2022 is here! Here’s to another year of healthy growth and gainz to everybody reading this post. When a new year comes, I like to spend this opportunity with myself and clients to sit down and go through what went well in the prior year and what could be improved more. OR, if I am just starting with a client for the first time and want to find out what their strengths/weaknesses are.
This is common in the sports performance sector. Strength coaches will constantly assess their athletes throughout the season with testing and weight tracking to monitor progress and compare it to years past. When the offseason comes, coaches go through the same cycle of creating an offseason program aimed at general preparation (endurance, hypertrophy, mobility) and slowly transition into the preseason and in-season programming that sees priority changes in volume/intensity demands that are in line with sport competition. Rinse, wash, repeat. It's the simplest way to have quantitative data on progress.
I love applying sports performance principles to the general population for 2 reasons. First, as a trainer/someone who is conscious of their training, you have some type of direction (programming) for a specific period of time (microcycle, mesocycle, macrocycle) for the entire year. Second, performance training really encompasses the importance of progressive overload which has been shown to be a very valid method of growth (1).
With that said, I want to highlight three important reasons why I think it is necessary to do an introductory training block at the beginning of the year if you are someone looking to improve their lifts and change your physique, or if working with a client for the first time. This would be in the form of training performed at the beginning of the year that lasts ~4-6 weeks focusing on slowing things down a bit, utilizing tempo based efforts, and working on foundational movements in an effort that isn't solely driven by total load and uses another method for muscle growth which is highlighted later in this piece.
First: Opportunity to slow things down and refine movement patterns for the year to come.
Big compound movements such as your squats, bench, deadlift, hip thrust, overhead press, etc, are the pillars of a solid program. As you progress throughout the year alternating volume/intensity, comes changes in technique as the body learns to adapt to the heavier loads. Simply film a side view of you doing a squat at 50% effort vs 80% effort and you can find "energy leaks" such as foot collapse, knee valgus, hips rising before the knees. Intentionally spending time going through the motions at a lower intensity will literally teach the body the movement pattern. That is the beauty of motor skill development is we can refine at any point and should set some time in the year to do so. "Laying the foundation brick by brick" - insert any strength coach at every level they've all said this at one point. But they have a valid point. Here are 3 areas of focus during this time to slow things down and refine movement patterns.
1) Bracing with the core vs the lower back
- Simplest way to put this, it's a balance game. We're talking about pelvic positioning which is something to consider in every main compound lift, yes even a push up you could make an argument that bracing contributes to an important performance outcome. The body naturally will omit to brace with the spine vs the core simply because it's easier and we have larger musculature to help.
Imagine the first image shown (anterior pelvic tilt), you can get in that position by arching your back and will immediately feel tension in the lower back. Now imagine having a barbell with 300 pounds on the spine in that position. Probably won't lead to great spinal health long term. Spending time slowing down reps is a great way to teach yourself and refine what is "right" vs "wrong" and I will highlight methods of training later in this post.
- Intrabdominal pressure in the most important part of the lift (bottom of a squat, deadlift, bench, shoulder press, etc) is key for maintaining spinal rigidity and becomes ever more important as the weight gets heavier. My favorite cue to give to clients is either "tense the stomach like someone is about to kick you" or "give me a big ole beer belly". We have an advantage with our lung cavity to inhale an insane amount of oxygen (up to 6 liters!) and that can help us so much with staying rigid. A simple exercise for practicing this
Lie supine on the ground and place your hands on your stomach. As you inhale push the stomach in your hands as much as possible and hold for a 3-5 count. Repeat for 10-15 cycles. I like to do this before a squat or deadlift day.
3) Tripod Position
- If I could sum up any one most important piece of this subcategory it is this. The tripod position is what usually makes or breaks a lift. This topic will be discussed in more depth in my next post and I'll tag it here when it's finished. The foot is not talked about enough for lifting performance. The foot is our first contact point with the ground and in order for us to perform, we need a solid foundation. Pressure points in the big toe, pinky toe, and heel are what create the tripod of the foot. Think about the last time you were deadlifting and thought "gee are my feet in the right spot right now". I'd bet that thought has never come across before but it is a simple tool to help with knee pain, knee valgus/varus, lateral shifting of the hips, and even up the spine with pelvic tilting (2).
Second: Intentional time spent working on set/rep methods of hypertrophy that don't require tons of mechanical tension
There are a few methods of training that optimize muscle growth (hypertrophy). One method I'm focusing on here is metabolite accumulation. Simply put, the variables in this training block to consider for improving our ability to withstand and clear metabolic byproducts in a session are:
- total volume (sets/reps/weight)
- rest periods (rest between exercises and between sets)
and during a training session, the body has a buildup of metabolic byproducts that contribute to muscular fatigue. This ultimately contributes to us deciding mid-set "okay I can't take the burn no more" or "my muscles can't do one more rep". Our ability to clear those byproducts via respiration relies a ton on intentionally setting time in the rest period and keeping it consistent throughout our primary, secondary, and tertiary exercises in a single session. We allow for full rest (HR back down to a tolerable range around 120-130) (3), the pathways for energy production can better operate and we can maintain the given intensity of the workout.
BUT, think of it as a threshold. There's only so much we can take before the point of diminishing returns is applied. Here's a representation of the lactate threshold.
