Programming, Training, Recovery, and Not Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

Recently, I had the pleasure of passing advice to a US Army Battalion surgeon in regards to proper equipment, nutrition and supplementation, and general programming.  I was excited to share my thoughts with this unit because it’s not only a unit I served at one point in my career, but the one my wife currently commands in.  The conversation we held ended up being a dialogue between three professionals interested in bringing the best to those they serve — the Army soldier.
I thought about paraphrasing pieces of the email I sent, but I think the email itself contains some pretty straightforward information that will help those that come across this post.  The email was in response to questions about my thoughts on programming, training, and recovery.
DISCLAIMER:  These are my views and not the collective views of professional organizations within the US Army or military.  Please do not take my words as being representative of what the military (and particularly the US Army) believes:
I heard about the fitness LPD that you guys are doing.  I think it’s great; I hope that the audience does their job as leaders and not only disseminates the valuable information, but also implements it!
As with any physical training, the programming is very specific to the individual.  However, due to the amount of time that it would take to program for every individual in your formation, it’s not feasible to write specific programs.  Instead, you generally want to program for the best person in your group.  By doing so, you ensure that the individual is getting the most out of his workout.  What about the rest?  Well, that’s where scaling and modification to the individual comes into play … all of which is determined by the watchful and consistent eye of their coach (in our case, EDUCATED platoon leadership).
I don’t want to mislabel a piece of training or value one aspect more than the other as all of them work in harmony to produce the optimal athlete, but I feel that rest and recovery is one of the most important pieces, and one that we in the military are the grossest offenders of!  We are constantly “go, go, go” and never truly program rest into our PT plans, largely because the Army does such a poor job at teaching physical fitness.
Generally speaking, the average athlete will be able to execute a true strength and conditioning program on a three or four-week cycle (called a “mesocycle”).  Most choose four because it coincides with the length of a month, but again, one needs to pay attention to the individual.  The theory of linear progression is just that – theory.  Many factors affect progression.  It isn’t as simple to say that this person will train for twelve weeks and increase their lifts by 2-3kg every week because of the workload, with the end result being a massive 25-kg increase across all lifts.  This is ideal, but does not take into account the many external stressors that affect us on a daily basis, like work, family, bills, etc.  Stress plays a huge role in recovery, as you know.  The production of cortisol (among other bad hormonal responses) increases dramatically during stressful periods, making the individual catabolic and lethargic.
The first thing one should do is set a goal.  It’s important to make a goal specific, quantifiable, and realistic.  Saying that you want to get better at squatting is great, but to what effect?  Choosing a more defined goal is best, such as “I will increase my back squat by 10kg over the course of a 12-week period.”  Referring back to linear progression, one might see a program that looks like this:
Week 1:  70-75%, sets of 5-6 reps
Week 2:  75-80%, sets of 4-5 reps
Week 3:  80-85%, sets of 3-4 reps
Week 4:  60-65%, sets of 2-3 reps (this is our recovery week, designed to keep the individual moving and loose, yet still stimulated and prepared to continue)
Week 5:  75-80%, sets of 5 reps (not 4-5 because we’re increasing volume at a given percentage to show linear growth)
Week 6:  80-85%, sets of 4 reps
Week 7:  85-90%, sets of 2-3 reps
Week 8:  same as Week 4
Week 9:  85-90%, sets of 3 reps
Week 10:  90-95%, sets of 1-2 reps
Week 11:  same as Week 4 to optimally prepare the lifter to max out the following week
Week 12:  choose a day to max your lift(s)
As you can see, we’re constantly working towards our end state in a linear fashion.  However, what happens if the individual comes down ill or has an external stressor that negatively affects training time and value?  The program needs to be modified to the individual!  This is where the concept of auto-regulation comes into play.
Let’s say if on Week 7, he/she is struggling to hit 90% for one rep.  It could be that the system (the athlete) is simply fatigued.  It’s not to say that the lifter isn’t progressing well enough.  It’s too small of an observation; there’s not enough evidence to support that hypothesis because the lifter has been successfully completing all prescribed weights before.  It could just be that day; it could be that the rigors from the program are finally affecting the lifter’s homeostasis and the lifting 90% for one rep is all that the lifter can do for this particular session.  So, you cut down the number of repetitions to 90%x1 instead of 90%x2, or keeping the weight at 85%x1 or 2, or decreasing the amount of sets the lifter performs, effectively allowing his body to dictate how much he can do while still positively stimulating the lifter for future gains.  This is one explanation on the concept of auto-regulation … one that can be used for REST AND RECOVERY!  If you force the athlete to lift those weights, then he/she might not have enough time during the following recovery week to actually recover, therefore making the rest of the program suffer.  However, if you allow the lifter to listen to his/her body and auto-regulate, you probably maximized his/her potential for lifting their target weight in the future, possibly sooner than anticipated!
