By Cody Roberts
As high-performance practitioners, it is our responsibility to think logically about the programming and implementation of training as it relates to the actual daily environment of our athletes. In many cases, those athletes are adjusting to an academic load and ever-evolving range of social stresses (from friends, family, and life), as well as a multitude of lifestyle factors that can and should be guided along with training prescription (i.e., nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, and behavior).
Recognizing that athletes are in a situation with countless spontaneous distractions and interactions, we must ultimately put pen to paper and make decisions on where to start, and from there, create a plan for where to go. The plan is to help our athletes progress: Moving forward, evolving, growing, and developing into better and stronger versions of who they were before. This means stressing and adapting, pushing through overload or overreach, and allowing response, recovery, and growth to occur. There are countless ways to achieve progress, and the numerous variables to manipulate (volume, intensity, effort, tempo, rest periods, frequency, etc.) can be overwhelming.Planning lets coaches and athletes focus on other tangible concerns in training, sport, and life. Click To Tweet
Eventually, some organization must come through the chaos, as the practitioner thinks critically about the adaptive process of the athlete(s) and the training effect pursued by the coach and athlete. With planning comes purpose and clarity for both parties (coach and athlete), and it enables them to focus more attention on other tangible concerns throughout training, sport, and life. The lifting (or weight room) piece is understood, and there is a shared road map for what to do and in which direction to go.
Adapting to Variety – Dose and Response?
The linear periodization model takes the all-important progress-based approach and starts with high volumes and low intensities, continuing the inverse relationship across time. Intensity (weight on the bar) continues to increase as volume (total reps and reps per set) continues to decrease. This definitely works, especially for beginners, but like all things it only works for a certain amount of time. The practitioner must nurture, monitor, and control the adaptive process—and ultimately the training effect. This is because the planning and principles are only the starting point. The day-to-day adjustments are what make the training effective, coupled with the education along the way on how to improve the readiness of the athlete throughout the microcycle.
It is through this model that block periodization has evolved as a superior alternative, being potentially more effective and impactful within a given period of training. Rather than a linear approach across time, this model takes blocks of 2-6 weeks to undulate or concentrate training. Charles Poliquin, a proponent and forefather who we recently lost, wrote about this in 1988, in a classic NSCA Journal article: “Five Steps to Increasing the Effectiveness of Your Strength Training Program.” (May you rest in peace and thank you, Charles, for the legacy you left and the knowledge and experience you shared throughout your lifetime).Block periodization is a superior choice; potentially more effective in a given training period. Click To Tweet
With everything that has changed in the last 30 years, it is amazing to consider how so much remains the same. In a time when things were potentially simpler than they are today, due to the lack of technology in the weight room, Poliquin shared the concept of undulating periods of volume and intensity (“Accumulation & Intensification”), mentioning the adaptive process and ways to promote and encourage maximum benefits with variety1. But let us not get too caught up in terms, definitions, and labels. Instead, let’s focus on the dosage of training, and the response of the athlete across time (most importantly, when strength is the goal and in the weight room setting through the off-season, while preparing the athlete for competition). In the end, the ideal is to develop an athlete who is able to generate more force, with potentially greater coordination as well.
Strength Training in Cyclic Sports – Muscles to Movements
In sports like track & field and rowing, there is not much variety to the competitive event (or, for that matter, the training for that event). Athletes perform the same technical, structured movement with fluidity and rhythm, and the more efficient these repetitive actions are over and over, the better the athlete will be. There is a massive aerobic component and ability to endure with these events, as it is the average velocity across the race that determines the winner.
Whether you understand the law of averages or the law of large numbers, we know that with a greater maximum comes a greater average. This means that improving strength and power output in these athletes will ultimately improve their average velocity and, in turn, their performance. With this goal in mind, the picture and purpose become clearer on how to plan and program training in the weight room for athletes in a cyclic sport.
This leads us to consider the relationship of movements and muscles, and the understanding that, ultimately, we want to achieve movement-related adaptations, so we may shy away from the “bodybuilding mentality” that focuses on individual muscles. But it is actually the muscle-related adaptations that increase force production. As Chris Beardsley recently shared:
“…it is the adaptations in the muscles (or motor units) that allow us to increase force production in sporting movements, and thereby increase athletic performance.”
