Which is best?
Long answer: It depends on your goals, enjoyment levels and your experience of lifting.
A structured programme means having prescribed workouts on set days, that progress week by week. A purchased programme or coach can design this for you.
A structured programme ensures that progressive overload is consistently applied, and therefore progress is potentially much more likely. It also ensures a balanced programme; the prior thought into the programming means that one area of the body is less likely to be neglected. It also removes the thought process of having to figure out what to do each time you show up to do a workout – and this is not to be underestimated as a benefit! The mental effort can often be the most off-putting part. A structured programme can definitely help if you have less experience of lifting, and you want to make sure you’re including the right kind of lifts that progress consistently.
Intuitive lifting means you show up and workout what you want to work out, and with the intensity, that suits your body that day.
This generally encourages being more in-tune with your body (and with your menstrual cycle, if appropriate). It gives you flexibility, freedom and choice. The downside is that progressive overload is not necessarily stitched into the fabric of the programme, so some may find they don’t see the same progress as with a structured programme.
My take on it?
It’s not black and white but there are some clear positives for me on both sides of the equation. Those who are starting to lift (within their first 1-2 years), a structured programme has some key benefits of building confidence and progressing safely and appropriately. And yet, there’s a lot to be said for learning to listen more to your body in a culture and society that largely encourages to ignore and disconnect from ourselves. If our programme has us lifting heavy on a certain day/week but we’re not feeling it, we’re stressed out and slept badly, then performing the prescribed lifts can potentially do more hard than good. Does sticking to the plan truly nourish our mind and body, or is it a way to disconnect further?
Personally, I’ve always trained fairly intuitively, but with one key difference – I track all my lifts. I use an app called FitNotes, which allows me to log and monitor weights lifted and overall volume of workouts across the week and month. I can turn up and do what I like on that day, which still ensuring progressive overload and progress. Could I make more progress with a structured programme? Sure. If I had specific goals, would I need to get more intentional with how I train? Sure. But right now, that would massively detract from enjoyment, listening to my body, and coping with a stressful life.
I’d also add, it took years to build the confidence and knowledge to know how to intuitively build a workout like that. Before that, I’d have no idea what to do walking into a gym by myself! So if in doubt, go for structure.
And adapt from there.
Just because it’s in a plan, doesn’t mean its unquestionably the best thing for you to do.
You are the expert on yourself and your own body.
Which do you enjoy?