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Building the Pragmatic Workout Program

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By University of Pennsylvania’s Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Rob Wagner, shown here squatting 760lbs. (198lbs. body weight) at the World Championships in Finland in 2001. This is part one in a 2 part series.

This article was taken from Eclipse's magazine, BodyTalk. Click here if you would like a free copy.


Creating a lifting program that produces results can be a difficult task. It really depends on the planning you put into the program. Even when you put extensive planning into the program how do you know if it will be effective? In this series of articles you will be guided through the process of developing and carrying out what I would consider a very practical workout program. Keep in mind that in any program there can be pitfalls, so don’t assume that in this program you will have everything go exactly as planned. Instead look at the Pragmatic Workout Program as one that will prepare you to handle the negative situations that may arise during the execution of the program because you have planned effectively. Planning the Pragmatic Workout Program is very similar to planning a trip, while doing the program is like actually taking the trip. I mentioned before just because you’ve planned doesn’t always mean you will have success. For example, remember the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation? Clark Griswald did a hell of a lot of planning for his family’s trip to Wallyworld but he encountered a variety of detours and setbacks along the way. So in order to avoid kidnapping John Candy to make this workout program worthwhile, follow along and I will introduce the planning of the Pragmatic Workout Program.

The first step that you must make is to decide where you want this program to take you. I will focus on the weight training aspects of the program but these principles can be applied to any aspect of training. Maybe you want to get stronger or are thinking about entering a powerlifting contest. If it were a trip you could visit the travel agent for some prime vacation spots. But just like planning with the travel agent, go in with an idea of what you would like to do. If you don’t do this you may find yourself being talked into vacationing at Death Valley in August just in time for “fry eggs on the road” season. Instead of suggesting a travel agent for workout destinations I am going to recommend using goal setting to help focus on what the plan should accomplish. The goal setting discussed here will rely on the current research on developing successful goal setting situations. Goal setting has been shown time and time again to be very effective in producing positive results in a variety of settings. Studies done on goal setting have revealed that over 90% of the participants have shown positive or partially positive results. There are a variety of theories on why goal setting works. The common thread emerging from these theories is that setting goals gives you direction. With this direction, a process of cognitive adaptation positively influences action, motivation, and confidence. Using these elements, an individual may demonstrate increased persistence when practicing or increased attention to specific technical aspects of their objective and by doing this they will be able to improve their performance.

The first principle in effective goal setting is all goals need to be specific. A goal like “getting stronger” is not a specific goal it would be an example of a general goal. This is like a person, traveling to Miami, describing their vacation plans as going to the southeastern United States. A specific goal would be “I am vacationing in Miami, Florida.” In the latter example it is made clear where that person is going. Your goals must have the same specificity. Two principles can be applied to further develop the specificity of goals. The first is to describe goals in behavioral terms. In travel we could say that we were planning to drive from Philadelphia to Miami with driving being the goal behavior. The second principle would be to place the goals in measurable terms. Basically, put some numbers to it. We will be driving from Phila. to Miami and averaging a speed of 65 mph. In lifting we could pull these principles together and form a goal representing our objective. I want to increase my bench press max by 10 lbs. This goal is specific because it is written in both behavioral and measurable terms. Another principle that needs to be included here is that all goals should have a time frame of completion attached to them. Goals can be accomplished over days, weeks, months and in some cases years. Define your goals using these time frames. Otherwise we could follow the specific behaviors and apply our numbers but take forever to achieve the goal. This would be like leaving Phila and driving 65 mph all around the country and maybe someday arrive in Miami The same situation may arise in lifting. If our goal of improving the bench press max by 10 lbs is spaced out over a year’s time, the incentive and motivation will be lacking and the chances of this being successful are minimal.

The next set of principles relate to developing even more effective goals. Create goals that are realistic (within our capabilities) and challenging. If we plan to drive to Miami from Phila., and we are traveling at an average speed of 65 mph, (keep in mind that DC beltway traffic) a realistic plan would be to reach Miami in two days. Those that have done this trip on occasion would probably agree that this drive can be quite challenging. To be unrealistic would be to say that we can make it in 15 hours. I know, you have a cousin that did it in 12 hours driving a Porsche disguised as an ambulance. Remember focus on the term realistic. Make sure that the goal you develop takes everything into perspective. Things like being injured or coming back from a layoff can change what you are capable of physically and should be considered when developing goals. Basing our goal on the above principles the lifting goal would state, “I want to improve my bench press max by 10 lbs in three months.” For a novice 200 lbs lifter who bench presses 250 lbs this would be a realistic and challenging goal.

Now that you have a better idea of how to develop goals, the next step in this goal setting process is to determine what will be achieved by following the program. This will be the foundation from which the Pragmatic Workout Program will develop. It is also your long term goal. In our travel example it would be our trip to Miami. It is our destination. In the same manner benching 10 lbs more is our destination. It is the primary objective of the training. Before getting started we still need to answer some question about the trip itself. When will you leave or when do you plan on arriving, are you sharing the driving responsibility, how far will you drive on the first day, the second? In weight training similar question arise. These may include how many days should I train, what weight should I use, what reps and sets are best at developing the strength desired? Questions like these can be answered by developing shorter term goals that are very specific to each travel or lifting component. These are the short term goals. These short term goals will lead us to the long term goal. Another way to look at long term and short term goals is to view them as a staircase. The top stair is your long term goal. The stairs in-between represent your short term goals. The short term goals will make up the processes of the Pragmatic Workout Plan. These goals will help you to plan the workout. They will address the components mentioned in the questions above. In the workout plan these goals will let you know where each step of the program will take you.

