Practical Strength for My Gym

Justin Keane
Justin Keane is the owner and head trainer at Crossfit Woodshed and will be hosting our next seminar on January 26-27, 2013.
I’ve been lifting weights on and off for about 25 years. I like starting my Al Bundy stories like that because it keeps me very, very humble: after all this time, my numbers are ordinary at best and my offseasons have taken me pretty far afield of the reservation. Still shots from my late twenties, for instance, would not be very pretty pictures. But through it all, lifting weights has been there–a crooked finger when I needed to get back into the gym, a comfort when things were going to shit at work or otherwise, and above all a tool to keep me running strong and smooth outside of the gym.
Focusing on the basics works best for the majority of people. 
So after an unexpected career blip in 2008 and thanks to an incredibly supportive wife, I decided the time was more right than wrong to look at turning something I loved doing and learning into something I made a living teaching. We made the decision to start very slowly and build from the ground up. For a while this meant driving around with kettlebells and dumbbells clanging around my back seat to meet clients before or after work at local high schools when the weather cooperated. We’d buy new equipment as business allowed, and did our best to encourage folks to tell their friends and family about their training. After a time, we’d built up enough of a membership to begin renting space from a local dojo; by the end of that calendar year it had gotten to the point where we needed our own space, and we were lucky enough to find a great spot (with awesome landlords) in the small town where we live, about five minutes from home. We run a full-time facility now, have taken on an awesome manager/business partner,  and as we’ve been doing since the beginning, we stick with the basics. Squat, push, pull, carry, stretch, and run. It’s simple, it keeps people moving safely, and it works.
If we can’t explain why we’re doing something, we don’t do it.
Early on in our tenure, we decided on two things in particular. I guess the first was less of a decision than a concession to personality: we would be direct, plainspoken, and focus on the training rather than the trainer. I wanted our workouts to be approachable, to make sense to a layperson as well as our members, and I didn’t want to try to run our business on charisma. This wasn’t going to be a gym where we put any focus on how cheerfully sadistic the trainer could be while handing down jargon-filled workouts and their attendant correctives from the mountaintop, but instead a place where we put an emphasis on simple competence. Show up, do the basic things well (and repeatedly), and get better by degrees. Slow and steady works from a practical perspective because we want to be a long haul gym with minimal turnover (only the boys over at Glengarry really, truly want to always be closing!) and because I’m not very charismatic anyhow.  It had to be about the method, not the madness.
The second path we chose is the one we’re still thinking through everyday: group training. As I’ve written, we live and work in a pretty small town, and we’ve always envisioned our place as equal parts community center and garage gym. The reality here is that people want to train with their friends. They want us to run classes for their kids. And in this economic and political climate, they feel good about buying local and working hard with their neighbors. It makes sense from every perspective for us to enact our training within a group setting, and it’s also a lot of fun for us to be a part of this small community within our small town.
We are well aware, however, that group training is a methodology that is, how you say, kind of easy to foul up. Done haphazardly, it’s at best ineffective and at worst . . . well, you’ve seen the pictures and read the stories. We’re bringing in the folks from Practical Strength for just that reason–to make sure we’re training our groups effectively, safely, and in a manner that allows our gym and its individuals to grow and flourish. Their curriculum is thorough without being dogmatic, fluid, and of a piece with our belief that hitting the basics well and just often enough will get our clients where they want to go. We expect this two-day seminar to better our ability to select and evaluate movement and loading, think through progressions and training cycles, and further conceptualize our business model. You’d take that, right? That we’ve been promised us several PRs on the Atlas Stone and/or the weight over bar is just icing on the cake.
I’ll close with this: if you’re a trainer or a gym owner in New England–particularly one who runs CrossFit classes–please do not come to this seminar. We would like to build ourselves something of a competitive advantage…
(Just kidding. You should come. These guys are going to help us all get better and we’re very very psyched to have them here.)

What is base?

This is an excerpt from our seminar curriculum. 

  • Developing a solid base is an absolute requirement. 
  • Base training is the dominant prerequisite qualities and skills of your goal or sport. Base training is specific: Runners Run, Weightlifters Lift, Judokas grapple, Throwers Throw. 
  • Base is not GPP. GPP is preparing the individual to train. Base is where you need the bulk of your actual training time: Is it skill? Is it endurance? Is it strength? Power? 
  • What is the Base in your sport? 

Base, in case of long term programming is the simplest common denominator to your training. For most people this will be full body strength, some sort of endurance work or conditioning, and/or skill practice relevant to your sport. For the general fitness enthusiast who occasionally competes in strength or endurance events, base may simply be strength training in the gym and either biking, running, or swimming. It is the practice that keeps you strong, healthy, and injury free.

Hours of practice is needed to succeed in competition.

If you compete in a skill-based sport, your base is largely made up of the prerequisite strength, endurance, power and endurance (etc.) along with your sport specific skills. For a lacrosse player it is specific field skills to play and the speed and endurance to compete in an hour long game.

A volleyball player has a base of full body power and court skills, a soccer player has a base of running endurance and field techniques, a shot putter has a base of full body throwing power and the technique apply it to the shot.

If you are starting a new sport for the first time, your base may simply be practicing the techniques specific to your sport. When your base is adequate and specific to your needs, you should be within striking distance of being competitive in your sport or being able to compete in a specific event. In that case 6-12 weeks may be all you need to prepare for your event or season. The more divergent an event is from your base, the longer your preparation may take to perform at a level close to your potential. Keep this in mind when choosing events to train for. Depending on the difference between this new activity and what you currently do, it may take anywhere from three to twelve months to compete at a reasonable level.

When defining base for most people, it is pretty simple; Baseball players practice baseball, golfers golf, dancers dance. If you are trying to be the best Highland Games thrower in the world, you need to be a good thrower first. Practice your skills first and then worry about what improvements you can make in the gym. For those who require more strength and endurance to be competitive or who compete in strength or endurance sports, base may also include their daily fitness training.

Full body strength equals squat, press, pull. The form that may take will be different for everyone. Back squat, front squat, split squat, partial squat, goblet squat are all viable choices depending on the individual’s age, injuries, and fitness level. Bench press, overhead press, pushups, dips, etc. all count as presses. Deadlifts, power cleans, snatches, pull-ups, etc. all count as pull. Try and figure out the minimum effective dose of these elements to come up with a simple training program to build and maintain strength the kind of strength you need.

Does your base require general conditioning?  Or long
steady distance training?

Endurance needs can differ greatly, but if you can’t walk up the stairs without getting out of breath, you need to work on your conditioning. You can achieve this through weight training, walking, running, swimming, rowing, barbell complexes, kettlebell swings, etc.  The bottom line is that no matter how strong you are, you need your cardiorespiratory system to be able to support your efforts. For some people, a balanced strength program can serve their conditioning needs as well. Individuals who primarily compete in endurance sports will have a much larger portion of their base training dedicated to long steady distance training. Individuals who compete in skill based sports will predominantly be practicing their skills. This is different from competing. Hours and hours of practice are what make players competitive on the field and a great deal of that practice focuses on the coordination requirements of the sport.

