Primary Pattern Programming: A Simple System For Better Results


As strength and conditioning coaches, we all need programming strategies that deliver both safety and predictable results in the most efficient manner possible.

Our programming also needs to occupy the sweet spot between structure and flexibility: your athletes are all following the same programming template, but at the same time, they have enough freedom to address their unique, individualized needs within the confines of that structure.

In this article, I’d like to introduce just such a programming template. It’s called Primary Pattern Programming (PPP from here forward), and I believe it’s the most powerful approach to creating simple, yet powerful training sessions that maximize your athlete’s return on investment. 

First I’ll provide a brief overview of PPP, and then we’ll dig in and do a bit of fine-tuning.

Organize Workouts Around Patterns, Not Muscles Or Exercises 

The concept of patterns is certainly not new, but in my mind, it’s not been adequately exploited. As it turns out, the most result-producing “bang for the buck” resistance training drills — particularly for athletes — come from a family of four “primary” patterns:

  1. Squat
  2. Push
  3. Hinge
  4. Pull

If you perform a workout where each of the four patterns are represented, you’ve covered maximum muscular territory with a minimum number of exercises.

Here’s a simple example of what I’m talking about — this is what PPP workouts actually look like in real time:

Session #1:

  • (Squat) Front Squat
  • (Push) Incline Dumbbell Press
  • (Hinge) RDL
  • (Pull) Pullups

Then, your second weekly session might look like this:

Session #2:

  • (Squat) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
  • (Push) Military Press
  • (Hinge) Weighted Back Extension
  • (Pull) Landline Row

Common PPP Questions

Now allow me to anticipate a few questions you might have at this stage:

“Is a split squat a squat? I thought it was a lunge pattern.”

Some coaches utilize more than 4 patterns — just as an example, Dr. John Rusin uses 6. I’ve simply chosen to consolidate lunging and squatting into a single category since they both affect the same musculature.


“What about (exercise in question here)?”

Not all valuable exercises fall neatly into these four patterns (although to be sure, most of them do). Power cleans, core/ab drills, sled dragging, some kettlebell drills, direct arm and calf exercises, and get ups are just a few examples.

This brings us to a unique characteristic of PPP training. There are two categories of exercises used in each training session: compulsory (the 4 patterns) and “optional.” Don’t be thrown by the term “optional” — by this I don’t mean unimportant, I mean less important.

If your primary goal is to develop bigger, stronger athletes (and I believe that’s 99% of you), you need to prioritize the “big rocks” of strength and hypertrophy. Once those 4 movements (the “compulsories”) have been completed, you may then (time and energy allowing) move on to 1-2 “optional” movements.

The 2 optional exercise slots should be used to address the specific and unique needs of the individual athlete — perhaps it’s core control for one athlete or power development for another. Alternatively, these 2 exercises could also be used for something “fun” that might help improve adherence — curls, for example.

“Can I do the 4 compulsory exercises in circuit fashion?”

Not only can you, but I’d also strongly recommend it. While I recognize not all gym environments are amenable to circuits, I believe circuit-style training is superior to "station” style training in at least three important ways:

First, training circuit-style conserves energy and allows for a faster overall workout. In PPP workouts, you go from squat to push to hinge to pull, in that order.

Secondly, when you train station-style, the first exercise you do receives the brunt of your energy. This is generally seen as a plus for station training (you place the most important movement first, so it receives your best efforts). However, this strategy can result in a few unintended consequences.

  • It’s easy to develop muscular imbalances (e.g., strong chest, weak back).
  • It can lead to overuse injury issues. As I say this, I’m specifically thinking about guys who spend the first hour of their workout benching, and then everything else receives back burner treatment. The shoulder problems that result from this are typically blamed on the bench press, when it’s much more probable that the culprit is too much/too hard benching. When you train in circuits, however, no single exercise receives the lion’s share of your time and energy. The result? More balanced development and fewer injuries. 

Lastly, circuit training leads to a greater cardiovascular effect compared to the station-style training approach. This may not necessarily be a plus in every situation, but it’s probably beneficial in most situations.

“Ok I see your point, but what if an athlete has a specific weakness (say, leg strength) that I feel needs special attention — should I still use circuit training?”

Great question. There are two different ways you could approach this situation:

  1. Perform the weak exercise pattern (the squat pattern using your example) first, and then perform the remaining 3 exercises in circuit fashion.
  2. Apply the “Hub And Spoke” method: Imagine a wheel with 3 spokes. The hub of that wheel represents the exercise you’ll be emphasizing for that workout, and the remaining 3 movements will be the “spokes.” Very simply, every other set for the entire workout will be for the hub exercise. Here’s what that might look like just so that it’ll be very clear:
  • Set 1: Pullups
  • Set 2: Front Squat
  • Set 3: Back Extension
  • Set 4: Front Squat
  • Set 5: Military Press
  • Set 6: Front Squat
  • Set 7: Pullups
  • Set 8: Front Squat
  • Set 9: Back Extension
  • Etc., etc.

“What about sets and reps?”

Use whatever set/rep format you’d typically use for the training goal at lower reps/higher intensities for strength acquisition, and higher reps/moderate intensities for hypertrophy and/or work capacity.

Also, if you like to use “intensification” methods such as drop sets, forced reps (ugh, don’t get me started — I’m just trying to accommodate everyone here), or tempo manipulation, all of these can be easily applied to PPP workouts. 

“How many days a week should my athletes train?”

Only you know your unique circumstances, but that aside, I’d recommend 3 sessions a week for most applications.

If you need or desire to train more often than that, I’d simply do “clean up” work on 2-3 of the non-lifting days. And by “clean up,” here’s what I mean:

Lifting is like cooking — it leads to a positive outcome (the meal) but also a negative outcome (a messy kitchen). Hard lifting is similar — you get stronger and more muscular, but you also may suffer from reduced mobility, stiffness, recovery challenges, and so on.

