Athletics Programming Update 12/17

1 Introduction

While S&C programming is no rocket science by any means, some thought needs to be put into designing a good program. The best way to reach a goal is basically determined by the factors. First, the goal needs to be clear. If you don’t know where you want to go, any way will take you there. In the S&C world, this makes the difference between training and working out.Second, the starting point needs to be established. Quantitative and qualitative assessments help in that evaluation.

Finally, the available resources need to be taken into consideration. Practicality trumps optimality. Adherence and consistency are the foundation for successful training, so a program must match the athlete’s lifestyle and possibilities. For someone who can train twice a week  (for whatever reasons), a three day split is inappropriate, regardless of any theoretical benefits it might offer. Eric Helms covered this in detail [HEL+2015].
Of course, qualifying the status quo can help in setting smart goals. Making am athlete faster or more powerful might not be appropriate if strength levels are insufficient. On the other hand, in mixed sports, there is a point at which the athlete might just be strong enough. This really comes down to cost – to – benefit considerations.
Our athletics classes deal with strength, first and  foremost. We do implement variations of Olympic lifts and plyos as well as some metabolic conditioning, but those are supplemental to the strength training. A 60 minute class usually looks as follows:
  • 15 Minutes of Warm-up and Correctives
  • 10 Minutes of Speed and Power Training
  • 30 Minutes of Strength Training
  • 5 Minutes of MetCon
Clearly, strength is the most dominant aspect of the class. Strength training can serve multiple goals. To keep things reasonably simple, we’ve decided to focus on two main outcomes – pure strength on the one hand and strength gains accompanied by an increase in lean body mass (hypertrophy) on the other hand. Power is always an aspect of our training and can be prioritized on a case – by – case basis for selected athletes, e.g. in the weeks leading up to a fight or important game. Our templates, however, focus on pure strength and strength plus size.
So much for goals. Quite a few articles have between published here on our assessment and screening process. These tests serve two purposes. For one, they allow us to select the most appropriate exercise from each bucket (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, core) for every athlete. Think progressions and regressions. On the other hand, assessing  strength levels makes it easier to determine the highest training priority. Beginner athletes need to learn to train and get stronger in a sub maximal range. The next step is to develop multi planar stability. Only for those that have mastered basic unilateral exercises does max strength training get relevant. At the higher levels, we want our athletes to be able to express that max strength in a more sport specific manner.
Having established the status quo and the (thereby influenced) training goals, the actual program can be designed. Our templates are based on the equipment based in our gym and the fact that each session must be kept to one hour. Those are constant factors. Time constraints vary between athletes. While high skill athletes such as fighters may have to keep their S&C to two sessions a week, others may be willing to spend more time in the gym. We have therefore set up a matrix that considers the training level, main goal and time resources to determine the implement training split and loading strategy.

2 Training Splits

For athletes that train twice a week plus, we implement a daily undulating periodization scheme as outlined by Preston et al. [PRE+2009]. One and two weekly sessions are always total body workouts consisting of two tri-sets, each performed for three sets. Loading parameters are discussed below.

Three and four weekly sessions are organized in a Push Pull Split. The push day consists of a knee dominant lower body exercise, upper body push and a core specific exercise (usually some form of anti rotation training that includes a pulling movement and thereby counts towards the week’s total pull volume – think renegade rows) . Conversely, the pull workout consists of a hip dominant lower body exercise, upper body pull and another core specific exercise. This is a novelty – in the past, we used only one lower body exercise and three core specific exercises. Of course, this also affects the once- and twice-a-week templates.

2.1 Total Body Split

In the total body split (technically, not a split, but the term is used for consistency), every movement pattern is trained for three sets. Details on the loading parameters are presented in Section 3. Exercises are organized in tri-sets. Athletes work at their own pace but are instructed to start each new set at a specific time mark. We found 4.5 minutes to be sufficient to allow the completition of all exercises. After tree sets are finished, athletes perform another three sets of the second tri-set.

2.2 Push Pull Split

The push pull split, as the name implies, puts all pulling exercises on one day and all pushing exercises on the other. Hip dominant lower body, e.g., deadlifts and hamstring curls fall into the former category (i.e., pulls), as do all upper body pulling movements (chin ups, pull ups, rows, etc.). We consider squats and lunges lower body pushing exercises and hence program them together with upper body pressing exercises such as push ups, floor presses and shoulder presses. Athletes that follow this split follow the same basic tri-set pattern as those in the total body split, with the difference that all six working sets are dedicated to the same tri-set.

