A few things I should point out before getting to the primary aim of this blog post:
The energetics side of things should very much be a primary point of focus; especially for athletes in my population (as well as all athletes). The fact is however that given that I am a secondary support structure for the athletes I am coaching currently this is a difficult logistical issue. I either have to program work that I know I cannot observe/qualify how the work is being performed or I use what time I do get where I can get some quality energy systems work done whenever we can.
Given the fact that a majority of the kids I coach are being buried in the work they perform with their club program or in their high school and the issue gains more complexity. This is something I am currently not comfortable with and for how it is lacking in the support I do give athletes I feel is an overall point of embarrassment. I would like to move towards better solutions for this but as of now it is worth at best an incomplete.
So with that said I will press on and get to this post: progressing from a more concurrent focus, an emphasis on training multiple qualities, to a more specific block periodization focus (training 2 to 3 dominant qualities and relying on training residuals and maintenance programming to contain the rest). A great analogy from Dr. Brad Deweese on this is the idea of cooking with a stove (his phase potentiation lecture from the NSCA Coaches Conference is outstanding). You can't have all of your burners on high at the same time but if you skillfully introduce the necessary components you are preparing then you can manage it all and really focus on one or two by keeping the others on low.
This image gives you a pretty good visual for how you can best contain your training stimuli. Essentially we are moving from a more broad degree of focus towards an increasing volume of specific work. There are a few typical gaps that I will quickly address here:
1: You have to do a good job of addressing core competency, in all training qualities, before attempting to establish more capacity. Gray Cook says and it is quoted often for, "You cannot stack strength on dysfunction." One of the quotes I love from Gray that is referenced less often is, "You cannot rent your movement philosophy. You have to own it." We cannot engage athletes effectively if we know that we are going to do things that will potentially compromise their health and, by extension, their performance. If we want to push the limits of human performance we have to make sure we have what we need to make it through the whole journey healthy.
2: Because you establish competency early does not mean your program will fully contain it unless you have planning in place to do so. As you move towards higher workloads of specificity you are moving further away from general loads. As speed and power expert Mike Young has stated, "Soon ripe, soon rotten." General workloads will work very well to ensure that the athlete stays ready for important transitional points as well as help you pull back some when primary means, i.e. the athlete's sport itself, are pushing specificity to its limits. As Derek Evely stated recently, "Seen in this light, general workloads and exercises are no longer given a specific phase or 'season' in the planning cycle, but rather are used throughout the year to help an athlete recover from year-round specific loads and maintain general fitness, not unlike the way an anti-virus program operates in the background of your computer system; it's there, it's important, but it is not why you bought the computer in the first place."
The good news is with all of this that we continue to improve our athlete development process and systems to help us keep things finer tuned for this challenging work. It does seem that as our technology/systems evolve, we are always given less time/resources to actually do the job of coaching. But I digress...
I have mentioned before how primary loads for me function in a linear fashion. Meaning that there are some things in the training cycle that if I know we need to have in our body of work then I am going to fight like hell to get that done even if the remainder of the work gets varied or changed for practical/logistical reasons.
My non-linear tasks are sometimes the primary means, for developmental purposes, but are often tasks of a secondary focus. A quick example of this here (assume 2 sessions per week as is common for me):
LINEAR TASK (PRIMARY MEANS)
A1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 80%
A1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 82-84%
B1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 84-88%
B1. Back Squat 4-6 x 3-5 @ 86-92%
NON-LINEAR TASKS (SECONDARY MEANS)
C1. DB Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift 2-3 x 8/Leg
A1. Back Squat 3x3 @ 80%
C1. KB Goblet Reverse Lunge 2-3 x 8/Leg
A1. Back Squat 3-5x3 @ 82-84%
C1. DB Split Squat 2-3 x 10/Leg
A1. Back Squat 2-4x3 @ 84-86%
C1. DB Split Squat 3-4 x 8/Leg
A1. Back Squat 2x3 @ 86-88%
To give you some perspective on these loads we are utilizing the back squat as a primary means of strength development so we can validate using that lift 2x per week, even if we only have 2 lifts during that microcycle, because we know there is a skill to squatting and it is a key factor in the development of strength and power for sports. The first training session of the week is the priority and the second session is the one where I would anticipate having more variability in performance (most athletes, at the high school and collegiate level, start the week pretty fresh but end up trashed by the end). If the first session is compromised for some reason, because of poor sleep or sickness, I would either 1-switch the loading from the sessions so we take the easier of the two lifts first, or 2-scrap it altogether and move those more important loads to the next session of the week.
