Good programming is a self-evident truth. That is, that the outcome of the program shows clearly and comprehensively that the program was correctly laid out. One of the things that I like most about the gym is that numbers never lie. If you did eight reps last week and this week you got nine, you’ve clearly improved. Lifted 100kgs last week and this week got 105kgs? Congratulations, it’s working and you should keep doing what you’re doing.
Advancing programs is actually easy. For most people you’ll continue progressing for a sustained period by simply attempting to lift more weight this time than last time. One of the things my brother and I used to do, and it was his idea because he’s smarter than me, was to work out total load lifted per workout. We’d add up the total load lifted per exercise (sets x reps x weight used) and then make a grand total for the entire workout. We realized that it didn’t matter which exercise we added weight to, as the goal was always to increase the grand total for the whole workout.
For me, as a teenager and even into my early twenties, this approach worked well. Largely I even kept the same exercises, as I found ones that I could feel were working well for me. Funnily enough it was the exercises I was the worst at that I knew were making the biggest differences for me. Even as I’ve grown older, I have found that focusing my plan on exercises I am no good at usually brings good results. I simply try to add difficulty each week in the form of more weight lifted or, in the case of bodyweight exercises, I hold positions for longer, or even change to a harder variation by playing with leverage and asymmetry.
However, things change when you’re getting ready for a specific event that isn’t just all about standing still in the gym or posing shirtless on Facebook. When I started looking at military training in my twenties, I realized that being strong was a huge asset, but obviously there were some decent fitness standards to be achieved too. (And in the unit I wanted to get into there were some very high standards). And that’s when I understood that despite what people tell you – that you can’t train for strength and fitness all at once – there were literally entire armies made up of guys that had both qualities. This issue came up for me again recently during Ironman training, as I needed to keep up my RKC standards as well as stay strong enough to demonstrate things to my clients at Read Performance Training.
So how do you train for such a scenario? Some basic programming ideas, that are self-evident once you’ve done this for yourself, became apparent to me. For people only focused on strength or how you look in your underwear this can be changed quite a bit, but for those who actually want performance and real fitness to go with how they look, you’ll want to listen up.
The entire structure needs to revolve around your weekend. The reason is that you may end up doing up to half of your total weekly training hours over the weekend. The reason for that is simple – most people have the majority of their free time on the weekend so that’s where the majority of training goes. It also mimics when most events or races are held, so it gets the body used to spending the week at work then revving all weekend long.
Because the weekend is the toughest part of the week that means Monday needs to be the easiest day of the week. Many people try to begin their week with a hard session, but I’ve found that often means Monday is wasted, as you feel stiff, tight, and fatigued from hours and hours spent moving over the weekend. I like to spend time on Monday doing a lot of core holds, mobility work, and an easy swim. (Something like 20 x 100m with pull buoy + paddles.) This keeps the stress off my legs after the hours of work they did, with the majority of those hours having been on Sunday.
Tuesday is the first day of the week to work hard. By now your body should be recovered enough from the weekend and feeling good after an easy day on Monday.
Wednesday is another relatively easy day. The format is simple – follow a hard day with an easy day. That is as bulletproof and simple as I can make it. Having the courage to rest and recover on the easy days to preserve the integrity of the hard days will sometimes take all the discipline you can muster. But no one can train hard back to back for long, and we’re in this for the long haul. I like to follow Monday’s format and again do core holds and other structural work as well as mobility work. I’ll finish the day with a short track session. (Something like 1km warm up then 10 x 400m on 2.5mins, with a 1km cool down.)
Thursday is a day to hit it again. I really like splitting the two main strength days into an upper/lower split. Using Tuesday to be an upper body dominant day lets my legs rest up a little more from the weekend. I’ll still do some legwork, but it won’t be hard. But when we get to Thursday I’m ready to go with squats, deadlifts, or clean and snatch work. I largely do single legwork as I feel it better translates to what I do and enjoy, but there is still a need for bilateral legwork. In either case make sure the weight is high and reps are low, except for a few finishing sets where you should do some high rep work. (High rep back squats work well here.)
Friday is an easy day and I like getting in a long easy swim in the morning to stretch out (30 x 100m works well) followed by an easy 5-6km run in the afternoon.
Saturday is a hard fitness session focusing on strength endurance. This is the time to go crazy with circuits or other metcon work. This is probably the most painful session of the week, and certainly the one with the highest heart rate. The circuits need to be long and tough. A personal favourite is 10 reps of double kettlebell clean and jerks (with 24kg bells) followed by a 400m run, as many times as you can in thirty minutes. To finish, row 2000m for time. Finish the day off with an easy one to two hour bike ride for recovery before Sunday’s big day out.
Sunday is game day. This is the day to leave home as the sun comes up and still be out moving at lunchtime. Our regular Sunday session (which clients have just started coming to) is currently 9km of trail running/walking with burpees at every track junction. Hopefully none of my clients are reading this right now as this weekend we’ll double that to 18km but only do burpees on the first lap. (I’m pretty sure there will be large-scale mutiny when they see this. While I do find watching other people suffering amusing, I will argue that suffering during training is far better than being underprepared when the Zombies come or mid-race.)
There’s the basic week. Recover Monday after a big day Sunday and two sessions Saturday. Tuesday is a hard strength day. I’d pick two main movements and do them for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Wednesday is an easy day to recover from the stress of Tuesday, and your body should feel pretty good by the end of the day. Thursday will be your main lower body strength day for the week. Make sure to finish with some higher rep sets to work on local muscular endurance. You won’t die if you back squat to twenty reps a set, although you may feel like you will. Take it easy Friday, but hit both sessions. Go hard on the weekend and repeat.
If you follow a format like this, with a general waviness to it to allow built-in recovery during the week, you’ll find that you’ll be able to push hard when you should. Don’t try to have hard days stacked together in the plan. That kind of work capacity takes many years to develop and often the only sign that you weren’t ready for it is when you’re sitting in the surgeon’s office and he’s telling you that he’s going to operate. Don’t be that guy.
Follow the format, add weight each session, or try to squeak out another rep here or there to bump up the grand total lifted for each workout. That’s where long-term improvement comes from. But it’s only once you’ve done it for a while that you’ll realize how obvious it is.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.