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By: Hari Fafutis, SSC

As a trainee becomes more advanced in his training (by making progress on a weekly or monthly basis) the programming aspect becomes the next biggest potential obstacle that may hinder his progress, assuming that his form and consistency are good. The basic premise of Minimum Effective Dose programming is that you change one variable at a time as you start to see that a given lift is about to plateau under its previous scheme. This allows you to detect the effectiveness of any given variable that you change.  Below, I will describe my own training background as the basis for MED programming. After 5 months of MED methodology, I can only say that the results of small changes from my coach, Matt Reynolds, were very satisfying.

Minimum Effective Dose: A Practical Approach for the Early-Advanced Trainee

If you have been training for quite some time (1 year and/or more), you have probably encountered many different programming strategies each claiming to be the best way to get stronger. For the serious strength athlete, it almost seems like a programming discussion amongst friends, peers, or even strangers is becoming as taboo as discussions of politics, religion, and diet. Programming definitely deserves an honorable place for an intellectual discussion, since it’s a fascinating topic that entails both science and art, and it is also a challenging yet satisfactory task for the coach who embraces the assignment with professionalism and a systemic perspective. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a compromising topic.

Despite the different attitudes and biases towards programming, SSOC is a place that likes to “use the best of both worlds,” implementing concepts from different places. With already more than a thousand clients under our belt, the online coaching platform has allowed us to test and demonstrate different concepts’ effectiveness with real results. SSOC not only has been able to find a strategic programming synergy by 1) using the basic scientific principles behind the physiological phenomenon we call adaptation, 2) intelligently using programming concepts from different fields, and 3) refining this whole topic with contributions from excellent coaches around the globe with actual experience in the trenches, but it also has come up with a simple method that embraces the potential complexity of a given program with a more digestible, less overwhelming process. And this may as well be the piece of the puzzle that’s been missing ever since Milo decided to start lifting a calf, and potentially the start of a practical conversation that doesn’t need to be elevated at the level of a political fight.

We call this approach the Minimum Effective Dose (MED) (for a deeper understanding of the dynamics behind this method, please click here to read Reynolds’ original articles, part 2). The basic premise is to change one variable at a time as the coach starts to see that a given lift is about to plateau under its previous scheme. This variable may mean just to add another set, or to do more reps for a given set, or to add in another exercise to the program. The biggest advantage is that this method doesn’t change multiple variables or use a radically different program for the trainee to keep on making progress. Though big changes in programming can work, the downside is that we won’t know exactly which changes caused the progress to be made, and which didn’t. Minimum Effective Dose (MED) allows the coach to detect the effectiveness of a given variable, because he changes one variable at a time.

As a trainee becomes more advanced in his training (by making progress on a weekly or monthly basis) the programming aspect becomes the next biggest potential obstacle that may hinder his progress, assuming that his form and consistency are good. This is why the topic is relevant for more advanced trainees, and this is also a great time to hire an experienced coach who can guide you in this difficult -but not impossible- process. I should know because that is exactly what I did.

My Experience with MED Programming

Exactly at this point in my training career is when I reached out to Matt Reynolds (SSOC Owner and Coach) to help me with my programming. This was also the time when Matt and SSOC nailed down the finishing touches of MED, and thus coach Reynolds decided to use me as his guinea pig to try out these concepts. I had just come out of intermediate programming, a slightly more difficult MED task than one for a trainee who just came out of a Novice LP, but yet still simple enough for a smart coach.

After 5 months of MED methodology, I can only say that the results were very satisfying, especially for a guy like me who had been stuck with a 500-lb squat for almost a year after having gotten used to making progress on a weekly basis (and I never stopped training over the course of that plateau-year). How good were these results? Let’s present the numbers before starting with SSOC, and after 5 months with SSOC:

 

Lift Previous PRs (before SSOC) PRs after 5 months with SSOC Percentage of Increment
Squat 5025254%
Press 23827012%
Deadlift  5625752%
Bench Press 3503756%

In the following paragraphs, I will present the background, methods, and MED changes that Matt Reynolds implemented into my programming with the goal of increasing my strength.

