Category Archives: Strength & Conditioning

Bill Starr and the 5×5 Training Template

Two days ago we lost a legend in the Strength & Conditioning World. Bill Starr was one of the first guys to put together a systematic approach to strength training for football. His book, The Strongest Shall Survive, has influenced thousands of strength coaches over the years, including myself.

I thought, to pay respects to the man who influenced so many, it would be great to unpack the program and show how I have built templates around the simple organization of it.

The Original Program

There have been a number of variations of the 5×5 program that have been surfaced over the years but the basic program was centered around 3 lifts – Squat, Bench Press, and Power Clean – and 3 different intensity schemes, over 3 days, using 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise. In a nutshell, it looked like this:

Monday – Heavy Power Clean Squat Bench Notes: Perform 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise and ramp up the weight in each set so that your last set for each exercise is as heavy as you can handle with good form.

Wednesday – Light Power Clean Squat Bench Notes: Perform 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise using approximately 70-75% of your top end weight from Monday for each lift.

Friday – Medium Power Clean Squat Bench Notes: Perform 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise using approximately 80-85% of your top end weight from Monday for each lift.

As you can see, nothing fancy, just stick to the basics and try and increase your max load on Monday’s by 5-10lbs.

Unpacking The Program A little Bit

The set up of the program is brilliant. Looking at it, it is pretty much daily undulating periodization before some researcher coined the phrase. Each day we see an undulation in training intensity. Additionally, looking at the set up of the week, it falls in line with what many would refer to as a “high-low” approach to training. Our three “high” days are on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the days in between would be referred to as “low” days.

The program was truly revolutionary for the time and, in its simplicity and structure, probably better than most of what we see these days at high schools and colleges (and many professional sports teams) all over the country. Teach the athletes to perform 3 simple exercises and slowly develop them over time.

One of the best things about the program is the flexibility that the template offers the coach. We can take something this simple and begin to add other components that address physical needs for a team sport athlete. The program, by itself, is a great strength program; however, for a team sport athlete we also need to run, cut, change direction, etc. Thus, we want to take the original template and morph it into something that can address these needs without getting to far away from Bill Starr’s structure.

Addressing Exercise Selection

I am a big “keep it simple” kind of guy. I believe that you need to pick a few exercises and hammer the heck out of them. The idea that we need to constantly vary things up is crazy given the amount of variation we can apply to the exercises (sets, reps, rep tempo, etc), which will help to force new adaptations.

Other versions of the original Bill Starr program did have a little more variation with regard to exercise selection. For example, Wednesday’s workout might have used Incline Bench Press, Deadlift, and Row (or Chin Up) and Friday’s workout might have substituted the Standing Barbell Press for the Bench Press. These exercises choices are fine but certainly not the only options we have.

Lateralizations and Regressions

Last year, my friend, Charlie Weingroff, released his latest DVD series, Training = Rehab 2. In this DVD set, Charlie discusses the concept of laterilzations and regressions. Basically, taking your best program and either lateralizing the exercises to something that is more logical for an athlete given certain individual limitations or regressing the exercise to something else if the athlete is returning from injury or unable to perform a certain exercise pattern.

If we work from the template of Bill Starr’s 5×5 program as our “best” program there are a number of ways one can lateralize or regress the program given specific limitations. Remember, the goal is to improve the limitations while you concurrently develop fitness. Having a good system of monitoring what you are doing and auditing your process will allow you to know whether or not the lateralization is interfering with the athlete’s ability to improve upon their limitation and, thus, may warrant a change in exercise selection. Also, this is not an exhaustive list. This is simply a few ideas to provide examples.

Any of these options will help you move the athlete along, in terms of developing strength, while you work on their limitations or work alongside a rehab professional and/or manual therapist who is helping to improve the limitation.

There are other ways to address exercise selection within the program, since you may have times where you want to change exercises and there isn’t a limitation where the athlete needs to be lateralized or regressed. For example, I generally don’t use Olympic Lifts in my programs (although I do like DB Snatches and Hang Clean Pulls). Thus, we could eliminate that exercise and substitute it with something for the upper back. For example, we could use Chin Ups or Rows and apply the same loading scheme throughout the week.

Maybe you are a person that doesn’t like back squats? How about swapping the back squats out for front squats or trap bar deadlifts?

