One of the signs of a good coach is that he can admit to mistakes and continue to make progress. In my particular case, I've been frustrated watching my athletes plateau in their junior and senior years. Any good strength coach knows that it's more difficult for athletes with higher training ages to make consistent gains.
However, I also think it's a mistake to simply accept this slowdown in progress as a fact of life. We all know that beginners progress more rapidly than advanced athletes. My question is "why?"
Why can we have an athlete work all year to increase his or her bench press by five pounds? We've all been there. If you haven't, you haven't really coached. A year of training to go from 400 to 405. A lousy one percent increase.
A potential answer to my dilemma came to me courtesy of strength and conditioning coach and fellow Testosterone author Jason Ferrugia.
If you aren't familiar with Jason's work, you soon will be. He has a great grasp of training concepts, great knowledge, and a ton of common sense. Jason just finished an ebook called Complete Martial Arts Conditioning. In my opinion, he made a huge mistake. This guy shouldn't be limiting himself to martial artists. Jason knows training, period. I would've just called it Complete Conditioning for Athletes.
The reason I spoke to Jason initially was that Jason's sales copy spoke of 100-pound gains in squat strength over one summer. I politely asked if this was a more advanced trainee or an untrained athlete moving from 100 to 200. As I'm fond of saying, figures lie and liars figure.
Jason assured me that these weren't beginners and that he was experiencing the best success of his coaching career. Jason's ideas about limiting CNS (central nervous system) intensive work, particularly for more advanced trainees, really jumped out at me.
In order to clarify the importance of this point, it's necessary to backtrack a bit. Beginners have some unique characteristics that are obvious, but still need mention:
1) Usually, beginners have never been on an organized program. Most beginners, if they have trained at all, use a haphazard bench press oriented program which tends to develop the bench press and little else. Often beginners will bench press up to three times a week.
2) Beginners have usually never been on an organized in-season program. Just the addition of in-season training stops the roller coaster of strength gain to strength loss.
3) Most beginners have never taken advantage of simple nutritional concepts like pre or post-workout nutrition.
Why are these obvious points important? Because, at least in the college environment, we get approximately two years of what I call "free strength." Free strength is the wonderful progress provided by good program design and good nutrition. We're simply organizing the training and forcing the trainees to adhere to a schedule in which they can't haphazardly choose what they do. Progress may be due as much to general organizational factors as to the actual programming.
Some coaches might say, "So what? That's our job." I think it's the easy part of our job. As I sit and really look at my athletes, what appears to be happening is that the athlete simply rises to the level that his fast twitch fiber dictates, and then stagnates. When the athlete stagnates we then begin to pressure him about nutrition and rest and supplements to attempt to squeeze out more progress.
The real problem is this: What do you do after two years? Or what do you do with a kid who's been on a quality program in high school?
The problems usually begin in year three as progress grinds to a halt or begins to move at a crawl. Now the athlete who has always improved in all test areas begins to experience periods of stagnation in certain lifts, usually the bench press as this lift often has the highest training age. We have three problems here:
1. First, the bench press is probably the only lift with a training age greater than two; therefore, it'll be the first to stall.
2. Second, the bench press targets much less muscle mass than an exercise like the squat.
3. Third, the body may in fact have genetic limits (much like body fat set-points) for certain lifts. The bottom line? Not everyone is capable of a double bodyweight bench press. We may be shoveling shit against the tide.
So, do we simply rise to the level that our fast twitch fiber dictates and then be doomed to stagnation? Or is there a way to continue to create progress?
The answer, or the proposed answer, was something that made me uncomfortable: perhaps I was simply working my athletes too hard. Perhaps the total volume of work we did was, dare I say, too much.
I hated the thought, but I'm entertaining the thought nonetheless. Even though I've always been a "less is more" advocate, Jason was saying once again "do even less," particularly with your older guys.
Sports performance training has an inherent problem. In preparing for a sports season we need a concurrent improvement in all quantities. We can't make strength a priority and not condition; our guys will be out of shape. We can't make conditioning a priority and forget about strength; our guys will get injured and pushed around. It's a little bit of a catch-22.
Here are some of Jason's thoughts.
• Move to a three-day lifting program instead of a four-day. Although I like the thought, I'll never do this in the summer but may during the school year. A summer three-day program will disrupt every other organization characteristic of my program.
• Group CNS intensive work on two days. My previous goal was to spread work out over four days. What Jason was suggesting was more of a classic, old-school upper-lower split. I compromised with some changes that I think will work. The end result is that my day two and four workouts will be brief and will only involve pressing work with all other work done on day one and three.
Dare I say, my workout looks like legs-back and chest-shoulders-triceps. It almost makes me puke to describe it that way, but that's about the concept. Talk about back to the future. I need to call Michael J. Fox.
• Use one lower body day per week. In our current system we were really doing what amounted to four lower body workouts a week in four days. The program called for knee-dominant exercises on days one and three, and hip dominant exercises on days two and four. The new program will keep all lower body work on the same day.
This is the most significant change in the entire program design structure. What this means in my case is that instead of hitting each pattern twice we'll likely hit each pattern once.
Here's some program design background. Prior to talking to Jason, our program centered around splits as follows:
A1 Explosive Lift – Snatch
B1 Vertical Pulls
B2 Knee Dominant – Double Leg
C1 Horizontal Pulls
C2 Knee Dominant – Single Leg
A1 Explosive Lift – Clean
B1 Horizontal Press
B2 Hip Dominant – Straight Leg
C1 Vertical Press
C2 Hip Dominant – Bent Leg
In this system, each of the major patterns was hit twice per week. After listening to Jason's recommendations, I realized that I might be better off hitting the lower body patterns once per week each, instead of twice. My initial response was the classic "legs can handle more volume," more muscle mass, etc. Jason's response was, in effect, the opposite.
Jason felt that he could hit each upper body pattern twice per week but needed to decrease the volume of lower body work. As is always the case, I wanted to argue my point but resisted the temptation and continued to listen. As I listened and thought about it, I slowly began to agree.
What I'd failed to factor in was all the "other" CNS intensive lower body training my athletes perform:
These were all exercises in the weightroom that tax the CNS to some degree. Now let's make a list of the other stuff that would be considered CNS intensive:
Sled Pulls and Pushes
What do you notice now? What I noticed was that Jason was right. The upper body didn't get near the CNS stress that the lower body got.
I spoke with the coaches at University of Oklahoma a few weeks ago. One point that jumped out at me was that twenty years ago when I lifted, the only CNS intensive work we performed were squats, deadlifts, and possibly some conditioning running. Now, look at the list: Olympic lifts, plyos, sled work, single-leg work. We've continued to pile on the CNS intensive lower body work while doing the same old upper body stuff we'd always done.
It was like the lights were suddenly coming on. When we return to our four-day program, this is what workouts will look like:
A1 Explosive Lift – Jump Squat Mon, Hang Clean
B1 Vertical Pulls
B2 Knee Dominant – Double Leg Mon, Single Leg Wed
C1 Horizontal Pulls
C2 Hip Dominant – Straight Leg Mon, Bent Leg Wed
A1 Explosive Lift – None
B1 Horizontal Press
B2 Core Stability Exercise
C1 Vertical Press
C2 Rotary Stability Exercise
D1 Triceps Exercise
D2 Shoulder Prehab Exercise
All lower body will be done only on Monday and Wednesday (we train four consecutive days in the summer) and only on Mondays will we actually compress the spine. Wednesday will be a heavy hang clean day followed by single-leg knee dominant work.
The reality is that I can't promise better results from this program, but as I said before, you need to continue to try to make your program better, and make your athletes better.