Note from MR: The following is a guest post from my guy (and former podcast guest) Dan Sanzo.
Dan’s a guy I think the world of, and I think you’re going to love this article.
And if you enjoy Dan’s work, he’s opening 5 spots in his mentorship program, so be sure to reach out if you’re interested in learning more!
But enough from me….here’s Dan.
Whether you are a seasoned Strength and Conditioning Coach or an avid fitness enthusiast, you spend a lot of time planning your training.
The task has been completed so many times you have created a system – even if you don’t recognize it. Otherwise, there is no rhyme or reason to the training. We would just be “working out.”
This is nails on a chalkboard to serious fitness professionals.
Also, if you are like me, you may become stuck with paralysis by analysis. We strain to make the “right” choices. There are soooo many exercise variations and methods to choose from!
Moreover, a lack of planning would mean missing an opportunity to track successful or unsuccessful interventions. Knowing where you have been can help direct where you want to go.
This is especially true with daily adjustments to simultaneously appreciate and manage the idiosyncrasies of each individual we work with.
A template for the weekly and daily training plan is a key part of the system to efficiently create effective exercise programs. Three benefits of a template are:
- To guide the plan toward the desired physical adaptations and goals.
- To help manage the complexity of so many exercise options and training methods.
- To document the training process, response to exercise selection and session structure.
A training template is very useful for creating and managing many unique programs. This helps us guide each clients’ journey to improve human performance.
The reduction in complexity generates a clearer picture of what to include.
We can see how to work within the time limitations of the phase, week, or session.
Plus, we see where specific methods fit in. Effective decisions are made.
There are always tradeoffs with choices. So, having a system to improve efficiency and documentation may promote a degree of “cook book” training.
Most will receive similar ingredients – the exercises; similar preparation – the order of execution of the exercises; and similar cooking methods – set, reps, and intensity.
A “cook book” system is useful because it adds constraints and helps us include the essentials. A training session may miss the mark without particular exercises or methods geared toward the goal.
Similarly, a meal will not make sense if it’s meant to be Italian, but we are dousing everything with barbeque sauce and throwing uncooked pasta on the grill.
The challenge is many strength and conditioning programs, just like meals, require more intricacies than others. Exercise selection, intent, execution, context, and outcome all matter – a lot.
This is due to:
- Humans are complex systems – the interaction of all the parts create a behavior and relationship to the environment.
- A biotensegrity model of human movement.
- Management of internal forces and pressure changes as well as external forces.
- Perception’s influence on physiological constraints – our emotions, attitude, experience, and environment impact our adaptability.
Each of these concepts deserves elaboration which is beyond the scope of this article.
Basically, consideration of these topics is taking the principle of specificity of training to the zenith. Their implementation is the difference between a cook and a chef.
Cooks follow directions and can repeat simple meals.
Chefs have great skill with the intricacies. They are masters at mixing flavors, adding the right spice, timing, etc. A chef’s understanding maximizes the ingredients.
Fitness professionals can use a training template and be creative chefs!
The Basis For Individualized Training
A biotensegrity model of human movement offers a key component for the purposes of this article.
Biological tissue, such as muscle, under higher stress are not “… representative of tissues that are functioning within their normal mechanical and energy-efficient optimum” (Scarr, 2018, p. 40).
Muscle is functionally adaptable at lower stresses. It becomes stiffer and stronger as loading increases (within physiological limits).
Thus, muscle, as well as other tissue, adapted to produce higher forces are not the same as tissue maintaining a degree of pliability under lower forces.
The change in length due to forces applied is a nonlinear relationship (Scarr, 2018, pp. 38-40). We can’t delineate exactly how much an “X” increase in force influences the muscle malleability.
Although, the essence of workout design is deciding the relative degree of tissue stiffness development for max force (strength, power, excessive hypertrophy) versus tissue adaptability for health, movement, recovery, repeatability, and response-ability.
Everyone isn’t going to fit into the powerlifter, bodybuilder, Olympic weightlifter, and track and field categories.
The desired physical requirements for the context of those activities are much more clearly defined. They are like making mac and cheese out of a box with a hot plate in your college dorm room. Maybe a slightly more complex traditional boiled dinner for St. Patty’s Day.
The directions, ingredients, and cookware are all modest. Add some attention and patience and we’re all set.
The resistance training plan for activities at the extreme end of a force production spectrum are similarly humble. The “directions” are to limit relative motion at joints.
