Practical Strategies for Building an Adaptable Training Program

When life happens and you have to adapt your training program, these strategies will help you stay on track toward your goals or deadlines.

It is important to be flexible in your approach to training.

I’ve previously written, in collaboration with Dr. Pak, about how to train effectively when you have extended periods of time with limited time to train. You can read about that by clicking here. However, sometimes you’ll have the time available to train normally, but every now and again something impacts that. 

When you have a specific deadline or an upcoming competition, these interruptions can throw a spanner in the works.

It might mean you are unable to hit every training session you had planned for a week within your training block. Perhaps you’re away for a day or two without gym access, or maybe your family unexpectedly arrives from out of town so you have to skip a session.

There will be other times when a training session gets cut short. A busy gym might mean you had to wait for equipment to be available so you couldn’t fit your entire session in, or perhaps you’re in the gym and you get a call that means you have to leave early.

If you’re a human, these things will happen from time to time. You’ll have the “perfect” training block planned and something interferes with it.

That’s life. 

So how can we build prioritization into our training to ensure these things don’t impact us more than they should? 

Let’s consider some approaches that could be helpful.

Exercise Prioritization

This is likely the area that is already built into most of our programming methods, but we’ll cover it briefly.

Exercise prioritization within a session simply means ensuring the order of a session moves from the most “valuable” to the least “valuable” exercises. I use the quotation mark as what is considered valuable will be subjective. The things you are looking to achieve will dictate what exercises carry the most value for you.

If you’re more focused on your bench press strength for example, then you’ll want to ensure that exercises that have the greatest potential to improve your bench press occur earlier in each session. This goes back to the principle of specificity.

This will allow you to hit these key exercises when you are freshest and have the most focus, but it also means if a session has to be cut short, you’ve already got your most important work in for the day.

Broader than just a single-lift focus, we should generally choose to place more complex exercises earlier in the session. This achieves two things:

  • A broad range of muscle groups are trained early in the session.
  • You have the most energy to give to these major compound lifts, which may be more important for those who are focused on strength goals.

This is the first step in ensuring your workouts allow for prioritization. 

If you have to cut a session short, but you’ve done the most important and most complex movements earlier in the session, then you can walk out of the gym knowing you have already performed the most “bang for your buck” training.

Session Prioritization

Another useful form of prioritization is to plan your training sessions in a manner that ensures the most important sessions occur earlier in the training week. It’s a concept that means skipped sessions will have less of a negative impact on your major goals.

For example, let’s say you have a training week planned as below:

MondayMain Squat, Bench Variation One+ Upper Accessory
TuesdayMain Deadlift, Squat Variation Two+ Lower Accessory
ThursdayMain Bench, Squat Variation One+ Upper Accessory
SaturdayDeadlift Variation, Bench Variation Two+ General Accessory

The layout is fairly logical and makes some sense for a strength athlete focused on the Big Three. A missed session though may mean we miss some important work that could impact the achievement of specific goals.

Let’s say this athlete’s major goal for the training cycle is to improve their bench press strength, we could tweak the week slightly to ensure that if they are forced to skip a session, they can do so knowing its impact on their primary goal is minimal.

To reprioritize the sessions, let’s switch the order of a couple of them:

MondayMain Bench, Squat Variation One+ Upper Accessory
TuesdayMain Deadlift, Squat Variation Two+ Lower Accessory
ThursdayMain Squat, Bench Variation One+ Upper Accessory
SaturdayDeadlift Variation, Bench Variation Two+ General Accessory

In the above, we have now moved the Thursday session to a Monday. This has moved the main bench press work from late in the week to the first session of the training week.

Now let’s shuffle a few of the exercise slots around to ensure the layout of the sessions better prioritizes the goal of bench press.

Take a look at the new weekly layout:

MondayMain Bench, Squat Variation One+ Upper Accessory
TuesdayMain Deadlift, Bench Variation One+ Lower Accessory
ThursdayMain Squat, Bench Variation Two+ Upper Accessory
SaturdayDeadlift Variation, Squat Variation Two+ General Accessory

In this new version, we’ve now got the main bench press work on the first day of the week, and by the third day, we’ve hit all of the specific bench press work. 

So if we have to skip a day during the week, we could simply carry on with the session we were up to and skip the last day of the week. For example, you might have to miss the Monday session, so that becomes your Tuesday session, then all other sessions are pushed back to a later training day and the session originally planned for Saturday would be skipped.

