As soon as my article, Building the Case for Hybrid Training, hit the T-Nation site, my inbox started to overflow with questions and comments about bodybuilding training. (And I thank you all for the interest.)
But the type of comments made me realize that I needed to backtrack a bit on the topic of Hybrid Training. So, the article below should be considered a prequel if you will, covering some other concepts that are necessary to explore first.
This all began with the introduction of my Innervation Training Methodology back in the early 90's. It's taken me many years to hone its parameters, but the driving philosophy behind it is a much different approach than most experts take.
So one thing I'd like to do here is just make some general commentary and discuss distinctions and thoughts relevant to my perspective, which are quite different from a majority of my colleagues.
This isn't a critique of anyone. I'm merely pointing out that I work from a different philosophical premise and viewpoint that guides my program design, coaching, and training strategies. So, here are some thoughts.
Too Much Science?
In resent years, there's been an explosion of "science guys" devoted to enriching the coaching and program design environment. This is a good thing. However, as experts we need to also regard the nature and purpose of scientific pursuit. Studies are great, but we need perspective. Science should be used to inform and reflect the experience base, not dictate to it.
This "dictating perspective" has led to some real mistakes of application. Everything is starting to be micro-analyzed at the expense of missing the bigger picture.
A few observations are in order here. There's a current trend based on research that "one can adapt to training stimulus in as little as three or four exposures." Seems many have jumped on that to contemplate elements of program change, be it rep changes, loading parameters, or whatever.
This is problematic. The study itself is problematic. The research that led me to coin the term "Innervation Training" is based more on the models of neural science and neuromuscular adaptations to training. This means I can read the same research my colleagues read, yet come to some very different conclusions.
When most people in the strength and conditioning field read research regarding musculo-skeletal considerations, strength parameters become the bottom line. Innervation research raises the old chicken and the egg question: which comes first, intensity or strength?
I'd suggest that initial and substantial responses to training are more neural in nature than what most experts will concede. This creates a real problem when using science to "dictate" protocol rather than to reflect or inform it.
Exposure research is one example. A "mastery of performance technique" – whether in weight training, learning a squat, or swinging a golf club – takes years and years. When nervous system adaptive responses are considered, the more exposure to the same stimuli, the better. I suggest this is especially true in weight training.
This doesn't mean to do the same workout the same way all the time, but it does mean arbitrary considerations like "number of exposures" to stimuli are just that – arbitrary. We need to learn how to "keep a program alive."
This micro-analyzing of workout variables has led to more research not reflective in the experience base from which I work. There's another piece of research that has been interpreted as such: every fourth week or so, training intensities should be dialed back to induce further progress. Once again this is the science base "dictating" protocol that's not contextual!
This idea ignores the consideration of workload capacity of an individual and the ongoing goal of how to increase it. Following such studies literally isn't a bonus but a caveat to program design considerations, implementation, and getting a trainee to new levels of adaptive stress.
You'd never tell a hockey player that plays at least two games per week (and practices at least that much) to "dial it down" every fourth week to reach peak performance. Not only is this unrealistic, but it leads to a wealth of assumption that's just not in order when dealing with individuals.
Biofeedback vs. Periodization
I don't believe much in periodization per se. Well, let me rephrase that: I believe that performance should be assessed on an individual biofeedback basis that has nothing to do with calendars and everything to do with biofeedback experience of stimulus, especially when the goal is gaining muscle.
No one can predict various life stressors and their effects on protocol. To insinuate that after eight weeks of this or that kind of training, "x" many weeks are needed for this or that other kind of training, totally disregards the individual, who should be central to that reasoning process. His biofeedback should determine what comes next and when in terms of rest, more volume, varied protocol, or whatever. Cosmetic enhancement is seldom seasonal, except at contest time.
Gambetta prefers to switch from the word "periodization" to Planned Performance Training (PPT). I couldn't agree more. The individual trainee and his own biofeedback should indeed dictate how, when, and why program, diet, or supplement changes occur. This should be based on internal cues, not external cues like the clock, the calendar, or so many exposures to the same stimulus, which can be a good thing when feedback is considered. Not only should it be considered, it should be mandated.
In short, if you're going to periodize training, do it on more concrete qualitative biofeedback of actual trainees vs. arbitrary assignments of time periods which don't take into account individual varying life stressors and varying adaptive rates to stimulus. Biofeedback should consider eagerness vs. staleness, motivation vs. ambivalence, energy vs. lack of energy, and so on down to more minute details.
These general-to-specific biofeedback considerations more appropriately tell coaches when to dial back intensity and volume and to what degree and for how long. Obviously these have little to do with calendars, twelve week programs and the like.
