I love training! I love almost everything about it: the effort, the dedication, the thrill of seeing the body changing and performance improving, the fun of trying new training methods, and the excitement of seeing vixens bouncing on the elliptical trainer in tight sports bras.
But there are some things I don't like, some flat-out dumb things that really piss me off and make me think about the risk-to-benefit ratio of dropping a 45 pound plate on someone's head. Here are a few of those dumb things.
Dumb Thing #1: Using "Pro" Programs
With the advent of the internet, it's now easy to find training programs from pro athletes or pro teams. In the past I had some teenage hockey players with less than a year of training under their belts coming up to me saying they're using the same training program as their favourite hockey team. This is quite common in fact!
For example, a lot of high school football coaches implement Nebraska's program or Miami's program with their young players. These coaches (and the athletes who decide to use a pro program when they're something like 14 years old) should be bitch-slapped until they come to their senses!
The fact is, the programs the pros use are designed for pros: genetic wonders who already have more than ten-plus years of serious training behind them. They already have the base, the work capacity, and the general conditioning. Their program can focus on correcting specific flaws or filling some precise needs.
A young athlete should first focus on building up his foundation of muscle mass, strength, and work capacity. Once these are well-developed then he can move on to more specific stuff.
If you want to train like a pro, train like he did when he had your level of experience, not how he's training now!
Dumb Thing #2: Sticking to a Single Concept
A lot of people are quick to point out that I seem to swing back and forth between different training methodologies and diets. An article I wrote last week might present something completely different than what I wrote six months ago. This is true. And I think that coaches who don't are probably close-minded.
There is no "universally best" training program or system. Every training program that isn't completely moronic will work provided there's a progressive overload. There's more than one way to skin a cat: you can use frequency to progress, you can use density, intensity (load/weight used) or intensiveness (training to failure and beyond), and you can use volume. Everything will work, but no system is best for every single purpose.
An athlete in his strength/power phase will benefit the most from a whole-body approach three times a week. But the same strategy for a competitive bodybuilder will be far from ideal. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each system (and why they work) so that you can apply the proper method to the right situation.
Dumb Thing #3: Kitchen Sink Coaches
There are quite frankly dozens of different training methods and means (my book, Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods, details over thirty of them) and some aspiring coaches or motivated individuals will use every single one of them in a training program!
They want strength so they throw everything the Westside system has to offer, from board presses to chains and bands. They want power so they'll add speed bench and squats, Olympic lifts, plyo drills, and medicine ball throws. They also want size so they'll include bodybuilding-type work for every muscle group, utilizing drop sets, rest-pause, pre and post-fatigue, etc. You end up with a training program that requires a whole manual just to understand it and a doctorate to be able to apply it!
Remember, you can be a jack of all trades, but you'll be a master of none. Your body has a limited capacity to adapt, and if you train too many different physical capacities at once you won't be able to progress optimally in any of them. This is even more true with athletes who also throw in speed, agility work, and sport practices.
Don't get me wrong, you can (and should) train more than one physical capacity during the same training phase, but rarely should you focus on more than two or three different capacities at once (you can train one or two others at maintenance levels). Just understand that the more different things you include in a program, the less work you can perform for each of them, which means a slower rate of progression.
So you can perform a lot of work for only one capacity, changing the focus every four to six weeks (concentrated loading), or train more capacities at once, changing the focus less frequently (concurrent loading). This is applicable to both sport/performance as well as bodybuilding/aesthetic training.
In the case of bodybuilding-type training, an example of concentrated loading would be my specialization approach in which you concentrate most of your efforts on one muscle group while the rest are being trained at a maintenance level.
Dumb Thing #4: Not Correcting Weaknesses and Flaws
This one should be obvious, but it isn't to many people. First, we need to understand what "training" really is. Training is a planned perturbation of the homeostasis that leads to a positive adaptation of the body aimed at improving the body or its function.
