What is Training
Training is a word that gets substituted regularly for words like 'workout' and 'exercise'. It's important to begin this discussion by identifying a key difference between training and working out. They both imply physical activity, but training has a direct connotation of preparing for some type of contest or sporting activity. It is the competitive context that makes training a more serious description, just like we would identify a fighter's preparation for a boxing match different than that of a cardio kickboxing class.
You don't have to be in direct preparation for a meet, but at the bare minimum, training must be centered and focused on a particular goal and not be subject to whatever you feel like doing that day. Moods and motivation will change, but training should remain constant. Any serious weight training program will include:
1.) Consistent Record Keeping – Even if every workout isn't planned to the 't' ahead of time, every workout should be recorded along with some brief notes about how you felt and how difficult the sets were. This is a valuable tool for future workouts, so that you can reproduce what you did right and avoid what you did wrong
2.) A Plan of Attack – Workouts should never be purely instinctive, since your motivation to do a particular workout on any given day almost never coincides with the things that actually need to be prioritized. Start with broad planning and work down. Set dates for specific goals, whether its a competition date or a training goal. Work backwards breaking the months into training blocks to focus on individual phases of growth. Decide how frequently each lift or body part should be done throughout the week, and schedule each workout with an appropriate list of exercises built around meeting your end goal.
3.) Intensity – A sense of urgency is what many trainees lack in their day to day routine. One of the reasons I recommend some form of competitive experience, even for recreational lifters, is that it will provide intensity to training sessions. Remember, 'training' has a connotation of competitive preparation, and competitions are aggressive. Not every session has to be a monumental effort, but thought should go into each training session throughout the day, preparing you to apply yourself in a manner that guarantees progress.
4.) Priority – Real training for an athlete takes precedence over other aspects of life, the way studying takes precedence for a student at a university. What separates the typical weekend warrior from someone who engages in serious training is the desire to sacrifice other luxuries for the purpose of attaining the end goal. I have worked with plenty of lifters who would talk a big game about their upcoming meet, only to let the smallest of obstacles derail their training for weeks on end. Training happens when you are in pain because you know that it is temporary. It happens when you are sick because you can work through a head cold. It happens at 3:45 AM because your job starts at 7AM. The willingness to prioritize workouts because of the desire to reach the end goal separates training from exercise.
What We Train For
Physical training leads to physical adaptations; changes in your body's structures and processes that better suit you to overcome whatever stress was being applied. The physical changes that your body makes will mainly involve the tissues of the body (muscle mass, bone and connective tissue) and the nervous system. This is a short list of the traits typically trained for across all athletic fields.
Strength: Strength is simply how much force you can apply. The contractile proteins in your muscle fibers fire in bundles called 'motor units' to move you through space, and the force of this contraction is measured as 'strength'. Strength can be improved by several ways, the most common of which is by building more contractile proteins (muscle mass). Performing hypertrophy (muscle growth) oriented training protocols that typically use repeating sets of 8 reps and more will emphasize the growth of new muscle tissue, subsequently leading to strength gains.
The changes that most lifters in a beginner strength program are unaware of are the adaptations to the nervous system that lead to increases in strength. Your body will only recruit a certain number of motor units at any given time, regardless of how many you have available. This is a defense against extreme exhaustion and possible injury from unregulated, violent contractions. With consistent training, however, this percentage can improve, meaning you can apply more force without actually gaining more muscle tissue. All weight training will lead to improvements in neural efficiency, but low rep protocols (done for speed as well as maximal weight) will improve this specifically. This is exactly how Olympic weightlifters train to explosively move up to 3 times their body weight overhead without being overly muscular. The strongest men in the world will have both of these qualities: lots of muscle mass and a finely tuned nervous system to make the most of it.
Speed: Improving activities like jumping, sprinting, changes of direction, throwing, Olympic lifting, and boxing all require the specialized development of speed traits. Muscle fibers contract on an all-or-nothing principle: they either fire with full force or they do not. What dictates how much strength you can apply is how many fibers contract at once. What dictates speed is how fast you can get to this number. Max strength can improve power traits like speed-strength (lighter objects/body weight) and strength-speed (heavier objects), but to be optimized they need to be trained specifically. Shot putters are typically very strong athletes, but can out-throw world-record level lifters. By possessing an elite level of speed-strength, they can accelerate a 16lb ball upwards of of 70' with one arm, outperforming those who possess twice as much strength.
Size: When we think of size, we think of bodybuilders. The last few decades has seen bodybuilding favor mass monsters who step on the stage as heavy as 300lbs with body fat below 5%. Since appearance is the only contested element in bodybuilding, we can look to these competitors as a prime example of how to build muscle mass quickly and efficiently. 'Bodybuilding training' is usually thought of as high volume training. The typical pro bodybuilder will spend hours in the gym, performing set after set of high rep sets across multiple different exercises. The different movements will hit the same muscle from different angles, recruiting different motor units. The varying rep range taxes different energy systems, recruiting different muscle fiber types. The constant high reps causes metabolites (waste products) to build which is an important catalyst to muscle growth.
