If you've been training as long as I have, I'm sure you can relate to feeling a bit stale and uninspired with your workouts at times.
Or maybe a LOT of the time.
So you surf the net or re-visit your bookshelves, trying to find a new program – THE program – that will get your juices flowing again. You've done this a hundred times before: once you find that magic program – you know – the one that looks SO great on paper... it's so logical, yet so different, and dare I say... it actually has an aesthetic quality, almost like a piece of artwork. It's perfect – you draw up your plans and actually begin to salivate at the thought of getting started on Monday...
Monday's workout goes great, and on Tuesday you're so sore you can barely stand the weight of your shirt on your trap muscles. But you get through the week, the soreness subsides, and life is good – for now.
Three weeks later though, and you hate to even allow the thought, but truth is, you're getting bored again. Crap. "Is it the program, or is it me?" you wonder. You decide to plod on, despite your misgivings. But a few days later, it hits you like a failed squat attempt: you've got the 21-day itch. You're back on the web, looking for a new program that will scratch it.
Have I caught your attention? If so, stay with me here because I have an interesting idea for you: There IS no perfect program. But there is a more productive way to go about your training, and the program that follows is a representation of this idea.
THE CONCEPT: Too Much Structure Ruins The Fun (And If It Isn't Fun, You Won't Do It For Long)
The operational paradigm for this program is that most people aren't having enough fun – that's right, I said it–FUN – with their training. This phenomenon is a close-cousin of fatigue-seeking behavior that I've written about extensively in earlier articles for T-Nation. For whatever reason, most of us assume (often unconsciously) that training should be totally regimented and precise. But too much structure is as bad as too little, because it takes the fun and spontaneity out of it.
So the trick is to develop an overall structure, and then to allow a fair amount of "off the cuff" decision making as you go along. This plan provides the logical framework you need, but also allows you to have fun during every workout. And when every workout is fun, you'll work hard, consistently. And when you work hard on a consistent basis, you enter the land of progress, which far too few trainees ever visit.
THE PROGRAM: Be A Different Kind Of Athlete Every Workout
Here's a solution. The concept is that you'll train like a powerlifter, an endurance athlete, an Olympic lifter, a bodybuilder, and a strongman, all in one week. Oh, and on Sundays, you'll train like a couch potato.
I've already anticipated the objection many of you are already thinking about: "Well, I'm a (sprinter/bodybuilder/hardgainer/powerliftter/strongman/whatever) and this program is too generalized for me – I'll never make the progress I'm looking for unless I stay with a more specific type of program." Well, I say you're probably wrong. Most of us haven't reached the level of generalized capacities necessary to benefit from specialized, uni-directional work (such as exclusive training for maximal strength for example). If specificity isn't developed against the context of previously-developed general capacities, you're doomed to fail.
Here are but a few categories of people and training scenarios that greatly benefit from a "multi-sided" approach:
Beginners/Novices: Younger athletes need multi-sided development in order to take advantage of "windows of opportunity" for various motor qualities, and also to avoid orthopedic injuries such as bony end-plate fractures.
Masters athletes and trainees: Older athletes tend to lose some qualities faster than others as they age. Flexibility is one example of such a quality.
For the rest of us, it's important to appreciate that strength, hypertrophy and power are all inter-dependant upon one another. Let one slip and the other two get dragged down also. As such, anyone can benefit from this type of program.
Now, the program template...
Monday: "Powerlifting Day"
The main focus here is high tensions and maximum strength development. You don't have to use the classic powerlifts necessarily, but you DO need to use free-weight, multi-joint movements that permit the expression of maximal strength:
A: Deadlift Or Squat
B: Bench Press Or Military Press
Notes: Avoid the temptation to perform a third exercise. More is not better– BETTER is better.
Tuesday: "Sweat Day"
The main focus here is longer duration, fatiguing work for the purposes of local muscle endurance, vascularization, and what I call "recovery via contrast." Just get out and work up a sweat. Later in the article I'll provide some sample activities and loading parameters.
