Home Posts tagged "Sets and Reps"

Cybernetic Periodization: Modifying Strength Training Programs on the Fly

As I noted in my post earlier this week, I’m doing the Superhero Workout for a nice little change of pace in my training program – and simply because it’s nice to be able to outsource my training here and there to other qualified fitness professionals. Yesterday’s strength training program included ten sets of three reps on a wide stance squat, and it was all going smoothly until the seventh set, when I started to get a little tight in my right adductor.  It wasn’t too bad, but I’m a firm believer in “better safe than sorry,” so I cut back on the weight by 50 pounds, narrowed my stance, and finished my last three sets with no problem at all. Sure, I deviated from the program, but I completed the session just fine, and have zero issues in the adductor today.  I avoided taking an unnecessary risk that could have become a setback in my training, and as a result, I’ll be continuing with the program as-is today. It got me to thinking about this question for my readers: what would you have done in this situation?  It's a tough - and confusing - decision.

Would you have done what I did?  Would you have simply dropped the weight and tried another set with a wide stance?  Would you have canned the final sets and reps and moved on to the next strength exercise pairing? Would you have just pushed through it?  Or, would you just have taken your ball and gone home altogether? The answers to these questions – whether they are correct or not – parallel something called cybernetic periodization.  I first came across the topic when Mel Siff wrote about it in Supertraining as he referred to programs not always taking “into account the athlete’s subjective perception of the intensity and overall effects of the loading.”  Siff went on to say that with cybernetic periodization, “the original preplanned periodisation scheme is regularly modified by subjective and objective feedback obtained from the lifter’s current performance state.”

Traditionally, at least from what I have read, cybernetic periodization has referred almost strictly to load, volume, and training frequency.  However, the question I pose today is: why can’t it also refer to exercise selection? As an example, I’ve switched folks from conventional deadlifts to trap bar deadlifts or sumo deadlifts when they just couldn’t find their groove on the conventional version.  And, some people can do feet-elevated push-ups when regular push-ups hurt.  Exercise selection absolutely matters as much as any other strength training program variable.

I’m a firm believer that there is always something folks can do in a gym to get better, regardless of their injury or state of mind.  Folks may be wildy excited to train, but have physical limitations that need to be taken into account on the fly in the context of exercise selection.  To that end, I think it’s important to know what to watch for in this regard if you’re trying to determine whether you should change a day’s training program: 1. Is there a performance drop from previous weeks? 2. Do warm-up sets feel heavier than normal? 3. Do you find that you’re having a hard time getting warmed-up? 4. Did you get poor sleep quality the night before? 5. Do you have unusual tightness, or something you’d term an injury? These are all questions you can ask yourself on the fly in your strength training program to determine whether you need to change things up.  The modification may be an exercise substitution or reduction in volume or intensity.  Regardless of the change, it’s extremely rare that the answer is to push through it, as it’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong – and the correct cybernetic periodization approach is the way to “get things right.” On a related note, the early-bird special price on the Superhero Workout ends Saturday at midnight.  Head HERE for more information.

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Superhero Workout Review: Small Hinges Swing Big Doors

I was reading a book Sunday afternoon, and this sentence really caught my attention: “Small hinges swing big doors.” Certainly, this is wildly applicable to just about every aspect of life, but particularly to strength and conditioning programs and nutritional approaches.

All too often, folks think that they need to overhaul what they’re doing because they’re stuck in a rut.  They switch from traditional sets and reps to high-intensity training, go on some fad diet, drop $200 at the supplement store on herbs they can’t pronounce, and buy a pair of “toning” shoes.   In short, instead of using the small hinge, they kick down the damn door.  The end results? 1. a thinner wallet (always) 2. continued poor results (almost always) 3. positive results (rarely), but with no idea which of the changes led to these outcomes

