Being “in shape” doesn’t move me. I’m wired to push myself. And if you are too, great. This article is about structuring training for the long haul. I think all humans need growth/improvement/expansion/Kaizen to feel whole. Stagnation is the enemy.
Training like a crazed maniac isn’t sustainable. Training like a calculated maniac is.
Let me lead with honesty: there are times I struggle to hold the line. Balancing being a dad, an entrepreneur, and a husband isn’t easy. Most stages of my life aren’t going to be training to the overtones of Hearts on Fire. It doesn’t deter me, and you should let it deter you either.
I’m not ready to relegate myself to Uncle Rico stories about the good ol’ days when I could throw the pigskin a quarter mile. I’m content knowing other people don’t care about what I used to lift. They probably don’t even know what’s good.
To date, I’ve spent over half of my life training with weights. I’m been awesome, stupid, lazy, and crazy with my training.
While I’m the most fit I’ve probably ever been, I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I have to be more intelligent with my training and intentional with my recovery. And I am, because I like to work hard.
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you do too. I also apply feedback from coaches very well. I thank being a mediocre athlete for this. If you suck at something, and you don’t want to, you had better listen to what others have to say…especially those who decide whether you get into the game or not.
If you want to get out of your own way, get called out on your own lies, and focus solely on the work then you should think of hiring a coach too.
Coaching gives me an edge. I have and have had coaches for training, nutrition, business, and personal development. As a coach myself, this is not just something I sell, it’s something I believe in. I continue to experience the benefits of coaching.
Every coach helped me progressed, but not in the same way. Some coaches had me jump in and push to the limit. Others have stepped up to the line, taken aim, and shot bullseye after bullseye with savant-like mastery.
My own coaching style is a mix of the experiences I’ve had as an athlete, a coach, and craftsman.
As a younger coach I would replicate what I had learned and train others with a modified carbon copy plan. Now that I’ve been in the game a while, I appreciate the nuances between programming styles and how to implement them for a lifetime of fitness badassery.
I’ve come to see it as the difference between optimizing and maximizing.
Optimizers & Maximizers
Although optimizing is not maximizing, do not associate it with maintenance. Maintenance is different and not the point of this article. Maintenance sucks, but sometimes life forces you to prioritize other domains. If this is you, Hold. The. Freaking. Line.
I argue that optimizing and maximizing programs seek the same end goal, but with different methods. I articulate this is a matter of context and a measure of the latitude I give (or am willing to give) to certain biomechanical and physiological parameters in a given training program or block. If that confused you, just know that for every gimme there’s a gotcha. And my job is to balance and exploit this.
When the focus is maximization, I drive the development of a few key aptitudes. It’s a sprint. A majority of training volume is allocated to this goal. I sacrifice variability for specialization. I overreach.
In my little subculture of the fitness world, we are trying to sort out what the hell the word “variability” means. Without hijacking the article I’ll touch on what it is and what it is not.
Variability is not variation. It does not mean you ride 100 horses with one ass and randomly choose how and what to train.
Variability is about broadening your physiological and biomechanical buffer zones. For example, during a powerlifting meet preparation I’m okay losing certain ranges of joint motion in exchange for improved strength (specialization) but in the off-season, I want to improve joint range of motion and my aerobic development (variability).
Taken too far the negative consequences of maximizing could be acute overreaching, or in the long-term, perhaps injury. This doesn’t discredit the grind—the poison is in the dose.
To be great you must push the boundaries of physiology. Doing a specific task (a powerlift, a mud race, a marathon) at a high level requires an immense amount of resources over a long period of time. Many people run. Less run marathons. Few run at elite levels. Let’s be clear, we are talking about fulfilling your potential.
The optimizer preps for future success. Imagine taking your car into the shop for routine maintenance and getting it back with a turbo engine, NOS, and an invite to “Let’s see what this thing can do.” Some phases of training distribute focus to more things.
I’ll use strength as an example because it’s familiar to me. Whenever I reach new PR’s I always feel that I need to develop “competence” with certain weights. Instead of driving 1-rep max strength infinitely it’s necessary to get comfortable with higher average training weights.
