Programming Critically

Thanks to an upcoming seminar I’m doing and an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with another coach, I’ve been thinking a lot about good goal setting and planning and how it relates to programming. I thought about titling this “Thinking Critically”, and to program well you certainly need to do that, but you also have to apply it well.

I remember my very first university subject: Training Program Design and Implementation. It was my first real exposure to strength training theories – set and rep ranges, linear periodization, exercise selection and placement within a program. We had to come up with a yearly training plan for an athlete as our major piece of assessment. Being the nerd I am, I really enjoyed that assignment. I put together about a hundred page document with a yearly overview, including summaries of macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles, as well as example programs and rationale for their use (one that I would probably cringe to look at now!).

Fast forward to the real world.

When I started my work experience I expected to see the same neat format laid out for the entire season. I couldn’t have been more surprised to see a mixture of power and strength exercises programmed for the first cycle. It was my first exposure to concurrent training and strength and conditioning in real life, and while it took me a while to wrap my head around the difference between what I was seeing and what I was being taught, it’s been such a long time since I’ve even considered it that when the topic came up in conversation, I had to sit back and gather my thoughts for a minute.

Over the past years I’ve definitely gotten away from programming on a block-by-block basis typical of traditional linear periodization (in fact, I probably haven’t programmed like that since I had to do that assignment). I’ve stopped worrying about training blocks as such, and started looking at what I need to accomplish with my athletes or clients, the time and resources I have at my disposal, and what I’m starting out with. I might write one or two “base” programs using the sport and/or positional requirements, time available, and other demands of the sport as a starting point to determine things like the main lift(s) of the session and the overall training volume and frequency. Then it gets tweaked, based on the individual needs of the athlete, or a subgroup.

As an example, I might have a three month pre-season working with club rugby. I’ve got a wide range of athletes, training ages and ability levels, and I have to get a group of 30 players ready for the start of the season. I might break it down like this, with individual focus areas added in as appropriate.


 Watch the program in action. Look for how the players respond and what they achieve. Use the program results to determine what your next goal is (or if you need more of the same), what your timeframe is, and plan accordingly.

Thinking and programming critically using an outcome-based approach allows you to make faster progress towards individual goals, rather than moving through a set process as in traditional periodization models. It does, of course, make sense that increased size will help increase strength, and getting stronger equates to getting more powerful. However, if an athlete struggles to maintain size, what’s the point of putting him or her in a pure power phase? Alternately, if the athlete is already at their ideal playing weight, do they need a lot of hypertrophy training? Real life never seems to be as cut and dry as the traditional models. Consider what you want and where you’re starting from before jumping right into the process.


FMS: My New Approach to Training

As usual, these last few weeks have seen me nerding out on a couple of topics. I’ve been chasing up clinical exercise info to help support my exercise physiology application, which has been interesting, but more exciting (for me anyway) has been reading and going over Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen. I decided a while back that I’d like to seriously look at using the screen as part of my client assessment. I’ve always been a big believer in developing strong foundations prior to lifting heavy (or running hard, or anything else), and within my experience, movement dysfunction equals poor performance and pain – if not now, definitely down the track. At this point in my career (more as an athlete than a coach) the idea that fixing the basics rather than working on the pain site to improve function and performance makes sense. After all, as an athlete I’ve done a lot of “knee” rehab, with minimal gain and an increased awareness of hip dysfunction. Moving on to hip dysfunction has helped the knee some, but really emphasized a lack of core stability and strength. I’ve known about that for a while, namely because I know I don’t do anywhere nearly as much stability work as I should…

So I got the Functional Movement Systems books (Athletic Body in Balance and Movement, both by Gray Cook). I haven’t read them cover to cover (Movement has a lot of clinical stuff in it), and I think even when I have it’ll take a few repeats to get all the finer points. But the beauty of the books and the screen is that, for as popular as they are and as much info as they give you, they are extraordinarily simple. In particular, they stress a need to not overanalyze the movement. It’s a quick score based on what you see. So, armed with new found confidence in my ability to recognize good versus bad in basic movement patterns (and supported by the example pictures in the book), last night I had my very first crack at applying the FMS to a real-life client.

