Thursday, 2 July 2015

a coaches' guide to strength development: PART V: is history a good predictor of the future?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Dan Carlin podcasts lately (he hosts two series’: Common Sense, and the awesome Hardcore History).  

A recent one - Past Performance and Future Results - suggested an alternative to the mutual fund disclaimer I mentioned in the last post.

Rather than stating “past performance is no guarantee of future events”, Carlin suggests we  change it to “if current trends continue, we can reasonably assume X”.  

I like this.

It now tells us something:
History is not a good predictor of the future …

… but if the same thing happens over and over again, we can have increasing confidence in our  ability to predict.  The more consistent this is, the more confidence we have in our predictions. 

Eventually we can identify trends, and that allows us to learn from our mistakes.  

Not necessarily …

History is full of situations where we do not learn from our mistakes*. 
(*Nicholas Clairmont - Big Think)

  • After repeated wars between Germany and France, France still demanded that confiscatory terms of surrender be imposed on Germany after The First World War. Then The Second World War happened.
  • After failing to invest in education and infrastructure in Afghanistan after arming the Mojahadin against the invading Soviet Union in the 80’s, America neglected to make the same investments after later Middle Eastern military campaigns. Then rose The Taliban and Al Qaeda.
  • After Stalin’s brutal regime of secret police and leader worship, Cuban revolutionaries allowed their charismatic revolutionary leader to seize absolute power. A Castro still holds a seat of dictatorial power in Cuba.”
  • etc …

… and not learning from our mistakes has caused us to blow up far more athletes than we want to admit to.  

Good coaches minimize this risk.  
Good coaches do not rationalize that it was not a mistake to begin with; 
they do not assume a different outcome next time, just because they will it to happen; 
they identify what went wrong clearly; 
they seek outside guidance and assistance; 
and they work HARD.    

Good coaches are better able to learn from history - because they have a philosophy.  And they are better able to adapt to the dynamic nature of history because they pay attention

There are multiple ways of looking at the world - many ways of perceiving and interpreting facts - from microscopic, to macroscopic.  We have all heard the saying “you can’t see the forest for the trees”, but it is important to understand that this is also true in reverse.  It is just as important that we see the detail in the trees.  

This depth in perspective - the congruence of the macro- with the micro- is what separates master coaches from the rest of us.

The macro-  that is our philosophy
The micro-  that is our awareness

  1. A Philosophy - a deep understanding of his or her philosophical constructs; the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes that drive our coaching
  2. Awareness of the experience -  without any preconceived expectation derived from a set predictive model.  In other words - we need to experience adaptation as it is - not as it is named - or what we expect.  

In the next few posts, we will discuss the importance of philosophy and awareness - and provide examples of how it drives our coaching. 


"Philosophy is Dead"
- Stephen Hawking

Clearly this Stephen Hawking character is not very clever.

For without a philosophy, we don’t stand a chance.  ‘Modern’ philosophy began with Socrates’ questioning of everything (so much so that it led to his death); as a coach, we are faced with multiple questions every day, and having a framework to guide us is essential.  

It is an obvious statement - but one that is surprisingly often overlooked.  Rather than writing programs based upon educated personal beliefs, many of us mindlessly prescribe what was given to us when we competed - or turn to the latest internet article for ‘inspiration’. 

As discussed in part II of this series, a philosophy protects from the comings and goings of the various trends that permeate the profession. Good coaches maintain a core set of principles - and are far less influenced by the current trends of the day. 

It’s an awesome - and simple - way to understand how we should plan our workouts.  But I argue that we should add a fourth ‘P’ - PHILOSOPHY.  As it is our philosophy that will determine each level below it.  I will actually argue that the middle two Ps are the least important - that as long as we have a strong philosophy, and we understand how to program on a daily basis, that the plan and the periodization are not that important at all.  

Each year, I sit down and write down my training philosophy on one piece of paper.  I think it is important that I am able to condense it to just that - what is MOST important to me?  What drives everything else that I do?  What are the principles that are most important to me?

In this post, I will discuss three of these driving principles:

  1. Mastery of the Basics
  2. The Planning Trap
  3. Micro dictates Macro


The key for effective organization of training is to understand the relationship between the athlete’s current state, and a given training load.  

