Loading Progressions we like to use

To make a plan, you first need to know where you want to go, ie, your goal. This is rather obvious, really. In a sports context, this can be accomplished e.g. by performing a needs analysis. Sometimes, just the head coach will already have a good idea what is needed in each athlete, so a little communication can fo a long way for the strength and conditioning coach.

Once the goal is set, a baseline (or starting point) needs to be established. Qualitative measures such as movement screens and assessments play a role, as do quantitative measures such as strength levels, time to exertion, etc.

A straight line is the fastest way between two points. In strength training, things can be slightly more complicated, though, especially in intermediate and advanced athletes. Linear progressions (your best analogy for a straight line) work, especially in the beginning of the training process, but at some point, biological inertia increases and the rate of adaptation slows down.

Before diving into the exact loading schemes we use in our system, I will briefly give you an overview of the general categories of progression. This knowledge of principles will serve to understand the basic idea behind the actual methods.

It is crucial to understand the basic principles of training when writing a program. Arguably the most important amongst which is the principle of progressive overload. Put simply, to elicit change, you must impose a challenge. Doing the same workout over and over again will cease to yield physiological adaptations (such as increased muscle mass, muscular endurance or rate of force development) after a certain time (although it may have a benefit to do the same thing over extended periods of time, but that is a different article altogether).

Another important principle is the application of adequate rest periods. The super compensation model and the fitness fatigue models both do a good job in illustrating the process of adaptation to training. Being models, they are inevitably inherently wrong (or at least, heavily over simplified), but very useful to make a point nevertheless. Simply put, training makes you fitter but also more fatigued. Your readiness (or performance) therefore does not drastically increase during a given training block. Once you recover and let fatigue dissipate (which it does at a faster rate than fitness), however, your performance goes up. Failing to recover will eventually lead to overtraining and can lead to injuries down the road.

Progressive overload can be implemented by manipulating various variables (so called loading parameters). In endurance training, this might be running for longer distance, or running the same distance faster (ie, increasing velocity). When training for muscular strength and / or hypertrophy, the parameters include the number of repetitions per set, the number of sets in a workout, the load on the barbell or exercise selection (ie, using a more challenging variation).

The most basic form of progression only considers one of these variables at a time, hence it is called linear progression. Mark Rippetoes Starting Strength is a good example for this. The program mainly revolves around three sets of five repetitions, with an increase in weight (ie, intensity) every workout. Theoretically, this means that an athlete who starts with an empty barbell (20 kilo) at day 0 and trains three times a week will squat 407,5 kilos at the end of the year (52 weeks × 3 weekly sessions
× 2,5 kilo increase per session, no increase in the first session, start with 20 kilo). Needless to say that this does not work for a long time, hence more sophisticated methods need to be applied for intermediate and advanced athletes. Especially for beginners, however, implementing some linear progression can make sense.

Slightly more sophisticated is a double progression. As the name implies, two loading parameters are considered rather than a single one. This is where repetition ranges come into play. Rather than sticking to a given number of repetitions, eg, five, a certain range that fits the training goal is defined. This could be three to five repetitions for absolute strength development. Initially, a weight that allows for three or four repetitions is chosen. The athlete stays with this weight and tries to beat his personal record by performing one repetition more than during the previous workout. Being able to lift a given weight more often, say five times instead of three, is indicative for an increase in strength (as long as repetitions are kept to a reasonable number). Only when the athlete is able to compete every working set at the upper limit of the repetition range is the weight increased.

Even more intricate is triple progression. Again, as the name implies, a third parameter is taken into consideration. Pavel’s ROP program is a good example for this. Initially, a weight is chosen that can be lifted (in this case, overhead pressed) a certain number of times, say three. A certain number of sets, say again three, is completed with that number of repetitions. Pavel implements this by brilliantly, via repetition ladders, but that is beyond the scope of this article. From this starting point, repetitions are added until the upper range limit is hit in each set. Then, sets are added until a target number is reached (eg five sets of five repetitions). Only in the last step is weight added to the bar and sets and repetitions are reset to their initial number.

All the examples presented above either constantly progress (increase) a parameter or at least, keep it constant. In contrast, multiple parameters can be manipulated in an undulating fashion, such that when one variable goes up, the other(s) go down and vice versa. Wendler’s 531 is an excellent example for this. Sets of five repetitions in the first week are replaced by sets of three in the second set and finally, a work up to a heavy single or double in the third. As the number of repetitions decreases, training intensity gradually increases. While the heaviest set in week one is done at 85% 1RM, week three features a set at 95% 1RM.

Speaking of 531, this the fourth week in that program is a planned deload week. The goal is to give the body time to recuperate and recover. After the deload, training loads are recalculated for the next block.

Now that the principles have been laid down and illustrated with suitable examples, the methods we often use can be explained. Traditional periodization schemes usually start with something called an anatomic adaptation phase, which aims at building a general fitness base, strengthening the passive structures and building work capacity to prepare the body for higher training loads in later blocks.

