This is the second article in my series on Training Methodology. If you missed the first article on the Specificity of training, you can read that here. In that article I discussed how good programming over time requires consistent exposure to stresses that result in specific adaptations to training. In this article I will discuss how the exercises are planned over time with a method called Periodization.
Periodization is the process of systematically organizing, planning, and executing training to achieve peak performance. In order to program successfully, strength coaches must understand and apply appropriate training stimuli at different points in time throughout a program. This strategic planning puts athletes in the best position possible to see positive results. There are many different ways to periodize a program and I will not begin to suggest that my way is better than another. It is an incredibly complicated process that continues to grow and adapt as we learn more in more about how the human body reacts to different training stimuli. Although there are many ways to periodize a program, there are a few tenets of strength training that cannot be ignored.
Hypertrophy is a fancy word used to describe the increase in muscle tissue size. A good strength and conditioning program should spend a considerable amount of time working on hypertrophy. This is because a bigger muscle (especially in terms of cross sectional area) always has the potential to be stronger than a smaller muscle. This does not necessarily mean the bigger muscle is stronger, just that the potential is there (more on this when we get to the strength part). Because of this, most programs spend a good amount of time making the muscle bigger before they focus on making the muscle stronger. We can control how the muscle adapts to training (getting bigger as opposed to stronger) by manipulating intensity, reps, and rest.
During the hypertrophy phase of training we generally want to focus on high reps and lower weight. The rep scheme should be in the 6-12 rep range and the weight should be “lower” compared to the weights we use during strength training (reps of 5-1). I don’t like to use the word “light” when referring to the weight used during hypertrophy training. The weight should not be light, just lower than what we would use for smaller sets. You should be using weights that are challenging in the 6-12 rep range. As a matter of fact, if your doing back squats for sets of 10, the last 3 reps should feel like your head is going to explode and the potential for defecating in your gym shorts is probable. If you just breeze through your last set while explaining to Marcy that your trip to the DMV was less than timely, you won’t be seeing “gainzzz” anytime soon.
In addition to high reps the hypertrophy phase is also characterized by short rest periods. I often see guys at the gym do a tough set of high reps in any given exercise before they sit around and talk for ten minutes between sets. This won’t get those biceps the size you want them to get. Rest should be 1 to 2 minutes between sets or less. In other words, hypertrophy training should be some of the most miserable shit you do all day. That’s why I love it so much. Slobby.
It should be noted that some programs may skip over or shorten the hypertrophy phase if they are worried about getting to large. An example might be weight class sports like MMA or wrestling. Spending more time training strength may be ideal to keep size down and maximize muscle strength. With this in mind, it does not mean that you will automatically get huge spending time doing hypertrophy training, especially if you are a woman. A common misconception among women is that they will get huge and look like a dude after weight training. Unless you are a a woman that frequent uses of anabolic steroids, this will not happen. This is primarily because of drastic hormonal differences in men and women.The hypertrophy will happen in all the right places and you will predominantly lose unwanted body fat making you dead sexy in the process.
Once the muscle gets nice and big we can focus on making it strong. The strength phase should consist of low reps and high weight. It’s the inverse of hypertrophy training. Rep schemes should be in the range of 1-5 reps and the weight should be as heavy as possible for the given set. Rest between sets should be longer than the hypertrophy phase, anywhere from 3 minutes to 10 minutes (although I personally find the higher end a bit excessive). This phase of training is a bit more enjoyable, or boring, depending on who you ask. Either way, intensity should be high due to the increase in weight lifted.
In every phase of training (hypertrophy, strength, and power) coaches must also put a large emphasis on recovery between training sessions as well. A common fault in programming is that the more work you do the better. Without adequate recovery between sessions an athlete will quickly reach a state of overtraining. Overtraining can lead to a decrease in performance, injury, illness, chronic fatigue and issues with the central nervous system. Age, training experience, level of fitness, and training phase are all factors that need to be considered when determining recovery time. For this reason strength coaches must know their athletes and closely monitor performance and intensity on a daily basis.
The final phase of the training program should consist of applying our new size and strength to developing power. We do this by training fast lifts with heavy weight and adequate rest and add a variety of explosive training methods. This is where the olympic lifts, plyometrics, speed training, agility training, and other sport specific exercises come into the program. Being big and strong is great, but it is essentially useless unless we can apply it to make things happen. By training the fast lifts we are teaching our muscles to fire effectively and productively to pick up heavy stuff and do it efficiently. Likewise, we are training our body to move forcefully and efficiently by doing different plyometric, speed, and agility training. Reps should be small for the olympic lifts with a good amount of rest and high attention to form and technique. Plyometrics and other speed or agility drills should also be done as fast as possible while focusing on proper technique. This is not a conditioning session and athletes should be fully recovered before each set. Like the other two phases, strength coaches should monitor performance and volume of training to make sure athletes are recovering and showing consistent progress.
It is important to understand that although these basic tenets of training are true, there many ways to skin a cat. Some coaches have had success overlapping and training different phases simultaneously throughout a program. You can alter the amount of time spent on each, the time cycled between each phase, or use progressions that are undulating and much less linear. The key here is to understand that there is not one best way to program, but while looking at a program you should be able to identify certain patterns and progressions that follow these basic guidelines. It is also important to understand that a key component to a periodized program is the planning and integration of recovery time, detraining, and different transitions between cycles. The different elements of training can be organized and implemented in an infinite number of ways and still be successful, but the basic principles of training should always be observed.
In the next article I will talk about how we attack conditioning by targeting specific metabolic pathways through interval training.