How to Get Stronger with Programming Changes

When to Step Back: Ramping Up Progress with More Recovery

One of the first things we did with Dan's training was to take a step backward, moving him from advanced programming to a more traditional intermediate program. In this article, we talk about what why we made that choice and how it helped Dan make faster progress at a time when he found himself with more resources for recovery.

Ramping Up Progress with Increased Recovery

By: Dan Shell and Nick Soleyn

From Nick Soleyn:

There is a saying that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. I imagine this is true for most knowledge-work professions. Just as lawyers shouldn’t represent themselves, doctors shouldn’t operate on themselves, and psychiatrists who hold their own therapy sessions might have bigger problems than they can self-diagnose. And, while it is certainly possible to coach yourself as a lifter, it’s not optimal, even for the professional coach. I must admit that, in this way, I am a fool—and it often shows in my training. Dan, however, is not.

An excellent coach in his own right, Dan moved to my town early in 2020, and I inherited him as a client. I was a little bit nervous because while coaches (perhaps) shouldn’t coach themselves, coaches also make notoriously bad clients. We are, by nature, self-experimenters, and sticking with a regimented training plan, when our curiosity piques at all things lifting, is not easy.

Again, Dan is an exception. He is a consistent, hardworking lifter, who, when he goes off-script, does so intelligently. And importantly, he allows for the training process to occur. The latter trait worked out well, since one of the first changes I made to his programming was to take a conceptual step backward, moving him from advanced programming to what we usually think of as intermediate programming. In this article, we talk about what I saw with Dan’s training that made this seem like the right move at the time, and what was going on in Dan’s life, behind the scenes, that played a role in his training and recovery that shone through during his training sessions.

The Ratio of Stress and Recovery

Many lifters’ lives bring stressors that limit recovery: shift work, divorce, job loss, sickness, poor sleep, or unexpected weight loss. We understand that increased strength requires physical stress and sufficient recovery. Progress from novice to post-novice to advanced lifting stages largely happens because of disparities between our ability to recover and the overall stress we are trying to recover from. The more advanced the programming, the more recovery from anticipated stress is built into the program.

A nice, seamless progression from novice to advanced lifting rarely occurs, however, because external factors affect how well we will recover from training. Stress that comes from outside the weight room may preemptively slow the rate of adaptation. When this happens, a lifter can repeatedly throw themselves at the proverbial wall, backing off, trying the same program over and over again. Or, we can look for the changes that will lead to progress. In this way, external stressors may carry a lifter to more advanced programming choices as they find ways to continue making progress.

But life happens in cycles, and occasionally those same lifters find themselves with less external stress, better able to recover and adapt. In these instances, when a lifter has more physical and mental resources to dedicate to recovery, we can often take a step back, simplifying their programming to enable faster progress. A lifter who gains weight, sleeps more, overcomes difficult life circumstances, changes to a less stressful job, or eliminates or reduces other physical stress, such as sports, may benefit from such a refocusing.

In our case study, Dan had completed multiple block cycles and a DUP cycle that he finished in the first few weeks of his and Nick’s working together. Nick then suggested that they take a step back, rather than using another advanced lifting block program, they should see how Dan did with a 3-week cycle, typical of later intermediate programming. Dan had shown modest improvements from the bigger blocks of training, but Nick had observed that, while Dan’s form was excellent, and he never missed a workout, he seemed to be leaving something in the gym.

Typically on a DUP block, a lifter will, at some point, feel beaten down from the high-frequency programming and constant driving volume. Dan, however, was recovering session to session, never complaining, and not slowing down at all. His ability to recover, in other words, seemed to have outstripped the style of programming he was enduring.

The intent in switching from an advanced block program to an intermediate-looking three-week cycle was to run the program a couple of times—maybe only once. It would give a chance to see how Dan responded to a split in his volume work and intensity work, and if all went well, it might give Dan a chance to set PRs in different rep ranges: 2 x 3, 3 x 2, and 3 x 1. They ended up sticking with that 3-week cycle from early April through the beginning of October with only minor adjustments. Dan hit PRs for 5s, 3s, 2s, and 1s, frequently performing PRs for sets across. The three-week cycle ended with a transition to prepare for a United States Strenglifting Federation Push/Pull online meet at the end of October where Dan hit a 60 lb. deadlift PR and fell just short of his Press PR of 210, which he set a few weeks previously on the 3-week cycle.

Leading Up to the Change

Dan served in the Army through February 2020. While in the Army, he had to meet certain physical requirements that stressed muscular and aerobic endurance. He also had to meet body fat requirements, so he had to limit weight gain. Additionally, Army training regularly interrupted strength training, from a couple of days to weeks at a time. Maintaining these physical attributes and body weight while incurring regular training interruptions limited his ability to increase strength.

He deployed to Qatar in April 2019, needing to lose weight to pass the Army’s body fat requirements. In Qatar, he dropped from 203 pounds to 183 pounds over five months. After passing his final Army Physical Fitness Test in September and meeting body fat standards, he began to gain weight. He weighed 195.4 in November and 203 in March 2020, when he completed a block cycle, which he had begun with a different coach.

