Optimizing Strength Training

Strength Training Program Design and Periodization System

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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.

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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…

  • Identify the specific needs of the athlete (or yourself) and determine what sort of movement patterns are necessary and most efficient to achieve the desired strength goals.

  • Identify a small set of specific core exercises. These exercises are ones that will remain consistent throughout all phases of the strength program. For example, I perform overhead squats, deadlifts and clean-and-jerks as my three core exercises. A wide array of other exercises may be used, however the core exercises are the ones that remain consistent in order to grease the neuromuscular groove.

  • Periodize training so that the core exercises are always being used and progression is being met. This may involve a variation in volume, intensity and frequency throughout a given cycle.

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.

Application…

  • Identify the needs of the athlete. For example there is no point doing sets of 12-15 repetitions if the athlete requires increases in relative strength or power. So first of all a basic protocol and set of guidelines needs to be established.

  • Plan out strength training frequency and timing.

  • Implement a flexible approach based around the core protocol being used, i.e. the core exercises used. This may involve preset volume an intensity utilising a large variation of workout types and movements.

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

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.

The Meso-Cycle

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.

The Micro-Cycle

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.

Training Principles

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.

Specificity

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

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.

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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.

Training Prescription

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

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.

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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.

  • When a significantly large amount of strength needs to be developed that can’t be satisfied simply using neuromuscular strength training techniques. In this case absolute strength can be conditioned for as long as an entire meso-cycle or even several.

  • When body weight, endurance and other factors are of little concern to the athlete such as for a power lifter, a heavyweight weightlifter, a strongman, certain American football positions etc. Absolute strength can be the main centre of strength training focus under these circumstances.

  • Finally absolute strength should be used in all strength training programs to a certain degree as part of a flowing cycle. This eliminates stagnation and allows for new gains to be made in other areas. This needs to be done carefully if the athlete requires aspects such as endurance, speed, agility etc. in combination with absolute strength.

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

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.

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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

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…

  • In addition to the core strength exercises you will chose when designing a program, it is recommended to choose a core set of power training exercises. It is often only necessary to choose one or two power exercises because the other strength exercises will be performed at sufficient velocity.

  • Add plyometrics to any athletic strength and conditioning program. This further helps to develop highly specific power production.

  • Keep power training to low repetitions. The idea for power training is to perform the exercises at maximum force and velocity. As the reps climb the performance drops, hence creating negative neuromuscular reinforcement.

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.

The Macro-Cycle

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…

  • The design of a macro-cycle must take into account and follow the long-term training plan. If conflict arises between the long-term plan and short-term competition demands then the long-term plan must take priority.

  • There are certain limits to the adaptation capabilities of a person. To expect an athlete to maintain peak physical form for more than six months is totally wrong. The adaptation capacity of an athlete requires restoration in order to continue. This is simply reduced training load and a period of maintenance.

  • Research suggests that elite athletes generally have sufficient adaptive energy to last about 20 weeks at best. After this time it is essential to change the training program and plan for a period of restoration.

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.

  1. The first step is determining the period of the macro-cycle. For this we need a little bit of information about the meso-cycles and micro-cycles. Primarily we need to determine the length of each. So for our example we will have seven day micro-cycles and six micro-cycles to a meso-cycle. So each meso-cycle lasts six weeks. With this information we can establish a macro-cycle of 8 meso-cycles, totalling just under a year.
  2. Now we need a structure. We need to establish when competitions are taking place, the importance of various competitions, the nature of competitions etc. With this information we can now base our targets around these competitions. This allows for careful planning for foundational conditioning, specific conditioning, preparation and maintenance.

    • Foundational Conditioning: Foundational conditioning is the period beginning long before a competition season, usually at the end of the previous season or when an athlete first begins playing the sport. This is a period of conditioning that is broad in nature yet utilises methodologies that are effective in developing relevant movement patterns and metabolic demands.

    • Specific Conditioning: Specific conditioning builds on the established foundations of the athlete. The primary difference is that specific conditioning begins to incorporate sport/task specific drills and relates all training to the nature of the sport.

    • Preparation: Preparation is the period leading up to competition. This period de-emphasises conditioning and places focus on competition preparation, both in terms of raw physical ability and specific skill refinement. Here we are using the term preparation differently than the traditional use of the word. Other strength coaches use the term preparation to refer to foundational conditioning.

    • Maintenance: The maintenance period is an extended period of preparation. During this time an athlete may be required to make very small gains in conditioning or simply maintain competition peak. Stages two through four may occur several times throughout a competition period depending on the nature and importance of competitions. During this period the volume of work is reduced and the intensity increased.

  3. Plan a skeleton structure for meso-cycles. We are designing a macro-cycle here, however during this process the meso-cycles and micro-cycles begin to unfold. My prescription is to use the blocks method. Meaning that various blocks be used throughout a meso-cycle or a portion of a meso-cycle to focus on strength and/or power training.