Don’t like bilateral squats at all? You could simply change out squatting for Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, Step Back Lunges, or Step Ups

Don’t like Olympic Lifts? You can swap out the power clean for a plyometric activity (box jumps, bounds, hurdle jumps, etc). You could use KB swings or KB snatches. You could use some sort of explosive, full body Medicine Ball Throw (Some of my favorites are – Over-the Back, Squat to Forward Chest Throw, Scoop Throw Straight Up In The Air, Squat to Chest Throw Straight Up In The Air, and Chest Throw into 10yrd Sprint).

What about working with beginners? Of course having total newbies work up to a max 5 on Monday doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe you want to really take some time to educate the person using exercises that apply less load? Here might be an example program:

Monday
Push Ups
Goblet Squat
1-arm Row
Notes: Use eccentric emphasis on your exercises today. Perform 5×5 with a 5 count lowering

Wednesday
DB Bench Press
Hip Hinge Work (RDL or 1-leg RDL patterning)
Chin Up
Notes: Perform 5×5 on each exercise with a comfortable load, leaving 2-4 reps in the tank. For hinge work, perform a 2-3 count iso in the bottom position to ensure that they understand what it feels like to be in the correct position before going into the concentric portion of the lift

Friday
Push Ups
Goblet Squat
TRX Row (or Supine Barbell Row)
Notes: Perform 3 sets x Max Reps for Push Ups and Rows. For Goblet Squat, perform 5×5 using a 3 count iso in the bottom to feel what the bottom position is supposed to feel like.

Pretty simple!

Addressing Other Fitness Qualities Within The Program

Because of the daily undulating model and the high-low nature of the original template, it lends itself to addressing different fitness qualities nicely. In team sports, athletes need lots of physical abilities. They need to have a solid work capacity in order to train and recovery adequately. They need to be fast, strong, and explosive. They also need to be able to move in all different planes of motion and do so effortlessly. All of these things can be addressed within the simple Bill Starr 5×5 program. I’ll briefly go through some of the ways to address these things and then put it all together into a short training program using the Bill Starr 5×5 as the template.

Warm Ups, Tri-Planar Movement, & Carries/Dragging

Tri-planar movement can be addressed in a few different ways within the program. The first, and most logical way of addressing tri-planar movement is with a good warm up. Warm ups should be progressive and move from slow to fast and simple to complex. Start first with general mobility work to prepare the joints and tissues. Move the joints in various ranges of motions in order to address any limitations you may have. Follow this up with various lunging, crawling, skipping, carrying/dragging (IE, farmers carriers, overhead carriers, rack carriers, light sled dragging/marching in different directions) and medicine ball throwing in all different directions. This should be rather extensive and last anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Oftentimes our strength training programs tend to be very sagital plane dominant (and the Bill Starr program is no different). Having the body go through multi-planar movement with lunging, skipping, crawling, and throwing helps prepare the athlete for movements and ranges of motion that they may encounter on the field of play. By starting the warm up with slower and less complex movements and progressing to something that is more dynamic and faster pace, the athlete has time to learn how their body feels and develop strategies to move in and out of all these different ranges of motion.

An additional area where tri-planar movement can be addressed within the program is at the end of the big three exercises for that day. In the original program, Bill Starr had often written in things like abdominal work or hyperextensions as accessory exercises. We can choose whatever accessory exercises we want though. Perhaps we would rather do some lateral lunges or rotational lunges with dumbells or maybe some pistol squats or slide board lunges. We could also add in things like chops, lifts, ab wheel, plank variations, carries or dragging exercises for our core work.

Speed & Explosiveness

Following the warm up we can address speed and explosiveness with sprint, bounds, and plyometrics. The volume of work you do here is dependent on where you are in your training phases. If you are focusing on heavy strength work then you are most likely doing less volume of sprinting, bounding, and jumping. If you are doing more sprinting, bounding, and jumping, you would simply lower your lifting volume. Additionally, as your training program progresses and you work closer to the pre-season period it makes sense to progress your sprinting drills into more change of direction work to ensure that the tissues are well prepared to handle the practice load that is about to take place.

