Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A sensible method for customizing training programs

Aris DeMarco

In part one of this series I outlined some of the many, many factors that intelligent individuals may wish to consider when designing their training programs: goals, time frame, limitations, personal preferences, and past experiences. In part two I gave an example from my own training showing how one can juggle some of these different factors in order to optimize your workout routines for whatever goals you have at a given time.

One of the most important things for any trainee to learn is how to properly apply their training. Doing too much will result in less progress, frustration, possible injury--in short, things going wrong. Doing too little can also result in less (or negative) progression, as well as possible injury later on, if rigorous activities are attempted in a detrained state. Plus, of course, progression is the name of the game here and more is always better. Again--more reps, heavier weights, deeper stretches, faster times or farther runs, more muscular bodyweight added or more bodyfat lost, and so forth. And a great deal of this desired efficiency and success in training progress comes as a result of not only proper planning, but proper implementation.

Prussian military officer Helmuth von Moltke is commonly credited with the quote "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
This dude. Looks to know a thing or two about scrapping, eh?

When it comes to properly customizing your training (if you desire to do so--and I really encourage it, at least eventually, for most individuals) you'll live by this quote. After devising a specific plan for your goals, you'll generally have to go through a period of time where you play with it a bit until you get it 'right' according to your circumstances at the time--recovery abilities, stress, amount of time to train, amount of effort you're willing to put in, and so on. Maybe you try a new training plan and think "I should do a bit more if I want to make progress." Or, perhaps after a few weeks you realize that you're pushing too hard, and have to back off. Here's a good way to think about it.

Measure your training by its frequency, its volume, and its intensity. Balance the three, adding or subtracting from each aspect as needed. Eventually, you'll get close to that 'ideal' training plan, the shortest point between where you are and where you want to be pretty soon; the plan that's specific for your goals, progressive, that contains elements you know to be effective for you, and that you enjoy doing.

Frequency: How often you do something. Want to improve your strict pullup numbers? Doing a 'daily max' set every day, or sometimes even twice daily, would be a high frequency plan.

Volume: How much of something you do, when you do do it. Let's say you realize that you need to do a lot of pullups to get better at them. Doing 100 total strict pullups every time would be a high volume program (for most people--for others, 50 or even just 20 total reps might be high volume).

Intensity: How hard you work at what you're doing. When working on your pullups, maybe you like pushing yourself really hard and going all out on every set until you're forced to drop from the bar. Doing every set all-out would be an example of high intensity.I like to define 'intensity' as a percentage of effort, though others prefer to define it solely as a percentage of your single-repetition max... more on this in the next blog entry.

So, looking at these three elements, there are clear limitations. You can't do 100 pullups, every day, with every single set taken to the point where you simply can't do any more and fall off the bar. It'd be hell on your recovery and you'd probably either stop progressing, lose gains, or get injured.

A roughly double bodyweight log lift onto a platform even just for fun was pretty much an all out effort for me (intensity). I wouldn't be able to do many of these in one day (volume), or many days in a week (frequency), no matter how much I might want to. 

The basic rule of thumb here is that you can have 'high' levels of one aspect but the other two have to be 'medium' or 'light'. So, you can go all out on every set of pullups (high intensity) but maybe only twice weekly (low frequency) and for three sets (moderate volume). Or, you could do 100 total reps (high volume) three times weekly (moderate frequency) in sets of 5, when you can do 15 consecutively (low intensity--only ~30% effort). Make sense? Good, because here's the next level of complexity. 

Each lift plays by different rules. I'll have another blog up in the future explaining some of the many reasons this is the case, but for every unique individual, lifts and exercises are simply... unique. They are easier or more difficult to progress in, they respond positively, in terms of progression, to different things, and can be done to different degrees when it comes to frequency, volume, and intensity. This should be pretty easy to wrap your head around--obviously, a 150-pound skinny guy is going to be able to run much more often, even if he's just starting out, than a 300-pound chubby fellow who's the same height. The light runner's ankles, knees, hips, and spine will probably be better able to deal with the new strain, for one thing. On the other hand, if our two subjects start lifting barbells, the second guy will almost definitely make better progress--his shorter limbs and thicker joints provide better leverages for many lifts and make progression easier in terms of the most weight he can move. 

Zydrunas Savickas: arguably the strongest man ever lived. Probably not a great runner. 

Here's where you have to experiment a bit and put your thinking cap on. Each lift and exercise and activity you do will respond a bit differently and you have to find out how to juggle them effectively. Back to the pullup example. For over a year I did weighted pullups 3 to 4 times weekly with basically all-out sets of 3 to 4 reps. This to me was moderate frequency (and high intensity and low volume). If I tried to do weighted pullups more often I'd have to drop back on frequency or volume to keep progressing. On the other hand, deadlifting 3 to 4 times a week would be VERY high frequency for me and I'd have to use stupidly light weights and easy sets to pull that often. To make your training for each goal as efficient as possible, you'll have to treat each goal as an individual entity, as long as it doesn't interfere with your other goals. This is very important. You'll have to make sure that your goals are more or less compatible with each other, as discussed in part one, if you want the best results. 

Of course, if you compete in a sport things are a bit different; and balancing things out becomes even more important. For a particular powerlifter, squatting thrice weekly might be the best thing he could ever do for his squat. But he also has to train his bench press and deadlift regularly so 3x/week squatting is out, except maybe for specialization periods between competitions. Another example--a football team has to get strong in the weight room, but during the season their plays rough the team up too much to add big poundages to their lifts. Thus, many teams go heavy in the offseason when they don't have to worry about hard practices and harder games on top of time with the weights. 

Balance is important. 

So, quick summary here:
1. Think about your training in terms of frequency, volume, and intensity
2. Remember that each lift, exercise and activity will have different levels corresponding to 'high', 'low', and 'medium', in terms of #1. 
3. Balance things out, and ensure that your goals are more or less compatible. 
4. Be reasonable. This also goes back to part one (link up top). You'll have to make a lot of sacrifices if you want to jack up the volume, frequency, and intensity simultaneously (using the smolov squat program, for example). Don't try to do everything at once. Your training should make sense. 
5. Keep the other stuff in mind--specific goals, doing what you enjoy, all that good stuff. 

I'll probably have an article concerning another subject (either 'simple progressions' or another historical 'lifter profile') up next. But keep an eye out for the next entry in the program design series--I'll write about how to measure intensity (and why), why it's best to look at lifts individually, and other good stuff. 

As always, hope you enjoyed the article! Drop me a line at affectinggravity@gmail.com, or comment below with any questions. 

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