I’ve been in sports my whole life and have had dozens of coaches all with different strength philosophies. As a gym owner, I have also interviewed and spent significant time with other strength experts so I could later implement their best practices. Today’s post is a two-part piece on providing a researched-based conclusion to why every athlete deserves a professional strength coach.
Let’s start with the obvious: A program is effective when it improves performance. That’s it. The effectiveness of a program must depend on results of the athlete. If the athlete is non-compliant, it’s the wrong program. If the athlete doesn’t improve, it’s the wrong program. If there is anything but improved benchmark data, it’s the wrong program.
A coach and athlete must be yoked together in pursuit of a common goal. This is best done when they sit down outside of the gym and determine together what success is going to look like. If the coach skips this step, the program is doomed to fail. “If the ladder is not leaning up against the right wall, every step we take just gets us in the wrong place faster.”1
After identifying what success will look like, the coach and athlete must identify a handful of key performance indicators (KPI’s). Every experienced strength coach uses sport-specific KPI’s that they can then benchmark their athlete’s performance against. Appropriate KPI’s for a football player might include his back squat, bench press, and a 4-yard dash whereas a CrossFitter’s KPI’s might include workouts like Fran, Fight Gone Bad, and Helen.
So far as the KPI is in alignment with the athlete’s goal, the coach cannot error.
The next step is to gather data by which you can benchmark athlete performance. If the athlete’s goal is to play linebacker at BYU, the coach would need to gather data on what BYU linebackers squat, bench, and sprint. Additionally, if a CrossFitter’s goals is to compete at a Sanctioned-event, the coach must put together data on those athlete’s Fran, Fight Gone Bad, and Helen scores. The end goal may be to “play linebacker at BYU,” but with this new data the measurable goal now becomes to squat 455, bench 330, and sprint 40-yards in 4.55 seconds.” Quantitying the goal allows additional focus and ability to make changes along the program’s plan.
FOCUS ON WEAKNESSES
After determining appropriate KPI’s, gathering a sample size of data for which the athlete’s goal applies, testing your athlete with those same KPI’s, and benchmarking your athlete’s scores against that sample size, you can then look for trends. Consider a few of the following questions:
- Where are the biggest weaknesses?
- Can I cluster together any of the weaknesses to tell me something not so obvious?
- Are certain ratios off between my athlete and the sample size? (i.e. consider the back squat:deadlift, power clean:front squat, or body fat percentage:pull-ups ratio.)
- What might be some realistic goals over the next 12 months to ensure that my athlete stays healthy and on track to hit these KPI’s?
As you perform this exercise, consider the wisdom found in the CrossFit Competitor’s course: “Optimizing long-term program design is best guided by observing results (i.e., objective and measurable change in performance markers) and applying focused weakness work…”2 Recognize and praise the strengths, while working relentlessly on the weaknesses.
Clustering data or creating ratios between benchmarks allows for you to see discrepancies in training. For example, I have an athlete that has a 600 lb. deadlift but only a 385 lb. back squat. Is there something wrong with the squat technique that could be a result of his ratio being so abnormal? Probably.
As a final measure, remember that “strength takes years to develop while conditioning only takes months.”3 Recognize that adding strength for an experienced athlete will probably take longer than improving a 5k time.
MACRO-, MESO-, AND MICROCYCLES
Elite coaches always program in “cycles” for their athletes. These cycles provide opportunities to measure objective data and determine if the path the athlete is on is correct. This constant evaluation further customizes the program to each athlete’s needs, giving them a better shot at reaching their goal. Consider the picture below of a competitor’s program.
Notice the use of macro-, meso-, and microcycles in the picture: they vary based on length. A macrocycle generally lasts up to one year. A mesocycle breaks up the macrocycle into divisible chunks, usually lasting between 4-12 weeks. And the microcycle breaks up the mesocycle, usually lasting up to a week at a time. The diagram demonstrates time periods when the program can be reevaluated.
A common mistake here is to place too much emphasis on the duration of each cycle instead of the end goal of each cycle. Remember, the athlete is chasing objective performance metrics along the way. For example, if the CrossFitter wants to compete at a Sanctioned-event, the goal may be to hit a 455 lb. back-squat at the end of the macrocycle. The individual mesocycles will break that 455 lb. goal into chunks throughout the year (i.e. “Goal for Mesocycle #1: reach 435 lb back squat.”, “Goal for Mesocycle #2: reach 440 lb back squat.”, etc.) Then, coaches can program a specific “stimulus” for each upcoming workout within a microcycle so that the end goal of the mesocycle is hit. Simply put, think of cycles as a structured goal-setting method:
- Start with the end-of-year-goal.
- Break it up into quarterly or monthlygoals.
- Then, set weekly and daily goals.
