Optimizing Strength Training
Strength Training Program Design and Periodization System
Optimizing strength training has recently taken a haphazard form. Every second person interested in sport and fitness can become a personal trainer with all relevant qualifications. Here in Australia, ever since personal training was regulated, meaning that people need to be qualified and registered, many organisations have created courses to certify people. It has since come full-circle and now we are back to square one with poorly experienced trainers with a mere eight weeks of official study.
Having said that, optimizing strength training needs to be re-examined. We went through the 50s, 60s and early 70s with an approach to strength training that was focused on the Muscle Beach, Gold’s Gym philosophy of bodybuilding. This was unscientific and loaded with drugs. Then the late 70s through to the mid 90s saw a decrease in bodybuilding popularity and a rebirth of scientific strength training focused on athletic performance.
Now in the 21st century we are all over the place. Bodybuilding is not all that popular, personal training is all the rage, boot camps are everywhere and everyone seems to just be doing their own thing. It’s all well and good to be creative and come up with one’s own ideas and theories, but most of the time it’s unsubstantiated. There seems to be zero universability in designing strength training programs and experts like William Kraemer and Mark Rippetoe are often ignored. Everyone is an expert and they base all their knowledge and expertise on their mates down at the local gym who happen to be able to bench 300+ lbs.
For those that are interested, I believe it is necessary to bring back some balance to the strength training scene. There needs to be a marriage, and all that the word implies, between field-tested, anecdotal evidence/application and the science being discovered by the exercise physiologists. Right now all most personal trainers are doing is throwing together bodybuilding style strength programs based on their own beliefs and the latest training fad. If it sounds logical or attractive then many people see that as being all the evidence they need.
This guide to optimizing strength training will cover my own field-tested, science-based approach to strength training in its rawest form. The aim is to unify an approach to performance-based strength training instead of having a different approach for every trainer you meet.
Strict Programming versus Non-Linear Periodization: Striking a balance
One of the latest debates and sources of confusion seems to be program design. On one hand we have strict programming based on classical periodization and on the other we have trainers that believe in a constant need for variation from one workout to the next. So which is best?
Well lets dissect the science and application…
Greasing the Groove
Strength training programs operate in a sawtooth pattern. When you begin a program you get fast results in strength and muscle mass gains. As you progress further the results get fewer and farther between. Eventually the athlete hits a point at which progression ceases. If this is not rectified the athlete will then begin to actually lose strength despite continued use of sufficient intensity and volume.
This is what has led to the belief in constant variation. However we then have another problem. In order to gain optimal levels of strength throughout various patterns of movement we need some level of consistency. Certain movements need to be done regularly in order to see any sort of improvement. In eastern Europe strength athletes will often perform 6-8 sessions per week for each of their major exercises. The science behind the approach involves neuromuscular adaptation and efficiency for that movement pattern with a cross-over effect into other movements.
Without “greasing the groove” the athlete will never make sufficient gains over a long period of time. What needs to happen is a certain level of core specificity and consistency. So here it is in application…
Variation and Avoiding Stagnation
If all one was to do was complete the same exercises in the same fashion the sawtooth pattern would be inevitable. The main aim of strength training is to keep progressing at a constant rate. This can be achieved in many ways. But first of all we need to address flexibility in a strength training program (meaning flexibility of program design, not physical flexibility).
Methodologies like Crossfit promote continuous variance as a core concept in their approach to strength and conditioning. In a very unorthodox fashion they have stumbled upon something extremely effective. However it has its limitations. There seems to be zero planning. There needs to be a balance somewhere between planned programming and flexible training variation.
What happens when an athlete continuously varies the stimulus of their training is constant adaptation. This means that the athlete will always be sufficiently physiologically challenged. This is optimal when combined with strict programming and greasing the groove.
Putting it Together: The Plan Unfolds
This may all sound rather confusing to someone not qualified and experienced as a strength coach or elite athlete. I have deliberately structured this guide to be understood by a broad audience, however some level of experience and knowledge is necessary.
So now we have a very basic idea of what we’re doing. To recap; in optimizing strength training programs we need to construct a core set of exercises. Around this set of exercises the athlete needs to perform a flexible strength training regime based around certain protocol.
