Programming Pitfalls Roundtable: 4 Strength Coaches Share Their Opinion


We connected with leading strength coaches from the collegiate, high school, and private sectors to learn some of the common program design mistakes they've made or are seeing on a regular basis. Take some time to learn (and avoid!) these common programming pitfalls.

Rob Van Valkenburgh: Ignoring The Basics In Favor Of Complexity

The biggest problem I see in program design is coaches wanting to bypass the foundational movements and go directly to complex movements. This often happens because of the intense pressure to market their coaching program and appease an athlete's desire to replicate what they see online.

In today’s world, the field of strength and conditioning is hypercompetitive and flooded with nonsense-laden videos and training tips. With Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, athletes are inundated with ‘cutting edge’ training techniques and extreme feats of strength and agility.

The result of all this is coaches desiring to do what they see online - regardless of the athlete's specific training age or current competency level. To top it off, many athletes believe the quality of a coach is often judged by the number of 'likes' or followers they have on social media.  

When this mindset takes over a coach’s program design, they end up skipping over foundational movements and moving directly into compound lifts such as the back squat, power clean, and other Olympic lifting variations.

In my opinion, this desire to skip the basics and go directly to the sexy lifts is the number one cause of injuries in youth athletics.  

The great majority of young athletes have some form of nagging pain in their back, knee, or shoulders due to the rapid implementation of lifts containing heavy external loads before the athlete has the structure to embrace the prescribed weight.

Coaches are in a rush to put up big numbers and as a result they overlook the long-term physical development of their athletes.  

As the saying goes – “the wider the base, the higher the peak.” If a coach provides the athletes with a structured program that takes into account mobility, stability, and lifting competency with basic movements, the athlete will have a much higher potential for advancement in the weight room.  


Simple lifts such as the Goblet Squat, Deadlift, Pull Up, and Push Up should be mastered before an athlete is given a compound movement or Olympic lifting variation.

If a coach takes the time to do a 6-8 week General Physical Preparation phase and truly teach movement competency, neuromuscular control, and lifting technique, the athlete will see a greater strength return than if the coach went directly into advanced movements.  

As coaches, it is important to remember we are dealing with athletes who are still growing and developing physically. We have to understand that a young athlete does not have the body control or movement mastery to perform complex movements early on in training.

The struggle is this – not every coach is willing to bypass the lifts that athletes want to do in favor of what they need to do. In addition, not every coach is willing to put the phone down, stop recording videos, and forgo a great marketing opportunity for the chance to teach foundational movements that will set the athlete up for success.  

Yet if we take the time to teach the proper technique and educate our athletes, their long-term athletic development will be greatly increased.

Rob Van Valkenburgh is a 10-year veteran of the strength game. He writes regularly on the TrainHeroic blog and on his website at

Dr. Chris Holder: Remaining Stuck In Your Ways

I’m guilty of this myself at times in my career, and see other coaches getting stuck in this rut: we all become comfortable with what we are doing, and we get good at coaching these items, so the impulse to make dramatic overhauls gets muted.

I know young coaches are going to be sucked into this cycle because it becomes familiar and safe. We all find ourselves married to a grouping of exercises or programming sequences. I’m committed to the tier system, or I’m locked into HardStyle Kettlebell exercises, or I’ve been doing "this" so long where doing "that" isn’t even on the table.

It took me years to get out of this cycle. I learned a very specific way of programming from my mentor, a specific way of writing and thinking. I became almost a slave to it. And it wasn’t that the programming needed abandoning; the problem was more the fear of change. Look, this has been working for years now, why on earth would I consider changing?

The reason we need to consider trying new things, experimenting with new ideas, and not getting locked into one way of doing things is the incoming athletes are changing.


They don’t have the same childhood experiences we did when we were kids; therefore, their physical issues are changing. In my experience, the system I walked into my career with was perfect for the demographic I was seeing. Our approach was ideal for glute problems we were seeing as the norm, so I didn’t need to adjust.

As time went on, the kids started showing up with different issues, ones I was ill-equipped to deal with. Around 2008, the wheels came off for me. What we “had always done” started to create problems for my athletes. We started seeing various low back problems brought on by the training itself. The squat-ass-to-grass-no-matter-what idea began to be more of a hindrance than a creed of any kind. What was even more troubling was the athletes were having issues with deadlifts and deadlift variations we had never seen before.

Humorously, I have gone almost the entirely opposite direction now. Out of necessity, we made the needed adjustments. I ate a lot of crow and then came out the other side enlightened. Besides my kettlebell swings, I’m no longer committed to anything.

We are adaptable. We are not handcuffed to any ideas, which means we are able to navigate whatever the physical culture of the time presents. I suggest you do the same.

Dr. Chris Holder is a 30-year veteran of the strength game and head S&C at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, CA. You can read some of Chris's work here.

