The Whats, Whys and Hows of Successful Programming, Part I
By Dan John, Master RKC
The problem with programming is simple: the word "program" is sitting right there to start off the word "programming." And, programs are the problem.
It’s not an unusual week when someone emails me asking for a "program." It’s not unlike a patient calling a doctor and asking for medicine. There seems to be a logical follow up, question:
"Um, for what?"
There are a million programs out there in books, magazines and the internet. A typical bodybuilding magazine will provide about a dozen conflicting and complicated programs guaranteed to terrorize your triceps, pound your pectorals, and blitz your biceps.
There are programs for fat loss, muscle gain, and athletic peaking. I imagine they are all good and work perfectly as written. Sadly, few people ever follow a program for more than a few workouts. Few of us ever actually FINISH programs. So, when it comes to actually following programs, we end up with dozens of starts and misfires—and miss the big picture.
Jim Wendler (inventor of the 5/3/1 program) recently wrote this about his mentor:
"Towards the end of my senior year, I finally asked Darren why he never spoke to me during my first year in the weight room. And it was this lesson that I have taken with me in all areas of my life. His answer: Most of the time, programs are two to twelve weeks of structured workouts that build up to a peak week and a max. It is nice if there are easy days, deloading weeks, and a logical means of increasing load or volume…or both."
And most people quit these programs after the first week!
The Process of Programming
Programming is the "Big Picture". Armed with an understanding of programming process, one can occasionally use these structured two to twelve week training blocks to address issues and fix problems.
There are three keys to understanding programming. They come from the HKC
manual, but are expanded in both the RKC
and RKC II certifications
. The keys are:
- Waving the Loads
- Specialized Variety
Understanding these three terms and applying them appropriately to any training model, piece of equipment or situation will allow you to progress towards any body composition or athletic performance goal.
The secret to success in life is usually pretty simple. Woody Allen once noted, "90 percent of success is simply showing up." The same is true in fitness and performance—pack in enough workouts
and training sessions over time and good things will happen.
Good things happen when we focus on continuity in training.
Pat Flynn summarized training simply:
- Train consistently for progress.
- Add variety for plateaus.
- Add randomness for fun.
can summed up as "train consistently for progress." This idea is nothing new.
Most of us know the story of Milo:
Milo was a wrestler and multi-time Olympic champion in the original Games. His father-in-law was Pythagoras, who made life easier with his idea that "The sum of the areas of the two squares on the legs (a and b) equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse (c)." Milo also consumed, we are told, a daily amount of twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread and eighteen pints of wine. But, that is not why we remember Milo. It was his idea to pick up a bull.
The story goes that each day he would walk out to the pasture and pick up a certain calf. He did this every day until the bull was fully grown. Milo is the father of progressive resistance exercise and it’s his fault many people think that success in strength training happens in a straight line. I have joked many times with new lifters that if you bench 100 pounds today and only add ten pounds a week, about a year from now you will bench over 600 pounds. Sure, it works on paper...
At some level, we all know Milo was right. During and after World War II, Dr. Thomas DeLorme and Dr. Arthur Watkins worked with polio patients and injured soldiers. In 1945, DeLorme wrote a paper, "Restoration of muscle power by heavy-resistance exercises," published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.
In 300 cases, he found "splendid response in muscle hypertrophy and power, together with symptomatic relief," by following this method of 7-10 sets of 10 reps per set for a total of 70-100 repetitions each workout. The weight would start light for the first set and then get progressively heavier until a 10RM load was achieved. Over time, DeLorme and Watkins’ programs changed in terms of volume. By 1948 and 1951, the authors noted:
"Further experience has shown this figure to be too high and that in most cases a total of 20 to 30 repetitions is far more satisfactory. Fewer repetitions permit exercise with heavier muscle loads, thereby yielding greater and more rapid muscle hypertrophy."
A series of articles and books followed where they recommend 3 sets of 10 reps using a progressively heavier weight in the following manner:
- Set #1 - 50% of 10 repetition maximum
- Set #2 - 75% of 10 repetition maximum
- Set #3 - 100% of 10 repetition maximum
In this scheme, only the last set is performed to the limit. The first two sets can be considered warm-ups. In their 1951 book, Progressive Resistance Exercise, DeLorme and Watkins state, "By advocating three sets of exercise of 10 repetitions per set, the likelihood that other combinations might be just as effective is not overlooked… Incredible as it may seem, many athletes have developed great power and yet have never employed more than five repetitions in a single exercise." I love that last line.
Furthermore, at about the same time, Vladimir Janda, the physician and physical therapist, began discovering his great insights into tonic and phasic muscles, and various "crossed syndromes." It is also important to note is that Janda was also a victim of that terrible disease of the last century, polio. Janda’s understanding that stretching (loosening) one muscle and strengthening its opposite would promote better structural integrity than simply attacking one side of the equation.
