Jeremy Hall and Al Miller: Scaling The System — Part 3

The conclusion to our discussion (Part 1 / Part 2) on scaling the programming outlined in The System, focuses primarily on the design and manipulation of the training volume and intensity. The goal of each training cycle, as well as the training plan as a whole, is to create a constantly variable stimulus to the body but with a gradual, long-term progression of the training variables.

Each training cycle lasts four weeks, with variable weekly and daily training volumes as well as training intensity, with a planned reduction in both volume and intensity during the fourth, deloading week. The next cycle repeats the same variable pattern but with new training movements and potentially higher volume and intensity.

The greatest change in planning for the average gym-goer compared to the training athlete is in the long-term training volume, which is dictated not only by the body’s ability to respond to training stress, but also by how much time the average man or woman is able to commit to training.

Principle 4: Volume Dictates Frequency and Frequency Dictates Volume
Seeing the big numbers of 800 reps a month or 1000 reps a month may seem far outside the realm of normal human ability for the average lifter, but when you stop and break down the days and workouts it quickly becomes apparent that you’re probably already doing that much volume . . . albeit not in the most efficient manner. Take a typical workout plan for the week:

(We’re probably being generous with the leg work, which is usually absent altogether from most routines.)

That’s 462 reps in just one week, so you might already be doing close to 1600 reps in a month. Granted those probably aren’t the most intense 462 reps, and most of the lifts on this routine would fall under our definition of supplemental exercises, but nonetheless that’s a fair bit of volume. It’s not surprising that so many older individuals who go to the gym come into the clinic with tendonitis.

Adding more volume is rarely the recipe for sustained progress.

By the standards we use, you’re probably going to be doing a lot less total volume of work, but it’s likely going to be more intense. With the emphasis on large, compound movements, the total training volume will absolutely need to be controlled because regularly squatting and pulling and moving explosively is going to be much more taxing to your body than a bunch of bicep curls and knee extensions. That means starting on the low end of the range of monthly volume is key, then gauging how your body responds and adjusting accordingly.

If you have three or four days a week to train, you can start with a monthly volume of roughly 800 reps first, and then do the math for the weekly and daily volumes. BUT, remember that frequency should really dictate volume. If you are a busy adult, and only have two days to train a week, don’t try to squeeze 120 reps into each day or else you are going to find yourself shuffling around, sore and incapacitated. If you have three days a week to train, you probably aren’t going to exceed 1000 reps in a month. Two days a week? You’re probably going to be closer to 600 or 700 reps in a month. Obviously, it is better to spread the volume out over more days, but most adult lifters struggle to shoehorn the gym into their already packed schedules.

Wave Your Volume Week to Week and Deload
For simplicity, you can stick to the basic weekly volume wave of 28-22-35-15%. That means that the total monthly volume gets distributed across the weeks to varying amounts.

Those weekly reps are spread across all of the training movements that we covered above. It’s best to break down the monthly volume of the movement into the weekly totals first. That way you know how many squats are going to be included in each week, for example.

Then you will further break down each week into the planned two or three training sessions. Again, the volume will wave over the course of the week. The volume will be 42-24-34% of the weekly total for a three day plan, and either a 60-40% or 50-50% volume split for a two-day plan.

There are some very low-volume workouts mixed in, but you have to remember that because your frequency and intensity of training the movements will be higher, those lower volume days are not only necessary, but also valuable. In addition, that final week will see both a drop in your training volume and your training intensity. Focusing on 70-75% 1RM loads and getting in and out of the gym is building in a week of active recovery from the heavier strength and hypertrophy work, that is still working to develop power.

Movement Priorities
Now you need to break down those reps of your primary lifts.

Example Monthly Exercise Volume %s:

The volume numbers for the movements are infinitely adjustable based on your goals and your needs. The examples above are just that . . . examples.

You can cut and slice the numbers however you want, as long as you pay attention to how your body is responding. For the average lifter, you probably don’t really need the Olympic lifts unless you are physically able or have a coach who can ensure good form. For that reason, we combined jerks and snatches, but you could separate the two movements or eliminate one or both if you choose. You should still keep cleans in your programming and just focus on being explosive with all of the other strength movements to develop more power quality, but the Olympic lifts are not something you should casually include in your programs if you are not physically or technically capable of performing them.

You could initially drop the pressing to the minimum monthly amount while you allocate that leftover volume to pulls, cleans, and posterior chain work to rebalance your body, and then gradually reintroduce pressing into your overall program. You could emphasize the strength movements one month and then shift your volume to include more power movements in the next month. It’s entirely up to you.