Hunter Wood: Mixing and Mashing Different Programs Into One

With so many options available to Strength Coaches and trainers, it often becomes difficult to choose which exercises to put into our programs for our athletes. This often leads to unorganized and ineffective training programs.

Early in my career, my training programs had a little bit of everything ranging from Gray Cook’s functional movement to strongman training. While I do believe my athletes improved, I also believe that we spent way too much time working on the fluff instead of the basics of strength and athleticism.

Now 11 years in, my programs and training have become very simple but effective - leading to a big increase in results for our athletes and teams.

Unfortunately, many athletes are not very good at the “basics” of athleticism and strength. Without these basics, these athletes are left with a very unstable foundation from which to build on.


Often young coaches design programs with a variety of different exercises in the name of “sport specificity” when these athletes are not fundamentally sound in their skills. This can lead to an increased risk of injury and a decreased level of performance on the field or court.

Mike Boyle often speaks of “KISS” or Keep It Simple Stupid. I believe as strength coaches, we can best serve our athletes by having them perform the basics of athleticism and weightlifting savagely well. Once they have become great at the basics, and only then, should we allow them to start working on more advanced movements - knowing that many of our athletes may never reach this point during their training with us.

Have your athletes master the basic lifts in the following movements to increase performance:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Push (Vertically/Horizontally)
  • Pull (Vertically/Horizontally)
  • Sprint
  • Jump
  • Change of Direction
  • Carry

Hunter Wood is the owner of The Athlete Factory in Alamonte Springs, FL. He's a graduate of East Carolina University and 4-year letter winner on the football team.

David Reynolds: Not Building a Foundation of Good Movement

We all too often throw athletes into our programs without first seeing what knowledge they have of lifting. Then, we do not instruct them well enough on how to perform the movements we have our teams doing, especially the Olympic movements. This often happens when:

  • We have a need for the new athlete step up and play immediately
  • He or she is providing a huge need as a backup.

It seems we are always coming up against time.


What I have found over the last twenty years of being a strength coach is two things can then happen:

  1. Athletes get really frustrated with trying to learn the lifts fast, which could possibly lead to injury
  2. As the strength coach, we get frustrated by the athlete not getting to the goal fast enough for our liking, or the head coach gets upset because the athlete is not producing at the level he thinks he should

I notice where we fail athletes is thinking they should come in and jump right into the mix of knowing how to lift weights when they have probably never been introduced to weightlifting.

What my staff and I have done to combat this problem is to start what many call “Block Zero,” “Ground Zero,” or any other name of the strength coach’s choice. All of our new athletes—regardless of ability or grade—start in our “Raider Ways” program. It covers specific goals we want them to reach over their four years of high school varsity sports.

Our thinking is similar to that of a crock pot—we want to slow cook our athletes, especially at the middle school level where they can get up to seven years of training.

Without a comprehensive method of teaching athletes to lift, we are only going to get the results of a hurried process. By building on a foundation of proper form and technique, we will see our athletes respond with greater gains and stronger performances in the weight room and on the field or court. By using the following outline, we have achieved great results at The Baylor School.

Raider Ways: Baylor Strength and Conditioning Progressions

Level 1 Novice (First year in weight-room)

Overall Goals

  • Learn weight-room terminology, behavior, and expectations
  • Develop base of strength and increase relative strength to bodyweight ratio
  • Learn basic Olympic movements

Level 2 Developmental (volume)


  • 1 Year completed in level 1
  • Front squat and Trap bar Deadlift male 1.25 female 1 x your bodyweight
  • Technically proficient with male .75 female .5 x bodyweight on pwr cln and push press
  • Technically proficient with male .5 female .35 x bodyweight on pwr sn

Overall Goals and objectives

  • Continued development of relative strength to bodyweight ratio
  • Develop work capacity through volume training
  • Introduction of squat variations (back and oh squats)
  • Introduction of Olympic variation
  • Introduction to single leg variations

Level 3 Advanced


  • Zero surgeries or serious injuries in the past year
  • 2 Year minimum in our program
  • Back squat male 1.5 female 1.25 x bodyweight
  • Dl male 1.5 female 1.25 x bodyweight
  • Clean male 1.1 female .8 x bodyweight

Overall Goals and objectives

  • Introduce max effort lifting
  • Strength and Power development

Level 4 Elite


  • Zero surgeries or serious injuries for the past calendar year
  • Squat and DL male 2x female 1.65 x bodyweight
  • Clean male 1.3 female 1.1 x bodyweight

Goals and objectives

  • Max strength, power, and speed
  • Sport specific training

David Reynolds is the Head S&C at The Baylor School. You can connect with him on Twitter.

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About The Author

Colby Knepp is the man behind the Marketing at TrainHeroic. He's also a husband, father, strength coach, former rugby athlete and life-long learner. Colby is a big fan of a Moscow mules, ass-to-grass squats and Korean BBQ.