Continuity of training embraces the idea that we need progression—reasonable progression. Solid training programming builds the load, reps, and sets up over time. But, we also have to be realistic. I have had to sit down with many proud fathers and explain that their belief in their child’s linear progression does NOT hold up under the lens of common sense.
Billy benched 100 pounds as a 14 year old. Dad projects his improvement to be about ten pounds a month. So, next year, Billy will bench 220 and that seems doable—to Dad. The following year, at age 16, Billy is expected to bench press 340, and I begin to wrinkle my nose. At 17, Bill (he is now grown up), should be benching 460. You can see where this is heading.
To get better, in every field and quality of life, we must remind ourselves of my college coach’s key to success: "Little and often over the long haul." Ralph Maughan knew athletics and life. Little and often over the long haul should be one’s mantra for most of life’s work.
Continuity is showing up.
Continuity is training consistently for progress.
Continuity is progressively adding volume or load.
Continuity is being reasonable about expectations.
Once you embrace continuity, now we can shape our workouts by "waving the load."
Waving the Load
To understand Waving the Load, you need to consider three terms:
Volume is a math problem. If we’re using a single kettlebell, this is a pretty simple calculation: Add up all your reps in your workout(s) and compare them to other workouts.
Volume is the tough one for me. Ten total reps with a 48kg kettlebell
in the press is the same "volume" as twenty reps with the 24kg kettlebell. Determining which workout is harder (48kg for ten reps versus 24kg
for 20) has been the subject of discussion in lifting circles for generations.
There is a method for figuring out an appropriate "volume to load" ratio for Olympic lifters and I applaud it. But, there are issues when adapting it to other lifting modalities.
Carl Miller introduced an interesting concept to Olympic lifters in the 1970s. It was called "K Value" and it is based on a formula. Now, Olympic lifting is judged by tallying the best of two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. So, the contest total will be the sum in the discussion.
K Value (I thought of saying "simply," then I caught myself) starts with the following information:
- The total load of training.
- The total number of repetitions.
- The "total" made at the competition (the sum of the best snatch and clean and jerk)
Item A is determined by the total number of repetitions done with each weight (in kilograms) lifted in the major exercises. So, the athlete needs to multiply each weight lifted by the number of reps completed.
Then, we take the total load (A) and divide it by the number of reps (B). So, now that we have load divided by reps, we then multiply THAT number by 100. Finally we divide that number by the "total" made at the competition (C).
The Bulgarian Olympic lifters at the time had average K-Values of around 40 and most Americans were in the lower 30s. It demonstrated that the Bulgarians were really pushing load with their volume—a tough thing to do!
Considering that a lifter might have 700-1000 lifts in a training cycle, I think you get a sense of the issue with K-Value, the MATH!! My coach, Dick Notmeyer, had me do this math equation one time and I learned to stop asking so many questions!
Of the three terms (Volume, Intensity and Density), it’s the hardest to convince people that "more volume is not better". Yes, I am a champion of things like "The 10,000 Swing Challenge," but crappy swing technique will do far more damage than good.
My advice for volume:
- Always keep an eye on load when increasing volume. There is a great value in doing more reps with a lighter load, for example when practicing the 100 rep snatch test. Light loads with volume have a "tonic" effect, in other words, it makes you feel better. But, enough is enough.
- You should rarely increase volume more than 50% of your current level. One of the issues many people have with the "10,000 Swing Challenge" is that they go from 75 to 500 swings in their first workout. Yes, it is doable, but the hands and grip take a beating. To avoid this, ease into the higher reps instead.
- If you are getting ready for athletic performance, cut volume and focus on other qualities.
- Generally, when the volume goes up, intensity (next discussion) tends to go down. Though the answer to the classic question "Which is better: high weights or high reps" is "both", for us mere mortals, we can only handle so much.
Finally, we need to discuss intensity to truly understand volume.
I’m not sure if there is a more confusing word in fitness and training than intensity. Yes, it is the amount of weight used in training, and yes, it is also how close you are to failure or missing the lifts.
The devil is in the details.
When Arthur Jones sold his Nautilus machines through the massive advertisements in Scholastic Coach Magazine, he redefined intensity. It became the rep one failed while using a machine with perfect form. Some people define intensity by how much vomit ends up in a bucket. And others define intensity by the percentage of the athlete’s maximum lift.
The last one is good, but fraught with issues. Also, I have a different set of terms for the word "max."
From "Sorta Max" to "Max Max Max"
First, let's look at three highly scientific terms that I use on a daily basis:
- Sorta Max
- Max Max
- Max Max Max
The Sorta Max
Most people have a "Sorta Max." A Sorta Max is a concept that I came up with a while ago when people were telling me about their "max's" in various lifts. The Sorta Max is that heavy lift you do in the gym—and then call it a day. And hats off to you, you deserve it.. That's great, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It's the heavy "today" max, if you will.
