Optimal Strength Training: Training to Fail Pt. 4

Posted on 24 Jun 2010 19:49

In the first post I introduced the idea that much of the strength training and fitness information, and the attitudes of trainers themselves, seems to be based on a failure oriented philosophy rather than a success oriented one. We seek ways to get around failure, or to avoid failure, or even to use failure as a means to training. Rarely do we discuss "ways to succeed".

My post, Strength Training Motivation and Goal Setting introduced a common type of trainee: The Fear of Failure Trainee. It would be a shame indeed if the strength and conditioning world facilitated this type of trainee and I'm afraid thatin general, it does. You cannot succeed based on the sole criteria of "not failing". Yet as I began to outline in posts two and three, many "tried and true" methods of strength training are bent on failure rather than success. Intensity Cycling and High-Intensity Overtraining explained some of the myths surrounding high intensity overtraining and how intensity cycling was misguided. The Failure of Intensity Cycling took intensity cycling to its logical conclusion.

Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Trainees

Ideas such as intensity cycling come along with one size fits all programs, also known in the industry as "cookie cutter programs". What most of these programs claim is that they are a way of training optimally for all trainees or a group of trainees. Most strength authorities would separate these "groups" into beginner, intermediate, or advanced. These groupings, rather than being based on a universal theory of strength training progression, are based on programming notions. In other words, the groupings come from how we believe each group should train as a whole.

Beginner and intermediate trainees should use only straight sets, according to this way of thinking. And advanced trainees should use "advanced techniques". This system of categorization is circular. One who is able to progress using straight sets alone is a beginner or intermediate. One who is a beginner or intermediate uses straight sets alone. Without this illogical and circular thinking one would not be able to write one size fits all programs. The question and answer session may look like this:

1. You need to use straight sets


2. Because you are an intermediate


3. Because you need to use straight sets

In other words, it becomes "begging the question" or an illogical circular argument. Put this in perspective by applying the same type of thinking to something else. Let's say I define a cow as "a creature who gives milk" and I define milk as "a liquid that comes from a cow." Both these definitions seem completely inadequate, do they not? We only think of a cow in relation to it's ability to give milk and we only think of milk in relation to one mammal who gives milk. You would reject these ideas quite readily, I'm sure, yet most trainees happily accept the idea that "a beginner is one who trains thus" and "one who trains thus is a beginner". Some of the ideas about optimal training, then, are built on defining trainees using circular terms and circular thinking.

I called strength training programs based on these ideas "post facto" programs:

"Many so called strength training programs are built based on universal assumptions about strength development. These programs could rightfully be called “post facto” programs. Meaning they become strength training programs after these assumptions are met. People caught up in the cookie cutter mentality are caught up in this post facto philosophy: “I am a strength trainee because I do this.”

A gym-goer who decides to sign up with a trainer would expect to receive a customized training program. He or she would not expect that trainer to simply ask "are you a beginner or intermediate?" and then hand over a computer printout with a ready made program on it. At least, a gym goer should NOT expect such a thing. Well, just because something is free and not from a trainer does not mean we should relax our standards and accept that we can be thrown into a conveniently labeled box. Don't accept the post facto philosophy. Say "I am a strength training therefore I do this, not because I do this."

The full-body "intermediate 5x5" is supposed to be optimal, for instance, based on one's "training age". Yet very few trainees have one training age. The very concept of a training age is completely flawed since different skills will have different ages. You may be surprised at just how far we can break things down. Explosiveness, maximal strength, anaerobic capacity, and even mobility, all determine how a trainee responds to any particular training regimen. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. These individual differences in response to exercise are the bane of the cookie-cutter purveyor.

Besides the notion that all trainees can be easily separated into beginner, intermediate and advanced categories, those who try to optimize training tend to be almost pathologically opposed to the big picture. Instead, they focus in on one single parameter, training response, or physiological detail as if looking for the "holy grail" component of strength training. Physiological details especially are the favored stomping ground of the 'guru' who lacks knowledge of programming.

Entire programs have been written, for instance, based on the need to optimize protein synthesis. It is hard to imagine any organized system of training based on a metabolic physical response that we cannot directly observe, yet high sounding terms like protein synthesis can easily trump more general sounding terms like 'performance based' even though performance is something that can we can observe, in terms of quality or quantity, and react to.

