After much positive review, I wanted to start a thread where I discuss training as I understand it. Specifically: as someone with a formal education in politics, philosophy and theology rather than the hard sciences. Ready scientific studies makes my eyes glaze over, and I barely passed my hard science courses in high school, so in order for me to grasp anything as it relates to training, this is how I have to approach it.
I’m going to post the first part of the series here, and will update as I continue to write. Would love to hear any feedback and requests from those who read it.
WHAT IS A PROGRAM?
Gonna see this theme a LOT today
A program is NOT a routine. A routine is just something we do on a regular schedule. It does not build toward anything. We brush our teeth as part of a routine: we’re not hoping to gradually build up from 1 minute to 40 minutes of brushing. We’re simply doing it to MAINTAIN health. A program is also not a workout: a workout is a singular part OF a program. A program BUILDS toward a goal. In turn, a program must have some manner of progression established within it. This doesn’t need to be ultra nerdy and mathematical and charted by spreadsheets, but there must be SOME manner of climbing toward something.
In that regard, we have Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” at play, in that the program is a manifestation of our inherent drive to overcome and exercise our power over that which stands in front of us. And again, this can be a codified expression of that will, employing 5/3/1’s TM progression or Super Squats “5lbs more each workout”, or you can employ the max effort method and simply achieve maximal strain, or you can employ a rate of perceived exertion, but in either case, the Will to Power is at play, and in following that will (no life denying philosophy allowed!), we progress.
But furthermore: what IS a program? A program is simply a structured methodology balancing stimulus and fatigue. That’s the razor’s edge of progression: enough stimulus to trigger growth, without too much fatigue to halt it. The scales require balance (duality?!). If we have too much fatigue, it does not matter how much stimulus we have: we will not grow. Alternatively, if we do not have enough stimulus, it does not matter how much fatigue we manage: we will not grow.
Check out all that fatigue being managed!
Fundamentally, this is why new trainees are told to follow an established program: someone ELSE has done the stimulus to fatigue balancing FOR us. And, in true cookie-cutter fashion: it will be one-size-fits-all, aiming for an idealized middleground of success…for the most part. Many argue that popular Bulgarian training, with multiple training sessions operating near max, was used as a “sorting out” program, wherein, those that SURVIVED the program demonstrated that they had the necessary genetics blessing to be Olympic champs in the first place. It was designed to intentionally break average people so that only the above-average would remain, similar to special forces selection…but I’m getting off task there.
This is because new trainees are just going to be plain awful at figuring out this balance. Often, it’s a weird grab bag where they won’t employ enough stimulus on the “money making” exercises (heavy compounds), will blow their load on small assistance work like forearms curls and ab work, and then train too often, limiting their ability to actually push hard enough in the gym in the first place. Pair this with awful nutrition and terrible sleep and they just spin their wheels for months. This is why I’m such a big fan of “Super Squats”: it gives you a training program that sorts out all that stuff AND the nutritional advice to recover.
So do you NEED a program in order to succeed? Not necessarily one developed by someone else, no. We need an approach to progression, alongside a way to balance stimulus to grow with fatigue. Experience is one of the best ways to develop all of that, and one of the best ways to GET that experience is to run a bunch of established programs so we can see how we respond to certain approaches: physically AND psychologically. And, of course, if you can get a coach to personally tailor an approach that fits you, that’s cool too…so I’ve heard.
It’s why I do so many bear complexes
“That which does not kill me only makes me stronger”. Once again: Nietzsche had it figured out. The Will to Power that exists in our bodies makes it such that our bodies have a propensity to attempt to grow in response to trauma. The body encounters resistance, if said resistance does not kill the body, it seems to overcome this resistance. It does so by making the necessary adaptations to do so. In our case: it makes its muscles bigger, as a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle.
And this is ALL stimulus is. People get so wrapped up on THIS part of the process of achieving physical transformation, when really, you can boil it down to going into the training facility and putting yourself through extensive physical trauma that does NOT kill you, giving you an opportunity to be made stronger. However, in order to create an environment wherein the process of becoming stronger occurs, stimulus must be met with recovery, and fatigue must be managed.
Hey look: recovery!
Food is absolutely the most anabolic substance on the planet. Gains are made of food. All tissue growth is a result of food. This cannot be overstated. If you take ALL the steroids, train ALL the training, sleep ALL the sleep, take ALL the ice baths, etc etc, but do not eat enough food to support growth: you will NOT grow. Your body does not possess alchemical abilities to create out of nothingness.
