Common Flaws in Exercise Program Design: Not Training Muscles Equally


I have previously discussed the importance of exercising with proper technique, but even if you have great form, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a good workout routine. Technique is certainly an important element, but the design of your exercise program is equally important. Program design includes things like how much weight you use, the number of reps, how long you rest between sets, etc. There are many important elements in program design, but the one I will focus on today is choosing the actual exercises you perform.

Selecting the right exercises is critical if you want to design a training program for a specific purpose, such as improving performance in a sport. For example, soccer players should focus on exercises to improve their leg, core, and neck muscles and not design a training program made up of only arm exercises. This example is common sense, but many people end up performing workouts or designing training programs without really thinking about why they are including each exercise in their program.

Each sport or activity has different physical requirements and fortunately more and more schools and athletic teams are hiring people trained to design appropriate exercise programs for the individuals participating in those activities. However, a large segment of the population exercises for general health and fitness or to improve their quality of life and these people rarely receive advice about how to design appropriate training programs. As a result, people often end up creating routines without really understanding how different exercises and workouts affect their body.

There is a common belief that as long as you are doing some type of exercise, you will be improving your body. While this belief is somewhat true, things are definitely not that simple. Doing any type of activity will increase your heart rate, burn calories, and give you some cardiovascular benefits, assuming the activity is sufficiently challenging, but most physical benefits vary significantly between different types of workouts.

When people say things like “any type of exercise will do the job,” they are usually just referring to exercise as a way to burn extra calories and ultimately burn fat. These types of statements do not take into consideration the specific changes that occur to your body as a result of your workouts. Since most people are primarily concerned with losing fat or losing weight, statements about calorie burning are what they are primarily interested in. Unfortunately, it is all the other effects from your workouts that will really determine how your body feels and functions over the long run.

In terms of program design, the exercises you choose to perform during your workouts will essentially determine which muscles will improve. Since many people’s workouts are designed only to make them look better, they tend to focus on exercising the muscles that are most visible. Muscles such as the pecs (chest), biceps (arms), and abs are some of the most popular muscles to exercise, especially among men, because they stand out the most. Some people even refer to these types of muscles as “mirror muscles,” because they are the muscles people look at most when they look in a mirror.

This focus on the way muscles look tends to influence the way people design their workouts as well, with many people’s programs emphasizing exercises for these mirror muscles. On the flip side, muscles that are not typically visible are often worked to a lesser degree or even completely ignored in many training programs. The big problem is this approach to training leads to significant muscle imbalances that can cause major problems years down the road.

For example, one of the most popular exercises is the bench press, which focuses on the pecs, front shoulder, and tricep muscles. People often perform many sets of bench presses and other pec exercises, yet they may perform few if any exercises for their back muscles. Your back muscles are the opposing muscle group to the pecs and it is important to maintain a proportional amount of strength between opposing muscle groups. Otherwise, the stronger muscles can put too much stress on the opposing muscles and pain, injury, or physical disability can result.

In this scenario, if your chest and front shoulder muscles become too strong for your back muscles, your back muscles will become overworked and your posture will change. Specifically, your shoulders will start rounding forward and you may start hunching over as well. If this problem is not corrected, the amount of postural change will increase over time and it often becomes so bad that people can no longer stand completely straight anymore. This is often seen in elderly individuals, but in most cases it is not a normal part of aging, but rather the end result of years of muscle imbalances and postural problems.

These types of muscle and posture problems can occur in any part of your body and it is always important maintain a relative strength balance between opposing muscles and ideally between all muscles throughout your body. Other common sets of opposing muscles include the quads/hamstrings, biceps/triceps, and abs/low back, although there are certainly others. To keep things simple, just know that if you are training for general health and fitness, you should avoid focusing on one area of your body and you should never ignore training any major muscle groups.

Focusing too much on one muscle group or one area will always result in problems down the road, although it can take a very long time for these problems to develop, sometimes even decades. There are dozens of inexpensive and effective pieces of exercise equipment you can use and hundreds of exercises that can be performed, yet so many people still get stuck working the same muscles and performing the same exercises over and over.