The first thing coach Reynolds did, was to take a look at my previous training history. I was just coming out of recovery from a wisdom tooth extraction coupled with a fever that lasted for two weeks. After that, I ran a brief classic LP to get back to previous weights. I started to approach the limits under this program with the squat and DL, and the press and bench press were still progressing under LP, so I began to modify the program for the DL and the squat under a Texas Method style. The last week of training without SSOC looked like this:

 

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat 4×5 (volume day) Squat 2×5 (light day) Squat 1×5, 1×5 @90% (intensity day)
Bench Press 3×5 (LP) Press 3×5 (LP) Bench Press 3×5 (LP)
DL 1×5 (intensity day) Chin-ups (light pulling day) DL 2×5 (volume day)

And at that point, Matt Reynolds took over my programming. I was in a situation where that scheme wasn’t enough stress for me to drive up the progress. One of my biggest problems actually was that I stayed with an intermediate program for longer than I should have. Before the wisdom tooth surgery, I ran a 4-day split Texas method program for a year and a half. The last weeks of this program consisted of cycling the intensity days with triples, doubles, and singles. This is what the 3-week cycle looked like:

Week 1:

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Press 2×3 (New 3RM)DL 3RMBP 2×3 (New 3RM)Squat 2×3 (New 3RM)
Bench Press 5×5 (Volume Work)SQ 5×5 (Volume work)Press 5×5 (Volume Work)Stiff Legged Deadlift 3×5 (Volume Work)
DipsChin-Ups

 

Week 2:

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Press 3×2 (New 2RM)DL 2RMBP 3×2 (New 2RM)Squat 3×2 (New 2RM)
Bench Press 5×5 (Volume Work)SQ 5×5 (Volume work)Press 5×5 (Volume Work)Stiff Legged Deadlift 3×5 (Volume Work)
DipsChin-Ups

 

Week 3:

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Press 5×1 (New 1RM)DL 1RMBP 5×1 (New 1RM)Squat 5×1 (New 1RM)
Bench Press 5×5 (Volume Work)SQ 5×5 (Volume work)Press 5×5 (Volume Work)Stiff Legged Deadlift 3×5 (Volume Work)
DipsChin-Ups

I executed this 3-week- cycle multiple times, hitting a new PR for a given rep scheme every three weeks, but as I  explained in the last paragraph, this intermediate program was about to finish working for me; everything was just very heavy. Matt went through my log to see what I did before the wisdom tooth removal and after the recovery.

Following the MED philosophy, he decided to come back to the 3 week cycle, except that this time, he changed a few things: On the intensity day, there was just one heavy set, and then a back-off set for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) for the bench press, and also back-off sets for the press, squat, and deadlift for 5 or 3 reps (the details of this can be found on the table below). The second change was that he added a little more assistance work for my upper body. A smart observer can detect that these minimum changes allowed for more stress to be applied under the same scheme I was doing, without completely altering a program that worked so well before. The first cycle was actually a small deload for the intensity days, but during the second cycle, PRs started to show up, especially on my presses and bench presses. The outline for the 3-week cycle with the additional AMRAP sets and assistance work looked like this:

 

Week 1:

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
DL 1×5BP 1×5, 1xAMRAP @70%SQ 1×5, 1×5 @ 93%Press 1×5, 1×5 @ 95%
SQ 4×5Press 5×5DL 3×5BP 5×5
Barbell Rows 3×8Chin-ups
Lying T. Ext. 3×10Dips

 

Week 2:

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
DL 1×3BP 1×3, 1xAMRAP @80%SQ 1×3, 1×5 @ 92%Press 1×3, 1×5 @ 92%
SQ 4×5Press 5×5DL 3×5BP 5×5
Barbell Rows 3×8Chin-ups
Lying T. Ext. 3×10Dips

