A Framework for Program Design Part 2: Program Content

Paul Talty

[10-min read]

This blog is part two of a three-part series along with fellow Swim Ireland Physical Preparation Coaches Ryan Keating and Lorna Barry. The goal is to provide coaches with a framework to assist with program design regardless of their working environment. Whether you specialize in strength and conditioning for teams and/or individuals, or personal training or rehabilitation, you should have a procedure for first identifying the needs of the team or individual; selecting the relevant program content; and how this will be monitored. This blog will address the second step by looking at the process one could follow to establish the requirements of the training program content itself.

In part 1 of this series, Ryan spoke about the importance of conducting a needs analysis to provide a clear understanding of the demands of the sport and to identify the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the athlete(s) you are working with. There were seven components to the needs analysis that Ryan recommended. If followed, it would provide the practitioner with a comprehensive understanding of the direction of travel required for the S&C program content.

Once you have attained a thorough understanding of the needs of the sport and the athlete(s) in your care you must then formulate a training plan. The process of doing so has been the subject of countless books, blogs, and podcasts over many years. This blog aims to provide a very brief overview of the principles that you can follow to create program content for your own context.

Season Planning and Goal Setting

Having a clear picture of what the season will look like and where the key competition points occur is an important first step in setting out your program content. For some sports like swimming this can be very straightforward – the season starts around the end of August/the start of September and culminates in a key target meet at the end of the season (either National championships or a major international meet like Europeans, Worlds or the Olympics).

The season traditionally has a short course emphasis (25m format) through to Christmas which includes national and/or international championships (Worlds/Europeans) in December. This is followed by a change in focus to long course racing (50m format) with an international-team qualifying meet around Easter, and finally the major championships in July/August.

For other sports like Judo and Olympic Weightlifting, there is a less well-defined “season” with important competitions occurring at various junctures throughout the year. While for team sports like Rugby and Soccer, the key competitions are typically months in duration.

Despite the disparity in competition and season structure across various sports, you should be able to set out some form of long-term plan where there is a targeted peak in performance/readiness. This is typically referred to as the “macrocycle” as shown in Table 1.

MacrocycleThe largest division of a training program.
Typically refers to a year of training and competition.
4 months to 4 years
MesocycleBlocks into which a macrocycle is split.
Typically refers to the standard training block.
2-8 weeks
MicrocycleTypically refers to a standard training week.5-10 days

Table 1: Definition of the typical division of training. Adapted from Wathen et al., 2008 and Chavda et al., 2022.

In consultation with the coach and athlete, and armed with the information from your needs analysis, you should be able to set out some goals/targets for the endpoint of the macrocycle. These will most likely be directly related to performance in the sporting arena from which you can then determine the physical qualities needed to achieve this.

It is then possible to set intermediary goals/targets which support the attainment of the end goal. These intermediary points become the goals/targets of your “mesocycles”, which in turn can be broken down to smaller goals/targets which may make up the target of your “microcycle”.

This process of setting a series of goals structured to manipulate readiness to achieve a bigger goal is illustrative of the fractal structure of training programs. A fractal image is that of an abstract pattern that has an “evolving symmetry” such that as you zoom in on a region of an image you will find a pattern that is similar to the whole, and so you end up with a repeating structure (Cleather, 2018, ch. 6).

Training sessions are ultimately structured to achieve a certain target and will fit into the structure of a training week to achieve a certain target which will fit into a training block to achieve a certain target which will fit into a training cycle to achieve a certain target and so on and so forth.

The goal-setting process should be carried out in consultation with the sports coach, other service providers, and the athlete themselves. The goals at each level of the program should be SMART in nature and collectively agreed upon:

  • Specific / targeting specific capacities
  • Measurable / something that can be assessed and reassessed
  • Achievable / they must be something that can be achieved
  • Relevant / have the possibility of impacting the performance target of the athlete
  • Time-bound / there must be a timeline associated with the goals

An example of a series of mesocycle goals for a swimming athlete which feed into the next goal’s attainment might be:

Figure 1: A series of mesocycle goals for a swimmer contributing towards a target race performance.

At this stage, it is also critical to make clear where responsibility lies for the achievement of various goals/targets and the various components of training. For a sport like Swimming, the S&C coach is going to be primarily responsible for the development of strength and power while the swimming coach will have primary responsibility for skills and energy systems (fitness) development.

On the other hand, in a team sports environment, it is highly likely the S&C coach will have responsibility for energy systems development as well as strength and power. In some cases, the S&C coach might be brought in just to support energy systems development with no responsibility for strength and power. It is critical that clarity is brought to this from the beginning so as to avoid confusion and conflict.

Program Content Development Framework

Once you have established the structure of the season and the primary goals that will guide you along the way, you should then set out a framework for how you will progress each of the components which you are responsible for and deem to be of most importance.

For example, if working with field-based team sports you may set out a framework for how you will progress your hamstring and calf loading across the season to ensure appropriate loading and progression of the key exercises you wish to use.