While these changes will still result in increased strength over time, they are not thought of as strength specific. The stresses placed on the body from this type of training has a large endurance component, so the body makes changes such as increased mitochnodria (the power plant of the muscle cell) density and more myocellular fluid (the fluid within the cell wall). Myocellular fluid is a large component of muscle growth in the world of bodybuilding and what separates a 'bloated' muscle from a 'dense' one where more of the muscle mass is made up of contractile protein rather than cellular fluid. Denser musculature is the result of years of strength specific work done with heavier loads. These size principles are still valuable for strength, since long term training will have you transition back and forth from strength and hypertrophy phases. Learning how to optimize both is critical for continued growth.
Endurance: Endurance depends on energy system. Shorter term energy systems, such as the atp/creatine phosphate systems can be trained to be replenished quickly which allow for powerful bursts of energy to be reproduced for long periods of time, so long as some amount of rest occurs intermittently. This type of endurance will best suit a lifter, strongman, or football athlete and is best trained with short all out efforts repeated with short rest in between. On the other end, cardiovascular endurance is the body's ability to use oxygen more efficiently, which is necessary for longer, less powerful efforts that don't afford rest. Marathon runners and triathletes will want to optimize this system, although having a basic amount of cardiovascular endurance will benefit all activities, even strength. While they are commonly thought of as similar to gears on a car, keep in mind that all energy systems are at work at all times, just in different proportions.
Physique: Assuming the acquisition of size isn't an issue, reducing body fat is one of the most common goals in the world of weight lifting. Ignoring genetic factors that can't be altered, fat loss will always come down to dietary factors. Simply put, you must be in a caloric deficit to lose body fat. Regardless of how hard you train, you will not lose fat otherwise. A sedentary person can potentially get very lean without exercise by adjusting their food intake accordingly, although this would be an absurdly small amount of food. As muscle mass is gained, more food is required to maintain and build, which makes losing fat while gaining muscle a tricky endeavor for athletes below the 20% mark.
Lifters use training to aid in fat loss in a few ways. For one, it is an effective way to shed extra calories throughout the day. Cardio will always trump weight lifting in fat loss when it comes to total calories burned. Even the elevated metabolic activities that lead so many people to HIIT won't make up for the extra calories burned during the actual workout. What weight lifting will do, however, is burn calories while providing a stimulus that en courages the body to retain muscle mass instead of shedding it. This is important for not losing every bit of gains you have made the first few weeks of your weight cut.
Coordination: This is a less obvious point in the world of weight lifting, but still an important one. As with all skills, practice makes perfect. Much of how you respond to training will hinge on how proficient you are at the movements you are performing. If the movements seem foreign and awkward, you won't be able to apply enough effort to stimulate size or strength gains. As coordination improves, so does the training stimulus.
We briefly discussed the nervous system as a key component to training, and low motor recruitment can also be though of as poor coordination. Early on, the muscles will not be firing optimally, and patterning (communication between muscles) will be all over the place. If you are trying to be the world's fastest cyclist, you first have to be able to balance on a bike. To reap the benefits of squatting, you have to be able to sit down and stand up without losing balance or position and without lagging muscles being taken over for by their neighbors.
Volume = Total poundage moved or (weight) x (sets) x (reps)
This is the measure of the amount of work done in a workout. Volume is typically associated with size, and it turns out that total training volume is optimized around the 10 rep range. This is why common bodybuilding workouts center around the 8-12 rep range or 'hypertrophy' range. There has been observation, however, that while this range is 'specific' to size, it isn't the only threshold to build muscle. There was even a meta-study done that found size differences don't seem to vary between very heavy and very light protocols, so long as the total amount of work sets was similar. For this reason, we will consider volume as the total amount of sets done in a workout and not total tonnage. A beginner weight training program should prioritize high volume work to give new lifters more practice with movement patterns.
High volume = 3 sets or more
Low Volume = 1-2 Sets
Intensity = Average weight moved
High intensity weight training implies that loads are relatively heavy. Since fatigue compounds faster with heavier loads, the total number of work sets must be lower, making this inherently a 'low volume' workout. Intensity can also apply to the difficulty of the set, rather than just the percentage, for the same reason, making 2x12 to failure higher intensity than, say, 5x5 with an 8 rep max, even though the 5x5 was used with heavier weight. Beginner strength training programs should avoid higher intensity work, since technique is a limiting factor. Beginners advance faster when loads are light, bar speed is fast, and technique is sound.
