Sunday, February 8, 2015

Do you need a program? Why do you want to fail?

Four examples of people who obviously aren't following any type of program.

Example 1: Guy walks into the gym, the very first thing he goes on is the pec dec, then followed by something random like the calf raise. Note: this guy does not look like Dorian Yates.

Example 2: Guy walks into the gym, goes over to the free-weights, picks up a pair of 50kg dumbbells with no warm up and does a set of dumbbell bench press. He does this every single time he comes into the gym. He has found something he is good at and is sticking with it.

Example 3: Woman walks into the gym, goes on the cross trainer for 40 minutes and then does every variation of crunch known to woman kind.

Example 4: Guy walks into the gym, goes over to the free-weights, stands as close as he can to the rack and then does a super fast set of alternating partial range bicep curls to warm up, followed by declines press on the smith machine.

None of these routines can be found in a magazine, or fitness website or fitness book. None of these routines were written or designed by a professional.

In a  recent survey in the gym where I work over 90% of people were not following a program. They gave all sorts of answers such as 'I freestyle it', 'I have a routine I like to do', 'I kind of do my own thing'. All code for I am making this stuff up and have no idea what I'm doing. Strangely, the people most likely to be free-styling were the beginners and neophytes, the people most likely to be following a routine written by themselves or more likely a coach were the most advanced.

So why don't people follow programs? Do they need one? Do they subconsciously want to fail? And should you be doing intuitive training if you have no idea what you are doing?

Do beginners need a program?

Firstly, the most important thing is to show up (I think Dan John said that). By actually showing up at the gym you are already way ahead of most of the population. Well done.

Next up, what to do in the gym. You would think that considering the vast amount of programs on the internet and fitness apps available, people would be following these? Right? Wrong. Most beginners are not following any program.

So you would think they would take advantage of the offer of a free program? No, offer someone three free appointments and a free program and most people never make it past turning up for appointment one. After session one, they figure they are good to go, they know how to start the machine and watch E4, so let the results based training begin. Although, if someone is actually paying for a program, they do actually turn up and take notice. There is a lesson there.

I think the first issue is comfort zone. People don't like being uncomfortable. For most of them, just coming into the gym is uncomfortable, you start asking them about their goals and their plan and they get decidedly shifty. They want to keep their head down. They have already decided what they are going to do. You tell them in the most polite way possible that their plan of coming to the gym twice a week and doing a bit of cardio while not changing their diet will result in zero weight-loss, and one and a half stone is not shifting with this approach, and they don't like it.

Cross trainer. The fitness industry nemesis. The anti-program machine?

Hard work doesn't sound like what they signed up for. They want to be taken to the edge of their comfort zone so they can justify the tub of Ben and Jerry's but they don't want to actually go much further and get results.

Expertly drawn picture of why the no program strategy doesn't work for beginners.

A real conversation between one of my colleagues and a new member

Trainer: I can offer you a movement screen, write an individual program, get you booked in for three appointments with us, at no extra cost.
Client: No, I just want to use the cross trainer and a few machines
Trainer: I can show you how to press quickstart, but I don't want you to think in three months time that you didn't achieve anything or get results
Clients: I'll do my own thing for a month, then if it doesn't work I will come and see you.

Good luck to her, but it wont work.

Hardly anyone thinks they can teach themselves to drive or ski with absolutely no help. A few could probably do it after watching some youtube videos. But most couldn't, they seek expert help, because if nothing else it's quicker. But with fitness, they aren't doing this, they are free-styling it, not even turning to the internet. You learned to walk intuitively, but you are not going to grasp a sumo deadlift or kettlebell swing intuitively, so you will avoid them or do them really badly.

Beginners don't need an individual program. Bu they do need a program. And a program that is progressive, if you are still lifting the 1kg dumbbells in 6 weeks time, there was no improvement. The program can be simple, more simple than people think they need: walk everyday, body-weight squats, body-weight step ups, glute bridges etc but with good technique and a progression!

There is no place for intuitive training with the absolute beginner, how can you make intuitive choices about exercises you are not even aware of?

The beginner needs to be guided with exact reps and sets and time, because they have no frame of reference to make an informed decision.

Who needs a program?

Beyond the beginner there are a range of programs available. I have personally followed programs off of t-nation, and by Eric Cressey, Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld. They were all good and gave me some structure. Though I doubt any of them would have been useful if I didn't know how to squat, deadlift, press etc.

I have also followed programs written by myself and others. (My running training is a different matter, as I will explain).

You don't need a program, but you do need a plan!

It is okay to be flexible. How many times have I walked into the gym and wanted to use the rack for squats but it is in use. I could be that guy who stands there for 30 minutes waiting for the rack to become free, as he cannot deviate from his routine, or I could go and do some trap bar deadlifts or kettlebell front squats.

I have a template in my mind, but anyone who has ever worked out in a commercial gym knows you have to be flexible.

You don't need a program but you do need a structure!

So you need to have enough experience to know when to deviate from the plan, but also to know when you are kidding yourself and wimping out.

Cybernetic periodization and autoregulation. What, Cyber-men are coming?!

