med principles

Four Day Split Programming: Using MED Principles to Tame the Beast

By: Barbell Logic Team

What happens when a program stops working? You’ve had steady progress, but you start missing reps and sets—for several workouts—and you’ve eliminated form and recovery issues. The answer is simple: Go online, search “Help! My bench press sucks!” and pick the first program you see from someone whose name you recognize. Easy!
Just kidding. Read below for thoughts on how Minimum Effective Dose principles can help you shape the versatile Four Day Split into something useful for long-term progress.

Taming Versatility: Minimum Effective Dose and the Four Day Split

The trouble with any programming article is that nothing works and everything works. Timing and individual variability matter a whole lot; all progress is temporary, and there is more trial-and-error the farther along the training spectrum that you get. The goal is to find what works for now and milk it for all it’s worth. In this way, all programs or methods are equal.

But, if we may shoehorn George Orwell into the conversation about programming, some programs are more equal than others. Or rather, some methods are more effective than others at finding the combination of variables that works right now, helping to sustain your progress even as your program changes form.

Shifts vs. Jumps

Every program currently in use is a snapshot in time. If we could compare side-by-side every non-novice BLOC lifter’s training week this week, we should be surprised only if we find any two programs that look exactly the same: schedule, exercise selection and organization, loads, sets, reps, and execution; even among first-week novice lifters who are training using essentially the same program as a starting place, variation will exceed the similarities between them. (See our article for Why We Love the Novice Program.) Every snapshot applies to that lifter at that moment and doesn’t represent a broadly applicable training template.

The measure of whether a strength program works is a simple question (“Are you getting stronger?”) with some subtle caveats. “Getting stronger” implies a time period; for novices, getting stronger means that he or she is lifting more and more weight pretty much every workout. Getting stronger also implies a physiological change (building muscle), whereas the test of whether you got stronger (the PR) involves many non-physiological factors, such as your mental state, your form, even how well you slept last night. And speaking of sleep, there are non-program factors like recovery to consider. The best program cannot overcome lousy recovery, and recovery overachievers can make poor programs look good. (There is also the philosophical problem of defining strength for progress.) So, the test for whether a program works might better be thought of as whether you are observing steady progress within the program you are using right now while using consistently good form and having controlled for external factors like recovery. If so, great! Keep doing what you are doing.

What happens when a program stops working? You’ve had steady progress, but you start missing reps and sets—for several workouts—and you’ve eliminated form and recovery issues. The answer is simple: Go online, search “Help! My bench press sucks!” and pick the first program you see from someone whose name you recognize. Easy!

We hope you found this article helpful, let us know your own secrets to a bigger bench….

No! That is program-hopping, and it is the bane of coaches and lifters alike. The best way to undercut your gains is to hop from program to program just because you don’t see the progress you want to see. 

A Minimum Effective Dose (MED) approach to programming, whenever and wherever possible, helps prevent program hopping. Instead of jumping from template to template the MED approach shifts variables gradually. It starts with the premise that what you were doing worked. You saw progress for some amount of time with a particular combination of variables. When you start missing sets and reps, you need to manipulate the smallest number of variables necessary to adjust the stress or recovery built into your program to resume progress. MED involves more frequent small shifts and rarely any big jumps, and it is the reason everyone’s program looks a little bit different at any given moment.

The Cautionary Four-Day Split

For MED to work, you have to start with something that works. As an example, we are going to use a four-day split Texas Method as our starting example. As a starting place, the program below won’t apply to everyone (see above), but it represents a possible direct transition from a basic linear progression to this common intermediate program.

End of LP Example

*All exercises are written [Lift] [sets]x[reps]

The above represents a typical snapshot of the end to a linear progression. There are many different forms this can take that all involve individual choices on how to run out the linear progression and depend on your plan for the intermediate phase of training. You might, for example, shift your squat from 3×5 on Friday to 1×5 with two back-off sets, keeping the volume the same but allowing for an increasing top set of five. Our focus is on the versatility of the four-day split. But suffice it to say that with MED changes, you can end up with an intermediate program that looks like the following:

Danger Ahead

Now, treat the next several examples as a cautionary tale on the dangers of versatility. First, let’s remove some variables and put this split in its most basic form:

The form of a program and the nature of MED changes from there are almost innumerable. So, note a few principles. First, the volume and intensity stresses for each lift are separate. Intensity and volume represent two aspects of stress, both of which can be taken advantage of with a four-day split. (For more on this argument listen to the Barbell Logic Podcast #172—Why High Volume Is Not The (Only) Answer to Muscle Growth with Andy Baker.) Second, notice that the week is comprised essentially of different “slots” for various lifts. A more expanded view of this program might look like the following: 

Now, we can add volume to the lifts by combining volume and intensity on a single day with back-off sets.

