ISSA Chapter 9: Principles of Program Design
ISSA Chapter 9: Principles of Program Design 5

Chapter Goals:

  • Be able to list and discuss the most common acute training variables in fitness.
  • Discuss each of the main principles of program design and how a fitness professional uses them to create exercise programming.
  • Discuss the main types of exercise periodization.
  • Know about overreaching and overtraining in exercise and fitness.
  • Be able to define the elements of an effective fitness program.


Fitness program design is the systematic development of a fitness program or process using assessments, the elements of fitness, periodization, and periodic reassessment.

Periodization is an organized approach to training involving progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific time.

The principles of program design serve to make each of the aspects mentioned in the previous chapter better. These principles of program design serve as the foundation for effective programming of fitness.

Acute Training Variables

Acute training variables are the components that specify how an exercise or training program is performed.

The acute training variables are modified on the basis of the client’s abilities, desired training outcomes, and progress through their training program.

These are the common acute training variables:

  • Type
  • Exercise Selection
  • Exercise Order
  • Intensity
  • Sets
  • Reps
  • Frequency
  • Range of Motion
  • Time
  • Tempo
  • Time Under Tension
  • Rest

Manipulating these variables leads to achieving training goals in an optimal and efficient way.

The possible muscular adaptations that occur due to training are changes in muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and power.


This refers to the techniques, equipment, or methods that are used to complete an activity.

All modalities of exercise are included here. It also can include the type of equipment used for exercise.

Exercise Selection

Exercise selection means the specific exercises executed in a workout session.

This can be one of the most important training variables to adjust to ensure optimal adaptation.

In strength training programs, some exercises can be more effective than other similar ones, so this will matter.

Exercise Order

This one is a bit self-explanatory. Once you have your exercises chosen, you need to have the most optimal order for them.

Typically, high-intensity compound exercises are a priority to be done before completing the accessory exercises.

In essence, do the exercises requiring the most effort first.

Compound exercises use multiple. joints and require multiple muscles and muscle groups.

Accessory exercises are supplementary focused movements or exercises that strengthen synergist and supporting muscles to help a person do a primary movement.


Intensity is a measurable amount of force or effort given to an activity to exercise often expressed as a percentage of effort compared to a person’s max effort.

Oftentimes, we see intensity measured as a percentage of effort compared to a person’s max effort.

Load is used to specifically describe the amount of resistance used in a strength training exercise.

Resistance Training Intensity Protocol by Training Goal

  • Muscular endurance = 67% or less
  • Hypertrophy = 67 – 85% or less
  • Maximum strength = 85% or more
  • Single-rep power event = 80 – 90%
  • Multiple-rep power event = 75 – 85%


Sets are the number of times an exercise or group of exercises are done. The number of sets done in a training session is adjusted based on the client’s training goals.

Every training outcome has an ideal range of sets for each exercise to promote the desired adaptation.

Sets can also depend on reps done and relates to the workout time and intensity.

Sets Protocol by Training Goal

  • Muscular endurance = 1 – 3 sets
  • Hypertrophy = 3 – 4 sets
  • Maximum strength = 3 – 5 sets
  • Power = 3 – 5 sets


Reps describe the number of times an exercise is completed in a set.

Every rep contributes to some level of muscle fatigue, muscle damage, and the physiological response had during recovery.

Intraset muscle fatigue is muscle fatigue occurring within one single set of an exercise.

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Repetition Protocol by Training Goal

  • Muscular endurance = 15 or more reps
  • Hypertrophy = 6 – 12 reps
  • Maximum strength = 1 – 6 reps
  • Power = 1 – 5 reps


This is a description of how many times training happens in a specific period or how often an exercise is done.

This variable is closely linked with the desired training outcome.

Range of Motion

This is the amount of movement in a joint and it is measured in degrees of motion.

In movements with multiple joints working, the range of motion is equivalent to the total movement of all primary joints.

Partial reps are reps of an exercise done with an intentional reduction in range of motion.


This is the duration of an activity or training session. The overall duration of an exercise bout is often linked directly to the desired outcome.


This is the speed at which an exercise or movement pattern is done.

Tempo is usually written as eccentric count : isometric hold count : concentric count : isometric hold count.