If you want to create a good overall workout and improve the way your body looks, functions, and feels, then your program needs to include a mix of exercises to work all the major areas in your body. It may be tempting to always perform your favorite exercises or spend the majority of your time working the muscles you enjoy training most, but this will almost certainly lead to problems later in life. Do your body a favor and perform workouts that have a good mix of exercises and work your whole body without overemphasizing specific areas or muscle groups.

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About Ross Harrison 14 Articles

Hi, my name is Ross Harrison and I am a personal trainer in Austin, TX. I have been a certified personal trainer (NSCA) since 1996 and I am also a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), nutritional consultant, and I have completed numerous other courses and certifications over the years. I also have a degree in psychology from Grinnell College. Over the course of my career I have been an independent personal trainer working with  clients in their homes or various other locations, as well as a trainer at a large gym. I also have experience working in a privately owned health food store  and a large chain supplement store.

After almost a decade in the health and fitness industry, I became frustrated and discouraged by the way many personal trainers and gyms were so focused on making money, even at the expense of their client’s success. As a result, I decided the only way for me to feel good about being a personal trainer would be to start my own business. That way I could create my own policies and make sure I stayed true to what I believe a personal trainer should  be. Then in 2005, I did just that when I started my personal training business called Precision Health & Fitness.

I chose to name my business Precision Health & Fitness, because it accurately reflects the approach I take as a personal trainer. I believe personal training should be completely focused on the client and since every person is different, every program should be precisely designed to reflect that individual’s specific goals, needs, abilities, and lifestyle. I know many
personal trainers say this, but more and more trainers are just repeating the same programs with numerous clients or using tools, such as computer programs,  to self-generate “custom” workouts or nutritional programs for their clients. In my mind these are examples of mass-produced training programs, not personal training.

I also feel that many conventional personal training practices, such as making clients sign contracts, not allowing refunds for purchased sessions, and even paying by the hour, ultimately take the focus off the client’s needs. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to stay away from any policy or practice that I felt detracted from focusing on my clients, even though other people have told me I am limiting my income or discounting the value of my services too much.

For example, my clients pay session prices instead of an hourly rate. This may not sound like a big difference, but it means I can spend more time with my clients when they need it. Many of the people I work with are just starting to exercise or have never been taught proper exercise technique. By having a set time limit on my sessions, I can take the extra time to ensure my clients learning to perform exercises correctly. This not only ensures their safety, but also leads to more effective workouts and better long-term results. Of course, if a client has a set schedule or a limited amount of time, then I will make sure the workouts I create fit those time constraints.

Another benefit of not having timed sessions is it gives clients the opportunity to talk or ask questions about health and fitness or their workout routine. I have never been a big fan of trainers who take the “do it because I said so” approach to health and fitness. I encourage clients to ask questions and I believe that becoming more educated about exercise and nutrition and
learning how your actions affect your results is an important component of health and fitness programs. By making a link between your actions and your results, it will help motivate you to stick to your  program.

This is just one example of how I my business is focused my clients, but there are also other ways Precision Health & Fitness stands out from other trainers and gyms. For instance, I do not have clients sign contracts and they are free to discontinue their training program at any time. I even let my clients determine their own payment plan, which they can change at any time.
Some clients pay for a number of sessions in advance, some pay after each session, and some pay after they have completed a number of sessions. It is all about trying to make things as easy and convenient for my clients as  possible.

That is not to say the workouts themselves are easy, because every workout is designed to be challenging, so it will create a stimulus for improvement. At the same time, I never design workouts that are designed to make  people stiff and sore for a week or have trouble walking up stairs. I know some  people like those workouts because they think the harder they work, the better  their results will be, but that is only true up to a point. It is definitely  possible to exercise too hard or too much and excessively challenging workouts  are almost always counterproductive over the long-run.