The longer I’m at it, the more I realize that long-term success in strength and conditioning programs is all about understanding how to change the hinges: finding the little things that make the big difference.  Maybe it’s a reduction in training volume or intensity to keep someone from burning out, or switching to a reverse lunge instead of a forward lunge to avoid knee pain. Case in point, John Romaniello and Matt McGorry recently sent me an advanced copy of their new Superhero Program, so we decided that we’d make it the staff lift at Cressey Performnace, as it looks really solid.  Plus, we’re super busy at CP right now, so it’s nice to be able to “outsource” our own training for the time being.  We aren’t overhauling our diets or supplementation regimens, nor are we introducing a ton of new exercises; in fact, most of the exercises in the program are ones we do on a regular basis at CP (although many will be novel to others). The program is, however, changing some of the hinges on our doors, particularly in the context of challenging set/rep/tempo protocols and novel fluctuation of training stress from phase-to-phase.  The only things that changed were, in fact, written on a piece of paper – but they got big doors in motion.

There was great energy in the facility today because the guys were excited to try something new.  And, there was more camaraderie among our staff because guys were coaching each other through things and shouting encouragement as we were all “feeling out” the new program. And, judging from the soreness that’s slowly setting in as I write this roughly 10 hours after the first training session of the program, it’s going to be a fun, challenging, and productive few months on a great program.  No overhaul needed – because small hinges swing big doors. The next time you find yourself looking to shuffle things up, remember that unless you’re a true beginner doing everything incorrectly, you usually don’t need to change a lot.  Rather, you pick and choose your modifications – or look to a resource like the Superhero program that has the important components in place, but perhaps in a light you hadn’t considered them before. Click here for more information on Romaniello and McGorry’s Superhero e-book. *For the record, I’ve never read a comic book, nor do I have any interest in Superhero movies.  Roman and McGorry are geeks, but the program's sound. Sign-up today for our FREE newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!!
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Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: Systems, Not Just Sets and Reps

Back in November of 2010, a good buddy of mine who is a very accomplished college strength coach came up to Boston for a seminar we were hosting at Cressey Sports Performance.  The seminar was on a Sunday, but he actually flew up Friday night so that he could observe on Saturday while we trained our clients – which was a nice blend of high school, college, and professional athletes, plus our adult clientele.  All told, at the time, I’d say that high school athletes were 70% of our clientele.

That Tuesday morning, I woke up to this email from him:

“I just wanted to say thanks for everything.  I had a great time.  Your staff was outstanding and I really enjoyed watching you guys work on Saturday.  I realize you are managers, but certainly technicians as well.  Perfect form, I told Tony I saw two bad reps all weekend and someone was on the athlete before he had a chance to do another rep!!!   Thanks so much and come visit anytime, we would love to have you.”

This isn’t an email to toot our own horn; it’s to make a very valuable point.  If this coach had walked into every single private training facility and high school weight room in the country, in what percentage of cases do you think he would have come out with a favorable impression of the technique he witnessed in these strength and conditioning programs?  If I had to venture an extremely conservative guess, I’d say less than 10%.

Simply stated, both in the public and private sectors, some coaches are letting kids get away with murder with respect to technique, not warming up, poor load selection in weight training programs, and a host of other factors.

What happens, then, when the s**t hits the fan and a kid gets hurt?  I’ll tell you: certain exercises get “condemned” and strength and conditioning programs become more and more foo-foo; external loading is eliminated and kids wind up doing agility ladders and “speed training” for 60-90 minutes at a time in what can only be described as glorified babysitting.  Or, worse yet, weight rooms get closed altogether.  The door of opportunity gets slammed in the faces of a lot of kids who desperately need to get strong to stay healthy, improve performance, and build confidence.

That’s the reactive model, but what about a proactive model to prevent these issues in the first place?  Again, I’ll tell you: assess kids up-front.  Find out what is in their health history and evaluate how well they move.  Actually learn their names and backgrounds.  Then, program individually for them.  Coach intensely in their initial sessions and get things right from the start.  And, if an exercise doesn’t work for them, give them an alternative.

