We all know that there isn’t one perfect fitness program that will get anyone and everyone into amazing shape.
You probably also realize that there’s not one perfect program for any particular goal. There’s no fat loss diet that’s ideal for everyone who wants to lose fat.
There’s no strength program that will work for an old retired guy, a young man who travels constantly, and a stay at home mom who has insomnia and celiac disease. Not without some modification.
So that begs the question- how do you design a program that’s perfect for you?
There are many ways to personalize a fitness program for an individual trainee, but most of the good ones fall into one of three categories: templating & tweaking, auto-regulation, and self-experimentation.
Templating and tweaking
The first and simplest strategy for customizing a fitness program is the one you’re probably familiar with: designing your program based on what you know about yourself. The way to do this is to start with a pre-designed template program, then make small adjustments to it.
The way this works is that you (or more commonly, your coach) have a collection of diets, workout plans, habits and lifestyle rules, each of which is intended for a certain type of person. For instance, there might be an “obese woman, new to gym training” workout plan, or a “guy who works 9-5 and wants to recomp” diet.
After picking the template that best fits you, you make small adjustments based on any characteristics or circumstances you might have that aren’t taken into account by the templates you picked. For instance, maybe your schedule requires you to work out at a certain time of day, or you travel a lot and so you can’t cook as often as the diet calls for.
Here’s an example: You’re a woman who’s around 20 pounds overweight, has worked out on and off but you’re still a beginner-level trainee, and wants to lose the extra weight and get “toned.” You also work full-time and have a couple of kids, so you’re very busy, especially in the evenings, and you spend your weekends taking care of the kids. You cook meals once or twice a day.
In this case, I’d probably have you perform short metabolic conditioning workouts during her lunch break on weekdays, plus a longer strength workout once a week, on the weekends. I might have you perform those metcon workouts density style, in order to keep them short.
I would also want you to eat the same few low-carb meals for breakfast and lunch, allowing more flexibility in the evenings when the whole family typically eats together.
Or another example: You’re a single man who is at a healthy weight already, is an intermediate-level trainee, and wants to lose 5 pounds of fat and gain 10 pounds of muscle. You live alone and work 50-60 hours a week. You have a well-developed upper body, but like many men your lower body lags behind.
In this case the workouts use heavier weights and longer rest times to focus on building mass rather than burning fat. To account for the uneven development, I would work the upper body more frequently, but slowly ramp up the weekly volume for your lower body as it develops and adapts to the workouts.
Schedule-wise, I’d have you do longer gym workouts on Saturday and Sunday, one or two shorter gym workouts during the week, plus a couple of lower-intensity workouts using resistance bands and/or bodyweight exercise. Workouts would be timed in the evening during the work week, and later afternoon or evening on weekends.
I would also have you eat more carbs than in the last example, particularly during the next couple of meals after a workout. And most importantly, I would have you bulk prep food once or twice a week- probably Sunday night, and maybe also Thursday night.
Notice how in both cases, I started with diet and exercise templates, then made small customizations. In the woman’s case, I had her work out at lunch on work days because she actually has more free time during the workday than when she’s with her kids. I didn’t have her bulk prep food since she cooks for her family every day.
In the man’s case, I did have him bulk prep food, which is my default preference for most people. Schedule-wise, I planned everything around his job rather than his family. Finally, I adjusted the workouts to account for his uneven muscular development.
Everyone with more than a year of training under their belt should be templating and tweaking to some degree. The other two methods here- auto-regulation and self-experimentation- are a bit more advanced.
The second approach is to modify your fitness program on the fly, on an as-needed basis. This can be done via a set of techniques collectively known as auto-regulation.
The defining characteristic of auto-regulation is that although you’re making on the fly adjustments to your diet or your workouts, those decisions aren’t made on the fly. Instead, they’re decided on ahead of time, by creating a set of rules for when and how to auto-regulate your programming.
Technique #1: Reactive de-loading. If you fail to make the expected number of reps on any set before the last set of a given exercise, lower the weight by about 20% for all remaining sets of that exercise, for that workout only. Perform those lower-weight sets at high speeds in order to reach high muscle activation levels despite the lower weight.
