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.
Option One: Increase/decrease the number of sets and total repetitions at the same of intensity for the primary movements. Quite simply address the problem by doing more or less work with the primary movements. A volume day adjustment (session one or session two week A) would substitute 5x5 for 3x5, 4x5, 6x5 or 7x5. The more sets the more of a stimulus obviously. This is a very substantial adjustment to make as number of repetitions performed changes from 15-35+ at the same intensity.
An intensity day adjustment (session three or session two week B) would substitute 2x3 for 1x3, 3x3, or 4x3.
Option Two: Increase/decrease the number of sets at an equivalent intensity for the same total number of repetitions. 5x5 would become 3x8, 4x6, 6x4, or 8x3. As we adjust the repetitions performed however, the percentage of 1RM must be made equivalent for the desired effect. As you may recall from part three and four the starting intensity for 5x5 is a RiR of 3 or RM8. The equivalent for 3x8 is RM 11, 4x6 is RM9, 6x4 is RM7, and 8x3 is RM6. The athlete is performing more or less hard sets at a slightly lower or higher but equivalent percentage. Total repetitions are maintained. This is a much smaller adjustment overall.
An intensity day adjustment would substitute 2x3 for 1x5, or 3x2.
Option Three: Increase/decrease the intensity of the primary movements. Increasing or decreasing the intensity of the primary movements can alter the amount of work performed. As you may recall from part two, overall volume is a calculation of the product of total repetitions and load. Load is simply a function of intensity. An increase in intensity is an increase in overall work. This is where the conversion we performed in part four becomes useful. Primary movement’s intensity can be adjusted in very small amounts because we are utilizing percentages. An increase or decrease of 1% is typically a good place to start.
In addition, intensity measured as a percentage is just an estimate. One athlete may require a reduced percentage with volume work while another athlete may require a higher percentage. By adjusting the percentages the program can be tuned to the abilities of the given athlete.
Option Four: Add additional assistance work. Similar to above we can add or take away sets, intensity can be adjusted, or we could include or remove accessory movements. This is often not the answer but can be the case if a particular weakness or overuse of accessory movements is causing a plateau.
Practically speaking I begin an athlete with a given template exactly as written and make a single adjustment at a time only when it is indicated. Typically I aim to establish the volume and intensity of the volume day first before adjusting the intensity day. I then aim to establish the percentile relationships between volume day and intensity day so that they feel relatively the same in difficulty. As the athlete gets stronger I begin to place more emphasis on increasing the demands of the intensity day with a typical progression being 2x3 – 3x2 – 3x3 – 5x2.
Every athlete is different and the needs of the athlete can change, but being able to make small adjustments to an established template that has proven effective is the most efficient solution. Establish that an adjustment is actually required. Establish that the solution to the problem is programming. Then decide whether athlete requires more work or less work and make the necessary adjustment. Rarely will a total overhaul of the program be required as long as it is appropriate for the level of the athlete. This base template can be utilized for potentially years of effective training with intelligent adjustment and decision making.
To summarize the series
1. Strength programming is all about managing stress, recovery, and adaptation.
2. Match the strength program to the goals, needs, and training level of the athlete.
3. Utilize intelligent program design taking into account the many variables of adjustment.
4. Create a program that is flexible and adjustable utilizing the appropriate methods to designate intensity.
5. Do not be afraid to begin with an established template appropriate for the athlete.
6. Make small adjustments as necessary to allow the athlete to continue progress for years.
Attached is the final version of the program in excel. Thank you for reading!