As an example, take the squat.  Some kids may not have sufficient ankle or hip mobility to squat deep in an Olympic style squat, so they’ll benefit more (and stay healthier) with box squat variations or single-leg exercises while you improve their mobility.  Others may even be too immobile (or possess structural issues like femoroacetabular impingement) to even box squat safely, so you give them more single-leg work and deadlift variations.  Regardless, you “coach ‘em up” well from the get-go – and they learn along the way.

In other words, the exercises aren’t the problem because exercises can be quickly and easily changed on the fly to match the athlete's level of abilities.  It’s the system in which they are placed that can be the stubborn, tough-to-change problem.

If you're struggling to get results with your youth strength and conditioning programs - or your business itself is struggling - be sure to look at your business model and overall systems before you start tinkering with the individual exercises.  Chances are that you need to rededicate yourself to relationship building and individualization more than you need to worry about sets and reps.

If you're looking to learn more about training young athletes, I'd encourage you to check out Mike Boyle's resource, Complete Youth Training. In it, he touches on everything from the problems with early specialization to age-specific training stages. It's a good investment for parents and coaches alike. From now through January 4, you can get $50 off on the resource. No coupon code is needed; just head HERE.

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Weight Training Programs: The Basics, but with Variety

Tank has been the CSP "gym dog" since 2010.

When we first got him, my wife and I didn't allow him to come upstairs, as we wanted him to gradually adjust to the downstairs of our house and slowly introduce him to more space.  Accordingly, to him, upstairs became the "great beyond," a place where unicorns played and milkbones rained down from the heavens.  He would try like crazy to get up there when we took our eyes off him.

Then, one weekend in January of 2011, my wife and I were out of town to visit friends in Florida, so one of my minor leaguers and his wife watched Tank and the house.  With us gone, he barked and cried at night - so they let him come upstairs to sleep with them in their bed.  When we returned home, there was no turning back; he now sleeps in our bed - a change that he's made very clear is for good.

What's more interesting, though, is the fact that he's still infatuated with the upstairs portion of the house.  He'll go up and take naps on the bed when my wife and I are downstairs, and if either of us goes upstairs to grab something, he'll race up after us to ensure that he doesn't miss a unicorn sighting or the opportunity to score a treat.  Meanwhile, all the cool stuff - food, treats, his toys, cool scents of other people, stuff to chew, things to pee on, space to run around (including the door to the back yard) - are all still downstairs.  If I was a dog, upstairs would be pretty boring - and the downstairs would be "where it's at."  Puzzling, huh?

In case you couldn't tell from the title of this piece, there is a strength and conditioning parallel to this story.  A lot of lifters start with the basics (the downstairs) and make great progress - only to abandon the "staple" strength exercises in favor of something new, unproven, and gimmicky (the upstairs).  Then, even when they realize that the flavor-of-the-week stuff isn't all that it's cracked up to be, they don't go back to what worked in the first place.  Why?  They've convinced themselves that novelty is more important than efficacy, and that it's easier to do the fun new stuff than it is to get good with the basics.  It's the kind of logic that makes me wonder if a lot of people eat paint chips.

The question, of course, becomes "How can we 'sell' the basics to a beginner who appreciates variety and novelty?"  My response would simply be that variety and novelty can be synonymous with progression.  I'll give you an example.

On the first day at Cressey Sports Performance, just about every new client learns the trap bar deadlift (assuming no injury that would contraindicate the exercise).  As I outlined previously, it's an entry-level teaching progression that best allows lifters to grasp the concepts of hip hinging, vertical shin, neutral spine, and optimal hip extension patterning in spite of their mobility restrictions.  It's the basic arithmetic before we get to calculus.

Once they've sufficiently learned the lift and progressed in the weight they've lifted, we can transition them to other deadlift variations, including sumo deadlifts, rack pulls, and trap bar with chains.  Then, eventually, they may graduate to conventional and snatch grip deadlift technique.  This set of progressions and regressions are combined with other strength training program variables - sets and reps, training frequency, exercise pairings, and the like - to give them the novelty they need - but without compromising the training effect.

