Programming for Athletic Performance

Damian Marsh, Athletic Performance Coordinator, ACT Brumbies Rugby Union
Ashley Jones, Physical Performance Coordinator, Crusaders Rugby Union

Some days we feel like John Nash, searching for that “one original thought” that changes the way people look at a particular problem. To develop a system of programming that is “profound in its simplicity” and remove the “complicate to profit” (Peter Harding) mentality that seems to have pervaded many “experts” ideas.

Firstly, some thoughts that have inspired us along the path to write this particular piece, all from the mind of Louie Simmons;

“strength training is the overcoming of weaknesses”

“the development of  force is about mathematics, physics and biomechanics”  and

“whatever you don’t train you lose”.

In the sport of rugby where we spend most of our programming and coaching time, there are elements of all types of strength in the on field performance. But, often when you view training programs they only cater for hypertrophy or maximal strength or some system of modified Olympic lifting. The question that often gets lost in the debate as to which is the best method to use is “what do players need to do in the weight room in order to be better on the field”? This is why we believe in focusing on the big rocks first and foremost. These need to be in place before anything else in your program could be considered  a “like to do” or “nice to do”. These “Big Rocks” form the core foundational platform on which physical performance is based:

1. Speed and Power (Neural focus)
2. Strength (Mechanical focus)
3. Aerobic and Anaerobic mix (Metabolic focus)

Other than Simmons, the published work of Christian Thibaudeau (, Fred Hatfield ( and Bud Jeffries ( immediately come to mind as stimulating comments of programming and training in general.

Thibideau’s great quote that “complexity is the language of simple minds” is an excellent point to start on our analysis. In his particular system you select from a speed-strength exercise and then a limit strength protocol. (Table 1)

 Table 1

Thibideau styleLower Body emphasis
Box Jumps4 x 6 reps with body weight
Front Squats6 x 3 reps with 3 – 5 minutes rest between sets

Hatfield has used an interesting mix of compound and isolation type exercises with a set, rep and rest protocol designed to stimulate gains in strength, size and endurance while working within the energy systems of phosphate, lactate and aerobic. (Table 2)

Table 2

Hatfield stylePosterior Kinetic Chain emphasis
Good morning6 x 2 – 6 reps with a 3 minute rest between sets
Romanian Dead lift4 x 8 – 12 reps with a 1 – 2 minutes rest between sets
Lying Leg Curl2 sets x 15 – 25 reps with < 1 minute between sets

Jeffries uses a similar arrangement in maximizing gains across strength; size and endurance by again coupling major compound exercises with an array of both strongman/dinosaur exercises and body weight exercises for high reps. (Table 3)

Table 3

Jeffries styleSquat/Lower Body emphasis
Low start position Back Squats5 progressively heavier singles
Hindu Squats250 – 500 reps with Body weight

In this system of programming we have adopted a three-step approach to delivering an appropriate program to the target group. This is not exclusive to rugby players and we feel that all could benefit from using the guidelines enclosed here with.

Firstly, select your training split based on time availability and the type of adaptations you wish to develop. Secondly, select the appropriate exercises for you to use from the categories and then finally, select the type of overload pattern of sets and reps to be used. This will relate back to the specific adaptations that you wanted to occur as stated in step one.

Time availability obviously is a most important consideration when planning your physical work. Personally I like to work out every day whether that is a full workout or just an exercise for 15 – 20 minutes will depend on what else is happening on the day, but, I like to use the philosophy that “what I lose on the swing I’ll, pick up on the roundabout”. Presently, I have no particular peak in mind to aim for but I want to be in a state of readiness should something come along that stimulates my interest. So with the voice of Louie ringing in my ears “whatever you don’t train, you lose” I try and train the full range of styles. Then if I want to specialize in Olympic lifting coming up to an important meet like The Bruce Walsh Memorial at Burwood in Sydney, commemorating the life of one of Australia’s greatest coaches, I can then go into specialization mode for the necessary amount of time.

