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Ad Hoc Workout Plan and Training Principles

Stubbornness against changes to training is no good if it causes us to stop training altogether. If a program has been working well, the last thing anyone wants is to change things up, but when the choice is between training with a less-than-perfect plan or not training with a great program waiting in the wings, the choice should be obvious.

Ad Hoc Workout Plan and Training Principles

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, Editor in Chief

The biggest challenges to consistency are often changes that make it more difficult to get to the gym, carve out time, and prioritize lifting enough to spend the physical and mental energy to train. If we believe that consistency means never missing a workout or sticking to a program at all costs, it may sometimes seem easier to deprioritize lifting. Rather than feeling like we are failing to be consistent, we may lay off from training completely in the hope that we will get back to it soon. A better solution is to update training to fit such changes, using a degree of flexibility to help stay consistent.

Stubbornness against changes to training is no good if it causes someone to stop training altogether. If a program has been working well, the last thing anyone wants is to change things up, but when the choice is between training with a less-than-perfect plan or not training with a great program waiting in the wings, the choice should be obvious. The smallest unit of consistency is the workout; even if those workouts come less frequently than we’d like or are unplanned, there are ways to help make them happen and keep them effective.

At the greatest need for flexibility, when a training schedule is improvised and ad hoc, workouts can still be simple, hard, and effective, and planned with an eye toward consistency. These situations, a simple plan can be the quickest road back to regular training, and an ad hoc workout plan can still be effective when it adheres to certain training principles. This plan will look a little different for everyone, but these principles will keep training productive while working with flexible schedules.

Training Principles for the Ad Hoc Plan

  • Maintain Baseline Frequency
  • Build up, Don’t Cut Back
  • Focus on Productive Stress
  • Start with Somewhere to Go

No one should try to train opportunistically forever and expect to make progress. While many lifters have had success on an ad hoc schedule using similar strategies to those outlined here, it is still minimalistic strength training. Eventually, progress will demand more time and more effort in the gym. The goal is to maintain the training habit, maintain strength, and use this plan as a springboard to a more structured training schedule.

Maintain Baseline Frequency

The bare minimum training time needed is twice per week for about forty-five minutes each session. A person can train for less time, more frequently (e.g., thirty-minute sessions, three or four times per week), but training less than twice weekly will neither help maintain strength nor will it build a training habit. Twice per week, with at least one day between those training days, is a baseline. Put these training days on your calendar when you are most likely to train but be okay with moving them around a little bit. Training a day early or a day late because you have time or the inclination to do so is perfectly fine.

For two-days-per-week training, it’s best to alternate two full-body days (Workout A and Workout B), hitting both your upper and lower body on each training day. You should also plan to hit all four main lifts or very near variants each week. A basic program will have the lifter squat, press, deadlift, and bench once per week.

Week 1: Basic Ad Hoc

Week 2: Basic Ad Hoc

Post-novice lifters can combine this basic setup with some of the set/rep variations later in this post for added intensity and varying stress each week.

Build Up, Don’t Cut Back

It is especially demotivating to plan to do something and then have to cut it out or cut back. Planning to do a lot and then having to skip a day or drop parts of a planned never feels like a win. It is more likely that someone who trains frequently, planning and completing shorter workouts, will see each workout as a win. We can set up these wins by planning for less than we expect will be possible and building up over time. Planning for the best possible circumstances and cutting things out that don’t fit is a recipe for frustration.

Start with the most basic lifts, the most basic rep ranges, and the level of frequency or volume that fits the compressed schedule. (Keeping in mind, of course, the first principle.) Very often, once someone is in the gym and training, they tend to find extra time. If that happens, you can slowly plan to build in more productive training to the workouts.

Practically, start the plan with the bare minimum. A good example of minimalistic training is a one lift per day (OLPD) program. One lift can be trained hard in less than thirty minutes. Plan to complete one lift for a prescribed number of sets and reps; then pack it up and go home. Build up to adding in accessory work to support that day’s training or a complementary supplemental lift.

Week 1

The above uses ascending sets for the main lifts, but it can use sets across or another method of accumulating stress, as appropriate. You may also choose to vary the stress week-to-week with different rep ranges, building intensity work into the program. This works well for post-novice lifters who want to maintain readiness by lifting heavy.

