Anatomy of a Successful Training Session

It’s always fun teaching a group of hopeful trainers the ropes so that they can pass their certification exams, and I always try to throw some new stuff at them that’s beyond the scope of the course so that they can be successful once they start putting people under the bar in the squat rack.When I show them things that they’ve never seen before, like foam rollers, active mobilizers, and the plain and simple fact that you can train your abs without looking like a dingus shitting their left spleen all over themselves on the mats.

One of the most interesting parts of the course is when I get them to develop programs for different case studies that I cook up in the ol’ noggin. Nothing crazy here, since these are trainers who are just getting started, so I’m not going to shoot off someone who just had a recent knee replacement, or a spondylo client who has radiculopathy here. That would just freak the hell out of them and send them running for the hills. Most of the basics are simply someone 20 pounds over weight, healthy, and looking to get their sweat on. The funniest part comes when there will typically be one or two people who build their program for the theoretical client, expect them to survive the workouts and come back for more, broken into chest/tris and back/bis days. While this will be something that almost any entry-level certification course will let the examinees get away with, the harsh reality is that programming like this will eventually lead the trainer to the unemployment line and a lifetime of heartache and woe.

So to make things simple for new trainers, old trainers, people who like to get their swole on, and the odd person who can figure out half of the crap that spews from my left hemisphere and finds its’ way onto this page, I’m going to outline the hierarchy of adaptation WITHIN a successful training session, and the keys to programming like a champ. The hierarchy is as follows, and should never be altered or substituted:

Soft tissue manipulation

active mobilizations

corrective exercises

These first three are commonly overlooked by almost everyone


Many “average” people or post-rehab clients would probably stop here. Athletes move on



Soft Tissue Manipulation

Let me be frank and honest: soft tissue work sucks, but it’s necessary to get all the kinks out before starting a work out. Think of it like trying to unlock a door. With a very painful and mind-numbing key. This is one of the areas of training where everyone, from the marathon runner to the massive body builder, will wind up shedding pain sweat and wishing they were the exact opposite of whatever the hell they are right now. However, there’s a significant chance that once it’s over with and you’ve popped a few man-tears on the floor, you’ll stand up feeling like you just became a man from eating a cactus and successfully passing that mo fo.

Active Mobilization

Stretching sucks. So do it differently, and start your workout with it the way it’s supposed to be. Imagine you just woke up from a sleepie-time evening. It’s also minus god-why-the-hell-is-it-so-cold-outside, and the drive to the gym is a long and slow one that puts you in spinal flexion for a good 20 minutes or so. Why not fire up the treadmill for 5 minutes and then hit the deadlifts? Because your discs will shoot across the gym and probably take someone’s eye out, that’s why mister Cranky Pants!! Once you do a general warmup, hit the roller, follow it up with a simple series of active mobilizers that can help increase the contractility of the muscles, increase localized blood flow, increase neural drive to the muscles and fascial networks and mentally jack you the hell up for your workouts.

Here’s an example of a simple series of active mobilizers that can increase drive to the major joints of the body.

Corrective Exercises

Once you have the body moving, then you can address specific sites of intolerance, weakness, stiffness, and all-over crap-tacular performance so that they can’t get injured as easily as if the corrections hadn’t been made. These are going to be specific to the individual, and will often be technique-heavy and low-load in order to make sure the corrections are optimal without compensation, cheating or any other weaseling around the weakness. Up to this point, the entire elapsed time should only have been about 20 minutes, which means the entire series up to this point is something the client should theoretically be able to do on their own prior to their workout. Once that’s all said and done, we can start crankin  a little Billy Squier on your iPod and tear that mutha apart!!

Strength/Stability/Metabolic Conditioning

This will be the main working sets for your workout, which means higher resistance, strength training, spinal stability through increased workloads, and all-around bad-assery. On top of that, working up a big sweat and burning some calories can push you through your second wind and make sure they are ready to go for the rest of the workout. Or it might make them puke and fear God. Either way.


