The Anatomy of a Training Program
Finding the perfect workout routine and training schedule is the fitness equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. Such a phenomenon does not exist. No two individuals are the same and therefore cannot expect to derive the same results from the same routine. That being said, there are numerous examples of effective exercise programs. If we borrow bits and pieces from several different programs we can combine them into fairly comprehensive solution.
Start with Goals
Designing a well-rounded strength and conditioning routine must start with specific and clearly stated goals. Such goals can include performance-based metrics achieved through sport-specific conditioning, or fitness-based metrics achieved through general physical preparation. These goals are ultimately based upon each athlete’s individual wants and needs.
Prior to starting a new fitness or training regimen, an initial consultation should be performed. This complements goal-setting by providing an opportunity to establish professional credibility on the part of the coach, determine athlete-coach compatibility, and develop rapport and trust with the client. These factors lay the foundation for open communication between coach and athlete, and increase the likelihood of success with the program that is ultimately mapped out.
During this initial consultation, prior training history should be reviewed, constraints and limitations should be discussed, and health history should be assessed. A Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q) is necessary to ensure that medical clearance has been attained prior to starting a new exercise routine. Finally, a fitness screening of some sort should be performed so that the athlete’s aptitude, capacity, and tolerance for exercise can be determined.
Successful goal-setting should be specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely. A clear statement of the intended outcome and the motivation for this outcome must be provided. This will help determine whether the goal is in fact realistic and timely. It is up to each individual to determine how they will measure progress toward their goal. Some may wish to measure body composition changes based upon body fat percentages, while others may use the fit of a certain article of clothing.
While setting goals, it can also be appropriate to discuss potential obstacles and pitfalls. Developing a strategy ahead of time to deal with these inevitabilities will minimize disruption when and if they occur. It is also a good idea at this point to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of both the coach and the athlete.
Any given program or routine should be followed for at least four months in order to properly determine its efficacy. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]
Break Down the Warm Up
The term “warm up” refers to preparatory exercises performed prior to the workout, and a proper one is an essential component of any workout. The key purposes of the warm up are:
- Increase muscle temperature for more forceful contractions and quicker relaxations.
- Increase blood temperature to working muscles, allowing more oxygen to be delivered to working muscles.
- Increase range of motion around joints.
Performing a dynamic warm up prior to physical activity will likely improve performance and may provide increased resistance to muscle injury. Stretching often plays a major role here, but it is important to note that stretching in a dynamic warm up is not the same as flexibility training (e.g., static stretching). Let’s refine those terms:
- Flexibility refers to the range of motion at a specific joint or series of joints, and is typically assessed in non-weight bearing situations.
- Dynamic stretching refers to performing movements specific to a sport or movement pattern. Within the context of dynamic stretching are the terms mobility and movement preparation.
- Mobility refers to an individual’s ability to achieve a posture or position, is more global in nature, and emphasizes multi-joint movements and stabilization.
- Movement preparation is an even broader term used to describe all of the various methods used to improve mobility during a warm up.
The timing and elements of a warm up can and should vary depending on the type and length of the ensuing workout session. If the planned workout is on the shorter but extremely intense side, then the warm up should be longer and more extensive to allow the body to be adequately prepared. If the workout is longer and less intense, then the warm up may be on the shorter side, as the first few minutes of the workout session will serve as a natural extension of the warm up.
A dynamic warm up routine typically includes at least 3-5 minutes of cardiovascular activity, starting at a low intensity and progressing to a moderate intensity (i.e., to the point of developing a light sweat). This cardiovascular warm up is followed by a minimum of 5-15 minutes of movement preparation that progresses from general exercises to ones that are more specific to the ensuing exercise session. Each movement is performed for either a certain distance (e.g. 25m) or a certain number of repetitions. At this point, some individuals may also include some form self-myofascial release techniques (e.g. foam rolling or lacrosse ball therapy) to relieve adhesions and knots in muscles.
Although often included in the warm up, flexibility training (static stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, aka PNF) may in fact reduce force production which in turn can negatively affect performance measures. Flexibility training should therefore be reserved for a separate focused workout session.
Create a Challenging Program
Over the course of a given program, the workouts are the stimuli that cause the desired physiological adaptations (e.g. getting stronger, improving body composition, increasing aerobic capacity). There are a few essential characteristics to the workout program:
- Specificity (individuality): This relates to the goals and needs of the athlete. Specificity is achieved by targeting certain muscle groups, energy systems, speed of movement, movement patterns, or muscle action types.
- Overload: In order to prompt physiological changes, the induced training stress must exceed the training stress experienced during the previous workout. This is accomplished by increasing the load, sets, reps, or by decreasing the rest periods.
- Progression: This is the systematic modification of a training program over time. In addition to exercise intensity, progression also refers to changes in frequency and difficulty of exercise selection, such as advancement from low-skill to high-skill exercises.
- Variation: Variety in exercise selection and training variables must be carefully planned.
There is much debate about what should be included in the workout session to meet the criteria laid out here. Traditional strength and conditioning programs would tend to favor standard periodization protocols.
Periodization refers to the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. The aim is to reach the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. This is achieved through the progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during specific periods or phases. Periodization can include an annual plan (macrocycle), a monthly plan (mesocycle) and a weekly plan (microcycle). Conditioning programs will often use periodization to break up the training program into the offseason, preseason, in-season, and the postseason. It is suggested that by breaking the plan up into different phases, an athlete can focus on different goals, avoid fatigue and injury, and maximize performance outcomes. Periodization certainly works well for sports-specific or performance-specific programs. However, such a strict regimen may not work very well for someone looking for general physical preparation.
