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Structuring Training

This is really just an introduction to how training programmes should be structured. There’ll be a follow up article with a little more concrete information about how a routine would look using a few different systems, but for now you should have enough information (if you have also read the article on Exercise Selection) to get started with what’s in this article here.

Structuring training was a reasonably straight forward process that – ever since someone realized that you can’t just use linear periodization forever – has become somewhat confounded with a lot of new training concepts. The old model of squat once a week, bench x1, bench accessory x1, and deadlift once a year fell flat on it’s face when people started to notice that if you’re not lifting equipped and you’re not lifting enhanced, you’re not going to have enough stimulus to progress with routines so accessory oriented. So, we’ll try to bring you up to speed on how routines are put together these days and what you should be focusing on if you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter. We’ll begin with a look at the most fundamental of principles, progressive overload. But before we get into that, let’s just cover 1 or 2 (complete lie) useful terms to help with the article.

 

Useful Terms

CNS (Central Nervous System)PSNS (Para-Sympathetic Nervous System)SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System)ENERGY SYSTEMS TRAININGAEROBICANAEROBICGPP (General Physical Preparation)PERIODIZATIONBLOCK TRAININGPAP (Post-Activation Potentiation)INTENSITYVOLUMETRAINING LOADFATIGUE
 Our CNS is the system of nerves that run throughout the body and control many of our bodily processes and functions (some consciously, some unconsciously). In a weightlifting context, the CNS is what sends the (electrical) signal to your muscles to contract. This means the stronger the signal, the greater the contraction. This is why you hear many people talking about “training” the CNS, or about fatiguing your CNS. 
 The PSNS is also known as the “rest and digest” system, which involves recovery and (oddly enough) digestive processes. Effectively, if you think of te PSNS as the opposing system to your “fight/flight” response (though that’s not always the case) you get a clearer picture. In most cases it’s just about priority, so when you’re being attacked, your body needs that blood feeding the muscles (for running away/fighting) not flowing to your stomach to digest food. When the stressor has gone, your body will replenish spent glucose stores, reduce blood flow (and constrict blood vessels – vasoconstriction), resume digesting and allow peristalsis (which is rather important) 
 The SNS is also known as the “fight or flight” system and is characterized by heightened (sensory) awareness, increased cortisol levels, and increased blood flow (and vasodilation). This is our stress response system and will kick regardless of the type of stress, hence the prevalence of chronic stress issues. You need a balance of SNS and PSNS to ensure your body is replenishing and recovering adequately. Here’s a useful overview 
EST is training designed to improve the capacity of a given energy system (Aerobic, Anaerobic Glucose, Anaerobic ATP-CP) by forcing the body to become more efficient or to alter physiologically. An example of this is that mitochondria need oxygen, therefore correct Aerobic training (using oxygen for energy production) will increase mitochondria (your body’s physiological adaptation). More mitochondria means not only a greater capacity to create energy but also a greater capacity for recovery. This is very useful for training 
Aerobic Metabolism is a form of metabolism using oxygen to create ATP which fuels the muscles. It is much slower than anaerobic metabolism and is therefore the last system to be relied upon (meaning that first the body will deplete it’s ATP-CP stores and then it’s glucose stores, and THEN will look to primarily use oxygen). This is why you can sprint for a brief period, after which the speed have to decline as the body cannot produce energy (fuel for the muscles) fast enough to maintain the initial pace. 
Anaerobic metabolism is a form of metabolism using either glucose or ATP-CP (Creatine and Phosphate) to create ATP for energy. This is a more efficient means of creating fuel for the muscles, BUT it is depleted VERY quickly (available ATP and ATP-CP deplete in under 10 seconds of high intensity output). 
 This is a stage of training that occurs early in a training cycle OR early in an athletes development. It involves developing the body’s capacity (as a whole) to handle high levels of training stimulus, and is generally not sport specific. 
This is the general term for the programming of training into successive “periods”, each with a specific goal designed to build on the previous. Training is broken down into Micro-Cycles (the smallest unit, e.g. 1 day or 1 week), Meso-Cycles (an intermediate length unit of training combining Micro-Cycles, e.g. 1 month = 4 one week Micro-Cycles), and Macro-Cycles (composed of numerous Meso-Cycles) 
Block Training is grouping training periods into specific goals, and training accordingly. Examples would be a “Hypertrophy Block” or a “Strength Block” or an “Accumulation Block”. Each of these blocks will use specific rep ranges and exercise variants designed to best fit the goal of the block. 
 PAP involves creating a large stimulus for your CNS (by lifting a heavy weight), and then taking advantage of the residual increase in CNS efficiency on your subsequent effort. The “window of opportunity” is quite short (something in the region of 2-3 minutes, if even) so when you’re seeing people lift a heavy single and then wait 5 minutes  for their next set to take advantage of the “PAP” reaction, it’s generally a psychological placebo (the weight will still feel comparatively lighter!) Here’s a good article outlining some ways to encorporate it into your training 
Intensity is usually used to quantify the weight lifted (as opposed to the level of aggression/concentration involved) i.e. intensity can be measured using kg’s, using an RPE, or using a percentage of your 1RM 
Volume is usually used to denote the number of times a given movement is completed in a workout
Training Load is the amount of work done in a given workout. [intensity in kg/lb X volume] though this should really include other variables such as “distance”, intensity and volume should be sufficient. 
 Fatigue is not the feeling of tiredness during a workout (though that can contribute to it), but rather the residual fatigue that is accrued over the course of a training period. Many new ways have come to prominence to measure fatigue (with regards weight training) so as quantify the amount of stress placed on the body and allow for sufficient recovery (either through reduced training volume or increasing the recovery protocol) 

