When I mentioned in my workout recap post last week that I wasn’t following a specific program and instead basing my workouts on how I feel each day, a reader asked if I could write a post on flexible programming.
Before I begin, I want to point out this is an advanced technique and should only be employed by people who have been training for a minimum of two years. Beginner to intermediate lifters need to follow a program, and must commit to that program for a minimum of four weeks. Jumping between programs and creating workouts on the fly will not give you the best results. Even the most advanced lifters who have been lifting for decades and those who compete in powerlifting need to follow a program to see continual progress.
That being said, there are occasionally times where you don’t have to follow a strict program – when coming back from an injury, or when suffering lulls in energy. When I took two months off training earlier this year, I did not follow a program when I returned to the gym. I had no idea how my body would respond to certain exercises until I was physically in the gym doing them, so I could not plan my exercises or weights in advance. I was able to increase my weights every week, and it took me about 2-3 months to return to pre-accident levels of strength.
When I started training for my first competition, I followed a loose outline of a program. I scheduled certain exercises for different days, but I wasn’t following a particular rep range or peaking cycle. (Most competitors will cycle the percentages that they work at, so that they can maximise their strength on comp day.)
Since my competition and more recent surgery, I have not followed a specific program. I usually update my coach once a week, and he gives me advice for the upcoming week – but this again involves creating a lot of workouts on the fly. The only general guidelines I have are that, in a single week, I have to hit two variations of deadlifts, include 2-3 overhead pressing sessions, one heavy clean session, one full day of legs, as much back work as I can handle, at least two grip exercises, and one day of conditioning (sprints, sandbag carries, farmers walks, etc).
In an average week, I usually lift twice in the morning and twice in the evening. I prefer to deadlift in the evenings but I prefer to do legs in the morning on a day where I have lots of energy. I often don’t know exactly what my workout will consist of until I reach the gym. Usually, when I’m warming up, I will jot down a rough idea of what my workout will look like in terms of exercises, sets and reps, but again I go by feel. I do have to plan my conditioning work in advance, otherwise I will constantly talk myself out of it! Sundays are generally my longer workout days as I have more time available.
If I have any particularly weak sessions, this way of programming also allows me to “make up” for it later in the week. If I fail a press I know I should have hit, I can nail it a few days later by squeezing it into another workout.
If I was doing powerlifting, I would be following a more structured plan. With strongman, as long as I’m training all of the events regularly, it doesn’t matter so much about cycling as I’m not going for one rep maxes.
If you are looking to follow a flexible programming protocol, here are some tips:
- Make sure you hit all your muscle groups in a week. If day one is back, day two is pressing, and day three is events, I know day four will have to be legs. There are a couple of times I have really not felt like doing legs on the last day of the workout week, so I have made up for it by hitting legs twice in the following week . Make sure you are evenly working your quads, hamstrings and glutes, chest, back and shoulders.
- Begin your workouts with a compound exercise. As always, you want to start your session with either a press, squat or deadlift. I often let my performance in this first exercise dictate how I will structure the rest of my workout. If I am feeling strong, I will choose harder, more intense exercises at a lower rep range. If I struggle on lifts I should be hitting easily, I choose “easier”, higher rep exercises.
- Balance out the pushing and pulling. A general rule is to include two pulling exercises for every one pressing exercise. Because of all the log pressing I have to practice, it can be very easy to overdo it. I make sure I perform a lot of deadlifts and rows to balance it out.
- Work on your weaknesses. When you are not following a specific program, it is easy to skip the exercises you dislike. I hate doing farmers holds and single leg squats, yet I force myself to do them as I know they are a weakness. The more you dislike an exercise, the more likely it is something you should be devoting attention to!
- Base percentages on energy levels. I try not to plan my PRs in advance. Back when I did 5/3/1 programming, I knew when my PRs were coming up. In some ways, this was good, as it kept me focused during the third week, but some days I honestly wasn’t feeling it and didn’t like having to force it. I work at about 80-85 per cent of my 1RM most of the time. Some days I feel much stronger than others, and that is when I choose to increase the weight and go for a PR. For example, on Monday I had loosely planned to attempt a PR, but my back was still acting up so I pushed it back.
- Vary your repetition ranges. This will again depend on how you feel on the day, but don’t expect to jump in and hit sets of five or less every time you’re in the gym. Your body will become exhausted and you will risk an injury. Make sure you include higher rep sets – don’t be afraid to back off the weight a little, provided your main lifts are heavy.
- Record all your workouts. Once I decide what I will be doing that day, I have a quick look back through my training notebook to see the weights I’ve hit for my last 3-4 sessions. If I’m feeling good, I will try to beat these weights or at least add an extra rep or set.
Again, this is just what works for me. I know I will get criticism for not following a program, but I don’t think it is negatively affecting my progress at all – in fact, I have added more weight than I thought possible to certain lifts by following a flexible programming style. When you’ve had an injury, I think it is extremely important to listen to your body, so that is what I am doing.
My goal is to compete in England’s Strongest Woman next year. The competition is held in December, and I’m nowhere near strong enough to do it this year (there is a 65kg log press and max deadlifts starting at 110kg, so I’d be out after two rounds if I’m lucky!). I will likely be implementing a more structured program after my competition next weekend is over; however, I do plan on taking a little break to give my body a bit of a rest, but more on that later!
Do you ever follow flexible programming?