— Chris Beardsley (@SandCResearch) Dec 5, 2018
The ability to generate maximal force comes from increased4:
- Motor unit recruitment
- Lateral force transmission
- Muscle fiber diameter
- Tendon stiffness
Strength can be improved through an increase in cross-sectional area (hypertrophy), as well as the improved motor unit recruitment of an athlete’s given muscle fibers (neuromuscular efficiency/adaptation). Techniques utilized in the bodybuilding and powerlifting community (now supported through scientific research and understanding) indicate that hypertrophy occurs from:
- Metabolic stress
- Mechanical tension
- Muscle damage
These stimuli occur at, through, and of the muscle. But when training for longer periods than an 8- to 12-week research study, there needs to be balance and variety across time, as training all qualities simultaneously or frequently can lead to overtraining and maladaptation because of mixed or inconsistent signaling.
In Poliquin’s 1988 article, he shared information from the Alberta Weightlifting Association on their methods of planning training for weightlifters, stating that “in order to force the neuromuscular system to adapt to the training load, it is of the utmost importance to plan variations in both volume and intensity of load.”2 He further stated that “linear overloading is hardly advisable,” and in order to maximize potential, athletes should begin with a hypertrophic-centered approach through a “Hypertrophy Phase” characterized by:
- Higher volumes (total reps)
- More muscle damage
- Greater time under tension (reps per set)
- Greater metabolic stress
This would be followed by neuromuscular engagement and recruitment, increasing the use of higher threshold fibers and motor units through a “Neuromuscular Phase” of:
- Greater intensity (weight on the bar)
- Maximizing mechanical tension through the tissues
It is this undulation of phases that can be incredibly beneficial, providing necessary progress and increased strength that impacts performance on the track or in the water. I have found this concept to be beneficial in a number of ways, with some important aspects I would like to highlight regarding its execution and effectiveness.This undulation of phases can be very valuable, providing necessary progress and increased strength. Click To Tweet
Starting Point to Strength
As always, it is not about what you do, but how you do it that makes it effective. This process starts with a shared goal of strength development, within the minds of both the coaches and athletes involved. The majority of the work outside of the weight room is meant to develop capacity and energy system function, as well as the mental fortitude to endure paces and volumes that create adaptations within the cardiorespiratory system. Unlike the acyclic team sports that involve numerous qualities, skills, abilities, and reactionary components, these cyclic sports have a narrower focus when it comes to the nuts and bolts of development. As long as coaches place strength training correctly and plan the volumes and intensities of endurance work appropriately, strength development can concurrently occur with the development of aerobic capabilities.
Establish Movement Efficiency
With our shared strength development goal in mind, there is then the introduction of the movements and exercises that we will use to develop strength. Obviously, the exercises are designed to promote strength in the musculature utilized in competition. Knowing that we will work into a phase of training where we promote weight on the bar and maximizing mechanical tension, we want to prepare the athlete for the barbell exercises (squat, deadlift, press, pull) that will be used later in the “Neuromuscular Phase.”
Movement efficiency is a product of:
- Mobility – the ability to move through an unrestricted full range of motion.
- Stability – the ability to create tension and control through bracing and foot pressure.
- Posture – the ability to engage core musculature and support orthopedic positions of the spine and joints.
- Balance – the ability to work with symmetry and control throughout movement.
These are the ancillary—but foundational—pieces that must be in place to properly prescribe, implement, and develop strength through our primary movements and exercises. This is the bedrock of any work in the weight room, as technique is always the primary focus, and should never be sacrificed for weight on the bar.
Technique first, ALWAYS.
Mind Muscle Connection: Internal AND External
Studies can argue which approach is more effective: internal (focusing on the muscle contracting) or external (focusing on moving an object), but both are important for individuals and exercises, and both are time and place dependent. Targeting the muscle through an internal focus is an excellent starting point, as the goals of the Hypertrophy Phase are to promote greater time under tension (metabolic stress and muscular damage), pushing sets upwards of 8-20 reps for 30-60 seconds. Developing a mind-muscle connection and promoting a sense of feel and usage (ability to contract/engage) within that will stimulate and maximize growth and strength, as well as give an athlete the sense they are working the muscles used to improve performance.
This also relates to the metabolic component (accumulation and usage/removal of lactate and hydrogen ions during extended intense bouts) that these cyclic/endurance athletes are accustomed to experiencing systemically throughout training for their event (running/rowing) and can be a feeling they can benefit from more quickly than if we promoted more weight on the bar. Depending on the athlete’s experience and knowledge of RPE (rate of perceived exertion), I often simply prescribe the sets as “Burn/Fatigue” with RPEs of 7-8 with great effectiveness, and the rep range of 8-12 or 15-20 as a secondary component.