Example: You’re performing four sets of six Yates bent barbell rows at 155 pounds, using a slow, controlled cadence. On the second set, you are only able to perform five reps. You lower the weight to 125 pounds, and do two more sets of six reps at a fast cadence.
Technique #2: Conditional failure training. If and only if you make all of your expected reps on all sets of a given exercise, keep going to failure on the last set.
Example: You’re doing three sets of eight-rep leg presses. You make eight reps on the first two sets. On set three you once again get to eight reps, so you keep going, squeezing out two more reps before you can’t go any further.
On the next workout, you raise the weight. You make eight reps on the first set, but only seven on the second set. So on the third set you don’t go to failure, even if you make eight reps.
Technique #3: Daily calorie target adjustments. Based on your performance in your workout, you adjust your calorie target for the next day or two up or down by 200-300 calories in order to maximize fat loss without completely stalling muscle growth.
Example: During your workout, you fall short of your expected reps on several exercises. You eat an extra 300 calories in your post-workout meal to ensure adequate muscular recovery. During a workout the next week, you hit your rep targets for every exercise, and exceed them for two exercises. Since you know you’re recovering more than well enough, you reduce your daily calorie target by 300 for the next two days in order to burn some extra fat.
Auto-regulation allows you to give your body precisely what it needs at any time while still following concrete rules, without needing to “wing it” or make choices based on gut instinct or subjective feelings.
The vast majority of auto-regulation techniques are similar to example number one- they pertain to exercise rather than diet, are limited in scope to a single exercise, and work by putting on the brakes rather than stepping on the gas. Techniques like examples two and three are less common- I’m one of very few people who use them- but they can be very effective if used sparingly, under the right circumstances.
Now, while the exact timing of when auto-regulatory rules kick in is personalized based on what’s happening with your workouts, the rules themselves are standardized, not made up specifically for you. Which leads us to…
If you want to create a fitness program or a daily routine that is well and truly personalized to you- not based on an educated guess by categorizing/profiling you, or following a standardized set of rules- you have to experiment to learn what works for you.
Self-experimentation takes time, but it’s the only way to know, for certain, exactly what works best for you. And in order to do it right, you need a framework for designing good experiments.
A good self-experiment needs to have a variable that’s being manipulated, an outcome that’s being measured, and a clear way of measuring that outcome. It needs to control for other variables that might affect the outcome.
A self-experiment also needs to produce quick and relatively unambiguous results. It’s hard to test which kind of workouts produce maximal hypertrophy, because you would have to stick with each kind of workout that you test for months on end.
With all that said, here are a few examples of self-experimentation in action:
Experiment #1: Finding your optimal dose of pre-workout caffeine
Many people take caffeine, or a pre-workout supplement, to boost performance in their workouts. But how much should you take?
A couple years ago I did some experiments to figure out my ideal dosage. At the time I figured that about 300 mg was my ideal dosage for gym performance. However, I made three big mistakes: I didn’t clearly measure gym performance, I didn’t standardize the amount of caffeine I consumed earlier in the day, and I didn’t standardize what time of day I worked out.
Here’s how a better execution of this experiment would look:
You work out every day at the same time: 4 PM. Every morning you have one cup of white tea; on workout days you consume no other caffeine until shortly before your workout. You consume caffeine a half hour before each workout, rotating between 100, 200, 300 and 400 mg doses.
Every workout includes six exercises, and you record every workout. For the sake of the experiment, you then record, for each workout, how many exercises you gained strength in since your last workout, how many you lost strength in, and how many exercises your strength remained unchanged in since the last workout. You also record side effects such as dizziness, brain fog or tachycardia (racing heartbeat).
After twenty workouts- five workouts of each experimental condition: your results are the following:
100 mg: 12 up, 10 same, 8 down, no side effects
200 mg: 14 up, 10 same, 6 down, mild appetite suppression but no other side effects
300 mg: 17 up, 9 same, 4 down, moderate appetite suppression and mild tachycardia and raised body temperature
400 mg: 18 up, 8 same, 4 down, severe appetite suppression, moderate tachycardia and hyperthermia, slight diziness and brain fog
Looking at the results you see that the more caffeine you took, the stronger you got. However, given the side effects at 400 mg, you decide that your ideal dosage is 300 mg, or maybe even 250 mg.
