Right alongside citing Simpson’s facts, making awesome breakfast smoothies, and dominating the original Snake game on a Nokia 3315, writing training programs is kind of my “thing”. It just makes sense to me. I feel I’m able to manage small but important details without losing sight of the bigger picture. Having a fair bit of practice under my belt helps. I’ve written literally thousands of training programs over hundreds of hours. They’re constantly evolving. I’m sure the earliest ones sucked. That happens.
But you don’t need your programs to suck. You can take a shortcut from those of us who have put in the hours. Or at the very least, incorporate a few tips here and there.
Here are two such tips.
1. Throw things, and jump.
Jumping and throwing are two fundamentally athletic movements, and also serve to fill our training quota of power training.
Why do you need power training? Well, aside from the obvious athletic benefits, research suggests that with age, muscular power declines at around 1.7 times the rate that muscular strength declines (and that is totally falling back on expert opinion, as I couldn’t find the exact studies in my five minute perusal through PubMed and Google, though other abstracts came up all indicating similar. I think I first heard it from Mike Boyle.). So as we’ve all heard of the importance in strength training for the elderly as a means of “use it or lose it”, the fact is that with power training you need to use it or lose it even faster.
Conveniently, effective power training can be accomplished quite quickly, as it requires a lower training volume than does strength. And in its simplest form, we’re now back to throw things, and jump.
Of particular benefit is that both of these movements require no deceleration phase, unlike Olympic lifts or dynamic effort squats and bench presses, and thus allow us to express maximal acceleration.
A medicine ball, anywhere from 1 – 10kg depending on the individual and the type of throw, but typically 2 – 6kg, will get the job done for most throws. Start with half kneeling chest passes and tall kneeling overhead throws, and progress to more dynamic variations from standing positions such as rotary throws, hip tosses and overhead slams with various steps.
Keep reps in the 5 to 8 rep range per side for 2-3 sets. Remember, the goal here is to express maximal power, not to create fatigue.
Here’s more than a few examples to get you started:
You can basically break the medicine ball throws into rotary throws or overhead throws. I recommend choosing one of each for a set and sticking with it for two to four weeks before increasing the movement complexity.
Similarly with jumps, start with the most basic such as box jumps – not crazy high max effort box jump like the YouTube heroes, the use of which has been well critiqued by Dan Blewett at Nick Tumminello’s site here – but rather a moderate box height with an emphasis on proper launching and landing mechanics, and a step back down to reduce unnecessary exposure to high impact.
From there we can get a bit fancy with bounding and hopping variations in various planes of motion such as double leg jump to single leg landing, lateral/medial hurdle hops, and even adding some 90 and 180 degree rotations in our jumps. We can also start to emphasise max effort jumping through tuck jumps, broad jumps, hurdle jumps, kneeling jumps or loaded-to-unloaded jumps.
The options are near limitless and most can be used effectively, provided a modicum of common sense is applied to the selection and application.
Here’s some jump examples to get you started:
Again, generally keep reps in the 5-8 range for 2-3 sets, increasing complexity every few weeks, and with an emphasis on limiting fatigue, not creating it.
Throws and jumps serves as excellent “primers”, a central nervous system (CNS) stimulus to help transition from the dynamic warm up into the heavier lifting, whether that be something further along the speed-strength continuum (still explosive yet heavier) such as Olympic lifting, or straight into the heavy compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, presses or pull ups.
2. Pair or group exercises together to improve training density, but do so in an intelligent manner.
While a few exceptions may necessitate doing so, performing straight sets (i.e. do a set, sit around resting for 2-3 minutes, then do another set) is pretty old school. We can do better.
Think about how you can pair or group exercises together without hindering the main lifts, and possibly even enhancing them.
A classic push/pull pairing is usually very effective.
Let’s say we’re going to perform DB flat bench presses and neutral grip pull ups for 4 sets of 8 reps each in a given session. If we were to program these with straight sets, something like a 90 second rest would be a standard prescription. Assuming around 30 seconds to complete the set, that would mean we’re looking at 16 minutes to get through all sets of both exercises.