Tempo Protocol by Training Goal

Muscular endurance = 4:0:6:0
Hypertrophy = 3:1:3:1
Maximum strength = 3:0:1:0
Power = Fastest controllable tempo

Time Under Tension

This is the amount of time a muscle is engaged as a set, completed from start to finish.


This is the amount of time spent in recovery between sets done.

Recovery time is the time between different training sessions.

Active recovery is low-intensity exercise or activity that can promote and accelerate muscular and metabolic recovery.

Rest Protocol by Training goal

  • Muscular endurance = 30 – 60 seconds
  • Hypertrophy = 30 – 60 seconds
  • Maximum strength = 2 – 5 minutes
  • Power = 1 – 2 minutes

The Principles of Fitness

These principles will outline the ways that training adaptations happen in fitness programs and the use of variables.

These principles are based on science and should be the basis of exercise programming.

Principle of Specificity

This principle states that training needs to be specific to one’s own goals, as the adaptation seen will be based on the type of training done.

Clients need to all begin with training which is right for their current fitness level. From there, the type of training needs to be specific to the goals they wish to achieve.

If someone is training for an obstacle course event, they need to train those exact skills which will transfer to that event.

SAID Principle

This stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.

Stress on the human body, whether this be biomechanical or neurological, will need the body to adapt. specifically to these demands.

The specificity of training will be as specific as metabolism, muscle fibers, mechanical, and neuromuscular changes.

Training for an event in a sprint will be very different from training for a marathon.

Principle of Variability

Training programs need to include variations in intensity, duration, volume, and other aspects of practice.

The acute variables of training programs must be changed to prevent plateaus, injuries from overuse, boredom, and burnout.

Principle of Individual Differences or Diminishing Returns

This principle relies on the concept that there is no one specific way to train every client due to the uniqueness of each person.

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Everyone’s genetics are different, even people in the same family.

The concept of diminishing returns claims that everyone has a set genetic limit to their potential and, eventually, effort put into training will no longer produce the same results.

Results are going to get less and less as a program goes on, that is why programs need to evolve and challenge in different ways.

Principle of Progressive Overload

The body must be forced to adapt and overcome stress for it to progress.

For example, if someone wishes to increase bicep strength, the client must lift a weight higher than what is normal for adaptations to occur.

Progressive overload can be used in specific variables also. Like with:

  • range of motion
  • training volume
  • intensity
  • training density
  • frequency

Training density is the combination of volume and time equaling the total volume of work in a specific time frame.

Principle of Reversibility

This can be simplified to “use it or lose it”.

Essentially, this means that training effects will diminish if clients discontinue physical activity for two weeks or more. This is called detraining.

These detraining effects can be reversed back once training is resumed.

General Adaptation Syndrome

This Idea claims that the body goes through three stages of adaptation when it is responding to stress.

This is a prime reason as to why we use periodization in training.

If a training stimulus is intense and challenges the body enough, it will decrease fitness for a brief time.

The body then goes through a time of supercompensation, which means that the trained function has a higher performance capacity than before training.

The three stages of stress adaptation are:

  • Alarm: the initial response to stress. The common symptoms are fatigue, weakness, or soreness. People see gains in strength but usually through neuromuscular changes. This lasts 2 – 3 weeks.
  • Resistance: after a lot of continued exercise, the resistance stage starts for 4 – 6 weeks. The changes in the body include biomechanical, mechanical, and structural.
  • Exhaustion: this may happen at any point in the GAS. This has the client experiencing burnout, overtraining, or illness as a result.

The stimulus fatigue recovery adaptation principle is similar and it says that the greater a stimulus intensity is, the longer the recovery will need to be to produce adaptations.


Periodizing simply means to break up into different phases, with each phase aiming to elicit specific adaptations.

The main goals associated with periodization are:

  • managing fatigue and reducing the possibility of overtraining
  • improving readiness for a sport
  • helping to set and manage short-term and long-term goals

A training macrocycle is 1 – 4 years long, but could be a bit shorter. It represents a training program as a whole.

A training mesocycle is 3 – 9 weeks, and many of these make up a macrocycle.

A training microcycle is the shortest of the cycles and is typically a week of sessions.

Linear periodization

This is when a program progresses from low-intensity to high-intensity across the whole macrocycle.