 

Week 3:

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
DL 1×1, 1×3 @ 91%BP 1×1, 1xAMRAP @85%SQ 1×1, 1×5 @ 90%Press 1×1, 1×5 @ 90%
SQ 4×5Press 5×5DL 3×5BP 5×5
Barbell Rows 3×8Chin-ups
Lying T. Ext. 3×10Dips

 

We ran this cycle 3 times in a row, and PRs started happening by the second cycle. During the third cycle, almost all of the lifts for any given rep scheme were new PRs. The following comparative table shows the heavy singles from the third week of the first cycle, and the heavy singles from the third week for the third cycle:

 

Exercise Week 3, First Cycle Week 3, Third Cycle % Increase
Squat 475505 (PR)6%
Press 230255 (PR)10%
Deadlift 515570 (PR)10%
Bench Press 320365 (PR)12%

 

This was a very smooth transition into my first advanced programming block, and hitting PRs was quite a surprise for me, since I didn’t think the simple tweaks of adding in more sets after the heavy set on intensity-day, plus a little more work with assistance exercises would be enough to drive the strength adaptation up. And as I told Matt, I think these back-off sets really were the key to this progress, since they allowed for more volume to accumulate, but with a weight that wasn’t as challenging as the intensity weight of the first set.

The next logical step to follow was of course to add more stress. But the problem was that the week was already full of stress on any given training day. The solution? Enter Block-programming.

All Roads Lead to Block Programming

Photo: Nick Delgadillo

I was again at a point where I needed more accumulated stress in order to drive a new strength adaptation up, while at the same time more recovery-time was needed since the additional added stress forced me to recover over a longer time span. This means that the volume accumulation phase, the recovery phase, and the adaptation phase all had to be longer. Whereas before, this used to be all happening in the time of 1 week, block programming organizes these phases over times of 1, 2, 3, or even more months. Since this was my first block, a simple block of 2 months was enough time to run a cycle with everything I needed to keep on getting stronger (Why use a 4-month block, when a simpler 2-month block works as well?).

The good part about this is that the program didn’t have to change drastically from what I’ve been doing before. We stayed with the same 4-day split scheme, but now the volume and intensity were manipulated differently.

An advanced block of training is designed to accommodate two basics phases; volume accumulation phase and realization phase (and there’s a transmutation phase, and a recovery phase in-between these primary phases, which will be explained here in a bit), with the latter hopefully providing new PRs at the end of the cycle.

Basically speaking, the first couple of weeks will usually consist of a lot of volume work (for instance 5 sets of 5 on the squat). Then, as the weight starts to get heavy to complete 5 sets of 5, the volume starts to drop. This phase uses more weight, and slightly less volume (following the example of the squat, the scheme at this point looks something like 4 sets of 4), and it is called the Transmutation phase. This process will also last a couple of weeks, and the weight on the bar will keep on getting heavier and heavier, whereas reps and sets will start to decrease (something like 4 sets of 3). After this phase where everything feels heavy (because there’s still some fatigue present from the volume accumulation phase), there’s usually a deload week, where the weight to be lifted and the total volume decrease compared to the previous weeks of work (something like 3 sets of 3).

The original “intensity” day from the Texas Method I was previously doing wasn’t removed from the program, I actually did heavy singles before the volume work, and as with the volume weights, the single became heavier on a weekly basis. The first week consisted of a single at about 84% of my most recent 1RM, and that percentage increased weekly.

After the deload week came the realization phase. Here, on the first week, I did a heavy single at around 97-100% of my 1RM, and then a couple of back-off sets (like 2 sets of 3) with about 12% less than the previous single. This week helps to “test the waters” and to keep on dropping that volume from the last week’s so that recovery happens, and the adaptation finally shows up. This week is glorious, since the trainee is actually able to feel the progress, because those heavy singles usually feel light (or at least easier than before), and this allows the lifter to gain some confidence for the last week in the cycle, where the idea is to achieve new PRs, new 1RMs.