 

Finally, some training methods will alternate the main lifts for supplemental lifts each week, cycling volume work and intensity work each day and each lift. Taken to the extreme you might conceptualize something like this:

 

Taken to the extreme of variability, even good programs can become absurd. 

MED Principles

MED methods are a safeguard against program-jumping and over-versatility. Matt and Scott best outline the principles in following Barbell Logic Podcast Episodes:

For the four-day split, we can summarize some of the basic principles as follows:

Make changes when changes are necessary and not before. Change for the sake of change is not conducive to long-term progress. If you are hitting all your sets and reps, then no change is needed. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you aren’t getting stronger. It doesn’t matter if you read a great, new article on the awesome versatility of your program, and now you want to experiment. It doesn’t matter if, in hindsight, you decide that a different supplemental lift is really your ticket to Gainsville. Stay steady, do the work, recover “actively” (i.e., by actively eating and sleeping) and do not make any changes. When you do all of the above, and you start missing reps consistently, then it is time to change.

Use both volume and intensity stresses. If you start from a novice LP, you are chasing constant PRs. This chase has both physiological values in the form of training stress that helps you lift heavier and heavier weights (which is the definition of progress in strength training), and it has psychological and intrinsic value. 

Understand what Minimum Effective Dose means. You do not always know what the smallest change for a maximum return on your training investment will be. Instead, you must make educated guesses based on your training history and your needs as a lifter. You can read some examples of MED principles and changes here:

MED changes tend to follow a kind of pattern. The weight on the bar changes first, the sets and reps change second, and the exercises change last. If we go back to our most basic iteration of the four-day split, this should make sense.

Because you are not going to make changes before changes are needed, from week to week you will add weight to the bar without changing any other variables. Assuming five-pound changes are appropriate, you will add five pounds to your squat (5×5) volume each week and five pounds to your squat (1×5) intensity work each week. Simple. Technically, this is a constant change because the weight is changing each week, but the overall form of the program is static for as long as you can change the weight on the bar without changing anything else.

The sets and reps will change next in a way that preserves the goal for each training slot. For your volume day, you might change the sets and reps to allow for more weight without changing the volume. For example, you might go from 5×5, to 6×4, to 8×3, maintaining the volume but decreasing the reps-per-set to allow for continued increases in the load. The sets and reps will often change on the intensity day to allow for different rep ranges, changing your target slightly each week. Heavy sets of 5, 3, 2, 1 all represent available intensity stimuli. Each of these changes normalizes the volume, but eventually, the volume will have to increase.

One way to increase the volume of a program without changing the rest of the structure and without going far beyond the already challenging volume on the volume day is to add back-off sets to the intensity day. Here’s a snapshot of the program from Hari Fafutis’ article above:

This iteration of the program adds volume through back-off sets following the regular intensity day work. In Coach Hari’s case, the back-off sets were an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set following his bench press and single sets of five reps following his squat and press.

Finally, because stress needs to go up continually, sometimes you have to increase stress without overcoming your recovery ability. This situation is where adding or manipulating supplemental exercises comes into play and where the very open program above, treating the four-day split as a collection of training “slots,” is a useful concept:

An actual example of this might be the following:

One strategy with supplemental lifts is to treat them as if you are on a linear progression. Start a little lighter than needed to work on your form and get used to them. Then, linearly increase the weight, eventually trading off reps-per-set for additional weight on the bar, until you have become a lot stronger on the supplemental lift. If you train the supplemental lifts diligently, the same way you fought for your Novice LP gains, their carry over to your main lifts will be greater.

These examples have limited the snapshots of the four-day split to just two lifts per day. Most people will have more than this. However, it should be clear that for every added slot to your training day, you add complexity and the possibility of more changes to your program. You cannot know if every change you make will be a good one. But when you find something that works, stick to it and ride it out for as long as you can.

Our primary goal in this article is not to give you a training template. In a vacuum, templates do not work. Instead, we hope to provide you with some idea of the versatility of programming, some cautious advice, and an invitation to read the materials linked in this article for more information.

Also, if you want to take a deep dive into programming and other lifting topics, visit the Barbell Logic Coaching Academy Online Master Classes. The Master Classes cover topics from coaching to programming, covering wide-ranging topics on the science, theory, and practice of strength training. No prerequisites are required, and the classes are open to all.  

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