 

Progressive Overload

The concept of progressive overload has been around as long as concepts have been around. The expression “you need to learn to walk before you can run” is progressive overload of a form, the fact that when you learn almost anything you start with the simple stuff first is progressive overload. For those of us who lift weights, it all began with a man named Milo who carried a calf every day to build strength. As the calf grew, so did Milo’s strength, until he was carrying around a full grown cow and causing bystanders to wonder if he was an intellectually challenged milkman (he wasn’t… we think).

Progressive overload is just what it promises – it gets progressively more difficult. You progress by increasing the stimulus (weight) and slightly overloading the current “homeostasis” (your body’s norm) causing your muscles to “rewire” for more efficient lifting (or to grow). While this sounds like a linear process (like strict linear periodization), it is really a wave whose troughs and peaks are slowly increasing. This is because after you overload the body (peak), you need to give it a chance to recover (trough) so that it can build these new and improved motor firing patterns, or improve muscle recruitment, or increase CNS efficiency. This is one of THE fundamental principal behind almost all skills, and is integral to improving at strength sports.

 

Understanding Sets/Reps

This is a tricky one to get your head around because, even though it’s a relatively simple concept, there are a huge number of applications for different rep/set schemes, and ultimately they dictate overall workload which is also very important.

HIIT Guide - Kettle Bell Push Up

The 2 basic tenets of reps are (1) high rep sets necessitate lighter weights but must still challenge the muscle, (2) high rep sets and low rep sets will cause different training effects. Simple, right! Generally speaking, the training effects mentioned are [high rep = muscle focus] and [low rep = CNS focus]. Again, reasonably simple… but what happens in between high and low rep, and how do I use this information, and what happens beyond high reps!? So, let’s take a look at some examples:

1-3 reps = Strength (CNS Development) [90%+ 1RM]

This will develop strength and primarily works by forcing (hopefully) the Central Nervous System to send a stronger signal to increase muscle fibre recruitment. Under this amount of stimulus (relative to your 1RM), your muscles will fatigue very quickly. If you continuously lift close to your 1RM (in excess of 2 weeks) you will fatigue your Central Nervous System making progress near impossible (or so traditional lifting theory goes). This is why routines start with low intensity – high rep training and taper towards low rep – high intensity lifting, instead of constantly attacking their one rep max (yes, I have heard of the Bulgarians, but that’s a different story for a different day).

