How to Identify the Weak Link in Your Training Program
Jason Tremblay, PFT Certificate
The ability to analyze a program and give appropriate recommendations is a very overlooked skill in the fitness industry. There are literally thousands of programs that have been published in fitness magazines, or on the Internet. How can you tell which programs are the most appropriate for your goals? It is not easy, and I will be the first to say that I have never created a perfect program. In fact I don’t think anybody has ever created a perfect program. There are too many variables to account for to create a perfect program for someone. Although fitness professionals should constantly strive to create the perfect program, equal attention should be placed to identifying weak links in their own program. For this article I created a case study and a faulty training program. I then took to social media to see how people with various amounts of knowledge analyze a program. The results were quite thought provoking and I thoroughly enjoyed the input. See the case study and program below.
Case Study: Joe is an ectomorph who has been training for 1 year. He has made good strength gains for his first 5 months of training. However for the last 7 months his gains have been very limited. Joe has come to you to design a program that will get his strength gains back on track.
- Age: 20
- Height: 5’9
- Weight: 140 lbs.
- Body fat: 12%
- Injuries: No
- Availability for Training: 7 days a week
- Occupation: Full-Time Student
- Bench Press Max: 155 lbs.
- Deadlift Max: 215 lbs.
- Squat Max: 185 lbs.
- Pull-Up Max: 6 reps
Postural Analysis Summary
- Pelvis: Significant anterior tilt
- Lumbar Spine: Lordosis
- Thoracic Spine: Kyphosis
- Cervical Spine: Lordosis (forward head)
- Shoulders: Significant internal rotation
When I sent this program out I told the people analyzing it to identify three major flaws. Now this program has more than three major flaws, but let us take a look at what people identified as the three major mistakes.
What People Said…
Austin via Twitter
“I think the rest time after the more intense exercises should be increased. I also think as the exercises get lighter the sets should decrease and the reps should increase. Finally I think for a strength workout you should do more reps and less sets. Third I think it would help to spread out major muscle group exercises and not do things like leg press and squats together and instead mix up the muscle groups and for example do bench and leg press on the same day”
Austin, you hit the nail right on the head with the rest times. Although lifters with intermediate experience can get good gains with 2-3 minutes of rest in between sets. When lifting to 1 rep max more rest time is required to allow for CNS recovery and CP repletion. However I do not agree with your second point about performing more reps and fewer sets. When training for maximum strength I am a firm believer in staying above 85% of 1RM for the majority of the program. Since depleting the Central Nervous System provides a good stimulus for supercompensation, the goal of this program was to deplete the subject’s CNS. As for your third point, I agree that this training split is somewhat flawed for strength training. This training split was actually adopted from Fred Koch of the Tudor Bompa Institute. It is a great split for hypertrophy, but for strength not so much.
Anthony via Facebook
“Nice shitty program bro”
Thanks man! I really tried to make this one extra shitty!
Bao via Facebook
“I don’t understand why he’s only training 3 days on and 1 day off instead of 4-6. All my programs were 4; you’re going high weight, low rep, for strength”
Great point you made here Bao, a 4 – 5 day training week may be better suited here for this program.
Server via Twitter
“First thing I noticed was “Maximum Strength 3 – 5 minutes for ATP-PC repletion and CNS recovery”. Another thing I noticed was no warm up and no accessory work. This is more of a question, on day 1 it goes chest/shoulders/chest/shoulders, does this order make a difference in strength training?”
Server, you are completely correct in regards to the rest times. Furthermore you actually identified one of the major flaws I purposely implemented into this program. There is no warm up or any accessory work. Warm ups are important for just that, warming up the body. Increasing body temperature increases the rate of O2 dissociation from myoglobin, decreases viscosity of synovial fluid and increases temperature of deep muscle fibers. To answer your question, to an extent it does. I created day 1 with the premise of moving from exercises that required most neural coordination to exercises that required least neural coordination.
Austin via Twitter
“1. More rest on intense set so you don’t destroy the CNS
2. The secondary exercise should be 4,5×5 not 6×5 etc.
3. Chest and legs on same day because chest and shoulders is too much stress on rotator cuff. “
Austin, in regards to your first point you are completely right. However on the secondary exercises, the reps are still being performed ~85% 1RM which is good for stimulating strength gains. As for your third point, with this subject chest and legs on the same day would be more appropriate due to his severe internal rotation at the shoulder joint.
Steve via Facebook
“Well first thing I notice is the first day has 75 min just in breaks. If he has internal shoulder rotation I would do some rear delt/bent over rows to strengthen upper back. Plus I would do way more accessory work for his glutes. No anterior abs is asking for an injury to. I think your day 1 would destroy my rotator cuff. Plus if someone has internal shoulder rotation I think even keeping there back straight with a regular deadlift would be tough. Snatch grip form would be so terrible.”
Great points made here Steve; this program is not addressing the postural issues that our subject has. These workouts should take the subject ~1.5 to 2 hours to complete.
As you can see from above there is a lot of issues with this program. Now I am going to walk you through my thought process and the steps I take at breaking down any training program.
Step #1: “What’s the stim?”
Before I look at anything else, I try to figure out which training phase this program is designed for. I do this by looking at how high or how low the reps are, # of sets and set structure, rest times, tempos, choices of exercise and session duration.
Step #2: Identify training split and determine total sets per body part.
