The Greatest Program in the World
Over the last week or so, I’ve seen multiple versions of the same question make their way through the Q/A:
“What’s the best program for ____?”
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer, and with the abundance of information out there, there’s literally thousands of pages of programming available on elitefts™ alone, choosing the “right” program can be an intimidating decision. The truth is, this might not be as critical a decision as you think, at least not for the reasons you might expect.
I thought that rather than try to answer an almost unanswerable question, I would try to give everyone the tools they need to evaluate programs rationally and make the decision for themselves.
The Great Debate
If you go on some of the more popular training forums and ask “what’s the best program?” You’ll see the same few answers pop up repeatedly, with WSB, 5/3/1 and Sheiko probably being the top three. The first page of responses will mostly be posts from anonymous lifters (or at least we’ll assume they really lift), chiming in as to why the program they’re currently on is the best and why you should do it too.
At around the page two mark, the thread will devolve into a full-scale assault on each program, the author of said program, and all who follow it. In the end, there’s rarely any useful info to take away from these exchanges. I’d bet that few, if any of the people doing the flaming have more than a couple of years of serious training under their size-M belts.
And I don’t know about you, but I have a general policy of not taking advice from guys who give themselves handles like swolebro89.
The funny thing is, you’ll rarely ever see Elite/Pro lifters get into pissing matches about programs. This includes lifters who have published successful programs themselves. Higher-level lifters tend to be more open minded about training because they care about being successful more than they care about being right.
If a lifter tells them that program xyz put 50 pounds on their squat, an elite lifter is not going to argue, they’re going to see if there’s anything there that they can benefit from.
If you’re one of those lifters who argues until you’re red in the face for your favorite arrangement of sets and reps versus someone else’s, it may be time to take a step back and see what else people are having success with.
Training programs are normally divided into cycles. A micro-cycle or “training week” typically lasts for 7-10 days.
A meso-cycle will be made up of 4-5 micro-cycles, or about a month.
The macro-cycle is the program in it’s entirety, generally 8-16 weeks, although they can be much longer.
Most programs are designed to show progress over the course of the meso-cycle.
Without question, the most effective way to sabotage progress on ANY program is to not stay on the damn thing from beginning to end. It seems obvious, but I’ve known plenty of lifters who decide to try something new, only to can it four weeks later because they didn’t see any improvement.
Unless you’re one of the few genetic freaks in the sport, four weeks is not enough time to make significant progress on ANY program. I’d say that 12 weeks should be the minimum. If it’s a conjugate program like WSB, which will require you to learn a lot of new exercises, you will probably need quite a bit more time.
I’ve told clients and training partners before that you’re better off doing an “ok” program for 12 weeks, than you are switching between three great programs in the same amount of time.
When I first switched to a conjugate periodization style of training, it was months before I made any progress on my contest-style lifts. After pushing through this initial learning curve, I was able to enjoy consistent progress on the exact same template for the next five years.
Essential Components of a Program
When you’re trying to decide between programs, you’ll need to pay attention to the basic elements essential to ALL successful strength programs. If the plan you are evaluating does not contain each of these components, than it’s not even worth considering.
The single most important component is progression. Without progression, there is no point in even training. Progression is not always as simple as just adding weight each session. Many programs have both light and heavy days within the same cycle. What you’re looking for is an overall increase in workload (resistance and/or volume) from beginning to end.
Specificity is an important, yet often misinterpreted element of program design. When the term sport-specific became a buzzword among coaches, many took this to mean that weight-room exercises needed to replicate athletic skills as closely as possible. I can clearly remember being in a weightroom watching pitchers being instructed to perform a throwing motion while holding the end of a weighted cable.
Specificity simply means that the program will translate to increased performance in the chosen discipline. If you’re a football player trying to gain size and strength, your program should reflect it with compound movements (squats, overhead presses, deadlifts, bench presses, cleans, etc.) If your goal is to total 2000 pounds, your program damn well better include variations of the squat, bench and deadlift, consistently performed with heavy weights.
To avoid stagnation, a program must include a certain amount of variety. Simply adding 5-10 pounds each week to a given lift will work for a while, but your nervous system will eventually stop adapting and your progress will stall. Different programs address variety in different ways. Percentage-based programs like Sheiko address variety by changing the percentages from week to week. Conjugate peridozation-based programs like the old WSB template keep the percentages fairly static but change special exercises often.
