The 3P Fitness Program Approach
Everybody wants the optimal fitness program.
Many claim to have it.
But have you ever really stopped to think about what really makes for a top notch fitness program?
In most cases, probably not.
So my aim in this article is to explain to you how to start viewing optimality in fitness when looking to achieve your goals or those of your clients.
Let’s get physical
Far too often, fitness decisions by coaches or trainees are made by looking only at the physiological side of things. After all, that’s what we want, isn’t it?
“What’s the best workout for muscle growth?”
“What’s the best diet for fat loss?”
You know you’ve seen it all before. One too many times.
This is also heavily seen in the evidence based fitness community where there can be heated debate over small differences that become polarizing and pit people against each other.
Which is all well and good because clearly we want to have a strong, accurate understanding of the evidence and do what’s best on a physical level towards our goals, but what is often misunderstood is that these differences in physiological effectiveness can be minor or even insignificant in relation to the changes on a psychological level or on a practical level to implement.
And while important discussions to have, I can’t help but feel that the average onlooker feels inner turmoil and more confused than when they started after seeing these things and loses sight of the bigger picture:
Fitness success is dependent upon far more than just the adaptive physical mechanisms.
On the other side of things, you’ve got those people out there making fitness decisions based on feeling and ease alone.
The human mind is poignantly predisposed to acting based on emotion and simplicity alone. We naturally gravitate towards what’s easy and makes us feel good.
However this is also tricky territory and should never take precedence over the tried and true principles.
“Everyone is different!” is no excuse to enter into anarchy and assume all methods are created equally. The core principles profoundly matter and are not open to wishful thinking.
The 3P Approach
So then what do we do?
Clearly there are pros and cons to each of the above scenarios, but we need something firm to ground our decision making here.
Let’s flush this out and get back to the basics:
At the end of the day, every sound fitness program is going to come down to these 3 things:
Effectiveness is self-explanatory. You’re in this game to make changes and accomplish your goals. If a program is ineffective, you’re wasting your time. Plus, effectiveness is highly motivating in and of itself.
Adherence is the ability to stick to the program. After all, you can have the Holy Grail of diet and training, but if you can’t actually do it, it sucks and has gotta go.
Finally, sustainability is adherence applied over the long term. Physical changes are molded and carved out over time. Achieving a magnificent physique takes years, so the program must set you up to follow into the future safely and productively.
That being said, when it comes to creating the “optimal” fitness program, it’s necessary to take a more comprehensive approach than asking the basic “What’s the best workout/diet to get results?” or “what’s easiest or most fun to me?”
This is what I call the 3P Approach, comprised of:
Let’s discuss each in further detail now.
The physiology is the pivotal piece and is what triggers that program to come about in the first place.
Your goal is to bring about a change in your physique via training and nutrition, so your program has to be geared up based on the goal that you’ve set out for yourself and everything that you do in your program must be based on that objective to bring about those desired changes.
In simple terms, Physiology is about:
Which methods work the best to create the physical events that lead to my goal?
We always want to make our decisions based on what the best available evidence we have says. (For more on my evidence based fitness model click here.) That will ensure that we are utilizing our resources most effectively towards that goal by doing the things most conducive to success in the body.
There’s no debate there.
What is open for creative license is how we take that information and apply it to our decision making in the context of an individualized program.
What’s best in theory isn’t always what’s best in practice, so we have to keep going going and touch on the other two factors:
An overwhelming amount of the fitness community behaves as if we’re all just robots.
The psychological impacts of training are often brushed aside or ignored with an unspoken rule that you should clearly be doing whatever is best from a physical standpoint. And if it sucks, then “suck it up”.
This is foolish. You need to factor in the psychology when creating the optimal program.
Weights and nutrition don’t build great bodies. People utilizing them do.
We always have to factor in the person and what it’s like for them to create the best experience for them as an individual.
There is a subjective experience attached to everything we do, and to ignore that aspect and its implications for long term fitness success is asinine.
Interestingly, many decisions in fitness have a wide spectrum of effective, interchangeable options provided the core requirements are met, so letting people make their own decisions that they feel best about can be an important part for enjoyment and adherence of the program.
Some things that come to mind:
- Food choice
- Exercise selection
- Rep range
- Meal split
I mean…do I really care:
- Whether you have strawberries or an apple?