If you want to compete in both endurance and strength sports, you need to have a significant base in both and this will take a long time to develop. You also need to realize that divergent training goals such as these require patience and have tradeoffs.  However, with good planning , you can compete reasonably well at both.

How I Make Crossfit Work for My Gym

Bethany Wadsworth

Bethany Wadsworth is the owner and head trainer of Crossfit Geneseo and hosted our last seminar.

I have an unusual gym;  a perfect storm of convenience, coolness and grunge. My gym is 75 ft. from my house and it’s in a barn. There are dogs, cats, and the occasional child roaming among my regular clients sweating through their workouts.  I can literally walk downstairs, grab a cup of coffee, and go to work in the clothes I slept in if I so choose and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Professionally I am a nurse. I did mostly homecare and spent the last 5 years of my nursing career as an administrator. My eventual arrival at becoming a personal fitness trainer came in increments starting in my childhood.  My father is a fitness enthusiast so I spent my childhood cross-country skiing when my friends were on snowmobiles, riding horses while my friends were riding dirt bikes. My father ran marathons and my brother and sister and I helped him train. I was never athletic. I was the last one picked for dodge ball in gym class, and I never played any sports, but we were always active.

I remained active with walking and running through college and early adulthood and that was about it until my children decided they wanted to train in martial arts. I signed them up at the local Mcdojo and after simply watching them for a a while, I decided if I was going to be there, I might as well participate. As I got better at sparring I realized that I needed to be stronger and started lifting.  I realized quickly I did not know what I was doing, but was lucky enough to run across Krista Scott-Dixon’s website, Stumptuous and got a lot of very good information there.  I got stronger, I got leaner, and I was kicking ass all over the dojo! I was excited by this new found knowledge and realized that I could help some of my friends and family.  I got certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine and started my personal training career. The ACSM test was tough for me, mostly because of the responsibility drift between nursing and personal trainer. I knew a bit too much about some things, and not enough about others.

Unfortunately, I was not meant to be a martial artist for the long haul.  I experienced a serious rotator cuff injury while sparring that required surgery and then my dojo closed before I was entirely rehabbed.  I never went back to that particular discipline, but continued to teach cardio kickboxing classes on my own.

In 2007, I found Crossfit on the internet. I did the workouts and it was a lot of fun for me.  They were the closest in intensity to MMA sparring that I had ever experienced. I went to a local affiliate and took the fundamentals course and by 2008, had affiliated my personal training business with Crossfit.  Over the years, I’ve used some of the things that I’ve liked about Crossfit, but also included some of the things I’ve learned from other disciplines and resources as well.

I feel that Crossfit has done some amazing things in regards to bringing power lifting, Olympic weight lifting and actual strength training to the masses. Crossfit has also brought a sense of community to the gym experience that I’ve only experienced in dojos and boxing gyms. However, I have my reservations about it as well.  I don’t feel that Crossfit is effective in focusing on the individual trainee. The one workout fits all, even if scaled, doesn’t really work in my opinion. Many classic Crossfit workouts include exercises and movements that can lead to injury in a lot of people. The constantly varied, high intensity workouts are fun and interesting and encourage people to continue to exercise, but if not programmed with a goal in mind can fail to produce adaptions in as little as six months to a year.

In my gym, the workouts are programmed for the individual and the emphasis is always on strength and safety.  After an appropriate warm-up, I have my general fitness clients perform one strength lift a day.  This is followed by accessory work, typically for the back, and then 5-20 minute “Crossfit” style finisher.  I change the lifting program about every 2-3 months switching between high volume, low intensity and low volume high intensity programs.  Finishers do not include oly lifts or heavy power lifts, unless at very low weights. We do not usually do any high skill or heavy movements in the finisher, and I vary the finishers between high intensity short workouts and longer endurance workouts.  I may assign different finishers depending on the needs of the client.  The athletes I train are on a lifting program designed specifically for the needs of their sport:  rugby, swimming, baseball,etc.

When training people, you need to look at their goals, assets and challenges.  You also need to enjoy your job.  This is about relationships with people and caring about the outcome of what they are doing.  I am in a fortunate place. I don’t need to make a lot of money. I have a small gym and limit my membership to 30 people. I have the luxury of being able to focus on individual training needs and goals.  I have heard a lot of criticism about Crossfit over the years and unfortunately, a lot of it is warranted.  High injury rates, bad attitudes, and a lack of programming are just some of those.  However, I also know that all Crossfit gyms are not created equal and the conscientious gym owners are doing far more good for their clients than a lot of folks give them credit for.  The majority of folks I’ve met from Crossfit gyms in my area are happy, healthy, and enthusiastic about their fitness.  I enjoy working with them and hope to do so in the years to come.  

Fitness is Not a Brand

What do his needs have in common with everyone else?
How do they differ?  

Nor is it a certification, a fraternity, or a secret handshake.  Fitness is a quality that individuals develop through training towards their individual purposes. There is no one way to train any more than there is one correct goal.    Fitness is simply the result of overloading the aerobic and muscular system in such a way that our bodies adapt to meet the demands.  This requires thought, planning, and an understanding of how the body responds to applied stress.  This knowledge is the basis of all the training science that has been accumulated over the past century. There are countless books written by experts in every specialty in the field on how to train for specific sports or follow their specific philosophy. These books can be great tools,  but their value is not as a scientific reference. They are  the opinions and experiences of those who have been in the trenches and represent in the simplest terms, Best Practices of those who’ve already been there.    A substantial part of our curriculum is based on these best practices as well as the scientific basis these best practices rely on to work.  We’re not here to provide another conflicting opinion, we’re here to give you the tools  and the insight to make theses common themes work for you.

What exactly do we teach?

Good question.

When we first got together to design this seminar, it was to solve two major problems we saw as overwhelming in the fitness industry:
1.  There is a big deficiency in hands on instruction in the basic moving parts of strength and conditioning.
2.  The fitness industry has long been plagued by self help gurus, hucksterism, and multi-level marketing scams.

Most trainers have the best of intentions; they provide support to help individuasl meet their goals.  However,  along the way,  they get confused at the overwhelming contradictory information available.  There are few true educational opportunities and a deficiency of practical mentoring for trainers who want to learn effective methods and become better coaches in general.  However, we believe there is hope.  The basic training principles that work have not changed.

And so, over the last year, we’ve distilled our message into one of simplicity.  We believe our students already have the knowledge base they need to train more effectively. We believe that simple training focused on the individual is the most effective training.  We believe that ongoing observation and assessments are the fundamentals of good training.  We believe that there is no substitute for hard work, practice on the field, and putting in time under the bar, or on the road.   We believe that as trainers, we can be much more effective when we apply the minimum effective dose of training an individual needs to meet his or her goals.  When you design a training program that eliminates all the extraneous work and focus specifically on the goal, you are less likely to be injured, less likely to burn out, and more likely to reap the maximal benefits of the program.  All that is required to design fun effective programs is to truly understand the nature of how people respond to training.

We spend about half our time in the classroom.