However, what happens if we simply perform these as alternating sets instead of straight sets?
First, this particular pair works well as they are what we call “non-competing exercises”. That is, performing one won’t significantly affect the other in a negative manner. One is a horizontal push, the other a vertical pull. There is no major contribution from the same muscles in each movement.
However, to try this out with a DB bench press and, say, a DB push press, wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective since they are both pushing exercises. The shoulders and triceps will be so fatigued from the previous set of bench press that performance on the subsequent set of push presses will suffer miserably.
Instead, perform your set of DB bench press, then cut the rest to just 30 seconds, and get started on the pull ups. 30 seconds later you’re back to bench press. The rest in between sets of the same exercise is still 90 seconds, but you just did twice as much work in that same amount of time. Now, you can get through all eight working sets in 8 minutes instead of 16. You just doubled your training density, and the performance output shouldn’t suffer too much, if at all, as the working muscles have received the same rest period between sets. Granted, the cardiorespiratory system takes a bit of a pounding using this method, but that’s fine, it’ll probably do you some good.
A preview of your upper body session may now look something like this:
1A) Neutral Grip DB Flat Bench Press, 4 x 8
Rest 30 seconds to 1B
1B) Neutral Grip Pull Up, 4 x 8
Rest 30 seconds back to 1A
But what about applying this to the big compound lower body lifts?
While a little trickier, it can still be done with a little forethought.
Let’s say our primary movement for the day is deadlifts, programmed in at 1A for 6 sets of 3 reps.
6 x 3 would indicate relatively heavy loads, indicating relatively long rest periods. Three minutes would be a fairly typical rest period.
To go off performing any lower body exercises in between would be to the detriment of the subsequent sets of deadlift, so that rules that out.
Too, most major upper body lifts will be taxing enough to negatively affect the deadlift, seeing as the deadlift is very much a full body lift and, in particular, pulling exercises such as rows and chins would be a mistake, as these will greatly fatigue both the upper back and grip strength, both of which are crucial in deadlift performance.
So are we back to square one and left with no choice but to sit around checking Facebook on our iPhone in between sets?
Hardly. Let’s think this through.
What’s the primary focus of the deadlift pattern?
Hip extension, right? Yes. Gold star for you.
Now, what is the most common deficiency in virtually everyone that negatively affects hip extension?
Did someone say tight hip flexors? Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
So, could we simply hang around in a half-kneeling position stretching out those bad boys for the entire rest period?
Well, yeah. You absolutely could. There are far worse choices you could make.
But, I reckon I can one-up you.
Rather than just stretch, what do you say we make some inroads into our daily core training requirements while we’re there, hey?
Enter half-kneeling chops and lifts.
Six to eight repetitions per side will have us:
- Spending some time stretching out those pesky tight hip flexors, and likely improve subsequent deadlift performance.
- Stiffen up the anterior and lateral core by engaging the external obliques, quadratus lomborum and the deep “inner” core unit.
- Fire up the lateral hip stabilisers which aren’t hit primarily in the deadlift, yet play a key role in keeping everything in the sagittal plane, well, in the sagittal plane: resisting the knees from caving into valgus and the feet from pronating excessively.
Too, the cue to “spread the floor” or “push the knees out” is commonly used by power lifters in the know to bring the hip abductors into play to help develop total body tension.
And, looking at this sequence from the other end, with the emphasis on the core exercise, performing this immediately after the deadlifts while the heart rate is still a little elevated and some fatigue is present gives us a little more real-world application, by training us to better use those reflexive core stabilisers while under some duress. Pretty sure I credit Stu McGill for that tip.
So a snapshot of your training program on deadlift day could now look like this:
1A) Deadlift 6 x 3
No Rest to 1B
1B) Half-Kneeling Chop & Lift – Alternate between each, each set – x 6/side
Rest 90 seconds back to 1A.
Throw things, and jump.
Pair or group exercises together in an intelligent manner.
Try it out. If it helps your training, I’d love to hear from you.
If it completely screws up everything for you, I’d love to hear from you.