I've seen football strength coaches who use the squat, bench press, and clean as their primary lifts for years on end.  Do kids get stronger?  Absolutely.  Do they get bored as hell and absolutely disinterested in their less-than-optimal training programs?  Absolutely.  And, do they miss out on the rich proprioceptive environment that all young athletes should have?  Absolutely.

So, there is a balance that must be discovered.  On one hand, you need to stick to the basics so as to not compromise the training effect.  On the other hand, you need to implement variety so as to not bore folks to death.  The solution is to use variations of the basics.

To that end, at CSP, we change the strength training program every four weeks to modify exercise selection, regardless of a trainee's age and experience level.  In our eyes, it provides the best balance of the basics and the novelty to keep folks motivated and progressing in their strength and conditioning programs.

Looking for an example of how this looks in a real-world weight training program? Check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better. It's on sale for 38% off through tomorrow (Sunday) at midnight. The discount is automatically applied at checkout.

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Strength Training Programs for the Pros and the Joes: Not as Different as You Might Think

Yesterday, New England Sports Network (NESN) ran a feature on my work with Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox.  In the background of the video, you'll notice several other professional athletes (including a pro soccer player and pro triathlete) doing their thing, too.  What's perhaps more interesting, though, is that you'll even see some general fitness clients getting after it at the same time. It reminded me of an interview Chad Waterbury did with me for his website a while back; the focus was what ordinary folks can learn from professional athletes, and how they're alike/different in the gym.  I think that there are some valuable takeaway points: CW: You work with a lot of high-performance athletes. What are three principles that apply equally to athletes and non-athletes? EC: I think people would be surprised to realize just how similar the Average Joe or Jane is to a professional athlete – both socially and physically. The lay population often sits in front of a computer for 8-10 hours a day, but many pro athletes have 4-8 hour flights or 10+ hour bus rides where they’re sitting – and because they’re taller, sitting is even more uncomfortable and problematic.  Like everyone else, they spend time surfing the internet, Skyping, playing video games, and goofing around on Facebook/Twitter.  The advances in technology have hurt everyone from a physical fitness standpoint – but brought the “Pros and the Joes” closer together, believe it or not. They’re also very similar in that they want the most bang for their buck.  Most pro athletes are no different than anyone else in that they want to get in their training, and then go to visit their families, relax, play golf, or whatever else.  They really don’t have interest in putting in six hours per day in training outside of the times when they have to do so (namely, in-season).

All that said, if I had to pick three principles crucial to the success of both populations, they’d be the following: 1.  Realize that consistency is everything. I always tell our clients from all walks of life that the best strength and conditioning programs are ones that are sustainable.  It’s not about working hard for three months and making great progress – only to fall off the bandwagon for a month.  This is absolutely huge for professional athletes who need to maximize progress in the off-season; they just can’t afford to have unplanned breaks in training if they want to improve from year to year. If a program isn’t conducive to your goals and lifestyle, then it isn’t a good program.  That’s why I went out of my way to create 2x/week, 3x/week, and 4x/week strength training options – plus five supplemental conditioning options and a host of exercise modifications – when I pulled Show and Go together; I wanted it to be a very versatile resource.

Likewise, I wanted it to be safe; a program isn’t good if it injures you and prevents you from exercising.  Solid programs include targeted efforts to reduce the likelihood of injury via means like mobility drills, supplemental stretching recommendations, specific progressions, fluctuations in training stress, and alternative strength exercises (“plan B”) in case you aren’t quite ready to execute “Plan A.” 2. You must balance competing demands, and prioritize the ones that are the most pressing at a given time. Using our professional baseball pitchers as an example, their training consists of strength training, mobility drills, medicine ball throws, movement training, and the throwing program (which is near daily in nature).  In the Cressey Performance system, when the throwing program ramps up, the medicine ball work must come down substantially, and the strength training tapers off just a bit.  You simply can’t keep adding sets and reps without subtracting something else and making a tradeoff, as athletes only have a certain amount of recovery capacity, and it’s hard to fine-tune an exact movement like throwing a baseball if you’re fatigued from everything else. Managing competing demands is arguably more challenging in the general population, as their jobs outside the gym are usually more stressful than those that face many professional athletes – meaning that the Joes and the Janes have less recovery capacity with which to work.  It seems logical that when you add something to a program, you have to subtract something else – but I’m constantly amazed at how many people decide to just keep adding more volume when they can’t lose fat or gain muscle mass fast enough.  Sometimes, you just need to change the composition of the program, not add more and more, thereby creating three-hour marathon training sessions. This leads to my next point… 3. The success comes from the overall program, not just the individual parts. In other words, synergy is everything. The aforementioned pitchers can’t just go out and start a throwing program after doing nothing for three months.  Rather, they need to work to enhance their mobility and get stronger, more reactive, and more powerful first.  If they skip these important steps, they increase their likelihood of injury, make it harder to re-acquire a skilled movement, and reduce the likelihood of improvement.