Different Methods of Strength

From Zatsiorsky’s work (and later Louie Simmons of Westide Barbell) we learned about things like the Max Effort Method, Dynamic Effort Method, and Repetitive Effort Method. Using these methods within the Bill Starr 5×5 works if you break down each day with a specific goal or training target. One other approach I would throw in there is some sort of Time Under Tension method. That may be in the form of Tempo Squats (2 down-2 Up without pausing), Slow Eccentrics (5-6 count eccentric squats), Isometric Holds (3-5 count hold in the bottom of the lift), or Eccentric-Iso Lifts (3 count lower – 3 Count Iso Hold In the Bottom – Lift).

Overall Fitness & Work Capacity

Overall fitness and general work is best served for post season and/or deep in the offseason. Within the Bill Starr program, this can be addressed using a variety of methods. Here are some of the options that come to mind:

  • Tempo Runs
  • Aerobic-Extensive Intervals
  • General aerobic work (variety of modalities)
  • Extensive Medicine Ball Circuits
  • Body Weight Circuits
  • Super Sets (Upper & Lower Body)

This type of activity can be done on days in between the lifting sessions (“low” days) or on days that are scheduled lifting sessions, depending on the goals of the training phase and how the lifting program is laid out. Putting It Altogether – A Simple Template To Recap, here is the original Bill Starr Program:

Using that as our template, we will set up 3 training phases – (1) General Fitness; (2) Strength; (3) Speed & Power – of 3 weeks each. The program will address the qualities above and provide a framework for building our training sessions.

Notes: In phase 1, we use some basic learning drills for plyos on Mon/Fri, at the end of our warm ups, to help prepare for the next phase of training. The lifting sessions are rather low in intensity and we are leaving 2-3 reps in the tank (meaning that we terminate the set when we know we can get 2-3 more good reps). Friday’s session is lower intensity than Monday’s and uses a 5 count eccentric on the lifts to work on time under tension. In between the lifting days are conditioning sessions, using Tempo Runs. Monday and Wednesday’s lifting sessions are followed by Extensive Medicine Ball Circuits. These typically consist of a variety of different throws or throwing the ball out in a field and then jogging to pick it up before throwing again. The general time frame of a set during these circuits is around 2-4 minutes of movement and then the athlete takes a rest of 2 minutes (or until HR recovers down below 120 bpm). We may do anywhere form 4-10 sets. Also, while I forgot to write it into the template, the warm up or accessory work could have some form of loaded carry or light sled drag in different directions. Additionally, the light sled dragging can work well within the extensive medicine ball circuit.

Notes: The strength phase takes our jumping from phase 1 and progresses it on Mon/Fri to some box jumps or hurdle jumps to a box (these are written as single leg over the hurdle but could be double leg as well). NOTE: In the template above there is a typo and it says that box jumps are on Mon/Wed, but it should read Mon/Fri. Wednesday’s workout has bounding and we generally start in phase 1 with bounding (forward, anterior-lateral, and lateral) with a stick landing and then progress that in this phase to more continuous type bounds or bounds into a 5yrd burst sprint. Lifting in this phase is more intensive with Mon/Fri being the heaviest days where the individual is working at max (or near max) loads for the main exercises – using loads greater than 90%. Wednesday, instead of being a “light” day in the Bill Starr program is devoted to our explosive work in order to keep that quality in the mix before progressing to the next phase. Additionally, we are doing a low volume of sprinting in this phase before the lifting sessions on Mon/Wed. These are typically short acceleration drills or short drills with change of direction (like 10yrds out and 10yrds back). Generally the volume is low and around 4-6 reps before performing our jumps and then lifting. Conditioning in this phase takes place on Tuesday and Thursday with Saturday being a restorative day. I wrote in sled or hill sprints as they are less stressful than upright running. We typically perform reps of 3-5sec with rest intervals down to 130bpm or 60sec in length. We start the athlete around 20 reps and progress from there. Additionally, the program is not set in stone, so if the athlete is too sore or feels poor on Thursday, we can do a restorative session instead and push the sled or hill runs to Saturday.

Notes: The final phase had the goal of speed and power. In this phase we have the highest volume of sprint work as well as change of direction work, which can be taxing. Because of the neuromuscular strain, the strength work is much lower volume and we have a range (2-3 sets x 2-4 reps) to allow us to keep the volume on the lowest end if need be, depending on how the athlete is doing and how the session is going. Wednesday’s workout is bounding drills, short acceleration work, and some low volume complexes. In between these sessions, conditioning is in the form of more restorative work so that all of the effort can be applied to the main training days.

