PLEASE NOTE: We are undergoing a name change. Unleashed Training is now Sprint Ninja. We still offer high quality strength and conditioning along with personal training, with our specialty being sprint training.
The ideal strength training program is difficult to find. It is difficult because, in terms of any kind of physical conditioning, there is no universally ideal method of training, no ideal exercise and no ideal training program in any domain of sport and fitness. The reason for this is that every human is different and so are the sports, activities and environment pertaining to each individual. What works outstandingly well for one person might produce inferior results for another. This is even true of two athletes that play the same sport and have the same level of experience or two regular Joes of the same age looking to lose fat, gain muscle and increase general health and fitness. There are so many variables that influence the outcome of a training program. These variables will later be covered in depth.
Although all people are different, both genetically and environmentally, there are certain key components that are universally applicable to both the general population and elite athletes alike. A deadlift will make athlete A just as strong as athlete B if a similar structure of progression is followed. Likewise, some training protocols, applied in the correct way for the individual and the task at hand, will always stimulate a predictable reaction. Large compound movements will always cause an endocrine cascade of anabolic hormones, regardless of age, size or gender. That’s what this article is about, designing, following and tracking the ideal strength training program for the broadest range of objectives.
Variables Affecting Strength Training Results
There are quite literally hundreds, if not thousands of variables that will affect the outcome of a strength training program. If each variable is broken down there are so many slight changes that could be made to either improve a strength program or to bring it undone. Lets look at these variables more closely…
--- Age – Age is always a limiting factor, more psychologically than physically, in the majority of the population. It is generally accepted that anyone over the age of 35 is on the declining end of physical development. The truth is that age is indeed a variable affecting the outcome of a training program. However it is not a limiting factor to quite the degree most people expect and accept it to be. Training must be adjusted to accommodate one’s age. Doing so allows for the design of a program that is specifically better suited to the older athlete or individual.
--- Gender – Gender is quite obviously a variable that determines many of the end results produced from a strength training program. Males have a more favourable anabolic and androgenic hormone profile than females, translating to a greater disposition towards gaining strength, speed, power and of course muscle mass. For this reason training must be structured to meet individual gender needs yet still have the program catered to the desired objective.
--- Race – Race or nationality is a controversial factor, but it’s one that certainly plays a part, whether you agree or not. Northern Europeans dominate strength sports, west Africans dominate the sprint, east Africans are superb long distance runners etc. The race of a person at least serves as a percentage of a person’s overall physical potential. For this reason the ideal strength training program for an individual is best off maximising an athlete’s strengths instead of trying to fight with their weaknesses. A person’s race goes towards determining where that person should direct their focus for best results.
--- Training History – Someone that started training last week will obviously progress differently than someone that has been training consistently for a decade. Volume, frequency, intensity, exercise selection etc, should all consider the athlete’s level of proficiency and physical capacity within a training program.
--- Environment – A person’s environment is what affects the changeable aspects of their physical capacity. The environment relates to lifestyle factors, availability of time, what someone does outside of their training sessions, access to suitable training facilities (even if it’s just outdoor or home training), availability of food, upbringing etc. An effective training program needs to consider and cater to these factors. There is a huge difference between someone with a flexible schedule and short work hours and someone so busy they are deprived of sleep, as an example.
--- Genetics – The last variable we will look at is genetics. This is closely related to race but it goes further than that and is more specific to the individual. Some people are naturally thin, while others are naturally extremely bulky. There are those that never excel in a specific type of sport while others are naturally good at the same thing with less training. This is a combination of environment and genetics. Genetics are what gives a person narrow hips, long legs and a large percentage of fast twitch muscle fibres that all contribute to outstanding sprinting potential. Genetics are what determine a person’s size of frame, with some people naturally hugely built and great at strength sports. Training, like with race, should focus on an individual’s strengths and stop trying to force the body to be something it is not genetically predisposed to.
Pillars of Ideal Strength Training
Strength training is quite literally the primary foundation applicable to just about every single sport and to life in general, from fragile senior citizen to elite athlete. Strength is the basic foundation that gives a person a base to work from to further build other components of fitness. Without strength you can’t have speed and power. Without strength you cannot move in the most biomechanically efficient and effective manner. Without strength you cannot maintain independent movement into old age. Strength is the physical fountain of youth.
Before looking at how to structure the ideal strength training program we will look at the pillars of strength. These are the guiding factors and principles that should be universally considered in the design of a strength training program for any purpose.
