Program design. 

Some love it, some loathe it.

After several years of being a strength and conditioning coach and having come from a pure endurance sport background as an athlete and beginning my coaching career in that realm I can wholeheartedly say it’s a combination of both science and art. It takes patience, practice, and trial and error to effectively move from pure theory to execution in practice and competitive situations.

One of the challenges for endurance athletes and coaches is to strike a balance between strength and conditioning sessions and their endurance sport sessions. This is especially true in rowing where training volumes typically are quite high and there can be upwards of three training sessions per day in an elite training environment.

One of the best ways to ensure you are meeting your goals and objectives is to adhere to a principle based training approach. 

The following quote sums up the value and importance of adhering to principles:

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
– Harrington Emerson

This past December I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to present at the final Joy of Sculling Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY and a week later present my first international workshop in Montemor, Portugal. 

One of the key topics I presented on was training principles and was one of the main areas I discussed during my co-presentation, “Strength Training 101” with fellow rowing strength coach Will Ruth of Rowing Stronger.

Principles help for a framework for what we are doing on both a micro and macro level. They also can help to simplify a program when things become busy and chaotic – whether you are a collegiate/high school coach managing around an academic calendar or a masters rower who is training around a full time 8-5 job.

If you are interested you can purchase the presentation (with audio) I did with fellow strength and conditioning coach Will Ruth here.

You can read Will’s blog on Strength Training and Rowing Technique that covers his portion of the presentation.

So here are the principles I presented and discussed at these two conferences. 

1. Principle of Individuality
Principle Description: Modifications or adjustments to the training program for each individual athlete based on their current capacity, limitations, and goals.
Concept: Each athlete enters into a training program with their own specific training history, injury/medical history
Example: A masters rower may due significantly less overall volume than a junior or collegiate rower. Additionally they may require greater recovery time from intense training sessions.
Value: The value of the principle of individuality is better results from a program designed specifically for the athlete’s needs, goals, and injury history.

2.Principle of Specificity
Principle Description: Training adaptations will occur based on movements, muscle groups trained, intensity, and metabolic demands.
Concept: To improve a certain physical quality the training program must reflect that (strength, power, flexibility, power, etc.)
Example: When training for endurance and building aerobic intensity the sessions will be lower intensity and longer duration, ex: 3 x 20’ @ 145 HR or <2 mmol of lactate.  If an athlete wants to improve the quality of maximal strength, then they need to focus on high force, low velocity lifts such as the back squat and deadlift train this quality.
Value: The value of the principle of specificity is ensuring our training program reflects our goals and addresses our needs.

3. Principle of Overload
Principle Description: To continue to improve greater stress must be placed on the system (body, tissues, cardiovascular system etc.) than which it is currently accustomed to.
Concept:  When greater stress is introduced the body will respond by gaining strength, power, speed etc as long as appropriate rest is taken for adaptation to occur.
Example: If an athlete wants to improve their 6k, than they need to execute training sessions at a faster pace than their current ability level.
Value: The value of the principle of overload is continually challenging the body through eustress to make positive adaptions.

4. Principle of Progression
Principle Description: Stress needs to be continually added to the training program to ensure the individual continues to progress and adapt. 
Concept: Stress is most commonly progressed through volume, intensity, and frequency.
Example: An athlete trains at 70-85% of their 1RM. They test their 1RM and improve. Their training ranges are now recalibrated and training at new submaximal intensities begins.
Value: The value of the principle of progression is continually progressing the training program through exercise selection and complexity as well as volume and intensity.

5. Principle of Diminishing Returns
Principle Description: An athlete with a higher training age will see smaller incremental increases in performance vs. a novice who can improve almost on a daily if not weekly basis. 
Concept: As an athlete reach their genetic potential improvement will be much more difficult and taking longer to achieve.
Example: A rower may enter college and begin the year at 6:25 2k and finish the year at 6:09. The following year they break 6:05. They still have improved but the margin of improvement is drastically smaller as the performance level has increased.
Value: The value in the principle of diminishing returns is improvement becomes exponentially more difficult as the performance level and experience increases.