So use your “off” days for whatever you like to use for these purposes — foam rolling, light cardio, stretching, corrective exercise, or any other “active rest” strategies you find to be effective.

“Would you provide a sample 4-week PPP program?"

With pleasure! Here’s a sample program designed for off-season athletes or anyone who otherwise needs more muscle and better work capacity.

Sample 4-Week PPP Hypertrophy Cycle 

Session #1:

  • Squat: High Bar Squat
  • Push: Hammer Incline Press Machine
  • Hinge: RDL
  • Pull: T Bar Row
  • Optional #1: EZ Bar Curl
  • Optional #2: Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extension

Session #2:

  • Squat: Leg Press
  • Push: Dumbbell Seated Press
  • Hinge: Barbell Hip Thrust
  • Pull: Chin-Ups
  • Optional #1: Toes-To Bar
  • Optional #2: Standing Calf Raise

Session #3:

  • Squat: Split Squat
  • Push: Ring Pushups
  • Hinge: Trap bar Deadlift
  • Pull: Low Cable Row
  • Optional #1: Hammer Curl
  • Optional #2: Tricep Pushdown

Weekly Loading And Progression Strategies:

  • Week One: After warmups, perform 4 work sets of 15 reps per set/per exercise. Adjust loads on each work set so you end up with a 7 RPE (3 reps away from failure) on each set — this may or may not require lowering the load slightly on later sets.
  • Week Two: After warmups, perform 5 work sets of 15 reps per set/per exercise. Adjust loads on each work set so you end up with an 8 RPE (2 reps away from failure) on each set — this may or may not require lowering the load slightly on later sets. Ideally (and this is a sign you’re recovering properly between workouts), you’ll be able to use slightly heavier (roughly 5%) weights than you used on week one, even though you’ve added one work set per exercise.
  • Week Three: After warmups, perform 5 work sets of 12 reps per set/per exercise. Adjust loads on each work set so you end up with a 9-9.5 RPE (1 rep or less away from failure) on each set — this may or may not require lowering the load slightly on later sets. Ideally (and this is a sign you’re recovering properly between workouts), you’ll be able to use slightly heavier (roughly 10%) weights than you used on week two since the reps have dropped from 15 to 12.
  • Week Four (Deload Week): After warmups, perform 2 work sets of 12 reps per set/per exercise. Adjust loads on each work set so you end up with a 7-8 RPE (Higher RPE for smaller muscles/exercises that feel fairly recovered, lower RPE for muscles/exercises that feel thrashed and/or less recovered). By significantly lowering the total training volume but maintaining intensity this week, you’ll lower fatigue while preserving fitness.

Note: Ideally, week one should feel too easy. Week three should feel too hard. Give yourself a “running start” over the first three weeks, then recover.

Logistical Suggestions for Group Training With PPP

Training groups of athletes is always a challenge compared to one-on-one scenarios. Here are a few suggestions for minimum stress and maximum productivity:

  • Plan out and actively visualize each group workout before it happens. How many athletes will attend? What exercises are planned? What equipment will you need? How many total sets will each athlete perform, and how long will that take? What are the most likely issues you’ll face, and how can you resolve them?
  • If you have an even number of athletes (let’s say 8 as an example), create four stations — one for each compulsory exercise. Position two athletes at each station. Everyone does their first set at their first station, then everyone rotates... rinse and repeat. If you have an odd number of athletes, simply make each group as close to equal lies as possible (Tip: smaller/weaker athletes tend to move faster between sets, so if you have 4 groups of 2 athletes and 2 groups of 3, populate the groups of three with your lightest/weakest people).
  • When subdividing one large group of athletes into several subsets (as in the example above) group people according to height and/or strength levels. The more homogeneous each subgroup is, the smoother things will go. 
  • Despite their value, barbell exercises — particularly squats and bench presses — are difficult in terms of space requirements, and they’re also time inefficient in terms of adjusting rack heights, changing weights, etc. Whenever possible/practical, stick with dumbbell movements, bodyweight drills (split squats, pull-ups, dips, etc.). When barbell drills are a must, consider setting up several stations preloaded with different weights. For example, if you’re benching and you have 5 bench stations, load one to 135, another to 185, another to 225, another to 275, another to 315. This way, instead of loading and unloading weights, athletes simply go to the station that has the load they need for their next set. Inevitably there will still be some load changing, but it’ll be much less than usual. Note: deadlifts, if you use them, present fewer logistical issues than barbell squats or bench presses, since there is no rack setting to adjust and weight changes are relatively quick and simple.
  • When your athletes are training in small groups, encourage everyone to be actively engaged on every set — if you’re not lifting, you should be spotting, cueing, and/or changing weights for the next lifter.
  • Finally, encourage autonomy and creative thinking in your athletes so they can make executive decisions “on the fly” when necessary. Maybe there’s a crowd at the deadlift platform, but there’s an unoccupied trap bar loaded up nearby — sure, it’s not technically on the program, but getting in a hard set of trap bar pulls is better than waiting 10 minutes for the deadlift bar you need, right?

Now Make It Your Own!

Despite my best efforts to make PPP as easy to understand as possible, I’m sure there will be questions about implementing this system for yourself. I’ll be monitoring this article, so post your comments and questions below and I’ll be more than happy to talk shop with everyone.

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About The Author

Prominent both the United States and across the globe, Charles is recognized as an insightful coach and innovator in the field of human performance. His knowledge, skills and reputation have lead to appearances on NBC’s The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show, along with numerous radio appearances. He has also authored more than a thousand articles for leading fitness publications and websites, and has lectured to eager audiences around the World.