So now for the periodization. This is something that confuses many people, and rightly so. It need not be all that complicated.
The macro-cycle is the big picture. This is the direction of the program over a period of several months up to a year or two. During a macro-cycle certain goals need to be set and targets reached. This is sufficient time to notice major gains in strength and muscle mass. The focus needs to be on the long-term potential for continuing gains for the athlete. All workouts and smaller cycles will refer back to the macro-cycle. The macro-cycle is like a war and all other cycles are just missions and battles within that war.
A meso-cycle generally lasts a period of several weeks to a few months. This is the cycle structured around an athlete’s season and various mid-term milestones. During a meso-cycle the goal is to meet certain targets as a path toward meeting the macro-cycle goals. Generally a meso-cycle will begin/end with analysis and assessment and the program adjusted accordingly.
A micro-cycle is the smallest cycle and the most varied. A micro-cycle will generally be days long or up to 2-3 weeks. During a micro-cycle the athlete will need to calibrate and readjust continuously to ensure targets are met for meso-cycles.
You will get a clearer understanding of periodization and programming in the last section on program and workout design.
Optimizing strength training is a science and an art. Both scientist and artist need the right tools in order to achieve their goals. The current issue is that these tools are often misunderstood. Many trainers and coaches don’t know when to use the tools at their disposal. It’s like a carpenter trying to use a nail gun to cut a length of timber.
In designing strength training programs it is essential that a certain level of specificity is applied. But first lets look at the definition of specificity.
Specificity states that training should be relevant and directly applicable to the task of which one is training for. Meaning that exercises and training protocol must directly relate to the sport or activity to be undertaken.
That’s my personal definition. You may have a better one.
When determining specificity it is sometimes necessary to analyse in great depth the sport or activity of the athlete. To provide an example lets pick an exercise; lets say a highly specific one like the dumbell fly. This exercise is highly applicable to a gymnast or a butterfly stroke swimmer. However it has little application and is merely a waste of physical resources to a rugby player. The rugby player can make better use of time and energy by performing large compound exercises because the sport involves large, powerful movements as opposed to complex and controlled movements.
Specificity needs to incorporate exercises that somewhat mimic the muscular recruitment patterns of the sport or activity. This is not a new concept and one that the reader has likely heard countless times. However it begs to be reinforced and understood fully. It applies to not only the exercises used but to the intensity, speed of movement, range of motion and where it fits into a training sequence. We will look at this more in-depth in the last section on specific program and workout design.
Progressive overload is possibly the number one important factor to consider in optimizing strength training. Progressive overload is simply this…
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed on the body during exercise training.
This simply means that in order for the body to improve beyond current levels of physical performance, it needs to be placed under a gradually increasing stimulus.
The main issue with progressive overload is its specific and relevant use. Technically, progressive overload could occur by continuously adding sets and repetitions to exercises using the exact same load. However this is obviously not optimal because the further away from the prescribed protocol the athlete gets the less specific and hence the less effective the training becomes.
This is not new knowledge and is far from revolutionary, however it is an often overlooked component of effective strength training program design. Progressive overload is essential, and further it needs to be specific and applicable to the predetermined protocols of the initial program design. It needs to fit logically and effectively into a given training cycle.
Training Frequency, Volume and Intensity
Training frequency is simply how often one trains. There is a debate that seems to erupt every time this topic is raised. On one side there are the advocates of super-high intensity, low frequency training. Some people even recommend as little as one session per week as optimal. On the other side there are the volume advocates. This methodology recommends training almost every day with limiting intensity utilising large training volumes.
Lets look at the facts…
How Strength Gains Take Place
There are two ways to gain strength. The first is the obvious one. Simply increasing cross-sectional area of a muscle will result in increases in strength. This means increasing the size of a muscle. Generally as a muscle gets larger it gets stronger. The second way is to increase neuromuscular strength. Strength is limited by a number of factors. Without going too far into it; strength is limited by the number and firing sequence of groups of motor units. The more synchronized the firing of these motor units the more efficient the contraction and hence the greater the force output. In addition to this the greater the total number of motor units activated the more force a muscle is capable of producing. Strength is also limited by the inhibitory mechanism of the antagonist muscle. As a protective mechanism a powerful contraction is met by a milder counter-contraction of the opposing muscle groups, hence limiting force output of the prime mover. Strength training for neuromuscular gains results in the reduction of these inhibitory mechanisms.