VARIETY – Strength training needs to be specific to the task at hand, but it also requires variety. Without variety a person will hit a plateau and fail to progress. In addition to that, a lack of variety creates weak links, where some components of strength are extremely sound while others are lacking, leading to a major strength imbalance. By variety I mean variety in volume, intensity, workout composition (essentially the breakdown of sets and reps) and exercise selection. The ideal strength training program should be varied to a certain degree while still being structured specifically for the task at hand. To ensure no weak links are left, every individual should use each of the following strength training modalities:
--- Powerlifting – Powerlifting refers to any large compound barbell exercise where speed is not a factor. Powerlifting exercises include the big three competitive lifts of deadlift, squat and bench press with the addition of bent over row, standing military press, barbell lunge and any other compound barbell exercise.
--- Olympic Lifting – Olympic lifting is any exercise that is either a component of or full version of the lifts performed in the Olympic games, being the snatch and the cleans and jerk. These lifts are complex and are performed at high velocity, causing a vastly different stimulus than typical strength exercises. There are literally dozens of variations on each of the Olympic lifts.
--- Gymnastics – Gymnastics is the blanket term applied to strength training using one’s own body weight. Simple exercises such as pull-ups, push-ups and dips fall into this category, as well as more complex moves such as handstand push-up, iron cross on rings, muscle up, planche, rope climbing etc.
--- Strongman – This last mode of strength training is optional yet very useful. Strongman training applies to non-conventional objects being used to strength train. Strongman objects can be absolutely anything heavy and could include large stones, full kegs, large logs, sand bags, heavy boxes, pallet of bricks, a car to pull along, tyres to flip etc. Strongman training requires imagination and is used primarily for cross training in strength disciplines that cannot be equalled by typical barbell movements. The types of objects used and the way in which they are lifted, loaded, carried or thrown is entirely up to the individual or the coach/trainer. Keep in mind that all training should pertain to the specific objective.
INTENSITY – Intensity is the component of strength training that pertains to the end result. Intensity determines what will actually be achieved. By training at an intensity of 70% of your max and performing 12 reps of a basic powerlifting movement you will be stimulating muscular hypertrophy almost exclusively. By hitting 95% of your max and performing just 1-2 reps per set the stimulus is entirely different, hence the end result is primary a neuro-muscular strength increase without a major change in muscle mass. These are two examples of the influence of intensity on the actual result that is achieved. Intensity must match the task at hand.
VOLUME – Volume is the amount of overall work performed in a given training session or training cycle. Volume can be measured as a total number of reps combined with the amount of weight lifted and expressed as the cumulative weight lifted as a result of lifting the weight on the bar a given number of times. In determining the volume of work to be performed there are multiple components to consider, such as the level of training experience, the primary training objective, the volume of other aspects of training and the intensity. The ideal strength training program applies the appropriate volume for all factors concerned.
SPECIFICITY – Specificity refers to how specific the training is to the training objective. A sprinter needs to train in a way that will improve their sprinting ability. A shot putter will train entirely different to the sprinter because their specific goals are different. Likewise, someone simply looking to improve health, fitness and broad physical capacity will train differently to both of these athletes. Specificity is the pillar of strength training that will determine the end result of a training program and how well it translates to greater performance in the athlete’s specific sport or the individual’s goal.
By applying the pillars of ideal strength training a program can be effectively designed to improve the precise components of physical capacity required of the individual task at hand.
Ideal Strength Training Program Design
In order to get the maximum result possible a strength training program for any purpose must be designed in advance. Without prior planning the program cannot predictably deliver the required outcomes. The following are the components of an ideal strength training program and serve as a template for universal program design.
OBJECTIVE – In order to effectively design an appropriate strength training program you must first establish and understand the objective of the program. A body builder is going to train differently to the rugby player. Establish an objective before doing anything else.
FREQUENCY – In determining training frequency it is important to understand the effects of any given frequency and what is ideal for the stated objective. A good rule is beginners should strength train two days per week; intermediate should train three days per week and advanced athletes can train anywhere from four to six days per week with a strength training program. Recovery must be a primary consideration here. Training frequency should always be structured to allow adequate recovery but not so infrequent as to cause a reversal of results.
INTENSITY – Intensity is the factor that determines the outcome or adaptation to a specific exercise or training session. Intensity must be selected to pertain to the specific objective of the strength training program. 60% and below relates to muscular endurance; 61%-75% relates to hypertrophy; 76%-90% is a cross-over intensity resulting in some hypertrophy and some neuro-muscular strength gain; 90% and above is strictly for strength goals, with the repetition range being too low to stimulate hypertrophy and the intensity being high enough to stimulate the nervous system to allow for more forceful muscle contractions.
VOLUME – Volume is structured according to the objective and the level of training of the individual. The intensity that is specified means that the repetitions per set are mostly already set. In most cases volume is determined by the number of sets performed. Volume can be structured directly in accordance with the level of training experience someone has. Overall, no strength training session should exceed 60 minutes.
