By: Dan Flanick, SSC
“Diagnosing and solving issues with a lifter’s progress is one of my favorite parts of being a coach.” When a lifter is frustrated with his progress and legitimately stuck, changes become necessary. There is a lot of thought that goes into the manipulation of each training variable. As Coach Flanick writes, “I think we can chalk up a general, useful rationale through this idea: Use a training plan until it stops working. Then make changes that progressively and logically build off of the stalling training plan. Run the next program until it doesn’t work. Repeat.”
Here he discusses how he changed the frequency of his lifter’s program to get him unstuck and back to making progress.
The Squat Frequency Project
When beginning to coach a new client, collecting pertinent information related to their training history, whether it exists or not, is crucial to deciding on a starting point for their current program. Most clients at BLOC are rank novices or individuals with an exercise history rather than Training history, which effectively categorizes them as novices. More specifically, if a new client has been exercising in an unplanned or random manner, it’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to collect information that tells enough of a “story” to build off. Furthermore, newcomers who may have been training for a sustained period of time, but with subpar technique, are often under false pretenses for their actual strength levels. For example, an individual may report being able to squat 405×5, but what they are actually capable of is quarter-squatting 405×5… Therefore, the Novice Linear Progression (NLP) will be an effective place to start for most people who fall into one of those three circumstances: a) Having never lifted, b) Having never “Trained,” or c) trained with largely ineffective exercise technique(s).
However, every so often we get to coach a lifter who has a training history that tells us an accurate story—someone who has been training with squats to depth, deadlifts, presses, bench press, and chin ups with more than passable technique. I theorize that if you’ve coached enough people, you’ll be able to tell who these individuals are within a 5-minute conversation—I digress. Nevertheless, Justin was one of these lifters. He was an aspiring Starting Strength Coach (SSC) who had received coaching on the lifts from a fellow SSC and had run through our templates—The NLP, 3-Day Texas Method, and 4-Day Texas Method.
As a 5’9”, 215 lb., 26-year-old male, Justin was currently stagnating on the 4-Day Texas Method, and one of his main goals was to surpass his all-time best squat of 385×5. After examining his most recent training history, here is what it told me.
Looking only at his squat, Justin’s volume, tonnage, and frequency looked like this:
- 6 working sets of squats per week, 3-days rest in between squat sessions
- 9,850lbs of tonnage (total working reps performed x weight)
- 2 Squat days/week (Day 1 and Day 3)
(These are typical 4-day Texas Method numbers.)
Diagnosing and solving issues with a lifter’s progress is one of my favorite parts of being a coach. Since Justin came to me frustrated with his numbers not being where they once were and with a desire to surpass them, I thought changes were necessary. If he had been sustaining progress on his current program, I would have left it alone. However, Justin was stalling on a program that he had run before, therefore I felt as though continuing to run that program and expect different results was a poor idea.
When to Change Training
There are a variety of reasons to change training, most glaringly is when the lifter is objectively stagnating, like in Justin’s example. An experienced coach can make changes to a program when he or she deems necessary based on a given rationale. For example, perhaps adherence to training would be more consistent if training was changed or manipulated in a different manner. In another example, maybe a lifter needs to focus more on a given movement compared to others (ie, the high schooler at my gym who came in bench pressing 50 lbs more than his squat). However, I think we can chalk up a general, useful rationale through this idea—
Use a training plan until it stops working. Then make changes that progressively and logically build off of the stalling training plan. Run the next program until it doesn’t work. Repeat.
In training, there are many ways to go about achieving similar results. I could have put Justin on an LP and maybe he could have squeaked out a few more pounds, perhaps 3-day TM again, a HLM variant, or something completely different. Each change boils down to how we might manipulate volume, intensity, frequency, and exercise selection to stimulate progress.
In this case, it seemed as though manipulating intensity had run its course, especially because he wasn’t getting back to his previous 5RM on this programming. Furthermore, we both wanted to experiment with his training and so the primary variable I decided to manipulate was frequency and, as a result, volume.
On his current training, Justin was only performing 6 “stimulating” or “working” sets of squats per week (sets stressful enough to drive progress). Since we decided to experiment with changing frequency/volume I decided to titrate the number of sets up to 12 over the course of 3 weeks, (a 100% increase from his most recent training and about a 25% increase from his LP/3-Day TM, where he saw his best results). Here’s what it looked like:
Looking back through the changes we made to Justin’s training, all that we did was gradually add a 3rd and then 4th day of squatting to his program. This allowed him to accumulate a total number of 12 sets performed per week compared to the 6 sets from his most recent training, as well as the 8-9 sets he had been performing on his LP and 3-Day TM. I chose that number because it was more total work than he had ever performed in his training career and he had no longer been seeing progress by performing less work on similar programming. Perhaps I could have used 10 sets or 11 sets and that may have worked perfectly fine, but we kept track of his fatigue levels through subjective communication and objective performance in the weight room and we decided it was appropriate to push a little harder and hope for more strength gains. I also used variations such as tempo and paused squats as a way to manage fatigue and work on a few technical errors Justin was experiencing (rounded thoracic spine coming out of the hole, and slow forward knee travel as he initiated the squat).One of the most fundamental rules of programming is that stress must go up in a progressive manner (progressive overload). The challenge is to increase stress in a way that gives you the results you want, based on the lifter’s history and appropriately balanced with his or her need for recovery. I find that when starting a new training program with an individual, a relatively reliable way to adhere to this principle is by starting a bit conservatively rather than starting “too heavy.” In Justin’s example, I did this by backing off of his weights by about 10% (7% to be exact). I like to do this because it allows the lifter to accumulate gradually increasing amounts of stress at weights that may be lighter but are still heavy enough to stimulate strength gains. Then, by the time they get to their previous numbers, those weights will be less of a percentage of their one rep max (1RM) than a few weeks prior. This is exactly what happened in Justin’s case, but we’ll get to that.
