Designing Your Training Program: The Basics
Level 2: Rookie
Welcome Players! Endurance. Hypertrophy. Strength. Power. Neurological recruitment. These 5 attributes make up the core of all exercise and training programs. Utilizing the framework studied by science we can specify exactly how many sets, reps, volume, weight, intensity, and rest time necessary in order to achieve the exact adaptation we desire. While science gives us the foundation, the art is how you combine them in your program to create the most synergistic effect so that you can fulfill your maximum potential as an athlete. Here you’ll learn the basics of how to create a program that is specifically designed to meet your goals. Let’s go!
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The Warm-Up: Important Terms
Adaptation [biology]: a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment
Fatigue: an inability to continue exercise at the same intensity with a resultant deterioration in performance
Hypertrophy: the enlargement of an organ or tissue [muscle] from the increase in size of its cells
Hyperplasia: an increase in number of muscle fibers
The following concepts will give you a firm foundation to understand how adaptation occurs on a physiological level, which we will take advantage of to guide our programming.
Evolution is the process of adaptation over a very long period of time, typically used in context to describe evolution of organisms. Adaptation then can occur on unlimited time-frames. We have short-term adaptations, long-term, etc. When training for muscular or athletic performance adaptation we have to be cognizant of which time-frame we’re trying to elicit adaptation in and use that info to guide our programming.
A well-designed program utilizes these theories to drive adaptation on short- and medium-term time frames that lead to continued progress for goal-oriented long-term adaptation.
The SAID principle is a cornerstone in human physiology.
Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands
While it’s more of a guideline than it is a rulebook (h/t Captain Barbosa), it is the concept that the body is constantly adapting to the exposure of the environment placed upon it, either internal or external. This can be found in nearly every aspect; for example:
Bones modify their matrix to adapt to the biomechanical tensions they are exposed to — termed mechanotransduction.
Tendons are highly responsive to mechanical loading strategies that leads to improvement in stiffness and therefore force transmission.
Muscles adapt to stimulation in a variety of ways, some of which include the hypertrophy of fibers, hyperplasia, increasing mitochondrial density, or even altering where a muscle derives it’s primary energy source from during activity.
The brain and nervous system are excellent examples of this, for all learning achieved by the body is a form of adaptation of neural networks in order to achieve adaptation, whether in motor patterns or expression of movement. The Power of Habit talks much about the change that occurs in the nervous system due to imposed demands.
The SAID principle has exceptions of course, which is why it’s not scientific law. But nevertheless it is an extremely useful concept that can guide you in the right direction when constructing your program. Your body will not adapt to something it is not exposed to. It can be simplified as such: If you want to get better at something, do more of it!
A strength-training principle that is a derivative of the SAID principle, progressive overload is the concept that muscles need to be gradually exposed to increasing stress in order to stimulate adaptation.
This exposure to stress can come in many forms:
Volume - total number of sets/reps multiplied by weight lifted. Can also use time-under tension or other modality-specific metrics
Load - weight, either in absolute form or as a % of capabilities (rep maximum)
Intensity - the rate at which the exercise is performed, the velocity of the movement or a % of effort (RPE - rating of perceived exertion)
Frequency - how often it is performed, can be in any time frame: 4 sets/session, 3 sessions/week, 12 weeks/macrocycle, etc.
Rest Interval - time between efforts
An effective program that modulates the variables above over the course of a training cycle will achieve 3 goals:
Improvement in desired attribute
Efficiency in time required to achieve goal
Prevention of overtraining or acute injury
Coaches reminder: There is a difference between training and exercising. The concepts discussed here are in specific relation to training. For more info you can read:
The following will largely determine your performance ability. These are the main physical attributes, but it is not an exhaustive list. It’s also important to note here that there is not a fine line that separates them. The crossover and secondary adaptations that occur from a training modality is what makes programming as much an art as it is science.
While the science tells us what ingredients to use and how much, the art is how we can combine them to create the most potentiated effect.
Cardiovascular endurance and energy system development deserves its own spotlight and will be outside the scope of this article. In this context endurance will refer to muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to tolerate repeated contractions before it succumbs to fatigue. The goal here is to increase the repetition range while keeping total loads and intensities relatively low. For performance training (ie. professional athlete in a competition sport), the purpose of including muscular endurance in the program is building a foundation to ensure that the volumes that the athlete will be exposed to in later phases (strength, power, etc) can be tolerated without risk of overtraining or acute injury.
Especially when training or competing in an endurance or long real-time event the ability of a muscle to continuously produce repeated contractions optimally is critical to sustain force output. Some examples:
Muscles of pelvis/hip stabilization & propulsion in endurance runners
Shoulder stabilization muscles of a MLB pitcher
Postural muscles of competitors in cycling and swimming
Typically the muscular-endurance phase is one of the shortest phases in a macrocycle, not because of its lack of importance but instead due to the general proficiency of a trained athlete. Once they have developed the foundation that allows them to tolerate greater loads safely, the next phase is introduced. This phase is significantly extended for beginners.