Where Do Frequency, Volume and Intensity Come Into it?
When a muscle is stressed to a certain point it is forced to adapt, hence the principle of progressive overload. This happens on a session by session basis. After each session, during the recovery of a muscle and its associated motor neurons it makes physiological changes that allow it to be more effective the next time a similar or greater stress is placed on it. These gains are obviously reversible and begin to slide backwards after several days without the stress placed on them.
A muscle is only capable of adapting to a certain amount of stress in a given time period. This means that there is a certain cut-off point where more training does not equal greater results. Beyond that there is a point at which a muscle can be overtrained to a point where recovery and adaptation are seriously impaired. At this point the training actually has a negative impact and protection is placed ahead of adaptation. In the event of overtraining the muscle will often break down to feed itself and inhibit strength on successive sessions in order to protect itself from damage. There is only so much a muscle can adapt to. It’s like getting a sun tan. Only a certain level of exposure is needed, any excess and the skin begins to burn and there is further benefit to the purpose of tanning.
It is for this reason that low frequency, high intensity training is null and void. I’m not saying that it is completely without merit, however the form practiced by many bodybuilders is, without the aid of drugs, inhibiting on further progress. Training to absolute muscular failure is not recommended as it creates a protective response that will cause the muscle to often be weaker the next time it is trained. Similarly training with excessive volume will detract from the adequate intensity performed during each set and limit the desired neuromuscular gains. This approach essentially trains a muscle to operate at less than 100%.
So here are my recommendations and their logic based on my research and field application…
Frequency: One should train frequently, when I say frequently I mean as often as five days a week. The reason behind this is so that excessive training intensity and volume can be avoided and adaptations can be successfully made on a daily basis. High frequency training also patterns the neuromuscular system to operate more efficiently. This means that a movement pattern can be performed better, hence more load used for the same intensity resulting in greater force production, which in turn results in greater muscular stimulus.
Volume: Volume must be kept under strict control during a strength training program. If volume is excessive it inhibits intensity and forces muscles into fatigue. This is counter-productive to training goals. What will often result are fatigued muscles that go into each workout or sports related task operating at less than 100%. This further results in a neuromuscular pattern of sub-par strength. Basically the nervous system is fooled into believing that what the muscle is doing under fatigued circumstances is all it is capable of and will adapt accordingly.
I recommend no more than five sets for a given muscle group during a workout if the repetitions are under five per set. Repetitions above five per set will require a lower number of sets. This does of course depend on the purpose of the training. For instance a power-lifter requires fewer sets than an Olympic lifter because the Olympic lifts are more technically demanding and less physically demanding.
Intensity: Intensity is a misleading topic for optimizing strength training. Logic would have it that the more intense a muscle is trained the better the adaptations because it is placed under a higher percentage of its maximum force potential. This is not the case, but not for reasons that most people will think. If a muscle is trained to failure, as discussed earlier, it will not entirely adapt and the muscle will be led to believe that this is the maximum force it is capable of producing. I have seen people train to failure for years and make little to no progress in strength.
When a muscle is trained there needs to be something left in the bank. The athlete needs to apply progressive overload, which is more important than going to momentary failure and is not always possible when the intensity of working sets is too high. Each and every session should be done when a muscle is capable of producing the highest amount of force possible for a given training percentage. If a muscle is trained to fatigue then training volume and frequency must be compromised and therefore specific adaptations are not met.
As a general rule I recommend the following…
1 rep = 90-95% of 1 RM
3 reps = 80-85% of 1 RM
5 reps = 70-75% of 1 RM
8 reps = 65-70% of 1 RM
10 reps = 50-60% of 1 RM
These are just general guidelines and are of course dependent on a number of factors but they serve as a good rule for program design.
