July 12, 2015

The Training Program – What It Is, And What It Is Not

The Program Represents The Strategy

A training program is nothing more than the physical representation of a strategy designed to specifically make you progress in one way, or another. The “program” itself is not important, but rather the strategy that undermines the decisions made in terms of what exercises to perform, and when/how.

Why There’s No Such Thing As A “Best” Program

A training program represents a specific strategy to solve a specific problem – it is the result of identifying a weak link in the chain and the manner in which you intend to correct it. Very often, there is more than one way to go about solving your problem. Some may be better than others, but the only way for you to really know is through trial and error. The experience gained over time will help with designing more effective programs in the future.

What A Program Is NOT

A program is NOT a list of chores, but rather the strategy to promote a desired response. Following a random program to a “t,” as if you’re checking off each chore as you complete it doesn’t ensure progression – it just means you spent time doing what was written down somewhere without any rhyme or reason.

The Purpose Of A Program

First and foremost, the real purpose of a program is to logically structure your training to directly target your weaknesses – when to add weight/sets/reps, and which methods and exercises to perform – to ensure progression. Providing an effective progression model ensures a valuable return on your investment of your time and effort.

A program also provides boundaries to prevent people from overworking their capacity to recover, thus limiting their results, and psychologically is motivating, thus making it “easier” for one to put forth maximal effort because there’s a clear idea of what is wanted/needed to be accomplished.

What A Program Should Be Based On

Whatever it is you are trying to accomplish – increase capacity to produce force (contract stronger), increase capacity to produce force faster (power), increase capacity to produce force over a sustained period of time (strength/power endurance), increase size.

What A Program Should Consist Of

·         Loading the muscles/movement patterns you wish to improve – the exercises determine which muscles will be optimally stimulated, and thus improved, and which coordination patterns will be programmed.

·         Developing the qualities you wish to improve – strength, power, endurance, size, all require specific parameters that will maximize the development of these qualities. In this respect the exercise selected will determine which muscles are loaded, and the intensity will determine which qualities are improved.

·         Providing sufficient stimulation to promote the desired adaptation, but not so much that you overwork your body’s capacity to recover. Mechanical work is needed to stimulate the desired changes to take place, but too much is counterproductive. In this respect the exercise selected determines the structures that will be stimulated, the intensity will determine which quality is trained, and the volume is responsible for the magnitude of the changes taking place.

·         Exposing the muscles to different conditions, as their capacity to produce force under various conditions varies – isometrically (producing force without movement), eccentrically (absorbing and resisting force without losing control – can also be seen as strength potential, as higher eccentric strength increases concentric strength potential), and concentrically (forcing a resistance to change direction), along with their subdivisions (explosive/ballistic, shock absorption), and the inclusion of these various types of contractions into a single movement (reversal strength – absorbing force, stopping it’s movement, reversing its motion and/or projecting it in the opposite direction). Each of these actions have different motor/recruitment patterns which is why you cannot maximize performance under all conditions by training under only one condition.

Worth noting is that the greater ones eccentric and isometric strength is in relation to their concentric strength, the less energy that will be expended performing a full range lift (which is limited by how strong you are in your weakest position), leaving one with more energy to perform the concentric part of the rep. Compound this with the greater stability that accompanies enhanced eccentric and isometric strength, which facilitates for a smoother transition into performing the concentric rep, and you can see why improving multiple conditions is of great benefit.

·         Limited rest periods to increase the amount of work performed per unit of time, to increase the capacity to recover from work (if needed).

The resulting strategy that stems from these variables are then divided up over the course of the training week to maximally promote the desired response, and minimize overworking the body’s capacity to recover. Thus, the training split should be decided by the strategy employed.

Prilepin’s Table Offers A Good Starting Point

Even with understanding that a training program is nothing more than a physical representation of a strategy, a lot of people still have no idea where to start when designing a training program, and for them Prilepin’s table is always a good starting point, as it is highly regarded as the standard to follow when designing a strength training program (multiple adaptations of the table have been made to cater it more to hypertrophy, as well powerlifting).