EXERCISE SELECTION – Strength training is a broad and fairly general mode of training. Strength is rarely directly specific and generally serves as a foundational training modality that allows for the greater development of all other components of physical development. For this reason strength training programs cannot directly match the exact actions performed in a given sport or activity. Strength training should work from broad down to specific, with the bulk of training focusing on the broadest and most universally applicable patterns of movement such as deadlifts, squats and pressing movements. Primary emphasis should be on areas that are used most extensively in the sport or activity. A sprinter’s mechanics are dominated by glute and hamstring strength/power, so as an example they should direct their focus there with other areas being secondary.
PERIODISATION – Periodisation refers to the changing phases and cycles of an ideal strength training program. It is impossible to progress day by day on a permanent basis. Eventually you will hit a plateau and fail to progress any further. At this point training needs to be altered to allow for a more varied stimulus and kickstart strength and muscle gain again. There are two broad types of periodization: the first is long-form, which exists in many different formats. This is where training is planned months and even years in advance with programs changing within periods of 90 days or more. Intensity varies, volume varies and exercise selection is carefully chosen in each training cycle. The second class of periodization is a miniature version, which is short-form and more frequently changed. Every training cycle lasting 7-10 days is different from the last and small things are changed from one workout to the next. This is the primary method used by Unleashed Training.
Ideal Strength Training Structure and Template
An ideal strength training program is not designed by following the routines outlined in most popular fitness and bodybuilding magazines. Likewise, an ideal strength training program simply cannot be designed by stringing a random group of exercises together and hoping for the best. Everything has a structure, an ideal structure that will produce more favourable results than most other structures. The following is a template structure of an ideal strength training program. This is a universally applicable structure that can be applied to any strength training program for any specific purpose.
The following session structure serves as an example of a full body strength training session that covers all bases and utilises a volume that can be applied in multiple settings, from regular Joe to elite athlete.
Sets – 3 sets per exercise
Reps – 5-7 per set
Intensity – 75%
Rest between sets – 60-90 seconds
Objective – Simultaneous strength and hypertrophy
Exercises – 1. Heavy, lower body compound exercise. 2. Another heavy lower body compound exercise that differs from the first. 3. Two compound back exercises performed as a superset. 4. Compound chest exercise. 5. Compound shoulder exercise, preferably over-head. 6. Two isolations exercises in a superset format.
Rationale – The reason for choosing large, compound movements in the very beginning is to stimulate the release of anabolic hormones that are useful throughout the workout and promote strength and muscle growth. From there all major muscle groups and movement patterns are covered with smaller compound movements. A session like this should last 40-50 minutes, leaves nothing under trained and stimulates an anabolic response.
A training cycle in this instance is a simple seven day training week, spanning Sunday to Saturday for example. Using the above session structure, the following can be used to create a week-long training cycle.
Training days – 4
Progression – Major lifts progress by 2.5kg – 5kg from one session to the next. Smaller lifts progress 0.5kg – 1kg per session.
Number of cycles before a lay-off – This cycle can be completed 10 – 16 times before taking a full cycle off training.
Variation – The above session structure outlines the template structure for a session. However each session using that structure should implement a different choice of exercises. Workout one might start with deadlifts and move to squats, whereas session two might be cleans then overhead squats for instance.
Ideal strength training.
Unleashed Training uses a short-form version of periodization. For this reason each training cycle is different from the last, with the intensity being varied from week one to week two to week three and then back to one. Week one might be 5-7 reps per set at 75%, week two 1-3 reps at 95% and week three 8-12 reps at 65%. The exercises used are also varied slightly from week to week before meeting back at week one, where the athlete should be stronger than the last time he/she was performing the week one cycle.
TRAINING SESSION EXAMPLE
The following is a sample of an ideal strength training session that is structured using the above session structure.
Deadlift for 7-5-3 reps (ascending weight)
Barbell lunge for 5-5-5 reps
Bent over barbell row for 7-5-3 (ascending reps) superset each set with a set of max rep pull-ups
Barbell bench press for 7-5-5 reps (ascending weight)
Standing military press for 5-5-5 reps
Barbell curl for 5-5 reps superset each set with skull crushers for 7-7 reps
The next session would include the same structure with a different selection of exercises. Cycle two will include an entirely different repetition and intensity structure with some differences in exercise selection.
As a strength and conditioning coach and through my practical application of strength training protocols on real athletes and individuals, I have found full body strength training sessions to be the most effective way to get a synergistic kinetic relationship between muscle groups and movement patterns. By structuring things this way you are able to spot weak links and work towards strengthening them and tying everything in together to produce a more synergistic and cooperative muscular system, resulting in less chance of injury and a greater potential for high level performance. This does not take into consideration other components of training that do not pertain to strength. In designing the ideal strength training program all components must be aligned and catered to, with the primary training modality being the one that best pertains to the task at hand.
Ideal strength training.
Ideal strength training.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.