Individualized Training Programs are Overrated

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 7/24/2018

If you’ve followed me on social media over the last few years you’ve probably struggled to keep up with where I’ve worked. I’ve lived in multiple states over the last 3 years and have worked in multiple positions, all with their own unique environment. I’ve worked in the private sector at a facility that trains athletes of all sports and also at a facility that specializes in baseball training. I’ve also worked in the team setting at the professional level. This blend of experience has helped me develop a unique lens in which to view programs, training philosophies, and general industry trends. In fact, I would encourage all young coaches to seek out opportunities in different environments within the industry to gain a better feel for the industry as a whole and to be able to discern the positives and negatives of each environment. 

One industry trend that’s blown up in recent years is the push towards individualized training programs. Now, before I go into detail on my opinion on this trend I want to make it clear that I don’t think this is a bad trend by any means. The idea of individualized training programs by itself is just a logical idea that has gained traction because it just plain makes sense. However, I can also see the flaws in how this trend has been executed for the most part. This observation is directed largely at the private sector, but I also want to make it clear that this observation is not directed at any coach or program specifically. I understand the danger in criticizing a program or coach without fully knowing the context of what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, who they’re doing it with, and why they’re doing it, so I want to be very careful with this blog post and make it a point to state that these observations are in the most general sense possible and that there are most definitely programs and coaches that do a fantastic job of implementing intelligent, productive, individualized programs for their athletes.

My first worry is that there are coaches out there who market themselves as having “individualized programs” and the only thing individual about them is the eyewash mobility drills they have the athletes do in their warm up. Do I think mobility drills typical with what you see on social media do harm to athletes? No, I don’t. I think they can help very untrained athletes build a basic understanding of how their body is supposed to move, but I don’t think they’re near as productive as content creating strength coaches would lead you to believe. Wall ankle mobilizations being the most eyewash mobility drill of them all.

Now, I want to confess, I used to prescribe the athletes I deemed to have poor ankle mobility drills like this and other ankle mobility drills, but at some point I looked at the drills themselves and thought to myself, is this really doing anything? Where is there enough intensity or volume to actually produce an adaptation in this movement? Is having a kid do a set of 10 a couple times a week truly going to change anything? 

Ok that’s enough ranting on mobility drills. Let’s get back on track.

I also feel like many coaches who market themselves as ones who create individualized programs rush through progressions way, way too quickly. Again, truth be told I was once this coach. My very first job out of college I ran a small private facility in Kansas City. I did the whole individual assessment thing and then made individual programs and whatever. I began to realize after awhile that I was changing too many exercises within the program every 4 weeks because I felt pressured to deliver on the promise of providing that individual program and specific exercises for each athlete, even when the athletes didn’t actually need anything fancy. It got to the point where I was individualizing programs for the sake of individualizing programs, and it was because I simply didn’t know any better methods.

Again, I want to stress that I understand the danger of critiquing other programs without true context, but I feel like there are a lot of coaches who are making the same mistake I did in regards with individualizing for the sake of individualizing. On the other hand, I can understand if you’re thinking, “well isn’t that still better than just handing out a cookie cutter program to every kid?” I think in a lot of cases that is spot on, but I’d like to offer some other viewpoints that I’ve gathered throughout my experiences as a strength coach .

First of all, let’s think about why the idea behind assessing and individualizing programs is smart: you find out exactly what that athlete needs. I think there is tons of value in this train of thought, but I like to look at this from a big picture standpoint. The question I’m asking is, “what does EVERY athlete need?” Well, from a S&C side I think every athlete needs to learn how to squat, hinge, have unilateral strength, have bilateral strength, control their pelvis, dynamically stabilize their core (brace), and control their scapula and humerus. In addition to fundamental strength and movement qualities required for the weight room I also think EVERY athlete needs to learn how to accelerate, decelerate, react, jump, land, and rotate explosively. Just putting these qualities in your program isn't enough. Athletes need to be coached on how to do all of these more efficiently. Your program and cueing must be on point to ensure that movement quality increases in everything I mentioned above.

Instead of viewing these traits singuarily and prescribing them on an individual basis (example: oh this kid has terrible control with their scaps so we need to program in scap work), it makes more sense to me to build a training system that prioritizes every single athletic need listed above, and progresses each need in a holistic way. But what if an athlete needs MORE of a certain movement? Good question. That’s where the importance of HOLISTIC program comes into play. 

If every drill and exercise and coaching cue in your program builds off each other then you don’t have to make a guy do more. The training system will take care of teaching that guy the specific movement he needs to improve. Here are some specific examples that I’ve had a ton of success with.

Let’s start with the hip hinge. In the training system I run athletes perform speed and agility training before they lift weights. This gives me a chance to coach them up on a hinge whenever the program calls for single leg or double leg jumps. I don’t even call it a hinge when I’m coaching this portion, I simply demonstrate how to “load their hips” in order to explode. Then when they pick up a bar or kettlebell and have to perform a hip hinge during the lifting portion I can easily refer back to the jumps they did earlier in the session. “Remember how you loaded your hips on the lateral bounds earlier? I want you do that exact same thing here, the only difference is you have a bar in your hand and your feet don’t leave the ground.” 

Another example is how I teach dynamic core stability. I prioritize core stiffness during ground mobility drills, dynamic warm up drills, jumping, landing, movement technique drills (think acceleration/change of direction), etc. So basically during everything. When the athletes hear the same cues over and over they start to pick up on the importance of what I’m saying, especially when it comes to bridging the gap between lifting weights and being fast, quick, and explosive. You simply have to trust your program and trust the progressions you’ve built in. This is where having patience as a coach is crucial instead of just jumping in and thinking you need to switch everything up to get super individualized.

