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  • Nathanael Littauer, CSCS

Off The Beaten Path: Why Going Off Program Is Killing Your Gains

I get it, sometimes you feel like you just haven't done anything, or you feel like you've got more in the tank. You want to do more. More sets, more weight, more exercises. More, more, more, more, more. It's conditioned into us from a young age, so it's understandable that the mentality that a lot of people grow up with is that more is better. But what if more is killing your gains?

There's this common tendency I see among athletes in strength sports, and also in the general population trying to improve fitness, where an individual will add extra sets and reps, add weight more weight, or add more exercises to what their coach prescribes for them to do. Often times it's done for the sake of doing more. But one of the byproducts I see often from this tendency is an initial increase in progress followed by a much larger plateau and gradual decrease in the ability to make gains. But why? Why is "working harder" keeping you from making gains?

Here's a thought: if your coach is worth their salt, the program they have you on considers more than just how you feel that day.

When creating a program that will actually work well long term, a coach or trainer looks at more than just making you sweat and exert energy. This looks different depending on goals, especially if you're working on your general fitness or trying to lose fat or build muscle after being sedentary for some time, but there's several factors that go into deciding what goes into your training program on a daily basis.

Daily, Weekly, and Cycle Volume

Volume is essentially the total amount of sets and reps you do for each exercise, each session, and each training block. When we look at volume, the thing that has to be considered is that volume is that too much of it can be difficult to recover from, and too little of it may not render a stimulus. Now, daily volume is important, but the big factor is that gets considered is weekly or cycle volume and when that volume is placed in relation to events (competitive or major life events; it'd be terrible to overload your volume and trash your body before your wedding...). Daily volume adds up, so coaches have to keep an eye on training volumes to ensure we don't hit peaks too soon, or run into injuries due to overloading the body.


Total Load

Total load is often described as tonnage, or the total amount of weight lifted each session. It's calculated by multiplying the number of sets by the number of reps performed at each weight, added up over the course of the session. For example, a squat performed for 5 sets of 3 reps at 100lbs would have a total tonnage of 1,500lbs. If a Bench Press that is performed for 3 sets of 10 reps at 100lbs is also done during that session, which has a tonnage of 3,000lbs, then the Total Load or Tonnage of the session would be 4,000lbs. The main reason this is crucial, is because we need to factor in how tonnages interact with volume in order to better predict how the body is going to adapt. We can change the Total Load or Tonnage by adding volume, which is often the case in the first part of varying training cycles, or we can change the load. If we change both simultaneously, this becomes an issue of trying to adapt too quickly, which can lead to negative consequences such as injury or overtraining. If you start going off of your program, you end up modifying these variables on your own, potentially without knowing how the Total Load fits into the grand scheme of the program.

You're Wasting Your Own Money

Okay, this is more of a personal vendetta from the coach's perspective, but it's true: when you go off program you're essentially scrapping the thought process you're paying for (if you're paying for it, which should be the case as training programs are services, which is a separate blog altogether). When you go off program you're essentially telling your coach that you know better and that you don't need them. It may not seem like it, but sometimes that's how the message comes across. Plus, the part of coaching you're paying for is the prescribed loading and volume, and going off your program toys with those variables and may lead to an outcome that isn't planned for or desired.


So if you're changing your program constantly, by either skipping work or adding work. By going over the prescribed loads or by stopping shy of them. Remember that going off your program can derail your progress, or at least slow it down.


The final thing I will say, about which can have a fully separate article written about it, is when you should go off program. There is a lot of nuance that goes into deciding when to go off program, and it should only be done under specific circumstances and scenarios. For the most part, however, the best way to make a plan be successful is to stick to it!

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