This allows the creation of greater amounts of stress on superficial muscle. The increase in tension can increase force generation, and/or move loads at higher rates. The goal is to significantly increase systemic rigidity.
There are a limited number of exercises, the “ingredients”, to become proficient at. The exercises primarily rely on a barbell and maybe dumbbells, the “cookware.” The program template and goals should be quite constraining by design.
Most people need greater elaboration in their fitness plans. A training plan should not immediately be labeled as successful because it increases someone’s 1 RM’s and 40 yard sprint time.
The sacrifice in a degree of tissue adaptability for those numbers may or may not be beneficial – it depends on the context. Sometimes it will be beneficial to make someone more rigid. The tradeoff is worth it, or maybe it is for a period of time (competitive season versus the early offseason).
Other times, the goal may be to increase or maintain certain testing numbers without sacrificing the degree of adaptability needed.
However, many weight room enthusiasts will have to give up an amount of their personal strength and conditioning records to increase resiliency, athleticism, and participation in their activity. Notice I said “amount” and not “all.” The amount cannot be determined without information about the individual, the task, and environment.
The adaptableness an individual requires depends on:
- Recoverability demands between high intensity efforts (seconds, minutes, hours, days)
- Randomness of the activity – joint positions and muscle actions needed to respond to the unknown of the task and environment (change of direction, body contact, falling, footing, surfaces, reactions, etc.)
- Bias in energy system demands
- Desire for unrestricted movement and relief of joint pressure
- Unique health status of the individual (every possible subsystem you can imagine may matter)
All this complexity creates shades of grey and removes max force production personal records as the pinnacle of “good” training.
Especially, for field and court athletes who demand multidirectional, multi-energy system, repeatable bouts of high intensity efforts. The active general population is more like these athletes than bodybuilders, powerlifters, or track athletes.
How to Manage the Complexity
So training is complex, and shit isn’t as simple as “just get stronger.” Now what?
First, we have to measure things, and this includes some sort of force production testing.
Choose strength and/or power tests you deem depict physiological qualities necessary for an activity. You can use joint motion from table test measures or dynamics movements to measure adaptability.
These assessments are efficient to perform, but are more subjective. There is skill and experience involved in testing joint range of motion on a table, or when using, ideally, more dynamic tests like a body weight squat or wall shoulder flexion assessment.
However, this ability is incredibly important to fine tune someone’s needs.
Second, the trick is to make the cook book manage the complexity yet be adaptable enough to meet the individual needs of our clients. This will help keep them on the road toward their goal.
The major methods to accomplish this are with the specific exercise timing, selection, execution, and sequence in the program.
The testing and template allow constant calibration of what I am calling the “force-adaptability ratio” of an individual. I have no idea what the literal ratio is for anyone.
But, I do know there is a constant push-pull between creating high forces against gravity and sacrificing relative motion at the joints to do so.
We can track the numbers in the force producing tests and the available motion on the movement tests. We will gain an idea of how much movement/adaptability can be sacrificed to increase force production. The design of the template will help alter the force-adaptability ratio in the direction we choose.
Everyone will handle training and activity differently.
The more we work with someone and can recognize how he responds to inputs, the better the adjustments we can make for force production or adaptability needs. Coaching will always be an art.
With this force-adaptability philosophy in mind, we begin planning a training program starting at the macro. This investigates the weekly layout for the individual.
For athletes, this may spread over a season or entire offseason. For the general population I am usually only looking four weeks in advance.
I am looking to identify the scheduled “high” and “low” days in their lives. A high day refers to a large amount of stress. For athletes these are game days or how the coach always leads a hard practice following a day of rest.
Travel is another example for athletes or the general population. Also, it may be something as simple as friend’s wedding or because it’s Friday and the person likes to get after it.
A low day is broader. It may fall somewhere on the spectrum of a recovery session to a workout with progressive overload. A bias toward recapturing or maintaining relative motion at joints distinguishes low day training. I will elaborate further later in the article.
Once scheduled high days are identified, we can start planning when to implement high days of training – a force production emphasis.
There are many philosophies on this. I generally try to keep high days high and low days low. Thus, I consolidate the stress the best I can.
It’s like using fire. Many very beneficial ways to use it, but you have to control and contain it. Otherwise you may burn the whole damn structure down.
I try to alternate high and lows days in the plan. The idea is to take scheduled high amounts of stress and plan low day interventions around them to help manage the stress. Having an understanding of individual’s ability to handle stress may change this.
