Wave Loading and Interval Training: Programs and Methods Versus Principles:

Posted on 08 Aug 2010 20:46

When is a program a program and when is it programming methodology? Easy. A program is a program when you are doing it exactly as it has been written or planned. And it is "programming methodology" when somebody spins it into one. Always realize that the underlying principles that drive a "program" are more important than the program itself.

The question to ask about principles versus programs is which came first. We can use our experience with training to make many observations. While making those observations we may be using programs, or routines. We can then take these observations and derive philosophies and principles. If the observations are sound and the conclusions we make from them are sound they will apply regardless of the programming methodology. In other words they will have a good chance of being generally true rather than true only if we use a particular way of programming.

Most such "theories", however, involve no risk because they simply cannot be refuted. Any instance can easily be interpreted to fit someone's philosophy or experience. In fact, this is a central problem with those who think that experience trumps knowledge. Each new experience is explained in light of the previous experience so that it doesn't matter if the experience base is five or three thousand. A narrow and prejudiced knowledge base informs each interpretation. But since the theories based on this experience cannot be refuted by any means, the theories are worthless. Theories must be testable. Therefore there must be an inherent risk!

It does not matter, though, once we have derived sound principles and philosophies, where they came from. Let me put that a different way. When you flip a light switch you know that an electrical current is coursing through the wire and making the bulb light up. It doesn't really matter to you whether Benjamin Franklin really stood out in a storm with a key tied to a kite. The electric light is the application and how the principles that govern that application were derived does not change anything. If on the other hand, electricity only 'worked' with lightning, then the Franklin with the kite story would be a lot more important. If we wanted power for our light bulbs we'd somehow have to harness lightning. If this were at all possible and practical.

Lightning in a bottle is exactly what you get with many training programs that claim to be in themselves part of a larger programming methodology.

We know that to gain strength we need a certain amount of stimulus. We then need to recover from that stimulus in a reasonable period of time. This is a generalizable concept. How much stimulus at any given time and therefore how much recovery is not contained within the concept. As soon as we define the amount of stimulus to apply and how to vary that stimulus, etc..we have moved away from principle into method. As soon as we put enough methods into a more or less comprehensive plan of training we have moved into programming. For the trainee doing that program to be able to derive some original principle from the program itself would be a feat of reverse engineering.

The thing about principles of training is that they point to many different possible directions. They are generalizable and fundamental rules that we use to help us make choices, among many possible solutions, for our training. Once we have made a choice we have an application or method. Something cannot be both a principle and an application! Even specific methods themselves can be based on more conceptual "methodologies".

So no matter how someone spins it for you, do not believe that programs are the same thing as "programming". They cannot be because they denote applied principles rather than principles themselves. The same thing applies to isolated methods that are used within a larger training plan.

You can envision a principle and all the possible choices of methodologies and then methods as a branching tree with the principle being the trunk. This is a useful way of viewing it as we can then think of the impact of removing or cutting off branches or offshoots of branches. The closer you get to the trunk, the worse off the tree! In this way, we cannot cut the trunk without destroying the tree. Likewise, if we cut off a major branch close to the trunk we do a lot more damage than if we cut off a smaller twig along that branch. This is of course assuming that the underlying principle, the trunk, is correct in the first place and this is just a simple visual model to apply to single principles. Ultimately, the little twigs at the ends of branches can be removed without any harm coming to the tree. These twigs are all the famous programs floating around the internet!

A Word on Method and Principle

Before I move on I should point out that my use of the words "method" and "principle" are purposeful and deliberately used with specific connotations for this post. The words method and principle do not always have to have such distinct meanings and in fact the word method can be used to mean much the same thing as principle. For instance the term "scientific method" is more idiomatic and the method part of scientific method does not actually denote one specific rote or step by step process. Method in this case has more in common with an over-riding principle. Misunderstanding of this term, in fact, causes a huge misunderstanding as to what is science and what is not science. Here, however, the two words are used specifically and I hope without ambiguity.

Wave Loading and Potentiation

The perfect example is Poliquin's 1/6 Principle. Although Charles Poliquin tends to call most things he comes up with "principles", his method of doing waved sets is a more blatant example of confusing method with principle.

All ways of using waved sets rely on the phenomenom of post-activation potentiation. The following explanation of potentiation (or facilitation) is a cut and paste from the most recent GUS newsletter:

…For the layman's version it means that after lifting a heavy load your strength is "potentiated" a bit. The effect is residual so that right after you lift a heavy load you get this enhanced strength effect and repeated exposure makes this potentiation a semi-permanent state. Now we have one more reason why I PREACH about heavy loads.

Here is the more precise and complete explanation that I have taken from "The Singles Scene" by myself and Joe Weir (no point in rewriting it all):

"A nerve impulse arrives from at the NMJ (neuro-muscular junction). Ach (acetylcholine) is released into the synaptic cleft. This is excitation. Some stuff happens and what results is an action potential which travels the fiber to the muscle.

When Ach is released it excites the post-synaptic membrane of the connecting neuron, thus changing membrane permeability. If threshold for excitation is reached, the change in membrane potential between the two motor neurons increases the flow of positive charges into the cell and this is called the EPSP (excitatory post-synaptic potential). This EPSP must be at threshold for the neuron to discharge. But even if it is not the resting membrane potential is temporarily lowered and its tendency to fire is increased.

Basically the neuron’s potential to fire and thus stimulate its motor unit(s) is on more of a “hair-trigger”. It is less “inhibited” than it was prior to the beginning of a training session.

