In the first segment of this 3-part series we discussed how important progression is in a strength and conditioning program. Simply put, the deep-rooted goal of any training program is to utilize training stressors and stimuli in order to force the body to adapt and become more resilient to the stressors. Then, by manipulating these stressors, and their subsequent adaptations, we hope to create training effects that positively transfer to sport. We also discussed how exercise selection can be used to progressively overload the body and facilitate these positive adaptations.
Now we will look at how another very important training variable can be used to foster the same progression:
Let’s quickly define intensity:
The traditional take one intensity as a training variable in a resistance training program is that it refers to the weight or load lifted. In this sense, an example of a training intensity would be 200 lbs on a back squat.
Another way to view training intensity is through percentages that ultimately are derived from a One-Repetition Maximum (1RM). For example, a training intensity of 85% deprived from a 1RM of 200 ls. would equate to a training load of 170 lbs.
A training max can also be reached by taking a 1RM and multiplying it by a given Training Max, which can limit a 1RM for training purposes. For example, if your lifetime personal best on back squat is 200 lbs, but you have not hit 200 lbs in several months, you may decide to use a training max that is equal to 90% of your 1RM, thus giving you a training max of 180 lbs. You can then assign a training intensity, such as the 85% previously mentioned, and give yourself a training load of approximately 155 lbs.
Going off-script slightly, from my vantage point there is another means of assigning or defining training intensity: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) which would give way to a type of training called auto-regulation. In this manner, athletes determine just how intense the training load is for the given volumes (sets and reps) by how each particular set feels. There are multiple ways to use auto-regulation, such as the Auto-Regulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE) method (more on this below). But, ultimately, the idea is to adjust training loads based on how your body responds to training on a given day.
Personally, I use RPE with my athletes before I ever formally test an repetition maxes. If I am not feeling confident in their movement competency at that point (such as during Block Zero – or our beginner phase), I won’t risk injuring them by having them perform a rep-max test.
I also don’t want to generalize the training for all athletes, where I force them all to use a set load on each set. Thus, I will tell them to do work-up or warm-up sets until the load feels like a ____ out of 10, and then do ____ sets of _____ at that load.
Using Training Intensity to Achieve Progressive Overload
Regardless of how you use or view training intensity – as a standardized and objective training load, or as a quasi-objective rating – the main goal is to use this variable to achieve progressive overload.
There are many, many different ways to periodize a training program for positive adaptations. No matter if you prescribe to Block, conjugate, or undulating periodization, there is an underlying principle at work in all forms of periodization, and that is our theme for this entire series: progressive overload. For that reason, most strength coaches today would contend that we all use Linear Periodization. Let me explain more…
For some time Linear Periodization was thought to only be for beginners. That is because, in the most rudimentary form, it’s quite basic: training intensity starts low, while training volume starts high, while they slowly make an exchange of emphasis. Training intensity progressively increases, while training volume decreases. We work hypertrophy, then strength, then power. This is considered a very basic and entry-level approach to periodization by many.
Realistically speaking though, if you remove the training goals (hypertrophy, strength power) and just look at the overall premise, this is how all training programs progress on a meso/macro level; they progress in intensity over time. Even if they wave multiple times or just focus on one specific trait, like strength, power, or speed, they will continue to build in intensity over the course of many waves or cycles.
No matter what trait you’re looking to achieve, the ability to move a greater amount of load (higher intensity) for the same given work (e.g. repetitions) means a greater ability to achieve the goal.
In other words, if you can move more weight for the same given repetitions, you are stronger. If you are able to move more weight at the same given speed, you are more powerful. And, if you are able to move more weight for the same given time, you are more resistant to fatigue.
To make any of this possible, though, progressive overload must take place, and this is done in part by progressing exercise intensity.
Periodizing Training Intensity
Explaining the many ways in which you can manipulate training intensities in order to build your own training program would not only take more time than this simple blog post allows for, but it would also be an illogical waste of elaboration for most people. I only elaborated on the importance of training intensity above because I still believe education is an important part of the training process. It’s crucial to your success in performance training to understand why you can’t just use the same training loads for the same volume week after week and expect much to change over time.
What I will do instead is point you in the right direction to find two different training methods that a) are cheap (one is free, one is a couple of bucks), and b) can be applied directly to your current training program without completely scrapping it for a cookie-cutter program.
Pre-package programs are certainly “more convenient”, but they rarely take into account your likes/dislikes/individuality/facility-constraints/etc. They also generally cost a lot more (the price of convenience is steep) and, what happens when these programs end? By providing you with two methods that can be applied to your current and/or future programs, I am giving you knowledge – not just sets, reps, and intensities.
The 5/3/1 program in its entirety can be found here for free on T-Nation. This is by far my personal favorite for my own workouts. It is simple and effective. This method is applied to one exercise per training session, and should be reserved for your big-money lifts, like the squat, deadlift, or bench press. I have also used it on RDL’s and Chin-Ups with similar results.
Once you have determined your 1RM for the selected exercises, you begin by taking a training max of 90% and applying it to that 1RM. Then, you will execute 2 warm-up sets (I like to do one set of five reps at 40% of my training max, then one set of 3 reps at 50-60% of my training max), and three working sets, which will progressively increase from week to week. Each 4-week cycle looks like this:
Notice that the last working set has a plus sign (+) next to the desired reps. This indicates that this set’s goal is at least that number, but should be completed until technical failure*.
*Technical Failure: when form and technique breaks
After each 4-week cycle, the training max is then bumped up 2-5% and is then completed again. So, the next cycle would be at 92% or 95% of your 1RM.
The Auto-Regulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE) method is one that was founded long ago, but was recently summarized in a short and very cheap e-book by Dr. Bryan Mann. The APRE method is one that utilizes an approximated repetition max as a base for intensity on no more than one exercise per training lift. Again, it should be reserved for your big-money exercises.
There are 3 set methods for using the APRE:
- APRE10 – Hypertrophy
- APRE6 – Strength
- APRE3 – Power
Using the APRE10 method, you will guess your 10-rep max. Likewise, if you choose the APRE6 program, you will guess your 6-rep max. The same premise applies for APRE3. Regardless of which program you choose, it is important to note that it is okay to be wrong when guessing your rep max. You will find out just how wrong you are on the first working set, and will then adjust accordingly.
So, let’s take the APRE6 method as an example, and we will do so for the squat.
Step 1: Guess your 6-Rep Max -> 200 lbs.
Step 2: Perform the following sets…
Step 3: Use adjustment chart to change the load accordingly, then another set at to Technical Failure
Step 4: Use adjustment chart to set the load for the following week’s 6-Rep Max
By using the APRE method, you not only can make adjustments easily without prescribed percentages, but you can account for the days when you are fatigued or less prepared to train. It becomes more about the effort and intent that you’re able to provide that day, rather than the specific percentage load.
These two programs aren’t the only effective methods to develop a progression of exercise intensity, but they are proven. And, what’s more, they can very easily be integrated into your current training regimen.
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