This enables many things to occur:
- Loads are controlled with a higher rep range. (Potentially safer? Limiting the too-much, too-soon issue.)
- Sets are more effective as athletes extend sets into necessary exertions, fatiguing tissues and allowing impactful stress based on metabolic response.
- Athletes develop better motor patterns through increased repetitions, gaining necessary experience and sensation of the muscles working as they understand how to work and fight through fatiguing sets.
- Volume is effectively our driver and purpose, promoting great technique and more reps at a given load across the weeks.
This allows for the transition towards focusing on external load and moving that, as well as contracting the targeted muscles. All in all, during this Accumulation/Hypertrophy Phase, we target muscles through movements.
The Swinging Pendulum
Nothing lasts forever, and too much of a good thing can turn bad. This is where the coach must intervene, as overreaching can have a negative impact on the development of the athlete, leaving them at risk for injury. As Poliquin shared, “your body is well equipped to protect itself against intensity of work, but not against volume of work.”1 Therefore, there can be a point when volume must be reduced and more is not better. Depending on the athlete, this could take anywhere from 2-6 weeks. When working in a team setting, it is always best to lean towards the minimal effective dose of 2-3 weeks, because of all the other training and life stressors that are simultaneously accumulating.There can be a point when volume must be reduced and more is not better. Click To Tweet
Fatigue accumulates and the newness of the training begins to fade, staleness and monotony begin to rear their ugly heads, and the law of diminishing return ensues.
Shifting Our Focus
As we shift into a Neuromuscular Phase of training, our goal of strength development remains, but our means and methods shift to encouraging greater loads on the bar. We shift into a 3-6 rep range initially, promoting RPEs of 8-9 with the goal of mechanical tension. We can play with variations and prescriptions of tempo to help drive this, as well as controlling/encouraging greater loads. But this is where we become technicians, focusing on the movement itself, and the athletes begin to develop a routine as we address the bar physically and mentally (applying the same appreciation for a few repetitions as we do for the skill of repetitive actions in running and rowing). The same mindful and technical approach is taken to lifting heavy loads, as this allows for the most beneficial result.
These are not “max out” sets and we do not work from percentages. A percentage is an ever-changing number based on the time of day and readiness/recovery rates, and percentages can either limit or hurt an individual with too little or too much load for a given time and day. We continue to rely on technique, and focus on the prescribed RPEs, progressing loads over the block and gaining confidence and experience along the way. Following a percentage-based model can be disheartening, as we are in the middle of off-season training and the opportunity to improve can be limited based on everything at play.
We no longer focus internally or look for the muscular burn/fatigue, but rather begin to understand the nervous system’s impact on muscular contraction and movement of an external load. Developing and establishing proper and efficient recruitment of the musculature being used is of vital importance to the athlete and their strength development, as well as exposure to both techniques of internal and external foci.
This phase should also only last 2-3 weeks for the same reasons as the Hypertrophy Phase: staleness, adaptation, and monotony.
Always Better the Second Time Around
Henry Ford is credited with saying that: “It is always possible to do a thing better the second time.”
This quote and concept have encouraged and guided our alternation of shorter blocks (2-3 weeks) of higher volumes with higher intensity for strength improvements. Each block has similarities and differences, both are necessary, and the complement of the two helps to make performance (and ultimately strength development) as effective as possible. Within the annual plan there exists a roughly four-month period that is designated for “general” preparation, or off-season training. Competition and performance within the given sport/event is not the primary focus and there are more resources (time, energy, and effort) dedicated to building performance qualities such as strength.
It is very simple to work with athletes whose primary goal in the weight room is strength, but in order to make the most productive progress possible, undulation is important. Experience is a great measure of an athlete’s ability, and having already experienced an initial hypertrophy block, their mental and physical preparedness is definitely better the second time around. They know what is expected and what they are capable of, and can compare the initial Hypertrophy Phase to Hypertrophy Round 2.
In this, there’s a similar prescription of 6-15 reps as intensity will likely go up naturally, but we still prescribe sets of “Burn/Fatigue” with the rep range goal and 7-8 RPE goal in mind, allowing the athlete to have focus and purpose. The athlete may now be more prepared and ready to understand the internal versus external focus during the set itself, as the technique and motor pattern are well understood at this point. Volume is high again, intensity is reduced, and even though it is difficult and uncomfortable, the athletes know it is only for a short time.