If we looked at two sample months using the same movement percentages, it might look something like this:

Depending on the volumes that you choose, you will need to split those total monthly reps into the four weeks of training, and then further into the two or three weekly training sessions. By applying the same math principles to the movement totals for the month, you can start to build out your weekly workouts.

Principle 5: Planned variability, not random variability
The key to developing strength, power and hypertrophy at the same time is to vary your volume and training intensity week-to-week and workout-to-workout. This isn’t random variation though . . . it’s structured to create a constantly changing stimulus with recovery built into the program.

We have already handled the large framework of waving our volume over the course of a month’s cycle. Now we need to determine how to distribute the volume and intensity throughout the workouts.

We will use the example of Week 1 to illustrate the idea:

What is important to remember is that for the strength movements (squats, presses and posterior chain) you shouldn’t exceed 35 reps in a training session, and for the power movements (cleans, pulls, jerks and snatches) you shoulder exceed 25 reps. For all movements, you need at least 12 reps in a session to get some benefit from the exercise. There’s a little room to fudge the numbers +/- 2 or 3 reps but you don’t want to keep over-extending yourself.

The real challenge will come from trying to find the perfect distribution of those weekly repetitions between your two or three training days. You can see there are some movements that don’t make sense to spread across multiple days because we drop below the 12-rep threshold. If will take some creativity and massaging of the numbers for you to find the right balance, and it’s ok if the daily volume doesn’t line up exactly. By sliding the reps around on the chart above, we laid the training week out to look something like this:

For each workout you would add one or two supplemental lifts like rowing variations, biceps or triceps, or something to bring up particularly weak areas and some targeted core work. Compared to the original body-part split example we gave, the total training volume for these three days doesn’t really look all that daunting.

Some other points to remember on building in variability:

Vary Your Exercises
If you are training the same movement twice in a week, try to change the exercise slightly for the second day. If you did back squats one day, do front squats the other day. If you did bench press one day, do overhead dumbbell presses the other day. Plan each month following that pattern each week, and the next month change the movements altogether.

Alternate Volume and Intensity for Movements Between Days Remember you don’t need as much volume on each day because the movements are being trained multiple times a week, and the volume is cumulative. When training the same movement twice a week, try to alternate between a “volume” day and an “intensity” day. Ideally that means one day has a higher volume of work compared to the other, but that won’t always be the case. Plan that one day you are doing higher reps/set in the 8-10 rep range and the other day you are doing lower rep work maybe between 4-7 reps per set. For athletics doing 8 sets of 3 reps is more beneficial than 3 sets of 8, but for the average lifter the sweet spot is right around 6-8 reps/set in our mind.

Principle 6: Progression should be gradual
As you progress through the months, try to gradually increase the intensity of your training, by increasing the weight and working fewer reps/set through the first three weeks. In the fourth week, drop the volume and intensity to ~70% 1RM, and then repeat the process for the next month.

You can continue this program almost indefinitely as long as you make sure to be conservative with the variables that you alter:

  • Change up the exercises every month.
  • Change the relative volume of each movement but keep volume and intensity the same.
  • Increase your volume (no more than 10% increase from the previous month) and keep the relative intensity the same.
  • Keep the volume the same but increase the training intensity.
  • If you hit a volume of say 1000 reps for a month or two, take a week off before the next cycle and drop back down to 800 and start all over again. You’d be amazed to see the gains you can make when you dial the volume back down and restart with your freshly developed strength and power.

We didn’t cover running and jumping but the same basic principles hold true for including either. Remember to lift before you run, but if you are going to sprint, keep that to a day you don’t lift and try to avoid it the day after a heavy dose of hamstring work. Just remember that as you get older, it’s valuable to reduce the extra impact forces on your knees and legs. Any additional training volume for running and jumping on top of the weight training is going to start to tax the joints more than you might think . . . a little bit goes a long way.

No doubt this has given you information overload, and even breaking the material into three separate posts only scratches the surface of this type of programming. You have to recognize that taking a systematic and structured approach to your training is going to be challenging in the short-term but will pay dividends in the long-term. Getting comfortable with planning your training over the course of months and years will allow you to see steady and progressive gains in your health and fitness and cut the risk of injury and over-training drastically. For the adventurous aging lifter, all of these concepts and methods are sure to keep you training longer and will develop a body that performs as good as it looks.

Jeremy Hall, DPT, CSCS, USAW, is a physiotherapist, strength and conditioning coach, writer, and founder of Total Performance Science and Mind of the Coach. He has worked as a strength and conditioning coach in the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league system and with countless amateur and professional athletes in private practice for both rehabilitation and performance enhancement. He has also taught at the graduate level at Nova Southeastern University, lecturing on the integration of performance training techniques into physical rehabilitation.

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