For example, I recently squatted 500. Many of my workouts up to that point dabbled in the 400’s. For me, it’s about building competence and comfort with 400+ regularly on the bar.
There’s a place for both programs. Here’s how I would incorporate them into your training plan.
The Role of Maximizing Programs in Your Long-Term Plan
The younger you are, the more frequently you can tackle ball busting programs. With sports science trickling down to the masses (e.g., heart-rate variability [HRV]) it is easier to manage training effects in real time.
You can train on a “down” day. An athlete can’t push back kick-off because their HRV is amber. You have to train in suboptimal conditions sometimes. This isn’t permission to get sloppy and sacrifice technique; it’s an invitation to train despite feeling less than 100%.
You are bending, if not breaking, the rules. I wish I had tested my boundaries more in my early 20’s to see what I could actually recover from.
A few maximal programs have had me squatting, benching, and deadlifting up to 4x per week each. This is unlike anything I’ve done ever. And the results were awesome! I was able to rebound off a tibia fracture and squat a PR within 9 months post break.
But, you can’t go full throttle 100% of the time. The race car driver that pushes the gas too much ends up in the wall.
As you age, I think you have fewer opportunities to use maximizing programs in your yearly plan.
I think most people with a moderate level of fitness can push anywhere for 4-16 weeks. You’ve got the green light as long as health is high enough to drive performance. Given enough time, variability will decrease. If you desire to be one of the all-time greats, you might have to sacrifice it indefinitely.
There are challenges to overcome as you progress. The more fit/strong/etc you are, the more you can train like a savage and disrupt homeostasis; however, it’s also harder to influence further increases in fitness/strength.
At some point, things become stagnant and fitness abilities that underpin your goal fade. This is where optimization comes in.
The Role of Optimization Programs in Your Long-Term Plan
Optimization is the quiet before the storm. It’s looting for ammo in a video game before going Leeroy Jenkins. Don’t confuse this with easy or scaled back. Optimal training is smart training, and smart training that isn’t hard isn’t smart.
Optimization still challenges you, but in a way that restores variability.
It takes experience to dial in optimization. To my way of thinking, here is optimization in a nutshell
To facilitate long-term potential by allocating adaptive resources to areas that support your overall development.
Minus the geek speak: everyone has a limited amount of training they can do and recover from. When you’re maximizing, you’re all in on a few. When you’re optimizing, you’re elevating many.
It serves as a linking step between maximizing programs to drive progress, mitigate potential injuries, and fortifying your body for the next battle.
The Sequence of Training for Optimal Progress
Enough hypothetical jib-jab, let me share a real example. These are from my own powerlifting cycles. Consider that a powerlifter has the sole objective of maximizing strength. A team sport athlete or someone who wants strength and endurance has more significant programming nuances that are beyond the scope of this article.
Post Powerlifting Meet
By the time a meet is here, I am an extended bro. I walk like I’m in a phantom squat rack (or maybe like a duck). I’m in desperate need of conditioning. My joints need a break from the heavy weights. My motivation to train wanes due to overreaching and I’m prone to sickness.
This program is significantly higher in volume than the last phase of my powerlifting prep, thus it’s a beast on its own. The first week is absolutely brutal due to the conditioning demands—I set rest periods around 1 minute.
But it makes my body feel great. I restore variability through reaching, single-leg, split stance, and aerobic exercises. You’ll notice lifting is tapered down to 3 days. I generally lift 3-4 days (versus 4-5 in the final stages of prep) and do tempo/aerobic intervals on the non-lift days to rebuild capacity.
Without these optimizing programs, I’m not sure I could thrive injury free with the consistent PR’s that I’ve had over a 4-year span while solely focusing my training efforts on powerlifting. Granted I’m not elite, but I’m also not a chump.
I’ll add a maximization program in my next post, and link to it here when it’s live.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is we all face limitations in what your body can adapt to. Every stress you impose on your body requires the mobilization of resources to adapt – more mitochondria, more capillaries, more contractile proteins, etc.
The pursuit of higher and higher levels of fitness is one that I think makes the human whole. You have to choose what you love and know when to open up and go all in on driving performance and when you need to throttle it to build a broader foundation from which to build upon.
Now get after it.