So in our search for the optimal program there’s many different ways we can approach. Here, I’ll discuss how I see programs and some of their pros and cons.
(Spoiler alert, there is no perfect program.)
To start, let’s talk about three “fixes” you can employ to develop an athlete. I’ve plucked these out of the air so here we go.
1) Technical fixes
2) Central Nervous Fixes.
3) Strength Fixes.
A brief example is a squat cycle. A technical fix would be used in a squat cycle where there’s no cycle per se, but there’s a strong emphasis on fixing what’s meant by “knees out” (No, we’re not getting into that debate. But if you want, you can read it all here.) This is really suited to the absolute novice phase.
A Central Nervous Fix is something like “Smolov Jnr” where you essentially do nothing but squat. The body, so used to squatting, becomes more efficient at squatting and hey presto you get a PR.
A Strength fix is more like your typical squat cycle, Hatch. During this, you experience hypertrophy and your muscles generally get more swole as well.
While none of this is scientific, it’s one way of looking at it. My personal preference, and generally what I program for remote coaching clients, is a technical fix cycle. The aim of the cycle is set (e.g. learn the power position) and everything around that is focus on reinforcing this movement.
Generally in this cycle, you’ll have daily maxes. Now, let’s clear up the perception around this daily maxing. A “Max Effort” should be read as “the maximum you can lift on the day, given everything else, that’s technically perfect, or if it can’t be technically perfect, is in line with the developmental process of the cycle.” Note, it’s not “lift as much fucking weight as you can.”
From an athlete point of view this style will not work if, in their rush to get big numbers and soon, sacrifice technique towards the upper end of their lifts, and get a big money partial lift training PR at the expense of long term development.
Is there going to be technical breakdown, I’ll let Sterling Archer answer that.
That’s why back off sets are so crucial in this programming. To make sure we’ve made technical improvements and to allow those improvements to become engrained as part of the motor pattern.
From a coaching point of view, programming like this requires more coach input and course correction.
A program of Olympic lifts run off percentages and full lifts is what I’d term a “strength based” program. These tend to have their base in full lifts, followed by accessories, like snatch deadlifts and push presses. This, in my experience, works better with an athlete with very little technical flaws, and strength in certain positions is holding them back.
The massive pros of this program are that they work with less coach interference (Side note: I like the term coach interference because oftentimes we as coaches should probably, definitely, shut the fuck up.) They also give the lifter a lot of exposure to the full lifts, which certainly suits some lifters. The drawback being to this style is that if the athlete has a flaw, it may never be fixed.
If, in an athletes brain, the snatch, power snatch, and hang snatch are all different movements, they’re better off with a strength cycle. I’d argue that the movements shouldn’t be different, but if you put all your work into an athlete who turns out they can snatch from blocks ten times better than they can from the floor, you’ve gone too far into technical fixes. (I’ve done this.)
None of these types of programs are mutually exclusive, nor do they have to be run completely separate. You can do a lot of technical work as well as doing a hypertrophy cycle on the squats. You can fix your shitty weak back at the same time you get technically better overhead.
My aim is to make an athlete consistent, not to give them a big money PRs. My contention is that if you make them consistent, PRs come. Also, they don’t go from 100% to 70% one day, and then back to 85K%. They can hit 90-95% every time they’re asked to max out. Then they can hit 91-95%, then 91-96%, and so on. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.
When considering what style of programming to pick you’ve got to take into account the emotionality of the athlete. It’s a balancing act between building their confidence and correcting their flaws. If the athlete is going to be taken well outside their comfort zone, and they’ll need reassurance from the coach. The athlete needs to see progress, and success out of every session, if not PRs. Success can come in the form of feeling a new pattern being engrained, making a higher percentage of their lifts consistently, or hitting a PR in the partial lift.
(This is always going to be the biggest thing for an athlete, they’re getting programmed for a reason and this tends to be the one thing they measure progress on. As a coach, I see my job to also show them their other victories, not just the PRs)
Some programs definitely work better with less education and explanation than others. They’re more plug and play. Having said that I’d argue that the more discussion between the coach and athlete, in terms of purpose of the drill, the technical focus to be used through the drill, and the expected aim of the session/week/cycle, the better an athlete will develop. Alas, amazingly, I’ve learnt all of these things by assuming that because I knew them, the athlete did.
And of course if the program isn’t working, a coach needs to take it on the chin and not blame the athlete’s following of it.
If I had to say my biggest failing as a coach (shocking that I’ve any, but bear with me) is at times focusing too much on the process, keeping the leash too tight, rather than letting the athlete have fun. For me, there’s absolutely nothing fun about 14.4, or bombing in a metcon. But, some people are crazy. And they need them in their program.
And sometimes, you’ve got to give them what I’ll call “useless” things.
For example, I think a CrossFit athlete is far better off working handstand push ups than push presses. I think HSPU have greater sport carry over. But the athlete might need to feel the bar for a push press. This can be down to comfort levels, familiarity, or any number of reasons.
An athlete may not need to deadlift at all. They’re dead is super strong and they don’t need to develop it. But, they like hitting the lift as it helps remind them that they’re strong. And if they’re struggling with their daily handstand walk practice that makes them feel like a retard, the heavy deadlift day can give them a much needed boost and enjoyment.
Now, from an athletic development point of view, you could argue that the energy put into deadlifts is taking away from their time on the sky erg, but athlete confidence is number one.
Ultimately, all coaches will program what they know, and what they think is best. They’ll leave something out either by oversight or design and put things in that may or may not be necessary. And like a deaf dog, it’s hard to call whether they’ll have the desired payoff in the end. But it’s fun to pick them apart anyway.