The 4 Crucial Components of a Massively Effective Strength Training Program

Today we’re going to touch on semi-privates. No, that’s not a term for genitals at a nude swingers beach, that’s the name of our more traditional strength training option at MFF. Well, relatively traditional.

In the Dragon Lair (at HK) and on Monster Island (at Bowery) we have two weight rooms, equipped with burly, bad-ass looking equipment, and plenty of space between. For those who have yet to be indoctrinated, it may not seem like much.

But once you’re in the know, you’ll see that this is all you need to have some of the most effective and educational workouts possible.

Deadlift and Pull-up and Bench Press, Oh My!

At MFF we put a premium on education. Our team prides itself on learning about the best fitness systems out there, and we teach them in a way that builds confidence so our Ninjas can feel comfortable lifting in other gyms while they travel. You can think of semi-privates like a technique master class, allowing you to hone your movement skills in an environment with more –room for experimentation than a class setting.

Most of these movements are what we’d call functional strength training. That means that we try to move our bodies in the most natural ways possible, and when we’re moving well, we’ll use external loads to challenge our ability to maintain that quality of movement. This includes exercises like deadlifts, pull-ups, and the bench press. Why do we focus on this?

For many Ninjas, the extra focus on technique means that they’re more confident when they find themselves at a gym that’s not MFF. Personally, that’s my key idea of success–consistent training regardless of environment. When exercises require patience and long-term practice, they’re far more likely to become a long-lasting habit.

Across the majority of health and hotness goals, strength training is the most important activity to include in your fitness program. During semi-private training, we focus on activities that burn calories, promote muscle mass, and elevate metabolism. Those activities can vary greatly depending on each Ninja’s overall goals. Let’s look at the overall structure of a program, then we’ll break down the differences based on goals.

Y’all Got Structure

At MFF, we write individualized programs that are typically eight sessions long. This gives you enough time to train consistently and measure progress, but keep things fresh with appropriate updates. There’s a similar structure for the flow of every workout, with four major sections of each workout. The sections vary in length based on goals, and wl adjust time accordingly for an hour long workout. Here’s how we’ll organize an hour of semi-private training:

  • Warm-Up: 8-10 minutes
  • Core / Power Development: 5 minutes
  • Strength Training: ~35 minutes
  • Finisher: 5-10 minutes

Here’s a breakdown of each of these sections of a workout:

1. Warm-Up

In its simplest definition, the warm-up is time spent elevating our core body temperature. A warmer body is better prepared for exercise, and we get there in a few ways. First, we focus on breathing, because many people don’t breath as efficiently as they could. The simplest way to think of it is that most people don’t exhale completely. We’ll reset our breath by focusing on a full exhale, which can have the added benefit of working your abs harder from the beginning of the workout.

After we reset our breath, the warm-up transitions into some mobility work. Following the framework of the Joint by Joint Approach, the emphasis is on creating mobility at the hip joints, the thoracic spine (or upper back), and the ankles. While we’re creating movement here, we’re focusing on controlling movement through our knees, lower backs, and shoulders.

One of our go-to exercises for mobility include the spiderman lunge, which allows you to mobilize the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine at the same time.

2. Core / Power Development

Now that we’re panting and moist, we’re in the core / power development section. During this time, we’re working on our ability to resist motion through our mid-section, create motion using our arms and legs, or a combination of the two.

If you have less training experience, this section is better used by resisting motion. The focus here is on keeping your rib cage stacked on top of your pelvis, and this can be done in all three planes of motion. A deadbug can challenge our ability to resist extension by keeping our ribs down, a suitcase carry can challenge our ability to resist resist lateral flexion, and a Pallof press can challenge our ability to resist rotation.

When it comes to training power, we’re focused on using our core to transmit force, often through the core. Take the Turkish Get-Up for example, when we’re driving through one foot and onto the opposite elbow. That coordination takes some power!

More traditionally, we’ll use exercises like a power swing or box jump to create some power through the lower body, or a medicine ball slam or plyometric push-up to create some power through the upper body.

3. Strength Training

This section is the meat of the workout, or the tempeh if that’s your thing. We’ll spend at last half of the workout focused on strength training, and we’ve already reviewed why:  This is the best activity for promoting muscle mass and elevating metabolism.

(Sidebar: There’s a difference between promoting muscle mass and getting f*cking hyooge. Lifting weights doesn’t turn you into the hulk overnight. Lifting weights and eating too much for your goals builds muscle, but this doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s hard to get jacked, y’all.)

When it comes to strength training, we’ll follow three major rules. They are:

A. Move well, then move often.

The first priority is improving our ability to repeat graceful reps. This quality of movement is essential for maximizing the effectiveness of our training in a given workout, and also creating a sustainable practice over time.

When we move well, it becomes far more sustainable to increase the variables of training: increasing the volume by adding sets, repetitions, or external load.

It’s not about training as hard as possible, but about training sustainably. Focusing on movement quality makes that happen. Think about using the quality, not quantity, to govern the workout.

Action Steps

It’s easy to set a timer and go until it beeps. But it’s a much greater challenge to set a goal for your number of reps and stop before you get there to respect the quality of your movement. Starting every set with great technique, then stopping at the point that your technique breaks down is going to help you kick-ass with class.

B. Lowest System Load

The concept of lowest system load comes from our friend Charlie Weingroff, a world-class physical therapist and strength coach. In short, the idea is to appropriately loading the exercise with the heaviest implement necessary, not the highest implement possible. If you want to crush heavy weights for the sake of heavy weights, MFF may not be the place for you.