At the other end of the programming spectrum you find protocols like that of CrossFit. CrossFit defines its programming as emphasizing constantly varied, functional movements done at a high intensity. However, this does not mean that CrossFit’s programming lacks specific rationale. In fact, CrossFit strives to put forth a regimen that allows for all the variance imaginable, while still addressing all of the elements necessary for comprehensive fitness. The CrossFit strength and conditioning template allows for enough variation that it is mathematically possible to never repeat a single CrossFit workout in a lifetime. At the same time, this template strives to offer enough structure to ensure adequate development of one’s fitness. It is an attempt to find the perfect blend of structure and flexibility in programming, incorporating textbook theories with real world application. Some might refer to this as an anytime, anywhere type fitness.
The flexibility of CrossFit programming allows the movements and workouts to be inherently scalable. This allows for specificity, overload and progression to all be addressed simultaneously. Workouts are modified and adjusted to meet the individual goals and needs of the athlete. Specific muscle groups, movement patterns and muscle actions can be emphasized to target a particular weakness. The training stress can be manipulated to provide the appropriate stimulus, and in turn ensure that progress is always being made.
The Importance of the Cool Down
What you do after your workout is just as important as what you do during it. After any workout, your muscles are fatigued and have begun breaking down. The window of time immediately after your workout is essential, if not critical, to recovery. This period is often referred to as the cool down phase and should emphasize some key elements:
- Light cardio: There’s a reason the treadmill has a “cool down” setting. When you are exercising at an effort of, say, 8 out of 10, your body needs help getting back down to one out of 10. Simply stopping after intense exercise can cause blood pooling, a drop in blood pressure and even dizziness. Try a light jog, walk, or a bike ride for 3-5 minutes after your workout has ended. If you are monitoring your heart rate, try to get it back down into the range of between 100 and 120 beats per minute.
- Stretch: After strength training or cardio, your muscles are warmed up so they are more elastic and pliable. This can allow for greater benefits from flexibility work. Although stretching has not been found to decrease injuries, it has been correlated with a decrease in Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is the muscle soreness that typically sets in within 24-36 hours after intense training. Stretching maintains circulation in key areas which can prevent blood from pooling in certain muscle groups after your workout. This can be the perfect time to perform the recommended 5-10 minutes of daily flexibility training.
- Hydrate: Every time you move, you expend water from your body. After an intense workout, you need to replenish water supplies. Proper post workout hydration helps decrease muscle soreness and increase strength and flexibility. In order to determine how much liquid you need after exercise, weigh yourself before your workout, then weigh yourself when you have finished. The weight you lost in between is strictly water weight. To replenish, you need to drink that weight in liquids, plus an additional 25-50% to make up for what you will eventually loose in urine.
- Grab a protein shake: No matter what time of day you work out, you should drink a protein shake after. This is arguably most important within the first 15-30 minutes immediately following the conclusion of your workout. This is when your body’s metabolic window is optimized. A shake will put carbohydrates and protein back into your muscles so they can rebuild and get stronger. A good recipe is about four grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of protein. Perhaps the best available protein shake is a 16-ounce glass of chocolate milk.
Pin Down the Training Schedule
One of the most common questions surrounding exercise is what sort of training schedule is optimal. Athletes often want to know how many days per week they should work out, and how often to take a rest day. The answer to this question is a key aspect in creating the proper routine. What makes it a little tricky is the fact that there are a number of ways it can go. The amount of potential workout schedules, splits, and plans to choose from is enough to make your head explode. However, these can be narrowed down by factoring in a few key workout schedule requirements.
The workout schedule must fit the athlete’s desired training frequency and weekly schedule. How many days they can actually manage to work out per week. Is it 3 times? 4 times? More? Less? Are there specific days they can work out on and specific days they absolutely cannot? Do they need to take the weekends off, or are the weekends the days you need to train on? The workout schedule must also fit the athlete’s training preferences and needs. At the same time, the athlete should make sure they are actually enjoying what they are doing and make sure the smaller details suit them and their goal.
Once the proper schedule has been determined, the various acute details can be plugged in. These are variables such as exercise selection, sets, reps, volume, energy systems, and rest periods. CrossFit emphasizes two formulas for programming, three days on, one day off; or five days on, two days off. With this protocol established, CrossFit then employs three modalities across all its training: metabolic conditioning, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and weightlifting (Olympic and powerlifting). The specific exercises are chosen based upon functionality, neuroendocrine response, and impact on the body.
Traditional bodybuilding programs often follow a weekly pattern of two days on, one day off, two days on, and two days off. Such programs emphasize a specific part of the body from day to day, like the popular chest and triceps on Mondays, and back and biceps on Tuesdays. This works well for many people and only necessitates making it to the gym four days in given week. One advantage of such a routine is that if a day is missed, it can easily be made up on one of the three planned off days. Bodybuilding programs are aimed at building muscle, so the emphasis is more on weight training with cardiovascular training being done on an as-needed basis. The cardio portion of such routines is often long and slow (e.g. walking on a treadmill), and is often scheduled separate from the weight training component.
Sports-specific training programs frequently require training six or seven days per week. These programs often include strength work three to five days per week, skill work related to the sport two to three days per week, and cardiovascular conditioning relevant to the sport on three to six days per week. Sports-specific programs are typically the most involved, but they are often pursued by athletes that can afford to entertain such intensive scheduling demands.
Patience Is Key
In the end, there is no guarantee that any one program will prove to be the perfect solution. Often it takes trial and error to find out what works for you and what does not. To determine this, patience is essential. Any given program or routine should be followed for at least four months in order to properly determine its efficacy. Once that has been determined, then appropriate changes, if necessary, can be made.
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