Why More Weekly Sets?
Increasing weekly sets is rooted in the idea that more sets result in more hypertrophy (Schoenfeld et al., 2016). The way I think of a “set” is more like one “bout” of stress in which the future adaptations are specific to how the stress is applied. Sets of 8 at 70% will result in different neurological, physiological, and biochemical adaptations than heavy singles >90%. If we drastically change rep schemes throughout the week, the number of sets may not be as accurate of a predictor of the hypertrophic response because doing heavy singles for 5 sets is much different than doing 5 sets of 10. This is why, in Justin’s example, I kept the rep scheme exactly the same. I wanted to “equalize” the stimulus each set would provide to his physiology to run this as close to a real-life action research experiment as possible.
Nevertheless, we desired hypertrophy in his training because hypertrophy means muscle growth, and more muscle means more contractile tissue to help move more weight. Performing similar exercises on back-to-back days is based off of the idea that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) tends to peak around 24 hours post-training (MacDougall et al., 1995). By spiking MPS again when it is already near or at its peak, we can, perhaps, raise MPS to relatively higher rates throughout the week compared to waiting longer between sessions. (MacDougall et al., 1995) I think of it like a “piggy-backing” off of the acute effects on MPS from the previous workout.
That’s the rationale for the changes we made, but not everyone will respond the same way to these kinds of programming manipulations. Timing and the lifter’s physiology are both important variables. But, the “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak, and after making well-rationalized changes, we need to see if it works.
Did It Work?
Justin’s last 5RM was about 5 days before beginning this “Frequency Project”: He squatted 345x5x1. This was not his all-time best, he had hit 385×5 in previous training before working together, but 345 was his current ability. Nevertheless, by Monday of the 11th week of his training, Justin squatted 380 for 3 sets of 5 reps. Between week 1 and 11 there was a period of time where Justin needed to take a week and a half off of training. His child was born and that week we decided to drop volume to sets of 3 rather than sets of 5 because of some accumulated fatigue from life and training.
His first day on the training program was February 5th and his last week began on April 23rd. Thus, this training lasted for about 9-11 weeks. (The range is because of some missed sessions because of his life situation at the time.) Therefore, the training did “work,” and though I’d like to think that it’s because of my brilliant idea to shift squat sessions closer together, it’s too hard to know if that is 100% true.
What I Think
I’m not convinced that taking advantage of the MPS spike after 24 hours was the magic bullet for Justin’s progress. I’m also not convinced that squatting with more frequency is unanimously more effective than squatting with less frequency. I’m currently more convinced that the adherence to progressive overload and the total increase in squatting over time was the reason for him making such progress. That combined with Justin taking care of his end of things (sleep, nutrition, trust) made the change successful. He had never trained with such high workloads relative to his previous training and we gradually built him up to the total work he was performing by the end of the training. I also think that he was continuously able to add weight to the bar each week on a consistent basis because we did a good job of managing his fatigue. We chose variations of the lifts such as tempo and pause squats that allowed him to recruit a large quantity of muscle mass, but not absolutely tax his body in a manner that would generate too much fatigue to be able to squat productively heavy weights four times per week. Furthermore, we did an excellent job of communicating with each other to ensure we didn’t push too hard or not push hard enough in his training.
I am aware of the numerous critiques this programming is subject to, just like every single other training program. Did the program “work” because he was simply squatting more often? Did it have anything to do with increased MPS? Could we have achieved faster and more robust progress if we re-ran an LP, repeated the 3-Day TM, or a HLM variation, and changed rep schemes to something other than 5s? Perhaps. But I think the largest reason that it worked is because we gradually and progressively added more stress into his training by adding sets as well as continuously adding weight to the bar. This reinforces the idea that adhering to principles is essential, but how you implement the principles, such as progressive overload, is an art.
This experience helped both of us to grow, think outside the box, and achieve excellent progress in just a few months. I don’t know if I would run this exact program with another person, but I do feel like I have more tools in the tool belt after having coached Justin through this regimen.
Macdougall, J. D., et al. “The Time Course For Elevated Muscle Protein Synthesis Following Heavy Resistance Exercise.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 27, no. Supplement, 1995
Schoenfeld, B. J., et al. “Dose-Response Relationship between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 35, no. 11, 2016, pp. 1073–1082.
Dan has come full circle in this industry, progressing from a Personal Trainer at a local gym to a Division 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach at both Cornell and Baylor University. After a few years in the college sector followed by a brief stint as a PE teacher, Dan decided to dive back into the private world where he became a Starting Strength Coach and found his passion in helping everyday people become more confident and more resilient as a result of getting strong through barbell training. Currently, Dan lives in Auburn, New York with his girlfriend Taylor and he runs his own coaching business out of Crossfit Exalt in Syracuse, New York. Dan is also the founder of More Than Strength, a blog and podcast dedicated toward showing others how physical strength manifests itself in all aspects of life.