The Hierarchy of Exercise Program Design

This blog will explain the Hierarchy of Exercise Program Design, so you can cut out the confusion and overwhelm when planning your client workouts.

You’ll discover:

  • Why you need to know the hierarchy of exercise program design
  • The Six aspects of program design
  • How to turn your programming on its head
  • And Three Example Mock Questions to test your knowledge

Why you need to know the hierarchy of exercise program design

When you are planning for a client session, there is a lot to think about,
and a lot of variables that you can change

It can be easy to get distracted by funky exercises, training systems, and tactics

However, effective exercise program design is not about these minor changes at all.

There is a hierarchy to exercise program design, that indicates the most important and impactful variables as the FIRST thing to master.

Once this has been mastered you can go onto the next part of the hierarchy, and so on

You’ll notice that minor program variables, like exercises and training systems, have the smallest impact on the client achieving a result.

The Hierarchy of Exercise Program Design:

1. Specificity

The most important and impactful aspect of Exercise Program Design is to consider the specificity,

aka is the OVERALL plan specific to the physiological adaptation needed to get the desired GOAL?

For example, a client with a goal to improve their 1 Mile swim time, wouldn’t do only running training, they would need to do some swimming training at least.

The same client would also need to challenge speed across a similar distance (compared to increasing distance), as it relates to the goal they have

2. Safety

Amazingly this variable can get overlooked, especially if you haven’t considered the client’s starting ability, and the physiological adaptation required to get their goal.

Safety is important to reduce the risk of injury and promote commitment to the training plan, as well as to protect your professional reputation.

Check your plan is safe by progressing the client at an appropriate rate, based on their starting point, and individuality?

For example, you wouldn’t give a highly complex clean and press training plan to a client that has never trained with free weights before. It would also be unsafe to have a beginner runner try to complete an ultra marathon on their first training session.

3. Consistency

This is a very powerful aspect for every FITPRO looking to get a result with a client.

Doing a little bit of something every week for an entire year will get more results in the long term than doing a lot of something for one week, but nothing for months at a time.

It is this principle of consistency that allows your client to build new habits and gradually progress towards their goals.

4. Volume and Intensity

This is the aspect of exercise program design that considers the number of reps and sets you are doing with your client, and how you progress these over time.

Cardiovascular training is then measured in relation to heart rate or RPE intensity, and the volume is measured via distance or time of the session.

You can gradually progress this with small tweaks each week, which avoid overtraining and ensures the most appropriate volume and intensity is selected for the client.

5. Periodisation

The periodization of a training plan, allows you to break the longer-term goal into chunks. This allows for a different focus or specific physiological adaptation inside each chunk.

Periodisation is kindalike writing a book. You have the full book (macrocycle) and then individual chapters (mesocycles) with set outcomes and ahcievements.

Not only is this better at guaranteeing physiological adaptaion without conflict, but the client knows how to prepare for future sessions.  

It can be much more exciting and achievable to achieve small stepping stone goals, for example, you may have:

Mesocycle 1 = Foundation Fitness for 4 weeks – increase endurance and learn basic skills

Mesocycle 2 = Hypertrophy for 8 weeks – increase calories and training routine to increase size

Mesocycle 3 = Fat strip  for 4 weeks – gradual taper of body fat and calorie deficit

Goal achieved – Beach ready in 16 weeks

Learn more about periodisation CLICK HERE

6. Minor Program Variables

The last aspect of the hierarchy is the point whereby you programme the exercises, training systems, and tempo of repetitions?

These are the minor program variables that should be left to last, however many FITPROs focus on first, which can cause confusion and overwhelming when planning.

Use this hierarchy next time you plan a client session

and just know that the result your client achieves is largely a result of consistent, safe, and specific exercise, rather than about minor program variables and funky exercises.

Test your knowledge with 3 Mock Questions

Having read the hierarchy of exercise program design, look at the three Mock questions below. Jot down your answer on a scrap paper or as a note on your phone.

Then scroll down to reveal the answers.

1) In the hierarchy, which has the least impact on results and therefore is considered last?

A. Specificity
B. Exercises
C. Volume
D. Intensity

2) What are the top three impactful aspects of the hierarchy ?

A. Weight, Speed and Distance
B. Specificity, minor program variables, Intensity
C. Specificity, Safety, Consistency
D. Specificity, Safety, Volume

3) Which term is used to express the clients long term training phase?

A. Pericycle
B. Mesocycle
C. Macrocycle
D. Microcycle


Q1: Answer = B
Q2: Answer = C
Q3: Answer = C

If you want more mock questions like this, then you can download more Free Mock Questions: DOWNLOAD NOW

Do you want more confidence in your ability to get a result as a FitPro?

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You’ll supercharge your confidence and knowledge to work with clients and guarantee their goals.  

I guarantee you’ll have hundreds of “ah ha” moments as you progress your knowledge in coaching, planning, nutrition and behaviour change.

If you are constantly doubting your ability to get a result with a client and you want to build your confidence with more knowledge and practical application

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Dedicated To More

Hayley “The Hierarchy of Exercise Program Design” Bergman

Parallel Coaching

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