Rarely should a professional athlete go through a hypertophy phase in their performance programming unless muscle size has a direct effect on their performance or achieves a competitive edge. A note: muscle size ≠ strength. The physiological adaptation of muscle hypertrophy comes from two components:
increase in size of the sarcoplasm of the muscle - which stores glycogen
an increase in the size of the myofibril
Neither of those two adaptations contribute to the ability of a muscle to produce force, which we’ll review next as strength. Not only is increasing muscle size a waste of time in an athletes programming, but it also could potentially bring about negative performance effects due to the fact that larger muscles consume more resources (glycogen, ATP, oxygen) per unit of effort for the same force output than muscles of the same strength yet smaller in size. This has to do with differing energy system utilization.
Of course, for most people increasing the size of muscles is a common goal.
The greatest advancements in understanding of muscle hypertrophy can be found in the world of bodybuilding in lieu of athletic performance, where the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jay Cutler, and Ronnie Coleman have achieved legendary status.
The ability for a muscle to express strength is a measurement of its force production. The more force a muscle can produce = the greater its strength. One note is the particular use of the word “express” when talking about strength: As noted above muscle size is not correlated with strength. Strength instead is more of an extension of the nervous system in its ability to activate muscle fibers in a cohesive fashion to produce the greatest amount of force. The nervous system supplies the juice, the muscle carries out the task.
Unlike muscle size, muscular strength has been shown to be highly correlated with improvements in athletic performance, and should be a primary focus for an athletes’ programming. Not only does increased strength bring a competitive edge and reduces the risk for injury, but it is also widely considered as the most impactful attribute across all areas of performance when improved.
It is important to reconcile the guidelines of training for a specific variable in order to achieve the specific adaptation you seek. For example: If you are utilizing barbell back-squats in your programming to improve lower body strength and you are achieving 10+ reps per set, that is an indication that the load is not heavy enough to elicit strength adaptations. While you may think that you are strong, you will be doing yourself no favors in getting stronger without pushing yourself to greater intensities.
The caveat to the SAID principle in this context is that the stronger you are, the heavier you have to lift and harder it is to continue to progress in strength. You will not get stronger by lifting the same amount of weight.1
This is why it’s important to understand the definitions of the performance attributes, because the deeper you look to refine your programming the more these details matter. You can no longer use the words “strength” or “power” interchangeably. When speaking in the context of performance each attribute is clearly defined and heavily researched. Notice the specificity of the words used in the example below:
You can currently squat 225 lbs for 8 repetitions. You want to increase the expression of strength for your lower body in the squat. Should you:
progressively overload to being able to complete 10 repetitions at the same weight of 225 lbs?
progressively overload to being able to complete 6 repetitions at an increased weight of 265 lbs?
Let’s check the math using a simple calculation for predicted 1 Rep Max (1RMp).
Starting: 8 reps X 225 lbs = 279.4 lbs 1RMp
10 reps X 225 lbs = 300 lbs 1RMp
6 reps X 265 lbs = 307.8 lbs 1RMp
Here we can clearly see that you would achieve greater strength gains by following the scientific guidelines from many years of research that have honed in on how to best train these attributes.
Coaches note: “Well I still got stronger in scenario 1!” Yes, you did. You will get stronger by continuing to progressively overload even if it’s not in an optimal fashion. If you want to just get stronger in no specific time or order, that’s cool. But if you want to Train Like a Pro, with a purpose and maximum efficiency for a specific adaptation, this is how you need to be thinking. What is the most effective way to do it?
A quick mathematical review:
force = mass × acceleration
work = force × displacement
power = work ÷ ∆ time
Therefore: power = (mass × acceleration × displacement) ÷ time
When we’re talking about power in terms of sport performance, we have to be sure to look at it from a physics standpoint. Ask any typical ‘gym bro’ the difference between training for power and strength and you’d be lucky to get an accurate answer. If you’re in world of elite sport performance, power is very clearly defined as mass times acceleration times displacement over change in time. At what speed did you move what load over what time and distance?
If you are not measuring the variables above, you have no quantifiable way to deduce power output. There are two main ways to measure power in a performance setting, using either internal or external measurements.
External measurement in the form of measuring bar velocity during olympic lifts. There are many commercial devices that can be used to gather data on velocity, displacement, and time so that calculated measures of power in the exercise can be made.
Internal measurement in the form of force-plate data that can gather RFD (rate of force development), force output, and ground reaction forces (GRF) in all planes.
In order to determine the absolute strength of a muscle, we would look at the muscles total force output. In order to determine the power a muscle is capable of generating, we would measure the force output over a defined time period. In this way we can use force plate data to generate the RFD of the lower body in a vertical jump, determine how long that force was applied for, and create an overall power metric that can be measured, tracked, and improved.