Our seminar provides an insightful look at the basic scientific principles behind effective training for fitness and performance and how to apply them in the context of the entire training experience.   We spend time as a group honing our abillties to not only observe and correct others, but make decisions regarding exercise choices and modifications.  A good deal of our time is spent discussing programming for both general fitness and long term training goals.  We want our students to be able to set a goal, decide what tools they are going to use to train for it, how long they are going to take to implement their plan, and what are they going to be doing at specific points along the way.  We also want this process to become intuitive and relatively easy.  Again, we believe most people know more than they realize, what they often  lack is a framework or the experience to consistently use effective judgement.

Below is a general outline of our most recent seminar and what we will most likely be teaching at our January seminar in Littleton, MA.  It is important to us that we meet the needs of our students and so we spend a bit of time getting to know them before we get started and we encourage them to ask questions throughout both days.

Day 1:  Science, Strength, and Programming Basics

8:30-9:15:  Introduction and Personal Goals

    Working on fixing the jerk.  

We want to know who are students are, what they are doing with their training, who they train, and what they hope to get out of our seminar.

9:15-10:00:   Best Practices and the Science of Training

There is a scientific foundation common to all good training methods.  When you have an understanding of how this all fits together, you can begin to understand and evaluate what will work vs what will work better.  We also have to consider what people actually need and how to deliver that while keeping them happy and motivated.
    10:00-10:30  The Nature of Strength
    Strength is one of the easiest qualities to train.  It also is also one that takes the longest to develop.  There are many approaches one can take in making people “stronger”, but there is really only one way to make people Strong.    
    Teaching the concept that everyone learns differently
    and that we all have our own optimal way of
    squatting, pressing, and pulling.

    10:30- 3:00 Coaching in the Weight Room (and lunch break)

    The average trainer knows how to demo a movement and have his or her client execute a similar movement.  The good trainer can coach his or her client to a reasonable working weight and correct form flaws that are directly impacting the lift.  We work together as a group and show you how to correct upstream problems and adjust each other’s form and execution to be more ideal for his or her body type, strengths, and weaknesses.  Observation and correction is the focus of this segment although we encourage our participants to get up to working weight on these lifts both for their own experience and the coaching experience of the class.

      3:00-4:00:  Workout programming

      Good workouts are not a random sampling of things you want to do that day.  They follow a consistent prioritization of elements and have a goal.  Combining efficiency, consistency, and fun is the key to good workout programming for general fitness enthusiasts and athletes alike.  We both review these principles and discuss as a group how to incorporate them into smart workout programming for both single workouts and a general fitness template.

      Day 2:  Power, Endurance, Conditioning, and Long Term Programming

      9:00-9:30:  Brief overview of Saturday.  Q and A

      9:30-10:15:  Power for fitness and performance

      Power is strength expressed in as short a time as possible.  There are power based exercises and then there is actual power training.  To train for increased power, you must have an understanding of how to utilize load and speed to improve performance.  Power based exercises are good for most populations, but understanding when and how to incorporate power exercises into a training program are important for both safety and progress.

      Teaching the cues for the bench press.

      10:15-11:00:  Endurance and Interval Training

      Endurance is strength over time.  Endurance training has received a pretty bad reputation over the past decade.  However, much of what has been maligned in simply not true.  In this segment we review the best practices of endurance athletes, the importance of base and long steady distance for general fitness and performance, and the appropriate use of interval training.  We also talk about strength training for endurance athletes and what works vs what is simply unnecessary.

      11:00-12:00:  Complexes, medleys, density training, conditioning and finishers

      In this segment, we will be talking specifically about conditioning and the use of complexes, medleys, and density training for general fitness, hypertrophy, or just fun. Many versions of these methods can be used as stand-alone workouts or as “finishers”; short conditioning circuits or activities used to conclude a training session.
      12:00-1:00:  Working lunch

      This is an opportunity to ask questions or get some personalized coaching.

      1:00-2:30:  Playtime 

      This is a break-out session when we can do some strongman medleys, barbell complexes, Olympic lifting, throwing, etc. The activity we choose is typically based on what sort of equipment and space we have available.  The goal is to learn some new skills, learn some new coaching cues, and have some fun.

      Having some fun with Highland Games.
      2:30-4:30  Segmented Training
      This is the part of the seminar that brings everything all together.  This is where we talk about how to program for specific goals using a modified form of block periodization.  Our goal here is to show you, in the simplest form, how to design your own training plans for a number of goals by identifying what your specific needs are.  GPP, base development, sport specific training, and competition phases are all included here.  We have multiple group discussions on the various approaches one can take including single goal plans as well plans for multi-sport athletes.

      We will be concluding our next seminar with a take-home exam.  There are 48 multiple choice questions and a final essay on programming.  You will have one month to complete the exam and turn it in.  Everyone in the class receives a 100+ page textbook that covers the material we teach in detail.  We are always available for follow-up questions, concerns, and assistance in using what we have taught.

      Interval Training

      Sara Fleming

      *This is an excerpt from our seminar curriculum.  For more information on the science of interval training, see the research by Stephen Seiler.

      High intensity interval training is a very popular training tool used in a lot of gyms.  The short duration and high intensity nature makes working out hard a bit more palatable for a lot of folks.  The short term improvements to the aerobic system increase one’s conditioning level very quickly, but only to a certain degree.  Although interval training is powerful medicine, it is no substitute for developing a substantial base of limit strength and aerobic capacity.  Interval training is only as powerful as the base that supports it.  Training at high intensities can be psychologically satisfying for many clients, but as a long-term training plan is not ideal.  Fun and satisfaction are important for our clients, but as a trainer, make sure you are using an appropriate amount of intensity and that the base you are building is substantial enough for the goals you are working towards, even if those goals are simply general fitness.  When used appropriately, interval training should not be utilized more than once or twice a week.  Its purpose is to enhance the base, not to be the base.

      It is important to note that if a person has a desk job or is largely sedentary, working out intensely for 20-30 minutes does not increase their activity level significantly.  In fact, a person could run for an hour every day and still be considered sedentary if the bulk of their time is then spent sitting at a desk in front of a computer.  What changes this?  Simply getting up and moving, walking, or even playing golf.  For overall fitness, Intensity is important, but Volume is king.

      Use of intervals in training beginners

      Circuit training is great for beginners, but quickly
      becomes limited to just cardio and strength endurance
      as fitness levels increase.

      Intervals can be very useful in training a broad range of individuals, but appropriate application is a must. For the beginner trainee, breaking a work period into smaller units can make the training session less overwhelming both physically and psychologically. A beginner exerciser will typically not be able to sustain the kinds of intensities that will elicit a positive change in body composition and/or overall fitness levels. Incorporating the concept of pacing intervals into a beginner’s workout will allow for more work to be done for longer. As a trainer, you must control the intensity of these sessions as it is easy to push the individual too hard too soon. Keep the rest periods short, 1-2 minutes so that the relative intensity stays low.

      Because beginners will tend to improve most qualities of fitness simply by engaging in a new activity, circuit training is a very effective tool for the beginner. Circuit training with exercises that target different body parts deliver the effect of interval training in that the body parts not emphasized by a particular exercise will be able to “rest” while using another exercise. For beginner circuit training, use a relative intensity for the works sets such that by the completion of the work period or set of repetitions, the individual is starting to feel taxed, but still feels relatively strong and form is intact.