High Intensity = 85% 1RM and up OR any set done near failure
Frequency = Sessions per week
Training frequency is often mis-programmed since lifters can greatly overestimate their own recovery ability. Frequency can range from one session per week (powerlifters, bodybuilders) to 14 sessions per week (Olympic lifters; two a days done every day). Both ends of the spectrum have proven effective, but each one has to follow it's own set of rules. A low frequency approach (1x per week) must be a more taxing session since there will be 6 full days of recovery in between. This approach is usually done with methods that cause substantial damage to muscle tissue, requiring the full weak to recover (bodybuilders) or training that uses heavy loads regularly which taxes the nervous system (powerlifting). Higher frequency methods of training will use fewer working sets and accessory work in each workout since lingering soreness will prevent effective training. Usually, methods are employed that don't hinder recovery, such as speed work and concentric only work (oly lifts, sled drags). Beginner weight training programs will commonly use higher frequency, whole body workouts so that technique can be practiced more often while basic levels of strength and capacity are met.
Low frequency = 1 session every 1-2 weeks
High frequency = 2 sessions per week or more
How to Prioritize Training
Specificity: The SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle is the foundation of all training theory. It addresses the topic of specificity, meaning that whatever specific task you train is what you will improve at. Swimming will make you a more efficient swimmer, but not a better runner, even though they are both cardiovascular activities. Bench pressing may not improve your military press, even though they work the same muscles in the same threshold. An easy way to demonstrate this is to spend 4 days per week on a stationary cycle. In the beginning your legs will burn and fill with blood and an hour workout will feel like eternity. After a week or so, you will feel more comfortable, you won't fatigue as fast, and will be able to cycle longer at a higher resistance. After a month, switch to an hour jog on the treadmill. You will find yourself right where you started, sweaty and gasping for air as your legs try to navigate the foreign movement patterns required to jog.
Effective training programs will address the activity being trained as a whole as well as the contributing parts that affect performance. Using the swimming example; the activity works in the lactic and cardiovascular energy thresholds, so it will improve those capabilities. But swimming also utilizes an extremely specific movement pattern that is not similar to any other activity. To be a good swimmer, training needs to emphasize a.) improving those energy systems and b.) improving those movement patterns. The 'specificity' of movement in this activity is what prevents it from carrying over substantially to other activities that use the same energy system. Lance Armstrong was the worlds best cyclist and possessed superhuman levels of endurance; however, he couldn't hand with seasoned marathon runners because he was less efficient at running, which even a ridiculously high VO2 max couldn't make up for. Likewise, the specificity of the energy systems used in long distance swimming is what prevents it from carrying over to short sprints, even though the movement patterns are similar.
General Training: The 80/20 rule is an old economic principle used to give perspective to investors on how to manage their assets. Whether trading stocks, advertising through different outlets, or planning a training block, it always is the case that roughly 80% of your returns are a result of 20% of your efforts. Essentially, your progress can always be traced back to a small chunk of the things you did right, where most of your activities only contributed to the other 20%. This is powerful information when resources, such as time, are scarce. Being able to pinpoint which investments give the biggest return can lead to a huge surge in productivity and greater net gain. Basically, this can be applied by not quibbling over trivial details, like which BCAA supplement to take, whether your fifth chest exercise should be incline or decline flys, or shaving your legs before a triathlon. Instead, reinvest that time into the other holes that undoubtedly exist in your game which will offer greater return in less time.
Prioritizing What's Important
My preferred way of structuring workouts is by looking at performance as a pyramid. The pyramid stands strong because the foundation is wide, supporting a structure that climbs 100s of feet into the air. The base in lifting is an abundance of basic physical ability. Broad components such as work capacity, strength, and coordination (across any metric) will be the ground on which the more specific activities are built on. A wide base without a peak is a lifetime gym rat who has consistently practiced every mode of training imaginable, acquiring some strength and size in the process, but has never had consistent direction to one particular goal.
As the pyramid ascends, it gets narrower and narrower, until it reaches a peak. This peak represents the specific abilities, such as the exact energy systems used in a particular activity or how refined the movement mechanics are. These are vitally important to obtaining a high level of performance in any sport, but will not amount to a hill of beans without a properly reinforced base. I have met plenty of overly-specialized lifters; those who can move in perfect fluid form but simply lack the fundamental ability execute the task. Every lifter will have the unique task of finding out what their specific weaknesses are and if they are broad or specific.
Does your bench suffer because your setup needs work? Or is it just because your pecs and triceps are too small?
Is your squat stalled because of a muscle imabalance? Or do you simply need to increase your training volume?
Having an eye for these issues, along with an actionable list of fixes for them, is difficult and takes time to develop. Therein lies the value of a seasoned coach.