Thoughts on S&C training: cleaning things up

Over the last years, I’ve worked relentlessly at creating an S&C training system for my students. The system I came up with was nothing new, at all – rather, it was the adaptation of known ideas and methods to our (i.e., martial artists) needs. The basic premise was that each session needs to improve all the physical attributes a fighter needs to display: speed, power, strength and endurance. Note that I’m not listing anything like ‘mobility’ or ‘flexibility’ here. [Science tells us] that eccentric strength training is one of the best ways to improve flexibility. Still, I believe that the best way to train the type of functional mobility needed for any given martial arts style is, well, to practice that style.

Practicing all attributes in a single session follows a [holistic] line of thought. Personally, I prefer to call that an ‘organic’ training form (a term I picked up from [Ronny]) in that the smallest element (i.e, a single session) contains everything the whole program has to offer. A suitable analogy from the natural domain is a tree (any other plant will do, as well): a single seed already contains everything the tree needs. As that tree grows, every part of it (i.e, roots, trunk, branches, leafs, …) grows at the same rate. At no point is something added or excluded. Now obviously, this doesn’t take into account autumn, where the tree looses all its leafs, or spring, where they grow again, but still, the analogy is a neat way to illustrate the idea behind organic training.
Just like all types of strength (i.e., max strength, power, strength endurance, …) are being trained in every session, every fundamental human movement pattern is addressed. When working at the system, I was heavily influenced by Michael Boyle’s [Functional Training]. So, the patterns we train in the S&C session are the following:

  1. Push
    1. vertical (i.e., frontal plane)
    2. horizontal (i.e., transverse plane)
  2. Pull
    1. vertical (i.e., frontal plane)
    2. horizontal (i.e., transverse plane)
  3. Stand-Up
    1. Hip-dominant (e.g. deadlifts)
    2. Knee.dominant (e.g. squats)
  4. Roll-In
  5. Twist

After warm-up, while they’re still fresh, my athletes work up to a heavy single, double or triple on one of the Olympic lifts. Obviously, this is the power part. Now the O-lifts rely on perfect coordination, mobility and stability. Hence, trying to classify them as being mainly a push, pull or hip hinge is a lesson in futility. They’re all of that, and more.

So, when the big, integral stuff is done, we start splitting things up a bit so we can really work the details. In order to do that, we use simpler (notice that I didn’t say simple – just simpler. A deadlift probably is simpler than a power clean. Still, calling it simple would be an understatement, to say the least) exercises that are more readily classifiable as either a push, pull, stand-up, roll-in or twist-style movement. For that detail work, I employ a modified version of [Charles Staley’s E.D.T]. The idea behind the escalating density training is that in a given time, you perform as much work (defined by intensity times reps) as possible. Now since the original program is aimed at bodybuilders, it took some heavy tweaking to make it work for martial artists. Here’s what I came up with (I suggest you follow the link below and get to know the original program before reading on, as I’ll just explain the differences here):

  1. Instead of two timeslots, we use three. However, each of them is only 10 minutes in duration.
  2. To offer athletes a working strategy for fatigue-management, we use a ladder-organization as propagated by [Pavel] et al. at the [RKC]. Ladders are also a great way to control training intensity – for a 5-8 ladder, you use a weight that is at or slightly below your 8RM. Sounds complicated? It isn’t, really – kettlebells only come in so many weights, so you just pick the heaviest bell you can finish those 8 reps with. Simple as that. (Did I mention I like kettlebells?)
  3. Kickbacks and bicep curls surely have their place, somewhere. Only in my Dojo, they don’t. My athletes deadlift, squat, press, etc. The ladder organization alsong with the shortened time slots keep fatigue in check and make this possible.
  4. The individual slots follow a pattern – during each slot, antagonistic patterns are practiced:
    1. Push / Pull
    2. Roll-In / Stand-Up
    3. Twist / Special (in special, we do TGU’s and/or Olympic lifts, depending on the month. That’s not antagonistic to twist, I know. Still, math dictates an even number of patterns)

Interestingly, apparently I wasn’t the only guy who adapted E.D.T for a more strength-centered training: check out [this article], where the author presents a different alternative to make density training work for heavy reps and complex exercises.

Finally, to build up stamina and a good deal of lactic acid tolerance, we conclude the session with a strength-endurance circuit. My athletes go through 5 stations, one for each movement pattern. For the first four months of the year, work time is 40 seconds, followed by 20 seconds of rest. In July and August, the Dojo is closed, so my season starts in September. Hence, the 5-minute circuit is done until December. Then, the intervals are shortened (30 seconds work, 15 seconds rest), but two rounds are performed, for a total of 7.5 minutes. Finally, in April, the intervals are again set to 40/20, this time for two rounds and a total of 10 minutes. That’s progression.

Now although I still believe that I took the right route with that systems, a couple things have been bothering me for a long time. Now, finally, after reading Pavel’s and Dan’s [Easy Strength], I feel confirmed in a couple of things I’ve been pondering for the last months. Therefore, I’ve decided to make some changes to the session, beginning on April 1st.