      Either prescribe a rep range (6-10, 10-15) or a timed work period for each exercise and emphasize consistency between sets. For example, the workout is four minutes of total work broken up into one minute segments. During each segment, a different exercise is performed. The set is followed by one minute of rest and repeated 5 times. If the exercises are kettlebell swings, goblet squats, pushups and jump rope, you would want the exerciser to count the total number of reps of each exercise during the first round and try and repeat those numbers for each subsequent round. If the numbers fall off dramatically, the initial intensity was too high. If the number stay the same or go up, the initial intensity may have been too low.

      Likewise, if simply training an individual to run, bike, or row a certain distance, you can use intervals to supplement and/or augment your base training. Start by dividing that distance up into manageable chunks such as 100, 200, 400, or 800 meters. Again, you want the relative intensity to be such that only a minute of recovery is required before beginning the next interval. Emphasize form, technique, and pacing during these intervals. The purpose of these intervals is to increase the individual’s ability to maintain a good pace with good form for longer periods of time. If the individual is unable to maintain the same pace for the prescribed time period, the interval is too long or the individual is not ready for true interval training. In this case, you can use “fartlek” intervals to help the individual make gains in both distance and speed.

      Fartlek training is an unstructured method of interval training that allows the individual to vary pace and distance as needed during a set period of time. For the beginner endurance trainee, the ability to transition between slower and faster paces, for example a walk and a jog, will allow the individual to slowly work up a faster overall pace. Thirty to forty-five minutes is a good minimum work period for this type of training.

      Use of intervals with intermediate athletes

      In training for the Tough Mudder, we built our base first with
      long steady distance training.  We could then use
      sprint intervals to improve speed and stamina.

      Intermediate athletes can begin to benefit from the use of VO2 max intervals in addition to cruise intervals. In these individuals, the relative intensity for these intervals will be higher than in the beginner because they are capable of sustaining more intense efforts. Interval training is no substitute for base training and should serve to help break through training plateaus. Interval intensity should be higher than one can sustain continuously and quality of movement is the priority. Using high intensity intervals with poor form will only result in form breakdown at high intensities. The purpose of using intervals is to sustain proper form, move more efficiently, and be able to compete in a more relaxed state.

      The relative intensity for cruise intervals in the intermediate athlete will be higher than in that of beginners. Intermediate athletes should be able to sustain higher intensity efforts with less recovery time than beginners. VO2 max intervals, where the rest period is as long as the work period should be at an intensity that is on the edge of being unsustainable, but stops before form breakdown occurs. As the individual gets closer to one’s genetic capacity for improving VO2 max, VO2 max intervals become more about sustaining good movement economy at higher intensities. This enables the athlete to move in a relaxed and efficient manner at top speed on race day. Pace and form breakdown are fatigue indicators and should dictate the length of the interval for both of these intervals.

      Circuit style workouts, including barbell complexes and strongman medleys, in intermediate and advanced athletes should not based solely on time, but should take into account load and total volume. The higher the intensity, the shorter the work period should be. Excessive training repetitions due to inappropriate resistance or longer work periods can lead to overuse injuries and may impair strength gains. If using rest periods in your strength conditioning work, use a heart rate monitor to gauge when the rest period is over. For improvements in VO2 max, the heart rate must return to an exercise baseline (generally between 120-150 bpm) before engaging in the next interval. Without this drop, appropriate intensity and volume with good technique cannot be reached on the following interval. Again, form and consistent pace are a priority with conditioning workouts.

      Take home points

      • Intervals should emphasize quality, not quantity. 
      • Beginners do not need to work at higher intensities until they develop a solid base of strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness. Intervals for beginners serve to break up the work period such that they can sustain their total efforts for longer periods of time. 
      • If pace slows or form breaks down before the prescribed work period is over, the interval is too long or there are too many intervals in the training session. 
      • High intensity interval training can help break through plateaus in work capacity, but having a solid base of strength, endurance and technique provides the platform for improvement to happen. The bigger your base, the bigger your benefit.

      Segmented Training plans: Working with blocks

      David Van Skike

      *This is an excerpt from our seminar curriculum.  We’ve attempted to simplify linear or block periodization into a format that is more easily understood and applicable to the average individual.  

      Many high level athletes have been successful reaching training goals without long term periodized planning and still others have adhered to plans that upon reading, seem to be of almost incomprehensible scope and variety. In fact, if you read some of the major works on sports programming, there is a very real chance you’ll come away significantly confused and less informed. However, the underlying philosophies and principles of programming are relatively straightforward, regardless of how advanced the trainee. Further, the very process of thinking ahead enough to formulate an individualized long term plan will put you and your trainees ahead of many coaches.

      In simple terms, Blocks are periods of time dedicated to a specific focus (sports specific endurance, strength, sport skills, body composition etc.) In formal block periodization, these periods of time are characterized into as few as four types: Rehabilitation, Accumulation, Transmutation, and Realization. To simplify these terms for our practice we can use the following general definitions:

      “Fix what’s broke”
      Base training
      Very focused training
      Competition Block

      Again, this is a gross simplification of the block periodization concept, but as with the basic strength exercises like the squat, press and pull, mastering the basic pieces is more than 80% of the process.   Once you have internalized these conceptual blocks and put them into practice, you will be well prepared to organize more complex training models.

      As should be obvious, each block has a priority. What may not be as obvious is that each block will also have a second and possibly third priority as well. This sounds more complicated than it is.  Why this is important is that as you are laying out these blocks, you’ll need to be mindful of:
      1. Focusing on Priority 1
      2. Maintaining the other needed qualities, Priority 2.
      3. Transitioning slowly to the next block. Priority 3

      Rehabilitation: Fixing what is broken

      In the context of a training plan, rehabilitation should be thought of broadly.  Most individuals beginning a training protocol need some level of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation in some ways is GPP but in the most important sense, it is filling in the gaps needed to begin training in earnestBeyond general health, here are some examples of a Rehab block focus:

      • Post competition malaise
      • Body composition (overweight, underweight)
      • Joint health
      • Major muscle imbalances
      • Significant skill deficits (for athletes shifting between sports)
      • Significant flexibility deficits

      An individual with a number of strength imbalances, injuries, or who significantly lacks  flexibility and conditioning will require a longer block for the simple purpose of assessing where all the needs are and figuring out how to best address them.   Even the process of fixing problems can reveal others.  This block with many trainees can be 4 to 8weeks.  If you have a severely detrained individual, the bulk of their program would be in an extended rehabilitation block.  However, if the needs for rehab are this large, rehab itself will become the goal of the plan and therefore would still be broken out into several segments, at the very least, Rehab and Accumulation. 

      By the same token, a healthy athlete coming off a season of competing who is injury free, may only need a short block of 2 to 3 weeks of active rest.  In this case, the rehab block serves a mental rather than physical purpose.

      The key to the rehab block is to identify what needs fixing before one is really ready to train and how much time can you afford to spend on it?  These needs should be ranked and prioritized into no more than three areas of focus and the block should be at least two weeks with  no real upper limit except that injuries and major imbalances that take more than 4 months to address should probably be the first focus before moving on.  Significant fat loss would be an example.

