Training can be confusing.
How many reps? How many sets? What exercises should I be doing? How many days per week? Should I max out to NSync or Backstreet Boys?
While details do matter and individual differences abound based on your genetics, goals, age, training history and a host of other factors, if you can wrap your head around the following two simple concepts you will have 95% of the puzzle solved.
So let me spare you all the razzle-dazzle and jump right into the two most critical, important, impactful, significant factors when it comes to your training (okay, there may be a touch of razzle-dazzle in here).
#1: Increasing Weekly Training Load
To get faster, run farther, become stronger and more powerful or any other positive training adaptation, you must be able to complete more work than you have in the past.
To put it more simply, in order to get better at a particular thing, you must increase and meet the demands of that thing over time.
This can be lifting more weights, running more miles, accumulating more watts on the Echo Bike or more calories on the rower. It can be running the same distance in less time, or decreasing rest intervals or adding more total sets or moving the bar faster.
All of the above are examples (and there are more) of increasing training load over a period of time.
A couple of caveats:
I choose to look at training load on a weekly basis as the time frame because it’s long enough to be meaningful but short enough to require constant evaluation. Also, we program for our facility on a weekly basis so this range just works well in our situation.
Secondly, and this is an important but confusing point, this increase in training load does not and should not be completely linear. There will be times and weeks where you will – with or without planning – decrease your training load. Maybe you took a vacation or deloaded for a competition or just slept like crap and needed to back off.
This is reasonable and expected. Weekly training load just needs to increase over a significant time horizon. If you were to graph it out, the graph would always move up and to the right but it wouldn’t be a straight line. There should be zig-zags in there.
From a practical standpoint, the best way to evaluate if your weekly training load over time is increasing is to keep accurate training records. The cliche of “what gets measured gets managed” holds true in this case. If you are confronted with the data, you will clearly see that you lifted a total of 60,000kg this week when last week you lifted a total of 58,000kg or that you ran 40 miles at a 7:10 average pace where last week it was at a 7:12 average pace. These would both be good indicators that you increased weekly training load.
Before we move onto our second factor, I want to mention that increasing weekly training load is a close relative to the principle of progressive overload which also states that demands must increase over time in order for training to be effective. But I feel there are two key differentiators. First, I like adding the specific weekly timeframe as I think this big picture thinking yields better results than just worrying about making things heavier or faster set by set. Secondly, I’ve come to perceive progressive overload as a training result rather than a training parameter. The fact that you can lift more weight is a testament to the fact that your training is working.
Feel free to disagree with me.
#2: Training Specificity
Imagine you are on a cruise ship that is taken over by a band of pirates. And, for reasons unknown, the pirates single you out. They take you on their ship and sail you off to a completely deserted island. Think Tom Hanks in Castaway.
Before the pirates leave you there to figure out your own survival, they unload a squat rack, barbell and exactly 360 pounds of weight plates. The pirates make you a deal.
“We’ll return in 3 months. If you can back squat 405 pounds at that time, we’ll return you to your homeland.”
Feel free to throw a couple of “arrgs” and “mateys” in there if it helps the story.
My question to you is this: as they sail away through shark infested waters and you ascertain there are only enough coconut and mango trees to provide your food for 5-6 months tops, would you be thinking, “I should probably go for a run”?
No. You would quickly realize that your only way off the island is to back squat the barbell plus all the weight plates by the time they return and you would start squatting.
I bring up this happens-all-the-time story to illustrate the importance of training specificity or spending the majority of your time training the thing you want to get better at.
This is not only limited to exercise selection but strength qualities and energy systems as well.
Want to be a powerlifter? You probably aren’t going to spend too much time on 20 rep sets.
Want to make the Olympics in the 400 meter run? Marathon training is a waste of your time.
In both these examples you are still performing the activity, but you aren’t hitting the required demands of what you want to accomplish.
Of course, there are diminishing returns to be considered. Powerlifters don’t only perform heavy singles. Four hundred meter sprinters run a variety of distances at varying intensities. Football players spend time in the weight room getting bigger and stronger in order to enhance their performance on the field.
You can only spend so much time doing a specific thing before you can no longer make positive adaptations. And training variety should be incorporated in order to improve your capabilities in the thing that is most important to you. If, like much of our population, you are training to develop general qualities – you want to get stronger, improve your health and work capacity, move well and improve your body composition – training variety is part of that equation.
But if your goal was to squat 900 pounds, this much variety wouldn’t serve you. You just wouldn’t have enough time or energy to dedicate to getting that amazing at the squat.
If getting off the island depended on it, you bet your ass you’d spend a lot of time squatting.
I started off by saying that training can be confusing and complex and even though these two factors are by far and away the top considerations when developing your training plan, managing them is still far from simple.
How do I increase weekly training load appropriately? When should I incorporate more variety versus specificity? Do I want to listen to NSync’s self-titled debut or am I more in the mood for “No Strings Attached”? Will these pirates really come back for me?
These can be tough questions to answer. And this is exactly why you need to rely on trusted professionals and honest pirates to help you out.