Internal vs. External Training Cues
Not only does an arbitrary passing of time make little sense in dictating protocol, the research that informs it is based on more faulty logic because it negates a real look at the neural aspects of training.
No two people adapt at the same level or same speed to stimulus, so why assign a time period to a training protocol length of application? To base that on a study is to ignore the individual trainee and his own experience of training, which isn't a single thing; it's everything!
Toward that end, in bodybuilding there's been a scarier trend toward quantification syndrome and external cues. Percentage max, for training purposes, is based on faulty logic because it assumes strength is the predominant factor when it isn't. Intensityis always the prevailing prescription to enhancing workload capacity in any endeavor, especially bodybuilding.
Using percentage max to determine training weights misses the point and again creates external cues that nullify the experience of the trainee. Not only that, but it sets up artificial limitations in one's mind. This has led to a whole process of faulty thinking in terms of proper program design and implementation.
How much you lift is merely informational, not experiential, which is what matters. This whole idea of tempo training misses the point. We're now creating meaningless obsessive behaviors within workouts that neglect the trainee. Am I supposed to train and consider load, going concentric for three seconds, eccentric for four seconds, with a one second static hold, but still "experience" that set? Not possible.
These external cues, like how much you lift and at what tempo, only create compulsive training at the expense of experiencing protocol. Just because you record more and more information doesn't mean it contributes to results.
Moreover, rest times are now assigned as well, so a set is no longer a set of ten reps choosing a weight where you reach failure within a specific rep range. Now we quantify all of it. This creates far too much thinking.
No two human beings adapt to training stress the same way, nor do they recover at the same pace. To tell someone to rest for a period based on the clock undermines their experience of protocol. If total recovery between sets is called for, then say that, and tell the trainee what that means in terms of biofeedback.
If a faster pace is called for, then explain what incomplete recovery is to a trainee and shoot for that. On the same program one trainee may need to rest 45 seconds, another may need 90. To tell both of them to rest for 60 seconds is to ignore their own biofeedback which should be the whole purpose of instituting training prescriptions.
All of these external cues are really just games for your mind. They ignore what should be most important in your training, and that's the "experience" of training. You don't get that by becoming compulsive about numbers. The accumulation of results from external cue training only creates compulsive trainees recording numbers that have little meaning to real results. The muscle doesn't know how much weight it's lifting, but it does know how much stress it's under.
Instead coaches should be assessing reported energy levels, effort levels, recovery, oxygen debt, workout time to completion, etc. These are all based on an individual's qualitative biofeedback, and have little to do with numbers. Numbers in that context become information to the broader context of the experience of a workout.
I'm referring to what Coach Gambetta calls the ICE Principle, which stands for Intensity, Concentration, and Exertion or Effort. What you don't see here is the word "thinking." All these tempo directions, percent of max determinations, and resting according to the clock, require "thinking" and take you further and further away from being intuitive about your own body's messages and feedback mechanisms.
This isn't the way to better an athlete, whether in bodybuilding or any other sport. Concentrating and thinking are not the same thing. By gauging biofeedback, and by using internal cues like perceived exertion with your own 1-10 scale, using rep ranges as guides rather than percent max's, we can get back to what workouts should be focused on to begin with, and that's your experience of protocol.
Both as coaches and as trainees we need to be less obsessive about "numbers" (quantification) and get back to being more about biofeedback and the experience of a training protocol right down to the sets and reps. We need to consider training protocol as a path to self discovery and not as a tool to create training "robots" who are trapped in a sets/reps/tempo/rest numbers game that negates real experience.
This whole approach to training based on external cues and numbers leads to "measuring and judging" training rather than truly experiencing it. This eventually becomes a dead-end street when it comes to results.
Priming the Nervous System
I realize I haven't said anything regarding the premises of Innervation Training and its principles. I'll devote a future article toward that to be sure. But let's say the fundamental premise missing in program assumptions and descriptions is a priming of the nervous system. I also refer to this as "athletic history."
Currently in the triathlon arena there's a return to what's called "aerobic base" training. This is for the endurance athlete's consideration. Based on the ideas of Arthur Lydiard and Dr. Phil Maffetone, the essential idea is that an aerobic base is fundamental to triathlon or endurance experience.
By "aerobic base" they mean years of training at an aerobic comfortable base to establish nervous system adaptation via "overdistance training." This has been used on a wide scale to produce many champions many years over.
