What's the difference between a bad program, a good program, and a great program?
There are many different ways to go about programming and there are many different variables to be considered and manipulated, but there are a few that provide the foundation for all the rest.
One of the primary things to consider is the Overall Stress Load (Allostatic Load). Your body-mind responds to all forms of stress in basically the same ways. So whether it's stress from training, stress from your mind and emotions, stress from finances and your job/career, stress from relationships, or stress from an overall lack of meaning and purpose in life -- all of these different types of stress add up to create the overall stress load on your body-mind.
A second consideration is what's called Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID), which basically means that you will adapt to specifically what you're training to do. If you do pushups everyday, you'll get really good at pushups. Your bench press might improve a bit from pushups, but not as much as it would if you were benching everyday. And the reverse is also true. Even doing 10 reps of bench press versus 1 rep will create a very different response even though it's the same movement. You get better at exactly what you do.
The third principle I'll introduce is called Minimum Effective Dosage (MED). This means that you only need to do the minimum amount of work necessary to create a stimulus for your body to adapt to. If you do any less you won't see progress and if you do any more you'll likely end up overtraining yourself for your current capabilities and will either plateau, burn out, or injure yourself.
Lastly, we'll look at Volume and Intensity and their relationship to one another. Volume is the amount of work you're doing and intensity is how hard or how heavy (typically as a percentage of your 1 rep max for any given exercise). Volume and intensity are inversely related -- the higher the volume, the lower the intensity and vice versa. 10 reps of 100lbs would be 1000lbs of volume, but since you're able to do 10 reps the intensity is pretty low. If you did 2 reps of 200lbs (90% of your 1RM in this example) the intensity would be very high, but the volume would be much lower.
As a general rule: the intensity determines the stimulus and the volume drives it in to create the adaption. If you only did one set of 3 the intensity might be high, but there may not be enough volume to give your body the signal that it needs to grow and get stronger for the next time you train.
So when it comes to building an effective program, these are the main principles to keep in mind. They all affect one another and, when consciously applied, create a synergistic effect that leads to amazing progress.
To bring everything together:
Pay attention to all the different forms of stress in your life and do your best to minimize all unnecessary stress so you will have maximum energy and resources to put towards your training and recovery. This means managing your rest, your nutrition, and the way you respond to stressful situations in your life to the best of your ability.
Use the SAID principle to specifically train what you want to be better at doing.
Use the MED principle to do just enough work to create a stimulus you can adapt to.
Adjust the volume and intensity to determine the stimulus and drive it in the system. Hint: start with higher volume and lower intensity and gradually move to lower volume and higher intensity over time. And then repeat the cycle.
So to answer our initial question: In my experience the difference between a bad program, a good program, and a great program almost always comes down to these basic principles. I see many coaches and athletes (this used to be me, too) making things much more complicated than they need to be while neglecting one or more of the basics outlined above. Even a "bad' program can produce good results if it is approached with intent and consistency.
If you want to learn more you can watch this recent video I made here.
I hope you found this valuable and I look forward to sharing more with you soon.