Earlier this week, there was a discussion on Reddit about programming — and whether it really makes a difference. Some people argued that really, any program works as long as you’re consistent about getting in the gym and working hard. And that’s partly true! But if you really buy into that mindset, you’re selling yourself short. Here’s why.
The Early Stages: Anything Goes
I honestly do think it’s true that if you’re a beginner lifter, any training program is probably going to work just fine, as long as it includes some form of progressive overload. In other words, over time, you need to add weight to the bar, or perform more reps with the same weight, with good form. When you’re just starting out, that’s all that matters.
That’s exactly why I suggest using a simple, 5x5-style program at this stage: there’s no need to include lots of fancy extras, and the high frequency of those programs gives you plenty of practice in developing good form. On the other hand, if someone hands you a typical bodybuilding-style program with a laundry list of exercises, all for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps and no clear method of progression, it’s time to run in the other direction.
Moving From Beginner to Intermediate Means Periodization
At some point, you’re not going to be able to add weight or reps every session, and that’s when you know you’ve reached the intermediate stage. It also means you need to find a new method of progression, and that method — for virtually everyone — is periodization. With very few exceptions, you must include some form of periodization in your training to continue to make progress once you’re past the beginner stage.
The thing is, periodization, at its core, is pretty darn simple. It just means that over time, you’re increasing the weight on the bar (intensity) and decreasing the amount of work you do (volume). Virtually every popular cookie-cutter strength training program out there includes some form of periodization — some complicated, some not so much — and that’s where the claim “your program doesn’t matter” comes from.
The Dead Zone
But then, eventually, you hit the dead zone. This is Dave Tate’s name for the seemingly-endless plateau that separates the intermediates from the truly advanced lifters, and it’s where the vast majority of lifters stall — for months, years, or even for the rest of their lives. This is the stage where the details of your training really start to matter, and you can’t rely on cookie-cutter programs any more if you want to continue progressing.
Here’s the catch: let’s say that during the beginner and intermediate stages, you just hop from one popular program to another. You start out on 5/3/1, and then move to the Cube method, and then maybe Cube Predator or Jacked and Tan or Juggernaut or even Think Strong. They’re all great programs, but none is going to work forever. And once they stop working, you’re stuck in the dead zone.
The bigger problem is that cookie-cutter programs don't teach you how to understand your body and its response to training, either. So once you do reach the threshold of advanced lifting, you’ve built a lot of strength, but you haven’t learned all that much about your body — and you have no freaking clue how to start making progress again and get through to the next level.
The Alternative: Making Small Changes
I’ve harped on it enough by this point, but this scenario is exactly the reason why I believe so strongly in the method that the Unf*ck Your Program course teaches: start simple, make small changes, and learn how your body responds to them. That way, by the time you reach the dead zone, you know exactly how to go about breaking through it. I swear, if someone had taught me about small changes fifteen years ago, I’d be a much, much more successful lifter today, and I’d have saved myself a ton of frustration (even agony) along the way.
There is a downside to this method, though: a lot of people assume it’s boring. I can understand that: I love flashy programs that use tons of different movements, tools like bands, chains, and boards, and that sort of thing. In fact, I think almost everyone is more receptive to variation like this! When you know you need to be consistent, day in and day out, it’s also really easy to get bored, especially with a simple program.
But I would argue that Unf*ck Your Program is anything but simple. In fact, the way your body responds to training is incredibly complex, and designing the perfect program for your body might require equally complex training methods. It doesn’t have to, but it can — especially if you enjoy that style.
If you’re a little unsure, just check out the new Unf*ck Your Offseason program. It’s a short, intense, six-week bout crammed full of variations on the competition lifts, on unconventional rep schemes, different methods, and obviously, hard training. And, for most people, I think it will work really darn well — but it won’t be perfect. If you want perfect, you need to start from scratch with the full UYP course, and make it perfect. It’ll take time, effort, and above all else, consistency, but it is absolutely possible.
No matter what program you choose, Think Strong and Train Hard, and you’ll go really far. Good luck!