Wednesday: "Olympic Weightlifting Day"
The main focus here is acceleration and speed-strength development. While I'd like to encourage everyone to regularly practice the O-Lifts and their variants, the primary idea for this day is to lift acceleratively. So, if for any reason you can't or won't do the O-Lifts, simply choose two major, compound movements for this day. Any type of squat or press variation will work here:
A: Power Snatch
B: Power Clean & Jerk
Other alternatives: single arm snatch (dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell), snatch or clean pulls, clean & push press, clean & push jerk. The idea is to use a snatch-related lift and a clean & jerk related lift.
NOTE: If you don't trust your competence with Olympic lifting variations, you can perform lifts such as squats, benches, etc., with maximum acceleration. You can also perform hill sprints. Whatever you choose, limit the workout to two menu items only.
Thursday: Sweat Day (See description earlier under "Tuesday")
Friday: Bodybuilding Day
Despite my decided preference for higher intensity activities for almost everyone almost all the time, there is a place for lower intensity work, and this is that place. Put simply, there is only so much high intensity work you can do in a given time frame. And when you reach this point, it's still often possible to perform additional work, as long as the intensity is lower. That's because lower intensity work involves different motor unit sub-populations, connective tissue and vascular adaptations, mind-frame, endrocrine responses, and recovery mechanisms.
Let me draw an analogy to further explain my point: if you're a professional heavyweight boxer, I'd counsel you that competitive intensity sparring would be the most efficacious way to spend your time. However, if you then went out and attempted to do this every day, you'd soon end up hurt, burned out, or both. The lesson is that you can't exclusively do what's best, because, as the old training maxim goes, any type of training that leads to good results will also lead to overtraining if you do it long enough. So the boxer should certainly spar, but he should also shadow box, skip rope, hit the mitts, and do whatever other productive drills he can do within the context of his available physical resources at any given time. So should you.
So, only perform a maximum of three exercises today. My suggestions are below but don't be afraid to modify this according to what you've got available and what you know works for you:
So, only perform exactly four exercises today– my suggestions are below but the basic idea is (2) lower body and (2) upper body drills on this session.
A-1: Chins, Rows, or Pullups
A-2: Incline Dumbbell Press, Military Press, Or Bench Press
B-2: Back Extensions, Leg Curls, or Stiff-Leg Deadlifts
B-2: Hack Squats, Front Squats, or Leg Extensions
Saturday: Strongman Day
Not enough of you are doing strongman events, probably because you think you're not strong enough. Let me clue you into something: I'm not strong enough either, but I use these drills, and they're making me stronger. Funny how life works, eh? The basic idea here is to perform heavy, awkward, and otherwise "difficult" motor tasks on this day.
Choose 2 drills from the menu below:
A: Tire Flipping For Time And/Or Distance
B: Car Pushing For Time And/Or Distance
C: Log Presses
D: Farmer's Walks For Time And/Or Distance
E: Turkish Get-Ups (With a kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell or other implement of your choosing)
F: Deadlift Walks For Time And/Or Distance
G: Squat Walks For Time And/Or Distance
H: BFR* Carries For Time And/Or Distance
I: Sled Drags
J: Sandbag Carries, Throws, Or Presses
K: Sledgehammer Swings And/Or Strikes
L: Weight Vest Drills
M: Gymnastics Drills On Rings Or Parallel Bars
Hopefully the above examples get the idea across. This day will have the loosest structure...make it up as you go, and have fun by challenging yourself and trying to beat your PR's.
Sunday: "Rest Day"
Time to lick your wounds. A few suggestions for Sundays:
Play with your kids
See a movie
Listen to music
Clean your garage
In other words, get a life. Don't hang out with your training buddies today, don't read about training, and don't count your protein grams either. Just back off and cool your jets. If you don't plan rest days, you'll get them anyway when your body breaks down.
"But Charles, How Many Reps Should I Do... ?"
You've no doubt noticed that I haven't provided specific loading parameters for these workouts. Stop looking for the magic. Just use parameters that permit the expression of that day's motor objectives. Below are a few examples, but please insert whatever works for you, and keep changing it up.
