Three Common Program Design Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

How To Coach Human Behavior: Questions for CCP Consultation Instructor Sharon Prete

An interview with OPEX founder and 20-year program design veteran James FitzGerald

The secret to long-term client success is an individualized progressive program. OPEX Fitness founder, James FitzGerald, has been creating individualized programs for more than two decades and has seen numerous mistakes along the way. In this interview, he breaks down the most common program design mistakes and the three things a coach can do to avoid them.

(Note: James feels so strongly about the connection between client success and individual program design that he launched a 10-hour digital course entailing the assessment, energy system progressions along with how to train across the Strength Continuum. Learn Programming: Principles today.)

What are some specific errors you’ve witnessed over the years (20 years) of studying program design?

FitzGerald: In most cases, the long-term plan is not built. A lot of coaches cannot see into the future as expected. They make the program based on what is real right now, but fail to plan for (and get the client bought into) the future. Another common error I see is within fitness is the shiny new object or training style/program gets priority over the client’s needs and the coach forgets the basic principles of long-term development.

As a coach how can you spot these mistakes if you are making them?

FitzGerald: For the coach, you can spot these during the assessment. Look to see if your program is matching how fast or slow the person will adapt based on lifestyle, background, training age, etc.

The development of a ‘spot on’ program obviously involves an assessment, what does an ideal assessment process look like?

FitzGerald: The assessment should analyze a client’s current abilities, as well as understand their history and goals. This is the point where a coach breaks down a client’s movement patterns and determines what the client should or shouldn’t perform based on their goals.

After the assessment, program design begins. During that initial program design process—where do coaches typically go wrong?

FitzGerald: In program design, coaches go wrong by not following up (conducting repeat assessments) with the clients and watching how they adapt to the training. During the reassessment, you can see if they are adapting or not. Also, many try to do too much too soon. The coach is responsible for ensuring progress, because of this I prefer to go slow and steady. We call it “holding the reigns” . . . you can let them gallop, but when you sense they want to sprint (and they don’t have sprinter’s legs), you “pull the reins” so to speak.

What are three things coaches can do to avoid common program design pitfalls?


  1. Develop an open communication with your client. Give examples to them of what this communication looks like. I cannot explain how important this is.
  2. Keep seeking to better themselves “How can I learn more, progress clients smoother and refine my training process?”
  3. Ensure the relationship is clear upfront. If you are looking for certain clients then go looking for those people. Saying that you can help everyone, at any cost, only gets coaches aligned with people they don’t enjoy working with.

As highlighted in this interview, correct program design is critical to ensuring your clients reach their long-term goals. If you are wondering what successful program design entails, our course Programming: Principles outlines the knowledge and techniques necessary for developing a well-designed individualized progressive program.

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