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Articles - Strength, Muscle & Athletics

The Perfect Training Program Template

By Brian Copeland

                • Elements of a perfect program
                • Order of a perfect program
                • Tweaking for specific goals
                • Knowing the rules and then how to break them


Program design has been hotly debated since the golden years of bodybuilding. While many athletes have only been considering how to actually structure a training program since the 80s, the Soviets were using sophisticated program designs to hone their finely-tuned Olympic athletes since the days of Stalin.

Rather than debate different bodybuilding programs such as Mentzer's HIT versus Arnold's high volume or West Side's template versus the Soviet model (because they all work and they all don't depending on a number of factors) I will instead show you how to put together each individual training session to ensure you don't miss any elements of your fitness.


Fitness Enthusiast vs. Athlete Programs

First things first, we need to clearly define our goals. If you are a general fitness enthusiast, which means you just want to look and feel good but don't have any clearly defined goals aside from that then your training program will be different than a serious athlete with clearly defined goals.

A serious athlete will spend more time on skill training whereas a fitness enthusiast will spend more time on fitness training. I know that may sound obvious but frankly, it isn't. Far too many people who are athletes or martial artists spend too much time on fitness training, specifically strength and cardio, than on becoming world-class at their sport.

You do not become world class in your sport by focusing on strength and cardio unless strength and/or cardio are your sport. I can name those on one hand: marathon running or triathlons, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, kettlebell sport, strongman competitions... that is about it.

Martial artists, track and field athletes, tennis players, football players, etc. would be well advised to spend most of their time on their sport technique rather than how much they can lift or how big they can make their biceps grow. Michael Jordan, GSP, Anderson Silva, Manny Pacquiao, Roger Federer, nor any other world-class athlete have big biceps or super strong deadlifts but they devastate their opponents in their respective sports.

Manny Pacquiao

Lean and mean and built like an athlete.

You don't develop striking power, non-telegraphic punches and fluid skill by doing hours of bodybuilding work.

But at the same time, I don't think there are many world-class athletes who wouldn't be the fittest looking person at the pool.

On the opposite side of the coin, a bodybuilder does not build big pipes by practicing boxing or javelin throwing.

A fitness enthusiast gets to take their pick of training programs since any of them will improve muscle, decrease body fat and make them look better in a bathing suit.


Basic Template

Hopefully by now you have an idea of where you fit; fitness enthusiast who cares only for how they look and feel, an athlete or fighter who cares how they perform but get to look good as a side-effect, or a bodybuilder or strength athlete who's sport specifically involves lifting weights on one capacity or another.

Every training session should have at least some time spent on the following areas of fitness:

  • Dynamic joint mobility
  • Visual and vestibular systems training
  • Joint toughening
  • Sport skill practice
  • Resistance training
  • Stamina / Energy Systems
  • Cool down with focus on restoring joint health or improving range of motion

Let's examine each of these areas, both why they are important and how to get about training them.


Dynamic Joint Mobility

What is it:

From a Z-Health perspective, this means moving every single joint in your body through its full range of motion at all speeds. There are a number of joint mobility programs out there today as the subject has grown in popularity and everyone from professional sports teams strength & conditioning coaches, to personal trainers to Physical Therapists are falling in line.

Why do it:

The actual neurophysiology can be lengthy to explain and is best for a different article, I have written many. But on a basic level we all understand that if we have a bad movement pattern at a single joint then we will compensate our movements at other joints. Think of how someone with a sprained ankle walks. Typically this is much more subtle. But now imagine that you don't have access to your own body's full range of motion at each joint. That does absolutely change your movement patterns for the worse.

As an athlete the implications should be obvious. A fighter trying to squeeze their way out of a hold or avoid a submission needs to be very mobile in their joints. A football player who needs to be able to change directions quickly will need knees, ankles, hips and a spine that can withstand the torque placed upon it without injury.

Watch Barry Sanders' knees in this video and you will see what I'm talking about.