Remember, anything that is powerful enough to work is ALSO powerful enough to burn you out.
For Powerlifting And Olympic Lifting Days:
EDT maximal Strength Protocol: Perform multiple sets of 1 rep using between 85 and 90 per cent of your current 1RM (one rep max, or the most weight you can lift one time using good form and without experiencing pain) and 60 second rests between each set. Perform a maximum of 15 sets.
If, on any given workout, you manage to perform 15x1 in good form using 60 second rests, the next time you perform that same workout, increase the load by 5 percent or 5 pounds (whichever is smaller) and repeat. If, on the other hand, you do NOT manage to complete 15 sets, the next time you perform that same workout, simply try to work your way closer to 15 sets. In all cases, on every fourth week you should reduce your total volume by one-half. By way of example, if you performed 15x1 on squats using 275 pounds on week three, then perform 7-8x1 in the same 15 minute PR Zone (time frame) on week four.
For Sweat Days:
Some of you reading this article are athletes. Others are not. Therefore, I'll provide guidelines for both categories here:
If you're not an athlete, use the following three methods, ideally in succession (i.e., use Tabata's on Tuesday, incline treadmill on Thursday, and intervals the next Tuesday, etc.).
Method One: Tabata protocols: Using a bike, rower, or other cardio mode of your choosing, go 20 seconds maximum effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. IDEALLY, you want to repeat 7 times for a maximum of 8 repeats, or 4 minutes total duration. I wouldn't expect that you'll get past 2 or 3 repeats first time out, however.
Method Two: Incline Treadmill walking
Method Three: Standard Interval Training
If you ARE an athlete, this would be the day to work on your sport. For me, it's discus throwing and related drills. For you, it might be football practice, martial arts sessions, or whatever.
For Bodybuilding Day:
EDT and ladders are the best protocols here:
EDT Bodycomp Protocol: Perform two antagonistic exercises (such as rows/incline dumbbell presses or leg curls/leg extensions or pullups/military presses) in alternating fashion, back and forth, using the same weight for all sets, until 15 minutes has elapsed.
After warming up the first exercise(s), select a load that approximates a 10RM for each exercise. Ideally, the weight used for each exercise should be equally difficult.
Sets/Reps/Rest Intervals: Begin by performing sets of 5 with very short (10-15 second) rests. As you begin to fatigue, you'll gradually increase your rest intervals as you drop down to sets of 4, 3, then 2, and as the time limit approaches, you might crank out a few singles in an effort of accomplish as many repetitions as possible in the time allotted.
Each time you repeat the workout; your objective is to simply perform more total repetitions in the same time frame. As soon as you can increase the total number of reps by 20 percent or more, start the next workout with 5 percent more weight and start over. Similarly, if you manage to improve upon your last performance (for the same workout) by 40 percent, then you'll increase your weights by 10 percent on the next workout.
Ladder Protocol: Using a 6-8RM load (a weight you can lift 6-8 times in succession), start with one set of one. Rest as long as you like. Then, a set of two. Rest as long as you like. Next, a triple. Rest as long as you like. And so forth. When you get to the point where you only have about one rep "in the tank," stop and start a second ladder with one set of one. Repeat this process for exactly 15 minutes per exercise. Ladders usually don't require warm up sets by the way, so this will be about a 45-minute workout.
For Strongman Day:
Perform your events for time, reps, and/or distance. For example, you can push a car or flip a tire, going for maximum reps in 60-second sets. Or carry a loaded bar 50 yards as fast as you can. Make it up as you go, this is supposed to be fun. And besides, anything you end up doing today will be productive.
Now Go Have Fun!
In my opinion, the presence of the 21-Day Itch is a sign that your programming is poorly designed or executed. Try letting go of the structure – just a bit – and rake in the rewards.
* BFR is an acronym for "big f---in rock." Available from www.danjohn.org/coach. Each BFR is unique – no two are alike. Color and texture may vary and are not considered product defects.