The emphasis of the macro plan can be shifted either direction accordingly. The better you know the training history, injury history, habits and lifestyle of the individual you are working with the better your educated guesses spacing high and low days.
We identify the high days to emphasize force production abilities, and the low days to accentuate adaptability. However, it’s easy to see how this plan will never be set in stone because of all the complexity previously mentioned.
The combination of assessments and reflection of interventions will help. It documents the journey of safe to fail experiments that is good training. We improve our understanding and evolve how we can help manage someone’s needs.
The daily plan is where all the action takes place. Remember, the premise of workout design is administering a ratio of tissue stiffness to tissue adaptability deemed beneficial.
Thus, most fitness professionals should be as savagely proficient supporting physiological changes for adaptability as we are in promoting rigidity. A Coach’s artistry really comes into play.
The first step is having an idea of where the client is on the continuum between force production and adaptability. Then we decide if their placement is helping them or hurting them.
Next, we make a decision about how much support the individual needs to maintain or improve adaptability. This will help dictate the strategies applied in the workout template.
I call these “bookend” strategies because they flank the force production stress on both ends – trying to manage the fire. The three methods are:
- “Low Days”
- Beginning/End of lift
- Inter and Intra-set
Athletes are constantly creating high amounts of force via games and practices. Most people have done very little to counter the incessant force production throughout their lives – fighting gravity is always a thing.
Plus, the really good athletes are genetically biased to produce greater force than others. They have to be taught to prevent their super powers from tearing them apart.
Every athlete, and many fitness enthusiasts, has been trying to produce max force against gravity. Physiological changes promoting force production have occurred even in the ones who are still skinny as twigs.
Our perception of their body composition doesn’t change this fact. So, an athlete doesn’t have to look like a linebacker to need work on the adaptation side of the spectrum.
Part of me hates referring to these sessions as “Low Days” because people will think it’s stretching or bullshit breathing exercises – it is not.
Or, a lack of understanding may create the notion low days sessions won’t promote muscle hypertrophy, strength or power gains. I am just over simplifying the concept of tissue stiffness differences. The training on low days skews toward developing a lesser degree of tissue stiffness relative to high days.
Low Days are still about resistance training and being athletic. A focus is for everyone to acquire an appreciable amount of muscle.
The rate of muscle action is still a priority. The focus on max muscle strain is just decreased. Methods to maximize hypertrophy and strength rely on maximum tissue strain.
Thus, in comparison, the degree of muscle mass and “weight room strength” gains will be less when training the adaptation side of the spectrum.
But, progressive overload still applies. Muscle and strength still increase relative to previous levels.
Low Days are used to bookend the force production of high days. In a way, planning training in this manner is similar to Block Training in regards to a singular goal.
Simply put, the entirety of the sessions focus on not using someone’s max force production strategies.
Each workout uses specific execution of exercises to recapture movement, as well as force absorption and production options. Physiological constraints will decrease. Clients gain the ability to perform ideal muscle actions with appropriate rate of execution for the context of their activity.
Performance increases for some because physical activity, and movement in general, is an emergent behavior. They now have options to handle the unknown/unpredictable.
Ultimately, the goal is to progressively overload our precise exercise variations. In theory, this will reinforce the developing muscle actions to help maintain them longer throughout higher levels of intensity, like competition.
However, athletics, and life, will inevitably revert them back to sacrificing adaptation for max force producing strategies. We have to continually give them what they are not getting.
Every athlete or general population client is not going to need this strategy for every training session. As previously mentioned, some sports, or positions in a sport, require greater rigidity and strength. The majority of workouts for these individuals will reflect those needs.
Low Days may be implemented as seen fit in a macrocycle of training. The early offseason is a perfect time to bias training towards adaptability. Max force production strategies can be gradually introduced as competition approaches. There are many ways to implement the Low Day concept.
Beginning and End
Prioritizing exercises that recapture movement/adaptability is what the warm-up activities and “cool down” post competition or training is meant to be. It can just be much more specific to an individual’s needs.
Someone can only get so far with the popular haphazard, body flailing, dynamic warm-up. We can do much better than that.
Bookending the training session or competition is the simplest scenario for adding benefits of adaptation into a training session. This works well for less complex cases and/or needs. It is useful for individuals heavily biased toward max strength or hypertrophy requirements.
