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.
Novice athletes are trained optimally in a linear fashion with a microcycle being a single session. Novice athletes are able to train concurrently: training all relevant physical adaptations such as strength and hypertrophy simultaneously. The mesocycle and macrocycle should be of little importance to the novice due to their rate of their adaptation and lack of a competition calendar.
The primary adjustment for the intermediate athlete is the increase of the microcycle to roughly a week’s period of time to accommodate the increased need for stress and recovery. Intermediate athletes are often still capable of training concurrently overall but each session throughout the microcycle begins to focus upon one or more elements of physical ability, an undulating pattern. Increases in stress may still be linear in progression between microcycles. Intermediate athletes are often competitive with some small implications for mesocycle variation and a need for a macrocycle plan.
Advanced athletes benefit most from more complex periodization schemes that focus upon the improvement of only one or a few physical characteristics at a time. Advanced athletes will utilize multiple types of loading strategies and progressions. The larger picture becomes increasing important as annual planning and careful placement of proper training cycles will provide the necessary overload and recovery to have the advanced athlete at their best come competition time.
Overall stress: The overall stress of the program is typically determined by the volume and the load. Volume is the total number of repetitions performed at work weight. Load is the amount of resistance. A squat performed for three sets of five (3x5) at 315 pounds would be 4725 total pounds moved. Five sets of five performed at 405 is 10125 total pounds moved and is more stressful. I would argue that the number of hard sets performed is an additional factor to consider and will be discussed in a future article. The overall stress for the program must be adequate to drive adaptation while still allowing adequate recovery. Stress can be increased and decreased as appropriate by adjusting volume and load.
Systemic recovery: Systemic recovery is a measure of the preparedness of the athlete to perform at a given time. Poorly recovered athletes perform poorly. Well recovered athletes perform at potential. Recovery on a systemic level needs to be monitored, planned for, and adjusted. Specific training sessions, microcycles, and mesocycles, can be designed to be more or less recovery negative (not fully recovered), recovery neutral, or recovery positive (more recovered then before). Training days are almost always recovery negative but can be vary from extremely negative to barely negative. Rest days are recovery positive but depending upon other activities can vary in the amount of recovery achieved. This concept will become more apparent when we manipulate our own program and plan for how much recovery specific days will consume with intention of creating overload and adaptation.
Frequency of sessions: The number of sessions performed in a given time frame, usually a week, is an important parameter. Increasing the number of sessions increases exposure potential at the expense of time and potential recovery. Typically, the more experienced the athlete the more frequent the sessions. Typical frequencies range from two to six days per week but sometimes more.
Movement selection: Movements are selected to produce a desired result. Specificity of movement, specificity of stressor, is required to create specific adaptation. With a strength athlete in mind the squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift are selected because they create the greatest improvements to strength. Other movements are then selected to compliment the primary movements and address weakness and technical limitations. Movements can be adjusted as different adaptations are desired or different weakness or technical limitations present.
Frequency of movement: How often is the movement to be performed? The more frequent the movement is performed the more exposure to the movement there is, the more variation possible, but also the more recovery resources that will be utilized. The range of adjustment is large. One athlete could squat every other week; another athlete may squat every single day.
Order of movement: A training session is often made up of more than a single movement which asks the question of which movement to perform first. The first movements are performed when the athlete is most rested. Movements are often organized based upon the most important, the highest technical requirements, the highest velocity, or the highest load first. The less important, less technical, slower, lower load movements performed afterwards. It is often advisable to program movements that utilize similar musculature apart in a session to maximize metabolic recovery and therefore performance. The coach has as many options as he has movements on how to adjust the order of movement.
Repetitions: Repetitions are the number of times a movement is performed in a single instance. Repetitions can also be expressed as a total accumulation over multiple instances. A single repetition up to twenty plus repetitions can be performed in a single instance with considerably different adaptations. Very generally, sets of one to three repetitions require and create the most strength and power. Sets of five are an excellent compromise between strength and hypertrophy. Moderate sets of six to twelve create the most hypertrophy. Sets of twenty plus create metabolic adaptations.
Sets: Sets are the number times a movement is performed within a session. The number of sets can be a very useful tool to adjust the stress imposed. From a single set to ten plus sets, stress can be adjusted to an optimal level.
Intensity: Intensity is the measure of difficulty of a given repetition or set. Intensity can be measured in a number of ways: load, percentage of maximum, velocity, rating of perceived exertion (RPE), or repetitions in reserve (RiR). The more intense a set the more stressful a given set is and the less total sets can be performed. The less intense, the less stressful a given set is the more sets that can be performed. Intensity can be adjusted from easy technique work up to maximum effort.
Rest Period: Rest periods are the amount of time between sets. Longer rests are required for more technical, higher intensity, higher velocity, higher importance sets. Rest periods may be decreased to intentionally stress metabolic components of the system in some cases. Rest periods typically range from forty-five seconds up to ten minutes in length. Rest provides the necessary refreshment of the metabolic components of muscle tissue as well as a mental break to prepare for the coming set.
Indicators of progress: Every effective strength program utilizes indicators of progress. An indicator of progress is a specific achievement that indicates when to progress. For example, when a powerlifter is able to achieve all twenty five reps of 5x5 squats, he is indicated to increase the load the following time he performs squats.
Measures of progress: Just as we have goals we must continue to measure the goals to make sure our strength program is achieving them. Let’s say that an athlete’s squat increased forty pounds but our goal is vertical jump. We need to re-measure the vertical jump to see if progress in one area is improving the actual goal. Of note, sometimes the indicator of progress is the measure of progress.
Each of these topics deserves a far greater discussion but this is the essential information that will allow us to dive in to creating our own strength program. In part three we will examine the needs of an intermediate powerlifter as we create and adapt a strength program for his goals.