Some Other Ideas About The Template

Borrowing from the Bill Starr 5×5, I wrote up a simple template using the same daily undulating approach, three days a week, and adding in other components (as well as changing the light day, in the original program, to a power day in later phases). Nothing in the program is set in stone. You can lateralize or regress exercises on an as need basis. Additionally, the idea that these sessions have to take place within 1 week or within a 3 week training block is silly. Some athletes will adapt faster than others. Some athletes may need longer in the first phase (IE, 5-7 weeks). Some athletes may need more recovery time between very intense training sessions. Taking that into consideration, don’t be afraid if your microcycle doesn’t take place in a 7 day cycle. I think we sometimes get very concerned that everything has to happen on this week long microcycle when in reality we should be more open to the fact that the microcycle will take as long as the body needs it to take. Some athletes may only be able to tolerate 2 days a week of lifting. Or, the strength and power phases may have that Wednesday session look very differently, where it is devoted more specifically to jumps and bounding. Alternatively, in that last phase, we have, at times, flipped it and done our complexes on Mon/Fri and a low volume strength session on Wednesday. Finally, the program may look very different depending on the sport. For example, some sports may require a significantly greater amount of metabolic work (harder intervals, max aerobic speed runs, aerobic power work, etc) and this should be reflected in one of the training phases by lowering the volume of something else but increasing the volume of the metabolic running exercises. There aren’t really any rules to this. In the end, create a program that is logical for the individual – don’t try and fit the individual to a program.

Training is a simple process. Have a goal, have a focus, and adjust the program along the way based on how the athlete is tolerating the training. Don’t be afraid to make changes, push workouts out a day or two to allow for more recovery, or make adjustments if the training response is not adequate. Nothing is more simple than the Bill Starr 5×5. If you simply did that and added in jumping, running, and Medicine Ball Throws you can do an incredible job. Hopefully my template approach to structuring training around the Bill Starr 5×5 makes sense and you can see the back drop of the program within what I wrote.

#RIP Bill Starr

The Strength & Conditioning Compass – Developing Your Philosophy

Yesterday I posted the following quote to facebook:

If you are a strength coach and you are more worried about learning RT1 (for those that don’t know what RT1 means HERE is a video) than you are about learning how to develop the overall physiological capacity of your athletes, you are probably doing something wrong. Don’t be a back door rehab professional, trying to “fix” people. Embrace the strength coach profession and learn how to develop athletes. Just my opinion.

This created quite a lengthy discussion from folks regarding the role of strength and conditioning, scope of practice, etc. I think many people missed the point of the post, which was more about the state of strength and conditioning in this country and how most strength coaches are so focused on being pseudo-physical therapists than they are developing the athlete’s physiological abilities, which should be their goal – physiological development and injury prevention.

Within the discussion I explained that a big issue is that people tend to get swept away with all of the courses that are so focused on the movement aspects of things (mobility, “corrective exercise”, etc). They forget that there is a whole other side to athletic development. Part of the reason I think this happens is that folks lack a true professional compass. Something that helps guide their path and keep them centered. What I’m referring to here is a philosophy. Most strength coaches, when asked about their philosophy end up either explaining their weekly template (“We use a Westside BB type template with max effort dynamic effort, and repetitive effort work” or, “We do a high-low training program like Charlie Francis”) or they begin listing exercises (“We are a bench, squat, chin up type program” or, “We like Olympic lifting and single leg work”). Of course all of these things are just fine but they don’t answer the question, “What is your philosophy?” Don’t tell me what you do. Tell me how you think! Tell me what is important to you and then tell me how you go about evaluating, monitoring, and improving it.