In my opinion, the two most important portions of this definition are "planned" and "improving." So basically when you design a training program you should plan to improve. And nothing will help you improve your body/performance faster than correcting a weakness, a flaw, or an imbalance. As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Yet how many people actively try to correct their obvious weaknesses? Not many. Sure, they'll include some work for their weak muscles (or capacities) but very few actually devote a training phase to correcting these flaws. This requires a specialized approach (or at least a shift in training emphasis) during which the weakness receives a training stimulus that's more important than the one received by the other muscle groups and/or capacities.
A lot of people avoid this for a simple reason: they like to train what they're good at. So training a weak point is rarely fun because you suck at it!
We can name several types of weaknesses:
Postural Problems: This is our first area of concern. Without proper posture it becomes extra hard to be successful at an athletic endeavour. Imagine that your body is a car. You might have the biggest and most powerful engine in the world, but if your wheels are misaligned chances are you won't be able to turn in a good performance.
Furthermore, this misalignment will eventually cause wear and tear that could severely damage the car. And the more powerful the car is, and the more often you use it, the faster it'll be damaged.
So in that regard, someone who's active and relies heavily on his body (an athlete for example) is more at risk from a postural problem than someone who does nothing all day. So it's vitally important that an athlete has at least a decent posture if he's to perform optimally and avoid injuries. Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson have written extensively on this subject here at Testosterone Nation and I highly recommend their work.
Having a good posture is also very important to bodybuilders and those training simply for aesthetic purposes: good posture really improves the image you project. Everybody looks better with a balanced posture than with a slouched over one! So improving your posture is a good way to improve how you look.
Some postural problems can also make it hard to build certain muscle groups. For example, individuals with a shoulder anteriority will have a hard time building up their chest. (Oddly enough, this postural problem is often caused by performing too much chest work relative to rhomboid/rear delts work.)
Muscle Imbalances: Having a proportionally weak or underdeveloped muscle group can be problematic for both performance and aesthetic purposes. If you're training for strength sports (powerlifting and Olympic lifting for example) a weak muscle group will limit your performance in one of the competitive lifts.
For example, weak triceps will hinder your bench pressing performance and weak hamstrings will hurt your squat and deadlift numbers. For athletes, a weak muscle group can represent a weak link in the chain and will result in suboptimal performance. And for those training for aesthetic purposes, an underdeveloped muscle group can completely throw off your body's proportion and look.
For the goal of building an aesthetic physique, having a lagging muscle group can also diminish the overall efficacy of the big basic movements (squat, bench press, rowing, deadlift, chins, military press, etc.) because these exercises will put more training stress on the strong muscles and will deemphasize the weaker ones. As a result, these exercises will accentuate the problem. Improving a lagging muscle group will thus improve the efficacy of the basic lifts.
Physical Capacities: Most sports require several physical capacities: speed, agility, strength-speed, speed-strength, strength, strength-endurance, endurance-strength, speed-endurance, etc.
Obviously not all of these capacities are necessary for all sports, but most sports will require some levels of many of them. Just like with a lagging muscle group, a lagging physical capacity can wreck havoc on your athletic performance.
Contraction Type: For athletic training, most coaches focus simply on concentric force during training. The exercises and methods employed are limited to regular lifting which do help increase concentric strength. This can leave the athletes lagging in eccentric and isometric strength capacities, yet these contraction types are key to optimal performance.
Without sufficient eccentric strength you'll have a problem absorbing force, be it from an opposing player running into you or the weight of your own body hitting the ground with every running stride. Without proper eccentric strength you'll become much less efficient at absorbing and stopping these forces.
Isometric strength is also key in any agility and speed type of movement. Before changing direction you must first stop the countermovement. Without proper isometric strength it'll be harder to stop and you won't be able to initiate the change of direction as fast as you could if you had sufficient isometric strength. In other words, more isometric strength equals faster changes of direction. If an athlete is lagging in one type of contraction type, more work for that mode of action should be used in training.