If you want to safely challenge your technique while lifting something appreciably heavy, we’re going to use the concept of lowest system load to get better without getting hurt. We’ll be safer and stronger in the long term.

Action Steps

Next time you train on your own, think about the WHY behind what weight you’re lifting. Are you using a specific piece of equipment simply because it lets you use more weight? Cut that shit out, boo!

Try to find a similar level of challenge with a weight that’s a little bit lighter. It’ll offer up a spicy new challenge and will keep your training safer and more sustainable.

C. The Bilateral Deficit

We use a similar approach to some of our exercise selections. In her article, The Badassery of Single Leg Workouts, the Kettle Belle herself Laura Mårtensson, wrote:

“If I take the amount of weight I can lift on one side (unilateral) and add it to the amount I can lift on the other side, that number will be greater than what I can lift with both sides at the same time (bilateral).”

We apply this idea of the bilateral deficit to exercises like a squat. Rather than aggressively loading our bilateral squat pattern, we’ll focus on our split squat or reverse lunge. If we layer in the idea of lowest system load, we might start loading our split squat with a kettlebell in the goblet position instead of a barbell on the back. When you move well before you move often, you set technique as the first priority and load appropriately.

Action Steps

Squats and deadlifts can be great, but if you’ve grown used to them, there’s an even greater challenge to be had by getting onto one foot. Consider what you’d lift for an exercise where your legs are working symmetrically. Cut that weight in half, and try out a similar unilateral exercise.

If you’re goblet squatting 32 kg for example, start out with a 16 kg. Once that feels okay, push it appropriately. You’ll be surprised at the secret strength you’ve just unlocked.

4. Finisher (Happy Ending)

This final section is where you’ll see the most variety in our training. For the last ~10 minutes of each session, Ninjas are focused on the accessory work for their goals. If you’re interested in stoking the fat-burning furnace even more, that work will look different than Ninjas who want to pack on slabs of sexy muscle.

One of my favorite finishers for fat loss includes kettlebell swings, battling ropes, and jam ball slams. Run through three rounds of 30 seconds each, resting minimally in between each round. You’ll pack a ton of great work into a relatively short period of time.

If you’re interested in building muscle, we spend this finisher time focusing on really isolating the muscles you’re interested in working. The basic premise? A whole lot of reps, little rest, and a whole lot of burning. This can be glute bridges and lunges for your butt, or bicep curls and lateral raises for sexy shoulders.

Some Ninjas have pre-planned finishers that they practice over the course of an 8-workout program, while others complete a “Trainer’s Choice” exercise, giving them a chance to try something new when they’re interested in it.

Putting It Together

As the Potions Master of Programming at MFF, I’m obsessed with tinkering with the ingredients we use. Just as Snape had his storage cupboard, we’re often pulling out recipes and experimenting with ways to improve our fitness results, and have the most fun possible.

We’ll always consider a Ninja’s preferences as a program-design time breaker. Wanna work on a specific exercise? Let’s get after it! Working on new exercises is often the most appropriate at the beginning of the session when our brains and the body are the most prepared.

That being said, we follow the structure that Amanda Wheeler laid out in her article, Easy Bake Strength. The details in that article are amazing, check it out!

In our semi-private training app, we have several exercise categories. There are warm-ups that prepare us to lift, there are core and power exercises that help us resist or create forces, and we have a number of movement patterns we’ll use while lifting, including:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Core/Stabilize

Each of these categories include bilateral exercises where two limbs work symmetrically or unilateral exercises where they work independently. When it comes to pushing and pulling, we have horizontal movements like a row or barbell bench press, and vertical movements such as a pull-up or kettlebell press.

Most of the time, we’ll pair exercises together that have minimal interference. If exercises look like different movement patterns, they often use different muscles, and while one set works, the other set recovers.

When strength is the priority, we’ll often do straight sets of the primary exercise without pairing anything together. This is slower, but ideal for truly getting stronger.

During the finishers, it’s often useful to pair exercises together that create loads of localized fatigue. This might be glute bridges into kettlebell swings to blow up your butt, or bicep curls into TRX rows so that your arms are on fire.

Wrapping It Up

We’re all about safety at MFF, and that has had a massive impact on how our program design team writes programs and how our entire training team teaches them. The goals are always the same: keep you safe, have a ton of fun, and teach skills that can be used anywhere in the world.

Weight equipment is pretty common, but using it well is far less so.Let’s face it, it can be scary to be the new person in the gym, experimenting like you did freshman year of college.

In semi-privates at MFF, we’re your sugar daddy, sharing our experience so you can feel safe and taken care of. It’s finding the balance between ridiculous humans and serious fitness that makes SP training so damn fun.

Wanna come train with us at Mark Fisher Fitness? Sweet! Click here to request a free Health & Hotness Strategy Session with a member of the MFF team.


Harold Gibbons is the Steward of Strength at MFF, where he teaches classes & semi-privates, manages the program design team for semi-private training, is the director of the Trainer-in-Residence program, and the founder of our Motivation and Movement LAB. When not teaching, he loves cuddling up on the couch with his girlfriend Katie, sliding through the woods on his mountain bike, and considering why Thestrals are the best.

  • trevor

    enjoyed your article and was surprised at the Warm-Up: 8-10 minutes
    Core / Power Development: 5 minutes
    Strength Training: ~35 minutes
    Finisher: 5-10 minutes
    love to get info and apply. thanks. if interested, link to my website, thanks again

    • Harold Gibbons

      Hi Trevor, I’m happy to chat! Whadaya want to know more about?

  • Trevor Barth

    i was just suprised at the core vs strength time differential, not in a bad way. i try to balance a little more but am always learning and will try some trainings with this format. thanks

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