In our guide to optimizing strength training we have already broadly covered training principles and periodization in its basic form. This section will examine training prescription from a point of view of exercises/movements chosen, training types and how to achieve certain goals. The aim is to keep the athlete on the right course without barking up the wrong tree.
Absolute strength or maximum strength is simply the force produced during given movements regardless of muscle size, body mass etc. Absolute strength is the primary muscular strength type required by those requiring control of external factors such as lifting large weights or objects. A great example of absolute strength is a power lifter or a strongman. They lift external objects without placing importance on the control of their own body’s movement through space.
Absolute strength should be carefully developed in context. The reason I say carefully is because other factors will be affected, such as relative strength, endurance etc. If there are other factors equally important to the athlete then absolute strength must be developed in a manner that does not inhibit them.
When to Focus on Absolute Strength
Absolute strength is often something many athletes focus on before all else. They believe the more strength they have the better their performance. Well this is both true and false. An athlete should focus on absolute strength in cycles, which are obviously accounted for during a meso-cycle. Quite often absolute strength development brings with it gains in body mass.
All athletes are different and have different needs, however there are a few guidelines that will help incorporate absolute strength training into a program effectively.
How to Obtain Absolute Strength
One of the fastest ways to obtain absolute muscular strength is by increasing the size of a muscle or group of muscles. This is done by training in a slightly higher repetition range than when training for relative strength. I recommend 8-10 repetitions. During a phase of absolute strength training it is important that the diet is adequate to meet the demands placed on the muscular system.
Relative strength is strength relative to muscle size and body mass. One person might weight 100kg and be able to squat 150kg. Another person that weighs 50kg yet can squat only 100kgs has higher relative strength because he/she is lifting a larger percentage of his/her body weight.
Relative strength in my opinion, and logically, should be one of the primary, if not the primary, aspect of fitness developed by most athletes. The high one’s relative strength, the better able they are to both control external objects and control their own body through space. Obviously in previous examples such as power lifters relative strength is of little concern. However there are a larger number of athletes that require it, such as gymnasts, sprinters, rowers, high jumpers, rugby players, tennis players and the list goes on.
How to Obtain Relative Strength
Relative strength is obtained through primarily neuromuscular means. This means there is little to no increases being made in the cross-sectional area of muscles. For this purpose strength training for relative strength needs to be kept to low repetitions and cycled to ensure specific volume and intensity is met.
A general rule for the development of relative strength is to keep repetitions under five per set for the bulk of your program.
Power in this context is defined as the force produced by a muscle at high speed. The faster the muscle and greater the force, the greater the power output. It’s really quite a simple concept.
It is often argued that power increases linearly with the increase of strength. However this is not the case entirely. Strength gains do indeed lead to power increases. It is a prerequisite to power development that you develop strength if you are to see continued progress. However this is not linear in nature. There is a limit to how much power you can gain through strength training alone.
Now for some jargon: Velocity is the speed a weight is being moved. Acceleration is the change in velocity throughout the duration of moving a weight, namely the increase in velocity. Strength is force produced by a muscle or group of muscles. For an object to move force must applied to it, this is strength. Strength applies to a weight being lifted at any velocity. Power is applying that force rapidly utilising high velocity and high acceleration. It is all well and good to possess the ability to move an object, but to get it moving quickly is the real focus of athletic advancement. The goal of strength training is to both increase a muscle’s force production and be able to recruit motor units rapidly in order to apply that force quickly.
Movements like the power clean are the glue that cements an effective strength and conditioning program together. The power clean, as one example, is the lifting of a weight at a high velocity, hence the combination of strength and power, which is what we are really after in athletic training programs. A heavy squat will increase one’s potential to jump higher. The vertical jump is directly indicative of athletic proficiency, skill aside. The power clean is indicative of squatting performance and the power clean allows for transfer from strength developed doing heavy squats to rapid athletic movements like the vertical jump.