Some examples are included below with some specific routines added, but as you can see the possible number of permutations is unlimited and is up to your needs and experiences. Remember as Einstein said “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Step 1: Training Split

Choose from the following options;

Total Body    
2/3 days per week

Upper/Lower Body Split    
4 days per week

Pull/Push Split   
4 days per week

Power/Strength/Hypertrophy Split      
3/6 days per week

Power/Strength/Hypertrophy/Strong- man (Strength Endurance) Split    
4 days per week

Pull/Push/Squat Split   
3/6 days per week

Westside Split (2 x Maximal Strength/2 x Speed)
4 days per week

Olympic Split   
5/6 days per week

Hypertrophy Blitz Split       
5/6 days per week
Table 4. Eclectic Split 1


MondayOlympic lifting
TuesdayLower Body
WednesdayAM: Upper Body Pull – HorizontalPM: Upper Body Pull – Vertical
ThursdayAM: Upper Body Push – HorizontalPM: Upper Body Push – Vertical
FridayStrongman/Dinosaur Challenges

Table 5. Eclectic Split 2


MondayStrength Speed – SquatMaximal Strength – Lower Body Push and Pull
TuesdayStrength Speed – Bench PressMaximal Strength – Upper Body Push and Pull
ThursdayLower Body – Push and PullHypertrophy

Strength Endurance

FridayUpper Body – Push and PullHypertrophy

Strength Endurance

SaturdayStrongman/Dinosaur Challenges

Table 6. Across the Speed Strength Continuum

Strength QualityStyleUpper BodyLower Body
Strength Speed10 x 2 or 3% Bench% Squat
Maximum StrengthTo a maximum single, triple or fiveIncline BenchFront Squat
Hypertrophy4 x 10RMSingle leg squatHammer Chest Press
Strength EnduranceBody weight to maximum repsHindu Push upHindu Squat


Step 2: Exercise Selection

Exercise selection often comes down to which exercises we are best at performing. This is similar in a lot of ways to the golfer who consistently drives the ball 275+ metres off the tee straight down the middle but can’t pitch or putt. Which stroke is the one he works on at the driving range, the drive of course, to the ooh’s and aah’s of the people practicing around him. Again Simmons’ words ring true, “strength is the overcoming of weaknesses”, continuing the golfing analogy, what is the point of getting to a par 4 in 1 shot if it takes you another 4 or more to close out the hole.

The selection of exercises below will give you a vast array of movements to choose from but this is only a small number of the available movements. You may of course have your favourite movements that you use more regularly than others but try and mix it up a bit to stimulate gains via, different motor unit recruitment patterns and training movements and muscles from different angles thus requiring different loading patterns.

A colleague told me once of a senior in college getting ready for testing for a particular NFL team. The player had set records at college with the bench press (using a quite wide grip) and power clean from the floor but the tests used by the NFL scouts were the close grip bench press and the power clean from the hang position using dumbbells. The player failed to impress and wasn’t contracted, just goes to show how specific strength can be in some situations.

See Separate Document on Exercise Selection Options  

Step 3: Sets x Reps Overload Pattern

Finally, the programmer needs to select the mechanics to be used with the selected exercises and methods; these are the sets, reps and loading parameters. I think a lot of scientists, some well meaning and others profiteering, have created a state of cognitive dissidence in what should be a very simple aspect of programming. All you really need to do, is to do as Milo of Cretona did some 2,700 years ago and lift/carry a progressively heavier resistance (baby bull calf) to reap the benefits of enhanced strength. No two people will respond identically to the same program, so perhaps the story of Milo is a gross simplification, but in reality it is simply the interaction of volume, intensity and recovery over time, that will produce gains in size and strength. Often, the only information you get in some texts is a standard application such as:


Strength QualityIntensitySets/RepsRest between sets
Maximal Strength>80% 1RM6+ sets x 2 – 6 reps>3 minutes
Hypertrophy60 – 80% 1RM4 – 6 sets x 6 – 20 reps1 – 2 minutes
Strength Endurance,60% 1Rm2 – 3 sets x > 15/20 reps< 1 minute

But what of the college wrestler mentioned in an article published in Milo ( who did 100 reps (1 every minute) of both power clean and chins each day with a high percentage of maximum loading. This athlete probably gained in all strength qualities, so again there are definitely no hard and fast rules or guidelines other than providing a stimulus to the muscles that the body has not become accustomed to.

Below are a number of different protocols gleaned from the work of many authors, select one method and stay with it long enough to see if it in fact works for you, don’t change just for the sake of variety and remember that in training as in most endeavors worth following that “consistency is the cornerstone of success”.

Loading Methods and Examples

1.  Rest pause style 5 – 4- 3 – 2- 1 extended set. 15 seconds rest between each set start with a weight which is approximately 80% of maximum and stay with the same weight through the set, perform 3 – 5 sets with a 2-3 minute rest between extended sets.