      This is not to say we have completely “solved” the issues we identified in the rehab block, the athlete has simply gained enough of a handle on them such that he is ready to shift to more focused training in earnest.  There is no hard and fast rule that smaller rehab blocks can’t be used as a transition between later blocks, they can and often this is a smart way to think about transitions between periods of training.

      When we move from rehabilitation to accumulation, we have fixed all we can or need to fix and we are moving on to developing a skill, strength and/or endurance Base for our sport.  The length of this block could be as little as 4 weeks, and as long as needed to prepare the athlete for the next phase.

      Accumulation: Base training

      Accumulation is focused training on the essential qualities or needs of the goal.  It is Base training.  It is putting in large volumes of general training focused on a specific goal. Many sports or training goals require focused work on multiple essential qualities.  The key question to ask is this: what are the most essential? The Latin phrase Sine qua non, “without which nothing,” is a useful concept in figuring this out.  What are the qualities that, without which, the goal is not attainable at all.  Examples:

      • Shot putters need to be strong but they MUST have solid throwing technique in the ring. 
      • 10k runners need to be able to sprint, but they MUST have a solid aerobic base and elemental running mechanics. 
      • Wrestlers need to be explosive, powerful, and they need stamina but above all else, they MUST be able to execute throws and holds.

      A limit strength base would be established
      during the Accumulation block.
      This sounds simple. That’s because it is and yet it is the most common place that training goes wrong.  A lot of coaches and self-coached athletes misidentify the essential nature of the sport activity.  
      While, the he accumulation period is focused on base training it also includes working on those other qualities that are needed to support the larger plan, or shore up weaknesses or condition the athlete for more intense training blocks later. Because this is the phase to both establish a Base AND to make the athlete more well-rounded, there is a tendency to overstretch the athlete in this segment,  include too many elements (excessive GPP is a common culprit) or to train at medium high intensities combining conflicting physical qualities (max strength and aerobic endurance for example).

      Key questions for assembling this block are:

      1. What is the Base for this goal? 
      2. What is the greatest hurdle standing in the way of this goal for this athlete? 
      3. What is this athlete’s greatest strength?

      The first two should be intuitive but the third is often overlooked. Not only are we making the athlete well rounded in this block, we’re also trying to express that athlete’s unique abilities. No matter how novice the trainee, there is some inherent strength or knack they have and to ignore it is as grave a mistake as ignoring weaknesses.


      No matter how simple the goal, the list of “essential” qualities needed in the accumulation block will be in competition for time or will have conflicting training stresses (again ,back to max strength and max endurance).   It’s easy to get bogged down by this but there are a couple of simple rules and a philosophical construct that will help sort through these competing priorities.

      Time on the road is money in the bank.
      Thing One. Always focus first on the quality that takes longest to develop.   In general these are maximal strength, aerobic endurance and most important, sport skill.   One of these three will ALWAYS be included in an accumulation block.  Many training faults can be traced back to problems of insufficient base in one of the three.

      Thing Two.  When there is an inherent conflict between high priorities, each of those priorities should have its own sub-block.  This may mean multiple week cycles within the accumulation period and ultimately, a longer overall accumulation master block.  In block periodization language this is called a microcycle and a mesocycle.  For example, hypertrophy and limit strength/power, strength and endurance, or power and skill. 

      Thing Three. Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that accumulation blocks are long because this is where the bulk of the work of training is taking place.  In fact, most athletes will never really go beyond this accumulation period of training, especially in the first several years of their sport.  There are several very divergent training methods that essentially rely on a slow steady accretion of training volume towards a larger goal.  When a goal includes a specific competition though, the next phase is really the most critical one in honing the athlete’s performance.

      Transmutation: Very focused training.

      The word transmutation actually traces its use back to the practice of alchemy in turning base metals into gold.  This is actually a perfect word for the activity.  Then goal of a transmutation block is to take all that built up base capacity from a long (in most cases, sports specific) accumulation block and focus it towards the highest level of athletic capability possible in the time allotted.  This block is what most people think of as “training”, and it is the stuff of montages and training highlight reels. It’s the subject of a sport cliché in that the athlete is “8 weeks out” from competition. 

      This is due to the fact that for many athletes, it’s not sustainable for more.  Eight weeks for strength and combat athletes, 12 weeks for most team sports (think training camp) is about right. The reason is that transmutation involves a narrow enough focus and a high enough level of intensity to provoke week to week fatigue.  Towards the end of transmutation, most athletes will be in a state of moderate overtraining.  The whole purpose of this is to provoke supercompensation in the next block: Realization.

      During this phase, the plan eliminates all extraneous training that could interfere with the specific skills required for the sport.  At this stage, field sport athletes will drop most other training with maybe one maintenance strength, endurance, or flexibility training session per week.  Long distance endurance athletes will usually drop strength training in the weight room in favor of power and sprint work in their specific training mode.  Strength athletes will focus on their competition lifts and/or throws.  Any nonspecific work during this time period is typically for injury prevention or maintenance of the strength/endurance base. 
      The questions to ask when setting up this block are:

      1. What are the specific demands of the competition and how can those particular skills be maximized? 
      2. How close to competition conditions can these be trained without actually competing? 
      3. What can safely be eliminated form training to allow maximal recovery? 
      4. How much can volume and intensity be slowly increased without provoking true overtraining?

      Beyond than these general guidelines, transmutation blocks will vary tremendously from sport to sport and individual to individual as a great deal depends on how big of a base the athlete built in the prior block.

      Realization: Competition Block

      Realization starts out like a more intense form of transmutation.  For most athletes it will begin with two weeks of very strenuous sport specific work sessions about once every three to four days. The rest of the work sessions will be active recovery. Being well-rested for each of these workouts is critical.  A Highland Games thrower might do nothing but practice throws the last two weeks before a competition.   An Olympic weightlifter might focus solely on setting openers for his or her competition.  A marathon runner will get in his or her longest distance run during this time. 

      The second half of Realization is a taper before a single event or series of events. It is not much fun.  During these 4-10 days, the athlete will do very little but active recovery and virtually zero intense work.  They will have difficulty sleeping and will be in a near constant state of agitation from inactivity. 

      Realization:  You’ve trained; its
      time to 
      recover and compete.
      Once the athlete begins a series of events everything has been done that can be done.  It takes an extremely experienced coach to bring this block to fruition on a single day.  In fact, most who try, probably fail.  However, when this realization block is targeted on a series of events like districts, regional and then state, the athlete has a chance to settle in and find a rhythm. One fact that eludes most people is that the very act of being in peak form changes your form.  For instance, a thrower who has become markedly stronger will find their throws and timing need adjustment or a cyclist who has been targeting a series of races may find their expectation of race pace different from training. This is why whenever possible it’s best to aim for a peak performance over a period of weeks rather than a day.

      This begs the question, what do you do in between events in a realization block.  The reflex of most athletes is to return to the training that that got them there, the high intensity and volume of transmutation.  This is of course, dead wrong. In between events it’s best to adopt a combination of very short hard training sessions with many of the activities that made up late rehabilitation and accumulation phases.  For a cyclist this can mean easy miles and a little yoga, for a thrower this may mean light fast gym lifting and light conditioning. In any case the worst thing one can do is to try to provoke an unplanned double peak by introducing a short transmutation block.  This will fail.