One way to understand power development is to look at the training and performance of Olympic weight lifters compared to power lifters. A power lifter can move a heavy weight. An Olympic lifter too can move a heavy weight rapidly. This is a result of training specificity. The power lifter is good at moving heavy weights slowly but the Olympic lifter can move the weight faster. Why, if power were developed solely through strength training, can’t a power lifter perform a deadlift rapidly? Because he/she hasn’t trained their muscular system to do so. You see the weightlifter is cleaning a relatively high percentage of his deadlift. If the power lifter was to perform a power clean, he would be capable of only around 40% of his deadlift at most. The Olympic lifter can generally clean around 75% of his deadlift. Why? Because he trains for it. His muscles are capable of producing a lot of force at a rapid rate.
Power training is essential in the development of athletic performance. Most sports require the rapid application force, which is simply power. Without the development of power the athlete is working in virtual slow motion compared to other faster and more powerful athletes.
Training for power, performed intelligently, is an effective tool for all-round strength development. But it must be structured properly. Performing squat jumps with no added weight will help increase power but it does little to increase strength in the squat. Training moderately heavy squats utilising acceleration during the set however has shown to dramatically increase both strength and power. George Hechter incorporated cleans and clean high-pulls into his deadlift routine. He would train his deadlifts by performing the power movements up to 60% of his working deadlift weight then continue on from there with his deadlifts beyond that. This approach was an enormous success and allowed him to lift 825 lbs at a body weight of only 242 lbs. The Westside method also incorporated power training into traditional strength routines. This employs the concept of lifting weights in the range of 50-75% of maximum in the squat, deadlift and bench press with emphasis of acceleration during repetitions. This method has proved extremely effective.
The range of 50-75% of 1 RM is optimal for the production of adequate velocity combined with sufficient muscular recruitment. If the weight is any higher then velocity drops, turning it into a classical strength protocol. Any lower than this and the weights are too light to recruit sufficient amounts of muscle.
Strength and power alike are determined by the velocity at which the weight is lifted. Someone who trains lifts very slowly will get good at lifting that weight at that specific speed and no faster. The velocity that a lift is trained is the velocity that our body will adapt to. Train power movements and an athlete is capable of producing a lot of force at that speed and every speed below it.
Power training is essential for optimizing strength training, both specifically as a tool to increase muscular power and also as a way to enhance strength gains. My recommendations for power training…
Large Muscles are Unecessary
I bet that one got your attention. Optimizing strength training does not mean coming up with ways to get massive all the time. This is the common problem, many people believe all strength training is about gaining mass. Now I don’t 100% mean it that large muscles are unnecessary, I just included that heading to catch your attention. However there is a small amount of truth in it. The real point I am trying to make is that large muscles for the sake of large muscles is pointless unless you like prancing around in a pair of undies on a stage. Muscles must be trained to be functional and work synergistically with other muscles.
By the same token muscular endurance training is largely a waste of time if it‘s done in the weights room. This aspect can be trained in other ways without wasting your strength training program doing it. Muscular endurance is most efficiently developed through combination of strength training and practise of the specific sport itself.
When you see a classic strength training program designed by a common personal trainer, you will notice it usually has something like three sets of 12 for certain exercises. The trainer will often recommend feeling the burn, pulling in the abs, lifting slowly, using machines for safety etc. This stuff is poison to real strength training.
So lets address the main issue here; strength training repetition ranges and purpose for certain recommendations.
It may seem to make sense that 12 repetitions is effective in an athletic conditioning program. But really it rarely is. The same goes for 15-20 reps for so-called muscular endurance. A strength training program is designed for specific reasons. These are reasons that are predetermined when structuring the program. Now it is almost never that repetition ranges commonly used by bodybuilders or women standing in the corner of the gym with small 1 lb neoprene dumbells, are applicable in the athletic sense. It is rare that your muscles will be required to have continuous tension applied to them in an athletic context. Further, there are more efficient and specific ways for developing the same aspects without deviating off course.
Now to remain specific you will never see a program I have designed that prescribes anything more than 10 reps for strength development, unless it’s in a Crossfit style circuit. Most often strength training programs will utilise between 1 and 8 repetitions. Anything in the range of 5-8 will build muscle mass without the need for “feeling the burn“ with sets of 12 reps. As for muscular endurance, this is an issue that has confused many athletes and coaches for quite some time. When specific strength is developed in combination with sport-specific training and drills, muscular endurance will naturally be developed. For example a road cyclist will most efficiently develop muscular endurance by increasing strength in the weights room and developing specific endurance on the bike.