At this point in the blog you might be wondering if I do any sort of individualizing at all. If that’s you I want to assure you that I do in fact individualize, it’s just perhaps in an unconventional way. There are two main areas that I get specific with athletes. The first and by far most important area is communication. I could write an entire book on this topic but I won’t because Brett Bartholomew already did and he did an amazing job so you just go read that if you haven’t already. The better I get at communication the less I feel the need to individualize training programs from an exercise/drill selection standpoint. I often have two athletes doing the exact same training program but the cues I use and the method of communication I select is completely dependent on the individual athlete. 

An example here is when I’m coaching acceleration. Some athletes are more frequency based and take short, choppy steps which may be quick but there isn’t any force behind their steps and they’re not gaining any ground with each step. To these guys getting them lengthen their strides takes a specific set of cues, then depending on how the individual athlete accepts instruction will determine how I communicate those specific cues. Other athletes might not have a frequency issue, perhaps they get into frontside knee extension prior to ground contact causing them to overreach, lose posture, and direct excess stress onto their hamstrings. This athlete needs a whole different set of cues to fix these technique issues and again, how I communicate these cues relies completely on the individual athlete I’m coaching.

This can get tricky when working with a large group of athletes in a team setting, but it all goes back to what I was explaining earlier regarding the importance of creating a training system where drills and exercises build off each other. Can you get an athlete to move better without cueing them at all? A holistic program can accomplish that and fill the gaps where the environment makes it difficult to communicate to every single athlete within the session (basically every team setting). 

A quick side note: I believe this style of programming is even more important in today’s landscape of athletics. Early Sport Specialization is on the rise and it’s not going to decline anytime soon. As S&C coaches we can make a huge impact by designing our programs to essentially balance out their excessive specialization. If your holistic training system exposes young athletes to EVERYTHING then you can somewhat fill the gaps in their athletic career and give them what they aren’t getting in their sport which I believe will help decrease overuse injuries. 

Now, there are some ways that I think it’s important to individualize in terms of actual training programs. To me I see strength and conditioning as a means to challenge athletes physically in as many ways as possible, kind of like what I just mentioned above in regards to ESS. This goes for all the qualities that I listed in the beginning of this post, which if you remember are qualities that EVERY athlete should be able to do. My job as a coach is to get my athletes do dominate those fundamental movements by exposing them to every quality and then programming progressive, logical ways to challenge those movements.

There are four primary ways to do this: increase volume, increase intensity, increase speed of the movement, or increase cardiovascular demands. This can be judged using data and tracking but honestly it can be judged based off of having a good coaching eye and understanding when the athlete experiences a breakdown in motor control with specific movements. Let’s use simple movements as the examples here, sprints and squats. 

I see other coaches making the mistake of only relying on strength training to get their athletes faster. This concept might work with young athletes or extremely untrained athletes but that doesn’t excuse a coach from having a poorly coached, or poorly designed speed program. When I hear a coach say something along the lines of “if you want to get faster just get stronger” I can’t help but think that coach probably doesn’t know how to truly program or coach sprinting. You know what helps guys get really, really fast? Getting them stronger with a logical, detailed strength program AND simultaneously coaching them up on how to be more efficient sprinters. I have seen a ton of athletes who are good movers in the weight room when it comes to deadlifts, squats, lunges, etc. but when it comes to sprinting they are awful movers. I think that’s just because these athletes haven’t been coached up, and because they just lose movement quality when velocity enters the picture. Once an athlete develops solid sprint technique it’s time to challenge them with other variables. Resisted sprints, repeated sprints, increased volume of sprints are all ways to tackle this idea. 

On the strength side, say that I have an athlete that can squat 315 and that’s relatively strong compared to other athletes his age. If his 315 squat has solid technique you can add a little bit of load and see if he can still move the weight with good technique. You can challenge him with more volume and see if he can squat 315 for 2, 3, 6, I don’t know 8 reps and see if he can keep his technique throughout the set. I would also look to challenge by telling him to see how fast he could move the bar with 315 on his back. Is he able to keep the same movement quality when the load is the same but the speed of the movement increases? Lastly I would look to challenge him by getting his heart rate up a little bit and see if he can keep the same movement quality at the same intensity but when he is a little fatigued.

This is where I see CrossFit methodology making its way into mainstream strength and conditioning. If you watch elite, or even above average CrossFit athletes you will see that they are not only strong, but they are strong in a variety of different movements and they can keep movement quality the same whether or not they are challenged with volume, intensity, power demands, or cardiovascular demands. Do I think athletes should be doing CrossFit? No. But I do think the ideas behind some of CrossFit’s methods and programs can be implemented in a S&C setting and help develop more resilient, well rounded athletes.

To recap, I do not think “individualized programs” are bad, I just think we need to look at training athletes from a more arial view and build a program where athletes dominate the fundamental qualities that EVERY athlete needs. I think this can be accomplished by focusing on building more holistic training programs with an emphasis on better communication. Do I make changes in a kids’ program if they have a special situation such an injury, crazy mobility deficiency? Yes, if I feel I absolutely need to. Do I get more specific with more advanced athletes? Most definitely. They're the fun ones to work with because they need to be challenged in much more extensive ways. But at the end of the day program design should address everything and individualized cueing is more important than individualized exercises.