Adjusting the template to the athlete
In part four we discussed converting repetitions in reserve into percentage based programming. In part five, the final installment of the series, we will discuss how to adjust the program for the individual athlete.
Every athlete, although similar, is a little bit different. Athletes also get stronger or weaker over time depending on training and circumstances. Athletes inevitably will require adjustment to their strength programming and it makes more sense to make small adjustments to an established working template as opposed to recreating an entirely new program each time. This article will focus on making small adjustments to an established template.
Before any adjustments are made we must first ask is the athlete progressing optimally? If the answer is yes, then why consider making an adjustment at all?! If the answer is no then adjustment is a consideration. We are going to assume our athlete is no longer progressing optimally and begin with a series of questions that require addressing.
Why is the athlete not progressing optimally?
What are they doing the other twenty three hours of the day? The other twenty three hours of the day not spent in the gym are extremely important for the athlete. Are they eating enough? Are they resting enough? Are they stressed out? The best way to address this is to encourage and support the athlete to improve this period of time away from training. I cannot even count the number of athletes that fail to progress as scheduled only to find out they started some new diet without notification and are in a caloric deficit. Once they begin eating adequately again, progress resumes without any further modification. If the athlete is unable or unwilling to adjust then they will have to be treated as someone who is not adequately recovering which we will discuss.
Is there a technical flaw that is hindering improvement? Whenever there is an issue many people are quick to look for the one thing they are not doing. My squats are going poorly; perhaps I need to do more hamstring curls! When the reality is that the athlete’s squats are of inadequate depth and the fundamentals are not being properly prioritized. Always insure that the fundamentals are being performed soundly before looking for any other way to address the issue at hand.
If we can identify that the athlete is properly managing their home life and the fundamentals of movement are sound, we possibly have a programming issue. To address our programming problem we must ask; is the athlete doing enough work to create the necessary stimulus for adaptation, or is the athlete doing too much work and not adequately recovering? Review part one if you are unfamiliar with General Adaptation Syndrome. If we are doing too little work we must add work, too much and we take away.
An athlete performing too little work will often have little to no soreness. They will feel like they could have done more. Sometimes they may add extra accessories that were not programmed in. The athlete will most often just simply plateau.
An athlete that is performing too much work will often be quite sore. The athlete may report skipping certain movements. They may not be sleeping well or have little to no appetite. At first they will plateau but eventually they may begin regressing in ability.
Let’s assume that we have identified that we indeed have a programming issue of either too much or too little work. As you may recall our sample program looks like this.
In part three we created a strength program for a hypothetical strength athlete. In part four we will discuss how to exchange repetitions in reserve (RiR) for percentages of one repetition maximum and the adjustability the conversion affords.
RiR is a fine method of determining the intensity of a lift but with a major limitation: RiR is highly dependent upon athlete or coach perception and therefore lacks adjustability. While an athlete may be able to discern between a RiR of 1 and 2, can an athlete discern between the difference of 1 and 1.5? Certainly the athlete cannot discern between 1 and 1.1. At least for movements that carry the most importance, we need an intensity metric with greater adjustability.
Percentage of a one repetition maximum (1RM) is very adjustable. Percentage of 1RM is simply a certain percentage of an established or theoretical maximum. 90% of an established 1RM at 225lbs is 202.5lbs. The measurement itself is infinitely adjustable from 0% to 99.999% and beyond. Practically percentage of 1RM is adjustable to the degree it causes a difference in load. The increments of measurement are determined by the smallest load available and the magnitude of the 1RM. For a 225 pound 1RM with 2.5 pound plates available for loading, increments of adjustment are approximately 2%. With 1.25 pound plates available, 1% increments are possible. A 500 pound 1RM with 1.25 pound plates available, increments of adjustment are approximately 0.5%. With larger 1RM, smaller loads available, and taking into account the potential for rounding, percentage of 1RM is superior for adjustability of intensity.
In order to utilize percentage of 1RM we must first establish 1RM. There are several ways to establish 1RM. The first method is simply working up to a 1RM in competition. A competition 1RM is suboptimal in many ways due to the condition in which it was established. A competition 1RM is typically following a taper, a period of time of focus, under specific technical requirements, and in an environment that typically fosters 100% intent. A competition 1RM is not usually representative of an athlete’s ability on a given day. A training 1RM is more representative and therefore often more useful. The athlete works up to a 1RM with an established acceptable form under the same conditions as training. For newer or risk intolerant athletes, a 1RM may be inappropriate due to inability of maximal force production and risk reward of a high percentage lift. Another method of establishing a training 1RM is to work up to a submaximal load and complete it for as many repetitions as possible. Using the data obtained there are several available equations for estimating 1RM from a submaximal load.
