The concept of consolidation of stressors is a topic I’ve written about on several occasions before, but as I grow as an athlete and coach, my understanding of this and other ideas becomes more nuanced and complete.
Consolidation of stressors is a foundational concept to programming for athletic development in any endeavor, and while it may seem complicated, it is really based on two foundational concepts.
The first is a movement from relatively higher volumes/higher frequency and lower intensities to lower volumes/lower frequency and higher intensities. The second is an evolving of exercise selection from general to specific or less specific to more specific.
To clarify the above terms so we are all on the same page, volume is the total workload being done, frequency is how often you are training, and intensity is how near maximal output you are training at.
The ideas of general and specific training exist within a spectrum of how similar or dissimilar an exercise is from the competitive exercise and how well it transfers to success in the competitive exercise. I make the distinction of general to specific and less specific to more specific because this spectrum of specificity is very wide, and at different stages of the training process, different scales of the spectrum will be addressed. Swimming is a very general exercise when compared to weightlifting, but it will have a place in the long-term training plan, while other exercises like “no-hands, no-feet” snatch are less specific than the competitive exercise itself and will also have their place.
Consolidation of stressors manifests itself in three ways during the training process: during the short term (training cycle), the medium term (annual plan or quadrennial), and long term (athletic career). While the same principles apply throughout all three phases, the scale is changing throughout.
First, let us examine the application of consolidation of stressors within the short term: a single training cycle. I’ll use my own powerlifting training as the example for this. I prepare for meets using a 13-week training cycle comprised of three 4-week microcycles (three up, one down) plus one extra priming week leading into the meet.
During these three microcycles, I progress from relatively high frequency/high volume training with moderate intensity and less specific training toward lower frequency/lower volume training with high intensity and more specific training. Note that I use the terms “less” and “more specific” in regards to short-term training, because in the grand scheme of things, all of this training is fairly specific to the goals of raising the squat, bench press and deadlift; however, small changes in specificity still occur through exercise variation (and emphasis being placed on variations of the competitive movements), rep ranges, equipment worn and amount of accessory training done, as accessory work is more general in nature than variations of the competitive lifts.
Let’s look microcycle by microcycle at how my training is adjusted and how you can apply these principles to create more effective training for yourself.
During the first microcycle of meet preparation, I train with my relatively highest frequency, highest volume, lowest intensity, and lowest specificity of my entire training cycle.
Training frequency is at five primary sessions per week organized as follows:
Wednesday-Deadlift/Squat. This is a primarily deadlift day with secondary squat training
Volume is very high, with as many as 17 work sets of competitive lifts and their variations being performed in a single session. The higher frequency also contributes to the overall higher volume.
Intensity is fairly low during this time, with the majority of work being done between 55-75%, with possible jumps into the low 80s depending on feel. Squatting during this phase is also beltless, which limits possible intensity. The weights being used are relatively higher percentages of my beltless work (PR 765×2) than my belted work (PR 863×1), but when looking at consolidation of stressors, it is more important to consider ultimate output – weight on the bar for lifting, velocity of sprinting, height/distance of jumps/throws – than relative output of an exercise variation, as it is more stressful to the system. For example, take an athlete with a 350 lb. front squat and 500 lb. back squat: 300 lb. represents 85% of their maximum in the front squat, while 400 lb. represents only 80% of their maximum in the back squat; however, 400 lb. back squats will still be more stressful to the athlete than 350 lb. front squats, even though they are a lower percentage, because they are simply a greater load.
During this phase of training, specificity is relatively low, or we could say that I’m utilizing greater variation. Variation is being used for two strategic reasons: to avoid staleness, and more so to build up phase potentiated fitness adaptations (I learned that phrase from Dr. Mike), so basically variations that allow me to do more volume. Variation is conventionally thought of as exercise variation, and that is how I’m using it here, but we need to look at it from a much more micro scale than how it is typically thought of. The competitive exercise (1rm squat with belt and knee wraps) and any deviation from that is variation, and by varying degrees, is less specific. During this microcycle of training, specificity is reduced through training out of competition equipment (beltless), out of competition rep ranges (doing sets of 3-10 during this time), and dedicating a greater part of my energies toward exercise variations and assistance work. (This doesn’t mean that I’m doing less of the competitive exercises, but rather I’m just doing more total work.) All of this contributes to greater variation being implemented, the greatest variation of any time during my meet preparation.
During Microcycle 2, we begin to move toward lower frequency, lower volume, higher intensity, and higher specificity (lower variation).
Primary training is now consolidated to four sessions with a fifth secondary session on this schedule:
Total volume is reduced during this phase: first by reducing frequency, which inherently reduces the workload, and second by just reducing the per session volume. Total worksets during this phase will range from 5 to 12 total sets of competitive lifts and their variations.
Intensity rises during this phase, with the majority of work being between 65-85%, with possible jumps toward 90% based on feel. A belt is introduced during this phase, allowing for increased output.
Variation is also reduced during this phase on several fronts: 1) Introduction of a belt to the squat; 2) Reduced rep ranges now approaching the competitive lifts; 3) Less proportion of energy being placed on exercise variations and assistance work (assistance work is usually dropped at this point in the squat). Let me be clear that just because I am dropping assistance work in the squat at this point, that doesn’t mean you should be dropping your assistance work. If you’re within 5% of the All-Time World Record in your weight class, then you can probably feel free to do so, if you aren’t, then you most likely need to keep it in. I elaborate on that idea in The Pyramid of Strength.
During the third and final microcycle, we move toward the most specific training of the training plan, training on the lowest frequency and highest intensity of my plan.
Primary training is consolidated to three primary sessions with an optional fourth secondary session based on feel.
Saturday-Optional Secondary Bench
Volume is at its lowest of my training, doing 1-7 true work sets during the single session each week dedicated to the competitive lift.
Intensity is at its highest of my training, working between 70-100% of my training maxes, with possible overloads being introduced.
Variation is very low at this point of training. I’m doing as much work as possible in competitive equipment (belt and wraps), rep ranges are very low (1-3 reps), and very little – if any – energy is spent on exercise variations and assistance work.
For more insight into the actual specific sets, reps, and intensities of my own training, check out JuggerCube.
Consolidation of stressors may seem like a daunting idea, but at its core is a fairly simple and intuitive manipulation of frequency, volume, intensity, and variation. Hopefully this article gave you some greater insight into this topic and will help you implement it properly into your and your clients’ training. Look for future installments of this series that will cover consolidation of stressors in the medium and long terms.
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