I say that because SO many trainees are absolutely terrified of food. Specifically, they are terrified of eating “too much”. In the game of physical transformation, this is essentially fear of being “too successful”. It’s worth appreciating that I’m writing purely from the perspective of building muscle here. I’ll circle back and discuss fat loss briefly, as that’s not really a complicated subject, but if our goal is to subject our body to enough stimulus to not quite kill it, we must THEN make it our goal to eat enough food that the “makes me stronger” part of the process can occur. If we do our best to eat just BARELY enough to facilitate that process, we run the risk of erring on the wrong side of this caution, and PREVENT ourselves from actually recovering and growing stronger. Meanwhile, a trainee that engages in gluttony will more than cover this base of recovery. Once again: no life-denying philosophy here, AND no room for “slave morality” either. The 7 deadly sins were created to limit the slave class: the masters are gluttons (once again: Nietzsche’s words, don’t get too worked up here).
And while we’re on those sins: sure, go for sloth too. I’m not a great sleeper, but sleep and rest are absolutely awesome for recovery…but remember we are sloths OUTSIDE the training space. Inside, perhaps some wrath is necessary instead?
This man taught SO many people how to manage fatigue…only for them to completely ignore it and say the program didn’t have enough volume
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”. Too much time fighting your body with stimulus and not enough time managing your fatigue is how one fails in this pursuit. There are many strategies available to manage fatigue. The simplest one is a scheduled deload.
Before I go further, a deload does NOT mean resetting your weights and starting over again. I’m not sure who starting that trend, but it’s been SO damaging to the discussion of training.
A deload is simply a period of time where we reduce training stress. This can be done by either reducing the weight that we move in training, or the volume of training. You can even simply just take a week off. However you go about it, the point is to spend some time NOT training to your limits. IF you train, you’re simply doing so in order to maintain skill/proficiency in the lift, because, quite frequently, when someone comes back from time away from training and finds out they are “weaker”, they are simply detrained in the movement. Lifting weights is a physical skill, and physical skills require maintenance, just like playing an instrument, throwing a ball, riding a bike, etc. In that regard, the longer you spend lifting, the more time you can spend AWAY from lifting and not lose the skill, whereas, if you’re new to lifting, you might take a week off and see your lifts drop immensely upon your return. Don’t sweat it: your body doesn’t know how much weight it’s lifting only how hard it is struggling. Keep struggling and you’ll get stronger.
Within reason of course
I like to employ a scheduled deload, training hard for 6 weeks and then deload on the 7th. I’ve absolutely stolen that from Jim Wendler. When I deload, I’ll spend the entire week performing conditioning work and not do any sort of strength training. I once did Dan John’s 10k kettlebell swing challenge in 7 days during a deload. Yeah: that was an intense period of training, but the loading on my body was minimal, which gave me time to recover from my heavy training. And that’s the boon of a deload and fatigue management in general: by NOT carrying excessive fatigue, we can push the training harder. This is why athletes will take downtime before the game/event: you train to a point of overreaching, then you rest and recover so that, when you show up on gameday, you give your BEST performance.
Other avenues of fatigue management include auto-regulation within a training day itself. Essentially, instead of handcuffing yourself to fixed percentages, reps and sets, you evaluate how you are feeling/performing THAT DAY and base your training on that. On good days, you reach far and dig deep, on off days, you hit the bare minimum and live to fight another day. As Many Reps as Possible sets are a great employment of this in a program, and 5/3/1 was cool in that it employed AMRAPs AND Deloads in it. With the AMRAP set, on good days you can really push hard, and if you’re having a bad day, you could hit the bare minimum reps (5, 3 or 1 respectively) and call it a day. However, this requires a bit more self-awareness and experience, which is why scheduled deloads tend to be the preferred “cookie-cutter” approach to fatigue management. With the deload, you KNOW the trainee is going to manage fatigue, whereas auto-regulation puts a lot of work on the trainee.
PERIODIZATION: ACCUMULATION AND INTENSIFICATION
Oh yeah: it’s about to get nerdy
“When you gaze too long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you”. We cannot gaze too long my friends: training necessarily NEEDS to change in order to allow us to continue to grow, overcome, and exercise our Will to Power. We absolutely have the abyss gaze back into us otherwise.
Yeah, I know: I’m really forcing the Nietzsche stuff, but I’m having fun. The point is: we can’t pursue one way of training indefinitely. No one successfully does that. Training needs to be phasic, because life in and of itself is phasic. We have seasons, things are in a state of constant change, and we too must be changing. Hey, more Nietzsche stuff: we’re the bridge to the Overman.
This phasic approach to training is known as periodization. There is a LOT out there on that topic, so I’m going to just quickly summarize.
To make a muscle stronger, you make it bigger. That’s it. Strength training IS hypertrophy training. We KNOW this in an instinctive lizardbrain level. This is why, when you see a big animal, you are more afraid of it than a small one: you KNOW that the bigger animal is stronger than the smaller one. It’s why, when you see a large muscular human, you KNOW they are strong before you start “thinking” about how bodybuilders are weaker than strength athletes (stop thinking: it doesn’t suit you). In turn, this is why those very strength athletes have an accumulation phase in their training: THAT is the phase where we make our muscles bigger.
