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BACK TO MY ROOTS PART 2 – TRAINING ECONOMY

As a strength and conditioning coach (not as a body composition expert), the second principle that directs my programming is the principle of training economy. This means that you should look to accomplish the job with the smallest amount of work possible.

For some who’ve followed me mostly during my “bodybuilding” days, this can come as a shock because I’ve been know to use a fairly high amount of volume when training my bodybuilding clients (although in recent years I’ve used a lower volume approach since working more with “natty” clients).

But when working with athletes, I have always looked at getting the right stimulus for physical optimization with the least “training investment”.

Why?

For several reasons.

1. Athletes don’t just do weight lifting.

They must do speed training, agility work, conditioning, skill training, sports practices, mobility work, etc., but they have the same amount of “training money” to invest. If you have 100$ to spend and are only doing weightlifting, you can spend more money on each lifting session than if the same 100$ must be divided among 3-4 different training types.

2. Athletes need to keep a fresh nervous system.

Bodybuilders, bros and even powerlifters can progress pretty well with a trashed nervous system. I’m not saying that it’s optimal or that they will feel good in the process, but they can still progress. For an athlete, that’s simply not an option.

A “fatigued” nervous system (yes, there is such a thing as “CNS fatigue”, more on that in a sec) can make speed, agility and power sessions counterproductive because these are not just about doing the work but about motor learning. A sub-optimal nervous system will lead to faulty motor patterns, slightly slower actions and improper intermuscular coordination.

If you do too many trainings like this, you will have a negative motor learning experience that will modify technique and hurt performance. With athletes, quality is million years ahead to quantity. Doing too much work can deplete neural resources, leading to what we call “CNS fatigue”, and that’s where athletic enhancement becomes athletic involution.

3. Athletes don’t need the same muscular development as bodybuilders.

It is true that volume, the sense of providing direct stimulation to every muscle group, is correlated with muscle mass. If a bodybuilder wants to build a complete physique, he will have to include a sufficient amount of work for all the major muscle groups. Athletes do not have that need. Yes, they do need to gain muscle.

Either because being heavier (from muscle) is a benefit for their sport (football or rugby for example) or because a “bigger engine” increases strength potential which increases power potential. So yes, athletes need to build muscle, but they don’t have to overly hypertrophy every muscle group.

They simply need enough muscle tissue to avoid muscle mass being the limiting factor in force production. So, they don’t need to be as muscular as bodybuilders and thus do not need the same amount of work. Plus, they don’t need as much isolation work to build the amount of muscle they need.

With athletes you train movement patterns and energy systems. Not muscles.

4. You don’t want the training session to interfere with game or even practice performance.

Granted this holds true mostly for in-season training, but if an athlete does skill work during the off-season it still applies. Muscle soreness or even incomplete muscle recovery can impair performance and change movement patterns. Practicing skills with sore muscles can be detrimental to motor learning and it increases the risk of injuries.

By doing a lot more volume you create more muscle damage which can extend the recovery period and either decrease the frequency/amount of skill practices you can do or hurt the quality of those practices. And remember: the goal of strength training with athletes is to make them better at their sport, NOT make them as muscular as possible.

I’ll give you an extreme example: A few years ago, I wanted to get back into Olympic lifting, but I knew I needed to get my leg strength and power back up. I’m extremist by nature so I did the following session:

A1. Back squat

360lbs + 100lbs of chains
Added 100lbs from weight releasers during the eccentric of the first rep
3 reps with a 5010 tempo
45 sec rest

A2. Jump squat

135lbs x 5
45 sec rest

A3. Depth jumps

5 reps from a 30” box
I did that complex 10 times.

AWESOME workout… felt really good about myself, “I’ll regain my leg strength in no time!”

Just one problem… the next day I could not physically go down lower than a quarter squat because my vastus lateralis were too sore.

And that soreness lasted for 14 days!

I was unable to do the Olympic lifts properly for 10 days. And since my main goal was to get my performance back up on the Olympic lifts, this was counterproductive.

Even if it something negatively impacts movement skill for “only” 2-3 days, that’s 2-3 days where you cannot work on improving your main goal or you work at it improperly and pick up bad motor habits.

That was thus a stupid workout.

Never forget that when training athletes you only have 2 goals in mind:

  1. Improve their performance on the field
  2. Reduce their risk of injuries

Any coach can kill an athlete with volume. But when working with athletes you need to find the optimal dose to get the response you need with the least fatigue possible.

Look at the following picture:

 

When working with an athlete, it is actually best to “only” get 90% of the maximal training adaptations you can stimulate in a session (you can make up for it over time anyway) than going into the “red zone” just to get an extra 5% in stimulation (not a 5% improvement, 5% of the possible stimulation… if you can progress 2.5% in a session this 5-10% really is a 0.1 to 0.2% improvement).

Why? Because it will keep you a lot fresher for your other sessions; track, agility, conditioning, skill practices, etc. The overall improvements and transfer to sports performance will be a lot greater than if you train to the limit every time.

NOTE – MORE ON “CNS FATIGUE”

The topic of CNS fatigue is a hot potato in the strength training field. Same thing with what we call “adrenal fatigue”. Many claim that these don’t exist, and technically speaking they might be correct. Adrenal glands don’t really fatigue, and neither does the brain in the strictest sense. But the symptoms we associate with either “CNS fatigue” or “Adrenal fatigue” are very real and can occur when we do either too much work or are under too much stress for too long. They can even happen in the short term after an excessively demanding session. These symptoms include:

– Lethargy (can even go as far as depression symptoms)
– Lack of motivation and drive
– Anhedonia (Word of the day! Basically, lack of pleasure)
– Difficulty concentrating
– Mood swings
– Drop in libido
– Laziness
– etc.