In the general population, a good strength and conditioning program consists of tremendous interdependencies.  Your deadlift technique and strength depends on the training you’ve done in the previous month, week, and day – and how thorough and targeted your mobility warm-up (or lack thereof, in many unfortunate cases) was prior to that day’s training session.  Those trainees who have the best results are the ones that line everything up – from nutrition, to strength training, to mobility exercises, to movement training, to metabolic conditioning, to recovery protocols. CW: It’s common for people to think they’re advanced when they’re really not. Can you mention a few things a pro athlete typically does that a weekend warrior shouldn’t do? EC: I would strongly discourage non-professional athletes from holding shirtless press conferences in their driveways while exercising during contract holdouts.

Then again, I wouldn’t really recommend that to Terrell Owens or any professional athlete, for that matter, but I digress… To be honest, in the context of resistance training, a lot of professional athletes aren’t really as advanced as you might think, especially after a long season that’s taken its toll on them.  Many of them have a ton of similarities with our general fitness clients – but just have different exercise contraindications and energy systems needs. I think the better comparison would be between novice lifters (less than one year of resistance training) and those with years and years under their belt.  They have to do things quite a bit differently. As a first example, the novice lifter can handle a lot more volume because he (or she, of course) is relatively neurally inefficient.  If this lifter did the volume of an advanced athlete, he might actually undertrain on volume (and possibly overdo it on intensity to the point that it’d interfere with picking up appropriate technique). Second, a really advanced lifter will often need to deload on intensity – meaning that when it’s time for a “backoff week” – he’ll often keep the sets and reps up, but take a lot of weight on the bar. It’s just about getting reps in.  A novice lifter, on the other hand, is better off keeping the intensity up and dropping the number of reps.

Third, a novice lifter can often be more aggressive in terms of caloric intake because there is such a large window of adaptation ahead in terms of muscle weight gain.  I gained 50 pounds in my first year of lifting, but nowadays – even though I’m five times as strong as I was then – if I can go up 3-4 quality pounds a year, I’m thrilled.  Surely, lifters are the opposite ends of the experience continuum can’t have similar caloric needs – even if the more experienced ones are heavier.  Skinny novice guys can sometimes get away with eating like absolute crap as long as there are enough total calories  – and still end up getting bigger.  I certainly don’t advise it, but it’s one more way to show that novice and experienced lifters are horses of different colors, and that you have to be honest with yourself on where you fall on this continuum so that you train and eat optimally. Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a deadlift technique tutorial!
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Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 2

In today's post, we've got the second half of a Q&A response regarding how to determine the optimal number of sets and reps for strength exercises.  In case you missed the first installment, be sure to check out Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps - Part 1.  We pick up with factors 7-13:

7. Whether You’re Trying to Correct Muscle Imbalances – In Part 1 (Bulletpoint 4) of my five-part Correcting Bad Posture series, I talked about how I like to use a 2:1 pull-to-pushing ratio with those who have significant upper body muscle imbalances.  In addition to upping the sets, you can also use higher rep schemes.  So, something like this would be an easy way to accumulate more volume:

A1) Chest-Supported Row - Neutral Grip: 4x8
A2) Low Incline Barbell Press: 3x6

Effectively, you're not only getting more total sets in favor of "postural balance;" you're also getting more reps per set.