If you are planning on using the Olympic lifts you might consider how you might progress the use of different lift variations from one end of the training cycle to the other to support the various strength components you are aiming for while also layering the skill of executing the full lift as the athlete’s competency develops. A sample progression for the use of the power clean across a 16-week short course cycle in swimming is provided in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Sample Power Clean progression across a 16-week short course season in swimming. Each block spanning approx. 4 weeks.

Of critical importance at this point in the planning process is to recognise that you are aiming to develop a biological being who is subject to a wide variety of stresses and strains from a multitude of sources and may therefore not respond in the way that you anticipate. Progress may be quicker or slower than you would expect and so your plans and thought processes must be flexible enough to change as these outcomes become apparent.

"Planning for training and competition is not an exact science and must always be governed by guiding principles rather than an unyielding commitment to the plan."@PaulTalty Click To Tweet

Also, in the world of sport, things can change – an athlete may be selected for or cut from a team unexpectedly, a competitive or training opportunity may arise at short notice, or indeed they may get injured. In any case, while it is important to have a framework of progression in place, you must always be willing and able to adapt it as circumstances change. In this way, planning for training and competition is not an exact science and must always be governed by guiding principles rather than an unyielding commitment to the plan.

Microcycle and Session Planning

Much of the day-to-day work of an S&C coach is taken up by setting out the weekly training plan and building and delivering the daily training units for which they are responsible. This is where the finer detail gets set out and where the key tweaks to an overall training program content will occur. This is the day-to-day grind if you will.

The microcycle plan will be set up with a view to placing the various training units at key points along the way to manipulate and take advantage of fluctuations in fatigue and readiness. The coach must determine what are the really key components of that week’s plan and ensure that the other components around those sessions complement the intention of the work being prescribed.

For example, if you are planning a speed session on the pitch or in the pool on a Tuesday afternoon you will not place a highly demanding aerobic session on a Tuesday morning. In some instances, you may choose to place a strength/power session either directly before or after the speed session in order to consolidate the stressors of the day. In other circumstances, you may want that speed session to be a totally stand-alone training unit to ensure the athlete is both fresh on the way in and has the opportunity to really recover on the back side of that session.

The decisions around training unit placement should be guided by the decisions you have already taken around the aim of the macro and mesocycles in which these microcycles sit. In another example of the fractal structure of training, when you begin to construct the individual training unit or session you should be making decisions regarding the placing of certain exercises or drills within that session based on the overall aim of the micro, meso, or macrocycle.

For example, if you are in a phase where max strength of the lower limbs is the focus you may choose to place heavy back squats immediately after the warm-up and before your Olympic lift of choice. On the other hand, if max power development is the priority, then the Olympic lift will take precedence over the back squat.

Personal Philosophies and Session Structure

Ultimately it is individual coaching philosophies, preferences, and experiences that will determine the detail of session content and the planning of the various levels of training. The way I structure a gym session may not sit well with some coaches while others may well mimic it exactly.

Over the years I have read several books and blogs on how best to structure training sessions and I have never felt like I have a single describable structure to which I will adhere. Personally, I tend to refer to Joe Kenn’s Tier System as a starting point for building my gym sessions and then tweak things based on the constraints of the facility I am using, the individual I am working with, or the time available to me. In this way, I have become comfortable with having a basic framework that I can fall back on while at the same time being flexible enough to allow the circumstances I find myself in to guide me toward the final destination.

Figure 3: A framework for developing your program content.


Once you have completed your needs analysis of the sport/athlete you are going to be working with, you must then start to plan the content you will deliver to them based on a process of identifying goals/targets and the actions which will lead to their successful attainment. In the same way that fractal structures simply repeat themselves in perpetuity, by repeating the same principles you will eventually arrive at a place where you can set out the detail of individual training units in a way that fits seamlessly into the overall theme of the training block, cycle or season.

Click here to read part 3 in the series, A Framework for Program Design Part 3: The Review Process by Lorna Barry.


  • Chavda, S., Turner, A. N. and Comfort, P. (2022) ‘Periodisation’, in Turner, A. N., and Comfort, P. (eds) Advanced Strength and Conditioning: An Evidence-Based Approach. 2nd edn. London: Routledge, pp. 111–132.
  • Cleather, D. J. (2018) The Little Black Book of Training Wisdom. Amazon.
  • Kenn, J. (2003) The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook: Featuring the Tier System. Coaches Choice.
  • Wathen, D., Baechle, T. R. and Earle, R. W. (2008) ‘Periodization’, in Baechle, T. R. and Earle, R. W. (eds) Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. 3rd edn. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp. 507–522.

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About the author

Paul Talty

Paul Talty is the Associate Head of Performance Services (Physical) for Swim Ireland where he leads the S&C support for the National Centre (Dublin), the National Squads, and the National Teams. In addition to this, he assists in the management of other performance service support to athletes in the National Centres (Dublin and Limerick) and through the Sport Northern Ireland Sports Institute (SNISI). Over the last 10 years, Paul has delivered S&C support to a wide variety of sports and athletes including competitors at European, World, and Olympic levels while working at Coventry University and SNISI. Alongside his role at Swim Ireland, he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. investigating the mechanical determinants of change of direction performance in Gaelic football through the University of Salford.

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