The Power of Long-Term Programming

Feb 12, 2024 | by Matt Brown

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  Every person who steps foot in a gym environment is there for a specific reason, specific goal, or specific outcome but the million dollar question is how do we get from our starting point to our goal? We all have a plan in place whether we have thought of it ourselves, found it online, following a friend, or prescribed by a trainer for us to achieve the goal we set out to complete and all of these different avenues may have different outcomes.  The more specific the plan, the better chance of success.  This plan will take into consideration variables such as your ability, how often you train, the type of training you enjoy, your lifestyle, and any limitations you may have, and (hopefully) the plan put in place is well thought out and gives you the best chance to succeed.  As the title of this article suggests, we are looking into long-term programming, and while we all want to see results tomorrow, the structure of long-term programming will give you the best chance to improve your performance and sustain your improvements. 

Whether you are an athlete playing a specific sport or a beginner gym goer who wants to continually improve their performance, long-term programming will keep your training interesting and continually keep pushing you as you improve your output.

The 3 P’s of Fitness Program Design With James Fitzgerald – Prioritize, Plan, Periodize

Putting Your Long-Term Program Into Action

A program as a whole is referred to as a ‘Macrocycle’, a ‘Mesocycle’ refers to a smaller section of your program, and a ‘Microcycle’ refers to an even smaller section of your program such as a week.  The size of each of the elements here depends on the duration of your program and how often you are training (a variable that will be different for each individual).  The easiest way to give an example here is splitting the program into months e.g. 6-month program (macrocycle), with 6 blocks (mesocycles) and the program being delivered across 24 weeks (microcycles).  By using this program skeleton example we can now start to put some meat on the bones:

Block 1 Week 1: HypertrophyBlock 2 Week 9: StrengthBlock 4  Week 17: Taper
Block 1 Week 2: HypertrophyBlock 2 Week 10: StrengthBlock 4 Week 18: Taper
Block 1 Week 3: HypertrophyBlock 2 Week 11: Strength Block 5 Week 19: Test
Block 1 Week 4: HypertrophyBlock 2 Week 12: StrengthBlock 5 Week 20: Test
Block 1 Week 5: HypertrophyBlock 3 Week 13: PowerBlock 6 Week 21: Maintenance
Block 1 Week 6: HypertrophyBlock 3 Week 14: PowerBlock 6 Week 22: Maintenance
Block 2 Week 7: StrengthBlock 3 Week 15: PowerBlock 6 Week 23: Maintenance
Block 2 Week 8: StrengthBlock 3 Week 16:  PowerBlock 6 Week 24: Maintenance

The above long-term program is an example of how to lay out a program over a longer period of time.  We start our program off by allocating 6 weeks to muscle building or building our 70% performance (which can include cardiovascular).  To maximise this block and every session within it, each session should push yourself to 70% of your max effort or the last 2-3 reps being much more difficult than the start of your set (note: each weighted set should be 8-12 reps).  Even though this is the start of your program, it should not be ‘easy’.  Each individual, be it an athlete or beginner, will have a different 70% working level but the aim for everyone should be to push into a muscle burn/huff and puff by the back end of the sets.  After 6 weeks of building our base, we now move into our strength phase where we decrease the volume to no more than 6 weighted reps, increase the load to 85-90% of our max effort, and increase our break time to aid in recovery between efforts. I have allocated 6 weeks to this mesocycle due to the high amount of rest required meaning the volume of exercises per session will decrease.  

STOP!  Looking at the references so far in this section, you may be thinking that long-term programming is only for weight-orientated performances but this isn’t the case.  You can apply long-term programming to cardiovascular movements as well by simply adjusting your thinking around each term:

Hypertrophy – with weighted movements, you’re looking to grow your muscle and build a base of strength but with cardio movements, you’d be looking at building your base performances e.g. running at 70% or your 10km pace.

Strength – this is self-explanatory for weighted movements but strength can be redefined to reference ‘effort’ attempts e.g. 90% run efforts over a shorter distance such as a 400m track.

Power – across both resistance and cardiovascular training power refers to one’s explosive capability. Resistance movements will be tempo-based but cardiovascular could look at interval or agility movements.

Moving into the power block, we decrease the amount of weeks due to the amount of strain and load the body is under during this period.  Resistance movements will have the weights dropped to 60% but incorporate tempos that are much harder (3 seconds down, 1-second hold, 1 second up) creating a greater strain on the body.  For cardiovascular movements, this could include interval efforts or fartlek-style training.  The next 2 blocks are only 2 weeks in length each as we look to taper our training and then test our output capabilities.  After the first 3 mesocycles, you have trained your body to expect a certain amount of load and volume, so by decreasing either your efforts, sessions, or durations you are still fine-tuning your body but at the same time giving it an opportunity to recover.  By the time your retest cycle starts, you will be eager to get into it as the taper block has you recovered and ready to go.  We don’t necessarily set an initial testing phase as you will test against results from points throughout your program (depending on your goal). Finally, we look at maintaining your ability which would be dependent on your individual goal, sport, and/or desired performance.  

How Does Long-Term Programming Benefit Your Training?

If you are currently going to the gym or doing some form of physical activity, chances are if you continually do the same movements, with the same reps and load, your body will have adapted to this stimulus and the value of your training is beginning to deteriorate.  Yes, you are active and training but your body has adapted to how it’s being treated, for example:

If you run 5km two times per week and you stay at the same pace for the 2 runs for the entirety of your training, the value of these runs will decrease because your body is becoming better conditioned and can better handle this load.  How do you keep the value high – you change 1 or more of the stimulus?  Using the same example, if you run 5km twice per week but 1 run is a steady increase (start slower and build your pace across the distance) and 1 run is interval-based, the same 10km of distance is now worth much more to you as your effort levels would be changing each run.

The common terms that are referenced are progressive overload and adaptation.  Progressive overload means you are constantly increasing 1 more variable in your workouts (e.g. weight, reps, sets, speed, etc), and adaptation means when your body becomes accustomed to the stress you are placing on it.  To continually see improvements you would continuously change your programming so the adaptation phase does not happen or at the very least not have as much of an impact on your performance and this is where periodisation of your training aka long-term programming comes into play.  When you map out your training and break it into smaller blocks (mesocycles), you are changing the way you train continuously in a way that promotes improvement and progressive overload but also avoids your performance plateauing (both mentally and physically) throughout your program.  To simplify this thinking think about programming in basic terms:

Hypertrophy block: build your foundation

Strength block: use your foundation to improve your strength

Power block: add in tempos to overload your strength 

Taper: let the body recover without completely stopping

For season athletes, periodisation works best in a pre-season timeframe so they are not overloading their bodies during competition, for specific date athletes (or beginners) programming towards a specific date or planning backward from a date will give the best chance of optimal performance on the day and for everyday gym goers long term programming can be implemented at any time if you are trying to improve your output.  

If you are looking for a tried and tested way to improve your performance, implementing structure to your program will be a huge advantage, however, the key factor is not only programming well but pushing yourself to the required level.  Outlining your desired output level of work (hypertrophy 70-75% max effort, strength 85-90% max effort, etc) will give you strict guidelines on how you should work.  If you plan well and work hard, long-term programming will give your performance the boost you may be looking for.


Matt Brown

Matt Brown

As a personal trainer of 11 years, I have had the privilege to work with a wide array of clients and limitations. My role is to not only support my client’s wants but to address their needs and incorporate this into our planning and programming. From beginners to athletes and everyone in between it has always been my role to make my clients feel supported, welcomed and give them the sense of achievement.

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