Now to address the title of this sub-section, “large muscles are unnecessary“. Large muscles are not entirely unnecessary, they are just unnecessary in the context applied by many strength training programs. In order for any training program to be effective it needs to be specific. The program needs to address the requirements of the athlete. Bodybuilding will not fulfil this requirement. So large muscles must be trained in connection with specific parameters. Developing large pectoralis major will not necessarily result in increased athletic performance, neither will huge biceps. Movement patterns, movement velocity and program design exist to increase the physical ability of the athlete. This is the sole reason. If muscle size is to be increased it needs to be done in a way that fits the training program’s purpose.
Assessment and Analysis
Optimizing strength training programs is a process that needs to be monitored. Without effective monitoring and assessment practises in place the program will be hit and miss. In this section we will discuss effective assessment and analysis methods for monitoring and adjusting strength training programs. The idea here is to keep it simple, clear and effective and to contain as much relevant information as needed.
When to Assess
Strength training programs need to be assessed regularly, but this need not be a complicated process. In my time as a strength and conditioning coach I have come across many ways to assess and adjust strength training programs. This included many complex concepts and principles, many of which were unnecessary.
The main question asked by athletes and coaches is when to assess progress. My recommendation is as follows…
A full comprehensive assessment and analysis should be done before the program begins. This goes without saying. This is the full work-up where the athlete undergoes every relevant test to be performed including goals analysis. During this process the coach should aim to analyse the nature of the activities engaged in by the athlete. This means careful dissemination of the sport itself and the athlete’s playing/competing style.
During the initial phases, those being the first two meso-cycles, the athlete should be assessed rather regularly to ensure they are being steered in the right direction. I would recommend assessing initially every four weeks. This can be a more basic version of the initial major assessment session.
After about six months the athlete can then be assessed less often. By this stage it is assumed that the athlete’s performance and response to training is highly familiar and largely predictable. If this is the case assessment can be completed every 6-8 weeks. Additional information is gained from training and competition performance.
What to Include In the Assessment
There are many tests that may be included in an athletic strength and conditioning assessment. Many strength coaches and trainers will include tests that have no direct relationship to the athlete’s performance. For this reason it is essential that tests be chosen that are relevant to specific needs.
Body girth measurements can be taken as a way of determining body dimensions. This is not necessarily related to performance perse, but fluctuating performance levels may be able to be linked to specific changes in body girths and proportions. This information can be used for future reference.
General health screen and lifestyle analysis. This is simply to determine an athlete’s suitability for certain training levels and any lifestyle factors that could be attributed to performance.
Analysis of the sport/activity. This is used to determine the specific skills and physical aspects utilised most frequently by the athlete. With this analysis it is advised that a thorough and measurable goals analysis be completed.
Fitness tests. The fitness tests are specific tests related to specific aspects of the sport and nature of the training. For instance 1 RM tests, sprint tests, anaerobic capacity tests etc. These need to be specific to the athlete. It would be pointless putting a water polo player through sprint tests on land for example.
Conducting an Assessment
Conducting an assessment is something that must be done very carefully, whether you’re assessing yourself or another athlete. Accuracy and consistency is essential and testing methods must be consistent from one assessment to the next. Define a system for conducting all the assessments and refine it over time.
Program and Workout Design
Optimizing strength training is all done in the program and workout design. All the preceding principles, protocols and training methodologies must be incorporated into an effective program. In this section we will look at specific guidelines for the design of strength and conditioning programs and examples to follow. This is best done from the top down. We will break it down into periodized cycles right from the macro-cycle down to the workout itself.
Designing an effective macro-cycle is actually rather easy. You simply need to have all the relevant information. Such as assessment data, specific targets and the activities participated in by the athlete. All of this analysis and assessment must be complete before approaching the task of macro-cycle design.
Lets begin by looking at a few points of consideration…
Designing the Macro-Cycle
A macro-cycle must be designed around an athlete’s competition season or around certain events. Non-athletes must pretend they are athletes and create a theoretical competition season. It is assumed that all relevant information has been gathered through application of assessment and analysis. We will look at this in a step by step numbered fashion to make things easier.