Several years ago I wrote down my strength and conditioning philosophy. Basically, it was a document that explained the things that are important to me as a strength coach. It articulated why I feel these things are important and how I go about quantifying them. Of course, as I grow and learn more, the philosophy changes and grows as well, but the big rocks stay the same.  I would hope that every strength and conditioning coach takes the time to write down their philosophy. In fact, no matter what you do in this profession, it makes sense to sit down and write out your philosophy. If you are an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or chiropractor, what is your rehab philosophy? How do you go about your work? This process is critical because it allows you to focus your compass, understand what you believe in, and understand where you may need to get better and improve. Oftentimes we tend to be so focused on one or two things that we forget about all the other stuff that we can be studying to make ourselves better (hence the reason for my facebook post). Additionally, people who don’t have a compass usually attend continuing education courses and leave saying, “I knew that. I already do that stuff.” But when you see what they are doing they aren’t doing ANYTHING LIKE THAT!! They may know the information but they have not built it into a system that allows them to use it in a very specific manner. They tend to be all over the map. Having a philosophy will keep you focused and, more importantly, guarantee you a certain level of success with all of the athletes you work with.

My Philosophy

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 6.06.50 PM

The three big rocks of my philosophy are movement, stress, and fitness. I can’t say that any one component is more important than the other. However, I do put stress at the top of the pyramid because if the athlete lacks the ability to tolerate and adapt to stress in a positive way it will drastically impact their movement capabilities and their overall fitness level. Basically, they wont be able to tolerate the stress of training.

Unpacking each of these components:

  • Movement –  This refers to the athlete’s ability to produce movement that satisfies the needs and demands of their sport. Do they have adequate joint ranges of motion? Can they move freely in all three planes of motion? Can they move effortlessly or are they always fighting against themselves (IE, are they stiff, tight, and bound up)? Movement is tested in a variety of ways. We evaluate it with joint range of motion testing, Functional Movement Screen (I know that it is a polarizing topic. Of course, you can use any movement screen or movement evaluation that you want here), and sports tasks (evaluation of sprinting, jumping, landing, cutting, etc).
  • Fitness – This represents the athlete’s overall fitness level. Do they have a basic fitness level that has been developed over the years by being exposed to various modes of training, various sports and sporting movements, etc? Do they have the fitness capacity to satisfy the needs and demands of the sport and/or their position within that sport? Are they lacking in some area of fitness (strength, power, conditioning, etc) that needs to be improved?
  • Stress – Finally, stress refers to the athletes ability to tolerate and resist stress. How well does the athlete adapt? How much training can the athlete tolerate? How well does the athlete thrive in the chaotic nature of sport? Stress is measured in a variety of different ways. We can look at their overall wellness, nutrition program, sleep habits, heart rate variability, etc.

To sum the rocks of my philosophy up:

“I don’t like to prescribe exercises if I don’t know how someone moves. I don’t like to prescribe training methods if I don’t know someone’s initial fitness level, where they are at, and where they need to go. And I don’t like to prescribe a training program without having an understanding of how the person adapts to it.”

Taking this approach has allowed me to build a system that focuses on these big rocks, the things I feel are most important, so that I can develop ways of testing, monitoring, and training them.

Wrapping Up

Don’t just focus on one component – sort of like we tell our young athletes to not specialize. I don’t think there is anything wrong with spending time studying movement approaches. I have gotten a ton out of Functional Movement Systems, PRI, DNS, and various massage therapy courses. They have allowed me to look at the body and recognize patterns that I can then focus on within the training program via exercise selection and specifically scripted warm ups. But please remember, these are only one piece of the pie. There is a whole other world out there in the realm of physiology and athletic development. The courses I listed above are relatively accessible and popular and thus make them easier for people to wrap their heads around. The other stuff is not. I get emails weekly from people saying they take all these courses, and the courses form the basis of their training approach, but they want to learn more about energy system development, they aren’t sure where to start to learn about it, and they don’t know how it will fit into their training approach. Honestly, a good exercise physiology book and pubmed would be a great place to start! There is so much information out there on this topic. You just need to be committed to spending time and learning it. The individual recognizes a gap in their learning but they have not created a philosophy that allows them to fill that gap and figure out where this stuff will fit in.  Weekend courses are helpful because we are force fed information. But why rely on other people to tell you how to think? Get to work writing your own philosophy down and perhaps you can come up with something interesting that embraces a bunch of different concepts that others have not thought about.