This will come when the muscles are nicely warmed up and ready to take it to the next level. Most people have the potential to get here, but this is more for the athletically inclined, as well as those with some training history behind them and some good neuromuscular control to make sure their movements, takeoffs and landings are precise to avoid injury. Plyometrics, sled work, olympic lifting, and other fast explosive movements qualify for this stage. A big mistake made by a lot of novice trainers is trying to take their beginner clients into this style too early, when they don’t have complete control of their movements, and wind up putting them at risk of an injury. Remember, the main goal of training is to provide the minimal required stimulus to see the desired adaptation in performance, which means the higher risk movements and loads will likely increase the risk to the client unnecessarily, especially if they are an office drone who rides a cubicle every day. They won’t be in need of pushing a 500 pound sled across the floor, but hey, they may need to move their entire office in one push one day, so, uh, I guess they should be prepared for it.


This is typically reserved for athletes, not the recreational worker-outer. This would fall in the track workouts, blue line drills, hurdle breakouts, all that kind of stuff. The basis for these movements is rapid acceleration or change of direction, which means sharp cutting and explosive power development. As such, injury risk is increased here like in power development, so use caution here, and limit the time spent in these workouts, as they will rip you apart before long. Wanna get your overweight client sprinting across the field at full speed? Yeah, probably not ready for it yet, so build up their strength and stability, correct any biomechanical faults, and maybe we can talk.

Hopefully this will help any new trainers, experienced trainers, or seriously geeky recreational exercisers build their programs more effectively. Follow this hierarchy, regardless of who your client is or what their goals are, and you will always have a successful session and low injury risk for your clients. Plus, it makes you look like a genius when you can develop a system for every client, varied and individualized, that makes sure you don’t want to blow out your brains all over your Starbucks lattes while writing programs for all 50 of your clients tomorrow.

On a side note to all the lovers out there, have a Happy Valentines Day, and remember, help control the douchebag population. Have your Ed Hardy and Christian Audiger-wearing friends spayed or neutered. Good night everybody!!

About deansomerset

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Post-Rehab Specialist, personal trainer and probably the coolest guy my mom knows, I try to impart a little knowledge with a sense of humor to keep people reading. I've always thought if it's something that can grab your attention, you're gonna remember it tomorrow!!
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6 Responses to Anatomy of a Successful Training Session

  1. Trey says:

    Thanks for this Dean. I’m looking to become a CSCS and this is very helpful.

  2. Sergey says:

    I’m confused. Olympic lifting after strength work? Do you mean it? What’s the rationale? Elsewhere I read that OLs are too technique-demanding to perform them safely when tired, so one better puts them right after warm-up.

    • deansomerset says:

      Hi Sergey. I’ve trained both ways, and found that Oly lifting is best with some neural up-regulation from compound strength work just previously. A heavy deadlift (but not to fatigue or exhaustion) followed by a faaaast clean can really help in developing neuromuscular overload and adaptation. Plus, the strength work would act much like a progressive warmup of the movements required for the oly lifting than to simply get right in to it. Both ways are beneficial (starting with strength vs. power), as long as the rationale is sound and the system isn’t consisten for too long. Switching things up once in a while makes a big difference. Also, most people won’t get to the stage where they can properly perform power moves, at least until the get the proper biomechanics for the strength lifts first. Once we start cranking up the speed, biomechanical faults can be magnified and injuries can become greater, so starting with strength work increases movement efficiency which can later be refined with power training.

      Again, this is just my way of training and my observations of what has worked well with my clients, as well as the resarch I’ve chosen to read. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, this is just one progression based on the logical steps of overload (resistance before speed being one).

      • Sergey says:

        Thanks for clarification, Dean! This makes sense. I think that it’s your phrase: “The hierarchy is as follows, and should never be altered or substituted” that I didn’t take with enough grain of salt 😉

  3. Rob says:

    Great post as always Dean!

    Cant seem to get the videos working though??


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