My self-review? It was definitely a first effort. It wasn’t as polished as it could be, and some of the questions I got hinted that I could have done a better job of explaining what I was doing. But the feedback was great, and overall I’m stoked to have gotten through it so well! As an added bonus, the test scores and watching the movements being done has given me soooo much information, way more than any of the other screens that I’ve used in the past.

For those that aren’t familiar with the FMS, it was designed as a tool to help define movement quality by taking a patient or client through a series of foundational movement tests (this is me paraphrasing, by the way). Some of the tests will be familiar to gym goers and athletes (the deep squat, the inline lunge, the truck stability pushup) while others are a little more off the beaten track (the shoulder mobility and rotary stability tests, the hurdle step, and the active straight leg raise). Cook tells us these movements are included because they form the base of all of our other movement, whether exercise-related or simply performed as a part of daily life. Once these movements are scored, it’s a relatively simple process – find the worst one and work on that. No need to focus on strengthening a specific muscle, or identifying the biomechanical weakness – just work on the movement. Even better, if you’re not sure how, the books and the related website have tons of examples of corrective exercises for each test.

This is definitely a turning point in my evolution as a trainer and a coach. This tool will definitely help me streamline my assessment process, and it will be interesting to see how it changes my approach to programming. More importantly, I look forward to re-reading and continued exposure the screen, the information supporting it, and to learning from others’ experiences using it. This may change my whole training philosophy! Now I just need to practice… Any volunteers?

Strength Training For Endurance Athletes: An Argument For Low Reps

Based on traditional strength training prescriptions, programs for endurance athletes should be based on high rep and low load training. This is supposed to be more sports specific, creating greater strength in the “muscular endurance” range. There may be room for the traditional muscular endurance range in some endurance programming, you can probably do better with something a little heavier.

The truth is that you can’t ever really be sports specific in the gym. Stop for a minute and consider the number of repetitions that go into endurance events. If you are a runner, even a quick 5km run could net you anywhere from 6250 to 7500 steps. On a bike at a cruisey 50 rpm, 45 minutes of cycling will net you 2250 pedal strokes. In order to be truly sport specific in the gym, you would have to replicate this under very low external load – i.e. your bodyweight and maybe a kg or two extra at most.

2000 reps in the gym isn’t going to happen. It’s hours in the gym, and it’s probably fair to say that most endurance athletes would rather be running, riding, or swimming if they are going to spend that kind of time training. A higher intensity strength training program based on lower reps and higher load can benefit your performance, recovery, and injury status, all while spending less time in the gym.

Lift Heavy To Get Fast

Lifting heavier weight for lower reps will increase muscular strength; increased strength will lead to increased power. Most people think of power as fast and strong, for a very short period of time. However, increased muscular power can have a big impact on endurance events as well. For the purposes of endurance training, power might be thought of as increasing the force you can produce against the ground, the pedal, or the water. The ground or water will essentially “rebound” that force back to your body, creating the propulsion that moves you forward (in the case of the bike, the force will be transferred into the cranks).

Therefore, the more force you can create, the more distance you will get from every step/stroke.

Going back to traditional strength training prescriptions, sets of 8-12 stimulate muscle growth and size gains, while sets of 1-3 create greater muscular strength. It might be best to focus your efforts somewhere between these two ranges, which will help avoid any unnecessary muscle and weight gain, and avoid any undue fatigue from continuous maximal efforts. If lifting heavier is new to you, you might want to ease into it. Go from 20 reps per set to 15 for a few weeks, then 10, then as low as 6-8. By gradually decreasing your rep ranges (and gradually increasing the weight used) , you’re less likely to be sore.

Injury Prevention and Recovery

There is still a lot of controversy about strength training for endurance sports. Many coaches disagree with it completely, and not without reason. Adding several strength training sessions per week to “get big” will negatively impact endurance training and performance.

The overall amount of physical stress from all types of training will either lead to adaptation and improved performance, or will lead to fatigue and/or injury. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, decreasing the volume and increasing the load used in your strength training can actually help you keep your overall stress levels low. The muscle spends less time under tension, which means less fatigue. In sports where you can spend hours training, anywhere you can cut time without cutting benefits is a good thing. Decreased physical stress means less fatigue and faster recovery times, so you’re fresh for each session (fresher, anyway).

