Choosing the Right Training Program

Choosing the Right Training Program

by Andy Animus Tran, CSCS


In this day and age, we are constantly bombarded with options for health and fitness.  CrossFit, P90X, Starting Strength, Westside Barbell, New Rules of Lifting, BodyPump, etc. etc.  It becomes very much a daunting process for many people.  With busy work and family lives, who really has the time to research and experiment to see what is going to be the most beneficial to you?

This article is going to serve two functions: the first is to provide you with a sampling of considerations to take when choosing a training program.  These are the important things that will make or break the program for you.  It will be the difference between success and failure.  It will be the difference between adherence and sitting on the couch or aimlessly wandering around with what we in the industry call Program ADD.

The second half of this article will actually present a large variety of programs, including options right here at Urban Evolution.  This in no way will be a complete list of everything that exists out there.  And I am not here to sell you on any of these programs, even the UrbanEvo ones.  I get nothing out of these programs.  We are not affiliated with them, other than the ones that we specifically offer.  I will be assessing each program objectively, with pros and cons.  But I also believe in these programs.  Some, I believe in wholeheartedly.  Some, I believe only serve certain purposes.  But I believe in these programs and believe they are good products, not without their flaws.

What I hope is that I can give my readers a good look at what exists out there and the tools to be able to truly assess what is the best fit for you.  So, let’s get started.

What are your goals?

In the fitness industry, this will always be the most impacting consideration.  Does it make sense for someone who’s trying to lose weight and “tone up” to go on a heavy lifting strength program?  Does it make sense for an advanced traceur to follow a bodyweight-only program?  Does it make sense for someone who is obese to practice Parkour?  A bad trainer or coach will force his hand on you.  You do things his way, and get the results he believes is best for you.  There’s always a delicate balance of what the client wants and what the client needs, but at the end of the day, it is your body.  Look at what you are trying to achieve with it.  Outline it.  Write it down.  Go into as much detail as you can.  When I present you with the programs, this should be the most important thing.

I think it’s also important to note that there are a lot of myths in the public consciousness that simply are not true.  You will hear things like “High weight and low reps will make you bulky” and “High weight and low reps will just make you stronger, not bigger.”  It can be really difficult to wade through what is myth, what is the propagation of false information by trainers looking to sell, and what is actually true.  I am always happy to answer questions if you shoot me an email at, but I will say this in short: in most cases, it is just never that simple or black and white.  The high weight/low rep thing could be a five page article in and of itself.  When I present the programs, I will do my best to address as many concerns as possible.

Are you self-motivating?

This is easily the second most important consideration.  Are you the type of person who can read a book/look up a program, then go out and follow it for 12 weeks straight, by yourself?  Or are you the type of person who needs to be around other people to keep going at it?  Do you find yourself just sitting at home when your “gym buddy” gets tied up with other things?  This requires complete honesty on your part.  This determines whether a solitary program or a class structure would work better for you.

The hardest part of my job, the part that takes up the most amount of time, is motivating clients.  Whether the client is trying to lose weight, get stronger, or is a fledgling traceur trying to get an extra inch out of that jump, I hear constantly “I can’t.”  Sometimes, all it takes is seeing someone else in a class do it.  Sometimes, it takes venting your heart out to someone with everything that’s frustrated you in trying to achieve your goals.  And sometimes, it takes a stern voice ordering you to just do it.  Whatever it is, know it for yourself.  Know what motivates you and drives you forward, and choose the program and setting that will work the best for you.  Sometimes, what interferes with reaching your goals the most is choosing a program that is perfect for your goals, but forces you into a setting that just does not mesh well with how you need to be personally motivated.

Are you self-conscious?

This follows from the earlier question.  If you aren’t self-motivating, but are self-conscious in a class structure, then having a consistent and motivated partner or a personal trainer might be the best option to go in.  That may be the best option for you if you are self-motivated and self-conscious, as well.  If you’re going to go to the gym, and feel like crap because you only have 85lbs on the bar, then having someone else there can ease that pressure.  However, if you are not self-conscious, then that makes both being alone and being in a class that much easier.

What has your biggest obstacle in the past been?

Time and time again, I am witness to clients who try to “get back on the wagon” only to fall short or quit early.  This partly has to do with motivation, but it also (and largely) has to do with never truly understanding what has prevented them from reaching their goals before.  A lot of the time, “just getting busy” is an excuse.  It is often a rationalization that you make up for yourself – deliberately vague – because it is the only thing that makes sense.  It is vital to look deep at your past failures and figure out what kept you from moving forward.  Was it really work?  Was it something else?  A break-up?  A personal issue?  You just love food that much?  The football season started?  Look deep, understand your failures, and tackle those obstacles so they do not recur.

