Everyone told me that I’d mellow out. That it wouldn’t mean as much. That as I got older I wouldn’t be so filled with piss and vinegar. But it hasn’t happened.
Bad training programs still make me insane.
And I often reflect on this pet peeve of mine. On why it affects me the way it does. I’m usually not one to sell you on buying a Toyota Camry or convince you that a Labradoodle is truly the dog for you. In other words, I don’t push my belief systems on other people. And I don’t begrudge any person or studio or corporation’s desire to make a buck. I don’t even think it’s the constant need to defend the efficacy of our program and system against other seemingly sexier options that all-but-guarantee instantaneous results along with the latest music curated by an in-house DJ, an instructor wearing a sweet headset and the promise of a free banana upon exit. I welcome describing our philosophy and systems to potential new clients who usually appreciate the truth-punch to the face that is part of our sales pitch. In other words, I’m proud of the fact that we don’t bullshit people.
So after a long bout of soul searching, I believe there are two reasons that I can’t shake the ugly stench of bad training programs. First, fitness means a lot to me. It has transformed my life in so many ways that I want it to have as much of an impact on others. Secondly, I’ve met with too many people who come to me with a desperate look in their eye, claiming they’ve tried “everything” (and sometimes they truly have) and haven’t been able to reach their goals. It’s one thing to face the client who has every excuse in the book as to why they aren’t getting where they want to go and have to listen to their rationalizations. It’s another thing to have your heart broken by someone who has legitimately spent the time, energy and remarkable sums of money to be duped by bad trainers, grandiose marketing and flawed systems.
Rather than go on for paragraphs complaining I want to do something about it.
As Ghandi famously said, be the change you want to see in the world (apparently, according to Mental Floss Magazine, he never actually said this. But I haven’t looked into it further). So with that spirit in mind, I am going to reveal the five most important aspects that you should look for and employ in your training program. If you are someone who trains on their own in their garage or works with a personal trainer or goes to a group fitness class, this checklist can help you determine whether or not you are following a sound program that will actually put you on the path to results. And if you are a trainer, please feel free to steal these ideas and make sure that your programs hold water. Yup, I’m giving away the keys to the castle. We can’t train everybody.
Specificity is exactly what it sounds like. – being specific. Your training program has to be relevant and designed to meet your goals. If you want to be an Olympic skier you should probably spend a good amount of time on the slopes. If you want to be a power lifter you need to practice the competitive lifts (squat, deadlift and bench press). In these examples, specificity is very obvious. But for general exercisers, specificity can be more vague. There are no specific musts. There is no competition day.
We don’t look at it that way. The vast majority of people who want to train do so to improve physical appearance and health, and increase strength and work capacity. Looking better naked, staving off diabetes, installing an air conditioner in your window, keeping up with your grandchildren – these all fall in the aesthetics, health, strength and capacity buckets. Therefore your program should address all of these factors. Maybe not all at once but throughout your training year you should very directly and specifically be addressing all of these qualities and dialing up or down the ones that are most/least important to achieving your goals.
Progressive overload is a fancy way of saying that, over time, you must do more work in order to adapt. If you perform the same 3 sets of 8 reps of bodyweight lunges indefinitely you will quickly adapt to that workload and not make any progress or change. You need to add more weight, or more reps, or perform the exercise for a longer duration or add some sort of factor that overloads the system (your body) to a greater extent that it has in the past.
Just to clarify, this does not need to be linear. You will not be able to add 5 pounds to your bench press or cut off 10 seconds off of your 5k run time indefinitely. That approach may work for a while, particularly if you are a beginner, but we’d all be 800lb squatters in no time if we could simply add weight each week. Different factors need to be dialed up and down at different times to make sure that continual progress is made and this is where a deeper understanding of programming is needed. If you have been on the same exact program for 6 months you need to seek out someone with a greater understanding of programming than you, your current trainer or your favorite group fitness class.
I get why people love High Intensity Training (HIT). You just got crushed for 45 minutes, your dripping with sweat and the post-workout feel-good hormones have you believing that, if you just worked on your striking game a little, you’re pretty much ready to take on Conor McGregor at UFC 205. But if you look at the first two principles above you should immediately understand why you should not be doing maximal intensity all the time.
First, it puts too many eggs in the work capacity basket. You are not doing enough to increase strength (you can’t really use even near maximal weights when constantly under fatigue), it’s likely doesn’t optimize health (your systems positively respond to varying cardiovascular intensities, not just all out), and, while it will make you leaner, you are probably going to want to build and retain muscle mass if you truly want to look great with your clothes off.
High Intensity Training has it’s place in most training programs but, again, it can’t be the only energy system you tap into. If you are not hitting some variety of maximal strength, relative strength, hypertrophy, strength-endurance and power (just to name some of the major qualities) you need to reassess what you are doing.
Maximal Recoverable Volume vs. Minimal Effective Dose
While this sounds like some sort of complicated Supreme Court case, MRV vs. MED is actually a pretty simple concept. If you think of effective training on a spectrum, maximal recoverable volume is on one end (the most work you can do while still being able to recover) and minimal effective dose is on the other end (the least you can do while still eliciting a training effect). Your training has to fall somewhere on this spectrum. If you do more than the maximal recoverable volume you will either get hurt, suffer the symptoms of overtraining and decrease results. If you do less than the minimal effective does you are essentially wasting your time. You are doing so little in relation to your capabilities that you make no progress and get no results.
And while there is a time to be a bit closer to the minimum effective dose (planned deloads or times of major outside stress), we tend to keep things closer to the maximal recoverable volume as it drives better results more quickly. If you always walk out of the gym feeling great and thinking you could have done another hour you probably didn’t train hard enough. And if you always walk out feeling like you are completely gutted you may want to plan some back-off work so you don’t get hurt or burn out.
When you walk into the gym, you should be excited and maybe a little nervous to tackle your training program. Sure there will be some days where you just aren’t into it and end up phoning it in. But for the majority of the time your training program should be engaging. It should have enough variety, change frequently enough and be just challenging enough to get your attention. Hopefully you are sitting at work or in class thinking about it before you even walk through the gym doors.
What will be psychologically engaging will be different for different people. Some get fired up by serious strength training. Others need to feel a muscle pump. Some are more consumed by the specific challenge of a conditioning workout. There really is an art to developing programming that follows the above 4 principles but also delivers the special sauce – the x factor of love and dread that comes with tackling any difficult but rewarding challenge. We’ve become very good at doing this but it certainly has taken a lot of time, research, study and experimentation to develop this critical skill.
Which circuitously brings us to the title of this post. A comprehensive training program that specifically helps you reach your goals should be of critical importance to you if you are bothering to peel your eyes away from the latest Netflix series and actually put in the effort to make it to the gym. And you should seek out an expert or a facility (or do the work yourself if you desire) that can provide that for you. At least if you want the results you are looking for.
There are plenty of places that deliver a great experience or a fun workout or even touch upon one or two of the factors above. But at some point you should want to go beyond that. You should want a comprehensive, evidence-based system or person of expertise. You don’t go to Cinnabon for the hamburgers. You go for that smell that wafts across the airport. That gooey icing. That giant, tasty cinnamon bun that is just big enough that once you finish it you vow to never have another. You go because they are great. This level of discernment should not be limited to your choice of treat between flight delays.
By the way, it was very hard for me to not call out specific studios, gyms, trainers and modalities in this post. Very hard. But I’m trying to show some restraint.
Maybe I’m mellowing out in my old age.