Famed Olympic track and field coach Anatoly Bondarchuk believed there were three types of athletes: those who respond best to volume, those who respond best to intensity, and those who respond best to training variety.
It was a lesson that served me well for many years, but eventually I started to realize that perhaps the classifications were too limiting. I found that I might give a high-volume program to one athlete and he or she would make excellent progress, but the same program would not be nearly as effective for another athlete. Likewise, when I gave that same athlete an intensity program, he or she would crash almost immediately.
About the same time as this, I was studying Eastern medicine and herbology, and it suddenly occurred to me that these variations in training types correlate strongly with the five physical types described in Chinese medicine. These elements, as they are known, are used to categorize distinct physical types who manifest very distinct personality traits.
The elements are Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, and the fifth element (which, despite what you might have learned in the Bruce Willis movie of the same name, is not an orange-haired fashion model in gauze bandages) – is Water.
Amazingly, these ancient classifications predict quite accurately how different strength athletes respond to different types of training. They also predict quite accurately their personalities and even their weaknesses.
For years I have listened to people disparage this type of training or that type of training, saying that whatever they’d been doing did not work for them. Some said that the Westside style is no good or that German Volume Training didn’t work for them. The simple truth is that most likely they were performing the wrong type of training for their type, or element.
Breaking the Element Code
For instance, Fire types are the most gifted for weight training with a high concentration of high-threshold motor units. They tend to do a lot of volume with high-intensity work. I know, I know, high volume of high intensity would be paradoxical to what Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer did in his workouts, but it is possible for this type. They can train heavy all the time without crashing, as long as they frequently change the exercises.
Conversely, Earth types can stay on a set program for a long time. You have to first stress them with volume and then stress them with intensity (such as the periodization model presented in 1964 by Russian sport scientist Leonid Matveyev). Each phase is about three weeks. When an Earth type overtrains, their immune system will suffer and they’ll come down with a cold. They are also the ones who have the most trouble reducing carbohydrates in their diet, and it is much harder for them to get lean.
None of the Fire, Wood and Earth types are necessarily disadvantaged when it comes to bodybuilding or strength sports, but it is important for them to train for their type. Obviously, pure types are not that common and most people fall somewhere in between the five points of the element continuum:
FIRE > WOOD > EARTH > METAL > WATER
The Metal and Water types are, unfortunately, individuals who will never make much progress. They have bad nervous systems, the wrong muscle fibers and poor endocrine systems. These types end up being attracted to non-weightlifting activities like yoga or stamp collecting.
Following are more complete descriptions of each of the element types, including recommended training protocols.
The Fire Type
Fire types typically make the best strength/power athletes. They gravitate towards powerlifting, shot put, hammer throwing, discus, sprinting, long jump and the triple jump. Excitement is their middle name, and they usually have a great deal of enthusiasm. They are the type that inspires people in the gym, the natural-born salesman.
They are the most Yang of the elements; hence, willpower, confidence and excitement describe them. They are the ones who will explode if they get angry. They are also genetically predisposed to heart disease. My client World champion shot-putter Adam Nelson is a poster boy for the Fire type.
Fire types need both high intensity and higher volume in terms of sets compared to the other elements. In other words, Fire-type athletes will thrive on workouts that consist of 10-12 sets of 1-3RM. What’s more, their work capacity curve is phenomenal in that they can do 10-12 sets with a given weight with very little drop-off in performance. Any sets above 8 reps are a waste of time.
The amazing thing about Fire types is that you can beat them into the ground, as long as you change the program often. If a Fire type does workout X, they will need to switch to workout Y after five days because they will already have adapted. Because they have a great capacity for training, variety in the program is essential to them, and it is better to change the choice and order of exercise and the mode of contractions. Volume and intensities do not need to vary as much.
An ideal workout for a Fire type would include perhaps two lifts a day consisting of 10-12 sets of 1-3. This athlete could superset two antagonistic body parts; for example, the bench press and the chin-up, perhaps adding some remedial work at the end. They could easily perform relative strength work followed by hypertrophy training in the same workout. They could also easily train twice a day, six days a week, as long as they changed the exercises.
Sample Fire-Type Periodization for a Single Body Part
Day 1: Workout X
Day 6: Workout Y
Day 11: Workout X
Day 16: Workout Y
Day 21: Workout X
Day 26: Workout Y
Day 31: Workout X
Day 36: Workout Y
Day 41: Workout T*
Day 46: Workout U*
*Workouts “T” and “U” might consist of a slightly higher volume and less intensity, for example, 4-5 sets of 4-7RM.
Fire types will invariably ask, “Are you sure this is enough work for me?” If they perform a German Volume Training program (essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight), they will do fine on the first 2 sets of 10 but will crash on the third. If you give Fire types an Earth-type workout, their blood sugar will drop alarmingly. An alternate test involves testing their max, letting them rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85 percent of max. Typically, they will only be able to pump out 1-3 reps.
The Wood Type
Chinese doctors best describe Wood types as pioneers. They are very good at devising plans and sticking to them. They love challenging themselves and pushing themselves to the limit. They are bold and decisive, and they have a tendency to overdo things. That is why you have to plan recovery phases within the cycle – in other words, you have to hold them back every third workout.