Dumb Thing #5: Misunderstanding "Overtraining"
If you ask me, "overtraining" is the most abused and misunderstood concept in the entire strength training community! Perform more than twelve sets for a muscle during a workout and you'll undoubtedly be accused of overtraining. Train a muscle group more often than two times per week? Overtraining! Relying on set extending methods such as drop sets, pre or post-fatigue, or rest-pause? What are you doing? Don't you know that's overtraining and you'll shrink faster than your masculine pride on a snowy Canadian winter night?!
Yes, overtraining can eventually become a problem when it comes to your training performance, injury risks, and growth. However, it's far from being as common as most people would have you believe.
The problem stems from the term itself, which is composed of "over" and "training." Because of that term, individuals are quick to equate it to "training too much." So every time someone thinks that a routine has too much volume, frequency, or advanced methods, they're quick to pull the "overtraining" trigger. When someone is tired and has a few bad workouts he'll also automatically assume that he's "overtraining." In both cases this shows a misunderstanding of what overtraining really is.
Overtraining is a physiological state caused by an excess accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental, and chemical stress that leads to a sustained decrease in physical and mental performance, and that requires a relatively long recovery period. There are four important elements in that scientific definition:
"Physiological state:" Overtraining isn't an action (i.e. training too much) but a state in which your body can be put through. In that regard, it's similar to a burnout, a medical depression, or an illness.
"Caused by an excess accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental, and chemical stress:" Stress has both a localized and a systemic effect. Every type of stress has a systemic impact on the body; this impact isn't limited to the structures involved directly in the "stressful event." This systemic impact is caused by the release of stress hormones (glucocorticoids like cortisol for example) and an overexertion of the adrenal glands.
So every single type of stressor out there can contribute to the onset of an overtraining state. Job troubles, tension in a relationship, death in the family, pollutants and chemicals in the air we breathe, the food we eat or the water we drink, etc. can all contribute to overtraining. Training too much is obviously another stress factor that can facilitate the onset of the overtraining state, but it's far from being the sole murder suspect.
"Leads to a sustained decrease in physical and mental performance:" The key term here is sustained. Some people will have a few sub par workouts and will automatically assume they're overtraining. Not the case. It could simply be acute or accumulated fatigue due to poor recovery management or a deficient dietary approach.
A real overtraining state/syndrome takes months of excessive stress to build up. And when someone reaches that state, it'll take several weeks (even several months) of rest and recovery measures to get back to a "normal" physiological state. If a few days of rest or active rest can get your performance back up to par, you weren't overtraining. You probably suffered from some fatigue accumulation, that's all.
Worst case scenario, you might enter an overreaching state (a transient form of overtraining). Reaching that point will normally take 10-14 days of rest and active rest to get back up to normal. Overreaching can actually be used as a training tool since the body normally surcompensates (with rest) following overreaching. Elite athletes often include periods of drastic training stress increases followed by a 10-14 day taper to reach a peak performance level on a certain date.
"That requires a relatively long recovery period:" As we already mentioned, reaching a true overtraining state takes a long period of excessive stress and requires a long period of recovery. The following graphic illustrates the various steps toward the onset of an overtraining state as well as the recovery period needed to get out of these different levels.
The spectrum goes from acute fatigue, which is the normal fatigue caused by a very intense/demanding workout, right up to a true overtraining state. In all my life, I've seen two cases of real overtraining. In both cases this happened to two high level athletes right after the Olympic Games (accumulation of the super intense training, the stress of qualifying for the Olympics, and the stress of the Olympics themselves).
Understand that most international level athletes will train close to 30-40 hours per week. Obviously not all of that is spent in the gym; they also have their sport practice, speed and agility work, conditioning work, etc., but these still represent a physiological stress. Yet rarely will these athletes reach a true overtraining state.