Bear in mind though, that increased intensity in strength training can leave you sore, particularly when you’ve just made the increase. Keep this in mind when planning your training week – don’t substantially increase your weights the day before you have your biggest run planned. Your body will not thank you. As mentioned above, easing into it will help. Just don’t do the old “I’ll just do 5 more reps’ trick that’s so common with endurance athletes. If you can do five more reps, you need more weight!

Training at a higher intensity will also keep you more metabolically active (great for those that are endurance training to help with weight loss) and greater load will activate a greater percentage of muscle fibres. It will also create a greater need for the stabilizing and neutralizing muscles to activate. Keeping these guys switched on helps ensure the integrity of joints and prime movers during training, particularly important with high-volume repetitive training. This will go a long way towards injury prevention. Greater core stability will also be required under greater strength training loads (particularly depending on exercise selection). This is key, as your “core” – meaning abdominals, hips, and even your lats – must be tight and stable in order to transfer that force through the whole body and into the road, bike, or water.

As with anything, the correct amount of strength training volume and intensity depends on the individual and a number of other factors including other training, current injury status, nutritional habits, soft tissue quality, and many others. I’m working on the assumption that you’ll still want to run the next day, so when trying out an increased intensity, take it easy!

How do you strength train for endurance?

No Pain, No Gain?

I’m continually amazed by the number of people I see training when “it hurts”. The old adage “no pain, no gain” is definitely alive and well. Frankly, I’m amazed I don’t see more people walking around in slings and on crutches, but I guess that’s just a testament to the resilience of the human body.

Once they put on their workout clothes, people seem to forget that pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong, and if we keep going, it’s going to get worse. Continue reading

Squatting Your Way To A Bigger Bench

We’ve all seen the guys in the gym with the massive upper body and the little skinny chicken legs. Guys, if this is your, please read carefully: I’m writing this for you. I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind this. Maybe you can’t see their legs in the mirror, courtesy of the strategically placed dumbbell rack, but surely you  are aware that you have them. Maybe leg day is just too hard? Maybe you think the girls are only interested in the gun show? (I can tell you right now, we think you look like a bobble-head). The sad thing is, if you just took a little more time on some squat, deadlift, and lunge variations, that elusive PB on the bench press might all of a sudden come easily.

Continue reading

What is personal training, anyway?

Personal training: when you pay lots of money for someone to stand next to you and tell you to do things that are hard. That’s what my clients tell me, anyway. Anyone can do that, though. Is it doing you any good?

Good personal training is really what you’re after. Note: this is not is NOT someone you like (or you want to like you) standing next to you counting your reps and then moving you to the next machine. Good personal training IS supervised sessions that fit into a progressive plan, resulting in you achieving your goals. You can bet that a good trainer will be a lot more concerned about how your moving than how many you’re doing. Continue reading


Gotta love weekday morning TV! Full of advertisements and infomercials for junk… and when it’s health and fitness related junk, it makes me a combination of irritated and amused. At least I’m not the only one though. One of our members who comes in regularly at infomercial time recently asked me (with a bit of a smirk) what I thought about Zumba. In case you have somehow missed this (lucky you), this is the latest group fitness craze, à la Tae Bo – except that instead of Billy Banks, we have a long, lean Brazilian wearing skimpy clothing, dancing like she was born for it, and telling us all how it’s a party, not exercise.

Zumba will not get you this body

My answer? It’s better than nothing.

And it kills me to say it. In fact, every inch of me screams “Stop don’t waste your time!” 45 minutes of Zumba (or any other similarly styled class) is NOT going to make you look like that girl. Hours and hours of hard work in any dance discipline might, or you have the more commonly taken options of recreational sport or gym membership. As an aside, neither of those will help you achieve any goals either, without the afore mentioned hard work.

But the sad fact is that the majority of the people I see in the world would be better off doing anything rather than what they are currently doing, which is clearly nothing, or at the most, walking up to the counter at McDonalds. Certainly if this is your normal activity level Zumba could help you move some weight (provided you don’t increase your diet along with your activity level).

BUT, if you really  want to look like that girl on the ad, flip off the TV. Get yourself out to the park and run some sprints. If you can’t run, walk quickly and build up to it. Get into the gym and learn to squat, deadlift, and row – then start to add some weight. Don’t circle the parking lot looking for the closest parking space, rather, get out and walk in. Start doing this stuff consistently and you’ll be taking some real steps towards having that long and lean body you want.