This is the general outline for an advanced block of training. The heavy single and the volume work are completed in one session. Since this is a 4-day split, there’s usually another day available to program the same lift that already used volume and intensity. And here’s where usually a new variable is also introduced, typically in the form of an assistance exercise. Following the squat example, the second “squat-slot” could consist of something like a paused squat, or a pin squat, or any other squat variant. This is usually done for fewer sets and fewer reps, and since an assistance exercise is lighter by definition, fatigue doesn’t accumulate excessively. Additionally, the assistance exercise usually attacks a weak point that the lifter seems to struggle with (for example, paused squats help to improve the tightness of the posterior chain at the bottom of the squat, something that tends to become difficult to maintain as the weights get heavy).

Though this program definitely is more complex than the previous one, the basic elements that have been helping me increase my strength throughout my training career are still present in this new scheme. So, the program is actually not something entirely different. For this case, the MED changes definitely consisted of more than 1 or 2 changes, but in principle, the mechanism is still very similar. The description of the program I just presented, is only a simple overlook of what I did since the purpose here is to demonstrate how the MED philosophy is put into practice by a professional, but individual differences need to be considered when designing a medium-term program like this one.

This 2-month cycle was by no means easy to complete. The volume and transmutation phases are probably the hardest things I’ve been through in my training career—everything was heavy, and this process required a lot of focus and tenacity. The end of the tunnel wasn’t ever seen here. I actually reached moments of self-doubt because everything felt very hard, and I couldn’t see how such a hard program would allow me to lift more weight in the future since I was already struggling to finish the sets and reps at this phase! I think the key to my success was trusting both my coach and the process itself.

It was also important to anticipate that bad days would be present during training and know that running away from them is not an answer. The best solution is to get under the bar and finish the prescribed sets and reps. At the end of the workout, I always felt better and good because I managed to finish something difficult despite what my current emotional state was. There was also a time where I got very sick with a virus that had me lying in bed for three days, but I managed to complete the training sessions at the end of the week. I also traveled on another week, and there were multiple days where my sleep and nutrition weren’t optimal. Despite these obstacles, I managed to complete all of the workouts, and I was impressed at learning how resilient the body can be despite all of the stressors that you can throw at it (life happens, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of your nutrition, sleeping habits, and life stressors outside the gym).

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that training properly for strength isn’t necessarily a complicated process, it is actually quite simple when one uses tools such as the MED philosophy. However, this simple process of strength acquisition is hard. Hard in the sense that it requires a lot of personal effort, commitment, self-responsibility, and resilience. The doors are open to anyone who’s willing to put in the work to get stronger; everybody’s welcome, but not everybody is willing to make it happen.

Below is the general template I used with coach Reynolds for my first block of training as an advanced trainee. Below is also a table with my PRs at the end of the cycle.

Week 1: Accumulation

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

84% x 1, 75% 5 x 5

Deadlift:

 82% x 1, 73% 3 x 5

Press:

84% x 1, 75% 4 x 5

Squat:

84% x 1, 75% 5 x 5

Seated Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 8

Bench Press (3-count pause):

5 x 3 @ RPE 8

Close-grip Bench Press:

4 x 5 @ RPE 7.5

Paused Deadlift:

6 x 3 @ RPE 7

AccessoriesTempo Squat:

6 x 2 @ RPE 6.5

Accessories

 

Week 2: Accumulation

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

86% x 1, 77% 5 x 5

Deadlift:

 85% x 1, 76% 3 x 5

Press:

86% x 1, 77% 4 x 5

Squat:

86% x 1, 77% 5 x 5

Seated Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 8.5

Bench Press (3-count pause):

5 x 3 @ RPE 8.5

 Close-grip Bench Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 8.5

 Paused Deadlift:

6 x 2 @ RPE 7.5

AccessoriesTempo Squat:

6 x 2 @ RPE 7

Accessories

 