Likewise if we want to measure externally using bar velocity data, we can look at the velocity of the bar during a hang clean, load on the bar, and time it takes of completion of the lift to get an accurate reading of power which once again can be measured, tracked, and improved.
When programming to improve muscular power then we know we need to prioritize not only absolute load, but the velocity at which that load is moved. As you’ll see in the chart below the repetition set is the lowest we’ve seen, along with long rest times and low volume. A power-centric exercise is one in which it is completed with max intensity optimizing for a balance between high-velocity of movement and load.
Slow lifts by definition will not create adaptations in power. This is proven by both mathematics and science. In order to truly train power you have to train with high-velocity. The balancing act in programming for power is at what weight can you move the fastest speed in order to generate the greatest power output.
Studies have yet to confirm the optimal load-velocity relationship, where traditionally it was thought that 30-45% 1RM load moved at maximum velocity produced the greatest power adaptations. New research shows as large of a range as 10-80% 1RM produces these adaptations.2
This is where the art of programming comes into play guided by the framework science sets. So many independent variables are included in an athletes training program including internal and external environmental factors that sport science will be hard pressed to determine one finite range due to difficulty (or near impossibility) of study design and controls.
At the elite level of competition every competitor has a coach that they work with to create a program that is best fit for that athlete. For muscle size we looked to bodybuilding to see what optimization of attributes look like, but for muscular power we look to the world of competitive Weightlifting.
Among legends of the sport, Naim Süleymanoğlu whose nickname is Pocket Hercules for his 1.5m (4”10’) tall stature and being the first and only weightlifter to snatch 2.5 times his body weight. He’s also the only weightlifter (to date) to clean and jerk 10 kilos more than triple his body weight. He is regarded as the pound-for-pound greatest competitor in the sport.
Competing in a much heavier weight-class (105kg), Hossein Rezazadeh completed a 263.5 kg (580.9 lbs) clean-and-jerk setting his all-time personal best and winning Gold in the Olympics by a large margin (video below). In order to complete lifts as difficult and heavy as this it takes an incredible amount of force applied over as short of a time as possible to create maximum velocity of the bar which the athlete uses to their advantage. It would be impossible to achieve feats as these without optimizing for power.
Both of these guys make those feats look unbelievably easy… yet the appreciation for pure power cannot be understated regardless of size.
The complexities of the nervous system make programming for neurological adaptation one of the most difficult adaptations to achieve properly.
As mentioned in the section on strength, much of the physiological responses to increased strength come from increased neurological efficiency that leads to greater force output. There are two main mechanisms of this improvement:
An increase in motor unit synchronization, where the central nervous system recruits a greater % of muscle fibers
The frequency of stimulation of the motor units to the muscle, where the more rapid the stimulation is without break produces higher forces
I term this the ‘skill of training’ because each exercise you utilize to achieve an adaptation also requires the competency of completing the movement with proper form and optimal activation patterns. The higher your training age the greater ability you’ll have to benefit from an exercise because your experience means you likely recruit a greater % of muscle fibers compared to novice lifers.
For example: if you want to learn how to shoot a free throw, you would learn about the technique that is best suited to a consistent free throw shot making sure you have the required leg and arm power to get the ball to the net and then practice for thousands of repetitions! The more you shoot, the better you’ll get.
If you want to build a stronger chest to contribute to greater strength in pressing movements, you should opt for movements that target a higher percentage of fibers and repeat those movements frequently following the recommended attribute framework for strength. As you progressively overload weight your goal should also be to perform the movements with greater efficiency and cleaner technique. The progressive overload will provide physiologic stimulus to the muscle while the repetition of movement over time will encourage neurological adaptation to improve motor unit recruitment in the pecs. The combination of the two in an intelligently structured program by default means the body will adapt with a stronger chest!
Programs that include too much variety fail to meet required neuromuscular stimulus and can actually be preventing your body from adapting positively in the direction that you want. Training for strength is as much a skill as any other movement!
Programming: An Art Based in Science
Utilizing the ranges provided for muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, power and neurological adaptation will make sure you are training to encourage a specific adaptation. These ranges have been thoroughly studied and although not exact, operating within them will give you the greatest chance at success in working efficiently towards your goal.
As mentioned, there are many exceptions and reasons as to why someone might program outside of these ranges yet still being working positively towards the desired adaptation. This is where the context, training experience of the individual, and larger periodization system factors in. The art of programming is how the program is put together to optimize the adaptation in the big-picture.
Questions on the information contained in this article? Want to know if your thought process is on the right track for your personal program? Leave a comment below with enough context as to your training experience / goals!
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. The content is purely educational in nature and should be filtered through ones own lens of common sense and applicability.
This is not to be taken literally. You can absolutely get stronger just through consistent exposure, but without progressively overloading and following scientific programming considerations you will not be optimizing your improvements and will leave performance increases on the table.