What Makes a Good Program

A well designed strength program, intending the trainee to progress in muscular hypertrophy and neuro-muscular strength, will manipulate several different types of variables. To accomplish the goal of making the trainee stronger the variables must be tweaked such that they fall within the range of what is appropriate in the individual’s context. This post will explore the majority of these important training variables.

Volume

Volume is king. It is highly correlated with both muscular size and strength. We can confidently say that to continue progressing in Powerlifting one must increase volume over time. Why? Because any kind of overload (more on this later) will cause a subsequent increase in Volume. While volume is often talked about in isolation, in reality it is related to almost every other training variable. It’s a useful metric to track because it serves as an umbrella indicator of total work.

In terms of hypertrophy, volume is what matters most; intensity is less important. It is still a useful means to increase volume but if you want to get bigger just do more volume. As powerlifters we can’t simply increase volume without maintaining a certain level of intensity as we care about both size and neurological adaptations to intensity.

A good program will take into account the trainee’s current level of volume adaptation. It will present enough volume to provide a stimulus. Make the trainee do too much work and they risk becoming over-fatigued, over-reached, and possibly over-trained. Make them do too little and their lifts will languish and they will make little to no progress. Find the sweet spot and they’ll adequately progress over time.

Overload

To get stronger, you have to lift more weight. This is intuitive to most of us in the sport. Overload is one of the most important variables in a Powerlifting program and closely related to volume. I’m not going to rehash Hans Selye’s work. Suffice to say you need to present a novel stimulus to the body otherwise it’s just going to sit in homeostasis.

The need for overload is the reason that volume must increase over time. Since tonnage (one measure of volume) is weight X reps X sets we can infer that to do so we can either increase the weight, the reps, or the sets. Increase either and we have an overload effect. However, as powerlifters we must pay attention weight more closely than the other two. Our prime concern is increasing the weight of the bar over time. Therefore, if both the total volume as well as the weight on the bar increases over time you can be sure you’re presenting an appropriate overload.

Frequency

Frequency refers to how often you perform the lifts. Powerlifting has a very real skill aspect. The lifts require practice. Just like learning to play the violin the more you practice the lifts the better your technique will be, the more efficient you will be at performing the movement pattern and the more your strength will increase.

As mentioned, frequency is closely tied with volume. The greater the frequency, the more time you will have to accumulate the necessary volume. If you only utilize a once a week frequency but have a high volume requirement your workouts will be long and arduous. On the other hand, if you perform the lift daily you can spread that volume out throughout the week which will leave you much more fresh than had you packed it into one session.

By my current understanding, the higher your frequency the better lifter you’ll probably be. This is of course relative to an individual’s context. Several caveats presents themselves to an “often-as-possible” frequency. Most of us are three lift powerlifters. We need to balance work on the Squat, Bench, and Deadlift. Doing all three lifts seven days a week is probably not practical to anyone but the most elite of powerlifters. You still need to keep in mind the requirements of everyday life.

Intensity

Closely related to both overload and volume is intensity or the weight on the bar relative to our possible maximal performance. Intensity is extremely important to a Powerlifter since our sport involves the lifting the most weight in the three lifts. Lifting at a high intensity is the quickest way to get stronger. However, it’s difficult to get an adequate amount of volume at a high intensity because the time and number of sets required can be more than what is practical.

A good approach is one that integrates an adequate level of intensity across enough reps and sets to build an appropriate level of volume. There are many ways to accomplish this. Intensity should naturally also progress over time. Intensity is the easiest variable to measure and one that most easily indicates an increase in Strength.

Exercise Selection

The simplest form of exercise selection is just performing the competition lifts themselves. However, experience and a small amount of research has shown that performing variations of the contest lifts, which emphasize an individual’s weak range of motion, can be useful in building strength for the contest lifts. The idea is that in a movement you can only be as strong as the weakest part of the range of motion. Strengthening that part of the ROM strengthens the entire movement.

For Raw Powerlifters the common weak ROMs include the bottom in the Squat, off the chest in the Bench Press, and either off the floor if you’re a flat-backed Deadlifter, or at lockout if you’re a round-backed Deadlifter. It’s important to note that the weak point in a lift is the point at which the most velocity is lost, not where it’s lowest. This is an important distinction as it’s easy to say that the slowest portion of the lift is the weakest because it’s the easiest to observe.

For more info in determining weak ranges of motion and prescribing exercises to address them check out this video and this DVD.

The Template

A template, that is what day you perform your exercises and in what order is often mistaken for a program. When designing a template one must consider the frequency of the various lifts. For many, a split template will not be ideal because it will not allow for enough frequency for sufficient practice of the lifts and accumulation of volume.

Another important consideration with templates is of course, the order of lifts performed. Specificity is also important here. The closer the order of exercises are to that of a competition, the more specific. This can be a great way to condition the athlete to a similar setup to a competition. The trade off here is of course that fatigue from one competition exercise can interfere with another.

Autoregulation

Autoregulation, as specified via programming, is a relatively new concept in Powerlifting. The idea is to adapt the weight on the bar and the total volume performed to the trainees level of fatigue on the given day. This has the effect of allowing the trainee to perform an adequate amount of work and prevent them from either doing too much and digging themselves into a high fatigue-debt or doing too little and disrupting future progress.

The concept itself is not new at all. Elite athletes have done this intuitively for decades. If they begin to feel off while warming up they may stay at a lower weight than they had planned and just do some volume. If they find that they’re “on” on this particular day they will do more than planned and perhaps try for a PR. Coaches will utilize an intuitive form of athlete regulation. They will monitor their trainee’s bar speed (by eye) and adjust the work on the fly based on past experience.

As mentioned, the act of programming autoregulation is relatively new. The most well known form is of course The Reactive Training Systems developed by Mike Tuchscherer. His system auto regulates both intensity and volume. Another form is APRE which utilizes plus sets to determine whether to increase intensity from week to week. Many modern DUP programs autoregulate based upon this concept.

Personal Investment

One variable, that hasn’t been talked about much in the past, but is getting more airtime these days is an athlete’s personal investment in a program. You can have the most perfectly crafted program but it won’t mean much if they aren’t enthusiastic enough to put their heart and soul into it. The program needs to resonate with the individual.

Several things can affect the amount of personal investment a trainee will show. A big one is their preference for novelty. Maybe they get bored easily doing the same program week in and week out. One solution for this would be to have a lot of exercise variation, even so much as so the trainee isn’t doing the same exercise two weeks in a row. You should always keep the competition exercises in but you have free-reign to vary assistance and accessory exercises.

Conclusion

This is of course only an overview of the variables that will be accounted for in a well designed Strength program. HOW they should be manipulated could be the subject of its own post and perhaps I will return to it at a later time.

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