These days the terms intuitive training and autoregulation have become conflated. Intuitive training is essentially making it up on the day and doing what you like (no squats, bench all the way!). Autoregulation is actually way more structured, see Siff (2003: 129).

More useful for the medium to advanced exerciser is cybernetic periodization. Which sounds more complicated and Dr Who than it actually is. Siff (2003:135) defines cybernetic periodization this way

" which loading, in a given training scheme is modified regularly according to a subjective rating of perceived exertion (RPE), rating of technique (RT), objective physiological measurements and actual sporting performance."
and further more

"cybernetic programming... is a quantified extension of what may be termed intuitive training, an approach which probably is as old as the history of physical training." (Siff, 2003:297)
Note, this doesn't mean you just go into the gym and make it up. You have a plan or even a specific program. Maybe, you are meant to do 5x5 on squats on a particular weight, but you back off on the last set that day, or only do three sets, or if you are feeling strong and technique is good, put more weight on the bar.

This approach works if you know how you body responds to exercise, if you are on week one of squats and still using just the bar, then you don't have enough experience to make the decision. That's where the coach comes in.

Avoiding qualities you need to work on. 

Another reason to have a program is the tendency to avoid the things you need to work. I think it was Duncan French who said we need to work on the qualities that have been trained out of our athletes (I'm paraphrasing) and in essence this is the same for the general public. People are rounded too much, sit down all day, then come to the gym and do too much bench press or sit on a bike. They need to do the opposite of what they have become accustomed to and comfortable with and by extension reasonably good at. And not many people want to do things where they might start off looking bad, ego stops more people than anything else for asking for help and getting a program and results.

A confession.

As I stated earlier I have followed resistance training programs from a whole range of sources and got good results.

When it comes to running, its a different matter. I trained for Leadville 100 mile with no program set in stone. I didn't write my mileage down, I don't know how many miles I covered each week. Don't get me wrong, I read every source and book on run programming and ultra running that  I could from Brad Hudson to Bryon Powell and way too many more to list. And I took influence from all of them and then constructed my own plan. Call me egotistical, with my background in resistance training and rehab I thought I could construct a better plan for me than anyone else.

Also things like run 3k at tempo, then 5k at marathon pace etc just don't work for me.

Don't get me wrong, I had a plan, but in essence I was using cybernetic periodization. And also because of my work schedule I had to be flexible as to when my long runs and gym sessions were. The actual description of what I did is a whole other article. But below is a brief summary:

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: Approx 10k trail or road run depending in schedule, plus gym (dropped gym in later phase of training)
Wednesday: easy road run 30-40mins
Thursday: Hill session, anything from 8 sec sprints to 1 mile repeats
Friday: Gym
Saturday: 10-20k road run or treadmill incline
Sunday: 35-40k trail

This schedule would switch and change all the time, sometimes Saturday & Sunday would reverse, sometimes I would add in a gym session on Tuesday or Wednesday evening, sometimes I would be working weekends.

The important thing is I had bench marks to hit, 50k run by first week of June, 70-80k run by 7th July.

Sometimes I would feel good and do more hill repeats on a Thursday, sometimes I would do more work, sometimes less,sometimes faster than I thought I could, sometimes barely making it to the end, but I never missed a session.

The plan was there, the basic structure was there, and thought the thought of blowing up on Hope Pass kept me motivated to not kid myself and take days off and avoid things I needed to do (run up hills in the rain and snow).

Anton Krupicka (ultra-runner with awesome beard) has said, if he had a coach and a program, he would almost certainly get better. But mountain ultra running is about something more than that. So if you are exercising because you want to get into a flow state, or enjoy running for the sake of, and like exercise purely for stress relief and to help mindfulness, then you probably don't need a program. But most people join a gym to lose weight, tone up, increase muscle mass and all the usual reasons.

Anton Krupicka. Intuitive training is fine if you know what you're doing and you have an ultra beard . (Picture chosen by my girlfriend!)

Failure & success, it's a fine line.

Most beginners don't have a plan or structure. Sometimes they have a vague idea of a routine that they have constructed out of the ether. Okay, at least they are doing something (but please stop doing sit ups while holding onto a sandbag!)

Some have a random approach, random workouts, random conditioning. Mostly staying well within their comfort zones, and working on the qualities they already have rather than the ones they have lost. And random workouts can be fun, but you need to earn the right to do them. Learn to read and write before writing novels.

Yes, as a beginner without a coach or a program or plan you will fail.

Yes, an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite amount of time may write Supertraining. But we already have Supertraining, and we already have hundreds of programs that work and good coaches that can help, so why are you still free-styling your way to failure?

Most advanced lifters and athletes are following a program. You don't need to plan every single rep, but you do need a road map. Athletes and advanced lifters will work on things they don't like, with the help of a coach, as they know it will make them better.

You are probably less advanced than you think you are, you probably need some help to get results you actually joined the gym for in the first place. Yes, you will go out of comfort zone, and it may be hard, but a good coach and program will get you to where you want to be. Trust them, it will be worth it.


Siff M (2003) Facts & Fallacies of Fitness. 6th edition.


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