1-3 Reps = Power (Explosive Force Production) [70% – 85% 1RM – of heavy compound movement]

Ok, maybe that Bulgarian story is happening today. So, while everyone was telling you that you can’t lift heavy everyday because the “overtraining monster” that lives in your gym will rip off your dangly bits and feed them to a goat, the wily Bulgarians were lifting to their max 6 days a week… twice a day! How is that possible and why would anyone do it??

First the how. The Bulgarian coach (Abadzhiev) generally used a trial by fire approach to qualifying his lifters, if you survived you made the team. The Bulgarians were also rather notorious for their “supplement” regime. Also, (Olympic) Weightlifting is a power sport so while lifting heavy every day is amazing, it is not as demanding on the CNS as daily maxes in powerlifting (where a max deadlift of 240kg will be harder to recover from than a max C&J of 200kg). ALSO, this was a job for the Bulgarians. This was how you put your kids through school in a country that wasn’t that flush with cash, so keeping your job was a very good training stimulus! Lastly, when we said trial by fire approach, that’s after years of general sports fitness, years of GPP training to develop work capacity AS WELL AS learning the lifts, and that’s before you even get to start training “Bulgarian” style. They didn’t do it willy-nilly!

The why is a little more interesting. The core tenets of the Bulgarian System are that strength is a skill, therefore the more you practice the better you get (very true) AND that your body is capable of dealing with huge workloads as long as it is sufficiently prepared (generally with years and years of General Physical Preparatory training, and an incrementally increasing workload – also true). In his book, aptly named Squat Every Day, Matt Perryman talks about the effects of Squatting every day and fatigue management. He comes to the conclusion that “overtraining” is over-hyped, and that lifting heavy daily is very much within the grasp of anyone willing to put in the time and effort.

The take away from this is that in your training (if you are training for strength), frequency is important not just to maintain training stimulus but also to ensure enough high quality practice is done. You could implement this idea by A) splitting your squat workout in half and spreading it across two days, or even just reducing the reps and increasing the sets sometimes to increase the emphasis on high quality movement (meaning instead of 3 sets of 8 reps, do 8 sets of 3 reps) and B) If you split your workout, you can look to increase both of these relatively light days and gradually increase your work capacity this way.

4-6 reps = Strength (Mix of Muscle and CNS Development) [75% – 85% 1RM]

This, for most lifters is considered the sweet spot for developing strength. It allows for stimulus to the muscles and the CNS, without overly fatiguing either. Adequate recovery when using 4-6 rep blocks is very important, as is some form of wave loading.

7-10 reps = Strength Endurance (Energy System Used: Anaerobic ATP-CP & Anaerobic Glycolytic) [50% – 75% 1RM]

This is a very important rep range for developing “strength endurance”. For those of you who find you tire too quickly, it will be hugely beneficial to do sets of 7-10 reps as this will be beyond what most can do in a single breath, effectively forcing (we hope) proper breathing and improving recovery capacity (though this will depend on rest times and exercise selection).

7-10 reps = Hypertrophy (Muscle Size Development) [60% – 75% 1RM]

This is ALSO a hugely important rep range for hypertrophy, which will require the lifter to minimize rest between sets to sufficiently fatigue/stress the muscle. Minimizing rest period (unfortunately) also sounds suspiciously like a tactic that would bode well for developing endurance, which is one of the reasons the water gets murky very quickly when discussing rep ranges. Other examples of rep ranges outside what we’d expect occur using PAP, doing technical development work (though most have begun to decry this kind of training), AND the above mentioned power building example in the 1-3 rep range.

11-20 reps = Endurance/Work Capacity Focused (Anaerobic Glycogen) [<60% 1RM]

In reality, this is just a ball park figure as there is NO EXACT CUT-OFF for any specific stimulus, i.e. 12 rep sets can do enough muscle damage to cause hypertrophy, so this is more of a sliding scale to indicate primary stimulus than a “set in stone” number you have to abide by. 

