Sunday, April 07, 2013

Rambling 4/6-4/7/2013: Some thoughts on daily max and percentage based programs

I've had quite a few questions lately about the benefits of percentage based programs. Here is some of the stuff I've been thinking.

I've always thought - and I feel as though this is the general perception - that percentage based training programs are good for building consistency, and that programs of a more "Bulgarian" bent are more valuable for athletes who are already very consistent, and are highly likely to make 90-95% weights every time they train.

The more I think about it, and watch my athletes, the more I move away from this notion. It's not necessarily that I think it's wrong, or that there is something inherently bad with doing things this way, but I'm realizing that there are a lot more benefits than I previously thought with less consistent athletes taking a more daily-max based approach, and correspondingly, there are more benefits than I thought for athletes who probably could hit those 90-95% weights every time they trained, doing a percentage based program.

I'm sure none of the following "revelations" are new to most people who have been around weightlifting for a long time, so I'm really just talking to myself here. Also, my programming tends towards the more Bulgarian in general, but very few of my lifters just snatch and C&J every day. We do a lot of variations of the lifts, but usually take them up to a top single or double. Finally, I'm not trying to say that percentage based programs can't work for athletes who aren't super consistent, or that new athletes should max their lifts every day. I'm just thinking about some ways that percentage based programs or programs based around regularly lifting to maximum may benefit athletes other than those who they are conventionally considered to be best for.

1) People sometimes perceive a percentage based program as being less stressful on the athlete mentally/emotionally than a daily-max program. The assumption is that you are asking less of the athlete by saying "you just need to go to 85%, and hit that for five doubles" than you are by saying "work up to the heaviest weight you can do today." I think this is only true if:

-The athlete is highly consistent. If he is not, then there are going to plenty of days when he won't manage 85% for a bunch of good doubles, and that's going to stress him out just as much as not hitting 90-95%+ for a single. I distinctly remember asking one of my athletes for five singles at 90% in the snatch. She made four, and was mad at herself the rest of the day. Not helpful.
-The athlete is not capable of emotionally divorcing himself from the day-to-day training process. If he is capable of viewing each training session as a very small part of a much larger whole (as I think athletes and coaches should), then hitting a daily single will not mean "I need to PR today," it will mean "I need to do what I can do, stay calm, and come back tomorrow and do it again."

2) The following may be the most obvious statement in history: more consistent lifters will better reap the benefits of any program. One thing I didn't think about before, was that a more consistent lifter can treat the classic lifts more like we can treat the squat, or other general strength exercises.

What I mean by this is that I can tell pretty much anyone with a decent baseline in squatting to squat 85% for five sets of three, and they're not going to miss. They can follow a simple, percentage based progression for four or six or twelve weeks, and make progress. They are making that progress based on making reps, and a good coach can pretty easily devise a program in which the lifter is very unlikely to miss more than a few reps over the course of the progression.

If the lifter is highly consistent, he can treat the classic lifts in a similar fashion, and reap the benefits of using a linear periodization scheme. Again, this only works under the assumption that the lifter will not miss many reps. It seems likely to me that part of the reason the Russians, Chinese, Koreans, etc can be so successful with percentage based programs is that they are highly consistent (probably because they started training when they were basically fetuses), and thus the snatch and C&J, to them, may be more a matter of strength. I think it is very, very rare that you find lifters who started out relatively late in life who are so technically consistent and ideal, that they regularly miss lifts because of a lack of strength. It happens, but not often. This may also be why the Russians like doing lots of triples, and even sets of 4-5, where doing that, at least as a large part of a program, may not be as useful for lifters with other backgrounds and situations.

3) There are also issues of individual response, and circumstance/environment. The stress - physical, mental, and emotional - of daily maxes is not the same as the stress of a high volume percentage based programs, and thus the physical, mental, and emotional responses will vary. It takes time and experience to learn which athletes respond best to which stressors.

When I talk about circumstance/environment, I'm referring to the lifters surroundings, support system, training situation, and the like. It is important to remember that a brilliant program which a lifter doesn't adhere to gets him nowhere. I have generally thought that a program which has the lifter going to maximum daily is better when training with a team, preferably alongside teammates of similar ability and even weight class, because the competitive environment will spur lifters on to be successful at big weights even when fatigued. Vice versa, I have assumed that lifters training on their own would do better with a program based around percentages, which doesn't push them to make big lifts every day.

Lately I've been looking at things differently, thinking about the possible benefits of doing things the other way around.