Random Thoughts On Coming Back From Injury

Injury is a part of sport and one of the most difficult times in an athlete’s career is often when they are trying to return from injury and regain function to allow them to perform at the highest level. A lot goes into preparing an athlete who is coming back from injury from all parties involved – rehab professional, strength coach, sport coach, and the athlete themselves. I thought I’d record a few of my random thoughts on this topic from the standpoint of strength and conditioning. I am not a rehab professional; however, a strength coach should be instrumental in assisting athletes who are rehabbing and should work with the rehab professional to make some of the thoughts below build into a solid program:

1. Don’t get out of shape

The best way to get in shape for your sport is to not allow yourself to get out of shape. Too often, when an athlete gets injured, there is this feeling that they must be “shut down” from all activity. This ends up being problematic because not only is the athlete being put into a state where, psychologically they feel like are “broken”, but the athlete is also losing valuable time that they could spend training around their injury (while it is being treated) to not lose fitness or potentially improve in other capacities.

2. There needs to be a plan

Oftentimes the strength coach doesn’t feel comfortable dealing with an athlete that is injured and thus provides a substandard program, which doesn’t adequately achieve the needed training stimulus. Additionally, the medical staff may not be knowledgeable about training means and methods to construct a proper training program for the athlete. Thus, the athlete is put into a position where they are unable to succeed. Having a plan leads to success. Knowing where to go with the training process comes from everyone being on the same page and addressing the athlete’s needs as an individual. This is where I firmly believe that Charlie Weingroff’s Training = Rehab makes the most sense. It isn’t about exercises, it is about principles. If you understand how to lateralize and/or regress your best program via a principle based system the athlete never loses out. The athlete will achieve what they need while rehab is taking place. In essence, training never stops for the athlete.

3. Rehab needs to progress and not be soft

Much of the training approaches being marketed to both clinicians and trainers these days are centered around what I would refer to as “soft”. The exercises are typically done in a very safe environment (on the ground), at a slow and controlled speed, and limit the intensity being placed on the body. I am all for progressions and simple to complex, slow to fast, and low intensity to high intensity, definitely makes sense. However, it is important to make sure those progressions actually take place. Too often I see people trying to return an athlete back to sport doing very slow and passive exercises and the clinician is often happy that the athlete can perform these movements pain free. The only issue with this is that those movements have very little carryover to the athlete running down the field/court/track at full speed!! To return someone back to sport you must first start by understanding the sport and the physical demands the athlete must be able to tolerate. Having a well constructed needs analysis is the first step that all strength coaches should make when they start working with a sport. Write it down, refine it as you learn more, and use it to help develop programs that properly address the needs of the sport. If the idea of rehab/training stops at clam shells, x-band walks, crawling patterns, and planks, there is probably going to be problems later on down the road when the athlete is going to have to do something more dynamic. Those exercises sound more like a starting point to me. In fact, those exercises are probably best served as a staring point in the warm up, as they do not reflect the necessary loading that needs to take place for an athlete to return to play. The tissue needs to go through the proper stress and strain in order to adapt and allow for continued progress.

4. Assess & Monitor

I purposely left out eval here because I believe that all rehab professionals do a proper evaluation of the athlete when they are injured. Assessment really has more to do with assessing where the athlete is physically as well as assessing what the demands of the sport are, and how the athlete should be trained to meet those demands. Monitoring is a key aspect often overlooked in the rehabilitation of an athlete. The only way to know whether or not the athlete is improving is to monitor them. This doesn’t just mean auditing painful patterns or movement dysfunction. Monitoring should go a step further and be inclusive of other physiological systems, in addition to the musculoskeletal system, to ensure that the athlete is not losing fitness during their injured period. This will allow you to make informed decisions about how the athlete is progressing (or not progressing).

Conclusion

These are just some random thoughts I put down based on reading various discussions on social media about training and rehab. At times, I feel like our profession has lost its way as discussions often shift towards the rehab side of things or “fixing” people. Movement is only one capacity and, while important, should not be emphasized over any other capacity. All physical capacities should be taken into consideration, particularly when an athlete is returning to play from an injury. The strength coach should develop a principle based approach that is specific to the needs of the sport and should work with the rehab professional in order to ensure that the athlete is provided the proper training stimulus at the right time.

 

Minimum Effective Training Dose

You hear the phrase all the time, “I’m a real minimum effective dose guy”, or, “We train only as much as we need and then no more”.

Everyone says these things, but what do they really mean? What is a “minimum effective dose”? Is the minimum effective dose different for different people? Do some people need more training and some less? While the phrases sound good on paper or when uttered at a training conference, how do we take the theory of the minimum effective dose and turn it into practice?