    The reasoning behind this method is that strength training is highly taxing and is responsible for a high level of fatigue. During an intensive period of strength training work capacity tends to drop and muscular strength is actually decreased. However work capacity and strength indicators are restored and exceed starting levels once the direction of the training is changed. These strength and power blocks are concentrated blocks of training where the focus is primarily on these aspects.

    So in planning macro-cycle structure the basic meso-cycle types need to be determined and placed in their appropriate position.

  4. Now we have a macro-cycle plan and structure. From here it is important to calibrate and adjust based on performance. Because we are utilising both non-linear periodization and traditional strict programming it is especially important to monitor the athlete closely.

The Meso-Cycle

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.

  1. Each meso-cycle should begin with an analysis and assessment. This need not be as comprehensive as the initial assessment. Information gathered may be certain strength and power tests, girths, body composition and sports performance review.
  2. After the assessment we can start designing each meso-cycle one by one. The most efficient way to do this is by looking at the macro-cycle, for which we have already outlined a basic order of meso-cycles by this stage, and adding some more detail to each meso-cycle. This is a basic skeleton structure that is designed in the same way as we did for the macro-cycle. For this we need some very broad information about the micro-cycles. This information will essentially form the plan and structure for the meso-cycle.
  3. Detail training blocks. What sort of training will be done during these training blocks? What’s the intensity range? What types of movements will be required? How much focus should be on strength and how much on power? Etc. So for this step we might decide that meso-cycle one needs to start with a foundational conditioning phase that is broad and inclusive because our subject is a lacrosse player, being a complex team sport. The foundational phase for instance could be performed for three weeks at which point we will phase into a strength and power block of three weeks. This means that the next meso-cycle needs to be started with a restoration phase.

    So you can see here that each meso-cycle determines what needs to happen in future meso-cycles.

  4. Based on the above point the athlete and coach need to determine where peaks and restoration are to be placed throughout the entire macro-cycle. Without this information it is impossible to plan and design effective meso-cycles. So we need to analyse information such as the competition schedule, importance of competitions, the long term plan, targets etc. Each meso-cycle needs to contain its own set of targets.

    Once we have this information we can apply the above points and create a fairly detailed meso-cycle structure. Hopefully following these points you can see a plan unfolding. This all narrows down into the micro-cycle and finally the actual specific workout design

The Micro-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

MACRO-CYCLE

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.

Meso-Cycle One

COMMENCING: JANUARY 5th

MICRO-CYCLES: 6

GOAL: COMPLETE OVERLOAD PERIOD. FOUNDATIONAL CONDITIONING IN PREPARATION FOR UPCOMING SEASON. INTENSIVE, MESO-CYCLE-LONG STRENGTH BLOCK.

Outline of Micro-Cycles

  1. Foundational strength and basic skills and drills. Emphasis on strength foundation. Moderate intensity.
  2. Foundational strength with the introduction of power. Moderate intensity.
  3. Foundational strength and power with a slight increase in volume. Moderate intensity.
  4. Moving to more specific strength and power, while still working foundations. Moderate intensity.
  5. Same as previous micro-cycle.
  6. Building on previous micro-cycle with increase in volume and intensity.

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.

Meso-Cycle Two

COMMENCING: FEBRUARY 16th

MICRO-CYCLES: 6

GOAL: RESTORATION PHASE OF THREE MICRO-CYCLES THEN A THREE WEEK STRENGTH AND POWER BLOCK.

Outline of Micro-Cycles

  1. Partially specific strength. Low volume, low to moderate intensity. Specific skills and drills.
  2. Same as micro-cycle one.
  3. Building on previous two micro-cycles with a slight increase in volume.
  4. Focus on technique and establish strength and power levels.
  5. Highly intense foundational and specific strength and power. Low to moderate volume.
  6. Building on previous micro-cycle with increase in volume.

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.

Meso-Cycle Three

COMMENCING: APRIL 1st

MICRO-CYCLES: 6

GOAL: RESTORATION PHASE OF THREE MICRO-CYCLES THEN A THREE WEEK STRENGTH AND POWER BLOCK.

Outline of Micro-Cycles

  1. Highly specific strength and power. High volume, high intensity. Large volume of event-specific drills. Event-specific drills to be performed at moderate intensity. Introduction of speed work.
  2. Same as micro-cycle one, with the final two days being complete rest.
  3. Radically decrease volume of strength and power training. Increase intensity of strength, power and drills. Increase volume of speed work.
  4. Focus on technique, very low volume, moderate-high intensity strength and power. High intensity event-specific drills including speed work.
  5. Begin the same as previous micro-cycle with a two day rest before race day That means two workouts, two rest days, then competition day.
  6. Same as micro-cycle one with less emphasis on event-specific drills.

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…

  • The ratio of workouts to rest days needs to be based on the athlete’s individual capabilities, the objectives of that cycle and the volume and intensity of the workouts.

