From the first time we step into the gym we are surrounded by rumors of the magical training program that works miracles. They always have a catchy name or are accompanied by a picture of Arnold or Jay Cutler and promise things like bigger arms in 4 weeks.
As a faithful reader of muscle magazines growing up I certainly purchased my share of training programs with the hopes that I was just a few weeks from my goal. After a few years, though, I began to wonder if these routines were false or if it was the drugs these athletes were on that made the difference. Thanks to my introduction to some very smart people who study human physiology – specifically exercise physiology – I began to delve deeper to find an answer.
For the purpose of this article I am going to address those who are no longer beginners. This is not because beginners don’t deserve plenty of attention. For those who have never resistance trained, the progress will come fast and furious no matter what they do. Pick just about any program and follow it consistently and the body will adapt quickly. For those of us who remember those days of hitting personal bests every time we hit the gym for months on end, it was a glorious time. But for most of us, unfortunately, those days are over.
So instead of that group I am going to address those who have been training for perhaps more than a year and who have now seen their progress stalled. The body is not changing and the momentum is gone from the gym. This is when the training program is paramount. Going from beginner to intermediate is crucial as it will allow a lifter to remain motivated and eventually reach an advanced stage.
As an intermediate to advanced trainee there are four keys to look for in any training program to ensure it is the right one for you. These will help you identify if your training program is providing you everything that it should. The real truth is that the best program is the one you are going to follow and get excited about on a consistent basis.
KEY #1: Lay Out Clear And Specific Goals
Let’s start with the first key. Good training programs address a clear and defined goal. If you don’t have a clear goal, then that is where the starting point should be. Next, it’s time to find a program which fits your specific needs. Perhaps you have been told that to compete you would need a larger back or bigger legs. In this situation, to you’ll need to follow a program that prioritizes these areas with more frequency or total volume of work. But just because the specific goal is to bring up a lagging area, the physique as a whole should always be accounted for. Perhaps you want to compete in powerlifting as opposed to a physique competition. In this situation the program should certainly prioritize the squat, bench and deadlift to ensure you are progressing in those crucial lifts. Although this sounds like a fairly obvious rule, it often eludes those who get mystified by a routine someone else is doing and swears by.
KEY #2: It Needs To Be Progressive
Certainly one reason so many programs fail is because they are not actually a program – it’s a routine which does not adjust as the body adapts. If your training program has the same sets, reps and frequency in Week 6 that it did in week 1 with no plan for progression then you can certainly bet a stall is soon to follow. So many advances have been made in the area of proper periodization that any good program should contain – at the very least – linear periodization. More advanced training programs will lend themselves to nonlinear and daily undulating periodization. From there the program design will be specific to the goals of hypertrophy, strength or a combination depending on the individual. Bottom line – if your program doesn’t change, neither will your physique.
KEY #3: It Has To Be Enjoyable
Enjoyment is an often-overlooked element. This does not mean that every day should be a pleasure, of course. But the psyche of the athlete is so valuable that taking this into consideration when choosing a program will allow much better results. There should always be a sense of accomplishment and excitement about upcoming goals and results. Programs that don’t provide clear and defined goals will eventually stall, and leave a trainee bored and likely to stop training. Sometimes a less than ideal training program may be necessary if causes excitement. Don’t overlook this principle.
KEY # 4: Plan A Period For Recovery
One final key to any program is the essential planned period of recovery. Beating up the body day after day and week after week will have positive results – at first. But there will come a time when both progression stalls and injuries become more likely. This physical and mental exhaustion can have negative effects if there is not a planned period to taper and recover. A planned taper should offer a period where training intensity is temporarily lowered. This period will allow muscle and soft tissue to recover and positive adaptations to occur from the training leading up to it. The mind will also benefit from the reduction of stress. Even the anticipation of a taper week can improve compliance.