Again, 2-3 weeks allows for productivity and progress, but limits overreaching. Some athletes enjoy this type of training and it allows them to embrace this side of their strength development, while those who despise higher reps per set know it is a necessary stimulus for their event.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and the plan across the off-season transitions yet again to Neuromuscular Phase 2.
Promoting Weight on the Bar with a Twist
As we transition between these phases there may be breaks and unloading along the way if needed, but sometimes the transitions flow seamlessly into one another as the shift in training allows for an unloading of either volume or intensity. As it relates to the academic calendar, this period of time can coincide with end of semester exams and the culmination and accumulation of fatigue and stress from school, life, and the holiday season. An effective approach that I have found here is to prescribe total reps (8-12), and accomplish those reps across 2-5 sets with 2-5 reps per set. By encouraging loads as opposed to reps, if the athlete gets five repetitions in a set and doesn’t achieve the 8-9 RPE necessary for maximum neuromuscular recruitment, then the load on the bar is increased.
There is also a built-in safety component here as opposed to straight sets: The athlete may choose to descend the reps per set across the sets (performing four reps the first set, three reps the second set, and two reps for the third and fourth sets). This also allows an individualized approach to how the volume is achieved, keeps focus the same, and ultimately puts the athlete in the safest position possible to achieve effective results.Sets w/a total repetition goal allow intensity to increase, but adapt workload to athlete readiness. Click To Tweet
Approaching the sets through a total repetition goal can also allow intensity (weight on the bar) to increase, but adapt the workload to the readiness of the individual, where they are able to perform singles or doubles at a given load and not feel discouraged that they’ve lost strength because a session fell on a day/time where their readiness was challenged.
‘Nothing New in S&C Except You!’
In the last 10-20 years, the research and sharing of training methods have grown exponentially. The scientific side is finally catching up to the practical application, relative to what is happening and what should happen with exercise prescription, periodization, and programming. Those who’ve been working in the field during this time have a unique perspective—if you ever have the opportunity to hear Al Vermeil speak, you will surely never forget it. He is one of my absolute favorite people, strength coach or not, and another forefather of our profession. (The subtitle above is a Vermeil quote.)
A choice line of Vermeil’s is one he shares from Bob Alejo, which often arises as different training modalities and techniques continue to come in and out of practice; “Show me what it is, and I’ll tell you what we used to call it.” The point is that many of the training methods and techniques being promoted today were already being implemented at least a generation ago.
What Poliquin termed “Accumulation and Intensification,” I classify as “Hypertrophy and Neuromuscular.” Synonyms or not, labels do not matter. What matters is the athlete’s understanding, purpose, and progress. After a period when the scientific research side was segregated from the practical side, we are now coming full circle to supporting the methods behind the madness, so to speak. Coaches and practitioners like Vermeil, Alejo, and Poliquin have established training methodologies, schemes, and principles that all of us should revisit and appreciate.
Training is difficult to generalize, as there is so much context to the environment and individual to appreciate. But the practitioner must embrace the gray areas, expose the athlete to variety, and manage the swinging pendulum of load and recovery to promote adaption. This is not new, but through the marriage of science and traditional practices, training systems have grown more concrete.An undulation of volume and intensity allows for the necessary flexibility in training prescription. Click To Tweet
The undulation of volume and intensity allows for the necessary flexibility in training prescription and enables the athlete to have ownership and fluidity in the process. It is an approach that I have found effective for applying the principles of our forefathers, as well as adapting to the individual to make training productive and enjoyable. New is good, but can quickly fade, and with experience comes knowledge. Thirty years ago, Poliquin made the reference that “Variety is the spice of life,”1 and through life we know that we live and learn, specifically in that order.
Variation of a stressor creates a more durable and adaptable athlete, creating a bigger cup to fill and stronger foundation to build upon. The timing and exposure should fluidly evolve and flow in a progressive curriculum that allows for learning and development. Everything works, but nothing works forever. Why not get the best of both worlds, and allow variety and experience to flourish?
- Poliquin, C. “Football: Five steps to increasing the effectiveness of your strength training program,” National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal.10(3):34-39, June 1988. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Citation/1988/06000/FOOTBALL__Five_steps_to_increasing_the.5.aspx
- Cherviak, A. 1983. “Methods of Planning Training for Weightlifters,” Alberta Weightlifting Association, Edmonton.
- Weineck, J. 1983. Optimales Training. Perimed, Erlangen.
- Chris Beardsley, S&C Research, Movements & Muscles