Day 1 – Chest/Shoulders/Triceps:
15 sets of chest dominant movements
10 sets of shoulders
Day 2 – Legs
16 sets of quadriceps dominant movements
4 sets of hamstring curls
Day 3 – Back/Glute Max/Biceps
11 sets of lat dominant movements
5 sets of glute and low back dominant movements
5 sets of biceps
Now remember from the case study that Joe has significant anterior pelvic tilt, as well as significant internal rotation at the shoulders as well as cervical spine lordosis. This could be due to the fact that Joe is a full-time student and is sitting in an anterior dominant position for long periods of time. What do I mean by an anterior dominant position? When sitting at a desk students are placed in a position of hip flexion, t-spine flexion, c-spine extension and the shoulder blades are protracted leading to internal rotation of the shoulder. Face it, we are an anterior dominant society. I would argue that Joe shouldn’t even be doing a strength program with his current postural issues. Instead he should be doing corrective exercises on an extensification phase of training to prepare him for the volume of maximum strength training.
Step #3: Is corrective exercise present? Is it necessary?
In this case, corrective exercise is not present, and it is necessary. In this case I would recommend the following ratios for Joe:
3:1 ratio of posterior upper body exercises to anterior upper body exercises.
Why? Joe has weak spinal erectors, low/mid traps and his external rotation strength is lacking compared to internal rotation strength. Rows are in my opinion the greatest corrective movement ever invented.
2:1 ratio of glute/hamstring exercises to quadriceps exercises.
Why? Injury prevention (ACL tears), and compensating for his anterior dominant posture by including more hip extension work.
Step #4: Is there any soft tissue work? Warm ups? Cool downs?
Another major flaw in the program above is the lack of soft tissue work and absence of any sort of warm up or cool down. The great thing about foam rolling is that it allows for us to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. If more people included foam rolling into there warm up the world would be a much more injury free and higher performance place. Here is why:
Soft Tissue Work
- Based off principle known as autogenic inhibition.
- Golgi Tendon Organ is a mechanoreceptor found at the muscle tendon junction.
- The GTO senses changes in tension of the muscle.
- When tension increases in the muscle the GTO stimulates muscle spindles to relax.
- This reflex reaction is known as autogenic inhibition.
- SMR simulates muscle tension, causing the GTO to relax the muscle providing more range of motion.
- Therefore it is important for injury prevention, enhancing ROM.
Step #5: Do the Training Variables Reflect the Goal of the Program?
I have gone on and on and on about how I believe everyone should understand training variables better. By now I would assume that my readers know them and that I do not have to post them in every single article I write. However if you do need a refresher please visit my article “Understanding Periodization” only changes necessary in terms of training variables is that rest times when lifting above 95% of 1RM should be increased to at least 4 minutes.
My last important point is that there is no plan for incorporating progressive overload into this program! Of course our subjects strength will go up. However I am a firm believer that program volume should increase with each passing week. This can be done in a number of ways, however in this program simply adding 1 or 2 sets per week would suffice and allow for consistent overload throughout the duration of the program.
Did you like the article? Did you hate the article? If you would like to contact me you can reach me at TheStrengthGuys@gmail.com or you can follow me on Twitter @TheStrengthGuys
Editors Note: Be watching out for more of Jason on www.kylehuntfitness.com, he has a lot of knowledge on training and is going to become more involved in the near future. -Kyle
The Big Picture – My Philosophy on Training Structure
By Jason Tremblay PFT Certificate Program
A good program should not be judged by how hard one session is. It should be judged by the accumulative training effect of all sessions. Training structure is the single most important aspect of training. It also wouldn’t be a reach to say that training structure is the single most neglected aspect of training. I don’t know what it is about the fitness industry, as soon as somebody steps foot into the gym, they are an expert. It has been my experience that when I approach one of these ‘experts’ and ask for their opinion on something, they describe to me the most barbaric workout that comes to mind. I would walk away from these conversations thinking, “Wait a minute… What would that workout accomplish?” I like to call this, ‘The Crossfit Phenomenon”. It entails a trainer designing a workout that leaves their client vomiting from lactate buildup, having delayed onset muscle soreness for an entire week afterwards, and last but not least, neglecting any sort of periodization model whatsoever! Lets end this nonsense about who can build the toughest workout on the planet. Anybody can devise a workout that would make a Navy SEAL cry if they tried hard enough. However only good trainers can design a series of workouts that will lead to a specific adaptation that will help that Navy SEAL do his job. Which leads right into my training philosophy…
My training philosophy is that an individual workout is not nearly as important as how these individual workouts flow together to elicit specific adaptations. My programs are classified into 4 basic phases of training:
- Muscular Endurance – training to enhance lactate clearance, involves lower rest times, higher reps.
- Hypertrophy – training for muscle size, time under tension, low to moderate rest times, volume.
- Maximum Strength – training to move the most amount of weight possible.
- Power – training to increase rate of force production.
Depending on my client goals, these phases are pre-planned into an annual training plan. They are arranged in a manner that allows the adaptations from one phase to carry over into the next, or to specialize towards a specific goal and enhance performance at competitions. So why am I coining extreme conditioning programs as “The Crossfit Phenomenon”? Because it is a system that is much more focused on how extreme the “Workout of the Day” can be, rather than how good the accumulative training effect is. It is a system implemented to improve muscular endurance and work capacity, with little to no focus on maximal strength or power output.1 There is a place for hard workouts, but one hard training session won’t make an athlete, and one hard training session can psychologically break an athlete. Every session must be purposeful and every session must be planned. By responsibly planning training the whole will become greater then the sum of its parts, that is how I view training.
Did you like the article? Did you hate the article? Send me an email TheStrengthGuys@Gmail.Com or you can follow me on Twitter @TheStrengthGuys
1. Glassman, Greg. (2007) Understanding Crossfit. Retrieved January 31st, 2012 from: http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/56-07_Understanding_CF.pdf