The Essential Variable People Miss In Their Exercise Programs

The Mistake of Linear Program Design

by Will Brink

I find most people will design a program for themselves and follow it in a linear fashion, that is they run X times per week for Y distance, lift X times per week doing Y number of sets, etc. with little change over time. A result oriented program looks like a wave form where volume and intensity peaks, say over a 6-8 week period (as an example, but programs vary widely), with volume and or loading reduced 40-60% for a week or two, then either repeated, or onto some other program. Some programs will call for taking a week off totally between programs.

Increasing intensity and or volume improves the response up to a point, then falls off sharply as you hit over training syndromes (OTS) and or injuries or both. So, periods of planned increases in volume and or intensity to reach a personal mile stone, followed by a detraining period, is best to optimizing training, reaching new personal bests, and avoiding OTS. The study listed below gives some insight into that also.

A linear program where you do the same thing each week, such as run X miles and lift X weights will be limiting. Athletes left to their own, will generally follow a “more is better” linear approach, where as a good coach will follow the “smart is better” approach, which follows a wave form pattern. Within that wave form pattern may be micro cycles and other stuff too, but that depends on the program.

There have been some interesting studies where they have taken runners and swimmers, cut their volume in half, and their times improved! Why? Because they were over training.

I find that is often the case with strength athletes also.

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:

Volume 39(8)August 2007pp 1358-1365

Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis


Purpose: The purpose of this investigation was to assess the effects of alterations in taper components on performance in competitive athletes, through a meta-analysis.

Methods: Six databases were searched using relevant terms and strategies. Criteria for study inclusion were that participants must be competitive athletes, a tapering intervention must be employed providing details about the procedures used to decrease the training load, use of actual competition or field-based criterion performance, and inclusion of all necessary data to calculate effect sizes. Datasets reported in more than one published study were only included once in the present analyses. Twenty-seven of 182 potential studies met these criteria and were included in the analysis. The dependent variable was performance, and the independent variables were the decrease in training intensity, volume, and frequency, as well as the pattern of the taper and its duration. Pre-post taper standardized mean differences in performance were calculated and weighted according to the within-group heterogeneity to develop an overall effect.

Results: The optimal strategy to optimize performance is a tapering intervention of 2-wk duration (overall effect = 0.59 ± 0.33, P < 0.001), where the training volume is exponentially decreased by 41-60% (overall effect = 0.72 ± 0.36, P < 0.001), without any modification of either training intensity (overall effect = 0.33 ± 0.14, P < 0.001) or frequency (overall effect = 0.35 ± 0.17, P < 0.001).

Conclusion: A 2-wk taper during which training volume is exponentially reduced by 41-60% seems to be the most efficient strategy to maximize performance gains. This meta-analysis provides a framework that can be useful for athletes, coaches, and sport scientists to optimize their tapering strategy.

Brink Bottom Line:

People should understand that designing effective, efficient, programs is not nearly as simple as it might appear. Unless you have long term experience with concepts such loading, volume, TUT, etc, etc, pick a program by a trusted coach and follow it. The haphazard routines I see people self invent are often responsible for a lack of steady progress in the gym.

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About the Author

Will Brink is a columnist, contributing consultant, and writer for various health/fitness, medical, and bodybuilding publications. His articles relating to nutrition, supplements, weight loss, exercise and medicine can be found in such publications as Let’s Live, Muscle Media 2000, MuscleMag International, The Life Extension Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Inside Karate, Exercise For Men Only, Body International, Power, Oxygen, Penthouse, Women’s World and The Townsend Letter For Doctors. He is the author of Priming The Anabolic Environment and Weight Loss Nutrients Revealed. He is the Consulting Sports Nutrition Editor and a monthly columnist for Physical Magazine and an Editor at Large for Power magazine. Will graduated from Harvard University with a concentration in the natural sciences, and is a consultant to major supplement, dairy, and pharmaceutical companies.

He has been co-author of several studies relating to sports nutrition and health found in peer reviewed academic journals, as well as having commentary published in JAMA. He runs the highly popular web site, which is strategically positioned to fulfill the needs and interests of people with diverse backgrounds and knowledge. The BrinkZone site has a following with many sports nutrition enthusiasts, athletes, fitness professionals, scientists, medical doctors, nutritionists, and interested lay people. William has been invited to lecture on the benefits of weight training and nutrition at conventions and symposiums around the U.S. and Canada, and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs.

William has worked with athletes ranging from professional bodybuilders, golfers, fitness contestants, to police and military personnel.

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