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How to read an exercise program template

The program template that the personal trainers use here at CoActive Health is a little more detailed than the industry standard so we thought it would be beneficial to break it down and explain it.

A well written program is like a Doctors Medical prescription in that there should be little left to interpretation. It should provide all the necessary details so that one trainer to another can read and coach in the same manner work out to workout.

We will now look at each area in turn to give you a better understanding of what to look for and what it means.

Program Heading:

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The templates we use here at CoActive have the above heading. The main focus should be the central heading, in this case ‘ Work up to one heavy set ‘. This basically describes how you should tackle each exercise. In this example you should start light and build the weight up every set until you attempt your biggest lift in the last set.

Most programs will have this heading, however you may also see: Same weight. In which case you are aiming to hold the same weight right across every set.

The spread Box

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If your goal is to work up to a heavy set then it helps to use a spread box. We have 3 different spread boxes that we use here at CoActive, they are as follows:

  • Deadlift = 35% spread from 1st set to last
  • Squat = 25% spread from 1st set to last
  • Upperbody = 25% Spread from 1set to last

The idea is that you enter in the weight you would like to lift in your last set, the box will then calculate which weights you should target for each set. If we use a squat as an example and we wish to perform 6 sets, finishing with a top weight of 100kg. We would enter 100kg in the spread box in the 6 set column and get the following spread:

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This means that we need to start with 70kg on the bar before working through the weights shown until we do 100kg for our last set. Hence a spread of 30% of the weight.

The reason we use the 25,30 and 35% spreads is because they have been shown to yield the most effective strength results.

Exercise description

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This is arguably the most important area to focus on as it should explain exactly what needs to be done. The first area to look at is the far left column and the letter indicated. All programs will start with an A exercise, if as shown above it has an A on its own then it means you need to complete all sets of this exercise before moving on to the next. This is termed straight sets.

If however the letter has a number next to it, A1

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This indicates that the exercise will be paired with at least one other exercise. If this is the case you will be performing a ‘super set’ where by you will complete a set of A1 before completing a set of A2. You can have anything from A1-A10, depending on the program.

The next area to focus on is the exercise name and description.

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The example above indicates Back Squat with heels elevated. It also specifies feet position on the far right. You will also find information on hand position in this area when working upper body. For more information on different grips please read our article on hand and grip position

Repetition Bracket

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Once we’ve established our exercise we need to look at the repetition bracket. In the above example it says 6-4 reps. This means that we need to select a weight that we can lift between 6 and 4 times. You should always aim to hit the higher end of the rep bracket initially before aiming to finish at the lower end.

If we use the earlier spread box as an example it showed 6 sets starting with 70kg and finishing with 100kg.

This means that our first and second sets we will do 6 reps before upping the weight and dropping to 5 reps on the third and forth sets and 4 reps on the fifth and sixth.

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This is purely a guideline and if you don’t manage to hit the exact reps then don’t worry, simply log the weight and try to beat it next session. The most important thing to remember is that you strive to make progress each and every session.


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These are indicated in the space above. Lower repetition brackets will demand more sets as there is less ‘time under tension’ so the body requires repeated exposure to gain the necessary results. Conversely with higher repetition brackets such as 12-15 reps it is unlikely you will see more that 3 sets.


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This part of the program is often neglected by beginners however it is very important to adhere to if you are to get the most out of the program. Tempo relates to the speed of the exercise. The total seconds in tempo is used to calculate how long you will spend doing the exercise.

This is commonly known as ‘time under tension’ or TUT, this has a profound influence on the effects of the exercise in question. For example the tempo above is 5 0 1 0 which means every rep should take 6 seconds to complete, if we then do 6 reps it totals 36 seconds for the set. If we choose to ignore the tempo and lift too quickly as in a 2 0 1 0 tempo then 6 reps will take us just 18 seconds to complete which in turn has a very different effect on the body.

When reading tempo the first number always indicates the speed at which you lower the weight, it is called the eccentric contraction. The above example is 5, indicating you need to lower yourself in the squat over 5 seconds.

The next number represents the space between lowering before lifting the weight. In the above example it is 0 seconds which means there should be no pause at the bottom of the squat before lifting. If you see a number above 0 then this is how long you should pause, this technique is used take out the myotatic stretch reflex.

Then follows the concentric number in this case 1 indicating you should take 1 second to lift the weight. The majority of programs will show 1 second here however you may see X which means lift as fast as possible, ideally under 1 second.

Finally the last number indicates the space between finishing the rep and starting the next.

All of these numbers can be manipulated to achieve different stimulus so please take the time to process the prescribed tempo before each exercise.


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This is another area that is often over looked. The amount of rest will tend to vary between 2 variables, complete or incomplete. These in turn have different goals.

The example above indicates 180 seconds, which means that you need to rest for 3 minutes before doing another set. This would be classified as complete rest as it allows both your muscular and nervous system to recover from the previous set before commencing the next. It is important to acknowledge that the central nervous system takes up to 5 times as long as the muscular system to recover. When the reps are lower we put the nervous system under greater strain hence the longer recoveries.

If the rest is 60 seconds or below this would tend to indicate incomplete recovery, if this is the case it is unlikely you will be able to hold the same weight throughout the session and will likely have to lower the weight for the last sets.

Entering Numbers

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Finally the yellow boxes at the far end are where you enter you weights and reps for the workout along with the date and any other relevant info. The above example shows 6 reps at 70kg done on the 1/3/17. You always enter the numbers horizontally.

There you have it, hopefully that gives you a better understanding on what you are looking at when reading your next program. If you do not currently train with us but are considering personal training, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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