Basic Elements of Program Design

Megan Dahlman
March 14, 2022

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When you look at a workout program, it may appear random, full of numbers, times, repetitions and sets. What does it all mean? And why did Coach Megan put it together like that? I hope you're genuinely interested about what goes into a workout program because I sure get a kick out of it. But then again, I'm a fitness nerd!

​Whether you're a fitness nerd or not, having a working knowledge of the basic elements of program design may actually give you more purpose when doing your workouts, so this should be helpful.

Exercise Selection.

I choose exercises based on fundamental body movements, not specific body parts. Many trainers will approach a workout by thinking about what the client wants to "work on" or "target". You end up with programs that have eight very similar abdominal exercises, six various glute exercises, maybe two triceps exercises (gotta firm up those bat wings!), and perhaps a calf or quad exercise thrown in there for good measure. Does this sound familiar?

While it's important to listen to you, the client, and acknowledge the areas of your body that are troublesome, I pull the trainer trump card and choose exercises that will allow you to move better, stronger and more powerfully. ​I choose exercises that require you to balance and coordinate, making your brain fire more efficiently. I choose exercises that make you stronger at bracing, pushing, pulling, hinging, twisting, lifting, lunging and squatting. I choose exercises that develop power, making your muscles contract faster and with more force. And I choose exercises that work many body parts at the same time, conditioning your body to handle a higher intensity of work.    

With a beginner routine, we start with basic movements. You need to learn how to brace and control your spine in a plank in all planes of motion before you do more advanced core work. You need to train a proper elevated push-up, teaching your core how to support your spine during a push-up before you do more challenging pushing exercises. You need to learn how to activate your glutes and hinge properly at the hips to execute a proper squat. With my routines you will always lay a solid foundation of technique and movement mechanics before you progress to harder work.

Even for advanced trainees, I never choose exercises just because they're hard. I get the sense that some trainers do this. You can't do eight really hard exercises back to back and call it a good workout. Chances are it will start to look pretty ugly. I usually will buffer harder exercises, whether they're technically hard or just plain tough, with an easier exercise. I also try to train opposing muscle groups so you rarely train the same muscles in a row.


I like to design most workouts in a circuit format. This means that you have several exercises that you do back to back with minimal rest between exercises. You can think of circuits like different exercise stations set up around a one exercise station, then move to the next station, then the next, and so on. Most people are used to a straight set format, or hanging out with one exercise until you're totally done with it, and then move on to the next exercise. For example, if you're doing 3 sets of 10 push-ups in a straight set, you would do 10 push-ups, take a breather, do 10 more, take another breather, then do your last 10.

The straight set format is fine, but it's inefficient. When you're a busy mom, you don't have many extra minutes to spare, so you need to squeeze in as much work as possible in the least amount of time. In the same amount of time that it would take you to do 3 sets of 10 push-ups, you could have done 10 push-ups, 10 lunges, 15 squats, 10 rows and 1 plank. Now do that circuit 3 times through and you've got a very thorough routine in a very short amount of time.

With circuits, you also train your cardiovascular system. Yes, this means you can do cardio AT THE SAME TIME as strength training! No need to do them separately! Hallelujah and AMEN!

​Sets and Reps.

The numbers written on the routine determine the overall load or volume that your body will endure. The set count is usually the first number listed and tells you how many bouts of that exercise you will do, or how many times through you will perform a particular circuit. This number generally increases throughout the month. Your first week, you may do a circuit twice through, or two sets. One or two sets is enough to learn an exercise and imprint the movement into your muscles. In order to get significantly stronger, you'll need to do an exercise three to five times, or three to five sets, to challenge your muscles.

The rep count is usually the second number listed and tells you how many repetitions of that exercise you need to do at a time. So, if you're doing push-ups and the number says 10, you'll do 10 push-ups in a row. The lower the rep number, the more you'll be working absolute strength...the higher the rep number, the more you'll be working muscular endurance. If it's a hard exercise or you're using a heavy weight, the rep number will be lower to allow for proper technique for every rep. If it's a fairly easy exercise with light weight, you can generally do more reps.

And no, light weights and high reps will not "tone" your muscles and avoid "bulking". This is a myth created by wimpy women who must have been afraid of being truly strong.


It's important to build in just the right amount of rest to allow for impeccable technique, yet still provide a conditioning effect. If you rest too much, your cardiovascular system won't be taxed and your muscles won't learn how to work under fatigue. If you don't rest enough, you might be working in a depleted state, your exercises will start to look ugly and you'll start to drag. A good rule of thumb is to move quickly between exercises in a circuit, but then take a full and complete rest when the circuit is finished (~1:00-3:00 rest).

For some workouts, the rest period is built into the program for you. For these types of workouts, I try to start trainees out with a positive work to rest ratio, or resting longer than you're working (~0:20 work, 0:40 rest). As you progress, you may start to rest for the same amount of time as you're working (~0:30 work, 0:30 rest), or even less time than you're working (~0:40 work, 0:20 rest). The rest period challenges your heart and lungs to respond and recover quickly to the demands of the exercise. The fitter you are, the quicker your heart rate will recover between exercises, but you have to push it a little.

Listen up.

Always listen to your body's signals. If you feel lightheaded, a muscle feels overworked or is cramping, you're losing your balance, or fatigue has genuinely set in, take a long break and try again. Or you can abandon the workout altogether and begin cooling down. But, be sure to recognize that discomfort is normal when working out, especially when starting a new routine. It's alright if it's hard! Ideally your workout should be the right balance of challenging exercises for your ability level, the perfect number of sets and reps, and just barely enough rest. Don't be afraid to push your body a bit!

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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