Some consider the process of programming a workout routine an art form of a sort, with endless possibilities and plenty of gray area to work with. I actually think that it's more akin to fitting together puzzle pieces.
Each variable impacts the others, with principles in play that designate the extent to which we can effectively manipulate them. So consider these variables, or puzzle pieces, and you'll be that much closer to your best routines—and best results—ever.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
GAS is the way your body reacts to stress. Training for sports or body composition falls well within this principle and should be considered a type of systematic physical stress to trigger an adaptive process.
The three stages of GAS are:
- Alarm Stage You place physical stress on your body through training, setting off the alarm that triggers adaptation.
- Resistance (or Adaptation) Stage If you supply your body with enough rest and fuel to recover, it adapts to the stressor (a great example is glycogen supercompensation and/or protein synthesis).
- Exhaustion Stage If you continue the stressor repeatedly, without ample rest or fuel to recover, you see maladaptation that leaves you weaker and slower.
Simply put, you want to repeat Stages 1 & 2, without entering Stage 3.
This obviously becomes more complex when you consider programming, especially when making generalized recommendations, but the puzzle pieces that make the process work (or fail if applied incorrectly) are as follows:
Your frequency determines your intensity and volume, not the other way around. If you can give me seven days a week, I'll find ways to use those seven days. So basically, I don't manipulate frequency—I manipulate the other variables and I base them on frequency.
The more frequently a client can come in, the better. In advanced programming, we may see athletes who engage in some sort of training multiple times per day throughout the week, calling for highly variable intensities between workouts. On the flip side, clients who only get in a few training sessions per week are more inclined to maximize intensity during each session.
Either way, I'll take as many days and as much time on task as the client can give me. I'll program intensity and volume from there.
A side note on programming frequency for the non-athlete: If you think you can make the gym five days per week, plan on four, with the fifth being an optional "assistance" day. This way you don't set yourself up for failure.
If you have more than four days per week and extended periods of time to train, then you should strategically plan your intensity (i.e., you can't just go all-out every time.) Intensity of high-frequency routines may vary from workout to workout. Some days will call for maximal loads, possibly beyond fatigue and with advanced overload strategies. Other days may be more like simply going through the motions.
Low-frequency routines, however, will most likely call for maximal effort at each workout. If you are only getting four or fewer days in the weight room, you may want to move heavier loads, and do so until failure quite often. You'll still need a systematic approach, but the general mindset of most workouts will probably be similar: Go big or go back to Planet Fitness.
Volume depends on frequency and is (generally speaking) inversely related to intensity. Bodybuilders may use much higher volume (number of reps and total work done) than powerlifters, but with much lighter loads relative to their one repetition maximum (1RM). Athletes will alter the volume based on a host of other variables, such as in-season versus off-season, where the workout falls in the coach's system, and whether they are peaking, transitioning or returning. Coaches will have a solid perspective on the overall program and systematically vary volume to get the best performance on game day.
Taking a Systematic Approach
Elite athletes are built on systematic programs, not single routines. We all know those people at the gym who show up day in and day out for months on end and never make any kind of quantifiable progress. More times than not, they are repeating "what works for me" type workouts that give them that pump at the end of the day, but no difference on the scale or in the squat rack at the end of the year.
Your body is the most complex system on earth. It will counter everything you do to maintain its energy-conserving state (enter: homeostasis). This is why one pill, one type of food, one type of routine, or even one type of program will never guarantee elite status. You must continually work to refine your program and routines. Routines that take a systematic approach and complement one another will become your best routines ever.
Learn more about how to develop a periodized workout plan.
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