In part two we discussed the variables available in strength programming. In part three we will put the information into practice and create a strength program designed for a hypothetical strength athlete.
Our hypothetical athlete will be in their 20’s, injury and chronic disease free, and be able to devote as much time as necessary to their training and recovery. Our athlete is a powerlifter that has run a proper novice linear progression and has gained considerable muscular bodyweight and strength. The goals are to increase the squat, bench press, and deadlift to compete. Our athlete has been identified as an intermediate athlete and adapts roughly within the period of a week. We will utilize the Texas Method for inspiration.
The microcycle for this athlete will be a week’s period of time. The mesocycle will be four week blocks but primarily concurrent training focusing on hypertrophy, strength, and skill practice simultaneously. Specific four week blocks will be introduced prior to competitions to prioritize strength and ability to demonstrate strength. The macrocycle will be very simple with offseason and competition variation.
In part one we discussed the theory of General Adaptation Syndrome and how an athlete’s skill level in relation to their absolute ability determines optimal strength programming parameters. In part two we will discuss the large number of variables that can be adjusted to create an effective strength program. We will briefly discuss specificity, periodization, volume, intensity, frequency, movement selection, order, repetitions, sets, rest periods, indicators of progress, and rate of progression.
The Goal: Before designing or adjusting our strength program we must first determine the goal that we are looking to achieve. A program for an olympic distance triathlete will look very different from a strongman competitor. A program designed for hypertrophy of a strength athlete will look very different then actualizing strength prior to a competition for the same athlete. The goal, the movements, and the parameters must match the needs of the desired outcome. For the focus of this article we will primarily discuss strength athletics.
After establishing the goals, the athlete’s ability in relation to potential must be assessed and identified. As discussed, what is optimal to the novice athlete is not appropriate for the advanced athlete and vice versa. With the goal and relative ability established, the proper periodization can be utilized.
Periodization is the systematic planning of physical training. This is the organization of training into periods of time and the loading strategies across those periods of time:
Periods of time
1. Microcycle – The period of time required for the athlete to adapt to the program.
2. Mesocycle – The period of time spent emphasizing certain physical adaptations; for example strength, hypertrophy, and/or speed.
3. Macrocycle – The broader overall training plan.
1. Linear – Increases of training stress of particular qualities in a simple progressive fashion.
2. Undulation – Patterned changing of the volume and intensity of stress throughout a given micro or macrocycle.
3. Conjugation – Regular changing of the type of stressor with the intent of training different physical characteristics.
4. Other – There are many other types of loading strategies and often the selection is a blend of multiple types.
Theory of General Adaptation Syndrome in relation to training advancement
It is time to turn up the science meter and tackle the monster that is strength program design. Following is a topic that entire books have been written about; therefore it is my goal is to synthesize enough information so that we can analyze popular strength programs and ultimately create our own without rewriting the book. In part one I will discuss General Adaptation Syndrome and its implications for novice, intermediate, and advanced level athletes.
The theory of General Adaptation Syndrome is that repeated exposure to stress at sub-lethal levels creates tolerance of subsequent exposures to the same stressor. To set this theory into motion a stress must be applied to the body, the stress in our case being strength training. Following the stress the body responds in a manner specific to the stress. In the case of strength training; inflammation, soreness, and fatigue are produced if enough work was done to disrupt homeostasis. A transient period of reduced force production immediately follows the stressor. The athlete is actually weaker than before the session. If this was not the case an athlete could simply stay in the gym and lift endlessly and continually improve.
Following the stressor the body must respond through expression of gene activity, alterations in hormone production, and increases in protein metabolism and synthesis. This phase is known as recovery. The bodily reactions to the stress are again specific to the stress encountered. Sufficient stress and recovery from the stress will cause an adaptation specific to the stressor, creating a tolerance for it. An insufficient stress will require no adaptation from the body but may still utilize precious resources. The amount of time required for recovery varies depending on the severity of the stress, trained recovery abilities, and an athlete’s ability in relation to their maximum potential.
If too great of a stress is applied the body will be unable to effectively adapt causing exhaustion, decreased ability, and taken to the extreme, death. In relation to strength training, a stressor of too great in frequency, load, or for too long may cause exhaustion.