As a mater of fact, I’m going to run this experiment myself in a few weeks, partly because it’s a better design than what I used before, and partly because I’m pretty sure I’ve become more sensitive to caffeine in the past two years.
Experiment #2: Optimizing breakfast
The food you eat has wide-ranging effects on you that go far beyond just gaining or losing weight. Besides your body composition and overall health, your diet can affect how you feel, how smart you are, and how much work you’re able to get done.
Breakfast is particularly important because it sets the trajectory for the rest of your day. The right breakfast will give you abundant energy and put you in a good mood. It will make it easy to focus and give you abundant willpower. That in turn will make it easier to make healthy food choices later in the day, creating a positive feedback loop that makes every aspect of your day go better for you.
The wrong breakfast has the opposite effect. After eating it, you’ll feel fatigued and grumpy. You’ll be unable to focus on anything. Then you’ll eat more crap for lunch, sending you into a spiral of bad choices, low energy and negativity.
For that reason, optimizing your breakfast is one of the best things you can do. Here’s how that might go down.
You come up with four different breakfasts:
A: 2 eggs, 2 strips of bacon, a piece of toast and a glass of orange juice
B: A bowl of oatmeal with berries and cashew milk, plus a banana
C: Chicken and egg salad with oil and ranch
D: 2 eggs scrambled in butter, carrots and celery, and a cup of lentils
You rotate between these four breakfasts for 2-3 weeks. Every morning you record your mood, energy level and appetite on a 1-5 scale every half hour from breakfast until lunch.
After trying each breakfast a few times, you find that breakfast D, the low-glycemic option, works best for you, with option C a close second and option A, the traditional American breakfast, a definite loser.
At this point you might want to run the experiment a second time, trying a few variations on option D. For instance:
D: 2 eggs scrambled in butter, carrots and celery, and a cup of lentils
E: 2 fried sausages, stir-fried vegetables, and lentils
F: Half a can of chili, plus a small salad with chicken or egg
G: 4 egg whites scrambled in butter, carrots, celery and bell peppers dipped in ranch, and a small apple
Those all have similar macronutrient profiles with moderate amounts of low-glycemic carbs, but differ in the exact foods they contain.
I’ve run this experiment before, and it was the single most valuable self-experiment I’ve ever done. In fact, I plan to do it again every year or two, because eating the best possible breakfast is just that important.
Experiment #3: Designing your perfect evening routine
We spend one third of our lives sleeping. Obviously, sleep is a crucial part of our lives- but how many of us ever think to make a systematic effort to sleep better?
One of the best returns on effort you can get comes from figuring out the best way to spend your last half hour before bed. The right evening routine will allow you to sleep better, have more energy every day, be healthier, and substantially lower your daily anxiety.
Here’s how this experiment would look:
Every morning, you record an estimate of how much sleep you got the previous night (or better yet, measure it with an activity tracker like the Garmin vivoactive), and you rate how well-rested you feel on a scale from one to five. Every night, you record what time you begin your evening routine.
You have several evening routines that you rotate between. They are as follows:
A: Brush teeth, answer emails, read non-fiction, sleep
B: Yoga, brush teeth, read fiction, sleep
C: Read, shower, play Tetris, sleep
D: Watch one episode of a TV show, read a chapter of a novel, sleep
After three weeks of rotating through these different evening routines, you conclude that option B worked best for you. You also realize that you sleep best when you go to be around 11- much later and you don’t get enough sleep, much earlier and you can’t get to sleep.
You then come up with a few small variations on routine B to test against each other for the next 2-3 weeks, while consistently going to bed between 10:30 and 11:30.
I’ve done this experiment myself. My current best-performing evening routine is brushing my teeth, browsing the internet for a few minutes while texting with my girlfriend, then putting away the computer and reading fiction for 20 minutes or so before bed.
Your body. Your life. Your program.
Cookie-cutter programs will never give you the results that you can get from a truly individualized program. By using these three strategies, you can create a program that is truly meant for you.
So which one are you going to use first and why? Let me know either by emailing me or commenting on this article.