First, the session takes too long to complete. Testosterone levels peak after [around 45 minutes] after you begin your S&C session. After around 60 minutes, the hormonal response to training starts having a detrimental effect. In this context, [Jason Ferrugia] [recommends a 45 minute strength session]. Hence, the session needs to be shortened. With the following points, though, I suspect to cut time significantly. More on that in a moment.

I’m pretty convinced that every movement pattern needs to be practiced. Still, as Gray Cook pointed out repeatedly, one needs to distinguish between movement and motion. Take the roll-in pattern for example. It always bothered me to include crunches and sit-ups in my programs. I truly believe that no one needs them. In [this article], Staley (who happens to be the original creator of EDT) stated that you need to reconsider everything which doesn’t make you stronger. As a coach (and competitor) who’s from a performance-oriented sport, hence mostly (to the point of exclusivity) interested in results, I tend to agree. Crunches and sit-ups most certainly won’t. A set of heavy deadlifts will do more for your trunk (you can call it ‘core’, ‘powerhouse’ or whatever… it’s still the trunk to me) than a gazillion of crunches. To make things worse, we live in a society where [hyper kyphosis] is present everywhere. Our lifestyle – which, to be honest, revolves around a lot of sitting – does a great job in reversing evolution and taking our posture back to Neanderthal levels. Excessive amounts of crunches, in my opinion, are a great way to amplify and accelerate that degeneration.

Still, there are certain exercises that can be used in a sensible way to train the roll-in pattern in the way it’s actually needed – as an anti-extension. Consider the [plank] exercise. Most beginner trainees will feel pain in the spinal erectors after holding the position for some time. This is when the muscle of the trunk, especially the rectus abdominis and the obliques, fail to prevent excessive APT (anterior pelvis tilt). In order words, the lordosis can’t be sufficiently compensated, so the muscles of the lower back eventually start to cramp. In this case, the Roll-In pattern serves to counteract that unwanted lumbar extension. The whole thing happens without visible movement, though. Similar examples are the [pallof press] (anti-rotation) or the [stir the pot] (anti-extension and anti-rotation). Apparently, what it boils down to is stability.  Therefore, I’ve decided to combine Roll-In and Twist into a single exercise slot, which is Stabilize.

Now as I stated before (in brackets), working through three exercise slots with two exercises each calls for six exercises. That’s not rocket-science, huh? I’ll simply solve that issue by throwing out the Special exercise as well. Fret not, though, for it won’t be gone. Rather, it’ll take an even more dominant position at the beginning of the session.

So, in the future, the session will be structured in the following way:

  1. Warm-up. Here, we’re talking about 10 to 15 minutes, tops. Now most of my athletes take one of my family martial arts classes immediately before S&C, so I guess that most of the time, we can skip that. Still, as an option, I’ll use a modified version of the [Warrior Warmup Routine], which I’ll simply end by the time we usually go to the ground to stretch.
  2. Skill practice & power training. Starting with a very light weight, the athletes will practice the O-lift we’re currently doing. Intensity is ramped until the goal is reached. From there, it’s three actual working sets. The whole thing is scheduled for around 15 minutes.
    1. In the first session of the program (programs change every one to two months), athletes check their 3RM. I won’t be doing any 1RM testing more. The risk is just not worth the benefits.
    2. For the rest of the program’s duration, [linear progression] is made – a 2.5kg weight increase in every session. That’s 1.25kg on every side of the barbell – the smallest possible progression. In week 1, the athlete does three working sets of 3 reps. After that, in the second week, it’s three doubles (at the respective adjusted weights). Finally, in week three, it’s three singles. The next three-week cycle starts where the first double was made (i.e, 5kg heavier than the original 3RM). In two months (~9 weeks), three such cycles can be performed. That’s up to 10kg weight increase on the triples, doubles and singles, under the assumption that two S&C classes are taken each week and the linear progression can actually be made. Since we’re never on the same exercise for more than 2 months (three, if you count different variants as the same exercise), I believe that the linear progression model makes sense. Only time will tell, though.
  3. [Functional hypertrophy] training. We’ll stick to our modified E.D.T, however, only two slots (for a total of 20 minutes plus 3 minutes of rest in between) will be completed:
    1. Push / Pull
    2. Stand-Up / Stabilize (we’ll be doing a whole lot of [TGU]’s here, you can count on that)
  4. Strength endurance circuit. No changes in interval durations. However, it will be cut to three stations:
    1. Push
    2. Pull
    3. Stand-Up

So, 15 minutes of warm-up, 15 minutes of skill and power practice, 23 minutes of E.D.T and a max of 6 minutes for the circuit makes 59 minutes. Probably a couple minutes less if everyone shows up ready to rock and we’re at the beginning of the season, where the circuit takes just three minutes.

Now this post was rather lengthy – definitely longer than I planned it to be. Tell you what – why don’t you just show up in one of those S & C sessions in April and experience the system for yourself?
So long,

take care

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