      In summary, there is probably an upper limit to the length of time one can be in a realization block and to be fair, performance of most athletes will to erode after 4-6 weeks.  So, if a longer competition period is called for, the safest thing is to plan another short accumulation block, a transmutation block with lower priorities, and a second shorter realization block.  Again, like peaking on a single day, this is the stuff of masters and takes years of working within a single discipline to make work.

      Can Good Judgement Be Taught?

      Sara Fleming

      In a conversation with one of my fellow instructors, the title of this article was the main subject.  To be more specific, we were talking about teaching our students and what we hoped they would get out of our seminar. Over the past year, we’ve struggled to define explicitly what it is that we teach.  Our goal is to take our group of students, pull back the curtain and show them how it all really works.  And once they realize there are no magic methods or fool-proof formulas, our hope is that they will walk out with some new found wisdom about their own training practice.

      The truth of the matter is, however, the most important learning they will get will not be from our relatively short two day seminar.  It will be when they get back home and put what we teach them into practice.  We don’t have any magic wands and we certainly can’t replicate years of experience, failures, and practice in sixteen hours of instruction.

      However, I am very optimistic for our students.  Most of them know far more than they need to and they certainly don’t lack in enthusiasm.  What they tend to miss more than anything is context.  One of the biggest leaps one makes in going from student to teacher is learning to take all the knowledge one has acquired and turn it into a process that can be applied to a broad population.  Knowing all the training methods in the world will not help you train better unless you know how to apply them appropriately.

      Some fun being had at CF Geneseo. 

      In addition to being a trainer and weightlifting coach, I teach College Math and I see a lot of similarities between the two practices.   I often refer to training as teaching because I am teaching my clients to move correctly as I teach their bodies to get stronger and more conditioned.  Learning is an adaptive process, you learn by being exposed to and practicing new ideas.  Training is an adaptive process, you become more skilled, stronger, agile, powerful, etc., by being exposed to and practicing new movements with various loads.  Physical training is teaching your body to become more efficient at doing things well whether that be deadlifting five hundred pounds or walking ten miles.

      In my opinion, a good trainer is one who thinks about the needs of their clients as individuals and trains them according to their specific needs.   Ongoing assessment and planning based on the client’s progress and goals are a very simple way to keep your client happy and achieving results.  Its not always easy, but if we can put aside the confusing background noise of the fitness industry, the way to do this is can be rather clear.  We are very much looking forward to teaching our seminar at Crossfit Geneseo this weekend and are even more hopeful that our students come away with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm towards their training practice.

      And to answer the question, yes, I think good judgement can be taught.  It is, indeed, the foundation of all learning.  When a student truly understands the lesson, he or she can easily teach it to someone else.  


      The Economics of Training Part II

      David Van Skike

      “The idea that the harder you work, the better you’re going to be is just garbage. The greatest improvement is made by the man or woman who works most intelligently.”
      Bill Bowerman

      In Part One, we introduced the idea of training economy.   Good training economy is spending limited training resources on those things that are known to contribute directly to the goal.  It means understanding that each new component you add to your program (lift, drill, or practice) has learning and recovery costs that need to be accounted for.
      By analogy, training economy means investing in tools that will last, that are versatile and that have proven value.  Bad training economy is buying up interesting but ultimately useless gadgets from the outlet mall in hopes they will contribute to the cause.

      Squat More is the answer…what was the question again?

      Let’s talk practical terms.  It is my position that there are few if any “bad exercises” (except sumo deadlift hi pulls, those are bad).  Certainly, there are poor applications of really limited tools (like tricep kickbacks), there are overblown or over prescribed ideas (circuit training or so-called Metabolic Conditioning)  but mostly there are poor application of a good tool, say prescribing the snatch and clean and jerk for distance runners.

      Still, there are rarely absolutes when it comes to training.  Every trainee learns in their own way.  What may seem like a useless drill for one athlete may give another athlete major breakthroughs in their sport. Instead of throwing up our hands and succumbing to relativism, where all systems have equal possibilities of producing results (they don’t) let’s talk about best practices.
      You should be able to look where you are relative to your training goal and prioritize what needs to be done first.  This sounds simple on its face…and it is.  Most people over-think it.  Whole books have been written on periodization and training for sport that don’t touch on this extremely simple concept that as an adult, you probably already know.  

      If you decide you want to:
      • throw the discus at a masters track meet having never touched one, what’s the first thing to do?
      • want to run a marathon, having not run for several years, what the first thing to do?
      • compete in a submission wrestling tournament having not been on a mat since high school, what’s step one?
      You know that the answers are learn to throw, run, wrestle…or more specifically, find a resource to learn to throw, develop your running technique and find a group to train your wrestling skills.   This is Base Training. Base is not GPP. GPP is preparing the individual to train.  It’s working directly the fundamental skills and qualities of your sport.  Base training is also specific: Runners Run, Weightlifters Lift, Throwers Throw.  Base is where you need the bulk of your actual training time.

      These priorities should be obvious because they are the fundamental prerequisites for accomplishing the goal at hand. These abilities also take the longest time to develop.  Economical training is based on this prioritization, such that you focus on the critical pieces early and often.  This probably sounds like the old saw of focusing on the fundamentals. That’s because it is and because fundamentals work.

      The purpose of every training session, or block should be Obvious
      If a trainee or a coach does not know the specific purpose of every component of the given session they are doing it wrong.  All components of training should be included to provoke a specific desired training effect.  The purpose of training is not to provoke fatigue or soreness. 
      Here’s an example training session.  I picked this somewhat at random from an off season highland games thrower.

      Throwing Drills:10 full turn drills,5  power position throws, 10 full indoor shotput throws

      Snatch Pulls70kgx3x2

      Bench Presses

      Box squats
      142 x5

      What do you see?  I see Simplicity and Efficiency

      He starts with primary skill work for his sport.  He  moves on to snatch pulls, which this athlete has found to have better carryover to his throws than a full snatch or power snatch.  This movement develops his ability to deliver maximum hip extension in a forceful and coordinated manner.   Then he does some bench pressing for developing upper body pressing strength crucial to the stone throws.  He  finishes with the king of full body strength exercises, the squat.  Squats make you strong. Period.  Notably absent is any fluff, excessive GPP, “metabolic conditioning” or bodybuilding work that this athlete does not need (some people do). All the lifts are contributing  directly to the sport at hand. 

      Limited Variety-Economical Training requires limiting variety

      The myth of variety is that it will make you well rounded.  Lean and powerful, flexible and strong, quick with great endurance…these are fitness follies.  The sooner you recognize this as a myth, the better. One of the hallmarks of good athletes is that they strive to do fewer things better rather than many things mediocre.  Sacrifice means giving up something you want for something else you want more. 

      Now, everyone bristles at the idea of these limitations.  People love to look to examples of multi-sport athletes who, through  grit and talent became great in several sports: the Bo Jacksons, the Bryan Oldfields, the talented all rounders.