  • A core set of protocols must be a part of micro-cycle design. There needs to be a balance between non-linear periodization/variance and greasing the neuromuscular groove. Come up with a set of exercises and an established intensity and base everything around that.

  • Volume and frequency must be taken into consideration for various aspects of workouts. For instance you need to establish how often to squat and how many sets in each workout. Based on research I recommend a high frequency of core exercises. This sticks to the concept of greasing the groove and helps for a partially linear model of progression.

  • What was done in the previous micro-cycle and what will be done in the one after? These things need to be clearly established. Without taking these into consideration performance and progression may be compromised. A meso-cycle needs to flow and build from one thing to the next. If the micro-cycles are random or haphazardly designed this can’t happen.

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)

  • Back squats for 5-3-3-1-1-1 reps going from 70% of max to 90% of max.

  • Push-press for 5-5-5 reps at 75% of max.

  • Accelerating front squats for 5-3-1 reps going from 75% of max to 90% of max.

DAY TWO: Power

  • Power cleans for 12-9-5-3-3-1-1 reps. Focus on maximum acceleration. Work up to 90% of max.

  • 10 x 10 metre crouch starts. Begin at 50% and work up to 100%.

  • Hurdle tuck jumps 3 x 5

  • Single leg bounds 3 x 5 each leg

DAY THREE: Strength, power and event-specific drills

  • Back squats for 3-3-3 reps working up to 85% of max.

  • Thrusters for 3-3-3 reps working up to 85% of max.

  • Power cleans for 1-1-1-1-1reps working from 80% of max up to 95% of max.

  • Deep broad jumps holding a 10lb medicine ball 3 x 5.

  • Speed work; over-speed training down a 10% decline. 5 x 100 metres.

  • Work on take off efficiency.

DAY FOUR: Rest day

DAY FIVE: Specific strength and power

  • Back squat for 3-3-3-3-3 reps at 90% of max. Alternate each set with 5 deep squat jumps.

  • Depth jumps x 10

  • Maximum sprints 5 x 40 metres

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

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.

  • Volume must be intelligently and carefully selected to coincide with previous workouts or workouts to follow. More is not always better. The key to determining volume is assessing performance on a workout by workout basis.

  • Progressive overload is the determining factor of results. When designing workouts each one must be an improvement on the last one of a similar nature. This is why I recommend a core set of exercises and protocols. For example if squats are a core exercise and sets of five have been established as an efficient and effective repetition range protocol then the load must be increased as often as possible while maintaining the desired repetition range and intensity.

  • Intensity is an important factor. Intensity needs to be structured to allow for an improvement within that workout. If intensity is too low the athlete will not make gains. If intensity is too high the athlete will have reached a threshold and may not be able to complete the prescribed volume and quality of workout.

  • Exercises and drills need to be structured in logical order based on thoroughly researched and proven methodologies. The following are a few points that I consider to be effective…

    Dynamic power should be included in all strength programs. Without it the athlete gets good at lifting a weight at the speed it is trained.

    Plyometrics are effectively utilised during strength workouts following low-repetition resistance exercises. For instance performing depth jumps after sets of squats activates a larger percentage of motor units.

    Sports requiring speed, power and major gross body movements should ignore small exercises and isolation work. All exercises for such athletes should be large compound movements such as squats, dead lifts, power cleans, bench press etc. Smaller movements are only placed in workouts as a highly specific strength exercise. For example a gymnast will be performing a lot of straight arm strength work in competition. This requires very specific, controlled movements. Therefore a gymnast would benefit from exercises such as a dumbell fly, lateral raises etc. For a rugby player such exercises are a complete waste of adaptive energy.

  • Rest between sets, rounds, drills etc, should relate to the activity being trained for. For all-out efforts like a 100 metre sprint, the athlete requires maximum strength, speed and power with minimal need for recovery during competition. So this would require short sets and lots of rest between sets to allow for maximum recruitment of available physical resources. A marathon runner might be less concerned with this recommendation, hence resting for shorter periods between strength exercises.

  • Fatigue is a largely inhibiting factor for athletes. Workouts need to be designed so that each one does not inhibit the efforts of another. Performing strength and power for an athlete requiring explosiveness is pointless if the athlete can only apply 70% of a required intensity. This is why rest periods need to be long enough, sets need to be short, volume needs to be relatively low and nothing should ever be done at a pre-fatigued level. Simply put, strength and conditioning programs are most effective when the athlete is fresh and the results of the workout can be predicted. This sometimes requires leaving a little bit in the tank when you know you can do more. Train smarter not harder.

  • Finally, in keeping with non-linear periodization, there needs to be a fair amount of lateral thinking involved in the design of a workout on the spot. Never just go into the gym and design the workout 100% from scratch. There needs to be certain objectives set and met during each workout. That’s the lesson for this point, know your outcome. Don’t just go to the gym or the track to workout or train. There needs to be a target and the workout needs to reflect that, even if much of the workout is designed in the weight room on the day.

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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