20+ reps / 45+ seconds = Some Types of Energy Systems Training (Anaerobic Glycogen / Anaerobic Lactic Acid / Aerobic) [<50% 1RM]

This is used for developing an area of the “energy system”, like lactic threshold training etc. This just means that you are trying to develop your body’s ability to deal with different types of fatigue. The idea behind, say, lactic threshold training (which is a misnomer, as you’re really training your body to deal with an acidic environment due to increased amounts of hydrogen ions) is that you prolong your body’s time spent with high levels of acid in the muscles which should, in turn, train your body to more efficiently remove the acid. Here’s more information on training different energy systems and the rep ranges/types of exercise used. Also, here and here!

*Remember that these are just guidelines, and as you progress in your training you will learn to apply rep/set combinations as needed for your goal. For example, developing work capacity for a powerlifter will generally not happen in the 15+ rep range as the stresses it places on the body will be too different to what the powerlifter needs to develop to improve his work rate in the gym. This is becomes a discussion in “carry-over” or “training specificity” which will be discussed in part 2 of this article. That said, increasing aerobic capacity is useful for just about everyone as it can facilitate more efficient recovery.

 

Linear Periodisation vs. DUP

A wise man (Dan John) once said something to the effect of “Anything works”. There’s a lot of truth in this… if you pick a training programme that isn’t absolutely crazy, stick with (don’t skip days or randomly add in days), and work hard, then you will see results. This means that both Linear Periodisation and DUP can work for you. The key issue is that the results might not be optimal depending on the person and their stage of training. It is generally now understood that as you progress to advanced lifting, DUP is the preferred method of training (though this is by no means clear cut).

Linear Periodization Training is just a linear progressive overload. You start 12 weeks away from you deadline/competition with a desired figure in mind, and you work backwards to your start day in regular intervals to design your routine. So, with 12 weeks until your Squat Test and a goal of 200kg, you would start regressing from week 12:

(W12- 200*1) (W11-190*2) (W10- 180*3) (W9 -175*3) (W8-170*4) (W7-165*5) (W6-160*5) (W5-155*5) (W4-150*6) (W3-140*8) (W2-130*10) (W1-120*12)

As you can see, extra attention is usually given to the 4-6 rep range. This, as a routine, will then become:

(W1-120*12) (W2-130*10) (W3-140*8) (W4-150*7) | (W5-155*6) (W6-160*5) (W7-165*5) (W8-170*4) | (W9 -175*3) (W10- 180*3) (W11-190*2) (W12- 200*1)

Each week the weight increases and the body is expected to adapt and get stronger. This can work wonderfully well if you are getting enough rest and you’re not too advanced. Unfortunately, strict linear periodization becomes far more difficult when you are trying to improve in multiple lifts, AND you’re becoming more advanced. Let’s say for example you’re Squatting x3BW, Benching x2BW and Deadlifting x3.5BW… that’s an AWFUL lot of work to have to do to improve all 3 lifts! So, you say, why not focus on one lift?? Because all of that hard work you already did goes down the toilet as your other lifts suffer… so what to do?? Well, enter DUP!

DUP stands for Daily Undulating Periodization. Daily (self explanatory), Undulating (going up and down – think waves), periodiazation (blocked into periods). If we see DUP as a means of creating enough stimulus/damage in a muscle firing pattern to allow it improve, and then allow a maintenance of that progress while other lifts are trained, it becomes easier to see what we’re working towards. Still not very clear??? Ok, so let’s 2 sample training blocks. The first isn’t strictly DUP, but it follows in the same vein and is an excellent way to train multiple lifts concurrently (concurrent training). The second is DUP as it is supposed to be programmed, though it can require some auto-regulation to ensure the stimulus/recovery is on point.

