| | | Forward Progress Through Backward Design

Author / Bryce Wolcott

5-7 minute read

We all know that Dominic Toretto lives his life a quarter mile at a time. As a high school science teacher, I sometimes feel that I live my life one class at a time. Five times a day, every school day, a group of students walks in, takes their seats, and a bell rings. I have the next hour to grab their attention and provide an experience that leaves them with a better understanding of how the natural world works. As Dom would say: “Nothing else matters (except Family)…for the next 55 minutes, I’m free”. As coaches, our daily workouts can feel the same way. A group of athletes walks in, glances at the whiteboard, and a power ballad plays. We have the next hour to grab their attention and provide an experience that leaves them better prepared for competition. How should we design that experience?

Traditional design

In the classroom, a teacher traditionally chooses a topic of perceived importance, then plans daily lessons around that topic. Each lesson plan will involve a lecture, a lab, or some other activity for students to complete. The goal at the end of the hour is that students leave the room knowing something they didn’t before they walked in. At some point, the teacher is obliged to write a test based on the instruction, to see if all of this time in the classroom made a difference.

Coaches often act in a similar manner. The coach typically chooses an area of emphasis, then designs a training session around that specific body part or attribute of fitness. The day’s workout plan will involve a series of exercises in a specified set and rep scheme, sometimes with a prescribed load. The goal at the end of the session is that athletes leave having produced sweat and acquired fatigue. At some point, the coach is obliged to design a test based on the training, to see if all of this time in the weightroom has made a difference.

From the start, this is a flawed model. Without clear-cut goals at the start, the training is inefficient at best, and ineffective at worst. Because the evidence of progress is decided upon after the training occurs, the test will be designed with the training itself in mind, not any objective or predetermined outcome. The result is an endless cycle, without any clear progress. There must be a better way

Backward Design

In education, we call this better way backward design. Using this model in my classroom, I first identify the desired results. What big ideas and skills will my students learn during their time with me? After identifying the desired results, I then determine acceptable evidence of success. How will I know that they’ve met these goals? It is at this point that I write the test. The test is an assessment based on student achievement of my learning objectives, NOT my teaching. Only after the test has been written can I begin to plan my instruction. What will my teaching look like? 

Each class period now has a purpose. I guide students through experiences that will lead them to be successful on my culminating assessment, which was written to provide evidence that they are moving towards my predetermined goal.

As a coach, thoughtful programming works the same way. Well before individual training sessions are planned, a coach must first identify the desired results. Which physical attributes do our athletes need to develop to make them more successful? Once these attributes have been determined, we define acceptable evidence of success. What measurable indicators will be produced as an athlete moves closer to our desired results? Only after acceptable evidence is determined will individual training sessions be planned.

Each training session now has a purpose. We lead our athletes through an intentional process to produce predetermined evidence of progress as they develop as an athlete.

Let’s take a closer look at each step in this process, and see how we can apply them as coaches.

Identify Desired Results

What are we trying to achieve through our training? The singular focus here at Power Athlete is athleticism.

athleticism (n) – The ability to seamlessly and effortlessly combine primal movement patterns through space and time to perform known or novel task.

The desired result of our training is to improve athleticism. That is, athletes will become better at performing primal movement patterns (squat, step-up, lunge, vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, & horizontal pull), as well as in their ability to combine these patterns through space and time during the execution of their sport.

Determine Acceptable Evidence

How do we know if  progress is being made? To answer this question we need both a goal and a starting point. We’ve already set athleticism as the goal. As for a starting point, we need to assess our athletes to determine their abilities, and decide which aspects of athleticism demand further development. Can they perform the primal movement patterns through a full range of motion? Do they possess the strength to produce and reduce forces large enough to allow them to be successful in their sport? Do they have the coordination and speed to combine these movement patterns through space and time? Are they adequately conditioned to accomplish these tasks given the energy demands of their sport?

Given a starting point and an ultimate goal, we can design a set of objective benchmarks to use in deciding whether athleticism is increasing over time.

Plan Training

With athleticism as our focus, and a predetermined set of benchmarks in place to measure progress, we are ready to plan our training sessions. These sessions must be designed to apply a particular set of stimuli prompting the development of the attributes of athleticism we’ve identified as lacking in our athletes. Or, as the Power Athlete Methodology describes, we will use Progressive Overload to elicit Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand (SAID).

For example, if we were working with young athletes who lacked the strength and coordination to perform a squat or lunge, we might prescribe a heavy diet of these movements in isolation, progressively overloading them in a rep range designed to produce strength. With athletes who were stronger and more coordinated, we might also introduce the opportunity to combine these movements through time and space in their training.

We as coaches owe it to our athletes and clients to break the cycle of ineffective and inefficient workouts. Stop living life one workout at a time. Instead, guide your athletes through training designed to produce acceptable evidence of progress as they develop athleticism.

Looking for a turnkey solution for your own training based on these principles? Use our diagnostic tool to find which of our full package programs is right for you! In the Power Athlete training feed, you don’t have friends, you got family.


EDU: Power Athlete Methodology
BLOG: Power Coach: Learning by Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: Principles of Training: Science vs. Practice by Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: 3 Levels of Perfecting Movement by Carl Case
PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 544 Microdosing Athleticism w/ Cory Schlesinger & Zack Zillner

TRAINING: Power Athlete Training Programs

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Bryce Wolcott


Block One Coach Bryce Wolcott wandered back into the weightroom over 15 years ago as he began his career as a high school science teacher and wrestling coach. In addition to promoting scientific literacy in the classroom, he works with Dr. Tom Incledon at Causenta Wellness in Scottsdale, AZ as a strength coach and nutritionist. A lifelong learner, Bryce holds master’s degrees in Biology, Secondary Education, and Medical Nutrition.

Bryce utilizes the Power Athlete Methodology in the gym to optimize the performance and improve the quality of life of the diverse clientele at Causenta: from athletes to cancer patients. He also works with the doctors there to design and implement integrated nutrition and supplement strategies for clients, based on an extensive panel of biomarker tests.

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