8. How Neurally Efficient a Client/Athlete Is – Some athletes – especially those who tend to be of a more slow-twitch muscle fiber predominance – always seem to need to get more sets in on their strength exercises.  This is impacted in a lot of them by a previous history of endurance training – whether it’s high school soccer or a dedicated running career – that made them less efficient at tapping in to high threshold motor units.  The same holds true for female athletes; they always seem to need a little extra volume on strength exercises; it’s almost as if they can’t ramp up to a max as quickly as men.  I don't think you necessarily need to increase reps per set, but definitely ought to consider adding an additional set or two.

9. Whether You’re Trying to Achieve a Metabolic Training Benefit – Some programs use a concept called metabolic resistance training to improve cardiovascular conditioning and increase energy expenditure so that you can burn fat faster. Generally, in programs like these, you’ll need more sets and higher reps to elicit this training effect.

10. Whether You’re Dealing with a Post-Injury Client – In these folks, you want to keep the sets and reps down and gradually ease them back in to things.  So, while a “normal” client might be fluctuating up and down to impose and decrease training stress, respectively, an post-injury client would be gradually increasing the sets and reps to match his/her capacity for loading at a particular time.

That said, you have to be cognizant of giving them sufficient volume to maintain a training effect and keep them from going insane.  So, using the example of someone with shoulder pain, you might have to cut back on pressing movements, but you can really bump up the volume on horizontal pulling sets and reps.

11. What Else You're Doing - The base mesocycle of the Smolov Squat Program goes like this:

Monday: 4x9
Wednesday: 5x7
Friday: 7x5
Saturday: 10x3

Sure, this is a ton of work (and very specific work at that), but quite a few lifters have used it with excellent success.  You know what, though?  Try adding a lot of extra sets and reps for "other stuff" and you'll fail...miserably.  You can't specialize on everything all at once.  If sets and reps go up in one facet of your strength and conditioning program, they have to come down somewhere else.

12. Whether Soreness is of Concern - With our in-season athletes, we want to avoid soreness at all costs.  The easiest way to do this is to avoid changing strength exercises, but this isn't really feasible, as most athletes will get sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again all season.  So, we need to be careful about strategically substituting new strength exercises during in-season training.  One way to make it go smoothly is to simply keep the sets and reps down in the first round through a new training program.  Let's say that we were doing front squats in-season.  We'd probably go something like this:

Week 1: 1x3 reps
Week 2: 3x3 reps
Week 3: 3x3 reps
Week 4: 2x3 reps (deload)

This leads me to my final point...

13. Whether or Not an Athlete is In-Season - If an athlete is in-season, less is more.  I prefer to have our athletes leave the gym feeling refreshed after their in-season training sessions - so they might be completely finished with a lift after only 8-10 sets of strength exercises in session.  You can get in more sets and reps during the off-season.

That wraps up the primary considerations that come to mind for determining the sets and reps in a strength training program.  Of course, there are many more to consider.  A closing suggestion I'd add is to try to review as many different programs by various coaches as possible. Chances are that you'll pick up some important trends that will help you to write your own programs.

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Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 1

Q: I know this is a loaded question with hours upon hours of answers, but I'm trying to make some sense about the different kinds of ways/philosophies involved in writing strength and conditioning programs. I have read different articles and chapters in books that discuss program development, looked at programs at my current job, and can write a basic one for a new athlete. It's not the exercises; I'm familiar with plenty and love seeing something new. My problems come more with the sets and reps and when they change and why; I can’t seem to map out the actual progression of the program.

What philosophies, if one, do you follow and what basic rules do you find to be the most important when determining the sets and reps?

A: This is a loaded question!  The best way to get better with programming is simply to write a ton of programs and see what works and what doesn't.  However, with respect to your specific questions on sets and reps, what you choose to utilize is going to be dictated by:

1. The duration of a session - You won't be able to do 6 sets of 4 reps if you only have an client/athlete for an hour and want to accomplish other things.  This is, in particular, a big issue in collegiate strength and conditioning programs because the NCAA allows only limited number of hours per week with athletes, and sport coaches and strength and conditioning coaches have to share this time.  Additionally, it's a challenge for personal trainers in private training set-ups where clients may train in 30-, 45-, or 60-minute blocks.

