Pandemic Programming for Strength

Enter the year 2020, the pinnacle of “unexpected scenarios.” While the pandemic presented some compounding problems, life will rarely let us train uninterrupted and unimpeded. I hope my pandemic programming experience can help others with remaining flexible, to keep making progress even when their world gets turned upside down.

Pandemic Programming

By: Monica Rosenberg, PBC and BLOC Staff Coach

Wouldn’t it be neat if we could anticipate all the bumps in the road and plan for them? Ripped calluses, muscle aches, missed reps, or worldwide disaster? No problem—at least not for our training. We could look ahead and plan around obstacles, schedule back-off periods to match up with forced layoffs, and shift our goals when life gets ready to throw a curveball. Even if we couldn’t prevent problems, foresight would help us maintain planned progress as much as possible.

Instead, we have to replace foresight with flexibility and become proactive with programming. By testing different strategies—and with some practice and experience—we can avoid many pitfalls when unexpected scenarios take hold.

Enter the year 2020, the pinnacle of “unexpected scenarios.”

The last time I trained at a commercial gym was March 2020—three pandemic-response nursing jobs, a four-phased reopening, and what feels like 50 years ago. This was also when I started my first nursing job. It was not the rodeo they prepared you for in nursing school: no sick days, no holiday time, no health benefits, no 401K, and no orientation. I began as a contractor, testing for COVID-19 on the front lines, helping to ensure patient safety and specimen integrity, and developing policies along the way as our supplies dwindled. I was a nurse mercenary thrown right into the fire. A nursenary, as I called it. I worked in and outside of tents alongside National Guard medics and other state health personnel at a beach parking lot secluded from civilization. I was sunburned, windburned, and near frostbitten all in the same week.

By April, the tide had turned for me. I had managed to haggle some weights and a bar, meeting people on the street at night, in black-market transactions, due to the black iron market boom across the country. My friend Andre built a wooden rack, and with a tent for rainy days and a speaker for hype music, we were back in business.

Working 60+ hours per week providing COVID testing at a major New York airport—while also coaching 25 clients—meant my available training time was down to one or two nonconsecutive training days per week. Not only that, but I don’t always have a full tank of gas with my busy schedule. With these drastic changes, I could either make do or find a way to make progress. I’m not a novice, so where do I go from here? At this stage in my training, I can’t just keep adding five pounds every session and doing three sets of five at heavy weights. I also didn’t have time to do 9000 sets on the one or two days that I could train. There were two other important constraints to account for:

  1. I took longer to recover from imposed work stress, and
  2. I needed an even greater stimulus to facilitate continued adaptation.

I know I am not alone in my struggles to get stronger. While the pandemic presented some compounding problems, life will rarely let us train uninterrupted and unimpeded. I hope my pandemic programming experience can help others with remaining flexible, to keep making progress even when their world gets turned upside down.

Losing Tonnage

The more you train, the more difficult it is to get stronger. Strength gains require a stimulus great enough to disrupt the body’s setpoint and demand adaptation, but we must balance that stimulus with adequate recovery (in the form of both time and resources). Recovery is the phase where our body uses its resources to build strength, better preparing us for when we encounter that same stimulus again. In some form, the training stimulus has to increase continuously if we want to keep making progress. That’s a problem if you are suddenly and involuntarily forced into low-frequency training (in my case, going from a standard post-novice lifting schedule to one or two days of lifting per week.)

There is a way to build strength with one or two days of lifting per week. The key is titrating the intensity and volume within the training session based on what you feel is manageable but challenging. From there, you increase the stress based on your performance of previous sessions and current energy levels. While we can argue whether subjective (or feels-based) adjustments are optimal, the more restricted training becomes, the more flexibility is required. You often cannot show up to the gym (or tent) knowing what you will be lifting until you get under the bar and get started. That said, the training basics for the post-novice lifter are unchanged. You still need high levels of intensity. You still need volume. And both intensity and volume must increase gradually.

Low Frequency/High Effort

Essentially, I started a variation of a max effort protocol. Most programs are variations of others that served as a foundation—similar to a recipe. I adapted this one from an article by Andy Baker about training without a plan, shared with me by my friend and mentor, John Petrizzo. The basic program revolves around a heavy single, followed by back-off sets: a set of two to five reps at about 90% of the single and a second set of five to eight reps at about 80%, with the goal of maximum effort on all sets.

But wait! Did I mention that I couldn’t squat? I know, I know…but we did not have safeties, the ground was uneven, and we did not know the exact weight capacity of the wooden rack. Certain weeks we’d lift Wed/Thurs with a brief upper/lower split to get some extra upper body work in. Some weeks we’d only be able to lift once, and we’d adjust from there. Work with what you have. Do what you can. We cannot let what is outside of our control, control us.

