Strongman Program Design with Dr.Davidson: Part 2.0 – Program Design




In our last installment with Dr.Patrick Davidson, he elucidated the specifics of his assessment process and how he overcomes real world logistical problems with his athletes in the public sector of coaching and training. Today Dr./Coach Davidson moves into the finer details of this program design after the assessment is complete. Some of his answers to the following questions are so long I broke them up into separate blog posts so everyone has time to catch up.

Part 2.0

Q: After you've finished with your assessment (link to last post) you then sit down to write the program. Take us through your general thought processes.

Part 2.1

Q: Do you print off programs from pre-written templates or the same programs from last off-season?

Part 2.2

Q: Do you write a separate individualized program for each athlete or does the whole team do the same thing?

Part 2.3

Q: Does the daily training session differ depending on what year the athlete is (freshman through senior)?

Part 2.4

Q: Since you train with your team, how do they get coached on their exercise technique?

Q: Since you train with your team, do you find it hard to focus on your own training given you're probably worried about everyone else around you as well?

Part 2.5

Q: From your experience, what works, what’s important, and where do most people get in trouble?

Stay tuned to here to every several days for the next part of Dr./Coach Davidsons elucidations! Let’s get started now with the first question.


Q: After you've finished with your assessment (link to last post) you then sit down to write the program. Take us through your general thought processes.

A: As a disclaimer to this entire entry I would like to state that what I will present to you are my ideas for program design from the last year. I feel that I have gotten significantly smarter during that time period. I would probably do things very differently with my current understanding of things. This disclaimer should not be viewed as me bashing my program design from the last year. The programming worked very well for the athletes on the team and I think it made a lot of sense given the timing and logistics of our competition schedule and training facility situation. This answer will basically be a history lesson. Lessons can be learned; however, the aim of a science based endeavor is moving forward.

There are three primary questions I answer before beginning a long term program design:

1. How can I keep things the same, but different?

2. What qualities and movements are truly critical for performance and training?

3. What methods will I use for developing the important qualities and movements?

I program exercises from a block program design perspective as I understand it. All relevant fitness qualities are trained all the time (or they are left alone for short periods that would not allow detraining of the quality); however, during a given block a focus is placed on one or perhaps two qualities while all the other qualities are trained at maintenance level. Typically the block focus moves from general (farthest away from major competitions) to specific (just prior to competitions). Therefore, the nature of the sport dictates exactly what fitness qualities are trained at given time periods of the overall block layout.

The sport of strongman presents many challenges from a program design perspective. The sport features a tremendous variety of challenges with events. Ways that events vary from one another include; movement pattern, primary plane of motion, primary muscles targeted, velocity of movement, and energy system contributions. Based on this variety there is literally a limitless way that coaches could go about designing blocks.

Coach Mike Boyle often-times references a program design concept that he got from Charles Poliquin…the concept of keeping things the same, but different. I think this is an incredibly important concept, and it is something that I keep in mind at all times when designing a long term plan. In my mind this seemingly simple, but ambiguous statement is truly at the heart of what it means to create a block program. In the long term plan I wanted to keep certain things constant throughout the year. Those things included the way that we warmed up, the way that we developed speed from a linear and multi-directional perspective, and the primary lifts that were done for force production increases. Only during the first block were the lifts different. The things that changed throughout the year were the sets, reps, rest time, muscle action (eccentric, isometric, concentric) focus, and degree of how specific the training was for competitions.

Every training session this year unfolded in the following manner:

1. Corrective exercises – individualized based on assessment results…athletes worked in platoons…towards the end of the year we all did PRI based correctives

2. Global movement patterns (Gray Cook movement sequences)

3. Easy locomotion (tempo runs)

4. Global movement patterns (Gray Cook movement sequences)

5. Movement skill development (drills for things like lateral pushing mechanics for side shuffling)

6. Plyometric primers (pogos and other low amplitude stretch-shortening cycle activities)

7. Plyometrics (either linear or multi-directional)

8. Speed and agility work (either linear or multi-directional)

9. Speed endurance development (either linear or multi-directional)

10. Strength training

11. Assistance exercises

Coach Boyle also references a Charlie Francis concept for program design a lot too…the concept of training threads. That certain threads need to remain present at all times in the program design. The difference is the degree to which those threads are present. At some times a thread is quite striking, and at other times the thread is slightly more muted. I try to keep the idea of, “same but different”, and the “ever present thread” in my mind at all times when I am designing a program. This is partially my interpretation of Dan John’s famous quote of, “If something is important, do it every day”. For the sport of strongman I have things in mind that I believe are important. I think those things are overhead pressing, deadlifting, carrying objects, loading objects, linear locomotion speed, change of direction abilities, general fitness, and movement efficiency (which is heavily tied into functional movement quality). I can’t afford to ever have a period of time where these things are ignored. I also cannot ever develop any of these things to tremendously high levels unless I focus on a couple of them at a certain time while letting the other ones simmer on the back burner. Here is the details for our off-season programming this year.

