When Your Program Doesn't Work Anymore
I'm very open about how I use a systematic approach for the training of my athletes and clients. Everything we do is based off of movement patterns, and we rotate the movement patterns in order during each workout. What this looks like, is classifying exercises into the categories of Squat, Push, Hinge, and Pull. We start each cycle of workouts with our exercises selected in this order, rotating the order up the chain for each workout (read a full breakdown here).
"All models are wrong. Some are useful." - George Box
How do I know my systematic way of programming is wrong? At some point it stops working. It's true. At some point in time, the way I program for my athletes stops working effectively to the point at which results are not able to continually be made. So what do we do?
We must change the model.
This happened recently for a few of my athletes. For some, they have been with me for over a year, and the main method has worked for some time. But recently, a few of my athletes who have been with me for the last six months stopped experiencing progress using the structure we have traditionally used. But why? Because the order of the exercises, and the sequence by which we utilized them, no longer allowed for greater adaptation. We needed something different.
Sometimes, this is a physical need. A great example of this happened recently with one of my middle schoolers. After a few consistent months of training, he stopped being able to progress exercises. His movement began to become inconsistent, and progressively overloading the exercises we were utilizing in his training became challenging. Now, we let this process run for a bit. Sometimes, we do just need more time to get through a weird patch and keep progressing. But after several weeks of consistent lack of progress (which is not as common in middle school athletes), we decided to make some changes.
Interestingly enough, when we re-introduced more skips, hops, jumps, and sprints into his training, we got some faster results really quickly. Even within a session we saw increased coordination, higher outputs, and - this part is key - greater enjoyment in the training process. We just had to ditch our old system to get there.
Sometimes, however the system stops working because of a mental need. I've had this arise recently with a few of my athletes who were training more frequently as they were taking off-seasons. I have a few who really enjoy the process, and during off-season periods increase their training frequency from 2-3 times per week to 3-4 times per week (I had one athlete attempting 6 days, and we had to cut them off so they could recover). What did we do? We expanded our system! Traditionally, we'd rotate the same four workouts for 3-5 weeks at a time until we could no longer progress them. However, when we noticed these athletes started to become a little more lethargic and less enthusiastic about training, we expanded our traditional four workout rotation to eight workouts. This gave them 10-14 days between repeating the same workout while still maintaining their ability to make progress or get stronger in the same movement patterns.
These are just some examples, but I find it important to touch on. We often get caught doing the same thing over and over in the gym. Sometimes, however, we need to take time to switch it up to continue to make progress. This may mean changing the style of training we do from hypertrophy to strength, or from endurance to speed. This may mean selecting different exercise sequences, or changing how you program as a whole. The challenging thing about training, is we often get caught in using the same system even when it fails to continue building results. But if we can move away from this common problem, the more we can make sustainable long-term progress in the end.