For a non-athlete or fitness enthusiast the reason to do dynamic joint mobility is to keep your joints healthy and pain-free.

Dynamic joint mobility does the following:

  • Improves range of motion better than stretching
  • Decreases injuries in joints
  • Improves strength
  • Reduces pain - The American Medical Association even stated that barefoot walking (which mobilizes many joints in the feet) reduces the pain of arthritis in the knees!
  • Increases coordination in the entire body
  • Eliminates a neurological reflex called the arthrokenetic reflex which limits your strength and range of motion
  • Eliminates another reflex called the startle reflex which can cause pain, limit strength and range of motion and reduce your speed in athletics

How to do it:

Once again there are many programs out on the market but having seen most of them I can tell you that none of them actually address every joint in the body through their full ranges of motion at all speeds except for Z-Health's products.

The R-Phase is Z-Health's Level 1 program and I-Phase is the Level 2 program. I don't think most athletes can begin to be their potential without at least I-Phase level of mobility. After I-Phase an athlete will want to explore S-Phase which stands for "sports-phase."

Most of my fitness enthusiasts are content with R-Phase but many move on to I-Phase and love it.


Visual and Vestibular Training

Your visual system consists of your eyes, your optic nerve and your brain. We don't actually see with our eyes, rather electromagnetic energy waves hit the rods and cones of the eyes. This sends neural signals to via your optic nerves to rear of your brain where the brain must now interpret that information and allow you to perceive it as visual. In other words, it is not enough to "see" something, the brain actually has to provide you with context, a potential response (a snowball flying at your face so you duck), color, depth, etc.

That is an amazingly complex process!

What is it:

Most people think of vision as 20/20, the eye test you get before you can drive. Well that is actually eye sight, not vision. Eye sight basically means that at 20 feet you can see what you should see at 20 feet. If you have poor eye sight, say 15/20 then you can see at 15 feet what you should be able to see at 20 feet.

Why do it:

Vision is dynamic, it is in motion. When you drive you look at the car in front of you, then you scan peripherally to make sure no cars jut into your lane suddenly. You shift your eyes to your rear-view mirror and then to your speedometer when you see that cop. This eye shifting and taking in peripheral information is what makes a great athlete versus an average athlete.

The faster your brain can interpret the information from the rear-view mirror, the faster it can go back to its job of seeing peripheral information or that the car in front of you just slammed on their brakes.

It makes me wonder what would happen to the number of car accidents if people would just spend 2 minutes per day on the various aspects of vision training... my guess is that there would be far fewer.

As an fighter imagine a super quick jab flying at your face, how fast do your visual reflexes have to be to parry that punch in time? Pretty darn fast. But now that jab was a fake and your opponent is shooting in for a take down, you need to be able to quickly shift your focus from the jab to a lower target and react in fashion. Now a 2nd opponent rushes from the side to sucker punch you... your brain must be able to interpret that information and consolidate the take down with the sucker punch and make an appropriate reaction.

For other athletes, go back and watch that Barry Sanders video and notice how he has an amazing ability to know where the holes are in the defense. That too is dynamic visual skill.

How to do it:

There are a several elements to dynamic visual training; near/far eye shifts (like the speedometer to car in front of you), side to side eye movements, visual tracking of objects (such as catching a ball), peripheral vision, reactive vision, and much more.

While some Z-Health products such as the Neural Warm-up 1 and 2 and S-Phase have some visual training drills, seeking out a Z-Health "Level 3" certified Movement Performance Specialist is a great idea (Find a Trainer here). A Level 3 coach can assess your current skill level at each visual skill and give you a number of exercise to improve your specific sports performance.

For you fitness enthusiasts keeping your visual skills sharp means not losing your vision as you age and avoiding car accidents.

Whoops, almost forgot vestibular training...

Vestibular System

Well your vestibular system is the system responsible for equilibrium during motion.