I've written several times in the past about how I would never allow our business model to dictate our training model - and this sets and reps question is one reason why.  At Cressey Sports Performance, we do all semi-private training, which allows for sliding starts and finishes.  It allows us to get in all the work we need to do with clients - regardless of the sets and reps in question.  Likewise, as you'll see in the rest of this two-part series, you'll appreciate that it's why we don't have one program standardized for everyone on the dry erase board; every single CSP client has a unique program  because they all have unique needs.

2. Competing demands - The more variety (plyos, conditioning, medicine ball work, etc) that you want to add to a program, the less volume you'll be able to do on strength training.  We have limited time and recovery capacity, so we can't just keep adding all the time.

For me, a good example is what happens over the course of the baseball off-season.  Lifting volume is high when they get back, throwing is a no-go, movement training is 2x/week, and medicine ball is light.  After the first month, medicine ball work goes up, lifting comes down a bit.

Then, at the start of January, medicine ball and lifting volume comes back down and throwing volume increases.  We then get rid of medicine ball work almost altogether and go to 3x/week movement training as the season approaches, throwing intensifies, and guys do more hitting.  So, it doesn't just depend on the exercises; it depends on the big picture.

A great follow-up read to this point would be my post, Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding.

3. Exercise selection - If you're doing more sets, you'll want to do it on "money" exercises like deadlifts and not curls, etc.  Moreover, certain exercises lend themselves better to higher reps than others.  For instance, we never front squat anyone over six reps, because technical breakdown often occurs with fatigue.  You also wouldn’t want to do cleans for sets of 15!

Usually, it’s also good to just “call it” on a particular exercise and move on to the next if someone has already dropped the weight on subsequent sets and form continues to deteriorate.  That energy is better spent on different exercises where technique can remain perfect even in the presence of fatigue.

4. Training age - As a general rule of thumb, the more experienced they are, the more sets and FEWER reps they'll need.  At this point in my training career, I just won't get strong on sets of five. Here's another good follow-up read: Why I Don't Like the 5x5 Workout.

Conversely, beginners generally need more sets and reps to pick up on things.  That doesn’t mean that you should just do three sets of 15 reps on everything with a novice, though.  I find myself teaching squat and deadlift variations with four sets of five reps quite a bit; the load, however, is light enough that the lifter could usually do 10-12 reps.  In other words, it’s just technique practice.

5. The Training Goal and Client/Athlete in Question – While taking heavy singles over 90% of one’s 1-rep max may be ideal for helping folks get strong, working at such a high percentage in some populations warps the risk: reward circumstances. Whether it’s older folks, those with injuries, or athletes who have a lot more to lose by getting hurt than they have to gain by adding five pounds to their squat, you have to take each individual situation into consideration.  I always remind people that we lift weights to improve quality of life, not just so that we can talk about how heavy the weights we lifted were.

6. Whether You Want to Impose or Remove Fatigue – In a “loading” week, volume is going to be higher.  If you’re deloading, though, that volume is going to be reduced.  Aside from beginner strength training programs, volume should never be the same over several weeks in a row.  I discuss several deloading strategies in my e-book, The Art of the Deload.

I’ll be back in a tomorrow with more factors that influence the sets and reps in a strength training program.  In the meantime, if you're looking for a comprehensive strength and conditioning program to take all the guesswork out of things for you, check out The High Performance Handbook.

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Weight Training Programs: You Can’t Just Keep Adding

Can I just add some sets and reps of direct arm work?

How about cardio?  Would a few 30 minutes interval training sessions work?

What if I did extra rotator cuff stuff every day?  Just a little tubing, you know?

I’m going to add two extra days of calves, abs, and forearms.  It shouldn’t be a problem, right?