Speaking to the single-leg focus as a non-linear task here we are essentially using the exercises to be self-limiting for the athlete but progressing the load of the lifts from a more hip dominant movement (the single-leg RDL) to a hip/quad dominant movement (the goblet reverse lunge) to a quad dominant activity (the split squat). What we are losing out on in terms of very necessary muscle balance we are gaining with improved leg strength. We are also moving through a broader range of movements that satisfy our developmental needs and give us a more technical focus early on, the single-leg balance task with load, to a less technical focus, a simplified task of the split squat, in order to enhance load and strength development. Something you would not want to push for very long but that will give you an opportunity to get much stronger through the training cycle (but limits the overall stress to a more narrow window).
For the squatting tasks specifically it is also very helpful to utilize velocity-based training as an autoregulation tool to either confirm the appropriateness of workloads or to adjust/compromise and generate comparable fitness effects. Assuming we are well prepared there is not a lot I anticipate changing in programs from week to week but technology like the PUSH device can give you a very specific window of feedback on your velocities as your athletes progress in their training. I am currently only using the PUSH device for barbell based movement tracking on squatting, pulling, and Olympic lifts/variations but I look forward to continuing to explore the device's diversity.
There are a lot of reasons that you will see variation in movement speed so I do not adhere too strictly to certain recommendations on this; however the PUSH device will give you specific feedback to the individual that you can compare against their current and previous levels of performance. This can help add a more qualitative metric to what most coaches are just using their eyes for. Certainly nothing wrong with that but because of the complexities of our connection with our athletes, especially prominent in working with female athletes as I do, we can limit training loads or volumes at times because we are imprinting fragility on the athlete that is simply not there. There is always a careful balance in coaching and athlete development between having your foot on the gas pedal to push it and knowing when to slam on the brakes. PUSH and similar velocity-based systems can help to keep ourselves and our athletes closer to their true "speed limits" without exceeding them.
With non-strength athletes it is not uncommon for me to keep a rep or two "in the tank" for many of their training sessions early in the microcycle. This will allow me to ensure that we have stability in the exercise's performance before we start to really push their physical limits. So depending on the athlete's level of preparedness it would not be uncommon for me to adjust their set-rep distribution of work or exercise variation to better match their needs. Two examples (notice the compatibility with the example from above please):
Intermediate Athlete (Low Variation)
A1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 80%
B1. Hang Power Clean 1x3 @ 70%, 1x3 @ 75%, 1x2 @ 80%, 3x2 @ 77%
A1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 82-84%
B1. Hang Power Cl 1x3 @ 72%, 1x3 @ 77%, 1x2 @ 82%, 3x2 @ 79%
A1. Hang Power Cl 1x3 @ 74%, 1x2 @ 79%, 1x2 @ 82-84%, 3-5 x 1-2 @ 81%
B1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 84-86%
A1. Hang Power Cl 1x2 @ 76%, 1x2 @ 81%, 1x2 @ 83-85%, 2-4 x 1-2 @ 82-83%
B1. Back Squat 4-6 x 3-5 @ 86-92%
So because of the exercise order changes in week 3 and 4 we should be able to sustain these high-intensity efforts successfully with less concern of the increasing back squatting loads generating interference. Because of the use of the PUSH device I have the ability to manage the distribution of work more effectively and be sure that there are not inappropriate changes in velocity on the performance of each lift.