It consists of 3 semi-circular canals in your inner ears. These canals are filled with a liquid that spins as your head moves. This spinning liquid relays information to your brain about your movement, it keeps you from falling down, essentially telling you which way is up.Vestibular System head movement



For the fitness enthusiast it means not falling on your butt when slipping on ice. For athletes and fighters it means staying on your feet when getting hit by an opponent.

I often tell my combatives athletes that when they are in someone's Thai clench being thrown around it is a strong vestibular system that keeps them from being thrown down to the ground.




Joint Toughening

What is it:

For athletes joint injuries are the main type of injury incurred. ACL and meniscus tears are far too common. For fitness enthusiasts shoulder injuries are very common. Joint toughening literally means making the joints thicker, stronger and more injury resistant.

Why do it:

Clearly the stronger your joint's connective tissues are the more injury resistant you are. But did you also know that tendon strength directly limits your muscle strength and explosiveness? Your nervous system acts like the governor in your car's engine, essentially not letting you utilize your full horsepower. As you strengthen your tendons and ligaments your nervous system will allow you to use more of your muscle strength and explosiveness.

How to do it:

Joint toughening does happen to a degree during resistance training but significantly more happens when doing ballistic movements. Kettlebell swings, snatches and other ballistic moves really build tendon strength. However it is best to include kettlebell swings and snatches in higher volume in the stamina/ energy systems section because they will create too much fatigue too early in your training program.

Sub-maximal plyometrics also develop tough tendons.

Ultimately some of the best joint toughening drills are R-Phase and I-Phase drills done at what is called sports speed.


Sports Skill Practice

It is always best to include skill practice before resistance or endurance training. The goal of skill training is not to just practice... it is to get better! It amazes me how often this simple principle is overlooked. It is my experience that people don't really understand how to practice to make improvements, at least not beyond a basic level of skill.

Skill practice is analyzing every single aspect of every movement you make and finding more efficiency, better leverage, etc. One of the best ways to do this is slow motion training. I heard a story about golf legend Ben Hogan, he supposedly used to practice his golf swing and even his approach as he walked up to the tea-off in super slow motion. People watching said it looked like a recording played in slow motion but when he hit the ball it would roll a couple of feet because he was really moving that slow.

Since many athletes will have a dedicated sports practice separate from their fitness training I would recommend putting your top 1 - 3 skills you want to improve upon and fit them in here where you can dedicate specific time to them. I typically cycle what I work on during this period of time each month so I can keep a variety of skills sharp just in case I don't get practice on them in my normal martial arts training.

Fitness enthusiasts may omit this section or use it to practice a new exercise. For instance, you may want to use the kettlebell snatch during your stamina / energy systems (cardio) section but you may not yet be skilled enough with the snatch to keep from banging your forearm. Well this is the perfect time to practice your technique, while you are fresh. From a fitness perspective, you are still burning calories and working your muscles during skill practice.


Resistance Training

Hooray! The part we have all been waiting for. At least this is what most people think of when they think of fitness.

This is where you customize it to your goals. If you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter this is a no-brainer, you practice your lifts to build strength. If you are a bodybuilder then you get enough volume to spur muscle growth. If you are a fitness enthusiast then you have lots of options but in my book I would advise you to do some heavy lifting to build some strength and add some volume if you are trying to put on muscle size... why wouldn't you want to add muscle size unless you have to stay in your weight class?

Muscle looks good! It increases your basal metabolic rate so you burn more calories while resting.

The amount of time you spend in resistance training is different for an athlete or fighter versus a fitness enthusiast, bodybuilder or strength athlete. Clearly the last 3 will spend a significant amount of their exercise time doing resistance exercise... I would advise somewhere between 25 to 60 minutes. Some studies have shown that 45 minutes should be the maximum time spent on resistance or intense cardio training due to lowered testosterone levels after 45 minutes so I wouldn't push your luck by going too much longer.

An athlete might only spend 15 to 35 minutes doing resistance training. Hit some heavy deadlifts, chinups, overhead presses, lunges, grip and neck training... just the big moves and small weaker joints that need to be strong like the neck or hands.