If you pay close attention, you’ll also notice the design has ensured all of the main lifts for the Big Three have been hit within the first three days of the week.

As an aside, you could’ve had the bench press Variations occur first on the second and third training days for even more focus on this lift. However, for a lifter who also wants to improve the other lifts in the Big Three, the above exercise order means that there are still days that give the other lifts priority.

By being thoughtful in the design of your sessions in the context of a training week, you can ensure having to skip a day will have a smaller impact than it may otherwise have had on the main goal.

Utilizing Set Ranges

We can add another layer of adaptability by considering the use of ranges, rather than fixed prescriptions, of sets for each exercise. This doesn’t need to be used explicitly when writing the program, it could just be something you (or your athletes) know is a viable option.

Increasing or decreasing the number of work sets is one method of increasing or decreasing the overall volume of training. This can have a direct impact on training-related outcomes such as strength or hypertrophy.

While one could assume that more training is better, this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, there is likely to be a bit of the law of diminishing returns in action here. What I mean is that going from one to three sets per session is likely to lead to more gains, relatively speaking, than going from say three to five sets per session would.

For example, a study by Schoenfeld et al (2019) demonstrated that doing a single set per session improved strength to a lesser extent than three or five sets per session. However, the five-sets-per-session group didn’t improve strength by more than the three-sets-per-session group. 

In an earlier meta-regression conducted by Krieger (2009), it was determined that performing two to three sets per exercise led to a 46% increase in maximal strength gains compared to just one set. However, performing four to six sets did not offer any statistically significant advantages over the two-to-three-set-per-session group.

Essentially, if we prioritize the first couple of sets, we will likely achieve the vast majority of strength gains we may get from performing more sets. Yes, a greater number of sets might lead to slightly greater increases in strength. However, we can be confident that if we perform at least a couple of training sets, we have done enough to obtain the majority of the benefits available.

In practice, this has a simple application; rather than prescribing, say, 4 sets of 5 reps, we could prescribe 2-4 sets of 5 reps. 

This allows you to hit the minimum on days when something may pop up and you need to do a shorter session but means you can simply hit the upper end of these ranges the majority of the time.

Why not just cram it all in?

I guess you could just skip a session and then squeeze it all into a tighter time frame. However, this is an approach I would be less inclined to recommend.

In saying that, there are specific instances where this may be fine. For example, if you do three days of lifting per week, typically on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then if you don’t get to the Friday session that day, you could just push this to Saturday. In this example, you still get a decent amount of rest between the Saturday session and the next week’s Monday session.

But the more days in a week you have planned, the more cramming a skipped session in later could impact things. Typically, if you try to make up for a skipped day in a four-day training week, you are likely to end up with more sessions back-to-back, oftentimes sessions you may not have wanted to be back-to-back.

That’s why I would prefer to apply this prioritization approach in planning that has been discussed here. Then an athlete can confidently skip a training day and push back their training sessions, without feeling the need (and stress) to try to cram all of their training days into a tighter training window.

What if I have no deadlines?

Sometimes an athlete may not have specific upcoming competitions. Perhaps they don’t compete at all and so there aren’t any deadlines for testing days. This allows you to take a different approach altogether.

In these instances, there is another approach you can use: Simply push the session, and all subsequent sessions, back by one day.

Say your usual training days are Mon-Tue-Thu-Sat and you simply cannot fit your sessions in on the other days of the week. If you miss the Thursday session this week, you would simply place it on Saturday and then push all the other sessions back by a day. So Saturday becomes next Monday, Monday becomes Tuesday, etc.

When there aren’t specific deadlines in place, this approach makes a lot of sense. You aren’t constrained to fit your sessions into a certain time period and you’re more likely to be able to simply push a session back and carry on.


This article has provided some practical suggestions to ensure that you build adaptability into your training plans.

Simply put:

  • Prioritize the exercises within your plan by placing the most valuable exercises for your goals at the start of your training sessions.
  • Plan your training week in such a way that the days are performed in order of priority.
  • Understand that ranges can be used in training; so long as you hit a couple of sets for each exercise, you’ll have obtained a decent training stimulus.

There aren’t any ground-breaking ideas here. Rather, there are a few simple concepts that can help ensure you structure your training in a way that when life happens, you’re prepared and can confidently adapt.


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