Work, in a physical sense, is defined as force by distance. In a strength training context, this can be translated to weight by repetitions. Weight corresponds to force (as it is, by itself, mass times earth acceleration aka gravity) while repetitions are a good proxy for distance (assuming somewhat constant range of motion across repetitions). Work capacity, by definition, is the ability to perform work. In a strength training context, that means lifting weight more often. In other words, this is strength endurance training or what most people call general fitness. Linear progression works perfectly fine here. The most suitable variable to manipulate is the number of repetitions. In order to make things slightly simpler, we use time as a proxy. Assuming a somewhat constant tempo of lifting, this is a absolutely acceptable. The training load is progressed by simply adding ten seconds to the set duration every week, starting with thirty seconds and going all the way up to a full minute. Depending on lifting tempo, this will mean something between eight (301 tempo) and fifteen (101 tempo) repetitions in the first week. The fourth week comes between fifteen (301 tempo) and thirty repetitions (101 tempo). After four weeks, the intensity is increased and another block is started, with thirty seconds per set. Since this type of training is not very hard on the joints or the central nervous system, a deload usually is not necessary.

In a traditional periodization scheme, after the Anatomical Adaptation phase, a hypertrophy phase follows. Training volume is the primary driver behind muscular hypertrophy. This is why many programs work in the eight to fifteen repetition range. At this intensity, enough repetitions per set can be performed to keep the training session time efficient. At the same time, the intensity is high enough to actually elicit adaptation. Effort, rather than absolute load, seems to be the deciding factor. A weekly undulating, autoregulative progression works just fine for that. Over a four week block, the athlete begins with three sets of twelve repetitions. The last set is taken close to failure, ie, as many repetitions as possible (AMRAP) are performed. For each repetition above the target, the weight is increased by 2.5 kilos. If, for example, fifteen repetitions are performed with 75 kilos, the next 12RM block will be based on a 12RM of 82.5 kilos. The next week, three sets of nine repetitions are performed, with the last set being AMRAP again. Finally, the procedure is repeated with sets of six repetitions in the third week. Needless to say, weights are increased from week to week. The fourth week is a deload week which can be skipped if the athlete recovers well.

After sufficient muscle mass was built in the hypertrophy block, max strength training can be performed on top of that foundation. Typically, this type of training entails high intensities (85%+) for low volumes (<6 repetitions / set). Many methods can be employed, depending on the athletes strength levels. For intermediate athletes, 531 is effective and easy to implement.

  • Week 1: 65%, 75%, 85% for 5,5,5+ repetitions
  • Week 2: 70%, 80%, 90% for 3,3,3+ repetitions
  • Week 3: 75%, 85%, 95% for 5,3,1+ repetitions
  • Week 4: 40%, 50%, 60% for 5,5,5 repetitions

Sets with a (+) are taken close to failure, ie, AMRAP. The fourth week serves as a planned deload. After the deload, 1RM is adjusted by 5 kilos for lower body lifts and 2.5 kilos for upper body lifts, respectively. Another cycle is then started with these new stats.

A hybrid scheme for improving both strength and muscle mass can easily be derived from 531 by slightly increasing volume while at the same time slightly decreasing intensity. Kaczmarskis 863 does exactly that. The structure is the same as that of 531:

  • Week 1: 60%, 70%, 80% for 8,8 8+ repetitions
  • Week 2: 65%, 75%, 85% for 6,6,6+ repetitions
  • Week 3: 70%, 80%, 90% for 3,3,3+ repetitions
  • Week 4: 40%, 50%, 60% for 8-10 repetitions

Power is the product of force and velocity (although personally, I prefer to think of it as work by time). Since two variables are involved, further distinctions such as strength-speed and speed-strength can be made, depending on where the emphasis is put. A straight punch in boxing would rather benefit from increased speed-strength, while a double leg takedown in wrestling depends more on strength-speed. Science for Sport has a good article on the force velocity curve and how different loading parameters affect different strength qualities.

Prilepins chart offers guidelines for implementing different training methods. Although the chart was derived from the training of olympic weightlifters, it can still be used for training all kinds of athletes, if the coach understands the demands of the sport.

For striking oriented combat sports, speed-strength is arguably more important than strength speed. In our system, to stay consistent with the other loading schemes, we use a three-week loading block.

  • Week 1: 3×6 repetitions @30%
  • Week 2: 3×5 repetitions @45%
  • Week 3: 3×4 repetitions @60%

The fourth week is a deload. After that, another cycle is started with slightly higher loads. Generally, we are looking for a 10% increase from cycle to cycle. When concentric speed drops off considerably with the higher load, we will decrease again. A good coaching eye is crucial for making these decisions on the spot.

Remember that methods are many, principles are few – methods may change but principles never do. In the future, we might well replace certain methods if we find something that works better.

So long, don’t get hurt