This results in both temporary changes during a workout and repeated exposure to very heavy lifting results in more permanent changes. This is part of the explanation for neural changes accounting for strength gains, especially early on."

The long-term effects of facilitation we need not concern ourselves with except to realize it is one of the ways in which the nervous system adapts to heavy lifting and thus how we grow stronger.

The short term and more immediate effects are what many so called "advanced" methods try to take advantage of. Waved sets or "wave loading" is the most famous "method" of taking advantage of this phenomenon.

So, PAP is the underlying principle and wave loading is one methodology that can be used to take advantage of this. And the wave loading methodology is used in many different ways, or specific methods. Poliquan's method is most similar to the 5/1 method except the single is performed first. Although I consider performing the single first, as in the 1/6 method, an improvement over performing the higher rep sets first, it is beyond me what is supposed to be magical about six reps as opposed to five and in fact it hardly matters if you do 4 or 5 or 6 or simply leave it open. It is just 'cleaner' and therefore easier to implement for most trainees. The underlying rationale for WHY we use wave loading can change our expectations and utilization, though. This is another problem with principles as opposed to application. The principles point the way to something but the way to what? But I digress.

Looking at our tree model, PAP (post-activation potentiation) is the trunk. Waved sets is one of several possible major branches (boughs). Poliquan's 1/6 principle is one of the lesser branches on the wave loading branch. It's a twig. I think if you have my tree visual firmly in mind you will have a hard time thinking of a twig as a principle! You will also see that hacking off the twig hardly makes a difference to the tree. It will stand strong and proud.

The kind of thinking behind this “principle” could lead you to think that in order to take advantage of PAP 5 or 6 reps must be used and these must be preceded by singles using a certain intensity, etc. A basic understanding of facilitation, however, and some critical thought, would lead you to understand that this is not a predictable phenomenon and any wave loading technique is simply a way of organizing one's training to try to make the most of the facilitation effect of heavy loads. This realization might allow you to make the necessary logical leap that there must be many other ways by which this phenomenon could be addressed in one's training. The experimentation that could result would make for a much smarter and more successful trainee than one who simply follows rote methods without any thought as to their origins.

Interval Training

Here is a simple way to look at the underlying principle of interval training as given in "Exercise Physiology" by McArdle et al. Although you probably cannot run a "4-minute mile" it is very likely that you can run a mile in four minutes. To explain that, I'm saying that you cannot maintain the very high exercise intensity continuously for four minutes as only a few "world class" runners can do so. However, given intervals of recovery in between high-intensity bouts of running, you may be able to complete a mile in four minutes of actual run time. If you tried to do it continuously you'd fail and would be unable to sufficiently recover from the attempt to make any reasonable effort to try again. But if you space out your all out running with some "relief intervals" or cool down periods…suddenly a four-minute mile is within grasp. That is, you've "run" for four minutes and gone a mile. You just haven't "run" continuously. You have done MUCH more high-intensity work than you would have otherwise been able to do.1

This is the underlying rationale, or principle, behind interval training. Specifically, you are relying on high energy phosphates as the primary source of energy during brief periods of high intensity. There is no appreciable build up of lactic acid and recovery is very quick during the relief or cool down periods. This rationale, again, is what underlies interval training but interval training itself is a method or class of training. There are of course many variables such as the actual intensity of the exercise, the duration, the length of relief intervals, and repetitions. The specific activity and conditions dictate how those variables are used. For example, you would not use the same interval lengths for uphill sprints as you would for running on the level. For interval training to make sense there must be a fairly narrow range of work to rest ratios. Otherwise, sufficient recovery could not occur within intervals and the whole point of interval training would be lost.

As should be apparent from the theme of this post, rationales and principles are not popularized and are therefore not common knowledge. Specific methods and programs are. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a popularized method of interval training which involves short periods of high (at or above 80% V02 Max) or very high (above V02 max) followed by recovery periods appropriate to the intensity. There is nothing new about this idea and could be compared to any sprint interval but instead of being used to improve anaerobic or aerobic capacity this style of interval training has been hyped to the fat loss or bodybuilding crowd as "cardio" which has become synonymous with fat loss exercise.

Although HIIT proponents seem to have discounted any performance improvement from intervals and instead focus exclusively on the (much exaggerated) EPOC effect and and it's effect on energy substrate use (fat burning) during the post training period, HITT does preserve the basic tenants of interval training. However, since the exercising public at large only understand interval training in terms of HITT and have no conception of the underlying principles of intervals in general, the door has been opened for the marketing of interval training methods that simply ignore these principles and thus the true benefits of intervals. A recent example is ShaunT's "Max Interval Training" which "turns interval training on it's head" by using long five minute periods of "high intensity" followed by very brief one minute relief intervals. If you have understood the rationale for intervals thus far, then you will understand that this "method" is nonsense. The cool down periods are much too short to allow sufficient recovery so that any true semblance of "high" intensity could not be maintained throughout the session.

Max Interval Training is an example of a common phenomenon when methods or programs are "improved" upon by individuals who lack a basic understanding of the difference between method and principle. Usually this results in simply "making it harder" rather than making it more efficient or effective for the goals at hand. Since the method is simply a brainless “tweak” of an existing exercise craze, any attempt to rationalize it would have to be based on the circumstance of training rather than any principle or rationale that came before. This is called a “spin”. It is inventing a set of rationales after the fact to explain the proposed results of the training and the reasons therefore for doing it.

1. McArdle, William D., Frank I. Katch, and Victor L. Katch. "Ch. 21: Training for Anaerobic and Aerobic Power." Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996. 409-11. Print. : full source reference

This page created 08 Aug 2010 20:46
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 17:57

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