How could training for a total of five or six hours per week cause overtraining? Fatigue, yes, mostly due to improper recovery management, a very low level of general physical preparation (conditioning level), or a mediocre work capacity.
To paraphrase Louie Simmons, North American athletes are out of shape. Being out of shape (low level of general preparedness or conditioning) means you can't recover well from a high volume of work. But the more work you can perform, without going beyond your capacity to recover, the more you'll progress. So in that regard, poor work capacity can be the real problem behind lack of gains from a program.
By continually avoiding performing a high level of physical work, you'll never increase your work capacity and will suffer from accumulated fatigue as soon as you increase your training stress ever so slightly. Obviously, the solution isn't to jump into mega-volume training, but to gradually include more GPP work as well as periods of increased training stress that will increase in duration and frequency over time.
Ask any of my clients – they must all go through four-week phases of very high volume work interlaced between phases of "normal" volume training (or even phases of low volume). And as they progress through the system, the high volume phases will become more frequent (as their work capacity improves) or last longer.
Dumb Thing #6: Misusing Plyometric Training
I'll start by explaining exactly what plyometric training is, as the term itself has been tagged to several types of training that aren't true plyometric training (e.g. low intensity hops and bounds).
Plyometric training is also known as "shock training." It was developed by Yuri Verkhoshansky in 1977. The objective of this method is to increase concentric power and force output by stimulating the muscles and reflexes via a "shock stretching" action preceding the overcoming portion of the movement.
This is accomplished by dropping from a certain height (typically 0.4m to 0.7m, although heights of up to 1.1m have been used by very advanced athletes) to elicit a powerful stretch activation, then jumping up as high as possible immediately upon landing (or projecting yourself in the air in the case of a depth push-up). The following pictures show the execution of a plyometric/shock exercise known as a depth jump:
It's been established in both Eastern and Western studies that depth jumping, or shock training, can significantly increase power production and vertical jump height. This is mostly due to the following factors:
1. An increase in reactive strength
Reactive strength refers to the capacity to rapidly switch from an eccentric/yielding action to a concentric/overcoming action. Lack of reactive strength will lead to a longer coupling time and, consequently, lower force and power production during the overcoming portion of the movement (Kurz 2001).
2. Neural adaptations
Viitasalo et al. (1998) found a different neural response between athletes doing a lot of jumping and regular individuals when doing a depth jump. Jumpers were able to activate more motor units during the movement (greater EMG) and plan the motor command faster (higher and more rapid pre-action EMG).
Kyröläinen et al. (1991) also found that 16 weeks of depth jump training led to better jumping efficiency. Schmidtbleicher (1987 and 1982) found that trained subjects were able to use the kinetic energy produced during the eccentric portion of a depth jump, while in untrained subjects this eccentric period was actually inhibiting instead of potentiating!
Finally, Walshe et al. (1998) concluded that the superiority of depth jump training over regular jump training was due to "the attainment of a higher active muscle state," meaning that the fast eccentric portion of the movement increased muscle activation.
3. Structural adaptations
Depth jumps have been reported to cause some muscle soreness and muscle damage (Horita et al. 1999). This is understandable since the eccentric force produced is very high, albeit rapid. This may indicate that depth jumps are a powerful stimulus to stimulate structural adaptations.
However, depth jumps don't lead to significant hypertrophy. So the nature of the structural adaptations following depth jumping isn't quantitative in nature, but qualitative: an improvement of the strength and contractile capacity of each muscle fiber.
Soviet literature gives the following guidelines when practicing depth jumps:
1) The joint position upon landing should be as close as possible to that of an important sport action (Laputin and Oleshko 1982).
2) The amortization phase should be short enough to avoid losing the elastic energy produced, but long enough to allow for the shock stretching to occur (Laputin and Oleshko 1982). Research indicates that the elastic energy from landing is stored for up to two seconds. So in theory you have a window of two seconds between the landing and take-off phase. However, to maximize the training effect you shouldn't spend more than one second on the floor.