Nick Soleyn began coaching Dan in January 2020 in the middle of a block cycle. Dan’s training had been pretty high volume, even for an accumulation phase. A typical week of training during the accumulation phase looked like this:

MondayWednesdayFridaySaturday
Squat 6×5Press 6×6Beltless Squat 10×3Pin Press 3×10
Bench 6×5Deadlift 6×5Paused Bench 3×10RDL 3×10
Row 3×10CGBP 3×10Chins 5x AMRAPShrugs 5×10
Curls 5×10Conditioning

 

Nick tweaked the block program and worked toward Dan’s realization phase to set PRs. Dan hit the following lifts at the end of March.

  • Squat: 410lbs (tying a PR)
  • Press: 185lbs (5lb PR)
  • Deadlift: 500lbs (25lb PR)
  • Bench Press: 300lbs (5lb PR)

The signal that Dan might not have gotten as much out of those training blocks as possible was, simply, that Dan was crushing the workouts. Going back to the overly brief description of training advancement above: more advanced training blocks anticipate higher levels of persistent fatigue during training. There is an ongoing balance in advanced training between the fatigue generated from training and the lifter’s ability to perform each workout, like walking a road that gets narrower the more advanced the lifter gets. Stay on the road, and the lifter will accumulate fatigue but will recover just enough session to session and week-to-week to continue accumulating productive training stress. Off to one side of the road is too much fatigue and not enough recovery. If the lifter crosses to that side, you will expect them to fail workouts and start to show signs of overtraining. Off to the other side of the road is too little stress relative to the lifter’s recovery ability. This is where it seemed like Dan was. If so, it meant that despite the high volume and high frequency of his training, the loads were not heavy enough relative to his potential. Even though he made progress, he didn’t show signs of accumulating fatigue as expected.

There was always a chance that Dan is just a hard ass, that he was tired but simply refused to show it or complain about the workouts. But programming is very much about trial and error, using reasoned approaches to make changes and seeing how the lifter responds. In this case, we wanted to see how Dan would respond to a higher intensity program with built-in measures. So, we decided to move Dan to a 3 – week cycle, 4-day split. If Dan could make progress on his intensity work, then we would be able to squeeze a few new PRs out of his training. And, the volume would naturally increase as we adjusted week-to-week to make sure that progress continued.

Beginning the 3-Week Cycle

The first week began with a textbook 4-day split routine: volume and intensity for each of the four main lifts, with some upper body assistance work. This allowed for a kind of reset from more complicated advanced programming, a back-to-basics approach.

Week 1:

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Squat 2×3 @ 350Press 2×3 @ 160Deadlift 2×3 @ 425Bench 2×3 @ 255
DL 3×5 @ 375Bench 4×5 @ 230Squat 4×5 @ 305Press 4×5 @ 135
Chins 3x AMRAPLTE 3×5 @ RPE 7.5

 

Week 2, additional stress was added with supplemental deadlift and squat variations. Supplemental lifts address specific lifters’ needs and add stress to the training. For Dan, we didn’t want to roll back too much stress and have him start over as a new post-novice lifter. We wanted to focus on the higher intensity lifts at the beginning of each session and find the appropriate amount of stress. Additional supplemental lifts and accessory work, in week three, did that.

Week 2:

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Squat 3×2 @ 360Press 3×2 @ 170DL 3×2 @ 445Bench 3×2 @ 265
DL 3×5 @ 385Bench 235Squat 4×5 @ 315Press 4×5 @ 145
Pin Squat 3×3 @ 275-305 @ RPE 7Chins 3x AMRAPSLDL 3×8 @ RPE 7LTE 3×5 @ RPE 7.5

 

In week 3, the squat stress increased in the volume slot. Additional upper body stress with rows and shrugs was programmed, using Dan’s kettlebell set that went up to 40kg/88lbs. Each of these changes represented a titrating increase in stress over the first cycle of this program.

Week 3:

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Squat 5×1 @ 375Press 5×1 @ 175DL 5×1 @ 455Bench 5×1 @ 275
DL 3×5 @ 390Bench 4×5 @ 245Squat 4×5 @ 320Press 4×5 @ 150
Pin Squat 5×3 @ 285Chins 1x AMRAP Pull-Ups 1x AMRAP

Neg Pull-Ups 1×6

SLDL 3×8 @ 295LTE 3×5 @ RPE 7.5
Kroc Rows 3×12Shrugs 3×12 @ RPE 8-9

 

Beyond moving training from a longer block program to a shorter cycle, this program also represented a shift from volume and tonnage as the primary stressor to intensity jumping into the driver’s seat. The previous block program emphasized higher volume across higher rep ranges. Even when Dan’s programming intensified, it worked up to a 1RM attempt across the big main lifts—Dan had never performed singles across and had not attempted limit doubles, triples, or fives for over a year.

Despite expectations that this cycle would progress no more than three times—and that would have been the top expectations—after three cycles, the lifts continued to move quickly. After three cycles, the small changes were needed for the intensity slots. We had committed to this program and decided to run it out using MED changes.