As "research" built up around the benefits of anaerobic training for triathletes for bettering their times, once again a misinterpretation of science took place. Gurus began advocating anaerobic key workout strategies to wannabe triathletes without assessing their previous aerobic base of training.
Keep in mind most successful triathletes began as high school distance runners, logging thousands of hours to creating a nervous system response to aerobic metabolism. But the "new research" failed to take into consideration neurological adaptations that take place over time because no one assesses these things. The results for new wannabe triathletes attempting to train anaerobically were dismal, producing injury, burnout, DNF's, and flat-out quitting training.
To be able to understand a trainee's real needs for training beyond current research, it's important not to ignore athletic history. I can use my own wife as an example. At age 49 she decided to try to run a marathon. She'd never done any athletic events or competitions in her whole life. Most coaches wouldn't enter that into the equation.
Everyone suggested she start with a 5K or 10K run, otherwise she had no hope to finish. No one can complete a marathon their first time out we were told. But I knew that was based on supposition. Much of the training was also based on new research on the "necessity" of hill training, intervals, sprints etc., for anaerobic emphasis.
However, because of my experience with research in the area of neural science I saw all of that "modern approach" as a trap. My wife had never done anything athletic. She had no experience or no nervous system adaptation to athleticism. So I went back to what was considered "old school" and irrelevant. I trained her with no anaerobic component and concentrated solely on overdistance training.
The result was a very successful training approach and Annie completed the Toronto marathon first time out, in under 4.5 hours, and never stopped to walk once. Had she tried the modern approach that didn't take into account her lack of an athletic aerobic base, I doubt she would've finished even the training.
Athletic history means nervous system adaptive response over time that must be recognized. For instance, I grew up living across the street from a schoolyard. Every day we met to play ball hockey, tackle football, floor hockey, baseball, etc. There was no time constraints or arbitrary assignment of intensity or "time" to any of this. We played for hours. I also competed at a high level in various sports.
Over years, this creates what I call nervous system priming, or neural adaptations specific to anaerobic activity. This sets someone up to be more ready for specific types of training within that realm. This is true whether running endurance events or learning to golf or being ready to build muscles.
Researchers and therefore coaches pay scant attention to this stuff because it's "not measurable." The bias exists that if phenomenon isn't quantifiable then it's not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it may not be measurable, it is indeed observable.
When I take athletic histories of clients and one has played 15 years of junior and semi-pro hockey but wants to build muscle, and the other has played ten years of video games but has the same goal, I know their nervous systems negate them being able to do the same program.
I mention this because there seems to also be a trend in training toward shorter and shorter workouts. Once again, this doesn't take into account athletic history (nervous system priming.) It's incorrect to decree that 30 minutes of training three days a week is sufficient to make gains in muscle mass without assessing the individual trainee. Once again, this is assigning protocol based on factors that are misleading and don't consider the whole picture.
Think of the nervous system being taken for granted in the following way by analogy. You start a book of the month club and expect people to read a book a week. But then you find out that one-half of your members don't know how to read. Now you have a dilemma. The nervous system adapts the same way. It assumes too much to base training protocol and program design in this way.
Telling potential trainees that 30 minutes three times per week is enough to build real muscle borders on the infomercial mentality. Gambetta says that off-season athletes need to train 75-90 minutes and 30-45 minutes on-season. If this is the case (and I agree it is), then how can people previously totally untrained expect real results in any less time with nervous systems less adapted to the stresses of training than athletes?
It can't be done in real terms without building a base by priming the nervous system for months or possibly years. This may mean 90 minute workouts or two hour workouts or whatever. But it can't be based on slotting the workout and time period to the client. Instead, in this particular case, the client must fit the training demands. That can often mean long workouts.
That's the reality of assessing athletic history and therefore previous nervous system priming of potential clients and their actual "needs state" beyond just their goals and time limitations. Increasing workload capacity requires an attention to volume training, because intensity won't be viable since there's no previous nervous system adaptation or minimal for many trainees with the goals of cosmetic physique enhancement.
Comfort Zone Training
Bodybuilders and many other athletes need to get away from
"comfort zone" training once performance mastery has been
attained. Training one day at 6 reps and the next at 10-12 isn't
enough variation to force an adaptive response. It may indeed
change and alter the biochemical response and possibly the hormonal
response, but it's still well within what the nervous system
recognizes as "normal" performance parameters.
You really wouldn't be periodizing anything at this point
just by making such minute changes in rep schemes. Much of this is
based on research with a bias toward quantification that again
negates the experience base. JC Santana said, "I don't
need to wait for a study to come out to confirm what I see working
for 20 years."