      Couple of things on this:

      The Greatest Cyclist of all Time…naaah, just hockey

      Thing 1. This will sting a little.  Elite athletes are born with gifted. Many would excel at any number of sports regardless of how well or poorly they trained.  If you have to wonder if you were born gifted, you probably weren’t. I know, bummer...but 99.999 % of the world is in the same boat, so get over it.  Accept that we’ve got no free ride genetically, and we have limited time and recovery ability, we need to make it our mission to master a very limited set of things.  

      Thing 2.  The examples are usually horseshit.  Most multisport athletes, even at the high school level, are pretty average outside their specific area and this amazing talent set disappears under the harsh light of adult competition.  Even great athletes like Michael Jordan, who tried to push beyond their sport, found out they were average at best outside it. 
      Back to the point at hand.  We need to be suspicious of spending our recovery dollars on “variety” or chasing elusive “all around” qualities that don’t clearly contribute to a tangible measurable goal.   If the very best limit their variety and prioritize, why are we adding variety?   Again, the clear sign of ineffectual training progressions is variety without clear purpose.  If you’re not training for something specific, you’re just exercising, then sure, variety is the spice of life.  Just know that all you’re getting is the spice, not a meal.

      There are legit reasons for including some variation,  say rotating exercises or training multiple qualities within a training session or block  (Conjugate or Complex periodization,depending on how precise you want to be).  The first legit reason is the sport itself is very complicated in terms of either the skills needed for success (think combat sports, which are a mixture of skills and physical abilities, from power to extensive endurance) or a sports movement that is extremely technical.  An example of this would be the pole vault, where trainees will use a long series of  drills to allow the  movement to be broken down into manageable pieces, learned in sequence. A program for these athletes would appear to contain a great variety of elements to master and it is a legitimate  need of that sport.  

      The second purpose of variety is to work on weaknesses.  For instance a strength athlete might break a given movement down to work on a lift from multiple approaches, overloading the movement, doing speed work, doing partial range movements to overcome a sticking point in their technique or leverages.  This is a legitimate need.   An example would be the bench press which might be worked from 2 or 3 positions even within a session.

      The third semi-legitimate reason for variety is to combat boredom.  I say this is a semi-legitimate reason because most people training require some amount of variety to stay motivated.  This is not surprising.  However, no one ever said training for a goal was easy, and if boredom places a significant damper to motivation, then perhaps that athlete is not terribly motivated to begin with.  In any case, the least amount of variety necessary is what’s called for.  Frankly, focusing on a goal and hitting personal records is far more motivating.
      Bang for the Buck, not esoterica or hype.
      Thing One: By and large, some version of basics will work for (nearly) everyone.   When you reflect on the science, art and history of your respective sport, best practices emerge.  For instance, a list of accepted best practices for training highland games throwers might include in addition to the throws:
      • Sport Specific Drills 
      • Jumps 
      • Sprints 
      • Olympic lift 
      • Squat, Front and Back 
      • Pressing/Benching 
      • Deadlifting 

      A list of best practices for a rugby player might include:

      • Jumps 
      • Running/Sprints 
      • Power versions of the Olympic lifts 
      • Squat, Front and Back 
      • Pressing/Benching 
      • Deadlifting 

      Hmmmmmm……..That’s weird. What about something like a Judo player or a wrestle

      • Sport Specific Drills 
      • Jumps 
      • Sprints/Running 
      • Power versions of the Olympic lifts 
      • Squats 
      • Pressing/Benching 
      • Deadlifting
        Notice anything?  That’s right, the effective tools to build power and strength in sports that have a need for power and strength, are basically the same. There’s nothing fancy or exotic.  These components of training have proven,time and again, to have  the best bang for the buck.   If your program includes much else, you had better have a very good reason.   

        “Everything yields to diligence”
        T. Jefferson

        Thing Two.  Never forget that each individual is an experiment of one, with their own unique set of weaknesses and strengths.  Economical training is recognizing that not everyone derives the same benefit from one training tool versus another.  The degree to which certain tools work for an individual is… well…individual.
         What’s more important is not that you have the best tools,  but that you master all the tools you do have.  As they say in drag racing,  Run what Ya Brung. 

        For instance Olympic lifts have long been prescribed for throwers.  This is, in no small part, likely because the qualities that make one a good Olympic lifts (explosive and strong) are also the qualities that make one a good thrower.  Does this mean all throwers should do the Olympic lifts?  Well, it depends.  Can they learn them expeditiously? Can they safely and powerfully execute them better and heavier over time? As with our thrower example above, he found that limited partial Olympic lift from the hang is good enough.  That lift transfers to his sport. Time spent learning a complicated lift to support your sport is most often better spent either lifting more or doing the sport.  Having a “pretty” power clean has some value, being a diligent and consistent thrower has more value.  Any time spent learning a supportive skill takes away from and conflicts with the main skill in some small way.  Does this mean don’t do supportive work like lifting? No.  It means spend your energy wisely.   Observe below.  Many rank amateurs can execute a better looking power clean than Robert.  Mr. Harting’s gold medal in the discus is a pretty good consolation prize. 

        Good coaches and athletes can work around limitations and tailor their approach to the individual.  Bang for the Buck is not about avoiding the hard work, it’s about not letting the dogma of “thou shalt do X” get in the way of the hard work.  I know a prominent Olympic lifting coach who swears his snatch goes up when his bench goes up. This may not adhere to the accepted thinking of his peers but it works for him and you can be sure he includes bench in his programming for this reason. 

         Avoid the “3 step problem”

        This is a trap a lot of self coached athletes fall into.  When it comes to programming,
        don’t do in three moves something you can achieve in two moves with consistent practice. Here is egregious example that cuts to the heart of uneconomic training.
        1. To develop as a track cyclist, I need to be stronger
        2. Front Squats will make me stronger.
        3.   I can’t seem to hit a good depth on the squat so I need comprehensive flexibility routine to be able to front squat well.
        And so on…. The athlete goes from chasing his goal to chasing his tail in three easy moves.  Need to get stronger?  Find a version of squat you can execute well and go to town.  Need to develop coordinated explosive power?-  Focus on mastering one power tool that seems to carry over, whether it is snatching, jumping, or throwing….pick one and work it.  Don’t try to develop a repertoire of half ass movements. Pick the one that suits you and work the hell out of it. 

        This kind of three step thinking is probably at its peak with trainees whose goals are aesthetic (bodybuilding) or esoteric (all around fitness competitors).  The prevailing assumption with this group is that in order to achieve a general goal, they need to do everything in general.  This leads to some of the most nonsensical and unproductive kitchen-sink “programming.”  Remember our example from Part 1?

        My diet is paleo, I’m throwing often, I’m getting in my strength lifts in twice a week at least, squatting and pressing heavy.  I’m doing the Olympic lifts and I’m Crossfitting 4 days a week! 
        Too many irons. Not enough fire.
        Most of these points are not a surprise to you.  The fact is whether you’re coaching yourself or someone else, it is not that different from being a therapist.  You simply need to hold up a mirror and point out the obvious.  I think one of the most useful bits of advice I have received is that the difference between rich people and the rest of us is that rich people spend less of their own money, that’s how to stay rich.   What’s the least amount of your training  resources you can spend to get the greatest return on your investment?

