To understand training we need to get a few basics out of the way. The first thing we need to understand is the difference between exercise and training. Exercise is about making a conscious decision to do something active, going for a run, taking part in a fitness class, going to the gym, with an emphasis on how much effort we put in, but not the direction of that effort. Training is about structure, providing the right stimulus at the right time to generate the desired response. One of my favourite sayings in the industry is that ‘any idiot can make another idiot tired’ and it is absolutely true, you could probably put together a workout right now that would break you, but the real skill comes in knowing what that session is going to achieve, how it is going to make you better, and how you can supplement that session, building a long term training plan that maximises your results. Here is a brief summary of what you need to build an effective training plan.
Dream Big, Start Small
When creating a training plan it is important to take a long term view, short term goals are great, but what you can achieve in the next 3 years is far more exciting than anything you will achieve in the next 3 months if you stay consistent! Build an image of not just what you want to look like or be able to do in the gym, but what this will allow you to do outside of it, hiking up mountains, running marathons, playing sport, wrestling bears, make it something that will inspire you. Once you have an image in mind, work backwards from there to bridge the gap between your goal and the person you are today. Build a series of action steps transitioning through the necessary training phases in order to achieve your goals. You can make progress towards your goals by doing the basics first. Do higher repetitions before lifting heavy weights! Learn how to move, starting with slow controlled movements before looking to move quickly! Learn to land before you jump! Let every phase in your training plan prepare you for the next and never lose sight of the bigger picture!
Keep moving forwards
When structuring a plan what you are really doing is manipulating three key variables; Volume, Intensity and Workload. Volume relates to the amount of work performed, normally measured in the form of overall reps when looking at strength training whilst conditioning sessions tend to use overall work time. Intensity relates to the level of effort required to perform the moves in a given session often expressed as a percentage of either 1 Rep Max (strength training) or of HRmax (conditioning). Workload is the product of these two variables, ie. Volume X Intensity, and can give a better understanding of the degree of stimulus you can expect from a given session or block of sessions. The higher the workload, the greater the training stimulus and the larger the potential response. However, if the workload is too high this can lead to fatigue, longer recovery periods and elevated injury risk, slowing progress. A good training plan looks to manipulate these variables to ensure that you not only get the most out of each session, but out of the complete training block. This means you need to be smarter, you don’t have to kill yourself in every session, or train everyday. Plan which sessions you want to prioritise, what the focus of those sessions should be, and overload yourself in these sessions. Remember training provides the stimulus, but it is when you are resting that you adapt. Plan recovery between sessions and between training blocks so that you can maximise adaptation. A good plan should look to provide a progressive training stimulus, large enough to force adaptation while leaving room for further progressions in the future so that you make steady progress towards your goals.
Lift Heavy, Get Stronger
Looking at the section above the focus of training seems fairly straight forward, since greater workloads give a greater training stimulus, we just need to do more work. However, this is not always the case, particularly when you are looking to improve performance at higher intensities ie. Maximum Strength, Power or Speed. The issue is that there is an inverse relationship between volume and intensity, and this relationship is not linear, so higher workload sessions favour increasing training volume while sacrificing intensity. This becomes a problem as adaptation is specific to the stimulus that training produces. Therefore, performance will primarily improve at the intensity where training took place meaning training with heavier loads will have a greater impact on how strong you are than training with lighter ones. The specificity of training responses is true across an array of training variables, movements targeted, body position, equipment used, speed of execution... the list goes on. What this means in simple terms is that you should try to ensure that when increasing training load you do so in a way that accounts for the specific needs of your goals and drives you towards them.
Think movements not muscles
The bro science approach to exercise prioritises training muscle groups with little understanding of the movement pattern these muscle group supports. This approach has a tendency to overwork certain movements while neglecting others leading to imbalances, reduced muscle function and injury. What I would propose as an alternative is that you plan workouts around movement patterns, ensuring all movements are targeted to some degree within your training cycle. This will allow you to take a more integrative approach with your training, working complete muscle chains in a variety of planes through a full range of motion. This comes with a surprising number of benefits, improving mobility, proprioception and robustness. Furthermore, you will be able to assess your body for imbalances as you train. If a particular movement is weak, you can target this movement in the next phase of your training plan, developing strength through the complete human movement system.
Consistent Training, Consistent Gaining (I hate this title too)
There is one more factor that is key to training success. You can have the perfect program, but if you can’t stick to it, it won’t work! The first step to creating a program is deciding how much time you can guarantee you will commit each week; how often, how long, and when you will be able to train. Be honest with yourself during this phase, less sessions done more consistently will give you better results in the long term allowing you to program more effectively, planning steady weekly progressions and making sure nothing is missing from your training. Try to make it routine, doing sessions at the same time on the same day each week and block this time out in your calendar to symbolise that this is a priority. Once you start a plan stick with it, it is too easy to get dragged in different directions, and up standing still. Evaluate where you are at the end of each training cycle, focus on long term progress over short term gains, and make training a habit.