3 Loading Parameters & Progression

Percentage-based systems like 5/3/1 are great, but we found that in a team setting, auto-regulative systems based on repetition ranges tend to work better. For beginners, I like to implement a double progression (DP), i.e., working up in volume before increasing intensity. For the „learn to train“ and „be healthy“ levels,  we’ll stick to this progression method. Weight increments will always happen at the smallest possible step and only once the upper repetition range was reached. As an example, the plan might call for 3 x 8 – 12 on the RFESS: The athlete will initially choose a weight that allows the completition of no less than 8 and no more than 12 repetitions. Then, the same weight will be used and the athlete will strive to complete more repetitions in every session. Once 12 repetitions can be completed on each of the three sets, the weight is increased by the smallest possible increment (when using a dumbbell in each hand, this means an increase of 2 Kg).
For stronger athletes, we need something more aggressive. Over the last months we’ve made excellent experiences with Bryan Mann’s APRE system [MAN+2010]. In essence, it follows the same line of thought, but weight increments depend on the number of completed repetitions rather than being constant. Also, weight decreases are possible if performance drops.

3.1 Learn to train

This introductory level aims at teaching new athletes the basics of strength training. Strength gains can still be made with fairly light weights and higher repetition ranges. The biggest gains are made on improved neuromuscular efficiency and technical proficiency. At this stage, we recommend training twice a week. If athletes insist on doing three weekly sessions, we still have them perform the total body routine, as squatting and even deadlifting three times a week is perfectly acceptable for an athlete that can not generate enough intensity to warrant longer regeneration. The implemented DUP consists of a heavy day (8-10 repetitions) and a moderate day (12-15 repetitions). I have written about DUP in this post, although in a slightly different context.

3.2 Be healthy

The goal of the be healthy stage is to familiarize the athlete with exercises that require a higher degree of core control, i.e., unilateral exercises such as single leg squats and single leg deadlifts. Repetitions are still kept fairly high and intensities are moderate. This warrants enough learning opportunities. All that has been said for the learn to train stage regarding the training split still applies to this stage. The repetitions ranges are slightly lower than in the previous stage. The heavy day is set at 6 – 8 repetitions, while the moderate day is in the area of 8-10 repetitions.

3.3 Look good naked

Despite this stage’s name, the primary goal of the look good naked stage is to raise strength levels. We want our athletes to reach at least intermediate strength levels in the big lifts before moving on to the final stage. Some athletes might require even more strength than that to meet the demands of their sport. Some trainees, especially those not preparing for competition, may choose to voluntarily stay at this level in order to increase lean body mass.

3.3.1 Pure Strength Focus

If pure strength is the goal, we implement a DUP where on the heavy day, the athlete follows an APRE 3 template while on the moderate day, the APRE 6 template is implemented. For the push-pull split, after the second AMRAP set, weight is decreased by 10% for the first backoff set and then by another 5% for each subsequent backoff set.

3.3.2 Size & Size Focus

Gains in lean body mass require higher training volumes than strength gains. 40-70 repetitions per muscle group, two or three times weekly have been proposed [WER+2007]. We approach (yet not fully meet in a two-day split) this guideline by implementing a DUP with an APRE 6 heavy day and an APRE 10 moderate day. The push-pull workout actually meets the recommendations (~40 repetitions on the heavy day and ~60 repetitions on the moderate day) and follows the structure outlined in Section 3.3.1.

3.4 Unleash The Athlete

In the final training stage, heavy loads are combined with increased core demands (i.e., unilateral lower body lifts are implemented) and/or high velocities. The goal is to build strength and power that translates well to sports. The differences to the previous stage in terms of programming mostly concern the choice of exercises. The training splits and loading parameters are as outlined in Sections 3.3.1 and 3.3.2 for the respective training goals.

4 References

[HEL+2015] Helms, Eric, et al. „The Muscle and Strength Pyramid – Training“ (2015)
[MAN+2010] Mann, J. Bryan, et al. „The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes.“ The Journal of strength & conditioning research 24.7 (2010): 1718-1723.

[PRE+2009] Prestes, Jonato, et al. „Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength.“ The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.9 (2009): 2437-2442.

[WER+2007] Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J., & Thomeé, R. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports medicine, 37(3), 225-264.

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