        Focus on core modalities that widely transfer to the sport.  This is true whether you are a self-trained athlete or a coach.  If you pull any training program off the web or out of a book you should be able to develop an opinion within minutes whether the program works or doesn’t.  If upon reading it you have any question as to Why a given movement is included, it’s probably a wasted movement.   

        Economical training programs are simple and elegant.  They focus energy on the most essential elements that contribute to performance.  They also minimize or eliminate the minor pieces that are at best a distractions at worst, derail progress entirely.  Think of training your body in the same way you might think of investing your life savings. 

        The Economics of Training Part I

        David Van Skike

        I overheard a conversation this weekend at a highland games that is a classic pitfall of self-coached (and many professionally coached) athletes. Names withheld to protect the guilty.
        I don’t know what’s going on with my throws. I have no pop in the trig, no snap or speed. The worst part is I’m doing everything right. My diet is paleo, I’m throwing often, I’m getting my strength lifts in twice a week at least, squatting and pressing heavy. I’m doing Olympic lifts and I’m Crossffitting 4 days a week!

        Now, if like me, you laughed out loud at this vignette, the balance of this article may be remedial. If you’re not sure if you get the joke, please continue on. 

        It’s the Economy Stupid.

        Whether you remember this political phrase or not, you should co-opt it. Repeat it.  Make it ring in your ear every time you make a training decision:  Should I….

        • Add a training day?
        • Do one more set? One more Lap?
        • Go home and stretch, stay and do grip work?
        • Drills or full throws?
        • Sprints or an easy long run?
        • Yoga or foam roller?

        What I mean specifically is this:  before you ask yourself what to do, first ask why.  If you know why, then ask can you afford to do it?

        For the sake of simplicity, let’s disregard everything you know about periodization, forget all the texts, ebooks, periodization templates, and articles you’ve read, and disregard all the webinars and YouTube videos by experts on how to develop training programs. Let’s talk basic moving parts. All successful programming for training whether it’s general fitness or sports specific comes down to balancing between three variables: 

        Recovery.  No one said it would be easy.
        • Volume of training
        • Intensity of training
        • Recovery from training. 
        Repeat that to yourself. Three times through. It is  this simple.  If you can’t recover from the volume and intensity you’re applying, you will not progress in your training.   It’s not down to genetics, it’s not supplements, it’s not the gear and it’s not performance enhancing drugs. Successful programming comes down to balancing between those three variables: volume of training, intensity of training and recovery from training.
        Here’s a simple equation (if you’re one those types):


        • R is Recovery. Recovery is what you have to spend. At a basic level, recovery is determined by how well you’re sleeping, how well you’re eating, how long you’ve been training, how old you are, your injury status, your stress level.
        • Volume means the amount of work you’re doing: miles, sets, throws, mat time, etc.
        • Intensity is the degree to which a given stress provokes a training stimulus response.

        Volume and intensity of training are often discussed in terms of weight or speed and repetitions or time. 5 sets of 5 is inherently different from a volume or intensity standpoint than 10 sets of 10. Your Recovery is in essence, money in the bank.  Volume and Intensity are where you want to spend that money. So if you have limited spending power, you’re going to want to be frugal about it. It’s this frugality that so many people fail to adopt. Spending this budget wisely is what separates experts from rookies and progress from stagnation.


        There is one more challenge in both the volume and intensity of training that we encounter that is largely overlooked.  Learning New Skills. Lifting is a skill, throwing is a skill, running is a skill. All voluntary motor functions contain a significant skill component. The amount of skills you can learn at one time is finite. The process of learning sport skills is not much different from learning to read, write, draw, or make a souffle.  It takes time, a lot of practice, and it is significantly taxing.

        Running fast is a skill, not just and ability.

         A basic training reality is that learning is fatiguing.  Whether you label this as CNS fatigue or something else, we all have had the experience of feeling exhausted after learning to execute a new task. It is no different in the weight room or the track or the field. This fatigue is costly from a recovery perspective. This is true on a micro level (number of new skills learned within a workout) or on a macro level (number of new skills learned during a given block of training).

        We tend to think that the skill of throwing a shot put is the same whether you’re throwing 35 feet or 55 feet. The perfect form for a given individual should be the same, correct? The fact is, given two equally strong and fast athletes, the one that is throwing farther is executing a higher skill (better) movement. Developing this skill has a cost and takes time. Whether it be a tennis serve, a deadlift, a 100 meter dash or a 50k run, the skill required to perform one task is not 100% identical to the skill it takes to perform that same movement better, or heavier, or faster or longer.

        If one is an incredibly fast and powerful lifter, learning to execute a decent squat may not take very long but soon progress will stall and moving additional weight will require both additional strength and additional skill. The skill it takes to squat 150 kilos is different from the skill it takes to squat 250 kilos, even though the only variable that’s changed is the weight on the bar.


        Transference is the magic manna of training.  Transference refers to the degree to which becoming good at one movement, say a squat, will transfer to another sports movement, say a jump or a throw.  What you quickly learn as you train is that

        Squat More

        there are some correlations among similar movements (say a front squat and a back squat) but not all gym movements transfer to a sport movements.  The best movements transfer easily. Squats and Deadlifts are two. Yet if you ask the average athlete how he or she would justify including high intensity circuits into a training session, 9 out of 10 would not have a cogent answer.  For others it will not.  A frugal trainer will learn to invest in a limited set of tools they know will work for them and not waste time with cheap crap. So, how do we figure it out?   The first step is not looking at what new thing to try (jump squats instead of powercleans?)  but what tools do you have now that are working?

        It depends.

        Only if  we actively consider the skill cost/fatigue cost of each component of training, can we  measure and balance how effective one thing will be for an individual versus another.  It’s this understanding that separates good coaches and smart athletes from less good ones.

        • Which is better, rows or pullups?
        • What assistance movements should I do for my squat?
        • Will improving my power clean make me a better thrower?
        • Should fighters do road work?

        If you have a pat answer to any of these questions, you are wrong. The only possible correct answer is, It Depends.

        It depends on the goal of the athlete.  What else are they doing? Most importantly,  why are they doing it?   What all of those questions are really getting at is what is the best bang for the buck…which of these options is most economical.  By way of example, yes, rows are better than pullups — IF  you are interested in improving your deadlift and developing a lot of upper back strength and size. But, if you are training for a warrior dash, then pullups are much more specific and will work towards improving speed over obstacles. Context is king when changing your practice.

        • What is in your current training?
          • What are you going to remove to make way for the new shiny thing?
        • Why are you changing it?
          • Why will the new shiny thing work better than what you’re doing now?
        • How will you know if it works? 
          • How long are you giving yourself to see if it works?

        This should be the go to process when evaluating whether something should be included. When in doubt, banish the word AND in favor of OR.  Before adding anything to a training day, or block or macro cycle, look first at what can be removed.  At the end of the day, effective training plans involve removing everything non-essential and leaving in the components that are known to work. Once you apply that filter, plans for many sports begins to look very similar.

        We’ll discuss the practical applications of this concept more in Part II