The meso-cycle is, as per our example, the intermediate cycle of six weeks duration. There will be eight meso-cycles in our macro-cycles. Design and implementation of meso-cycles in rather similar to designing macro-cycles because we have already established certain parameters. The difference being that we are looking more at details and must begin to consider the actual training protocols to be used.
The primary issue throughout the duration of a given meso-cycle is focusing on intense blocks of performance aspects while not limiting others. Since we’re using the blocks method there are certain periods that focus on a narrow range of aspects, which generally boils down to one or two aspects such as strength and power. For many sports this is fine because there are not a lot of other things that need to be trained. For example a 100 metre sprinter would have no problem neglecting other aspects since there really aren’t any others that are all that important. For a team sport however, there are other things to consider. Take rugby for instance; a haphazard approach to implementing a strength and power block as half a meso-cycle would see the athlete lose agility, anaerobic capacity, aerobic endurance and coordination. So design of meso-cycles must take this into consideration and formulate a plan for maintenance of all aspects while intensively focusing on one or two.
Designing the Meso-cycle
In this guide we will look at designing a single meso-cycle and how it may relate to other meso-cycles and fit into the overall big picture of a macro-cycle.
A micro-cycle is the smallest cycle in a periodized strength and conditioning programme. Essentially a micro-cycle is a week, give or take, of workouts. In our current example we are working with seven day micro-cycles, which is fairly common and proven to be ideal in most circumstances.
The difficulty in this guide is providing examples for micro-cycles. The reason being that there are many of them throughout the duration of an entire macro-cycle. So what we are aiming to do here is provide a few points on the design of micro-cycles and things that need to be considered in the big-picture context.
How Much of What do I include in a Micro-Cycle?
This is primary question. Simply, how many maximum strength days do I include? How much power training needs to be completed? Or, more specifically, how often should you include squats, deadlifts or pull-ups?
The structure of a meso-cycle is really a collection of micro-cycles that are correctly structured and timed to achieve performance targets at the right time and level. So a meso-cycle is structured with the following structure of micro-cycles…
First of all is overload. This is the period of training where as much adaptation as possibly is made. During this phase of micro-cycles the athlete will ideally reach tremendous levels of fatigue, the good the kind that is. This is the time to design micro-cycles that really challenge the athlete in each of the necessary fitness domains relative to their sport or activity.
After the overload period the athlete will generally feel overworked and may experience a halt in results or even a backward slide in performance. This is when maintenance and recovery is required. This period involves the maintenance of developed fitness aspects and a large focus on technical ability and strategy. The goal of this period is for the athlete to be rejuvenated and replenished for the upcoming competition season.
After the recovery phase the athlete should ideally be a short time away from their competition season. This last phase of the meso-cycle is the peaking phase. This is characterised by a decrease in volume, a development of race/match fitness and race pace and an increase in intensity.
Taking those above three points into account should give you a clear understanding of how to apply the blocks method. For example, the overload phase would likely be a strength and power block, followed by the recovery phase. Generally there should be one of each of these phases in a typical meso-cycle. Micro-cycles need to be created that adequately represent each of these phases.
So to clarify, lets provide an example of an entire macro-cycle, complete with a skeleton outline of both the meso-cycles and micro-cycles…
SPORT: 100 METRES
GOAL: TO GET TIME DOWN FROM 10.30s TO 10.20s
COMPETITION SEASON: APRIL 25th UNTIL AUGUST 20th
MAJOR COMPETITION DATES: APRIL 25th, MAY 5th, JUNE 1st, JUNE 25th, JULY 20th AND CHAMPIONSHIPS ON AUGUST 20th
TIME TO PEAK: JUNE 25th AND AUGUST 20th
Our macro-cycle has been defined by the above information. Assume for this example that we have performed an entire assessment and analysis and the athlete has been competing at a high level for the past three years.
The macro-cycle will be best explained and demonstrated by looking at the meso-cycles and micro-cycles that make it up. For this example we will look at three meso-cycles.