Another way to view auto-regulation is to set Rates of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to exercises in this manner:
RPE @ 10:  Maxed out; no energy left to do another rep
@ 9:  Capable of doing one more rep
@ 8:  Capable of doing two more reps
@ 7:  Capable of doing three more reps
@ 6 or below:  pretty much warming up or wasting your time
So, if you ask the lifter to execute three sets of two reps at a RPE @ 9, that lifter can gauge himself (and along with your motivation) to grind out sets at, say, 100kg.  The following week, you prescribe the same thing, and he/she grinds out sets at 105kg and feels terrific.  You’ve allowed that lifter to “strike while the iron is hot” and stimulated that lifter in a positive manner.  The following week, you prescribe the same thing, but the lifter only gets it done with 90kg, citing that he’s just tired.  In this case, you allowed the lifter to be maximally stimulated for that day, but prudently auto-regulate him/herself to his/her body abilities that day so that he/she can recover for future workouts.  That’s the beauty of it!  However, this approach is for someone that is disciplined enough to not only adhere to the prescribed RPE value, but also know their body well enough to understand what effort aligns with the prescribed value, not pushing the line and fooling themselves.  Many will argue that the lifter is the “striking while the iron is hot.”  This is somewhat true, but it’s also not what you as a coach and programmer want.  It goes back to being disciplined and seeing the end state of a program; it’s a marathon, not a sprint!
I don’t think I truly answered or provided anything supportive to your topics.  Bottom line is that every true athlete knows the meaning of rest and recovery.  It encompasses planned recovery periods, continuous observation by coaches (leadership), and sleep!  Get your 8-8.5 hours; to me, nothing is more important than QUALITY sleep!  Nicotine and alcohol literally stop the body from recovering and all its processes, so avoid them as much as you possibly can.  This isn’t to say to become a hermit and not enjoy the company of family and friends, but you must be aware of the negative side effects.  Nutrition and supplementation is something I think you have a strong grasp on, but the average athlete can supplement with basic multivitamins, fish oils with high DHA/EPA content, and pure whey protein.  Look at the label – if you see a ton of garbage on top of whey protein, then it’s garbage.  Some of the stuff added afterwards are BCAAs, so be sure to ask questions if you don’t know the difference between a BCAA and sugar in one of its lovely compound names … or use those wonderful smart phones to Google it!
Renee, this email helps you, too.  I’ll be ready to look at any presentations in case you guys want my advice/opinion.  What I would try to deliver is something that they can take away with them and expand/research on.  You’re not going to teach them all about recovery and nutrition, or weightlifting, in fifteen minutes — there’s just too much.  However, if it’s something that they can take with them and refer back to with some sources (Renee:  www.catalystathletics.com, YouTube videos of lifters; Jeremy:  www.poliquingroup.comwww.strengthsensei.comwww.t-nation.com, http://www.jtsstrength.com), then they’ll have more than what they started with.
On the same note, here is another I sent to the group regarding equipment.  I truly can’t stand seeing people lift in improper gear.  I always equate it as someone bringing a knife to a gun fight — it’s asinine and downright dangerous when you don’t use the right gear.
The way I would address this is relating to their chosen profession.  You wouldn’t go into a firefight with a knife.  You need not only your assigned weapon, but to have trained on it as well.  The same applies for shoes and weightlifting (or weight lifting, as you alluded to the less-focused athlete) – use the right tools for the job.
The interior of the shoe doesn’t say or do much.  Most come in a neutral setting.  The Nike Romaleos have a slightly higher arch setting, while others tend to be a little more flat.  Regardless, it’s going to be tough to choose the right shoe based on this characteristic since you can’t get weightlifting shoes at a normal shoe store.  You have to buy them online.  If you wear an orthotic, all you’ll do is slip it in the shoe as normal and test to see if the interior is more cramped than others.  Some shoes have more room and open toe boxes than others (for instance, VS Athletics weightlifting shoes vs. Adidas AdiPower).  In closing, don’t worry too much about the inside.  Just make sure that you’re not losing circulation if you put in an orthotic.