For the sake of simplicity, know that lactate is a byproduct but is not the only contributor to muscular fatigue/failure, there are many more but this chart just makes the most sense to show visually. When you're in a detrained state, your threshold is a lot lower, and your ability to maintain the accumulation of byproducts and still continue "work" (exercise) is much lower than someone who has a training background (shown on the green graph). What's an effective method to get you past the green line and further improve your fitness? Enter tempo training
I have a post highlighting a bit more background on tempo training and if you'd like to read that go to this link https://www.trainwithdaltonpt.com/post/a-guide-to-tempo-based-training
Tempo training is a great method to set up exercises to mitigate one pathway for muscle growth by creating an environment that favors the accumulation of byproducts and doesn't require a ton of weight (mechanical tension) to get the result we desire (gainz). A training session example would look something like this
Lower Body 1 (squat)
A1) Back Squat - Barbell (40X0) 4x6 = ~31s tension
A2) 90/90 or some hip mobility
B1) Split Squat - Front Foot Elevated (10s first rep isometric) 4x8ea = ~26s tension/ ~52s total
B2) Copenhagen Isometric Hold 4x30s ea = ~240s tension
B3) Calf Raise - Standing (10s first rep isometric) 4x8-10 = ~120s tension
C1) Leg Extension - 2 to 1 3x6ea (2010) = ~72s tension
C2) Farmer Carries - KB 3x50 yards
C3) Tib Raise 3x15-20
Total accounted tension in the exercises that had a tempo prescription = 515 seconds or 8.5 minutes total
% intensity (aka how much weight am I putting on the bar/machine each set) should be moderate to where you can finish the set with about 2-6 reps in reserve
rest periods between the exercises should be ~20-30s and between the superset should be ~60-80s
The workout becomes more of a constant level effort across the board vs gassing yourself out in the beginning and holding on for dear life at the end. This workout style can be applied for every session during the training block and you can progress each time you repeat the training. Again, we generally like to overcomplicate training when repeated effort and progressive overload has been tried and tested to be the superior method for hypertrophy.
When should I put in isometrics or eccentrics in my training session? Let's keep it simple
- Eccentric loaded efforts at the beginning of the session (more neurologically demanding than other muscle actions)
- Isometrics can also be done in the beginning. I personally add them in the beginning and/or middle of a session depending on what I'm trying to accomplish with a client.
What should my set/rep schemes be during this training block?
Primary: 3-4x 6-10 reps
Secondary: 3-4x 8-12 reps
Tertiary: 3-4x 10+ reps
I have highlighted some methods shown in exercises and with each one, I'll highlight the importance and applications
1) Chin Up - Isometric Hold - Top 1/3
- Used in the chin-up progression plan by Stephane Cazeault of Kilo Strength Society, spending time in the most advantageous position of the exercise. The recommended time is 10s holds. When I progress a client to the free bars I start with this variation and start with 6s holds and progress to 8s, then 10s before moving on to an eccentric only chin up.
2) Leg Curl - Lying - Stato Dynamic Method - Pre Fatigue
- Christian Thibaudeau preaches the importance of isometrics in training and how we don't utilize them enough. This method is fantastic for hypertrophy because it doesn't require a ton of mechanical tension in order to get what we want. The protocol goes as follows
- Pre fatigue method = spend 10-30 seconds in the stretch/shortened position of the FIRST rep without changing the length, followed by finishing out the set
- Post fatigue method = same application but hold the last rep in the stretched/shortened position. Can be great if the weight used in the set is lighter than intended.
3) Eccentric emphasis
- Can/should be used for all main lifts at this point of the year. Can help a ton with perfecting abdominal bracing, breathing pattern, sequencing of the hinge/knee flexion. a 3-5s eccentric effort each rep seems to hold up the most set to set with clients.
Third: Refine training goals set from the year prior
OKAY last but not least. Goal setting. Setting goals and having something to train for makes structuring a program that much easier because that gives direction for adding in the secondary and tertiary exercises. Want a bigger deadlift? Do more deadlifts throughout the year, add in hip hinge movements in the short and mid-range such as RDL's, back extensions, hip thrusts. Want to do more reps of the chin-up? Set a rep goal and keep them circulating throughout the year. We often get away from training goals and go to the gym and do exercises we are most comfortable with. More importantly, we want to keep strength ratios close among the main exercises.
My goals this year
- Deadlift strength
- Hip thrust 6 rep effort
- Chin up strength
- Dip 6 rep effort
I had a lot of fun writing this and I hope you took away some useful information. The main takeaways here are
- Set up an introductory training block to be done at the beginning of the year for someone who trains year round, or right in the beginning if starting with a new client
- Program should last roughly ~4-6 weeks
- Program focuses on improving our ability to withstand metabolite accumulation which is one form of muscle hypertrophy
- Set/rep schemes are as follows
- Primary: 3-4x 6-10 reps
- Secondary: 3-4x 8-12 reps
- Tertiary: 3-4x 10+ reps
- Prioritize eccentrics and isometrics
- Once completed, transition to an introductory strength block
- 1) Peterson, M. D., Pistilli, E., Haff, G. G., Hoffman, E. P., & Gordon, P. M. (2011). Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. European journal of applied physiology, 111(6), 1063–1071. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-010-1735-9