To be fair, these are great ideas and statements that really do resonate with me in my approach to program design. Why expend physical resources (energy) on training that are unnecessary and potentially limiting your recovery from the previous session, thus diminishing your ability to train harder the next time around? As I like to say, “There is always a cost of doing business. All training comes at a cost and in order to reap the benefits you need to make sure you pay that cost and then replenish the checking account before paying again.”

Recently, I had a great discussion with two colleagues I respect – Sam Leahey and Nate Brookreson. We were discussing concepts around an individualized training approach, and the main discussion points began with us first reading and talking over two papers by Kiviniemi, et al., Endurance Training Guided Individually by Daily Heart Rate Variability Measurements (Eur J Appl Physiol, 2007) and Daily Exercise Prescription on the Basis of HR Variability Among Men and Women (Med Sci Sports Exer, 2010).

Both studies utilized a similar type of training approach for the two training groups. One group performed a standard, predetermined training program – just like a coach would write for an athlete, dictating what should be done each day of the week (exercises, load/intensity, sets, reps, etc). The other group performed their training based on their HRV readings taken first thing in the morning, upon waking. The mode of exercise in the studies was endurance training, and days were broken into high intensity (40min at > 85% of maxHR) or low intensity (40min at 65-70% maxHR) or complete rest.

The way it worked for the HRV-dictated training group was that they would take their HRV, and based on the outcome, compared to a rolling average, they would alter their training for the day performing either a high intensity session, a low intensity session, or taking a rest day. Thus, training was guided by what the body was prepared to do.

Interestingly, the HRV-dictated training groups improved their fitness while training high intensity sessions less frequently during the study period than the predetermined training group (More is not better. Better is better). Basically, on days when their body was ready for a high intensity training session they went for it, and when their body was not ready they backed off and allowed the body time to replenish the checking out, so to speak, before repaying the cost. They gave the body what it needed.

Some of my thoughts

Heart Rate Variability is not the be-all-end-all of athlete monitoring, as some make it out to be. It is one small piece (a small piece with rather noisy data, mind you) in a much larger puzzle. That being said, I do believe it can have a role in athlete monitoring if you understand its limitations, standardize the collection process, and couple it with other methods of monitoring the athlete and evaluating their capability and capacity on a given day.

These studies seem to move us closer to understanding the concept of a minimal effective dose and perhaps offer a newer approach to program design and periodization – similar to the concept of auto-regulation. Earlier this year I put together a decision tree for training, similar to the one shown in one of the studies mentioned above, where a few factors were taken into consideration and put into the tree, and the results of those factors allowed the athlete to alter their training program based on the input they plugged in. This allowed us to adjust the program up or down on a given day based on how the athlete was responding. Instead of writing training programs that told the athlete to do “x” on Monday, “y” on Wednesday”, and “z” on Friday, the athlete was given different workouts with different training targets (2 workouts reflecting the main physiological targets of the training block, 1-2 workouts reflecting the secondary, or maintenance, physiological targets of the training block, and 1 recovery based work).

Depending on how the athlete was reporting that day, we would choose which workout to do. This would end up sometimes pushing our training week out longer than 7 days (sometimes it would take 10 days to get through the training cycle). This was apparent, particularly, in older athletes whose bodies took longer to recover from the training session or athletes who were out of shape and lacked fitness and needed the extra time to make appropriate adaptations to the training stimulus imposed upon them. If we were working on a timeline and had a set duration of time to perform a block of training (for example the athlete would only be able to train 10 weeks in an offseason), we would adjust the workout on a given day by lowering either training volume or training intensity (which of those we lowered was dependent on the physiological targets of that phase of training and what the main objective was).

What was also interesting in the studies above was that if the subject had recovered the following day from a high intensity training day they would then perform another high intensity session (although after two successive high intensity sessions they were asked to take a rest day). The high-low training concept of organizing high intensity stressors on one day and low intensity stressors on another day is a great one and one that I have used for many years; however, there are times when the athlete needs to be able to put together back-to-back days of high intensity work due to competition (i.e., basketball or hockey) or hard practices (i.e., NFL training camp) being stacked together. By using a training approach driven by monitoring the athlete’s response and adjusting the workout to suit their needs and abilities on a given day, we can slowly build up the athlete’s resilience to tolerate high intensity work to a level that allows them to train hard, recover quickly, and then train hard again. This is a key piece that ties together the stress resistance/stress tolerance and fitness components of my Physiological Buffer Zone methodology, which I discussed in THIS interview.