Frankly I don't care if you use barbells, dumbbells, bodyweight, kettlebells or other as long as you follow some simple concepts:

  • It is about movements not muscles
    • Compound movements like squats, lunges, pushups, chinups, snatches, cleans, jerks, etc.
    • Isolation exercises like bicep curls or tricep extensions or leg extensions have little carryover to strength and athletics, if any at all.
    • A bodybuilder might supplement their training by targeting muscles that are lagging but otherwise stick to compound movements.

  • Make sure to pick something up off of the ground
    • As humans we need to be able to pick things up so while yoga and bodyweight drills can be great, there is no picking anything up. So add some deadlifts.

  • Learn to be as efficient as possible, don't strain and kill yourself
    • Strive for "effortless power not powerful effort"
    • Great athletes make difficult things look easy, normal people make easy things look difficult
      • Example: Watch an Olympian or a trapeze artist do amazing things and they look effortless relatively speaking... now notice how people in your gym are doing the easiest exercise in the world, a dumbbell curl, but they are straining and making faces like they are passing a kidney stone... who looks better the Olympian or the guy struggling with a sissy curl?

  • And for God's sake, don't train to failure
    • This has been said time and time again, if training to failure was so hot then why is your bench press still the same year after year?
    • The best know that it is all about expressing perfect technique with progressively heavier weights over time, not just pushing hard with ego.


Stamina / Energy Systems

This is what kills me, everyone spends soooo much time worried about cardio and focused on cardio. Well if you are a marathon runner or triathlete then I get it, your sport is stamina / energy systems and you will likely be in the 20 minute category of resistance training.

But for everyone else including fighters I recommend 5 to 15 minutes max of cardio.


How can I say that when we know that a boxing match might go for 12 x 3 minute rounds or an MMA fight 3 to 5 x 5 minute rounds? Or a real fight might go... uhhh about 30 seconds... well anyway back to our sport fighter friends.

The reality of stamina and endurance is that the best strategy for not getting fatigued is being efficient in your movements and controlling your emotions. Tack on some high-intensity interval-style cardio and now you have a reserve tank of stamina when you need it.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people I see work cardio really super hard for a long period of time and then when they get in the ring or even help someone move furniture they get fatigued extremely quickly.

One of my clients told me recently about a friend of his who exercises also with kettlebells but goes overboard on the cardio and in the words of this individual, "gets his butt kicked every time he exercises." This person just happens to be full of pain and has stiff and achy joints. Well my client and he were helping another friend move furniture and during the move this guy was huffing and puffing and could barely keep up while my client who does a judicious 5 minutes of kettlebell swings at a medium-effort for cardio was running circles around this guy.

Why? Well the body adapts to the way you train it. I have nothing against improving ones cardio output, in fact it should be done judiciously. But if you train with ego, extreme effort and don't learn to remain calm and relaxed and conserve your energy you will end up wasting all of your cardio time.

Besides, if you are really practicing your sport, you are getting very specific targeted cardio and stamina for your sport. A boxer is getting specific cardio from sparring, not from jogging.


Cool Down

Great it is finally time for stretching right? Isn't that what everyone does for a cool down?

Yeah, but if everyone were jumping off of a cliff...

I have written elsewhere about the dangers and drawbacks of static stretching and the pros of dynamic mobility instead. For some strange reason people have been brain washed into thinking that unless they are holding a stretched position they are not stretching their muscles.

Well let me ask you a question... if you did a high kick does that stretch your muscles? If not then kick higher! So if that stretches your muscles then why do you need to go an specifically get into a static stretch position and hold that stretch? There is no physiological benefit to it.

If you are worried about stretching all of you muscles then by doing Z-Health dynamic mobility drills which take all of your muscles through each joint's full ranges of motion you are getting active stretching.