These are just a few of the common questions I receive from people for whom I write strength training programs (plus all the other components of a comprehensive program).  And, it's these kind of questions that make me appreciate just how challenging it is to teach someone how to effectively write strength and conditioning programs - and why everyone gets all flustered when they first start writing training plans.

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Very simply, most people don't understand the concept of competing demands.  Everybody wants to add something to their weight training program - but not everyone is willing to take something away in order to do so.

How many elite powerlifters or Olympic lifters do you know who regularly do interval training as part of their quest to get strong?

How many elite triathletes do you know who just want to add a few sets of biceps curls along the road to improving endurance performance?

The answer is, of course, none.  And, it's because - whether they appreciated it or not - these high-level athletes were effectively managing competing demands.

In some cases, different fitness qualities compete with one another; an example would be extensive aerobic training while trying to increase strength.  You can't get strong quickly if you're doing hours of cardio each week.  Somewhat similarly, in an overhead throwing population, it's challenging to regain shoulder internal rotation and flexion range of motion (ROM) and pec minor length when an athlete is throwing - so you have to do your best to get the ROM during down-time in their training year.

In other cases, you may have multiple qualities that contribute to an overall training effect, but you can't prioritize all of them at once.  For example, my professional baseball clients need a host of different qualities to be successful, but the body has limited recovery capacity, so their training programs have to target their most readily apparent weaknesses - and do so at the right time of year.  We cut back on the medicine ball and upper body strength exercises and volume when their throwing volume increases.

And, we can't do as much lower body strength exercises when guys are doing more sprinting and change-of-direction work.  Stress is stress, so you have to apply it judiciously.

Taking this into consideration, I think that one of the best drills for someone looking to get better at writing programs is to take a full-on comprehensive weight training program with supplemental conditioning/movement training where someone is training 6x/week - and then cut it back to 3x/week.  Assume that there is a whole lot of of "other" stress in this athlete/client's life - whether it's work, illness, family issues, or just being an in-season athlete - and figure out how to scale a program back in order to make it productive and safe for that individual.

Lots of factors have to be taken into account: the volume and intensity that individual can handle, how long each session can last, and what specific factors one needs to address most.  A good example to check out would be the differences between the 4x/week, 3x/week, and 2x/week weight training programs (and accompanying optional supplemental sessions) in The High Performance Handbook.

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There are loads of factors you have to take into account when you write a comprehensive training plan - from the weight training program, to soft tissue work, to mobility work, to movement training, to energy systems training.  The most important consideration, though, is how they all fit together synergistically to make the program as a whole effective.

So, try the challenge I listed above and see how you do; I think you'll find that it's a lot harder to subtract than it is to add to your weight training programs.

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Why I Don’t Like the 5×5 Strength Training Programs…

Actually, this post should have been entitled, “Why 5x5 Workouts Works for Some People, but Not for Others.” That title would have been long and not “black and white” enough to get your attention, though. The 5x5 workout (or 4x6, for that matter) approach works relatively well for taking people from beginner to intermediate. When all you’ve been doing is 3x10-12 (because the bodybuilding magazines said that was the way to do things), lifting heavier weights for continued progress makes perfect sense. I feel strongly that not working below five reps on the main strength movements in your program is a huge mistake for lifters who are intermediates (or more advanced) – whether the goal is size or strength. You see, in an untrained individual, you get strength gains on as little as 40% of 1-rep max (1RM). As someone gets more trained, that number goes up to 70%. However, you need at least 85-90% of 1RM in intermediate and advanced lifters to elicit strength gains. For the average intermediate, 85% of 1RM corresponds to about a 5-rep max. In other words, only your heaviest set of five would be sufficient to stimulate a strength improvement. Now, what happens if you do a 5x5 workout? You’ve done 25 reps – and maybe five of them (the first set) were actually performed at a high-enough intensity to elicit strength gains. As I show in my new book, Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better, if you want to get stronger faster, you need to spend time below five reps – and above 85% of 1RM (and preferably 90%). This isn’t just physiological; it’s also psychological. You’ll get more comfortable handling heavier weights.

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