- Whether you have 4 meals a day or 6?
- Whether you hit legs in the morning and calves in the evening?
- If you do lunges or split squats?
In most cases, probably not. If it means you enjoy your program more and is consistent with your goals.
Psychological fine tuning
Psychology is malleable, so the base psychology of a person is not a static factor that you’re doomed to deal with when creating programs.
Many people may have strong attachments/aversions to certain methods due to pre-existing beliefs. Oftentimes, beliefs can be a major stumbling block which are unfortunately rooted in myth, misinformation, or negative past experiences. You must discuss these objectively and display the evidence.
- For example, many people may be afraid of carbs or fat, believing it will make them fat.
- Others may have look at their scale weight as the end all be all to progress or have negative views on being weighed at all.
These are things that have to be addressed and openly discussed. Doing so can open up a lot of possibilities in the other 2 P factors for ensuring optimality.
Lastly, we come to practicality.
I love the gym just as much as the next guy, but let’s not get carried away and start thinking that it runs your entire life.
The fact of the matter is that the gym is only one part of life.
…and is often there in the first place to improve your quality of life (through increased aesthetics, better health, etc).
- Your career.
- Your fam.
- Your friends.
- Your other passions and pursuits.
In addition, you’ve got other winding paths to trek through, such as:
- Your schedule (daily and weekly)
- External factors (environment, weather, traffic, etc)
- Your equipment (gym, kitchen, etc)
Regardless of what is optimal on a physiological or psychological level, it doesn’t mean a damn thing if it isn’t practically feasible given the above.
There’s flexibility here considering most people could use a tune up to their lifestyle management, but assuming you’ve got your priorities and such in check, you’re going to have to fit the fitness program into the context of the life picture as a whole.
Defining the Optimal Program
Once you understand the 3Ps, we can now talk about creating the mixture.
The entire point of these factors is to get you thinking from multiple angles to create the best attack strategy rather than simply what’s most effective, makes you feel the best, or is easiest to fit in your schedule.
Proper decision making in the evidence-based fitness framework needs to be spearheaded by the physiological happenings but balanced and checked against the psychological and practical factors to strike a harmony that’ll lead to effective, enjoyable, sustainable programs.
In most cases, there’s no rub and doing what’s best on a physical level doesn’t impinge on the other areas.
But what if it does?
You can take from one area and give to another.
As long as you consciously know why you’re making that tradeoff and its relation to your goal, you’re good to go.
And that ability to trust in what you’re doing cannot be overstated.
To assist in visualizing this concept, consider the example of a scorecard where each P is ranked from 1-10 as so:
0: Flat out ineffective
5: Effective, but could be better.
10: Most effective based on our best knowledge of what’s going on
If you were to maximize all the areas, you would get a sum of 30 (10 points*3 factors = 30).
Yet unless you are an android living in a hyperbolic time chamber disconnected from civilization, it is not feasible to realistically achieve 30 points in all areas.
So lets say you only have 24 points to go around.
Where would you place them?
That will get you thinking in the right direction.
LAW V of the Architect of Aesthetics: Consider all of the variables at hand
Specific to the goal at hand
It’s important to realize that these examples can – and oftentimes should – change over time based on the current goal at hand and the restraints thereof.
For example, a physique competitor during competition prep for a national show is going to be sticking to a different blend than if they were in their off-season. So their blend may look something like this during prep:
As you can see, physiology is getting boosted at the expense of the other areas. That’s to be expected.
The critical part to realize about this is that they make that CHOICE and it is temporary to bring about their desired goal : winning that freakin’ contest.
This isn’t sustainable, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s an executive decision.
Additionally, consider your gameplan for a busy, traveling executive looking to simply get ‘in shape’. Practicality will be much more key of a factor that can drive down optimality on a physiological level.
To wrap up, use these questions to guide your thinking:
- What will work best physically for this person to maximize their results towards their goal?
- How will said approach impact this person mentally or emotionally? – 2b: Is this negotiable?
- Will this person be able to practically implement this approach effectively given the constraints? – 2c: Is this modifiable?
Now go forth.
I first introduced this in my book, Architect of Aesthetics, but it’s such an effective tool that I want to expand on it some more and make it accessible right here so everyone can benefit.
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