3) The height of the drop should be regulated by the preparedness of the athlete. The heels shouldn't touch the ground during the landing phase. If they do, then the height of the drop is too high (Laputin and Oleshko 1982). A height varying from 0.5m to 0.7m appears to be ideal for most strength and power athletes (Roman 1986).
4) Depth jumps have a very powerful training effect, so the volume of work should be low, i.e. no more than 4 sets of 10 repetitions (or 40 total jumps spread over more sets), two to three times per week for advanced athletes and 3 sets of 5-8 repetitions (or 15-24 total jumps spread over more sets), one to two times per week for lower classes of athletes (Laputin and Oleshko 1982).
5) Because of the very powerful training effect of depth jumping, it's idiotic to perform this type of training systematically throughout the year. The shock method should be used in blocks of three to four weeks with at least four weeks between blocks (Roman 1986). In fact, some coaches recommend no more than two to three such blocks per year (Medvedyev 1996) and only when a rapid rise in power and reactive strength is needed to further performance gains.
Remember that every training method, regardless of how effective it is, will lose its effectiveness over time. Shock training is no different. If you use it year-round there comes a point where you'll get no added benefits from it. However, by using short "shock" blocks you can give a quick boost to your performance. Since you only use depth jumps for a short period, you'll get the same performance boost every time you use such a shock block.
The Pet Peeve
Okay, with that out of the way I can discuss the matter of my pet peeve: misused plyometric/shock training. As we saw earlier, shock training can have a very powerful effect on power production, but it's also very stressful on the myotendinous structures and the joints. This method also leads to very rapid gains in power output, but the gains quickly stagnate and come to a halt.
My biggest problem is with coaches who use plyometric/shock drills too often, for too long, or with an excessive volume. What happened is that somewhere in the late 80s and early 90s, plyos were discovered by North American coaches and seen as one of the secrets of the Eastern block athletes. However, North American coaches are often seduced by the "more is better" approach and started to include way too much volume of plyo work.
The problem with many coaches and athletes is they don't feel that depth jumping (and other shock training) is hard; it's not very tiring compared to other means of training. Because of this, they feel they can get away with using a super high volume of shock training. Huge mistake!
With plyometric work, more is definitely not better. Quite the contrary, doing too much shock training will lead to structural damage which will lead to overprotective "safety mechanisms" (Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles) which will actually lead to a decrease in power production, not to mention that the risk of injuries increases significantly.
Another related problem is using plyometric training for too long. Shock training is designed to give a quick boost in peak power production. It was used once or twice a year for phases of two to four weeks, not more than that! And it was quite effective when used that way.
Yet nowadays we see North American coaches use plyometric work year round with their athletes. This will diminish the potential benefits of the method. The goal of shock training is to provide a quick boost in power production. If it's used year round your body gets used to the method as the quick boost effect is thus lost. It can also lead to some degenerative joint problems, especially at the ankle and knee joint.
Finally, another act of stupidity is when coaches use plyometric training during a season. This is beyond idiotic, especially if the sport involves a lot of jumps already (basketball, volleyball, track events, figure skating, gymnastics, etc.). A volleyball player might perform over 400 maximal jumps per week of sport practice; the last thing these athletes need is more jumping! The already high volume of jump and landing work can take its toll on the joints. Adding shock training is a surefire way to lead to a decrease in performance (best case scenario) or an injury (worst case scenario).
Bottom line: Use plyometric/shock training to provide for a needed boost in power production, not as a year-round system (e.g. perform a four week shock training block six weeks prior to an important event; stop two weeks before said event). And when you use it, don't let the amount of fatigue or soreness be your guide to adjusting training volume. Stick to 40-70 total ground contacts per week.
I feel better now knowing that because of this article I might actually see the incidence of training stupidity decrease in front of my eyes. Hopefully, I will have contributed to making the training world a better (and smarter) place!