Do you find “traditional” fitness training boring?

I will admit freely.  I hate to run.  I’d rather get my cardio out through sport, through playing around, through moving.  In fact, I hate cardio in all its forms.  I can’t even stand barbell complexes.  The closest I come to enjoying cardio is sprinting with a heavy sled or push-sprinting a car.  I just hate cardio, and I managed to find energy expenditure through Parkour, jiu-jitsu, and other activities.

A lot of people just hate traditional training.  It isn’t just running.  People hate weight training.  People hate push-ups.  People hate yoga or Pilates or whatever else.  Part of the reason I think Parkour has been so attractive to so many people is that it’s so different and so much more fun to people.  If what you need to do is just move and you hate traditional training, then maybe a Parkour class, a dance class, or an aerial silks program – or anything else that’s left-of-center! – is going to be the best call.  If your goal is strength, but you hate lifting weights, maybe a gymnastics ring program is right up your alley!  Just because I love getting underneath a barbell doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone.  And it doesn’t mean that everyone should do it.  The right program for you is the program that you enjoy the most.

The Programs

While the four above questions are at the forefront of truly achieving your goals and adhering to a program that you enjoy, there are always going to be more considerations.  Truly understanding yourself is always going to be best.  Hopefully, these questions help you to do that.  But it is important to never stop asking questions.  With that said, here are some of the best programs that I have come across.  I will only be covering actual training programs here.  If you answered “yes” to the last question, I feel that it is a good idea to look into specialized classes like the ones offered at Urban Evolution (Parkour, freerunning, tricking, breakdancing, aerial silks) or other avenues, but it will not be the focus of this article.


This program was designed by Jim Wendler, uncontestedly one of the strongest men in the world.  He has squatted over 1000lbs, benched 675lbs, and deadlifted 700lbs.  The 5/3/1 program is a simple, bare-bones protocol that is designed to develop brutal raw strength.  Intense and volume-heavy, the workouts themselves are short, ending with 3-5 exercises total per day.  Don’t let that fool you.  5/3/1 will destroy you at its end.  It has quickly risen to infamy, being used by not only powerlifters, but bodybuilders, MMA fighters, football and baseball players, etc.  If your goal is strength, pure and simple, there is not a better program out there from my vantage point.  If you want to get right down to it, raw strength is 5/3/1.

Athletes will benefit from this program, but you have to also understand that if is to be used at all, it should be an off-season program.  If you’re lacking in the speed or technical skill for your sport, it may be best to pick up a conjugated program like UrbanFit or Westside for Skinny Bastards (both detailed below) first.  If you’re very skilled in your sport, but lack the strength to truly reach your potential, I recommend buying the e-book now.  Those looking for general fitness, a class setting, or anything else… best to look elsewhere.  This is all about pushing  big iron.


CrossFit, under the illusion of traditional strength and conditioning, is another program that has been gaining a lot of popularity as of late.  The belief in CF is that humans were not meant to specialize, and generalized training is optimal.  By combining powerlifting, Olympic lifting, “functional lifts,” gymnastic ring work, and bodyweight plyometrics, CrossFit seeks to create generally fit athletes.  The snag that it hits is that it actually is quite specialized.  CrossFitters are good at CrossFit.  And they are rarely good at anything else.   The issue is in the actual program design incorporated with CrossFit, as it is focused primarily on metabolic conditioning, despite using these other methods.

In theory, CrossFit is great.  It is something I believe in on paper.  And for those who really need to be in a class setting, it is a great option.  For those who are simply looking to lose weight, for those looking to develop their conditioning, it is a good option.  But as for athletes… doing the powerlifts in a metcon style will not make you stronger.  Doing the Olympic lifts in a metcon style will not make you more powerful.  Doing plyometrics in a metcon style will not make you jump further.  Do not delude yourself into thinking that CrossFit will help your athleticism.  If anything, it is only one component to athletic training… and as far as that goes, you will see much greater gains in conditioning through other methods.  For general fitness, for the average Joe, I think CrossFit is great.  For the athlete, it is pointless at best.

I feel I should also warn of the dangers of onsetting rhabdomyolysis, but I feel that Steven Low of Eat.Move.Improve did it better here.

