When it comes to giving talks about their workout programs, if there is one thing that strength coaches love more than PowerPoint presentations, it’s PowerPoint presentations using graphs. Line graphs, column graphs, pie charts – throw in some 3D imaging and you’ve got yourself a winning combination for the strength coaching lecture circuit.
The most popular of these graphs discuss the subject of periodization – and there is one graph that has been used so frequently there must have been some law that it must be included in every program design presentation. This model comes from Russian sports scientist Leonid Medvedev; its approach was to gradually shift workouts from high volume/low intensity to low volume/high intensity. Although countless US coaches embraced this model, including me when I first started coaching, it has had its critics – one being Coach Charles Poliquin. Charles pointed out the issues with trying to apply this model to advanced athletes, and with its underwhelming value in peaking athletes so they perform best at competitions.
When I became a strength coach for the Air Force Academy in the late ’80s, one benefit was that I had access to the library at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Every Saturday was designated library day. If you’ve ever visited this library, you know it’s like being the proverbial kid in a candy store: There are sports and fitness magazines and journals from all over the world. This was important to me, as much of the material I was finding from Charles was from an Australian magazine called Sport Coach
. These early writings were creating a paradigm shift in the way I looked at training athletes. I was so impressed with Charles’s ideas that I wanted to learn more. I read everything he wrote and called him frequently – one year I spent nearly $3,000 on long distance phone calls to Canada asking for his advice, which may distinguish me as the first Poliquin groupie.
From what I learned from Charles, I made two major changes to my training protocols from when I was initially hired by the Academy (among other responsibilities I was the sole designer of the weight training programs for the football team). The first was to adopt wave-like loading that alternated between accumulation and intensification phases: basically, two weeks of higher reps, two weeks of lower reps. As Charles would say, you “alternate between building a bigger motor and making a better transmission.” Our strength gains were pretty amazing.
In one year I had more than doubled the number of football players who could incline bench press 300 pounds. Due to the cost of making 300-pound club shirts (they were really, really nice shirts), we decided to discontinue those shirts and replace them with 325-pound incline press shirts. Likewise, we added a 325-pound power clean shirt to our promotions (we went from eight players cleaning 300 to 16 players doing 325!). And our efforts were rewarded in keeping our players healthy: Data collected by the academy’s athletic training staff showed a gradual, linear decline in total on-field football injuries of 60 percent over one five-year period – and injuries requiring surgery were pretty much nonexistent.
The second major change was in my approach to in-season training. Remember the Russian model? The first program I’d used with my athletes at the Air Force Academy was based on this type of model, although mine had an extended “maintenance phase” at the end of low-volume/low-intensity workouts. Despite my best efforts, our athletes became considerably weaker, strength-wise, as the season progressed. This was especially problematic at the Academy because our athletes were undersized already compared to the rest of the conference – in fact, one year when we played San Diego State, their quarterback weighed more than any player on our defense!
Consider that the problem of in-season training is not restricted to colleges. High school coaches naturally want to win, and as such are often afraid that if the athletes lift heavy, they will get sore and not be able to perform their best on game day. If an athlete plays multiple sports, this means that most of the time they are in maintenance phases or are simply not training at all.
With that background, I’d like to share what Coach Poliquin specifically taught me about in-season training and how I was able to implement these ideas with the Air Force Academy football team.
Preserve muscle mass.
Charles explained to me that you must maintain muscle mass during the season, as a loss of muscle mass precipitates strength loss. As such, some hypertrophy training must be performed throughout the entire off-season – for example, you can’t go with a four-week intensification phase without expecting losses in muscle mass. That being said, on our football team’s Monday workout (we trained Monday and Thursday) I would focus on sets of 8-10 reps on basic exercises such as squats and bench presses. Also, Charles told me that it would be hard to do higher-intensity work on that Monday workout, especially in explosive exercises such as power cleans, because the players would be pretty banged up from the game. Hypertrophy training, as such, could be thought of as a “healing” workout.
Stay strong by reducing volume, not intensity.
Charles advised me that it’s the volume, not the intensity, that is primarily responsible for causing overtraining. He said that I could have my athletes train heavy during the season but could avoid overtraining by keeping the workouts short. I saw two studies on this, one dealing with strength training and another on energy system training. The researchers found that it was possible to reduce the volume of training by more than two thirds without a drop in conditioning levels as long as the intensity level was sufficient. So, on the Thursday workout I had our athletes perform the major lifts with maximal weights and low reps, but for only a few sets. For example, during the off-season our athletes might do 12-15 sets of power cleans in a workout, but in-season they might only do 5 sets – but heavy!
Don’t train the body to be weak.
In the past I’d used percentages during the in-season program, but Charles says that when you do so, you’re often training the body to be weak. The reason is you have a 50 percent chance that the weights you use will be submaximal. He said it would be better to focus on the reps, and let the reps determine the load. Rather than doing 90 percent for 3x3 on the power clean, do 3x3 with as much weight as humanly possible that day. One other takeaway point here is that if a player is lifting heavy weights during the season, and even breaking records, it will give them more confidence on the playing field.
Use general, not specific, training
. Charles advised me to focus on compound exercises that work a lot of muscle mass, such as squats and incline bench presses, and to avoid sport-specific exercises. This is because the sport itself will take care of specific exercises. So plyometric and muscular endurance exercises, for example, were not necessary. Besides, Charles told me that if you add something to an athlete’s training – such as practice and games in the case of in-season training – you have to take something away. The body can only handle so much.
Don’t peak your freshmen
. In college football it’s rare that freshmen get any playing time on Saturdays. Usually, if they get put in a game, it’s at the end and only if there is a big lead – at the Air Force Academy we were a running team and undersized, so we rarely had the luxury of big leads. Sure, there are freshman games and scrimmages with other colleges, but these activities won’t affect a team’s standing. As such, it is not all that necessary to “peak” younger players for the big game.
Train freshmen like bodybuilders
. Charles taught me that you want to gain as much muscle mass as possible when you start with an athlete so they have longer to get used to playing at that bodyweight. Better to gain 25 pounds the first year and gain five pounds the remaining three years rather than gain 10 pounds a year for four years. This is very common in high school, where a player bulks up in his senior year and then finds he is not playing as well as expected in that final season. So, during the season it’s better for freshmen to perform more hypertrophy training with longer accumulation phases than the older players.
Trust muscle memory
. Athletes who have been training hard all four years in college (five for those who redshirt) will be able to retain their strength and muscle mass longer than those who have not been in the program as long. If there are several big games coming up, it’s OK for the seniors to back way off on the volume and intensity of their weight workouts (compared to the younger players) because their bodies have had more time to get used to being bigger and stronger. Charles told me that this effect is also evident in elite swimmers, as they are able to get away with performing lower-intensity strength training workouts closer to competitions than the less experienced swimmers.
Using all this advice, I found that our athletes would often set personal records in all the core lifts during the season. As for on-field results, during my seven years with the team we held on to six Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies (given to the winners of the service academy games), earned trips to five bowl games and pulled off major upsets in two of our bowl games by defeating Mississippi and then Ohio State. Although there are certainly many factors that determine the success of a Division I football team, I was confident that implementing Coach Poliquin’s advice on in-season training made our teams strong, from start to finish!