100%.

  • Training history

What training have your athletes done in the past? What is useful? Did they improve? If the program is getting the results you want, there’s no need to worry about making a brand-new periodization strategy. Even if it was a basic linear program, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Simple is always better because it’s easier to explain and coach it to the athletes. However, if the opposite is true, you need to ask yourself why the past program didn’t work. Was it too complex? Was it too basic? Too much or too little volume? Find where your athletes are at and find the periodization/program strategy that fits FOR THEM. Don’t mold your athletes to the program, mold your program to the athletes. 

  • Mobility/Stability in all the major joints (foot, ankle, knee, hip, lumbar spine, thoracic spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists)

To get the maximum benefits in any program, you need to be able to move the full range of motion required of that program. If an athlete has stiff ankles and hips, more than likely their squats are going to not look pretty and borderline unsafe. Which means, you need to find a program that’s more mobility and stability focused before doing strength and power focused programs. Squat University provides plenty of material to find and improve the mobility ranges and joint stability of your athletes.

  • What sport they play

What sport your athletes play will be a huge factor in determining what program is best for them. Louie’s Simmons Conjugate training and 5/3/1 from Jim Wendler are focused on the sport of powerlifting, but coaches (including myself) have used them to improve sport performance because they help improve lower and upper body strength. With that said, doing 5/3/1 on the barbell bench press may not be the best idea for overhead athletes, like baseball, due to the high strain it would put on the shoulders if they were already throwing a baseball at high volume. Does this mean you abandon the idea all together? Not necessarily. You can switch out the barbell press for a more shoulder friendly exercise like a swiss bar press and change the weight to match the same relative intensity. Understand the context of the programs you’re using and how that program can help your athletes, then adjust the program accordingly to fit the athlete’s goals.

  • Motivation and commitment of the athletes to weight train

I’ve worked with athletes across a wide range of ages and sports, and it’s important to remember that most of them are not going to be as excited or committed to weight training as much as you are. To athletes, weight training is a means to end to reduce likelihood of injuries and improve work capacity, muscle mass, strength, power, and speed. It’s pointless to do a super complex program with fancy exercises and unique set and rep schemes if the athletes aren’t motivated or committed to it. The program is only as good as the athletes willing to put the effort in. If you’re working with a team where the head coach and players aren’t as motivated or committed to weight training, I find it best to use a simple program that’s easy for them to understand and perform. Focus on getting your athletes motivated and committed to weight training first, then you can start to increase the complexity and difficulty of your programs that will bring the biggest adaptations for you.

  • Athletes Goals

This should be a no brainer. The athletes’ goals will heavily influence which program or periodization strategy you use to achieve those goals. If an athlete is looking to add muscle mass, you’d want to use a higher volume program like APRE. If an athlete is looking to increase their strength to body mass ratio in the squat, bench, and deadlift, using Conjugate or 5/3/1 can be potential options. Look at the programs goals and see if they align with your athletes’ goals. Most programs will get your athletes stronger one way or another, but which ones focus on improving work capacity, muscle mass, power, and/or speed will be the ones to look for.

  • Coaches’ knowledge and expertise of the periodization strategy

Your program is only as good as your ability to teach and coach it. You can write the best program in the world, but it’ll be useless if you can’t communicate and coach it properly to your athletes. For example, if you want to follow Cal Dietz’s Triphasic book but don’t understand what Post Activation Potentiation (PAP) is or how it works then your program will fall flat. It’s always a good idea to try your program on your self first to fix anything you might have missed, and it’ll help you be able to communicate and coach your athletes better because you know what to look for and how it should feel.

  • Equipment needed

The equipment needed to perform a program is obviously a major factor in what program you can use. If you don’t have gym-o-ware’s or tendo units, you are not going to be able to effectively use velocity-based training to its full potential. Find the program that fits within your budget and equipment you have available to you.

  • Coach to athlete ratio

If you’re at a small school and you’re the only coach on the floor and have 30-60 athletes in the room, a complex program is generally not a good idea. A high coach to athlete ratio means your not going to be able to watch every single rep of every single athlete. Keep it simple and safe.

Final Thoughts

For Beginners, I’d recommend either the 1×20 program by Dr. Yessis or the Starting Strength Program from Mark Rippetoe. From there, you can progress to more advanced periodization, like Triphasic and APRE, based on what is best for the athlete. Remember, it’s about what is BEST for the athlete. Not just to do something because it looks cool. I hope this list helps you narrow done the best program and periodization strategy for your athletes to achieve the best adaptations. Good luck and GET AFTER IT!

Ben Charles has his Master’s in Leadership Education: Sports Management Emphasis, Bachelors in Exercise Science, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and has his USA Weightlifting Level 1 certification (USAW). He currently works as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Personal Trainer for Western Technical College in La Crosse, WI.

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