What it basically boils down to is that each athlete is an individual. Each athlete has a different way of responding and adapting to the training stress you apply to them (and even to the treatment stress if you are using soft tissue work!). The time it takes to recover and make favorable adaptations to a training session may differ from one athlete to the next, and an individualized approach, based on monitoring various qualities, is essential to understanding what the athlete needs. Too often coaches try and force fit an athlete into their training program without respecting these laws of individualization. Hopefully the future will allow for better methods to test athletes, monitor/evaluate athletes, and adjust training for athletes to ensure that their body receives the type of training it needs – the correct amount at the correct time.

A Scale of Perception for Bar Velocity

Questionnaires have been around for a long time and been found to be valid and reliable once the athlete is properly anchored to the scale. While it may sound simple, there is actually a lot of complexity within the simplicity of just asking a person a few questions regarding how they feel today or how hard they felt a particular activity was (RPE). However, once the individual understands what they are being asked, and gains some experience rating themselves, usually about 4 weeks,  questionnaire data can be very helpful in planning training. (I have been a fan of using questionnaire data as a method of understanding how an athlete is tolerating training for several years and wrote about the daily questionnaire I use in a previous blog article.)

Recently, Bautista and colleagues (2014), have attempted to create a new scale, which allows the athlete to rate their perception of bar velocity in the bench press (CLICK HERE for full paper).

Measuring bar velocity is incredibly helpful and is done by attaching some sort of linear position transducer to the bar to objectively measure the speed at which the bar is moving through various lifts (E.g., bench press, squat, deadlift). The 1RM of the subjects in the study was established prior to using the rating scale, during an incremental load protocol. A linear position transducer was used to understand bar velocity at various percentages of the individual’s 1RM during the incremental load test:

  • Light = < 40%
  • Medium = 40% – 70%
  • Heavy = > 70%

Over a 5 day testing period, the subjects performed each set in a random order, using the intensity parameters above, and were blinded to the amount of load on the bar via partial occlusion pads, which prevented them from seeing the weight. The subjects performed 2-4 repetitions with a given load and then provided their perception of bar velocity using a scale developed by the authors, based on bar velocity during the incremental load 1RM test:

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 5.09.39 PM

The verbiage below the numbers, used to anchor the subjects during the experimental portion of the test, was established using the corresponding bar speed form the incremental load 1RM test and the verbal qualification provided by the subjects following each of their lifts during the initial test.

A high correlation was found between the actual bar velocity and the perception of bar velocity provided by the subjects, particularly as their use of the scale increased. Thus, greater exposure and time using the scale improved their ability to properly classify their lift.

Practical Use

As stated earlier, I am a big fan of questionnaires. While they are especially helpful when combined with other objective data (GPS, HR, Fitness Testing, Bar Velocity, etc) as a stand alone they can provide rich information once the athlete is properly anchored to the scale.

I see the Rating of Bar Velocity scale used in this study being practical in a few ways:

  1. Not all strength and conditioning programs have funds to provide a linear position transducer unit at each lifting platform. However, if athletes gain an understanding and awareness of how to rank their bar velocity, this method can be useful as an inexpensive means of determining individual percentages for power training. (NOTE: I do think it would be of value to at least have one or two linear position transducers available to allow the athletes to initially understand how fast they are moving the bar, as well as to have available on testing days.)
  2. Not all athletes will move the same relative intensity at the same speed. This will allow the coach to adjust the training intensity up or down for the athlete, in order to stay in their ideal zone of bar speed, depending on the training goal for the day.
  3. Similar to using a Rating of Perceived Exertion on a fitness test, the Rating of Perceived Velocity can be used on a strength test or Rep Max test and charted over time to show improvement with the same load or the same relative intensity.
  4. Finally, having athletes rank their efforts like this, I find, increases their awareness of the training session and engages them more in what they are doing. Rather than going through the motions, the athlete has to now be conscious of what (s)he is trying to do.