More often still are training programs based on "optimizing" single parameters of resistance training. Work per unit of time, or "density", for instance, is the parameter that Staley's Escalating Density Training seeks to optimize. Whether the bodybuilding or strength versions of this training scheme, the focus on time means making volume and intensity suboptimal, among other parameters.

We have also seen Optimized Volume Training, High-Frequency Training, Hypertrophy Specific Training, and many other programs that seek to manipulate a single variable. HST, for example, seeks to manipulate resistance training adaptation through a "planned deconditioning" period. What all of these types of programs have in common are the commitment to a single idea or theory. The other overriding aspect of these programs is what this blog series is all about. They all seem to be based on taking programs that would normally fail (suboptimal) and "fixing" them by manipulating one magic variable. So again we have training that is based on the avoidance of failure rather than the seeking out of success!

HST training uses nothing more than a short linear periodized model. Linear periodization is a largely inefficient way to train in the first place but like anything, it has its time and place.

Linear periodization basically proceeds from high volume and low intensity to low volume and high intensity. Where the long method has microcycles as long as four weeks the short method cuts these microcycles down to two weeks at most. For example a short linear model might begin week one at 8 reps with 70% of 1RM and end week six with four reps at 85% of 1RM. Such a plan may be quite effective and appropriate for certain trainees and even a beginner provided they are ready for the volume at the beginning and the quick jump in intensity, but it is only optimal to the degree that it fits the needs of the individual trainee. It cannot be made 'fool-proof' by the application of a theory. Since one of the few advantages of short linear periodized models over long ones is that the adaptations gained from each microcycle is less likely to decline during the several weeks of the next cycle it is almost comical to intentionally take a week off between each mesocycle in the hopes that this will somehow cause continuing positive results in the next. Yet this is exactly what HST does in order to "optimize" this model for hypertrophy effects.

Avoid programs, then, that are based on one magic ingredient. Too much of one ingredient and you overwhelm the others. Think of it like nutmeg. A dash is great but a tablespoon will ruin your pumpkin pie.

It Worked Before

The idea of optimal training is a complete fiction. There is no such thing as training that is optimal since there is no training that is efficacious for an entire training population.

Optimal is one size fits all. One size fits all is usually a product that is the most economical rather than the best fit. Nobody really expects "one size fits all" to actually fit as well as something fitted, do they? It is no different with strength training.

If I can get you to take away one thing only from this series of posts it is this: Just because something worked before does not mean it will work again.

Optimal doesn't exist in training because if you make one aspect of training optimal, another one suffers and becomes suboptimal. To answer that, many simply rate variables in terms of importance. This leads to the arbitrary "mathematical" designations of training variables like "it's 60% this, 30% that with a smattering of a few other things". Which is, of course, complete nonsense. I wrote a little about that in Strength Performance Psychology Versus Physiology: It's All Mental

If you try to dial in optimal frequency, for instance, you pay the price in stress. The full body 5x5, for instance, is thought to optimize frequency. It also makes intensity sub-optimal and every parameter uncontrollable and inflexible.

It also optimizes stress. Instead of planning for success this type of programming, after a while, leaves trainees spending hours worrying about having a bad day in the gym, catastrophizing over potential injuries since some joint or other is always suffering, or simply dreading the whole thing. Each day is completely like the last. The one goal of simply adding a little load to the bar in the hopes of some far off PR is a perfect block to drive and enthusiasm. All that equals to DISTRESS. How optimal is that?

All such training programs are built around assumptions about how trainees progress over a training career in general but no such assumptions are ever completely valid therefore the practice of developing optimal programs is futile. Why do you think strength coaches and trainers exist?

Another problem with this notion is the concept of what is necessary and sound versus what is "optimal". What is optimal is entirely subjective because it is built on the developer’s attitudes and viewpoints. What do they believe to be acceptable? What do they believe to be inevitable? If your attitude about injuries is that they are inevitable then your ideas about what is optimal will be built on that. Injuries will happen so the heck with it! Let’s get injured while training optimally! Sound like nonsense? Well, optimal is nonsense.

What is necessary and sound is much different than what is optimal. The very terms suggest a cost-benefit analyses. Necessary and sound training methods are how we get stronger. Optimal training programs are how we compromise.

This page created 24 Jun 2010 19:49
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 17:23

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