6. Principle of Reversibility
Principle Description: The absence of training stimulus results in a return to their original level of strength/fitness/power.
Concept: Performance cannot be maintained with training stimulus; another words if you don’t use it, you lose it!
Example: After returning from summer vacation, a college rower is no longer at the peak fitness and conditioning levels they were at that spring.
Value: The value of being aware of reversibility is making sure we have a maintenance plan in place, or that we intentionally rebuild if we go away from a specific quality or mode of training.

7. Principle of Periodization*
Principle Description: Planned variation of a training program over time.
Concept:  Changing variables (frequency, volume, intensity) over a set period of time (week, month, year) to continually progress and optimize training.
Example: A masters rower may peak for the Head of the Charles in October. They then begin their off season in November and December followed by a general preparatory phase, pre-competitive phase, and competitive phase.
Value: The value of the principle of periodization is having a structured way of waving intensity and volume over time to ensure adaption and mitigate the risk of injury and burnout.

8. Proximal Stability for Distal Athleticism
Principle Description: The core/trunk must stiffen (proximally) for power and velocity to be generated (distally at hips and shoulders).
Concept: All movement follows this principle. To generate maximal power the ball and socket joints must move around a stable center.
Example: A baby that is beginning its journey towards walking will embark on crawling first. This creates “stiffness” and builds strength in their trunk and allows them to move their feet and hands.
Value: The value of the principle of proximal stability for distal athleticism is knowing and understanding how the body transfers force across all movement.


9. Strength is a Skill

Principle Description: Training is viewed as a practice not a workout.
Concept: Emphasis is placed on the skill of the exercise or lift. The focus is on proper execution, precision, and accuracy. Only when this foundation is in place do we adjust volume (repetitions) and intensity (load).
Example:  An individual is interested in learning to perform the olympic power clean with a barbell. Their coach has them practice the movement with a broomstick or pvc pipe. They hone their technique with a minimal load while they learn proper movement. 
Value: The value of the principle ‘strength is a skill’ is to approach training with a technical emphasis first, volume/intensity second.

10. Strength is the master quality*

Principle Description: “Strength is the foundation for development of the rest of physical qualities.” – Prof. Leonid Matveyev
Concept: To express power, speed, elasticity you must be strong.
Example: An athlete wants to improve their vertical or broad jump. They lack the ability to generate enough force to efficiently clear the floor and move vertically/horizontally. Strength in their hip and knee extensors must be prioritized over plyometric work.
Value: The value of the principle of strength is the master quality is knowing that strength must be prioritized before we can effectively train other qualities such as speed, power, and elasticity.
When writing your program or your athletes’ program and you hit a sticking point come back to these principles and allow them to guide your decision making process.

If you are still in doubt, by all means please feel free to email me at with training questions.


* These two principles were added to this blog post and were not included in the original presentations.

This was a condensed version of my co-presentation with fellow rowing strength coach Will Ruth on “Strength Training 101” for the 2019 Joy of Sculling Conference. You can read Will’s recap of his part of the presentation here, and also purchase the recording of our presentation for $10, using this link. It is 82 minutes long. We’ve added some graphics, and included the audience Q&A. You will be directed to Paypal for payment, then back to my site to download/view the file. You can also view a free preview of the presentation here.


  1. Sands, Dr. William; Wurth, Jacob J.; Hewit, Dr. Jennifer K.; NSCA’s Basics of Strength and Conditioning Manual.
  2. McGill, Dr. Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Sixth Edition. P 113-114. 2017.
  3. Jones, Brett. StrongFirst SFG Manual. P 7. 2016 Edition.
  4. Kasper, Korey, MD. Sports Training Principles.  Current Sports Medicine Reports. April 2019 – Volume 18 – Issue 4 – p 95-96