This way, they may stay healthy enough to maintain or improve force production. Some really physically gifted folks may need simple strategies to maintain adaptability and health. The Beginning and End bookend method offers an easy way to blend the ratio.
Normally, I make the warm-up three rounds of three or four exercises performed as a small circuit. Sometimes, I create two pairs of two exercises. I structure it similar to the rest of the workout. I like getting into performing sets of exercise and focused work.
This section is just as important as all the other sets in the session. I want the design of the workout to reflect this fact.
The selection and execution of the exercises is even more important. The minutiae is what individualizes the warm-up and makes it more efficient.
I end the training session in a very similar manner to the warm-up because it’s the same goal. Everything after my main lifts or crescendo of the workout is like tapering toward regaining adaptation abilities. So all the accessory exercises are designed to recapture movement needs.
Again, performing multiple sets of specifically executed, personalized exercises.
The Beginning and End bookend strategy is a mix of both worlds. I like not clearly separating methods developing adaptation. Doing so ruins the flow and adds time. Plus, exercise with an adaptation bias shouldn’t be perceived as different. It’s all just training. The manner in which it is performed just shifts.
Inter and Intra-set
Pairing each force production emphasized exercise with a strategy that recaptures movement is another option. This would be an Inter-set method.
The more strength or hypertrophy exercises the more rigid the bias of the program. This strategy creates a more compact alternation between force production and adaptation within the workout.
Pairing each strength or hypertrophy option with something to recapture movement may help create the balance someone needs. The repeated pairing creates a bookend strategy throughout.
For example “A1” and “B1” would both promote greater superficial muscle stress for strength or hypertrophy. “A2” and “B2” would recapture some of the joint movement sacrificed to create the high forces. A constant back and forth throughout the training is produced.
Exercise selection can inherently bias training for force or adaptation. Some exercises have more play in the bias via the execution.
We can use these to alternate the training goals intra-set. Using a particular exercises variation, or requiring a very specific execution of an exercise with less resistance, can bias adaptation whenever we want.
For instance, we can bookend work sets focused on force production exercise with build-up and/or drop sets that bias adaptation. Or, every other set of the exercise can bias adaptation.
A back squat, a safety bar squat, a front squat, and a goblet squat is a simple continuum of force production to adaptation based purely on the position of the weight. We can use this relationship to create the fluctuation we are looking for in an Intra-set bookend strategy.
Asymmetrical stance positions and unilateral exercises have a ton of variation in terms of execution options. Combining something like a half kneel position with a one arm landmine press can bias a degree of muscle stiffness in multiple patterns.
Controlling the hip and thorax rotation may be all that is required to create a different strategy. This can be applied for on one side of the body versus the other within the same set or maybe every other set depending on the goals. The strategy is very useful for individuals with movement asymmetries impacting rotation, alternating legs, change of direction needs, etc.
I use variations of these methods with individuals who have mixed force and adaptation needs, but don’t have movement limitations deemed un-beneficial.
The type of force production and adaptation promoting exercises matters. I try to not choose force production exercises that create unmanageable compensations in each individual. Specific positions tend to work better than others for each person.
Program templates allow efficient creation of training plans. They offer inherent organization, simplicity, and tracked feedback. The ease of use may create a “cookbook” for workouts.
However, this doesn’t fit the specificity needed for many individuals. Adding some strategy to exercise selection and/or execution will alleviate the issue.
Understanding the muscle and tissue response to high stress allows a better understanding of exercise utility. A nonlinear relationship exists between the tissue rigidity in response to higher forces, and the tissue adaptability occurring with less force.
We develop a degree of tissue stiffness and a gradation of adaptability with training.
We can think of them as a ratio: Our idiosyncrasies, tasks, and the environment dictate the “force-adaptability ratio” best suited for us and our performance.
The mentality of “just get stronger”, in regards to max muscular strain in the weight room, needs to end as the default in exercise.
Individual needs aren’t so simple.
Most folk’s physical endeavors require greater physiological options. Thus, a training bias to create maximum tissue strain and rigidity isn’t always beneficial.
We can create a model of a training template using constraints to manage the complexity of human physiology. Yet, we can make it flexible enough to fit each unique individual.
The selection, execution, and timing of exercise is incredibly impactful. Applying “bookend” methods helps calibrate the force-adaptability ratio within the plan. They are another layer of strategy to customize fitness to a client’s distinct needs.
Scarr, Graham, and Stephe M Levin. Biotensegrity: The Structural Basis of Life. Handspring Publishing, 2018.