Sounds simple, but predicting how an athlete is going to respond to training is a formidable undertaking.  Accurate prediction necessitates a causal relationship between load and adaptation - but this relationship is highly complex - involving many interdependencies, and determined by numerous variables. Causality in this sense does not exist.  Our physical performance is tied to mental and emotional factors, among others - introducing additional variables into the equation that are difficult to pin down. 

All we can observe is that two events (load & adaptation) are correlated to each other.  The more often a certain adaptation is observed with a consistent load, the more confident we can be in the relationship - but we can never assume full causality. 

This is why the best programs are never erratic in their organization.  If we study the most successful programs in history, one thing continues to leap out: consistent application of the fundamentals. 

Boring - I know …

But only by being consistent in the prescription of training variables, do we stand a chance at anywhere near what we could term confident prediction

The more consistent the stimulus, the better predictions of adaptation on future stimuli we can make.  Adaptation and progression is an individualized phenomenon.  There is an almost impossibly high inter-individual variability in training effects that makes addressing inter-group adaptive response very challenging - even in homogenous groups.

Over 60 years ago, biophysicist Max Delbrück opined that the structure and function of a biological system cannot be understood unless it is studied against its historical background: “… there are no 'absolute phenomena' in biology. Everything is time- and space-bound. The animal or plant or micro-organism … is but a link in an evolutionary chain of changing forms, none of which has any permanent validity” - warning us that we have to be careful with inter-individual comparison - and instead, keep meticulous records of individual responses in order to identify trends.

It’s why I have a big problem with programs that prescribe exact percentages (believe it or not, I have even seen fractions of percentages used in both professional and Olympic sport programming).  How can we predict down to a fraction of a percent how an athlete is going to respond from session to session - or from cycle to cycle? 

If you can do this - congratulations!

You’re a hell of a lot smarter than me … and anyone I know.

What we can do is design our program around few fundamental concepts and exercises, change as few variables at a time as possible, monitor consistently, question what we think we know, and beware of falling into the ‘planning trap’ - the 2nd principle within my training philosophy.


Carlin - in the same podcast referred to previously - points to Charlie Brown continually falling for Lucy pulling the football away - never learning from past results - and continually ending up on his backside after swinging and missing.

Why doesn’t Charlie Brown learn?  

Because he is so emotionally invested in his relationship with Lucy that he allows it to cloud his judgement. And it is this attachment that hampers his learning - that biases his viewpoint, and retards him from ‘learning from history’.  It is this same emotional attachment that can potentially hamper our ability to objectively monitor our own programs once we are in the middle of them.

(our friend Henk Kraiijenhof recently wrote on this dynamic - or fluid - periodization on his blog, and the late Mel Siff referred to it as cyber-kinetic periodization)

We know the most about a plan when we are deep in the process of carrying it out.  NOT months before - when we actually write it.  The daily program is the most fluid piece of our organization.  The micro- and meso- have basic outlines, but the details of the training sessions should be scripted almost daily.  It is only by allowing for this fluidity - and actually planning for this fluidly - that we can avoid the sunken costs of overly detailed plans.  

Without this emotional attachment to the plan, it becomes easier to change direction mid-stream - to adapt - and to improvise.  It is this improvisation that often separates good coaches and great coaches.  The best coaches will have a wisdom that will allow for responsive adaptability (John Kiely’s term).

This is why I avoid putting much detail into my macro- and meso- cycles.  

But it hasn’t always been this way.  

I began as a typical Bompa-junkie - until around 1995-96, when I first traveled down to Texas and met Dan Pfaff:

What struck me most about Dan’s programming was not just the seeming simplicity of it - but also the apparent monotony.    I have already spoke about the importance of mastering a limited number of elements, and this was - even then - a pretty straightforward concept to understand.  But the lack of organizational (or for that matter, even loading parameter) variation from cycle to cycle surprised me.  

Up until that point, I was most familiar with traditional sequential periodization models - and the highly manipulated variables within them.  Reps, sets, density, exercise selection, etc.  All would mutate endlessly.   While Dan’s program (one of the first things Dan did when I got there was give me a year’s worth of training cycles) looked pretty much the same from month to month. 

I actually had difficulty with this …

… and made the erroneous assumption that Dan’s programs were monotonous because he was not familiar enough with contemporary weightlifting practices, novel loading parameter organization, and appropriately individualized exercise selection. 

