Written by Jacob Tsypkin
“A bad plan is better than no plan.”
In his book “Zero to One,” Peter Thiel puts forth this principle. While the context is different, it’s no less relevant to training than it is to building startups.
The importance of planning in the short, medium, and long term cannot be overstated. However, planning well and planning a lot are not the same thing, and sometimes, over-thinking and over-planning lead us into under-executing and under-performing.
A good plan is a roadmap. It presents the coach and athlete with an understanding of the direction the athlete’s goals are in and provides various options for getting there. The longer term the plan, the larger the scale of the map, allowing the coach and athlete to keep the target destination in sight without getting bogged down worrying about road signs on opposite ends of the world.
A bad plan is a road without a map. All that it reveals to the coach and athlete is what’s directly in front of them.
Inexperienced coaches may understandably find themselves traveling down this directionless path due to a lack of planning. But for more seasoned program designers, the opposite is often the case. One can create a plan so inundated with details that the details become the plan. The road becomes the map, and the target destination slips from sight, leaving the driver with only intuition (a powerful tool but insufficient on it’s own) to guide her.
Good and bad planning is often not in the scheme itself, but in the approach to following it. Outlined below are five important aspects of creating a plan, ranked from largest to smallest scale, with commentary on good and bad ways to treat each of those elements.
Disclaimer: Yes, sometimes the best plan is to stick to the plan even when the plan isn’t going to plan. Stop neckbearding.
Goals are the impetus for any plan. One makes a plan because they have something they wish to achieve or attain. Accordingly, the way one approaches their goal is of utmost importance to their success.
Good plan: The goal and the plan are disparate elements. This allows the coach or athlete to make changes as they go, as their commitment is to arriving at their goal destination, not to staying on the road they started on. The focus is on making the best day-to-day decisions, fostering the most effective processes to accomplishing the goal which the plan was created for.
Bad plan: The plan becomes the goal. Executing the plan as it was put forth takes precedence in the mind and therefore in action. The coach and athlete develop an emotional attachment to the plan and lose sight of the goal. Components of the plan which should be treated as small pieces of a larger process – like individual training sessions, short-term goals meant to lead into the larger final goal, etc – become of utmost importance, and the trainee, or the trainer, are hesitant to sacrifice these parts for the sake of the whole.
The schedule provides an outline, balancing variables in the plan across the training week. It’s formation is important not only because it ensures that the program encompasses the full spectrum of the athlete’s needs, but because, utilized properly, it allows for undulation of stress throughout the microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle to allow for adequate recovery.
Good plan: The schedule is a framework aimed at accomplishing certain ends, such as balancing volume and intensity throughout the microcycle. Keeping that in mind, the schedule is written in such a way that day-to-day and week-to-week changes are easy to make so that the ultimate purpose of the schedule can be maintained.
Bad plan: The schedule is written in stone. It is crafted with such precision that any changes will adversely affect the stimulus, to the point that the athlete is better off sticking to the schedule no matter the circumstance.
Day-to-day training forms the crux of the training process. While the larger scale of the schedule and largest scale of goal setting are important, they do not have the same effect on the athlete as her actual daily time in the gym. This is the first level of planning at which the athlete’s involvement is greater than the coach’s.
Good plan: Each day’s training is conducted with a weather eye on the higher levels of planning, i.e. maintaining the weekly schedule and maintaining focus on long term goals. The athlete is committed to the process of her daily training, but understands that ultimately, she is using today’s training session to move one step closer to her goals, and bases her daily decision making upon that understanding.
Bad plan: Each day’s training is an event unto itself. It exists in a vacuum, and priority is placed on executing the planned elements rather than maintaining the purpose of the daily training within the larger context.
An element is a single piece of a daily training session. Monday’s anaerobic intervals, Tuesday’s squat session, Wednesday’s awful 20 minute AMRAP. Each of these constitutes a training element.
Good plan: Each element is one of several potential options aimed at achieving a particular outcome. If for any reason a specific element is causing problems, it is sometimes best to consider a different element which will foster similar or same long-term outcomes.
Bad plan: Each element is selected because it is that specific element. There is nothing else that can achieve the desired outcome, and that outcome is important enough to brush aside any potential problems for the sake of pursuing it.
Movement selection is the lowest level of reduction within the training plan. Not just squats, but front squats with a two count pause. Not just anaerobic intervals, but intervals on the Airdyne. Not just a 20 minute AMRAP, but a 20 minute AMRAP of light barbell thrusters and chest-to-bar pullups.
Good plan: The movement is selected with a specific intent in mind, as part of the training element. That intent can be accomplished through a fairly large number of movements, and given the right circumstances, one of those movements should be substituted for the originally planned movement.
Bad plan: The movement is selected because it is that exact movement. The parameters are so precise that no substitution can have the same general intent, and so changes to movement selection should occur rarely if ever.
You’ve probably noticed a theme in the good planning outlined above. Here are a few heuristics to consider when creating and adapting a plan.
Outside In, Inside Out. When formulating the training plan, start with goals, and move your way down the scale to schedule, day-to-day training sessions, elements in the training session, and finally movement selection. Before finalizing the plan, work from the inside out, and consider if each level of planning fits with the next.
Gaze Up The Scale. When making adjustments to one level of planning, look at the level above and see how that level is impacted. Considering changing your schedule? Look at your long-term goals and see if your changes fit. Do you need to substitute one squatting exercise for another? Think about how your change will affect the remainder of your training session.
Consider Intent. Don’t make changes in a vacuum. If you have reason to believe that a particular exercise or element is not your best choice for that day’s training, make sure you have an understanding of why that exercise or element was selected before making a substitution.
Control Your Variables. It’s fine to make changes if things aren’t working out. But changes should be small, subtle, and occur one or two at a time. By avoiding wholesale program changes, you allow yourself valuable insight into which changes actually made a difference.
These heuristics can help you to treat planning and training as organic, cohesive processes which evolve subtly over time. Always bear in mind that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.