Three “levels” of planning exercise: how to take the next step when you get stuck

Three “levels” of planning exercise: how to take the next step when you get stuck

When we first start exercising literally anything and everything work to improve fitness.  Riding a bike can increase our leg strength and doing squats can help us lose fat.  Although it seem like a stretch but it is definitely not.  These changes in fitness have been observed in labs among deconditioned and novice exercisers. The trouble is that the returns on time invested in exercise diminish with time and experience.  To avoid the diminished return on investment we need to have a plan.

While recently working with a student of mine who’d been working hard in her workouts, yet not seeing any more progress, it occurred to me that those of us living in the exercise world all hit a plateau at some point.  Should we choose to move beyond the plateau, we typically need a little more structure to our exercise regimen. Looking back at my personal evolution, I can recall three distinct  “phases” that I worked through on my journey to overcome plateaus.

For you, it might be trying to lose that last 10 pounds, or trying to get under 25 minutes on your 5K run.  If you’ve stopped progressing and aren’t happy where you’re at, it’s probably time to shake things up.

I had always been active in life but for exercise I primarily lifted weights.  I did so to support my performance in football and the throwing events in track and field. I went to the gym and did my workout, lifted hard and ate a lot.  When my athletic career came to a close in college, I decided to lose over 60 pounds. In order to do this, I realized that I needed to change my exercise routine (and nutrition practice, of course!).  In the process of losing that weight, it became evident that my training plan “evolved” a number of times to maintain progress.

Typically we approach our exercise regimen in a way that falls into one of in three stages: working out, following a template, or sticking to a program

Working out

Unless you’re risking injury, or you’re dodging something else important in your life, a workout is generally nothing but a great thing.  For most people, working out on some sort of regular schedule is going to dramatically improve their quality and length of life.  In other words, you might not have a plan, but you’re in the right place!

A workout differs from a training session though. We can roughly define “a workout as a single bout of exercise unattached to any sort of structure beyond the session itself”.  The workout can be organized in a sequential manner or not, but by definition it is not connected to the previous or following workout in any way.  On the other hand, a “training session” differs from a workout in that it typically refers to a single session within a program or a structured template.

Following a template

A template is more structured than a workout.  Typically a template is laid out in a weekly timeframe.  The use of a template allows us to guide our exercise behavior to include multiple domains of fitness and maximize our body’s natural response to types of training. This is a reasonably effective way to get most people to any modest fitness or physical wellness goal.  The weekly structure is laid out to include workouts that cover different qualities of fitness in each session.  

Here’s a simple example for someone looking for fat loss and general improvements in fitness:

Session type

Fitness qualities

Frequency ( # per week)

Long, slow distance training

(45 -120 minutes +)

Endurance and cardiopulmonary health


High intensity “conditioning”

Fat loss, conditioning for sport or recreation


Resistance training

Strength, muscle gain or prevention of muscle loss


Recovery work

Mobility, flexibility, tissue health, balance, enhanced recovery


As you can see, there are “targets” for different types of sessions across the week.  Due to factors ranging from available time to specific fitness goals to variations in age or physiology, the weekly template can be easily adjusted to incorporate intelligent exercise principles and the “reality” of our busy lives.  

A well organized weekly schedule can get most of us to a pretty awesome place with respect to our pursuit of fitness. Plus, it gives us a checklist to be sure that we include our “less than favorite” types of exercise.  Often, this can be a game changer when it comes to breaking through a lull in the results from our work!

Following a program

Following a program is a different experience than most of us have taken on.  A program is broadly defined as a series of intentionally organized and appropriately sequenced training sessions designed to bring about anatomical and/or physiological adaptations.  Whew!  Now, let me say that in a way that really means something to you.  

A program is typically designed to be 4 to 12 weeks in length, but can extend to annual and quadrennial (four year) cycles.  Typically, this type of long term programming is reserved for professional and olympic athletes, as well as high level recreational athletes.  

If you have been dedicated to coming to the gym and have been pushing yourself, but have stopped seeing results, it’s likely that you’re in need of a program.  Programs are similar to templates in that workouts are considered within the context of a week, but differ in that each week is intended to place a different demand on our bodies.  Week to week, the difficulty of the workouts differ, as do the difficulty of the workouts within the week.  What do not change (or has very subtle variations) are the exercises.  The exercises need to stay very similar so that the “stimulus” changes, rather than the movement type.  This type of variability really helps drive changes in anatomy and physiology, rather than movement “skill”.  

*Disclaimer: the details below might be tough to understand, so if you’re right where you should be working in the previous levels, then don’t worry about understanding all of it!

Here’s a relatively simple 4 week example that changes only the total number of repetitions:

As you can see, there is a progression in difficulty from week to week from weeks 1-3, adding stress to the body.  This stress creates the demand for change in the body.  Then the difficulty eases back in week 4 to let the body recover.  This recovery period is less stressful, which generally allows change to occur in the body.

Following the recovery week (on the beginning of week 5)  we could test for gains in fitness.  In the test, we could try to break our personal record in the number of reps, or we could add difficulty (more load or less assistance, etc) and test it out.  The weeks of systematically stressing and recovering typically results in new best efforts!

Often, this type of approach is just what is required to make progress when all the “low hanging fruit” is already picked!

So, there’s a primer on how you can take the next step in your exercise planning to keep making progress toward your fitness goals!

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About Mark

I am a busy guy; husband, father, coach, mentor, gardener, outdoors man and cook are the primary hats I wear. To be the best of these I can be, I stay physically prepared for all those pursuits, and feed myself in a way that allows me to keep up the pace. I can help you to take the next manageable step in fitness and wellness to get you closer to your ideal self.