3 Keys for Self-Programming

Programming for any strength sport is seen as a black art by many, but the main concepts around training are very easy to grasp. A lot of people pay an incredible amount of attention to strictly following their sets/reps/percentages to the letter with no deviation, while there are many who just hit the gym and put in the hard yards – both have their advantages and disadvantages and I don’t rate either of them higher than the other.

There are a few principles that any good programming for any sport will demonstrate – periods of high and low specificity, smart fatigue management and the gradual increase in volume over time are the few I believe are most important.

1 – Periods of High and Low Specificity

The first principle is one of the easiest to learn. Moving through an athlete’s season, the further away from competition the more variety should be included in training, and these can easily be split up into blocks with a specific focus as you do in a fully periodised program. The benefits of alternating between phases are numerous – avoiding stagnation by keeping mental involvement high, being able to target identified weak points, more effectively building muscle mass, etc. While I am predominantly referring to strength athletes, the same principles apply to any sport that involve multiple aspects of ‘fitness’ (ie. strength, endurance, power output, sport-skill, etc).
An example of this can be seen comparing how I would program a typical off-season and on-season squat day for a low-bar squatter.

Off Season
Safety Squat – 5×10
Pause Front Squat to high box – 6×2
Leg Press – 5×20
GHR – 5×12
Walking Lunges/BW Squat Drop Set

On Season
Low Bar – 6×3
Pause Squats – 5×2
GHR – 3×12
Abs – 3-4 Sets

The off-season program is utilizing variants of the focus lift that are useful for bringing up weak areas, and as the athlete moves back to on-season the competition lifts are almost solely trained to hone technique, with small amounts of ‘maintenance’ accessory work.

The timeline of moving towards periods of higher specificity varies from athlete to athlete – while I think newer athletes may need to spend more time working on the ‘focus’ lifts or events to really hone technique and advanced athletes might only need 4-6 weeks of highly specific training to be at the point where they are technically proficient, there is another line of thinking that the more advanced you become, the more specific you need to become to see any further increases in technical proficiency (see Boris Sheiko).

I don’t think there is any ‘best’ approach to training, however if you are self-programming this is where the benefit of keeping detailed notes about your training and results really comes into play. Keep in mind that any changes to programming should be gradual and be trialled for at least 2 months before evaluating their effectiveness – often there will be a decrease in strength before the increases come.

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2 – Gradual Increase in Volume Over Time

This is the easiest principle to understand, and the easiest to quantify – through your training life, your total training volume or tonnage should gradually increase. This can be achieved in many different ways; not just by putting more weight on the bar. Adding in extra sets, performing extra reps, doing more warm-up sets or even throwing in another training day are all easy ways that you can increase total training volume. If you were deadlifting once a week with a deadlift max of 240kg, an example training session could be:

60kg x5
Total deadlift volume: 5420kg spread over 35 reps, for an average training intensity of ~65% (including warmups).

If that program was run and a plateau was reached at the conclusion (no increase in one rep max), you could experiment with running the following arrangement for the next training cycle:

Day 1:
60kg x5

Day 2:

Total deadlift volume: 7980kg spread over 55 reps, for an average training intensity of ~60% (including warmups)

Despite the extra days and working sets only being at 75% of the athletes max (and dropping overall training intensity over a week), there is a weekly volume increase of ~47% without needing to increase the weight on the bar. This addition of training volume is a great driver for hypertrophy, and the increase in frequency can quickly lead to great increases in strength – this is why high frequency programs (Sheiko, Smolov, etc) all work! This approach is the first option for any of my clients who have reached a plateau, and has resulted in improvements across the board.
The downside to increasing training volume is it will tie in with the next aspect – fatigue management.

3 – Fatigue Management

Fatigue management is one of the hardest principles to measure, and will be completely different from athlete to athlete, and even change significantly over the training lifetime of an individual person. While devices such as HRV monitors are becoming more affordable and accessible for the general public, it will be some time before they will commonly be used as a measurement tool for fatigue. As an athlete moves closer to competition, fatigue will accumulate – this is a good thing. If there was never any fatigue accumulating, the training stimulus would be too low to elicit a good response (and therefore increase muscle/strength) and all the benefits of super-compensation would be lost. Unfortunately, if fatigue is accumulating faster than the body can recover, a whole host of problems can occur – reduced progression, increased risk of injury and even the dreaded ‘CNS fatigue’.  The issue occurs that most beginner-intermediate trainees are completely unable to tell when they are reaching the level where fatigue is too high, or they are finally doing some hard work! In most clients I have dealt with who were convinced they were overtraining (and had associated aches/pains, reduced alertness, etc), my observations have predominantly been that they were either just getting some hard work done and dealing with ‘normal’ side-effects, or that they weren’t eating/sleeping/recovering effectively.

From a programming perspective, there are many approaches to fatigue management that can easily and effectively be implemented. A big issue I see commonly is newer trainees testing their maxes way too frequently – while it’s good to know when you’re progressing, there is no need to go for a new max every session. Yes, as a complete beginner you can probably throw an extra 2.5kg on the bar every time you train, but as you get more advanced this can lead to injury and stagnation. One approach to avoiding this is setting up all training in phases, and only testing all maxes at the end of the phases relative to the work you were doing (ie. rep maxes, alternate lift maxes, etc).

Another approach very successfully used by many Eastern European-style programs is moving the bulk of your training below a certain percentage mark (for most this will be 85%), and only going above right near competition. This is an approach I frequently use with my athletes; the normal rules I stick by are only going over 90% for a maximum of 2 weeks at any time right before a deload week. This is a good rule of thumb for most people, however there are times when it can be ignored – using a Bulgarian methodology, +90% will be hit multiple times a week, and this style of programming can be run for long periods of time without a deload. These are programs for advanced lifters with highly specific and limited goals in mind, and should not be attempted by the majority of lifters out there.

There are many other approaches to limiting fatigue, both from a programming standpoint (ie. frequent deload weeks, adaptive programming) and from a recovery standpoint (massage, ice baths, etc). Once again, being able to experiment and figure out what works for you is the ideal end-goal. My general rule of thumb for knowing when you’re fatigued is when you feel physically/mentally fatigued AND you can no longer lift the weights you would normally throw around – if only one of those is occurring (ie. you feel beat up but you can still lift fine, or you feel ok but you can’t lift well) then you might just be adapting to a new training volume or you are slowly getting to the point of being over fatigued but not there yet.

Although this is only a brief article, it should be clear that the main concepts behind any good coaching  in strength sports are relatively easy to grasp for people of all levels as you realize that self-coaching is a skill that needs to be worked on the same as lifting! Keep these considerations in mind and, most importantly, track and evaluate your progress, which will lead to smarter training decisions, and you will be well on your way to being a better athlete.

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