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Strength Training Programs: You Can’t Force Adaptation

Posted Dec 12 2011 8:17am

A few weeks ago, when we handed a relatively new athlete his second strength and conditioning program from Cressey Performance, he asked:

What different things are we working on this month, compared to the last month?

I was candid with him and emphasized that we’d be working on some of the exact same stuff – but progressing on what we did in Month 1 with new strength exercises and subtle shifts in what was prioritized in light of where he’d improved the most.  In short, the answer was to trust in the program, and allow time for adaptation to occur.

“Assuming” adaptation is one of the biggest mistakes I see coaches and athletes make in strength training programs, as the truth is that everyone responds to a given stimulus differently. 

For instance, I’ve had professional baseball players come back from long seasons with horrendous rotator cuff strength that takes a good 10-12 weeks to get back to baseline.  On the other hand, I’ve had guys come back from the same long season with outstanding cuff strength.  It’d be a disservice to these two types of athletes to hand them the same arm care programs, at the same time, with the same progressions.  Unfortunately, it’s something that happens all the time in a wide variety of strength and conditioning programs simply because folks may be married to a long-term periodization approach, when more of a short-term “wait and see” methodology may, in fact, be far more effective.

In a linear periodization model (which research has proven inferior to an undulating approach in terms of strength and muscular endurance ), one might approach the baseball off-season with the following progression: muscular endurance training (sets of 12-15) in September, hypertrophy training (sets of 6-12) in October-November, strength training (sets of 1-6) in December-January, and then power training (lower-load sets of 1-8) in February-March.

The problem with this model of athletic development, of course, is that you get very proficient in one quality at a time while detraining the others.  And, each athlete may not need a specific phase of this scheme.

For instance, a baseball player who is an insanely reactive athlete might not need any true power training; he could get that from his sport exclusively – and would therefore be better off emphasizing maximal strength.

Conversely, an athlete who is insanely strong, but slow, would need more power training and less work on maximal strength.

Finally, baseball players don’t really need much, if any, muscular endurance training.  They build that in a more specific approach later on with the volume and intensity progressions in their throwing and hitting programs.

These are just a few of the many reasons we use a concurrent periodization model for all the strength training programs we write at Cressey Performance.  This broad approach affords us the flexibility we need to make specific changes for each athlete based on the adaptations we observe, not something we assume has taken place.

It’s perfectly fine to implement variety to keep training fun, expose an athlete to a rich proprioceptive environment, and ensure that overuse injuries don’t occur, but never lose sight of the goals of any good strength and conditioning program: addressing an athlete’s most glaring weaknesses.

If an athlete is painfully weak, don’t stop all strength work 6-8 weeks out of the season because you’re supposed to be working on power and conditioning at that time period.  Just tinker with things; don’t overhaul.

If an athlete is strong as a bull, but always deconditioned, you may need to cut back on the maximal strength work and prioritize metabolic conditioning more.

The body will always have a limited recovery capacity, so when it comes to writing strength and conditioning programs, one must always prioritize the most pressing needs, not simply adhere blindly to a long-term plan that doesn’t take into account these opportunities for adaptation.

To learn more about sequencing an athlete’s yearly training calendar, check out The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual , now available as an e-book for the first time ever!

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