Training 1
Mon –   Squat (H) / Bench (M) / Row (L)
Tues –  Deadlift (H) / Fr. Squat (M) / Incline Bench (L)
Thur –  Bench (H) / Row (M) / SL Leg Press (L)
Sat –     Pause Squats (H) / Deficit Deadlifts (M) / Pause Bench (L)

Training 2
1 Mon –   Squat / Bench / Row (High Intensity Day)
1 Tues –  Deadlift / Fr. Squat / Incline Bench (Medium Intensity Day)
1 Thur –  Bench / Row / SL Leg Press (Low Intensity Day)
1 Sat –     Pause Squats / Deficit Deadlifts / Pause Bench (High Intensity Day)
2 Mon –   Squat / Bench / Row (Medium Intensity Day)
2 Tues –  Deadlift / Fr. Squat / Incline Bench (Low Intensity Day)
2 Thur –  Bench / Row / SL Leg Press (High Intensity Day)
2 Sat –     Pause Squats / Deficit Deadlifts / Pause Bench (Medium Intensity Day)
3 Mon –   Squat / Bench / Row (Low Intensity Day)
3 Tues –  Deadlift / Fr. Squat / Incline Bench (High Intensity Day)
3 Thur –  Bench / Row / SL Leg Press (Medium Intensity Day)
3 Sat –     Pause Squats / Deficit Deadlifts / Pause Bench (Low Intensity Day)

In the first training block, you have more control over what you push and when, AND it allows for 2 good squat days per week which can become necessary as you advance. You would apply DUP by varying loading and rep ranges to create sufficient stimulus to look for progress every 2-4 weeks (depending on the athletes level)

In the second training block, you can see that plenty of recovery is built into the “undulations” and as such you get a variety of heavy days and each week will naturally shift focus slightly (i.e. W1 has two heavy squat days and 1 heavy + 1 med dead day, W2 has two med squat days and 1 med + 1 low intensity deadlift days, W3 has two low intensity squat days and 1 heavy + 1 low intensity deadlift days). It undulates (every 3 weeks has 4 “waves”), and as a result some weeks will be heavy bench and other weeks will be heavy squat (or deadlifts). This kind of training is generally best used by bigger lifters who are moving heavier weights. This is because their training stimulus will be huge and therefore they will need more recovery time built in to their programme to ensure they can progress.

 

Deloading

We won’t spend much time on this as deloading is something that gets blown way out of proportion. If you are building fatigue through training over consecutive weeks, eventually you will need to “deload” your system. It is not a hard and fast “every forth or fifth week you need to staple your pyjamas to yourself and never leave the house”. Cue cheesy quote…

Deloading, should be thought of more as a tool to allow you to maintain high levels of training intensity. If you are lifting with a high overall workload and reasonably high intensity, you will build up fatigue. This is a good thing! Building fatigue demonstrates that you are taxing either your muscles or your CNS, which is necessary for improvement. After 2-3 weeks of heavy work, a reduction in volume of 30-50% should be adequate (try to maintain training intensity/weight). So if Week 1 is heavy squats (160kgx6x4), Week 2 heavy squats (170x4x6), Week 3 heavy squats (180x3x5), the your Week 4 deload could be (160x3x4) or (170x2x6) depending on how you feel. The goal is to leave the gym with plenty in the tank.

 

Conclusion

When putting together a training routine you can end up with more variables than you know what to do with.

1. Start by picking a length of time to test the routine and STICKING TO IT. Don’t get 2 weeks into your routine and change (unless there’s something terribly wrong).

2. When you have your timeline set, pick your goals. These should be measurable and build towards an overall goal, so not something like get stronger (though that is measurable) and not improve work capacity. Look for something like add 10kg to a lift, or take an inch off my waist, or ingrain a specific set of cues to improve a movement pattern (take videos, record numbers and assess your progress).

3. With these goals in mind, take a training template (we’ll discuss them in Structuring Training Part 2) and adapt it to your needs. Then, cut out all the unnecessary fluff

4. Next time we’ll look at how to build a routine, the variables involved, how to apply DUP (or whichever system you want), and the reasoning behind current programming theory, AND we’ll even give you a few examples.

 

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