This past year when I got through with my assessments I looked at the general trends that I saw. What was most apparent was that we had a lot of shoulder mobility and active straight leg raise problems. Based on this I made the first block a mobility, stability, and unilateral exercise focused block. Block one lasted for the entire month of September. The second block was a strength block and ran for most of October. This block became more and more specific  for competitors competing at the Strongman National Championships (first week of November) each week. There was a brief deload following Nationals. The next block was a volume block that ran ran right up to the Holidays in December. A transitional block (hybrid between strength and hypertrophy) was implemented in January after the holidays. This block ultimately merged into a specific block for a contest that many athletes were competing in that took place in New Jersey. Following this, the training shifted towards specificity for the World Championships which took place in the first week of March. Following the World Championships there were no more big competitions on the horizon. Based on this I wanted to try something new. I had just finished reading Triphasic Training, so we started the over 80% block. That brings us right up to today, where we are finishing our last week of the over 80% concentric work.

The primary exercises that were trained in block 1 were the single arm push-up (on an incline), the pistol squat, the half kneeling unilateral dumbbell vertical press, and the single leg contralateral loaded kettlebell deadlift. By placing the load on one foot or one hand, I was hoping that I could force them into utilizing deep front line/deep core/authentic stabilization tissues as their route of stabilization. Janda classified tonic muscles as those muscles that stabilize during single leg stance. Tonic muscles are typically deeper and function more locally. I felt that the guys on the team were superficial stabilizers and that this phenomenon was what was causing their hypertonicity. I wanted to create an environment where even if they weren’t doing things perfectly they would be doing no harm to themselves while still building some general fitness. During this first block we followed a high/low day protocol. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays were high days where we did speed and agility work, plyometrics, and strength training. Tuesdays and Thursdays were the primary low days. These days featured mobility and stability training along with tempo runs. 

The second block was a strength block. The exercises changed slightly and reflected my exercise selection for the remainder of the year. Each training week (which could be longer than seven days) we would have four primary training sessions – two A sessions and two B sessions. A sessions featured two big compound lifts, which were the two foot deadlift and the single arm overhead press. B sessions featured two big compound lifts, which were the one foot deadlift and the two hand overhead press. I have run a very similar strength block of my own design many times and each time I have run athletes through it I have seen remarkable results. The phase lasts three training weeks, which is typically between 18 and 22 calendar days. There are three loading schemes used during the block. Each A day and each B day must be performed twice under each loading scheme (when you have completed two A and B days under a specific loading scheme that is considered a training week). The three different loading schemes that I utilize are as follows:

Training Week 1: 6 sets of 3 at 88% of the daily 1RM ( if unable to finish a set, done)

Training Week 2: 8 sets of 2 at 92% daily 1RM (if unable to finish a set, done)

Training Week 3: 10 sets of 1 at 95% daily 1RM (if unable to finish a set, done)

Beginners and Intermediates who run this phase typically put about 40 to 60 pounds on their deadlift, although I have seen some athletes gain 80 to 100 pounds on their deadlift in this phase. Advanced athletes can expect to see somewhere between 10 to 30 pound increases with this phase. Overhead lift gains are much more unpredictable. This is a tremendously stressful phase. Something that must be pointed out is that the percentages are based on what the athlete is able to lift for a 1RM on that day. All maxes are performed in an unemotional setting. If you are basing these percentages off of your all time max you are going to get buried. I am certain that anyone who is reading this may question my sanity with placing beginners in this phase. I have seen beginners do just fine with this phase. If anything I feel the demands placed on the advanced athletes are much more severe and those are the people who I worry about more than anyone. In my mind I believe that Charlie Francis was correct when he said that everything for beginners is high intensity…even though it’s really not high intensity at all. When I have beginner athletes pulling less than 3 plates on the bar the actual systemic stress is really not “high intensity”. I have athletes who pull in the mid 600’s to low 700’s on a daily basis…when these guys work with multiple sets over 90% this is what I would call high intensity training.

The strength block went from October up until November and became more specific to the events for the National Championships. If the National Championships were not in November I may not have placed the strength block at this point of the year; however, I needed to peak the athletes competing at Nationals. The National Championships were a tremendous learning experience for myself and all the competitors who were there. The primary thing that we learned was that all of our athletes were as strong as anyone in the country, but we all had weak links that were holding us back. In major competitions there are usually at least seven events. You cannot afford to have one event where you are abysmal. All of us had one or two events that cost us dearly in the final results. It became clear to me that all of the competitors had to become more adept at their limiting events.

