| August 19, 2021

What to Consider When Using a Free Online Training Program

Many people who are unable to train with a professional typically resort to their own research and end up following programs online.

By Trevor Mah

Read time: 5 min.

In my previous article on considerations for solo training when you don’t have a trainer, I mentioned some important points in order to make the most of your training. Many people who are unable to train with a professional typically resort to their own research and end up following programs online.

With the plethora of free or paid programs available online, summarized on social media, or elsewhere, there are likely many more “poor” workouts than quality ones out there (although this is subjective). So here are some considerations and caveats that can help you with your decision to go this route for your goals.

Stay consistent, usually even longer than what it is prescribed for
Programs are outlined with prescribed periods that can range from anywhere from a few weeks to a month. If you are particularly new to training in general, your body will benefit from simple adaptations of working out consistently for the first time. I always mention that people undergo a second “growth spurt” in their lives when they first start lifting weights. There is a lot of individual variance that is often overlooked and not accounted for when programs are created. This means that someone may just naturally take longer to respond to the changes from the program. So even if it takes an additional 1-3 weeks, you can still find ways to progress. As long as you are tracking and note if progress is truly flatlining, then you can take that as a sign to move on.

Make adjustments where necessary
A competent program, whether it is free or actually created by a professional for you, should have a level of flexibility when it comes to your exercise choices. Proper programming is centered around training principles, so certain movements are at the core of exercise selection and you should have options that are suitable for your abilities. The important thing to keep in mind is that the purpose of selecting exercises is to train the correct muscles and the right movement pattern in a safe and repeatable pattern. Basically, it comes down to having the exercise do what it’s supposed to do without any issues.

Check if there are regressions if the exercises are too difficult or beyond your current capabilities. Likewise, see if there are options mentioned if you want to make it more difficult if it is too simple. In either case, programs with scalable exercises show greater consideration for the broader audience and understanding of its core purposes

There are many great trainers out there who offer free and paid programs that have seen success, but the best ones out there will almost certainly address limitations and offer alternatives. While it may not be explicitly stated in the program (which can be excessive if alternatives were listed for every single exercise), you should be able to swap the exercise for a similar movement without a significant effect on results. When in doubt, reach out to the creator if possible and ask. This isn’t limited by your own physical ability, but also your environment. If the program calls for specific equipment you likely do not have, then this should be a red flag. Even good, generic cookie cutter programs should offer an option with minimal equipment. The exceptions to this may be for specific training goals such as sports. For example, if you are using a sprinting program, you likely will need a track to accommodate some drills in some instances where a treadmill won’t do the trick. But of course, if you are at a high level and have specific training goals, you probably would be working with a coach anyways.

How complete is it?

A free workout program probably isn’t truly complete as they are made to be structured for short term results as a selling feature. Although paid ones are likely to be longer term and broken up into phases. Not to mention that “complete” is subjective for what your goals are.

What I mean by complete has more to do with the details of the program. Are there descriptions for exercises? Demo videos? Are they explained well enough that anyone can understand? Are warm-ups and cool downs explained or just mentioned? Interpretation is important as success is determined by how much you adhere to the program.

Important training variables should be taken into account. Sets, repetitions, rest period, tempo, sequencing, etc. should be well laid out and relevant to the goals. Moreover, are there explanations on why those certain parameters are set? Again, this goes back to interpretation and giving the user an understanding of how the program works. There is much more credibility if there is content explaining the process as much as the details itself.

Testimonials: Has anyone else with similar goals had success with it before?
A good program will not only have testimonials, but the right people saying good things about it. It’s easy to garner a bunch of 4-5 star reviews with little to no comments, or even a bunch of blanket statements, but credibility for the program should come from people who provide context with goals and (in the best case) circumstances similar to yours. Even though I did mention individual variability in the beginning, knowing that someone like you has seen success with the program can still be a good measure of usefulness.

Does this make sense?

Take a step back and look at the overall picture and what you are looking to achieve. Being mindful of not getting drawn in by the bells and whistles or marketing ploys can help you assess your options a little more clearly. Going back to what I mentioned earlier on interpretation, truly ask yourself if the program makes sense. Are you able to perform the exercises or variations well enough? Can you stick to the plan? Does it seem like the end result lines up with your goals?

While there will always be programs, both good and bad, created out there for people, remember that the best program is the one you will consistently end up following. There will always be people who create cookie-cutter programs to capitalize on the unknowingly impressionable audience, but there are also those who are genuinely skilled in providing you the right information. Knowing the difference and catching onto warning signs early will save you a lot of trouble and time.

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