Another principle that will play a considerable role here is the focus on process or performance oriented goals. Typically people choose outcome goals such as getting stronger or getting in shape. However, these types of goals do not direct you to the things that you need to do in order to reach these goals. If the whole workout plan is focused only on getting stronger but lacks the information on the specific processes of how this should be done the outcomes will be poor. It would be like planning to vacation but not planning to earn the money to pay the way or collect the vacation days to get time away from work. The process oriented short-term goals should all lead in the same direction, towards the long-term goal. In travel if you are going to Miami, you make plans financially for what is affordable. When you plan to make hotel reservations and you’re on a three star budget, make reservations at a three star hotel not a five star one. In the workout plan look at exercises and rep and set schemes that will help you on your lockout strength. An example of the wrong approach would be planning to do sets of 30 reps in the bench press or focusing on your calves. This is great for endurance or your calves but over time it will do little for your maximal bench press strength.

Other principles that need to be included in a goal-setting plan are keeping the goals in positive language, writing the goals down and reviewing them daily, modifying unrealistic goals, developing a support system and having a way to evaluate your goals. By creating positive goals you focus on a positive event or behavior that you expect to realize. On the other hand if you focus on negative thoughts you do not activate your thoughts to the processes you want to have happen. For example by expecting the worst out of the trip your view of the trip can become jaded. The goals that you will develop just like your travel plans need to be put in writing. Not only will the development of your training program design be guided by these goals but you will also want to reinforce and keep these goals in mind when you train. The goal of keeping the elbows in during the ascent of the BP, would be an example in this situation. You may choose exercises that mimic this action like a close grip BP or a Board Press but you also need to be reminded why you are doing these exercises. When goals in the program are identified as unrealistic at any time in the program they can and should be modified to more realistic goals. This will allow you to continue on with the program and not miss a beat. This is no different then having to modify an ETA due to engine trouble or a flat in Georgia. Mishaps will occur in training, such as illness. Instead of throwing the plan out, step back and assess the situation, then modify the goals so that they can still be met. Missing a week because you were sick is not the demise of the program. The final principles that should be included in successful goal setting are having a support system and a way to evaluate your goals. The support system is like having neighbors watch the house or pets while you’re away. You may want to call to make sure Fluffy is eating properly and is not too depressed in your absence. It provides reassurance that everything is going along okay. In training make people close to you are aware of what you are planning. A spouse may not understand why you are getting up at 5 am in the morning to train. Let them know what you plan to do so that they can be supportive. Developing an evaluation system for goals is similar to charting the travel progress on a map. There may be specific landmarks to visit or you may keep track of the states you traveled through in one day. If training by yourself, keep records of the steps made in achieving your goals. If you have a training partner, personal trainer or coach, discuss the goals with them and ask them to provide feedback on your performance.

One final concept that will help in developing your goals and your program is the concept of motivation. There are two sources of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. It is important that you identify your personal approach of motivation so that the development of the goals and program can provide the ingredients for the type of motivation that you respond to best. If you are intrinsically motivated you will perform the task because you simply enjoy it and/or for some other positive internal reason such as the personal challenge of it. There is no external source that instigates you to do the workout in this case. On the other hand, when you feel that the reason you workout is an external one (dependent on rewards, either social or material) then you are probably extrinsic in your motivation. Your involvement in the workout is a means to an end, to obtaining something you want or to avoid something you don’t desire. This is like determining when you want to travel. Some folks like to drive at specific times of day, during daylight hours, or at night. Others will drive regardless of the time of day. In the first case this preference will dictate your plans of when you will start the trip and when you will stop. The travel plans in the latter situation are not constricted by these preferences. It will become clearer to you when you think of why you workout. If you do it for that internal satisfaction you are intrinsically motivated. If you workout only because your girlfriend thinks your body looks sexy then you are extrinsically motivated.

Over time the focus is to strive to be more intrinsically motivated in your pursuits. Intrinsic motivators are more likely to be in your control while extrinsic factors, like your girlfriend thinking you look sexy, can change over night and you have little or no ability to control them. This is similar to the driver that only likes driving during the day time. The travel plan is controlled by a factor that can’t be controlled, daylight. One thing that can help in developing intrinsic motivation is to use process or performance oriented goals. Lifting to achieve proper technique for your satisfaction versus showing your friends how much you can press is an example of using the process oriented goal of technique and incorporating it into your motivation. Understand that the more a person feels that they are competent and in control of a behavior the more intrinsic their motivation will be towards that behavior. This does not mean that you have to avoid all extrinsic factors like competition but the idea is to focus more on developing intrinsic motivation.

In developing the Pragmatic Workout Plan the first stage of developing an effective goal setting strategy is critical to the programs success. Be realistic with yourself and create challenges when you go through this stage. Keep in mind the other principles of the goal setting system. Develop long and short-term goals that are specific, have a time frame for accomplishment. Make sure goals are process oriented and are formed in positive language. Write these goals down, develop a support system and be prepared to evaluate your goals. Also remember that goals can be modified if at any time they become unrealistic. Consider the types of motivation you use and this will allow you to be more effective in your goal setting. It will also help guide in the selection of the proper workout components. The importance of this will become more evident as we work on these aspects of the Pragmatic Workout Plan. The components including the structure of the workout, the exercises used and the rep and set schemes will be visited in the next article. Until then stay strong!

For further reading on goal setting please check these books:
Van Raalte, J.L. & Brewer, B.W., (2002), Exploring sport and exercise psychology Washington DC: APA
Weinberg R.S. & Gould, D., (1995), Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Williams, J.M. (2001), Applied sport psychology. Mountain view, CA: Mayfield

Part II

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