Wood types are the most likely to abuse stimulants and sedatives. One might pop three Red Bulls before a workout and eat a Valium sandwich before going to bed. They are most likely to complain of tendon injuries, and they are genetically predisposed to liver problems.
Wood Training. Wood types can tend to overtrain very easily when volume is excessive. Likewise, they can only handle the same routine for roughly two weeks. Typically, for days 1-15 of a program, they will thrive doing rep ranges of 6-10, but you will need to drop the number of sets by about 40 percent every third workout.
Furthermore, they need to maintain a one-to-one ratio between volume and intensity. That means that they will do best on a two-week cycle employing high volume, followed by a two-week cycle using increased intensity. They will use rep brackets of 2-5 for days 16-30, making sure to drop the number of sets by about 60 percent every third workout.
Sample Wood-Type Periodization for a Single Body Part
Workout 1: 10 sets of 8?Workout 2: 8 sets of 7
Workout 3: 6 sets of 6
Workout 4: 10 sets of 8?Workout 5: 8 sets of 7
Workout 6: 6 sets of 6
*** move to higher intensity***
Workout 7: 12 sets of 4-5?Workout 8: 10 sets of 3-4
Workout 9: 6 sets of 2-3
Workout 10: 10 sets of 4-5 ?Workout 11: 8 sets of 3-4
Workout 12: 4 sets of 2-3
A Wood type will invariably ask, “Are you sure this is the most cutting-edge methodology you’ve got?” If they perform a German Volume Training program (essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight), they will complete the first workout, start to peter out on the second, manage only 4 sets of 10 on the third workout and then go home. An alternate test would involve testing their max, letting them rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85 percent of max. Typically, they’ll only be able to pump out 4-5 reps.
The Earth Type
In Chinese medicine, the Earth types are in the middle of the elements. Therefore, serenity and stability are big issues with them. They are well-grounded individuals, as the name would suggest.
As such, they like identical blocks of training and they don’t need variations within the macrocycle. They can stay on a set program for a long time (six weeks), but you have to stress them with volume for the first three weeks, followed by three weeks of intensity. While they don’t have the ability to tap into a lot of high-threshold muscle fibers (i.e., they don’t do well with a lot of heavy training), they have a greater capacity to hypertrophy than the average person.
If you overtrain an Earth person, they’ll come down with a cold. They are generally very particular about the quality and quantity of their sleep. They are the ones who will piss and moan during a squat workout about missing an hour of sleep.
Of all the element types, Earth types have the hardest time getting lean because they have a problem with reducing carbohydrate intake. Earth types often make good wrestlers or 400- to 800-meter runners. Prototypical Earth types include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Milos Sarcev.
Earth Training. Volume and intensity have to be balanced equally, as they have as much Yin as Yang. They respond best to longer cycles, typically three weeks to a month. They don’t do very well on classical maximal strength programs, as they will burn out rapidly.
Earth types would progress well on routines of 2-3 exercises per body part for the first month (volume or accumulation phase), with 3-4 sets per exercise and 9-15 reps. The next month, they should do 2-3 exercises for 4-5 sets, but do sets of 5-8 reps (the intensification phase).
Sample Earth Type Periodization for a Single Body Part
Day 1: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 for 2-3 exercises
Day 6: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 for 2-3 exercises
Day 11: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 for 2-3 exercises
Day 16: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 for 2-3 exercises
Day 21: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 for 2-3 exercises
Day 26: Workout X, 8 sets of 12-15 for 2-3 exercises
Day 31: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps for 2 exercises
Day 36: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps for 2 exercises
Day 41: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps for 2 exercises
Day 46: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps for 2 exercises
Day 51: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps for 2 exercises
Day 56: Workout Y, 10 sets of 5-8 reps for 2 exercises
If Wood Types perform a German Volume Training program (essentially, 10 sets of 10 using the same weight), they will do very well and will still make progress after the third workout. If, however, the Earth types do 10 sets of 3, they will be completely baked after the fourth set. Likewise, if Earth types perform the 1-6 method, they will burn out after only one workout. An alternate test involves testing their max, letting them rest 10 minutes and then giving them 85 percent of max. Typically, they will be able to pump out 7-10 reps.
The Metal Type
For coaches and personal trainers, metal types are the most frustrating athletes to train and I do not accept them as clients. They spend more time talking and philosophizing about training than doing it. Dogma is their middle name. They thrive on discussing discipline and structure, and they love to ponder over the definition of terms. Most of their calorie expenditure comes from talking, and I don’t even bother training them.
The Water Type
Water types are the most Yin of all the elements. They are the least physical or outward of the types. An accumulation phase for a Water type would consist of licking a dried prune 10 times.
I do not deal with Water types, either, and I usually direct them to the nearest yoga studio. Their genetic pool needs a hefty dose of chlorine. Luckily, most Metal and Water types don’t gravitate towards weight training.
Perhaps the best barometer of what type you are, or what blend of types you are, is whether you enjoy a particular type of training. Fire types can perform 10 sets of the same exercise without losing focus, but the same routine would bore an Earth type to tears.
Trainees should ignore the way their heroes train and just be honest with themselves. If you have not made any progress since the first Bush administration, then it is possible that you have not been training “true to your type.” The Chinese ask, “How can you expect to find ivory in a dog’s mouth?” Likewise, how can you find success using programs that are not suitable for your physiology?
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