For many of us, we occasionally have a good day and nail a big lift, or in some cases, we just have a great performance. And these numbers are what most people call their "max" numbers. I define this as the Sorta Max
The Max Max
Max Max is the next step. That's that top end lift that maybe you spent the better part of a few months building up to with some kind of organized program. For the record, that's exactly what my best bench press reflects.
On at least three separate occasions, John Price and I decided that both of us needed to bench press 405—four big plates per side—and focused on the bench for two workouts a week. Those workouts were very simple, and we just tried to push our reps up. It always worked.
If I had spent more than just a month working on the bench, I'm sure I could have done more. But, for me, 405 is/was my Max Max. A few weeks of training focused on one lift and I made a good number, 405.
In my opinion, the Max Max is the most underappreciated measure in sports and training. It's simply what you can do with some effort. If all your Max Max numbers are at a good level for your goals and interests, I can practically promise you that you have achieved a solid level of strength in your chosen field. It might not be the best, but you're good.
The Max Max Max
Now, it should be obvious where Max Max Max is heading. This is a number that takes a lot of commitment and a lot of time to achieve. You'll probably need to do it in competition. All my top lifts are done in competition. Why? Well, there's usually a story...
Why a 628 deadlift? Because after I pulled 606, a bunch of other guys missed, and then one or two went up and made a big show of missing something a bit heavier. Since I wanted to make sure there was no question, I took the next poundage (628) up and made it.
So, Max Max Max might be a lifetime achievement you’ve planned for decades or, like me, you simply stumbled around long enough to do something "max-worthy." And that's also the issue with Max Max Max. When novices plot out a "Max," we need to ask this follow up question: "what do you mean by max?" I have been to many RKC certifications and talked with someone who had a "max" kettlebell in a lift. A day of coaching, demonstrating and practice often leads to a new "max."
While any and all training that was based on the old "max" numbers certainly had value, they were probably underloaded—and there is nothing wrong with that!
There is great value in playing with variations of load and intensity:
- Low volume/low intensity: these are those training sessions where we practice skills and actively recover. These might be the most underappreciated sessions
- Medium volume/medium intensity: these sessions probably should make up 3 out of 5 your workouts. You get the work in and leave feeling better than when you arrived. These sessions won’t be posted on Social Media, but these are the ones that lead to growth and change.
- High volume/high intensity: these are the ones we brag about later. Generally, we take our time building up these sessions and need some easy days after these practices. It would be the five ladder and five rung day of the Rite of Passage.
- High volume/low intensity: as noted, these workouts, use appropriately, can be part of the building process to a peak or improved performance.
- Low volume/high intensity: these are the sessions designed to push through a new max or limit lift. Like High volume/low intensity, these works are crucial to building up to a peak.
Good programming uses all five methods. Generally, week in and week out, focus on the medium volume/medium intensity method for most of the workouts. Mix in perhaps a low volume/high intensity day and a low volume/low intensity recovery day. One can train for a long time on a program like this.
Plan the "low/low" days after any kind of "high/high" day. For a group of five workouts, I generally recommend:
- Three medium/medium days
- One "high" day (volume or intensity)
- One low/low recovery, tonic and practice session.
If you take on weeks of "high" with either volume or intensity, be sure to plan some sessions afterwards with low/low mixed in.
For example, after the twenty days of 500 swings (The 10,000 Swing Challenge), we would shift to three days a week of mobility/tonic workouts focusing on (at most) a total of 75-150 swings mixed in with stretching, rolling, and mobility work. There also might be one "heavier" session during the week focusing on heavier grinds.
Density is getting the work done in less time. With volume, the tool is the calculator (or an abacus if you are like me). With load, the tool is simply the heaviest kettlebell
you move. With density, the extra tool is the clock.—more work. Less time.
There are two ways to attack density. First, and probably the most obvious, is completing a workout while noting the start and end times. Then, the next time you do the same workout, you finish it faster. That’s it.
For many, the problem will be obvious: racing through a workout often leads to poor technique. But, you MUST have quality control. It’s hard to put the kettlebell down "like a professional" while you are still panting and heaving. It’s a matter of discipline. If you can’t insure proper technique, proper performance and proper safety, stop and slow down.
It’s a race against yourself that you want to repeat some time soon, so don’t lose your future trying to win today.
Master RKC, Dan John is the author of numerous fitness titles including the best selling
Never Let Go and Easy Strength. Dan has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.
Dan spends his work life blending weekly workshops and lectures with full-time writing, and is also an online religious studies instructor for Columbia College of Missouri. As a Fulbright Scholar, he toured the Middle East exploring the foundations of religious education systems. For more information visit DanJohn.net