Written by Chad Wesley Smith
In the age of self-esteem and participation trophies, it seems like everyone wants to think that they are a special snowflake cause their mommy told them so. Hate to break it to you, but in the world of strength the role the individual differences play in dictating training differences is fairly insignificant.
There are 5 main categories that you want to consider basing any training plan changes on:
-Fatigue and Fitness Decay Times
-Development Status and Goals
The categories can also be looked at as both inter-individual differences and intra-individual differences. Inter-individual differences are differences in how one person responds versus another person and these differences will likely be due to genetics, recovery means (food, sleep, drugs, passive recovery) and their training ages.
Intra-individual differences are differences in the same person at different times. Genetics are a constant but environmental factors like food, sleep, stress from work/relationships and drugs can all be altered at different times. The most significant intra-individual differences will be due to changes in the athlete’s training age and abilities. As the athlete becomes more and more advanced, different training practices will be necessary to become more advanced. It is these intra-individual differences that are particularly important to consider when examining the training of your favorite elite lifters, you’ll probably be best served to think about they training that they did to become among the best lifters in the World, rather than they training they are doing as one of the best lifters in the World.
1-Maximum Recoverable Volume
Maximum Recoverable Volume or MRV as it will be referred to from now on is the most training that an athlete can effectively recover from and this could vary widely from lifter to lifter or for the same lifter at different times. Genetics, particularly muscle fiber type, will play a big role in MRV and somewhat counter-intuitively, the faster twitch athletes who are better suited for lifting, will tend to have lower MRVs because they will be able to cause more homeostatic disruption with a smaller amount of work.
As an athlete improves over their career and continually build special work capacity for their sport, their MRV should be continually rising.
Other things to consider when assessing MRV is the athlete’s sport background (A CrossFitter will probably have a higher MRV then someone coming from Sprinting)
2-Fatigue and Fitness Decay Times
The bigger, stronger and more experienced a lifter you are the more capable you are to impose huge stress on your system and since there is greater fatigue accumulated, it will take longer to dissipate. Also, the bigger, stronger and more experienced lifter will have the ability to retain their fitness for longer periods of time, meaning that they will need longer tapers into meets. Of course, genetics will play a great role in the differences here as some athletes will drop fatigue quickly and decay fitness slowly (best case scenario) while others may drop fatigue slowly and decay fitness quickly (worst case scenario) and it is these differences that must be considered when finding an optimal training frequency.
As a practical example, myself being a 6-1 360#, relatively fast twitch lifter with the 10th highest total of all-time employs a very long taper into a meet, as I have so much muscle mass it allows me to hold onto my fitness well and because the weights I lift are so heavy, it takes a relatively long time for fatigue to dissipate. My last 14 days leading into a meet are very light, the first 7 days are all a deload with usually 3 total sessions with nothing about 65% for 3 reps and then the week of competition, I will have a ‘priming day’ 5 days out which is a few singles in the 50-80% range (Bench is higher %s, Deadlift the lowest %s and Squats in between) and then a similar day 3 days out but about 10% lower.
One thing that is often pointed to as warranting significant changes in program design, is the use of performance enhancing drugs. Dr. Mike Israetel took care to address this issue…
Considerations for drug free vs. drug using lifters (not inclusive):
– Lifters who use drugs have a better ability to recover. This means that they can train either or both with:
— Higher Volume per week
— Higher Frequency per week
— Higher Intensity Average per week
– The drugs that lifters take magnify the effects of even the same training and magnify the recovery from that training, this means that not only can lifters on drugs do better from the above point (tougher programming), they can do better from even the same programming or even easier programming. In essence, drug using lifters can get away with training that’s too easy, benefit more from regular training, and survive/benefit from training that’s too hard to be sustainable for drug free lifters.
– Lifters who use drugs get a much bigger growth stimulus from any given training volume (muscle growth) than drug free lifters. This means that they may be able to train with the high intensities and low reps that make them strong the fastest but ALSO grow muscle at the same time or at least not lose as much during the peaking/tapering process. So while naturals might have to circle back to lower intensities and higher volumes to build muscle (and thus spend more time away from getting that muscle stronger), lifters who use drugs may not have to do that, at least not until they get so strong that they start to scratch at physiological limitations. The same concept applies to work capacity… drug using lifters can just get it from their drug and might not need as much work capacity training, thus they get to spend more time in a strength phase and benefit.
– Drugs reduce fatigue very quickly, so drug using lifters will need to deload less often, especially if they still use a similar weekly volume/intensity as drug free lifters
When both drug free AND drug using lifters reach close to their body’s physiological peak (something like 10-15 years after they start training), they are pushing as hard as they can, which means that their training will actually be very similar in structure. The only big difference is that drug using lifters will have their performance around 10% higher than drug free lifters, if not a bit more.
Beginners are going to train differently than intermediate lifters who are going to train differently than advanced lifters. These differences will mostly be based in the 2 differences discussed above as well as the lifters needs and the efficiency of their exercise technique.
Typically, beginner lifters (<3 years of experience) will lack muscle mass and need to devote a greater proportion of their energy towards hypertrophy work. Beginners want to train with relatively high frequency because they are incapable of creating significant disruption because they’re not using heavy enough weights. Beginner lifters should also use a fairly broad pool of assistance work and exercise variations (while never going too long without performing the competitive movements so they can develop technical prowess) so that they can develop a well rounded physique and base to build upon throughout their career.
Intermediate lifters (3-6 years of experience) will also have the same hypertrophy needs as beginners, but should now have the requisite muscle mass to benefit from longer strength cycles but will not need very significant time to peak for competition. Intermediate lifters should understand what drives their lifts and should work towards maximizing those strengths, while keeping their weaknesses in check.
Advanced lifters, assuming they aren’t trying to move up a weight class, should have near the amount of muscle needed to succeed, so their focus must become on developing general strength and mastering the peaking process. Longer peaking phases will be necessary for the more advanced lifters because it will just take more time for them to get to the necessary weights (you can’t just put 50# more on the bar every week after your strength block) and they need to maximize nervous system force production and technical prowess. Now as an advanced lifter, you strong points (Quads for a Quad Dominant Squatter) should be so well developed that there is little progress to be made in them and now you’ll need to focus a bit more attention towards making sure that secondary movers and the muscles that allow your optimal technique to be maintained are developed to the necessary levels.
Exercise selection will become more and more focused over the course of a lifter’s career. Beginners need a relatively wide range of movements to develop a well rounded based. Intermediates should begin to have an understanding of what drives their lifts and choose movements that push those primary movers. The advanced lifter will need to be very mindful to address their unique weaknesses to maximize their performance.
Read more about this topic in my article The Pyramid of Strength.
Different people are built differently, their limbs are different lengths and their leverages in lifts will vary. There are a few universal technical cues for lifters to focus on, but many lifters can have ‘good technique’ and that technique will look very different from another. These different techniques will lead to different prime movers in the lifts and cause you to choose different movements to build the necessary muscles. Seek out a good coach who can help you find your best technique for your leverages and choose appropriate movements to maximize your strength.
Learn more about the ideas of differing technique in The Myth of Perfect Form by Greg Nuckols.
I’m often asked questions like, “How many times per week should I squat?” but am always hesitant to answer with a specific because there are so many factors to consider and the right answer for one person may not be right for another and the right answer for you today may not be the right answer in a year or two. Training will need to change from person to person and over time to be optimal but the changes are relatively small in degree. Consider the above factors to help you make the best plan for you.
Want to go more in depth on these topics? Check out Scientific Principles of Strength Training…