Programming for Strength 101
First, before we talk about programming, we need to define training. Most people that go to the gym aren’t training; they’re exercising. Exercise is physical activity performed for the effect it produces today – right now. Each workout produces a stress that satisfies the immediate needs of the exerciser: burning some calories, getting hot, sweaty, and out of breath, pumping up the biceps, or maybe stretching. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with exercising and most people are perfectly happy exercising. However, once you begin aiming at a definite performance objective, training is necessary.
In the context of strength, training is physical activity performed for the purposes of satisfying a long-term performance goal, and is therefore about the process instead of the constituent workouts of the process. And since the process must generate a definable result at a point in time removed from each workout, the process must be planned carefully to produce this result. A program is the plan for the process of strength training towards a goal.
Strength training programs are designed to increase the athlete’s ability to produce muscular force against an external resistance. We measure this in the gym by the demonstrated ability to lift a given weight on the barbell. A well designed program follows a logical progression based on the lifter’s current state and efficiently creates strength for the individual trainee.
Our theoretical approach to programming using the stress, recovery, adaptation model takes into consideration the fact that every individual trainee must be programmed with respect to their level of advancement. Over the course of a lifters development, ever increasing stress must be applied in order to disrupt homeostasis and enable strength development.
We conceptually categorize lifters into three categories with respect to the stress required to disrupt homeostasis: novice, intermediate, and advanced. These categories are helpful in thinking about how to structure your program over the course of your training career. Novice, intermediate, and advanced programming structures are useful for thinking about how to effectively apply an appropriate stress and plan recovery.
A “novice” is a trainee for whom the stress is applied during a single workout and the recovery from that single stress is sufficient to cause an adaptation by the next workout 48-72 hours later. The program is basic – meaning that almost everyone uses the same program. The end of the novice phase is marked by a performance plateau: the lifter is no longer able to progress by adding weight to the bar each workout. At this point in time, the stress must increase in a different way in order to facilitate adaptation and we need to shift into intermediate programming strategies.
The intermediate lifter is handling loads closer to their physical potential and must apply new strategies to disrupt homeostasis. The recovery cycle is longer than the novice – a period of time that normally encompasses the time during which multiple workouts will occur. Therefore, to allow for both sufficient stress and recovery, the training load must be varied over a longer period of time. The actual time required to recover may be more or less than a week, but the critical difference between novice and intermediate is the distribution of the increased workload which allows enough stress to be applied in a pattern that facilitates recovery and adaptation. The intermediate lifter’s program, therefore, is more complex than the novice. It must be designed to fit the goals and schedule specific to the individual. A competitive cyclist, for example, will have a different program than a competitive powerlifter.
Advanced trainees work close to their ultimate physical potential and their work tolerance is relatively high as they have developed a greater ability to recover from training. The stress an advanced lifter requires in order to produce an adaptation is also quite high. The training volume and intensity needed to disrupt homeostasis requires longer periods to apply stress and recover from. The advanced program will be more complex than novice and intermediate programs: highly specific to the lifters goals and typically, though not always, for those pursuing competitive sports that are highly strength dependent.
The SRA cycle and Performance-Advancement Curves define the appropriate programming structure for the lifter. Within this framework, a program includes four primary ingredients: exercise selection, volume, and intensity. Exercises selected should be appropriate for the trainee’s level of advancement and skill. Volume is the product of repetitions and sets completed in a given period of time. Intensity is the weight on the bar assigned for the lifts in a workout.
In summary, programming can be made into a complex topic, but the fundamental elements are simple. Using theoretical models helps structure thinking about programming but determining how to best manipulate the variables of a program to effectively drive progress for you is a problem solving process that you or you and your coach need to develop over the course of time and iterations. Your individual genetic potential, level of physical advancement, ability to recover, compliance to consistent training, and skill with the lifts are all factors that play into what works best to develop strength over a long period of time for a given individual. The hard part is training consistently and continuously increasing the stress over the course of your training career.