Accumulation is essentially the “body by Nietzsche” I’ve been writing about up until this point. It’s a phase of training wherein we’re constantly trying to kill ourselves, “failing” at that, and, with enough recovery and properly managed fatigue, growing stronger. This is traditionally accomplished by employing higher training volumes, as this forces adaptations. “Volume” as a concept is a contentious issue, and gets more like Tao than Nietzsche, in that anyone who has succeeded in physical transformation “understands” volume, but as soon as you try to ascribe words to it, it fails. I appreciate the idea of “hard work sets” as a measurement of volume, BUT we’ve also observed that a single set can have enough volume in it to drive significant growth so long as that set is an absolute and total soul crusher (think Super Squats or Dogg Crapp work). But, in the most traditional sense, during accumulation, one is doing more sets and reps.
Intensification is a phase of training wherein the intent is to display all that strength we built in the accumulation phase. Because of that, this style of training is often (mistakenly, in my opinion) referred to as “strength training”, whereas accumulation would be “hypertrophy training”. During intensification, the intensity (duh) of the lift increases, in this case meaning percentage of 1 rep max. Simply put: we’re lifting HEAVIER weights than we did in accumulation. Why? Because lifting heavy weights is a skill in and of itself, and during all that time we spent accumulating, we weren’t lifting very heavy weights: so we lost that skill. Skills, thankfully, can be built/re-acquired faster than muscle can be built, so often we can have longer accumulation phases and shorter intensification phases. A 3-4 week intensification phase isn’t unheard of in order to quickly peak for an event. However, it’s worth appreciating that, since the weight is going UP the volume has to go down. Once again, it’s a matter of balance, similar to fatigue and stimulus. If we just increase the intensity and keep the volume the same, we’ll most likely be unable to recover, which prevents growth.
Hey: it works
I have written at length about how bulking and cutting is so backwards as far as how most trainees implement it, so let me just quickly rehash this. Food supports training: not the other way around. Earlier we discussed how food as an anabolic agent that supported recovery from training. In turn, one does not just start eating more food when they want to get bigger and eat less when they want to get smaller: instead, we employ phasic EATING to support our phasic training.
From here, it suddenly makes SO much more sense. During the accumulation block, our training volume is higher, meaning there is a greater recovery demand placed upon us. This requires us to eat MORE food. That, in turn, drives us to grow bigger. HOWEVER, we are “human, all too human” and, in turn, our body has limits. Even Bruce Randall had to stop bulking at one point, because the demand placed upon our body to eat, digest and pass all that food eventually becomes too much, to say nothing of all the TIME we must spend on cooking and cleaning, to say nothing of the absolute pounding our body is taking from that hard training. This is where intensification comes it: it allows us a BREAK from accumulation, yet we can still make progress in training during this time, because now we to get to realize all that strength we built. However, since the volume drops during intensification, the food may drop as well. It doesn’t HAVE to, no, but if you were doing accumulation correctly you’ll WANT it to drop: you will be DONE eating. This, in turn, results in the loss of fat accumulated during the accumulation phase: a cut!
It’s all so simple: eating matches training, and training must be phasic, therefore, so is eating.
As a fat kid in the 90s, this movie was my Rocky
I spent SO much time discussing the building of muscle because, along with being more interesting, it’s more nuanced compared to fat loss. Allow me to explain fat loss: eat less. That’s it. When we eat less food, we lose fat. In order to ensure a favorable distribution of fat lost compared to muscle when eating less food, we do our best to eat a lot of protein (since muscle is made from it) while also ensuring we are consuming enough fats to maintain hormonal health. As long as you aren’t really stupid with your nutrition, you should be able to manage that. When in doubt, I find meat, eggs and dairy a good option.
As far as fat loss training goes, the one thing I appreciate about a dedicated fat loss phase is you can pretty much train however you want, so long as you’re training hard. Herein it’s worth appreciating that by “train”, I’m referring to lifting. Don’t abandon lifting, train for an ultramarathon and then wonder why you lost muscle. It’s worth appreciating what the intent of the lifting IS now at this point. Previously, we were on the Nietzsche “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” approach, but now we’re simply reminding our body that there is STILL a demand for all that muscle we built, and that it should prioritize the saving of that tissue when it comes time to determine what to lose and what to keep during periods of calorie restriction. We no longer need a program, the training does not need to necessarily “build” to anything: it is simply there as a matter of ensuring that what we HAVE built does not get lost.
In turn, fat loss phases are a great time to experiment, try things out, throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. Fat loss is the “reward” for all that accumulation, because it’s going to feel like a vacation to no longer base your life around food and training. However, again, exercise intelligence here: trying out a program SPECIFICALLY intended to be one run during a period of weight gain is most likely not going to go well. Save Super Squats, Smolov, Building the Monolith, etc, for another day: maybe try out some Crossfit WODs instead.
MORE TO COME
My plan is to talk a little more in depth on the topics of conditioning/GPP alongside nutrition and a few more topics as they come up, but hopefully this has been beneficial.