If you are unable to recover from your training sessions, you won’t get very far without stalling or getting hurt. A worthwhile program will address recovery, either by limiting the amount of sessions per week, or by prescribing lighter workouts geared for restoration. Some will include both. While there are some programs out there that call for an enormous amount of volume (such as training heavy every day) these protocols are rarely practical for all but the most serious and genetically gifted lifters.
If you look at the most popular programs of today (WSB, Strong(er), Sheiko, 5/3/1, Juggernaut), you’ll see that they ALL address these 4 components. In fact, if you look at the big picture, these programs have more similarities than differences.
It’s Not the Map, it’s the Driver
Imagine two drivers taking a trip cross country, each with an identical map.
Driver A carefully reads the map before and during the trip. He also takes frequent breaks, sleeps in comfortable hotels each night, and has the car serviced before the trip.
Driver B stuffs the map in the glove box and instead relies mostly on directions from high-school kids at gas stations. He pulls all-niters while pounding coffee and energy drinks, texts while he drives, and leaves the car in third gear on the highway.
Who do you think is more likely to reach the destination in one piece?
You see the same scenario played out with lifters all the time.
Lifter A carefully reads the program and works out the percentages based on recent personal records. He trains hard, eats healthy foods, sleeps at night and doesn’t miss workouts. If he has a question, he’ll seek out an expert to answer it, maybe even the author of the program.
Lifter B doesn’t even buy the $15 e-book to get the program. He picks up whatever info he can on the forums (probably from swolebro89), then plugs in numbers he’s “pretty sure” he can handle. He sleepwalks through training sessions, eats like crap, stays out drinking three nights per week and doesn’t even stick with the program for a full cycle before he’s on to something else.
Now who do you think will have more success with the program? Given these two examples, does the program even matter?
I vote no, and for that matter, I don’t think which program you choose is nearly as important as how you execute it. A program is basically a tool to add structure to your time in the gym. How well it works is most often determined by your execution rather than what’s on the page.
If you are young, or relatively inexperienced, you’ll probably make progress on ANY program mentioned in this article, even if you aren’t quite sure what you are doing yet. Just eat well, sleep at night, work hard and try in the gym. Most of all, be patient enough to see it through to the end.
So does it matter which program you use? Yes, but not for the reasons you might think. There is one factor that can easily determine your best choice, but it has nothing to do with the sets and reps themselves. For a strength training program (or any program for that matter) to work, it absolutely needs to fit your current life situation. In other words, your best training program is often decided by logistics unrelated to the training itself.
If you can only make it to the gym three times per week for an hour at a time, you probably won’t benefit from a volume-based program like Sheiko. You could however, manage to fit a 5/3/1 or WSB template into your schedule.
Conjugate periodization-based programs like WSB thrive on variety in movements. If all your gym has in the way of equipment are two squat stands and a bench, you probably won’t get as much out of it as someone with more tools at their disposal. In this case, you would be better off with a program like Sheiko, which uses little more than the competition lifts in training.
If you have no spotters, you might be better served on a percentage based program like Sheiko or 5/3/1 than WSB, which requires working up to an all-out max every week.
If you are a strength coach that needs to train multiple athletes at a time, a conjugate periodization program might be easier to execute than one that sticks to specific percentages because your athletes will most likely be all over the place in terms of their strength levels. With a conjugate program, your athletes can just take turns working up, rather than changing the weight for every single set.
If you have little experience on the competitive lifts, you’re probably better off on a program that lets you practice them (5/3/1, Sheiko) than you are with conjugate periodization, which relies heavily on special exercises. As your technique improves, a conjugate-type program will be more beneficial because it will let you target specific weaknesses more effectively.
Whatever program you pick, you need to be sure that you will be able to devote the required time and effort for the entire duration of that macro-cycle. Otherwise, the program has not failed you, you’ve failed the program.
As you gain experience, you will learn how to alter programs to fit your training arrangements, without sacrificing the essential elements of them. Until then, you’re better off doing what’s on the page.
So if there’s a take home message here, it’s that there are lots of ways to get strong, and one isn’t necessarily better than another.
My advice to anyone ready to try something new would be to pick your program based on which one fits your training arrangement best, than apply yourself to it 100%.
If you have any questions, go to a reputable resource like the elitefts.com Q&A.
Views 535 Comments 1
|09-07-2011, 03:34 PM||#2|
The Gristle Eating Giant
Join Date: Jul 2011
Location: BeStrong IL
Training Exp: 2
Training Type: Strongman
Fav Exercise: Deadlift
Fav Supp: Rare Steak
On a side note, I hear swolebro89 is writing coopdawg's new routine....
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