2.  Drop set breakdown style. 6 – 12 – 25 extended set. Minimal rest between each set start with a load of approximately 75% and decrease by 10 – 15% each set, perform 2 – 3 sets with a 2-3 minute rest between extended sets.

3.  Wave Loading style. Near maximal weights used , perform 3 sets with a 60 – 90 seconds rest between each set in a 3, 2, 1 fashion loading approximately 90%, 95%, 97.5% then after a 2 – 3 minute rest repeat procedure with a 2.5- 5% loading increase, this can be done for 2 – 3 waves.

4.  Wave Loading style. Near maximal weights used , perform 3 sets with a 60 – 90 seconds rest between each set in a 5, 3, 1 fashion loading approximately 80%, 90%, 97.5% then after a 2 – 3 minute rest repeat procedure with a 2.5- 5% loading increase, this can be done for 2 – 3 waves.

5.  Wave Loading style. Sub maximal weights used , perform 3 sets with a 60 – 90 seconds rest between each set in a 7, 5, 3 fashion loading approximately 70%, 80%, 90% then after a 2 – 3 minute rest repeat procedure with a 2.5- 5% loading increase, this can be done for 2 waves.

6.  Contrast loading style. 6/1, 6/1, 6/1. Perform 3 groups each with a 90 second rest between each set, around 80% for 6 reps then above 95% for 1 rep repeating the procedure 3 times and increasing the load by 2.5 – 5% each set.

7.  Compound + Plyometric style. Perform a set with a specific loading above 80% then with minimal rest perform a plyometric exercise for the same group of muscles, for example, Band Bench Press for 5 reps then clap chest push ups for 5 reps, then rest 90 seconds before next set.

8.  Straight sets loading style. Perform all sets for a given exercise before moving onto the next exercise, for example Box Squat – 6 @ 100kg, then 5 @ 120kg then 4 @ 140kg. This can be done over a 3 week block where the subsequent weeks take the loading down to a heavy double or single, for example;
Week 1 – 6,5,4
Week 2 – 5,4,3
Week 3 – 4,3,2

9.  Complex style. Using the beastly complex as an example; 6 exercises performed without putting the bar down between any of the movements for the duration of the complex set, perform 6 reps on each of the 6 movements and perform 6 rotations through with a set rest decreasing over time between each complex.

Beastly Complex 666 example;
Power Snatch from floor
Over Head Squat
Push Press Behind Neck
Combo Good Morning
Jump Squats
Romanian Dead Lift

10.  Strength drop sets style. 2 – 3 RM loading rest 15 seconds drop weight by 5% perform as many reps as you can keep dropping load and perform 1 rep until 6 total reps are performed.

11.  Cluster sets style. Using 85% – 100% sets of 2 – 6 reps using an intra set rest period of 15 seconds perform the required number of reps for each set, can use up to 8 sets, with a 2 minute rest between sets.

12.  Rest Pause style. Can be a single, double or triple drop method to achieve the desired number of reps for the zone. Decide which zone you need to work in to achieve the desired results, select from one of the following zones:
Zone 1: 1 – 3 reps
Zone 2: 4 – 6 reps
Zone 3: 6 – 8 reps
Zone 4: 8 – 12 reps
Zone 5: 12 – 15 reps

Perform a set with set load then rest 15 seconds reduce weight by 10% – 25% and perform as many reps as you can to failure repeat process until you complete the required number of reps for the zone you are working in.

13.  Super sets style. Two exercises for the same or opposite group of muscles performed with a minimal rest <15 seconds between each movement. A pre fatigue super set is where you perform an isolation exercise before performing a compound movement, for example DB Later raise before Shoulder presses.

14.  Tri Set style. Where 3 exercises for the same body part are performed with  minimal < 15 seconds rest between each exercise, for example 3 way DB Shoulder raise.

15.  Specific number of Reps style. Usually performed with body weight exercises, perform the required number of reps on a given exercise in as few as sets of possible or in a set time, for example, 50 chins.

16.  Westside Style.

17.  Rule of 24 style. A method utilizing a combination of sets and reps equaling 24 total reps, selecting the desired result be it maximal strength, speed strength, size or endurance.
24 x 1
12 x 2
8 x 3
6 x 4
4 x
3 x 8
2 x 12
1 x 24

So, there you have it. We hope we have added to you “training toolbox” and that you can glean what necessary information you require to aid in your development of a productive program. Remember as Louie says “If all you have is a hammer than everything else becomes a nail”.

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