It is a much more predictable program than other ones as it progresses in a linear and constant fashion.

Training volume will typically decrease, while the intensity of training increases.

Undulating Periodization

This type of periodization follows an alternating pattern.

The training volume and intensity roll through a program and can change on a daily or weekly basis.

Neural fatigue is prevented when training at high intensities.

Block Periodization

Every mesocycle has a specific purpose for the client. There is. function on one of four or more common blocks or their subset features.

  • Foundational training: elements of flexibility, mobility, core, and balance training.
  • Strength training: resistance training includes both bodyweight and loaded activity.
  • Metabolic training: aerobic and anaerobic energy system training including cardiovascular exercise and intervals.
  • Speed, Agility, and Quickness training: elements of agility and plyometrics.

Phase potentiation is the strategic sequencing of programming categories to increase the potential of later training and increase long-term success.

Overreaching and Overtraining

If clients do not get proper rest and recovery, they may slip into these two conditions and even overtraining syndrome.

Overreaching is the accumulation of training or non-training stress resulting from short-term decreases in the ability to perform.

Overtraining is the accumulation of training or non-training stress resulting in a long-term decrease in performance.

Overtraining syndrome is a maladapted response to excessive workloads without adequate recovery. It can result in problems throughout many body systems along with mood changes.

Sings and symptoms of overtraining:

  • muscle cramps
  • irritability, restlessness, excitability, anxiousness
  • loss of motivation and vigor in training
  • lack of mental concentration and focus
  • lack of appreciation for normally enjoyable things
  • physical performance decline even as training continues
  • change in appetite
  • weight loss
  • sleep disturbances
  • elevated resting heart rate
  • elevated resting body temperature

Causes of Overtraining:

  • low glycogen
  • cumulative microtraumas
  • decreased glutamine
  • oxidative stress
  • automated nervous system stress symptoms
  • hypothalamic causes
  • cytokine release

Training Categories and the Elements of a Fitness Program

The elements of fitness can be divided into four training categories: foundational, strength, metabolic, and SAQ training.

Foundational Training

This type of training encompasses the elements of flexibility, mobility, core, and balance training.

These are concepts that serve to prepare the body for movement.

It can be a good idea to add these concepts into a dynamic warm-up and every session to prepare the body.

The difficulty of these foundations will likely progress as the program goes on.

Strength Training

This is a category that will include resistance training.

Resistance for these trainings can be anything from your own body weight, to tools like dumbbells, barbells, and bands.

The idea behind this element is to increase muscle mass and improve muscular endurance and strength.

The training variables of tempo, reps, volume, rest, and time under tension are all focused on to get the appropriate type of adaptation to occur during resistance training.

Metabolic Training

This type of training is geared toward training the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.

The technical definition of metabolic training is actually any exercise to improve the performance of the energy systems we use.

This style of training addresses the conditioning of the three energy systems, is a good choice for burning calories, and trains the body to perform dynamic movements.

Energy system timings

-ATP/CP is present for 0 – 10 seconds, an example would be the 40-yard sprint.

Glycolytic is present for 10 – 120 seconds, an example would be a kettlebell circuit with multiple reps of three moves.

Aerobic is present past 2 minutes and an example would be 20 minutes on the elliptical.

Speed, Agility, and Quickness Training

SAQ training is a category that won’t be trained by all clients, or they may only slightly do part of it.

Agility training is a functional aspect of any training program to improve one’s balance and prevent injury and falls.

But, when we look at jump training and ballistic training, this might not be good for the majority of people’s goals.

Ballistic training is a form of power training that involves throwing weight or jumping with weights to improve explosive power.

When used for athletics, SAQ training needs to align with the principle of specificity and relate to the sport of the athlete training.

ISSA Chapter 9: Principles of Program Design 6
ISSA Chapter 9: Principles of Program Design 7
ISSA Chapter 9: Principles of Program Design 8

Tyler Read

Tyler Read, BSc, CPT. Tyler holds a B.S. in Kinesiology from Sonoma State University and is a certified personal trainer (CPT) with NASM (National Academy of sports medicine), and has over 15 years of experience working as a personal trainer. He is a published author of running start, and a frequent contributing author on Healthline and Eat this, not that.

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