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.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.