MED Changes to Keep Making Progress

After three cycles, Nick made the first MED changes. The number of reps for Dan’s intensity work decreased for certain lifts: the deadlift and press first. 5×1 became 3×1. 3×2 turned into 2×2. As the cycle continued, the volume for the intensity slots decreased. 2×3 turned into 1×3. 3×2 turned into 2×2, then 1×2. 5×1 turned into 3×1, then 1×1 with a back-off set of 5.

MED changes focused on the goal for each slot in a lifting session. The goal for Dan’s intensity work was, simply, weight on the bar. To keep the weight progressing across each rep range for as long as possible, it is often necessary to trade volume for intensity.

The priority for the volume slot was to increase tonnage. The intensity for the 4×5 (3×5 for deadlift) increased. This became 4×6, then 5×5.

At some point, it becomes impractical to continually increase the lifter’s volume. Workouts take too long and are incredibly taxing, both mentally and physically. At this point, when 5×5 ran out, we could see the end in sight for this three-week cycle of programming, but intensity was still increasing. At this point, Nick changed the volume slot to banded, dynamic work for the bench press and squat. 10×2 for squat and 8×3 for the bench. If our goal had been to keep running a three-week cycle or other intermediate programs for as long as possible, then we may have made other changes. However, intensity was going up, and we suspected that Dan could continue to hit PRs if we allowed him to do so. The change to dynamic effort work added a new type of stress to his training but represented an overall decrease in volume stress as we drove his intensity work onward. Dan decided to compete in the USSF online push-pull meet, which gave a focal point to the training. To prepare for the virtual meet, we decreased Dan’s supplementary volume but made no changes to his main intensity and volume work.

Before transitioning to peak for the meet, Dan had hit 3RM, 2RM, and 1RM PRs for all four lifts. He even hit 5RM PRs on volume days for sets across. Some of his milestones included completing a 315 lb. bench and 200 lb. press, hitting his previous squat single PR for singles across, and crushing a 505 deadlift PR.

During this time, Dan benefited from uninterrupted training, weight gain, regular sleep, and no competing physical requirements. His weight increased from 203 in late March to 225 in October.

Prioritizing Training

Too often, life gets in the way of lifting progress. In these cases, we do the best we can, change programming as needed, and remember that we lift for life, not live to lift. If we adjust our expectations, even with the difficulties, we can usually continue to progress our strength.

Occasionally, however, the storm clouds fade, and we sail with the wind at our back with clear skies. For lifting, this means that our stress decreases or that our recovery capacity increases. Beyond the physical adaptations, we may prioritize training, spending more time and focus on driving strength increases.

Dan John has some interesting concepts that apply here. He differentiates between park bench and bus bench workouts. During park bench training, you’re enjoying the scenery and not aiming to get anywhere too quickly. At Barbell Logic, we recommend always having a vision for your training, but these periods can be times when training takes a back seat; we exercise intelligently or train for slow progress or to minimize strength loss. These times might occur if you suffer an injury or serious illness, undergo divorce or a similarly difficult situation, or prioritize weight loss. You may also simply go on vacation where you do not have access to barbells. Progress slows. We might need training to take less time or to emphasize fun.

Bus bench training, on the other hand, has a goal in mind. You know where you want to get, and you prioritize getting there. You expect to meet goals and quickly. If you decide to train for a meet or complete DUP, you’re prioritizing training and driving progress as fast as possible. If training hasn’t been a priority, you may be able to simplify training and make rapid progress.

He has a related concept of green and red periods. You can often predict times when training cannot be the focus: vacations, holiday periods, or times of extreme work or school stress. These are likely not the best times to peak or push PRs.

We expect less stress and fewer competing demands during green periods. Following the winter holidays, but before a vacation planned in the spring, for example, we may prioritize training and sign up for a meet to focus our training efforts.

Of course, life rarely fails to follow our expectations. When expected green periods turn red, we adjust the course. Training grounds us and provides opportunities to get out of our heads and provide some predictability—even if we find our recovery is limited because of life stress. We understand that these are now de facto red periods, and if we hit PRs, that’s great, but we don’t beat ourselves up if that doesn’t happen.

Your Adaptation Budget

We have a limited ability to recover from stress. Like a financial budget, we focus our limited adaptation abilities at different times. We may save more or take a vacation. We may improve our home or invest in our career. Occasionally, unexpected expenses occur and derail our previously planned purchases.

When we suddenly find we have more money in our pockets, we can work on long-term projects and bigger expenses. When we similarly find we have more time and less stress, let’s invest in our training. Too often—in strength training or budget planning—we only plan for bad events. This is fine: we need to prepare for bad things. We can waste a pay raise at work, a reduction in a regular bill, or for training, decreased life stress. We should be prepared to take advantage of these times, simplify training, and push for PRs. This may mean conducting an LP. It may mean going from an 8-week program to a 3-week program. It definitely means focusing on increasing our strength adaptations while the circumstances favor this.

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