These are not caused by a fatigue of the brain, but they have to do with the neurotransmitters. Mostly the dopamine and adrenaline systems, which are two of the main “activators” of the nervous system. They are responsible for motivation, drive, energy, confidence, etc. And both are connected because dopamine is used to fabricate adrenaline.

If you overproduce adrenaline (for example, if you are constantly under stress, do a crazy amount of volume or amp up your nervous system immensely during a session) it is possible to have two things happen than can both lead to the symptoms mentioned above:

  1. Dopamine depletion. Remember that adrenaline is made from dopamine, so if you overproduce adrenaline you risk depleting dopamine. And if you have a lower level of dopamine to start with you are at a greater risk of that happening.

  2. Adrenergic receptor desensitization. The adrenaline system is like the NOS in your car: it’s meant to be a short time boost in power; not to be turned on for hours. The adrenergic receptors can very easily be desensitized. For example, a bodybuilder using clenbuterol (that target the adrenergic receptors for 12-16 hours) will feel amped up, energetic, confident, social, jittery the first day.

    But very quickly the body adapts, and they don’t feel anything. That’s because of a desensitization of the adrenergic receptors. It is normal for a bodybuilder to have to either increase their clenbuterol dose every week or to use something like a 10 days on/7 days off schedule (or use ketotifen/Benadryl to resensitize the receptors).

    And when they go off clen, they will often have the same symptoms as mentioned above. This is just to show that adrenergic desensization is something that can lead to what we call “CNS fatigue”.

What about “adrenal fatigue?”. The glands don’t really « fatigue”, but what can happen is that if you desensitize your adrenergic receptors and stay that way for a good period of time your body becomes almost non-responsive to its own adrenaline.

This means that several important functions like energy mobilization become inefficient. The body can compensate this lack of adrenergic effect by increasing cortisol production (cortisol can do many of the functions of adrenaline). This leads to chronic cortisol elevation and that is the cause of what we call “adrenal fatigue”.

Simply put chronic cortisol elevation can decrease T3 levels (which decreases metabolic rate but also energy levels and mood) by reducing the T4 to T3 conversion.  It can also lead to lower testosterone, DHEA and estrogen levels (which will lead to a drop in libido, and a negative mindset) by depleting pregnenolone.

Cortisol, testosterone, DHEA and estrogen are all fabricated from pregnenolone. If you constantly overproduce cortisol, you will have less pregnenolone to produce the other hormones.

What we call “adrenal fatigue” really is a decrease in T3, testosterone, estrogen and DHEA levels caused by an excess in cortisol production which can itself be a side effect of the desensitization of the adrenergic receptors.

END OF NOTE

Let’s get back to our original topic. What does training economy mean? It means that a good strength coach is the coach who can find a way to simulate optimal gains with the least amount of investment.

Everybody can get a complete development by using 8 exercises in a workout. That’s the “forceful” approach. And yes, it can work in the short term or with athletes who are genetically gifted to handle volume. But for many it will lead to less athletic improvements for all the reasons mentioned above.

The first recommendation I make to strength coaches is this:

“Challenge yourself to achieve pretty much everything you want to achieve with the least amount of exercises in a session.”

Or put another way “Can you get most of the improvements you need with 4 exercises in a session? How about with 3? Maybe 2?…”

You might not be able to get down to 2 or maybe 3. But challenge yourself, be creative. Start by building a minimalist program. A training program using the least amount of exercises per session while still getting the job done to a large extent.

That is your skeleton program. You start with that. And only add exercises on a “as-needed” basis (e.g. to fix a weak link) and if the athlete can handle the added workload without a detrimental impact on the other spheres of his training.

For example, I train two international level athletes. Both are similar in strength and speed (squats in the high 500, benches in the mid to high 300, power clean in the mid-300, 30m in the 3.6 – 3.7 range, vertical jumps in the 38-40” range).

One only does the skeleton program because he has a very low tolerance for volume while the other one does the skeleton program plus 3 assistance exercises per workout.

The skeleton program has 3-4 exercises per session for 4 workouts per week.

In the previous phase we only had:

– Power clean variation
– Squat
– Bench

That’s for the main sessions (3 times a week, with different contraction types) and one “bodybuilding” session where we did upper back, glutes and hams (4 exercises).

Right now, the skeleton program has 4 lifting sessions of 3-4 exercises each:

STRENGTH SESSIONS (Monday/Friday)

Squat variation
Bench variation
Hamstrings/glutes exercise
Upper back exercise

POWER SESSIONS (Wednesday/Saturday)

Power snatch variation
Power clean variation
Jump squat variation

We use different contraction types on the two strength and two power days.

Of course, the track work is planned separately.

The higher volume athlete will do 3 assistance exercises on the strength session (one for hams, one for glutes, one for upper back) and 2 for the power session (plyometrics or throws).

The number of work sets are also kept fairly low. Normally only 3 intense (high effort) sets are done per exercise. Sometimes we will do 2 waves of 3 sets (6 total sets) but only the second wave is close to a maximal effort, the first wave is more for activation/potentiation.

The bottom line is that with athletes, quality is much more important than quantity. And if the quality/intensity of effort is high, you really don’t need that much quantity to progress. With a high level of effort and enough frequency (the athletes I work with hit everything to some extent 3-4 times a week) it is almost impossible to “undertrain”.

They will always get some improvement from the session whereas if they do too much work, they could have a regression in their performance because fatigue masks fitness… which can be acceptable for a bodybuilder, but not an athlete.

-CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…