Bodybuilders and many other athletes need to get away from "comfort zone" training once performance mastery has been attained. Training one day at 6 reps and the next at 10-12 isn't enough variation to force an adaptive response. It may indeed change and alter the biochemical response and possibly the hormonal response, but it's still well within what the nervous system recognizes as "normal" performance parameters.
You really wouldn't be periodizing anything at this point just by making such minute changes in rep schemes. Much of this is based on research with a bias toward quantification that again negates the experience base. JC Santana said, "I don't need to wait for a study to come out to confirm what I see working for 20 years."
By the same token, a study or studies that have a major research bias doesn't mean I need to abandon what I know needs to be acknowledged just because it can't be measured. If it can be observed, then that should be reasonable enough.
Tom Platz, Dr. Squat, and a Proposal to You
I find the whole "percent of maximum" quantification to be not only overrated but not useful for bodybuilding purposes.
Never in my career did I do a maximum lift. Even if I did, it would've been pathetic. I just didn't have the joints for high strength performance. I was never that strong. But I still managed to amass quite a physique, and even retired I'm about 240 pounds at 5' 9".
All through my career I saw amazing pros who just weren't that strong and didn't lift huge weights. Much of the research behind the percent max comes from research bias that believes all things need to be measurable.
There was some research that illustrated that high threshold motor units aren't activated until force reaches 90% exertion rates. Now, the study used low reps to attain that, so naturally people equated the low reps with 90% exertion rates. This isn't necessarily true. Exertion and force need not be the same thing in terms of high weight, max rep phenomenon. The word is "exertion," not strength levels that exceed 90%. This is a misinterpretation of the research.
Here's an example that illustrates intensity vs. strength:
Tom Platz once did a max set of squats with 500 pounds. He was spotted by Dr. Squat himself, Fred Hatlfield. Here's the paradox to using only numbers. Tom banged off 24 or 25 reps with 500. Fred Hatlfied was the first man to squat 1,000 pounds. Could Tom Platz ever squat 1,000? Not likely. But could Fred Hatfield ever do a bodybuilding-style squat with 500 pounds for 25 reps. Also unlikely.
Tom began to learn and lecture about intensity. He never quantified it with reps and sets. He was known to bang out three plates for 35 reps or so. He was also known to have squatted two plates for ten minutes straight. But he didn't use percent max's to build legs.
I've seen this from other strength athletes my whole career. The best guys just gave 90-100% exertion regardless of rep schemes and always out of their comfort zone of training, not all the time but enough to keep it real.
Here's something else that escapes most experts. Watch a high level athlete in bodybuilding perform a working set. What you'll notice is that the first rep and the last rep of a set appear to be of equal intensity. Now watch an intermediate or beginner trainee do a hard set. If a beginner performs a set of 10, the weight won't even begin to slow down or get difficult until the seventh or eight rep, correct?
This is known as the TEP of training, or Training Efficiency Percentage. It's the number of reps in a given set that produce an adaptive response. This is a nervous system adaptation and is observable but not measurable in real terms. It means the advanced athlete gets more adaptive stress out of his set because he's closer to maximum workload capacity from rep one right to the completion of the set.
This is a much different performance parameter than what you'll witness in your own training or beginners you watch in the gym. This takes years of adaptive stress and training beyond comfort zones. The TEP or coming close to max workload capacity is also why these low volume approaches to training aren't applicable to most trainees. These programs don't account for this.
Intensity can be defined by performance that approximates maximum workload capacity. Not optimum, but maximum. Most experts agree that increasing workload capacity has everything to do with volume. This explains why these low volume workouts aren't viable as a methodology in real terms.
Okay, so here's an example from one of my programs. If you've been doing traditional bodybuilding training for some time, try this for legs. Usually this is the second workout of the day for this routine, but this will be fine.
For leg day, go in and start with leg extensions. Do a progressive warm-up of three to four sets until you know you're ready to go all out. Now do four sets: do two sets of 50 reps with total recovery between sets. Now drop the weight and recover, then do two more sets at 100 reps each.
Go over to leg press and do one or two warm-up sets (because of the change in plane of motion function). Perform the same set and rep scheme. Do two "heavy sets" at 50 reps with full recovery between sets, then do two more sets of 100 reps with full recovery between sets. (You'll more than likely need to employ the extended sets principle to get through these eight sets.)
That will take you out of your comfort zone and into a forced intensity zone, and still produce "exertion rates" that will induce an adaptive response. It's not always about heavy weight, low reps. This is just another of those traditional bodybuilding myths that hangs around.
In my next article I'll elucidate key components of Innervation Training and move on to MET training. Stay tuned.