The outside is what counts.  You want a supple exterior fabric that allows for flexion and bend.  All shoes have this now, so no worries here.  You also want to play particular attention to the heel and pitch of the shoe.  Most weightlifting shoes are at a .75″ heel height because it allows for increase ankle flexion, which will allow for a more upright squatting position.  It allows the body to be in the optimal position to maintain a tight, upright, and compact structure able to support downward pressure of weight rather than an elongated and awkward setting.  A simple way to test this is to do a normal squat with your bare feet.  You’ll see that you’re immediately sending your hips back to align your center of pressure and gravity to the middle of the foot.  This drops your chest — big no-no in squatting.  Now put a 5 or 10-lb plate under your feet.  You’re now able to send the knees more forward and close the anterior angle of the ankle down more, effectively increasing your efficiency in squatting by being more upright and alleviating the stress on the lower back because you’re able to keep your hips under the bar the entire movement.  This is what an increased heel height can offer you.
Pitch is simply the residual difference in height between the front and rear of the shoe and is something that is often neglected by the descriptions one might see online.  While shoes offer a .75″ heel height, if they have a .25″ high front, then you’re decreasing the effectiveness of the heel height on the shoe.  If you look at www.averagebroz.com, John Broz and his gang are doing a number of reviews on shoes and mention this aspect well.  Again, this is more just trial and error.  I’ve had six pairs of weightlifting shoes ranging across all brands running between $80-200.  The best ones FOR ME were one of the $80 options because of heel height and comfort (I wasn’t going numb).  That’s just the way it goes sometimes!
As for the construction of the heel, you ABSOLUTELY want a rigid heel — no questions about it.  The sturdiness it will provide allows the lifter to be confident that he/she will not roll his/her ankle during a movement.  It’s not optimal to lift in regular running shoes at all.
As for shoe prescription between weightlifters, weight lifters, and powerlifters, each will tell you differently.  The weightlifter will say that he/she will try to lift in the weightlifting shoes for everything because they live in them.  The weight lifter (the casual gym goer) doesn’t care because he/she doesn’t know and isn’t engaging in hard movements.  The powerlifter wants a flat platform for deadlifts, but can go either way for squatting.  That’s why you see a bunch of them wear Chuck Taylors … and consequently look like they’re squatting like they’re barefooted.  The powerlifting squat (really low setting on the back, wide stance, parallel only) is extremely posterior, where as the weightlifting squat (more centered on the base of the traps and closer to the center of gravity, full depth, moderate stance) is more universal.  I will always say that that a lifter should ALWAYS squat with weightlifting shoes.  As for deadlifting, I would say that flat-footed is better for the overall, non-focused athlete, even some weightlifters.  Again, very individual.
You want people to look at a couple of brands:
Nike
Adidas
Inov-8
Wei-Rui
Pendlay
These will give them a wide variety of options at different price ranges.  Advise them not to be scared of the prices – if they use these shoes for weightlifting and weightlifting only (no CrossFit or HIIT), they will last you forever.
In addition, I will add my thoughts on straps, belts, wraps, etc.:
  1. Straps:  Use them when you need to.  For people that compete in weightlifting or powerlifting, we need to know how the bar will feel in our hands.  Straps take away from that feel if you overuse them, but are critical when doing multiple-rep sets (like doubles or triples) so that you don’t exhaust your actual grip strength before getting to your target weight.  In addition, straps help you pull more, strengthening those large muscle groups you use for the movements more than you would if you limited yourself to what your grip can do that day.  There are exercises to strengthening your grip if that’s what lacking, but don’t be afraid to use straps.
  2. Belts:  I try to go as high as I can without the use of a belt in all my lifts, i.e., performing a lift without losing technical proficiency.  The belt provides an extra barrier for me to press against.  It will feel weird at first, but like with anything, you need to train with it and get adjusted to it before you can determine if you like the belt.  Nine times out of ten, people that I’ve recommended to wear a belt never looked back.
  3. Wraps (wrist and knee):  Again, this is very individual.  I use knee wraps every day because my knees are very cranky and require a lot of warmth/support.  At least that’s what I perceive.  Due to many years of sports and Army activities, my knees took natural wear and tear — this is no surprise.  Therefore, I do what I can to help me properly function.  I’ve tried both sleeves and wraps and I can’t say which one I prefer, but for now, I use knee wraps.  The same concept goes for the wrist wraps — use them as to your preference.

In the end, there’s a lot of information, but I hope that you 1) find time to read this, and 2) learn something from this post.  Until next post, a late Thanksgiving message to all of you — thank you for continuing to visit my site.  I hope that you continue to do so!

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