Eventually, if the athlete consistently follows the plan every day – making the necessary changes along the way – the athlete will reach the yearly (macrocycle) goal.
WHAT SHOULD I CHANGE?
The structure of using macro-, meso-, and microcycles allows frequent check-ups to verify that the athlete is on pace to reach their goal. But what should the coach change if the athlete is not on track?
The coach has three main variables to manipulate:
- Volume (length of each session).
- Intensity (the load of each rep or how difficult each set was).
- Frequency (# of sessions).
However, the coach must also consider three additional dependent variables that certainly have an effect on a training program’s efficacy:
- Recovery: How primed is the body to take on additional stress?
- Sleep: How is the sleep quality and quantity?
- Frequency: The # of sessions
Conventional wisdom shows strength coaches modifying volume, intensity, and frequency variables throughout different cycles. As technology improves however, certain fitness wearables like the Whoop Band can provide invaluable data on these dependent variables.
THE NITTY GRITTY
For those involved in coaching higher-level athletics, it is easy for one to get caught up in the details of creating the optimal program. To stay consistent with the purpose of this article, we will briefly cover the commonalities shared between winning programs in Russia, China, and Bulgaria (arguably the strongest countries every four years at the Olympics).
Remember that the best program is the one that works – and periodization over the past 20 years has proven to be the most effective.5 Although periodization seems similar to the three main cycles, they occur within each of the cycles. Here are the basics you should know about periodized training programs:
- Sequential/Phasic: Do the workouts build on each other?
- Variety: Does the routine change? Main thing to remember here is that “the body becomes increasingly resistant to an incessant stimulus.”6
- Goal: Does the program lead to peak performance on a certain date? 7
Periodization can be implemented in many different ways throughout a training program. Below are three modalities in which it can be used simply.
Under the periodization umbrella, three different versions have been shown to lead to weightlifting gains. They all simply modify the independent training variables of volume, intensity, and frequency.
- Linear: Training volume progressively decreases over time as the training intensity increases.
- Undulating: Similar to linear periodization, but the oscillation between training volume and intensity occurs more frequently. One will typically see a complete fluctuation between training volume and intensity within a few days or weeks (as opposed to an entire mesocycle).
- Block: Follows the linear method in which the volume progressively decreases with time and intensity increases, however the frequency of these oscillations happens daily.
Different training programs call for different periodization methods. However, undulating periodization has been shown to yield the greatest gains within weightlifting.7
This short-section is intended to help the athlete improve on body-weight movements, not the sport of gymnastics. Again, the same three independent variables are controlled in a format that is supplemental to the overall program (i.e. Periodized cube model).
The term monostructural refers to any metabolic effort traditionally referred to as “cardio” (i.e. running, swimming, rowing, biking, etc.) Scientific literature has long stated that to improve your VO2 max, the athlete would need to train long, aerobic efforts on a consistent basis. However, more recent literature is showing that “improve[d] aerobic fitness… is likely found at the anaerobic end of the metabolic spectrum.”9
For this reason, we recommend programming intended work-to-rest interval ratios into your monostructural workouts.
A standard workout program may work for untrained athletes, but as the athlete progresses, customized workouts must command priority.
This customized program should begin with a one-on-one meeting where the coach and athlete clearly identify what success will look like. Then, KPI’s are set to objectively benchmark weaknesses of the athlete and set tangible goals. As the coach then puts in motion the program, certain independent and dependent variables must be considered as time goes on. These variables can and should be modified if the athlete is not progressing at the desired rate.
Only in this way can the coach and athlete yoke themselves into a synergistic relationship so that the outcome is greater together than it would’ve been alone.
- Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Stephen Covey
- http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/CFJ_English_L2_TrainingGuide.pdf (pg. 55)
- Chasing Excellence. 2018. Ben Bergeron.; Episode 19
- Graphic taken from: https://www.crossfit.com/cf- seminars/SMERefs/Competitor/CrossFitCompetitorsTr ainingGuide.pdf (pg. 25)
- Tudor O. Bompa, Carlo Buzzichelli. 2015. Periodization Training for Sports. Champaign: Human
Kinetics. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/[SITE_ ID]/detail.action?docID=3012038.
- Bickman, Benjamin. 2018. The Plagues of Prosperity. Anonymous (BYU Speeches Podcast).
- Nuckols, Greg. “Periodization: What the Data Say.” Stronger By Science., last modified January 8, accessed October 20,
2019, https://www.strongerbyscience.com/periodizati on-data/.
- https://assets.crossfit.com/pdfs/seminars/SMERefs/Gy mnastics/GymnasticsCourse_SeminarGuide.pdf
- https://journal.crossfit.com/article/the-paradox-of- the-aerobic-fitness-prescription-2
- http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/56_07_Rest_Recov ery.pdf
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