Active stretching is far superior to passive static stretching. Passive static stretching makes you weaker and more prone to injuries. Active stretching through controlled movement actually makes your brain smarter about movement and builds skill, coordination and strength in stretched positions!

So for a cool down I recommend specific targeted dynamic mobility drills with the intent of improving or restoring lost range of motion. If you see a Z-Health Level 4 Exercise Therapy Specialist (Find a Trainer here) they can show you how to specifically target areas that are holding your performance back.


Putting it All Together

Ok here are a few sample programs for different goals.

The Athlete and Fighter

5 - 10 minutes of Z-Health dynamic joint mobility - R-Phase and/or I-Phase depending on your skill level

3 minutes of Visual and Vestibular drills - focus on bringing up your weaknesses at first and later work on becoming a visual superstar

5 - 10 minutes of Joint Toughening - lower and upper body drills, sports speed R and I-Phase drills

5 - 15 minutes of Sport Skill Training

15 - 35 minutes of Resistance Training - remember the 80/20 rule here! 20% of your exercises get you 80% of your results

5 - 15 minutes of Stamina / Energy Systems Training - Higher intensity, interval-style cardio such as sprints, kettlebell swings or snatches or clean and jerks

5 minutes of targeted dynamic joint mobility to improve range of motion

40 - 90 minutes roughly


The Fitness Enthusiast

5 - 10 minutes of Z-Health dynamic joint mobility - R-Phase and/or I-Phase depending on your skill level

1 - 3 minutes of Visual and Vestibular drills - focus on bringing up your weaknesses at first and later work on becoming a visual superstar

3 - 5 minutes of Joint Toughening - lower and upper body drills, sports speed R and I-Phase drills

5 minutes of Sport Skill Training - optional if desired to practice a new exercise

20 - 45 minutes of Resistance Training - remember the 80/20 rule here! 20% of your exercises get you 80% of your results

5 - 15 minutes of Stamina / Energy Systems Training - kettlebell swings, snatches, etc.

5 minutes of targeted dynamic joint mobility to improve range of motion

35 - 90 minutes roughly


The Bodybuilder or Strength Athlete

5 - 10 minutes of Z-Health dynamic joint mobility - R-Phase and/or I-Phase depending on your skill level

1 - 3 minutes of Visual and Vestibular drills - focus on bringing up your weaknesses at first and later work on becoming a visual superstar

3 - 5 minutes of Joint Toughening - lower and upper body drills, sports speed R and I-Phase drills

15 minutes of Sport Skill Training - optional if desired to practice a new exercise

45 - 60 minutes of Resistance Training - remember the 80/20 rule here! 20% of your exercises get you 80% of your results

5 - 10 minutes of Stamina / Energy Systems Training - This is merely for health and to keep you from being a big slow muscle-head who gasses out from eating your food too fast. Sprints or kettlebell swings are appropriate here.

5 minutes of targeted dynamic joint mobility to improve range of motion

60 - 90 minutes roughly



Following a fitness program like this will allow you to hit all of the areas of fitness that most people ignore. If you think that the extra mobility and visual exercises take up too much time then realize that I am not asking you to spend 15 minutes walking on a treadmill, stretching or doing lots of warm-up sets before you do your resistance and cardio. In fact, don't do that stuff. In essence you are replacing time-wasting crap with bad-ass building coolness!

The only reason to exercise longer than 90 minutes (45 - 60 minutes maximum of that should be intense stuff) is if you are either 1) on steroids or 2) a professional athlete who doesn't have a job, high stress life and can sleep for 10+ hours per night with a nap in-between.

Us mortals should not exceed our limitations of recovery!

What if you only have 15 or 20 minutes to exercise? Well then do 3 - 5 dynamic mobility drills, 1 visual drill, resistance training and then wrap up with 5 minutes of cardio. Just compress the above templates.

As a tip, I do most of my Z-Health dynamic mobility drills between sets of my resistance training. Don't do visual training in-between sets for reasons too complicated to get into right now.

Step up your game and reap the benefits of being a complete athlete!



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