COMMENCING: JANUARY 5th
GOAL: COMPLETE OVERLOAD PERIOD. FOUNDATIONAL CONDITIONING IN PREPARATION FOR UPCOMING SEASON. INTENSIVE, MESO-CYCLE-LONG STRENGTH BLOCK.
Outline of Micro-Cycles
After a meso-cycle of that nature the athlete should be fairly fatigued and beginning to reach a dead end. This meso-cycle is an example of a concentrated strength and power block. Keep in mind that blocks are not always just applied to a whole meso-cycle. They can apply to as little as one micro-cycle.
COMMENCING: FEBRUARY 16th
GOAL: RESTORATION PHASE OF THREE MICRO-CYCLES THEN A THREE WEEK STRENGTH AND POWER BLOCK.
Outline of Micro-Cycles
After this meso-cycle the athlete will be well-restored and will be able to begin increasing volume in event-specific drills. We will continue on with high intensity and increasing volume with the introduction of higher volume drills. Remember that there will be a minor competition on April 25th, so the athlete will need to partially peak on that date. This meso-cycle will reflect that.
COMMENCING: APRIL 1st
GOAL: RESTORATION PHASE OF THREE MICRO-CYCLES THEN A THREE WEEK STRENGTH AND POWER BLOCK.
Outline of Micro-Cycles
That concludes our three meso-cycle example of how to periodize. Next we will look at how to structure a micro-cycle.
Structure of a Micro-Cycle
Here we will look at the structure of a micro-cycle in its most basic form. We will cover points to consider then an example.
Points to consider when designing a micro-cycle…
Now lets look at an example of a micro-cycle. For this example we will use the athlete from previous examples. He is a 100 metre sprinter currently at the end of a six week long strength and power block. At this point he has reached a threshold in volume and intensity and will be undergoing a three week restoration phase following this micro-cycle.
Outline of Workouts in This Micro-Cycle
DAY ONE: Maximum strength (pushing movements)
DAY TWO: Power
DAY THREE: Strength, power and event-specific drills
DAY FOUR: Rest day
DAY FIVE: Specific strength and power
DAY SIX: Anything goes strength and power circuit
On this day the athlete might perform a circuit designed for strength, speed and power with the addition of other fitness aspects for general conditioning. An example is provided below.
Complete the following for time…
Power cleans x 10
Pull-ups x 10
Squat jumps x 10
Slalom agility weave
Rest two minutes then…
Complete the following for time…
50 metre sprint
Scissor jumps x 10
Thrusters x 5
Rest two minutes then…
Complete the following for time…
400 metre bike sprint
20 tuck jumps
Clean and jerk x 5
DAY SEVEN: Rest day
That is the end of our example on creating micro-cycles based on our sprinter during a strength and power block. Obviously after something this intensive the athlete requires a restoration phase of at least three weeks. Pushing any further and expecting more results is simply wrong. This approach will not work. By focusing on intense blocks followed by restoration or skills the athlete is making the most of the adaptive energy available then recovering and doing it all over again. If this is done properly there should be a gradual increase in performance throughout the season and long term.
Constructing workouts is simple if you’re an experienced coach or athlete. There are few things you need to know in constructing workouts. These points have been previously discussed, however there is a need to reinforce them.
A lot of these points are rather obvious to the seasoned coach, however they need reinforcing. That’s what this guide is about. It’s about providing a loosely structured, flexible and workable system for periodizing strength and conditioning programs and ultimately optimizing strength training. Certain things may seem overly simple or obvious but it is these things, when overlooked, that make all the difference between a champion and just another competitor. Making a mistake that seems small may seem like no big deal, but take it out a week, a month or a year from now and the difference is huge.
Everything written in this guide has been thoroughly researched and tested in the field. Nothing here is just speculation or mere opinion. It is all based on something. Optimizing strength training is an art and science and requires a keen eye for detail in order to design, calibrate, adjust and implement practices into a workable plan that achieves objectives.
I hope this provides some insight and that it helps you as a coach or athlete to spend more time and effort looking at the whys and hows of strength and conditioning. What seems logical is not always so. That’s mainly why I wrote this guide. It is to really provide some guidelines and a workable plan or at least to emphasise the need for a workable plan.
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