Week 2

Week 3

A nice aspect of OLPD programming is that you can combine two days into one or keep them separate as the schedule allows. The point of using an OLPD program here is similar to how we start new lifters: find what they can do now and build up from there. This bare minimum training program will train the four main lifts most weeks with enough extra work and enough variety to keep training productive and interesting.

It’s possible to make progress with an OLPD program, but progress will not last forever. Strength gains come from increasing productive stress over time, and that is difficult to do within this framework. Productive stress comes in many forms, but a basic step forward is to increase the frequency of the main lifts (or close supplemental lifts) so that the overall time and tonnage put into these big, multi-joint movements goes upward.

Focus on Productive Stress

Not everything we can do in the gym is equally valuable. Take the OLPD examples above, where the main lifts (squat, press, deadlift, and bench press) are much more important to the structure of that program than the accessory work. You can get away with just training the main lifts for a while because the body’s reaction to these big movements is different than it is to single-joint or smaller movements. The more muscle mass trained, the more trainable the lift.

Productive stress is when training is hard enough to signal to the body a need for change and when the substance of the training leads to the right kinds of change. Doing enough of the right kinds of training. The specific nature of productive stress is what separates well-planned training from just doing whatever feels good when you get to the gym.

How do we know how much is enough for productive stress? In a laboratory setting, with blood tests, muscle biopsies, and fancy measuring equipment, we might be able to test for indicators of sufficient stress. Outside of a lab, we have to rely on our ability to recognize fatigue from productive stress.

Fatigue is a non-specific indicator that we might feel simply as “tiredness.” It comes from acute fatigue related to a single training session or accumulated fatigue from multiple sessions. Fatigue causes a measurable, short-term drop in performance due to a decrease in the ability to produce through voluntary muscular contractions. That decrease may originate anywhere along the chain of events that are involved in those contractions—from motor impairment that originates in the CNS, known as central fatigue, to the junction between a motor neuron and a muscle fiber or farther down the motor pathway, called peripheral fatigue.

Knowing how much stress is enough is not easy. The best indicators come from the training log. If someone has been training consistently, then their training history will help determine how much volume will produce sufficient stress. Start by identifying the tonnage of the main lifts in a workout from a recent productive training cycle. Then, as a starting place for ad hoc training, try to normalize tonnage on a lift-to-lift (not week-to-week or even workout-to-workout) basis.

There are several other factors that you can track that can help you know whether you are in a fatigued state. Coaches and athletes will sometimes track subjective markers of fatigue as indicators of training stress. Some of the most common measures are the quality and duration of sleep, sensations of tiredness, willingness to train, and appetite. With more minimalistic training, it can be challenging to match the magnitude of productive training, but the quality of your training can remain high by sticking to the main lifts for adequate and familiar volume.

Start with Somewhere to Go

A common mistake for those struggling to train as frequently as they’d like is trying to do too much when they do make it into the gym. Any time someone makes a major change in the structure of their training, there is a kind of reset that needs to happen. We can accumulate productive stress with more frequent workouts, but that productive stress needs to go upward over time. So we need to start light enough that we can add the right kinds of stress in our next workouts.

Starting too heavy will lead either to burnout or stagnation, the latter coming from training at the same intensities and volume over and over again. Either situation will force training into structural, qualitative changes (switching out main lifts for supplemental lifts and accessory work) too frequently, not giving the body enough time to adapt and get stronger with the lifts that should be the priority.

“To avoid or decrease the negative influence of accommodation, training programs are periodically modified. In principle, there are two ways to modify training programs:

Quantitative—changing training loads (for instance, the total amount of weight lifted)

Qualitative—replacing the exercises” (Zatsiorsky, Science and Practice, 6.)

Starting with somewhere to go means starting heavy enough that training is productive but light enough that you can add stress by increasing the load and volume to the same lifts for several weeks.

Once you set a program structure that works, maintain the quality of that stress for as long as possible. Quantitative changes—load, intensity, and volume—don’t mess with the exercises and organization that you’ve decided are productive. As progress slows down, warranting new stress, there are plenty of supplemental lifts and structural changes to help avoid accommodation and keep training productive.

If you find yourself managing an ad hoc training situation, the goal should be to get out of it as soon as is reasonable. In the meantime, these are some ideas that should help make training more accessible with a tight schedule, more flexibility to build consistency, and more productive than figuring out what to do on the fly.

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