Week 3: Accumulation

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

89% x 1, 90% 5 x 5

Deadlift:

89% x 1, 80% 3 x 5

Press:

89% x 1, 80% 4 x 5

Squat:

89% x 1, 80% 5 x 5

Seated Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 8.5

Bench Press (3-count pause):

5 x 3 @ RPE 9

Close-grip Bench Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 8.5

Paused Deadlift:

6 x 2 @ RPE 8

AccessoriesTempo Squat:

6 x 2 @ RPE 7.5

Accessories

 

Week 4: Transmutation

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

92% x 1, 83% 4 x 4

Deadlift:

92% x 1, 83% 3 x 4

Press:

92% x 1, 83% 4 x 4

Squat:

92% x 1, 83% 4 x 4

Seated Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 9

Bench Press (3-count pause):

5 x 3 @ RPE 9

Close-grip Bench Press:

3 x 5 @ RPE 9

Paused Deadlift:

6 x 2 @ RPE 8.5

AccessoriesTempo Squat:

6 x 2 @ RPE 8

Accessories

 

Week 5: Transmutation

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

95% x 1, 86% 4 x 3

Deadlift:

95% x 1, 86% 3 x 3

Press:

95% x 1, 86% 4 x 3

Squat:

95% x 1, 86% 4 x 3

Press Lockouts:

3RM, 4×3 @ 92%

Floor Press:

3RM, 3×3 @ 92%

Paused Bench Press:

3RM, 4×3 @ 92%

Deficit Deadlift:

1 x 3 @ RPE 8, 3×3 @ 92%

AccessoriesPin Squat:

5 x 2 @ RPE 7

Accessories

 

Week 6: Deload

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

93% x 1, 85% 3 x 3

Deadlift:

92% x 1, 85% 1 x 3

Press:

93% x 1, 85% 3 x 3

Squat:

92% x 1, 85% 3 x 3

Press Lockouts:

1RM, 3×3 @ 92%

Floor Press:

1RM, 3×3 @ 88%

Paused Bench Press:

1RM, 3×3 @ 90%

Deficit Deadlift:

1 x 1 @ RPE 9, 2×3 @ 90%

AccessoriesPin Squat:

3 x 2 @ RPE 7.5

Accessories

 

Week 7: Realization

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

97-100% x 1, 88% 2 x 3

Deadlift:

97-100% x 1, 88% 2 x 3

Press:

97-100% x 1, 88% 2 x 3

Squat:

97-100% x 1, 88% 2 x 3

Press Lockouts:

1RM, 90% x AMRAP

Pin Squat:

1RM, 88% x AMRAP

Floor Press:

1RM, 90% x AMRAP

Deficit Deadlift:

1RM, 90% x AMRAP

AccessoriesAccessories

 

Week 8: Realization (PR Week)

 

MondayTuesdayThursdayFriday
Bench Press:

1RM, 85% x AMRAP

Deadlift:

1RM

Press:

1RM, 85% x AMRAP

Squat:

1RM, 88% 2 x 3

Press Lockouts:

1RM, 90% x AMRAP

Squats:

4×2 @ RPE 7

Floor Press:

1RM, 90% x AMRAP

Deficit Deadlift:

1RM, 90% x AMRAP

AccessoriesAccessories

Comparison of PRs before and after advanced cycle:

 

ExercisePrevious PRsPRs after cycle% Increase
Squat5055254%
Press2552705.5%
Deadlift5705751%
Bench Press3653753%

Hari Fafutis is the first and only certified Starting Strength Coach in Latin America. Hari finished his studies with a Bachelor of Science and a Specialty Degree in Industrial Engineering from the Universidad Panamericana Campus Guadalajara. He currently lives in Guadalajara where he works as the Operations Manager at a furniture and educational toy manufacturing company. He also owns a small strength facility where he coaches trainees of all ages, with the advantage of being the first Strength Gym in Mexico. Hari is also translating the Starting Strength literature into Spanish.

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