A lifter training on his own may benefit from a protocol which calls for going to maximum daily on some variation of the lifts - as long as he is able to understand that a daily maximum is not a competition, and he is not expected to PR every day. I think it's actually less stressful that the rigidity of "85% for five doubles" or something similar. It also allows the less experienced lifter, without the aid of a coach, to discover his limits, learn what a good "working weight" feels like, and figure out when he needs to push and when he needs to back off.

Conversely, lifters in a competitive training situation may be better able to withstand the boredom and stressors of a percentage based program. These lifters will be able to turn any training day into a competition, without having to go to maximum. Additionally, they will have a coach to keep them from straying too far from the program, which is all too easy to do when you're training on your own and things get boring.

Big gulps huh? Welp cya later.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Rambling 4/4/2013

Overtraining is possible but hard to achieve. It requires certain circumstances. Perhaps they are impossible to actually measure. It is not a math problem. I am becoming more and more convinced that overtraining, at least in experienced and competent trainees, is more a function of the trainees mental state, their attitude and approach towards training, towards winning, towards losing, towards succeeding, towards failing, towards the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year events of the training process. If the athlete is calm, stoic, disciplined, motivated, but also accepting of the ebb and flow of the process, he will find himself relaxed and able to return to hard training day after day. If he is easily excited, upset, nervous about other words, if he is too emotionally invested in the day-to-day, and week-to-week, rather than the month-to-month and year-to-year...he will likely be tired, irritable, unmotivated, and prone to injury. It also seems likely that the diet will contribute to this, but not in the way most think. The trainee who is neurotic about his diet - adhering to a very particular, peculiar plan, from which he refuses to ever stray - will probably find himself more prone to the negative stresses of the day-to-day training experience. An athlete who views food as a positive experience, eating as he needs to, with moderation most but not all of the time, enjoying the foods he loves, will better receive the nourishment from those foods. The same goes for the training plan. If a trainee is rigid in his approach, strictly following a preset plan each day, regardless of whether he feels great, good, just okay, bad, or horrible, I think it is unlikely he will ever fully realize the potential of each training session, and thus the whole that those parts should eventually create.

None of this is to say that there is no value in structure, planning, or forethought. Of course the athlete should have parameters. A framework within which to train and eat is very important, for athletes of all training ages and development levels. But the ability to safely, intelligently, and freely stray from that framework is every bit as crucial. When I say freely, I mean without worry or concern that they are somehow breaking rules, or destroying the efficacy of their program.

Good training and diet should be organisms in themselves. They must change to accommodate the state of your existence. Though there is a degree of stability and conformity which will likely remain throughout your existence, there are an infinite number of variables which will constantly shift. Learn to shift with them, and reap the benefits of your composure.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Is Strength A Skill?

A while back, a friend of mine posed that question to me. Is strength a skill?

The answer is: Yes?

Like most things to do with physical development, the answer is a complex one, and I am definitely not equipped to delve into the meaningful details. I don't know much about how the nervous system actually works. But I know, as do most people who have been involved with strength training in any serious manner, that neurological changes (functional adaptations) are as big, if not bigger, a part of improvements in strength as changes in size/quality of muscle tissue (structural adaptation.)

A great example of functional adaptation improving applicable strength is the rapid gains made by novice trainees on a linear progression. Someone completely new to strength training can squat 3 sets of 5 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and go from having a pretty hard time with 135 in the first workout, to an easy session with 145 in the second workout, to an equally easy session with 155 in the third workout. This sort of progression can continue, relatively uninterrupted, for several months (so long as the trainee keeps the bar dihrectly over thuh middle of the fuht.)

It is fairly obvious that in one week, the trainee did not add significant muscle mass or significantly improve the quality of muscle tissue. What happened is that the trainee got better at the skill of squatting. Even if there is no visible improvement in his mechanics, his nervous system is now better at executing the actions involved in a good squat.

Of course, this begs the question, what defines strength? To know if strength is or is not a skill, we need a concrete definition of what strength is.

And of course it's not that simple. These things exist on a continuum. Over the course of 4 weeks of leg pressing, one is not likely to get as much improvement in strength - defined by the load moved - as one will get over the course of 4 weeks of squatting, because there is far less for the nervous system to do in the leg press. It's much easier for the nervous system to perform hip and knee extension without the additional tasks of balancing the weight on the foot as the center of mass moves, keeping the back extended, making sure you don't poop yourself, etc. In order to move more weight on the leg press, a greater degree of structural adaptation would be required.

In the same vein, one will not get as much out of skill development in the squat as they will in the snatch or clean & jerk. The more technically nuanced the application of strength you choose, the more strength becomes a skill.

I guess what I'm saying is, choose your definitions wisely.