by Matthew A. Levy
If you have ever read various information on strength training and conditioning, you may end up more confused than you were before. There are so many different methods and means of strength training out there and often times the authors seem to disagree sharply with one another. It can be enough to make a person's head spin. So who is right?
To set the records straight, there are plenty of training regimes in the world that work at the right time under the right conditions and for the right athlete. The idea is not to read what someone else has done successfully and just copy it, but rather to look deeper. What are the underlying reasons why a training regime works? Where does that training regime fit in to the overall structure of a training program? You will make a quantum leap forward in your understanding of strength training if you avoid the mistake of having a myopic view of training that misses the forest for the trees.
Too often, people become dogmatic about one particular training regime and cannot understand why others could be equally dogmatic about a very different type of training regime. It reminds me of the parable of the blind men who were touching an elephant and trying to describe what an elephant was like to the others. Because one was touching the trunk, another the legs, a third the tail and fourth the tusks, each disagreed with the others as to what the nature of an elephant is. Each was equally right and equally wrong.
The parable holds true when it comes to training. We all feel our small part of the "elephant" and cannot seem to figure out how stupid another person is for feeling another part of the "elephant" and telling us how different it is from our small part. The sooner we get rid of our blindness, the sooner we can see the whole "elephant" and incorporate all of our small truths into a greater truth.
Get rid of the notion that there is one ideal training program out there. It doesn't exist. Certainly some programs are better than others. But among well-designed programs, there can be great variation based on the needs of the particular athlete. Even programs that are not so well-designed may have some good ideas to incorporate into a more comprehensive training program that is well-rounded, appropriate for the particular sport, training age, chronological age, work capacity, phase of training, strengths and weaknesses of an individual athlete.
A greater understanding of training truths will emerge when discussions about training stop being centered on a certain "camp" of thought and becomes centered at finding what lies beneath and what the underlying mechanisms of training are.
The concept of training phases will help you understand how athletes in the same sport can train so very differently from one another. In its simplest form, training phases are periods in which a particular physical attribute is emphasized above the others. Broadly speaking, there is a correct order to this training. In this way, training is much like the building of a house. You build the foundation first, before building the frame.
For intermediate and novice athletes to achieve maximum results from their special strength training, the proper order of training is: anatomical adaptation, hypertrophy, maximal strength, power and power-endurance. In order to maximize power-endurance, one must first increase power output. In turn, increases in power first require an increase in strength. Strength potential is maximized through hypertrophy (muscle growth) in the prime movers. Hypertrophy, strength, power and power-endurance require strong tendons and ligaments. It should be noted that if an athlete must maintain a relatively constant weight because he or she is competing in a weight class, the hypertrophy phase can either be skipped altogether or significantly reduced.
This order of training is known as linear periodization. Linear periodization is not the only form of effective organization of training (let's see the whole "elephant"). However, linear periodization has been used successfully by many athletes for decades. There is a great deal of empirical and scientific evidence supporting linear periodization. Most of the athletes who do not use linear periodization used it for a large part of their training careers. For these reasons, linear periodization is particularly appropriate for athletes at least up through the intermediate level. While advanced athletes may eventually experiment with and ultimately find success with other forms of periodization, many top level athletes successfully use linear periodization for their entire careers.
The order in which training proceeds in a linear periodization model is: (1) Anatomical Adaptation; (2) Hypertrophy (optional); (3) Maximal Strength; (4) Maximal Power; and (5) Strength/Power-Endurance.
Anatomical Adaptation — The goal of Anatomical Adaptation is to prepare the body for work, increase tendon and ligament strength, increase work-capacity and correct muscular imbalances. The Anatomical Adaptation phase is also used as a recovery phase after peaking. Typically, high numbers of exercises are performed, relatively few sets are performed of each exercise, the weights are light and the repetitions are relatively high (15+). Circuit training with various bodyweight exercises and light implements is common during this phase of training. An Anatomical Adaptation phase commonly lasts around 6-8 weeks for novices and 3-4 weeks for intermediate athletes.
Hypertrophy — The goal of the Hypertrophy phase is to increase muscle mass in the muscles which are most important for your sport. As such, exercise selection is important, but the majority of work should be multi-joint free weight exercises. The number of exercises decreases sharply from the Anatomical Adaptation phase. However, the intensity (i.e., the percentage of 1 rep max) increases as do the number of sets, however the repetitions decrease to the 6-12 range with novice athletes being on the higher end of the repetition range and intermediate athletes operating in the lower range. The Hypertrophy phase builds off the of the Anatomical Adaptation phase because work capacity (the ability to handle a certain volume of work) has been raised and the ligaments and tendons continue to be strengthened to prepare for heavier weights that follow in the Maximal Strength phase.
Maximum Strength Phase — Following an increase in muscle mass and ligament and tendon strength, it is time to make those muscles as strong as possible during the Maximum Strength phase. Again, the number of exercises decreases, the sets and intensity increase and the number of repetitions decrease (generally, the 4-7 repetition range is appropriate for novices and the 3-5 repetition range is appropriate for intermediate athletes). As with the Hypertrophy phase, exercise selection is critical and multi-joint exercises are a must. The Maximum Strength phase flows from the previous Hypertrophy phase because after increasing your muscle mass, it is now important to teach those muscle fibers to fire efficiently against heavy resistance.
Maximal Power Phase — Now that your tendons and ligaments are strong, you have some more mass and strength, it is time to make your body use that strength quickly. This is where the Power phase comes into play. Power is a combination of strength and speed. During the Maximum Power phase, typically the number of sets remains high and the repetitions and number of exercises remain relatively low, however the intensity (percentage of 1 repetition maximum) drops as well since lighter instruments can be moved much faster than heavier instruments and the idea is to train speed-strength. During this phase, plyometrics, jumps, throws, bounding, jump squats, speed benches and Olympic lifting variants are common methods of training power. The Maximal Power phase follows the Maximum Strength phase in the natural order of training because you have a greater capacity for power the stronger you become.
Strength/Power Endurance — The final phase is Endurance. Depending on the type of endurance needed, whether it is acyclical or cyclical, long, medium or short, speed-endurance, power endurance or strength endurance will dictate the manner in which endurance training is conducted. This is a bit of a lengthy topic that merits its own discussion, but typically rest periods are severely decreased during the endurance phase and repetitions are increased. However, so much is dependant on the type of endurance needed that it is hard to give broad sweeping statements regarding this phase of training. The goal of this training is to take the strength, speed and power you have developed and then teach your body to be able to repeat it over and over again for a certain period of time. For the purpose of Judokas, grapplers and others involved in combat sports, you need to train to maximize acyclical power-endurance and strength-endurance of medium duration. A common form of training in this manner is interval training either with or without weights.
It should also be noted that these training phases need not be discrete elements unto themselves. Transitional phases and mixed training blocks can be used so that training becomes more of a continuum. In this manner, a trainee could combine Maximal Strength and Maximal Power training in the same training block, or even in the same session with Maximal Strength being more predominant in the early stages of the phase and Maximal Power being emphasized in the later stages of the training block.
Now that you have a broader view of the phases of training, you can see more of the "elephant" and understand why so many people can train so very differently for the same sport. So the next time you hear or read two people dogmatically arguing with one another regarding the proper way to train, you can knowingly say, "you are both right… and you are both wrong!"
Matthew A. Levy
Los Angeles Lifting Club
"There Are No Limits"
1031 North Victory Place
Burbank, CA 91502