Beginner Athlete (High Variation for Developmental Needs: Percentage Changes from Original Example)
A1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 70%
B1. Hip Power Clean 1x3 @ 60%, 1x3 @ 65%, 1x2 @ 70%, 3x2 @ 67%
A1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 72-74%
B1. Hip Power Clean 1x3 @ 62%, 1x3 @ 67%,
B1. Hang Power Cl 1x2 @ 72%, 3x3 @ 69%
A1. Hip Power Clean 1x3 @ 64%, 1x3 @ 69%
A1. Hang Power Cl 1x2 @ 72-74%, 4 x 1-2 @ 71%
B1. Back Squat 3x5 @ 74-76%
A1. Hang Power Cl 1x2 @ 66%, 1x2 @ 71 1x2 @ 73-75%, 2-4 x 1-2 @ 72-73%
B1. Back Squat 4-6 x 3-5 @ 76-82%
In this example we are using the exercise variation to limit intensity and are advancing both the exercise and intensity through each training week. With many athletes we cannot execute the necessary intensities in training if their technical ability has not been developed to an appropriate level. For this reason intensity will be limited anyway; perhaps not just yet for them but as they develop if we do not adequately lay the foundation for better lifting we will reduce the likelihood of ever performing at our very best. I see many people posting PR videos and stating, "Well we are still working on their technique..." In my opinion this is short-sighted. The defense given is if they only ever work on technique they will never learn to lift heavy. This brings me to two points:
1-You may lift heavy but you will never lift at your best with inadequate technique. It may even be heavy for the coach observing but the athlete and coach will never learn what their true limits are. Beyond that there is always a cost of adaptation and because of the need for increased training loads, to compensate for inadequate technique, you will stress your body much further than necessary.
2-For non-strength athletes strength training is a general means of development. This means that the further you get away from an appropriate use of the coordinative/technical components, the C of the E-M-C triangle discussed in part one, the less likely you are to have successful transfer into the sport or activity you are developing this strength and power for.
Overall I think this has been a fair look at my thinking regarding exercise programming. There are many roads to Rome and these are some of the ways I feel I am able to train athletes successfully given the limitations common to myself and my coaching environment and as it is common to many strength coaches and trainers. So a few closing thoughts here:
-The paradox of movement specificity and variation is a great one. For developmental athletes I side with more variability in their training environment as their needs often go beyond that of just improved efficiency in strength training. The coordinative side of things for them is tremendous. As Guido Van Ryssegem has stated, "Movement variability is the oil of the CNS." To keep things flowing properly there is a careful balance between general and specific tasks (as I hope I have addressed properly above). Yet progressing towards physical peaks requires a narrowing of the stream of inputs. Just remember as Robert Pirsig stated, "It is the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top." Climb the mountain, enjoy the view, but don't try to live there.
-Sub-maximum work is undervalued but an important part of working with athletes at any population. This is a sensitive point for me as many coaches overestimate competencies in unrelated tasks because of specific competencies in either the sport or one movement/activity. In my opinion most athletes are performing on a continuum from day to day and our feedback and programming should address this properly.
-My feelings are the same for feedback on internal versus external cueing. Very few athletes are just dialed in to where they can utilize just external cues successfully. I believe there should be an appropriate flow each day that moves from internal to external and augmented feedback (velocity-based feedback and other similar metrics) properly as it is required.
-I have referenced the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer" before and how in the movie Josh Waitzkin's chess coach teaches him, "Don't move until you see it" and little Josh has a hard time seeing what is happening and will be happening in the game. Eventually though he sees it and it is an awesome outcome. The same can be said for coaching successfully. Do not advance a task until you can ensure competency and you know the athlete is ready to attack capacity with a full effort. If you do not see it happening with your current methods/means progressing to more advanced methods/means is unnecessary and dangerous. Be patient and use your training performances to drive your progressions not a piece of paper.
Excellence is the only agenda!