Why Program Hopping Isn’t Always Bad

If you were to ask the top 100 lifters of 2018 what their “secret” is, you might get a lot of different answers, but I bet that a lot of them would say exactly the same thing: Consistency. Consistency is prized in powerlifting, and for good reason. If you’re not training hard, eating right, and sleeping well, day in and day out, you’re not going to get strong. There’s no way around that.

But those three things — training hard, eating, and sleeping — are where the benefits of consistency end. And yet, I bet you’ve seen dozens or even hundreds of lifters who get trapped in the same rut month after month and year after year. They follow the same diet and the same training program, no matter what, and guess what? They get the same results.

You can see the same thing in other sports as well. It’s the playoffs, so let’s take the NFL: a team might start off with a great passing offense in the first quarter, but if they don’t develop their ground game pretty quickly, you can damn well bet that their opponent is going to catch on and shut them down in the second half.

If there’s a real secret to getting stronger, it’s this:

The most successful lifters aren’t afraid of change. They get stronger because they’re willing to find what works for them in their specific situation.

Where Program Hopping Comes In

“Program hopping” refers to the much-maligned practice of starting out with a plan, sticking with it for a week or two, and then moving on to something completely different after a bad workout or even a boring one. The practice is frowned upon by serious lifters, and for good reason: If you’re constantly changing, you never give your plan a chance to work in the first place.

But, as I pointed out above, sticking with the same plan month after month and year after year usually leads to stagnation. How do you reconcile these two facts?

The answer involves the scope of your change. When you are hopping from one program to another, you’re changing an enormous number of variables: your training frequency, volume, intensity, movements, and probably a lot more. With that number of changes, it becomes impossible to determine which ones are helping — and which are hurting. Because, invariably, the new program has its flaws as well, and after they become apparent, you’ll be tempted to move on to another entirely new one.

A Better Solution: Small Changes

Instead, try treating your training program like you might a diet. With a (good) diet, you’re constantly making small changes. I’m working with Justin Harris of Troponin Nutrition in the off-season, and we’re making weekly changes to my plan. But they’re small ones.

This week, we added 10 grams of protein to each meal on my rest days, and 10 grams of carbs before and after training on my heaviest days. Next week, we’ll make another change of a similar scope.

You can do the same thing in your training. Here’s how.

1. Identify One Thing

Identify one thing in your current program that isn’t working. Now, by one thing, I don’t mean something like “my squat sucks.” If you’re not making progress on your squat, you could look at:

  • The frequency you’re training
  • The number of sets and reps you use
  • How heavy you’re going

Any one of those needs to be changed alone, because they all affect how the other works. If you change more than one at once, you’re probably going to run into problems.

2. Make a Game Plan

Decide how to change that one thing. If you’ve identified lack of squat frequency as your biggest problem, then you could either add a day of squatting (if you think you need more practice) or take one away (if you think you need more rest).

3. Be Patient

Give the change time to work! You can’t just change one thing one day and another the next. You must give your body time to adjust, or you run the chance of undermining the entire process.

Bonus: A “Small Changes” Sample Program

This is a sample from an off-season strength program I designed for a client after making a series of small changes to his current routine (over the course of several months). It worked quite well — and, if you really want to see the gory details, you can check out the full program over at my website.

Day 1: Squat Strength Work

  • Squat strength work: Choose a variation on your competition squat and work up to a top set of 6 reps. This shouldn’t be too challenging; you’re shooting for something that you can beat in the following week.
  • Bench volume work: Choose a variation on your competition bench press and perform 5×5 with 70% of your 1-rep max.
  • Glute bridge/ab superset: 3×10.

Day 2: Deadlift Strength Work

  • Deadlift strength work: Perform this exactly as you did the squat in day 1.
  • Quad accessory work: Choose any compound bodybuilding movement for the quads (think leg press, hack squat) and perform 3×10.
  • Ab Work: 3×10

Day 3: Bench Press Speed Work

  • Bench speed work: 6-8 sets of 3 using 45-50% of your 1-rep max. Advanced lifters can add accommodating resistance (bands or chains).
  • Shoulder accessory work: Choose an isolation bodybuilding movement (lateral raises, etc.) and perform 3×10.
  • Upper back accessory work: Use some type of vertical pulling motion (lat pulldown, chin) for 3×10.

Day 4: Squat Volume Work

  • Squat volume work: Choose a variation on your competition squat for 5×5 with 70% 1RM.
  • Hamstrings accessory work: You’re pretty much limited to hamstring curls of various types here; I prefer slightly higher reps for hams, so do 2×15 instead of 3×10.
  • Grip/abs superset: 2 sets to failure

Day 5: Deadlift Strength Work

  • Deadlift strength work: I prefer to use cluster sets on the deadlift, using 8-20 singles with anywhere between 70 and 95% of 1-RM.
  • Bench strength work: Perform this exactly as you did the squat strength work on day 1.
    Upper back accessory work: This time, choose a horizontal pull (seated row or similar) for 3×10.
    Biceps. 3×10

I like this program because the workouts are short, intense, and varied, and the moderate volume and intensity allow for the sustained progress necessary in the off-season. Now, you still need to periodize this program, as laid out in the full version, but if you’re familiar with the concepts of increasing intensity and decreasing volume, that should be pretty straightforward.

Of course, don’t forget to make small changes to this setup to make it completely your own!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.