For instance, the table suggests that the optimal number of reps above 90% per exercise is said to be anywhere between 4-10 total, for an average of 7. This can then be divided into 2 cluster sets of 5 reps (performed as singles with 10-15 seconds of rest between efforts), 3 sets of 3, etc. Exceeding this zone is not optimal, but can be done for 2-3 week blitzes in which rapid increases of strength are desired, but gains will taper off because of the excessive volume of high intensity work. Therefore, this strategy would require a brief period in which intensity is lowered to allow for the gains made to solidify.

On the flip side, the optimal number of reps in the 70-80% range per exercise is said to be 18, or anywhere between 12-24 total. This can then be divided into sets of 3-6 sets of 3-6 reps, and performed 3 times per week.

These parameters offer a good starting point when designing a training program, but don’t forget that these numbers are only physical representations of a STRATEGY. This means that there is room for interpretation, and should be individualized based on the person following them.

Sample Concentrated Loading Bench Press Program For Illustrative Purposes

Day 1: Overload/strength reserve/potential strength increase day (bench press – above 95%)

Day 2: Technique/speed/recovery day (bench press – 70-80%)

Day 3: Legs, back, biceps (maintenance – not trying to go heavy, or beyond failure)

Day 4: Paused + explosive (contrast) day (bench press – 60-70%)

Day 5: OFF

Day 6: Showcase/realization day (bench press – at, or above 90%)

Day 7: OFF

What do you see here? You probably see the framework of a unique program designed to increase your bench press only (and are probably thinking of doing it from now, until you can bench 500 lbs. – don’t think like this). But here’s what you should see. Instead of seeing one single program designed to improve performance of one single lift, you should see the general framework to work within, and know that the underlying principles that guided the decisions presented are transferable should you want to increase performance of ANY lift.

Is this the only program ever that is designed to increase bench press performance? No. It is simply one strategy, which may work, for some people. Through trial and error you will find out if, and how well this strategy works for you. If it doesn’t work, change it. If you like some of it, but not the rest, change it. Adapt the strategy so that you get the result you’re looking for, don’t simply follow it because it’s written down somewhere.

The reason this program would/could/should work is because it frequently loads the pattern you wish to improve (in this case the bench press), it targets multiple strength qualities, provides sufficient stimulation (as long as you don’t perform too many sets and reps which must be based on an individual’s work capacity – which is why there are no sets and reps listed above), and exposes the involved musculature to performing work under various conditions. To maximize the training effect, rest intervals must be adjusted on an individual basis, and based on “performance readiness” – as in, if you were to perform the next set right now, would you be able to meet your rep target, or would you fall short? If ready, then start immediately, it’s as simple as that.

The Magic Is In The Strategy

When someone is looking for a training program, what they’re really looking for is a solution to their perceived problems. They’re looking for a strategy specifically designed to give them what they’re looking for in as short a timeframe as possible. Obviously some goals are going to take longer than others, but that doesn’t change the fact that people want results, and they want them yesterday.

When developing a strategy to overcome your problems, you may want to ask yourself the following questions, as the answers to them will guide you in designing your own personalized strategy – at which point, begin immediately, and make adjustments on the fly to tailor the strategy to your current physical condition.

The Right Questions To Ask:

1.    Which muscles/movement patterns are of highest importance right now? (the more muscles/patterns that are important, the less frequently they can be trained – if only one muscle/lift is of primary importance you might consider adapting the framework above to that specific muscle/lift)

2.    Which muscle qualities are of highest importance right now?

3.    Which conditions are going to provide the greatest return per investment of time/effort right now?

The answers to questions 2, and 3, will come from knowing your weakness(es), and what’s holding you back, so that you can directly target that weakness through your training program.

These questions should provide the answers of which exercises to perform, how to perform them, how often to perform them, etc. This is where the real magic in program design lies, not by meaninglessly going from one exercise to another and checking them off like they’re a list of chores.

If you have any questions about program design, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design (based on everything presented in this article), as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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