So the plan looked like this:

Thursday: heavy deadlift/heavy press

Saturday: lighter deadlift for a set of 5/heavy bench

Heavy days followed the max effort protocol. For example:

7/2/2020

Deadlift
Press
Planned ranges

1×1 @ 355-365

1x 2-5 @ 320

1x 5-8 @ 295

Planned Ranges

1×1 @ 132.5-140

1x 2-5 @ 125

1x 5-8 112.5

Actual Performance

365×1

320×5

295×7

 

Actual Performance

140×1

125×4

112.5×7

 

On the back-off sets, if I hit the five- to eight-range weight for just five reps, I would probably redo that weight next time. If I hit seven reps, I would probably increase that set’s weight next time. This method is not ideal for upper body lifts because the decreased frequency could negatively impact their progress, an effect that would be more pronounced if training was down to one session per week. Ultimately, nothing is ever going to be ideal, and we are in a constant flux of adapting to our surroundings. Training at all is better than not training at all.

7/9/2020

Deadlift
Press
Planned Ranges

1×1 @ 360-370

1x 2-5 @ 325

1x 5-8 @ 300

Planned Ranges

1×1 @ 130-140

1x 2-5 @ 125

1x 5-8 @ 115

Actual Performance

365×1

325×4

300×6

Actual Performance

140×1 (after hitting 135×1)

125×4

115×7

 

Due to the nature of this program being “max effort,” hitting heavy singles twice in the same week for deadlift would be counterproductive as it’s already a strenuous movement with a high recovery demand. I would have burned out super quick. Instead, I hit a heavy deadlift on Thursdays and about 80-85% of that for a set of five reps on Saturdays.

This plan provided enough stress from the intensity of the top single and volume of the back-off sets for me to progress rather well over six to seven months. I’d set up a range to hit for my top single, so if I was able to switch on Beast Mode, I hit the higher end of the range. If I was not feeling tip-top, recovery-wise, then I’d hit the lower end of the range.

Being in tune with how I was feeling physically was one reason why this program worked for so long, as it gave me insight into when I needed to tap the brakes. There would be a week here and there where I’d repeat the same weight for the single, but I’d get more reps or increase the weight on the back-off sets. Other days I’d go into the workout not feeling fully recovered, so I’d start by hitting the lower end of the range. If the weight flew up, I’d count that as a final warmup.

The hidden advantage behind the methodology of lower lifting frequency is that due to intensity being so high, the lifter’s accumulated stress has time to dissipate over a longer stretch of time. You’ll often feel physically fresher for the lower body lifts and be able to easily hit the mid to higher end of the range from the previous week. The same does not always ring true for the upper body lifts. Upper body lifts tend to fare better with more frequency and volume. With two training days, that’s a day for press and bench per week (unless you’re prioritizing one over the other.) In the event of not being able to make progress, maintaining a base level of strength is beneficial for when your current situation clears up, and you can put more time into training. Strike while the iron is hot, but never forget that iron still sharpens iron, regardless.

How it Started / How it’s Going

At the end of April 2020, I worked up to moderate weights due to apocolypticus epidemicus (my new Latin phrase for “everything is closed, and my gains are hurting”), which caused some detraining effects. In one of my first sessions back, my deadlift was 275 pounds, my press was around 95 pounds, and my bench was around 125 pounds. My previous best press was 125 pounds in February 2020, and I tackled 152.5 pounds in October 2020 with the ability to hit 127.5 pounds for three sets of five. I increased my bench up to 190 pounds for a single, scoring new three-rep maxes (3RMs) and five-rep maxes (5RMs) along the way in the press, bench, and deadlift. My top deadlift had been stuck at around 355 for a year. I deadlifted 380 pounds for the USSF Lift or Die competition in October 2020, and I was hitting 350 for reps as well. Four hundred pounds is right around the corner! This methodology helped increase my weekly tonnage in a way that did not completely decimate me, and thus, the Barbell Gods blessed me with PRs. Little by little, I added weight to my top singles and back-off sets based on my previous week’s performance and a quick self-reflection on how I was feeling during warmups. The flexibility of the program—and honesty with myself—allowed me to keep pushing forward.

The Takeaways

Besides formulating a range for top singles, my plan boiled down to being a lot more flexible with myself during these uncertain times. It’s imperative to be honest with yourself about how you are feeling, and adjust accordingly. Life is more complex now. Some days, I have to wait for the weather to cooperate so I can put a tent up and haul all of my equipment outside (and back in when I’m done). Balance is not perfect symmetry, but how you adapt to chaos.

Most of us have “Things were easier before/when ___” stuck in our brains, which is a barrier to success because it focuses on the past. We must not spend time on things outside of our control. Sometimes training is at the mercy of traditional work hours and the hassles of commercial gyms; other times, it’s the harsh elements of the outdoors.

At the end of the day, training and programming will never be ideal. As coaches and lifters, we cannot predict all that is to come; training should reflect these circumstances. A lifter may not always be gunning for PRs and grinding out reps. Sometimes, it’s about reveling in the ability to carve out time to take care of yourself. The main goal—whether you’re programming for yourself or others—is that you must adapt to changes and overcome obstacles to do the most important thing: Keep. Pushing. Forward.

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