It took me a while, but eventually I saw the wisdom in this consistency of load - and how this consistency formed the basis of a majority of effective programs in history.  A quick study of most of the successful strength-sport coaches will reveal a common theme: very few exercises, relatively consistent loading from cycle to cycle, and a focus on technical mastery.

I also came to terms with the fact that it was the micro-adaptation that dictated progression through the system - not the system that dictated progression through the micro-.  

Within Dan’s system, how an athlete responded each day, and each week, determined the loading for the following day, and the following week.  And then the layering of these days and weeks determined the progression through the macro-.  This is where I feel that many get it wrong.  Extensive macro-periodization assumes prior knowledge of detail in adaptation; so we end up periodizing the input - the independent variable - instead of the output - the dependent variable (more on this in a future post). 

This is what led me to the third principle within my philosophy: micro dictates macro.


Dan has a very set structure to his micro-cycle:

Pfaff micro-organization

Monday is always acceleration development and maximal strength - it doesn’t matter if it is week one, or week 30.  The theme remains the same.  The exercises remain virtually the same, the intensity doesn’t change a ton, and nor does the volume.  The density changes a little from cycle to cycle - but on the whole, not a lot of variation throughout the macro-.  Of course, the absolute intensity changes - as athletes become more efficient at the movements, or accommodate to the loads - but there is very little manipulation of the input (something Derek Evely will expand upon on further in a future post in this series). 

When I first met Dan, he used a 3:1 load:unload meso-structure.  Eventually finding that was a little too much load before an unload, Dan changed to a 2:1 - 2 weeks of loading, followed by a one week unload - where volume is reduced by approximately 30% (essentially by deleting two of the training days), while intensity is maintained. 

My micro-structure is slightly different:

McMillan micro-organization

*A quick note on the slight variation from Dan’s:

I find that that most elite athletes perform better the day after doing something.  In my experience, after a day off, most elite power-speed athletes take a while to get going, and we end up wasting a significant portion of the session waiting for them to come around.  I have found that by putting a potentiation-preparation (P&P in my nomenclature) day prior to our first main session of the week (Tuesday) improves the quality of all subsequent sessions. 

What does not change however, is that there is very little manipulation from cycle to cycle through the year.  I write every single micro- in this way right through to the main competition season.  

It is the micro- that dictates the meso-.  Using the 2:1 load-unload as a starting point - and being guided by Fitts & Posner, Wulf’s attentional focus research, Schölhorn’s differential learning, and Bernstein’s views on motor learning and dynamical systems - I structure each micro with a specific objective:

Week one is an introductory week - we use this week to introduce concepts (or more accurately - re-introduce them, as they have most likely been part of previous cycles) - we spend a lot of time on teaching, and ensuring quality of movement.  The cognitive demand during this week is very high.  The load of the first week is approximately 75% (relative to week 2).  

The objective of week two is to stabilize the elements introduced during week one: we teach a little less - but increase the physical load by about 25% - so less cognitive demand, less cueing, but more physical load. 

Week three is our unload week (or what we call the realization micro-).  We do almost no teaching this week - we step aside, and allow  for individual expression of what each athlete has learned through the previous two weeks.  Load is significantly reduced - relative to week two - by 50%.  

It is important to remember that the component parts of each day within the meso- remain the same from week to week - only the volume, and the way in which we teach them, changes.  It is this consistency in stimuli that makes adaptation more predictable;  the more consistent we are with it, the more confident (and accurate) we are in predicting the outcome. 

McMillan meso-organization

As this series' primary focus is on strength training, I will discuss the structure of only the strength components of the program.   It is an area where a lot of coaches seem to have difficulty - all coaches know the importance of a good strength program to the success of an athlete - but surprisingly few know how to integrate it into their on track/field program effectively.  

I try my best to match the type of strength ability with the type of session we are doing on the track.  What I mean by this is:

We have three primary weight sessions per week (discounting Monday - which is a highly individually scripted potentiation day that may - or may not - include Olympic lifts or their derivatives): Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. 

On Tuesday, we work on acceleration development - so we pair this with zone 3. Acceleration occurs for approximately the first 3-6 seconds of a sprint, has longer ground contacts and is relatively more defendant upon maximum strength qualities, so it only makes sense to pair this with Zone 3 exercises (refer to part II of this series for further information about the zonal system).

Thursdays are speed-oriented sessions, so it only makes sense that we pair the track session with Zone 1 weight-room work (speed-strength - or dynamic effort in Zatsiorsky’s/Simmons’ nomenclature). 