When you really think about it, shouldn’t long-term health and fitness improvements be the goal of a personal training program? I believe that it certainly is, although I know there are people who would disagree with me. However, for the people who just want to push themselves as hard as possible regardless of the long-term consequences, there is not shortage of personal trainers who are willing to do just that. My background and personal experiences  have made me believe that long-term health and success should never be sacrificed for short-term gain and that is the philosophy I apply to my personal  training programs.

Speaking of my background and personal experiences, exercise and nutrition have both been very important parts of my life since I was young. When  I was seven, I developed a serious hip infection that destroyed the femur head  (ball that connects to the hip) in my right leg and left me with a fused right  hip. At the time I was told there was almost no chance that I would ever
walk again, but by working hard and keeping up with my exercises, I was able to regain the ability to walk and eventually allowed to play most sports and participate in almost any other activity I wanted.

However, even with continued exercise, I still experienced hip pain that increased over the years. Then when I was 30 I was finally old enough to get a total hip replacement, which resulted in an almost complete reduction in my pain, but I was also left with a new set of restrictions. Since hip replacements  wear out over time, it means the more stress I put on my hip by doing things  like playing sports or running, the sooner I will need a new hip replacement.  Needless to say, my activities have drastically changed since my hip replacement  and I no longer play sports, but I still exercise regularly to remain healthy  and stay in shape.

As for nutrition, it has played an equally important role in my life. When I was younger, I had very unhealthy eating habits, was overweight (or husky  as my clothes were called), constantly felt run down, and got sick frequently.  By the time I was 18 I was trying to eat healthier, but I had already caused my  body and immune system enough distress to be hospitalized for
pneumonia and I  developed a bad case of ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable intestinal  condition where treatment involves just trying to keep it in remission. Simply  put, I had a lot of health issues for a teenager.

Fortunately for me, I became more educated about nutrition and I made eating healthier a priority in my life. My improvements were not immediate, but over time my energy level increased and my immune system improved to the point where I rarely ever get sick anymore. Also I have been able to keep my ulcerative issues to a minimum just by eating healthy (it is generally kept in remission through medication) and by working on managing my stress level. Due to  my improved nutritional habits, I can easily say that I am far healthier and feel much better in my mid 30’s than I ever did as a teenager.

The reason I included all this information is because it explains what motivates me as a trainer and why I care so much about health and fitness. My personal history has also shaped my training philosophy and it is the reason why I always focus on the long-term outcome of a training program, instead just thinking about short-term improvement. It is also why I try to get people to shift their priority from what they can do to look better and think more about what they can do to make their body feel better throughout their lifetime.

If you eat healthy, exercise properly, and do other things that make your body feel better, you will be doing the same things you need to make your body look better. On the other hand, if your sole focus is on making your body look better, it does guarantee that your training program will make your body feel better years down the road. Workout programs that cause you to perform
exercises incorrectly, use poor posture, or develop muscle imbalances can still result in you looking better, but they can also lead to premature muscle and joint aches and pains years later.

It is completely natural to be focus on the present and the immediate future, but people frequently do not think enough about how they want their body  to feel in 20 or 30 years down the road, at least not until they start developing some health related problems. Personal training success is often measured my how much weight is lost or how much muscle is gained, but I believe that is not the best way to think about success. Even if you lose fat, if you are frequently sore or in pain, I would not consider that to be successful, except maybe if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is required to push  your body to the limit.

Personal training and health and fitness in general, should be about creating a better overall quality of life and not only about looking better. Of course, looking better is almost always a primary goal, but it should not the only focus of a program. I know from first hand experience how much of a positive impact a well-designed exercise and nutrition program can have on virtually every aspect of your life. All too often, people accept aches and pains as normal consequences of aging, but in most cases you can make a significant improvement in how you feel.

I want to leave you with a final thought, regardless of your current situation, you are capable of improvement and you probably capable of achieving much more than you might think. I wish you success in all your health and  fitness endeavors and please contact me at  or (512) 537-3377 if you have any comments or questions.

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