Following nationals we went into a hypertrophy block. Every training day is high volume in this phase. I kept the same sort of A and B training day design from an exercise perspective. The work periods, loading, and rest was very different from the strength block though. When I am designing a hypertrophy block I try to keep a few thoughts in mind. I try to think of what Jim Wendler has said about conditioning…that it has to be either competitive or fun to be effective. I take a somewhat similar approach to my hypertrophy program design. I do my best to make every session fun or competitive. The way I make things fun is that I name protocols. I learn from every venue that I can. While I think there is almost nothing to learn from Crossfit, I do believe that there are a few things that they do that work. One thing that people seem to like in the Crossfit community is that protocols have names like Fran or Isabel. I too have some names for specific protocols that I run people through. One of my favorites is what I call, “Staring Down the Barrel of a .45”. This is a scheme where I have the athletes perform 9 sets of 5 repetitions with 45 seconds rest between sets. I use wave loading during these sets. Set 1 is 70%, set 2 is 75%, set 3 is 80%, set 4 is 75%, set 5 is 70%, set 6 is 75%, set 7 is 80%, set 8 is 75%, and set 9 is 70%. This protocol is what I like to call, “just doable”. It is brutal, but I have found that everyone can always just barely finish it. Hypertrophy work seems to have to be awful to be effective. Naming the protocols makes it just fun enough to stomach the work. To make things competitive, I take a page from Charles Staley’s density training concepts. We will load the bar with a given % of your 1RM and you have a 2 minute window to get as many reps as possible with that weight. I divide the athletes into three groups – strong…over 500 lb. deadlift, moderate, over 400 lb. deadlift, and weak, under 400 lb. deadlift. Strong athletes load with 70%, moderate 75%, weak 80%. Then we see who can get the most reps. Typically we will do 2 or 3 of these 2 minute work periods with 4 minutes rest between. Just about everyone finishes with the same number of repetitions in this protocol…between 17 and 22, so it is highly competitive. I try to change things up during hypertrophy blocks often. Hypertrophy work is a grind and it is tedious. As long as I keep the concept the same…high volume, I try to change things as often as possible in very subtle ways. This keeps people interested and mentally fresh during a hypertrophy/volume block.

The hypertrophy block ran for a while. The gains that the athletes were making were pretty impressive. People’s bodies seemed to stay fresh, and I really didn’t want to mess with what was working. We ran this block from the second week of November right up until the college winter break. When looking at the number of weeks that you can run with a given quality until it will start to plateau, Charlie Francis’ material suggests up to about 20 weeks with accumulation weights (hypertrophy protocols). We didn’t run this quality that long, but our athletes also do not need to maximize this quality either. Ultimately the name of the game is Strongman. As my top athlete, Robert Kearney has said, it’s not called, Moderately Strongman. The one thing that we need to develop above and beyond anything else is limit strength. That was the direction we had to move back towards. Charlie Francis stated that when working with sprinters the one quality that trumps all others is speed…this is what needs to be perfected, and this quality needs the most attention. Sprinters do not need to be champion weightlifters…they need to be strong enough. Well strongman competitors don’t need to be champion runners or rep-out artists, they need one quality developed above and beyond all others, and they need to perfect their craft within that quality…strength.

Charlie Francis has stated that blocks should merge into one another smoothly. You don’t want abrupt ends to one block and a jolting entry into a new block. The athlete should be almost unable to interpret that they have moved from one block to the next. I didn’t do this very well with the transition from strength to hypertrophy in November, but I wanted to make sure I did feature a smooth transition with going back from hypertrophy to strength. During January we went through a transitional or hybrid phase. Was it hypertrophy? Was it strength? It was a little bit of both I suppose. I won’t go into detail in this article about the specifics of loading, sets, and reps because they will be detailed in a future article describing the exact training cycles that I used in preparation for the World Championship between the dates, January 14 through March 4.

Around this time in February and March I was reading Cal Dietz and Ben Peterson’s book, Triphasic Training and it fit nicely into my current understanding of program design, while also bringing up some points that I hadn’t previously considered. I had never tried spending a few weeks straight with a focus on eccentric or isometric qualities. I figured that it was something worth trying. At the very least I thought that it would be something that would be fun, new, and educational for myself and the athletes. I kept the traditional exercises the same as the ones that we worked all year. Overhead pressing and deadlifting. Rather than use the straight bar with the eccentric and isometric phases we switched to the trap bar to avoid significant quad bruising and shin cuts. The triphasic experience has been great for everyone. I have personally gained a lot of strength with this protocol, and one of my top athletes, Zach Hadge has recently pulled 700 pounds with a straight bar for the first time. He gained about 50 or 60 pounds in his deadlift during the 9 week triphasic over 80% phase that we are finishing this week.

As the year went along, I changed from the A and B days described earlier to A and B days that were traditional weightroom implement days and strongman implement days. The general movement patterns stayed the same in terms of deadlift and overhead patterns being the principal training patterns. Training day A would be barbell deadlift and barbell overhead. Training day B would be stone loading (deadlift pattern) and log clean and jerk. The entirety of the programming based on the Triphasic model was done with this type of A and B day system. Utilizing the eccentric and isometric focus with strongman implements was a very interesting experience. This change was done due to scheduling availability that allowed a large number of the team to be able to train at a facility that had strongman equipment twice a week. In the first half of the year the team was only able to train at this facility once a week on Saturdays. As soon as we were able to do two sessions a week with event equipment it made for a much better overall training plan as we were able to develop specific strength to a much greater extent. 

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  1. […] is Part 2.4 of Dr./Coach Davidson's program design series! Be sure to check out Part's 1, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 before reading this one so you're caught up with his thought […]

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