Saturdays are our big speed endurance days - so we pair it with zone 2 (work capacity, or hypertrophy - depending upon time of year, and individual objectives).  We organize zone 2 for the end of the week, as the accumulated load over the previous 5 days does not negatively affect its development.  

Tuesdays and Thursdays could be switched around - but I find we get a little higher quality acceleration work earlier in the week - and as I believe this to be the most important ability in sprinting, I choose to place it on Tuesday.  

Later on - we may move to 2 or 3 sessions per week, with more heterogeneous on-track sessions - where we may work on more than one ability, or system, within a single session (an example might be block starts followed by speed work, so therefore zone 3 and zone 1 work in the weight room).  

At this time of the year, we can decide on whether or not to begin phasing out zone 2 work (or at least increasing the time between developing it - working towards an MED density), or maintaining work on all abilities - just increasing the density by only working each ability twice in each 3 week block, instead of three times. 

Further into the season, we may begin complexing various methods - combining zone 3 and zone 1 loading within a single complex set (for example, back squat complex with jump squat).  We don’t do complex training with everyone - only once we feel the athlete has reached a point of diminishing returns on training each ability separately.  This point of diminishing returns is also something we need to understand when we decide when to cycle different loading zones in and out of the program.  


Probably the most boring question in the sprints world is how strong does a sprinter need to be?  There is continuing debate of the importance of maximum strength in sprinting.  In my mind, this is another topic that has been totally misunderstood. 

Let’s begin with what we know:

  1. There is fair amount of research to show that increased maximum strength is correlated to increased speed
  2. A vast majority of the elite sprinters in the world are not strong

Two seeming contradictory statements - but the devil is in the details, as always.  

There is not one study that has examined the speed and strength levels of an elite sprint population - so referring to research on rugby players, soccer players, or non-elite sprinters to base your strength programs for your elite sprinters or jumpers is not appropriate.  However, just because a majority of elite sprinters are not strong does not mean it is not an important ability.  It is arguably more important than all the other strength abilities - as most of them rely in one way or another on its development.  It is my contention however that - like all strength abilities - there is a point of diminishing returns to the development of maximum strength - and thus a point in which its improvement shows less of a correlation to speed improvement.  

It is obviously unrealistic to spend an entire career developing all strength abilities simultaneously at a peak rate - but through efficient organization, creative vacillation, and acute awareness, coaches can minimize the amount of time spent in the dreaded ‘maintenance’ zone.   Maintenance is just another word for plateau.  I try to avoid this term at all costs - it sends the wrong message.  

Once a strength ability has reached the point of diminishing returns, we are better off switching emphasis to other abilities, perhaps begin to layer abilities on top of each other through complexing - or take a good look at the structure of our meso-organization.


Once you reach the point of diminishing returns, it is time to focus more on the qualities that you have not yet maximized.  If all your strength abilities have reached a plateaued level simultaneously (doubtful), then try complexing, or other more novel stimuli.  What you must not do is continue bashing your head against the wall in an ego-driven fight to get your 150k clean or 200k squat.  

and …
… beware the coaches who preach maximum strength as the key to speed.  

It is not.  

this guy is not very strong ... trust me

All other things being equal, the athlete who produces more force will be faster than the athlete who produces less force.  This is very obvious.  However, this is not a realistic statement.  Because of course all other things are never equal.  It takes time and effort to improve strength abilities.  It is the coaches’ job to organize this time and effort in the best manner they know how.  We have all seen the athlete who hammers away at 1RMs in power cleans and squats year after year, adding a few kilos here and a few kilos there - feeding their ego, but little else.  Our sport is not weightlifting.  It is track & field.  The primary objective of strength training is to supplement our track & field program.  To fill in force-producing gaps, when necessary.  And to build a stronger chassis so that your elite high performance engines don't blow up the system.  A Ferrari engine will not work in a Yugo chassis.  Similarly, there is no point in building the world’s most robust body, if all you have is a Fiat motor.


As discussed, it is the details of our meso- and micro-plans that drive the program forward.  The macro- has a basic outline, but presents very little detail;  it is our contention that attachment to the minutiae of a macro- can affect acute understanding of how the athlete is actually adapting to the training on a meso- and micro- level.

So how do we determine program progression?  

This is a topic that will be explored in some detail within the next two posts … stay tuned!

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