Gymnastic Bodies

Coach Christopher Sommers is the leading expert on gymnastic strength training.  Building the Gymnastic Body/Gymnastic Bodies is one of the best resources that exists on developing awe-inspiring bodyweight strength and jaw-dropping physiques.  I felt it appropriate to include at least one program that is entirely devoted to bodyweight development, and this is by far the best that is out there.  The shortcoming of gymnastic strength training is that it is difficult (though not outright impossible) to truly develop strength in the lower body.  However, traceurs and other upper-body dominant (and climb-dominant) athletes will see a lot of transfer when training gymnastic strength skills.

While Gymnastic Bodies isn’t exactly a class or designed in a class format, I have found from my experience that gymnastic training is so fun that it easily can be done in pairs or groups in a way that weight training cannot.  For that reason, I recommend this program whether solo or partnered-up.

Starting Strength

Mark Rippetoe is one of the most well-regarded strength and CrossFit coaches in the world.  In fact, even in the contest of powerlifters, bodybuilders, and CrossFitters (three classes of heavy iron-movers who never seem to agree on anything!), there is hardly ever an ill word spoken about Rippetoe.  Simply put, he is respected universally, and that is a feat one should not take lightly.  Starting Strength is the definitive strength program for beginners.  It follows a basic protocol of 3-5 exercises a day, 3 times a week, using a 3×5 set/rep scheme.  In a lot of ways, it is too basic, but it is for this very reason that beginners reap so many benefits from it.  Let’s face it.  A beginner should not be on a complex program, not because the beginner can’t handle it, but because it would be useless for them.  Start basic, develop a great strength base, and then move onto another program.

Rippetoe has outlined here the perfect protocol for burgeoning strength enthusiasts.  While people who need extrinsic motivation should be wary, this is a program that I recommend for everyone, regardless of age, gender, sex, ability, goal, etc.  Strength is the foundation for all other aspects of fitness and performance.  Develop that base.


Our program has yet to be released, but there’s still quite a buzz about it.  An amalgamation of our top influences, the UrbanFit program is designed to work basic strength under weight and through gymnastic maneuvers, while finishing off each workout with a grueling metabolic conditioning session.  The ultimate goal behind this structure is to enhance athletic performance or simply look great.  Its simplicity allows for an ease of instruction in a class setting while its flexibility permits various themes and focuses to arise: strength, power, speed, endurance, stamina, etc.

A companion program will be released shortly after the revised UrbanFit class protocol goes into effect.  This is for the intrinsically motivated and athletically-minded readers, students, and clients at Urban Evolution.  It takes the basic structure of the UrbanFit class program and revises the loading protocol and exercise selection.  The end result is a year-long periodized program designed to get you stronger, faster, and leaner than ever before.  In this way, people who feel most comfortable with class instruction can reap the full benefits of our program, while our athletes can skyrocket their performance on their own.  Be on the lookout for this one.

Westside for Skinny Bastards

Joe DeFranco is widely recognized as one of the top athletic coaches in the world.  Though his focus is NFL athletes, he has worked with hockey players, volleyball players, MMA fighters, and a wide range of other athletes, including Chinese National wushu athletes!  He is also my top influence in the world of strength and power training.  The Westside for Skinny Bastards (WS4SB) was, contrary to its name, the program that led me to a 50lb weight loss in roughly two and a half months.  In that time, I increased my squat and deadlift by over a hundred pounds each and my bench press by 60lbs.  My box jump, in four months on the program, went from 36″ to 48″.  There is a special place in my heart for this program.

It is a modified version of the powerlifting program developed by Louie Simmons called The Westside Barbell Method, and consists of conjugating maximal strength days with high rep and dynamic power days.  The inclusion of bands and chains to the lifts, at various points, all contribute to other factors in athletic performance.  Banded box squats accelerate the eccentric portion of the lift, for instance, entraining the body to maximize the stretch-shortening cycle that facilitates explosive/plyometric movements.

The cons of the program involve the time commitment (four days a week), as well as many feeling that the use of special apparatuses is necessary.  While bands and chains are not required, they do help quite a bit.  In addition, most who start this program inevitably gain weight, not lose it.  It is a program that requires a lot of self-motivation, some amount of education to truly reap its benefits, and a true eagerness for strength and performance gains.


Andy Tran is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the NSCA.  He has been involved in North America’s Parkour community for over six years and is one of Urban Evolution’s lead instructors.  Andy is also a competitive powerlifter, holding a state title and the raw open records in Virginia for squat, bench press, deadlift, and total at 148lbs with USA Powerlifting.


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