Jeremy Hall: Scaling The System to Work for You
How would you scale down the system for weekend warriors or keen amateurs in our 30s, 40s and 50s, with lots of experience, but also full-time jobs and families . . . you know, most of us.
Is there some kind of program minimum we could do with three or four basic exercises? We probably aren’t going to be doing 1,000 reps a month . . .
The System for The Aging Athlete
Some of you who have read The System have asked if there is a “scaled down” version for anyone not looking to compete on the athletic stage and who might be entering the second phase of life in their 30s, 40s or 50s.
First and foremost, thank you for reading the book. Second, yes there absolutely is a way to scale down The System for the older, adult population. That said, the explanation is not necessarily also scaled down. There could easily be another entire book written on applying our programming to older lifters, but our primary goal of writing The System was to teach readers how to think like a strength coach in creating a plan for long-term physical development. We wanted to write a book about the principles of strength training and how to apply those principles no matter the sport or individual.
To provide at least a useful blueprint on how to think about your own training, we are going to break our answer (and this article) down into two parts: the Why and the How of long-term systematic programming.
Before we dive into the why and how of program design, I want to first frame it into the perspective of cooking.
Going from a Cook to a Chef
This may seem like an odd place for a cooking analogy when talking about strength and conditioning, but it’s a valuable exercise to touch on the larger challenge of creating training programs. (For those interested, this concept comes from an article from the website Wait Buy Why about Elon Musk)
There is a fundamental difference between a cook and a chef. A cook can follow a recipe. He or she reads along, diligently repeats each step in the process, and ultimately gets a desired product at the end. It’s a heavily mechanical approach that, if followed correctly, should produce a fairly consistent outcome. In many cases, a cook doesn’t apply a lot of critical thinking or really need to make leaps in logic or reasoning. If it says two tablespoons of sugar, they measure out two tablespoons and move on. A cook doesn’t think about why to use sugar and not honey, or if there would be a different outcome if sugar went in at a different point in the process.
A chef on the other hand is someone who was trained in how to think about cooking. Their education (whether formal or informal) is in understanding the principles behind the process. Why yeast does what it does, or how the sequence or combination of ingredients produces a particular reaction. If there suddenly isn’t an ingredient handy, or the oven is broken, or time is limited, a chef can adapt and adjust the plan by applying the basic principles of chemistry and physics to get to the same end result.
A chef’s understanding allows them to make assumptions or jumps in logic to progress or modify a broader plan.
In terms of designing training programs, too many people are acting as cooks rather than chefs. Many people use an 8- or 12-week program they find in a magazine or follow the plan of an athlete or model they see online. They are following a recipe. Unfortunately, most of those pre-planned programs don’t provide a lot of room for adjustment or naturally build on one another. Without an understanding of the underlying principles it’s almost impossible to make a logical next step at the end of those two or three months of training, and you end up moving onto the next “recipe” that might be working on something completely different. You end up with a whole lot of unfinished dishes that never actually turn into a complete meal.
The good news is you don’t need to have studied exercise science in school or be a personal trainer to get a basic understanding of the principles behind training. If you can understand and appreciate those principles and know how to logically and intelligently apply them, you can build a flexible and progressive training program for yourself that can allow for long-term health and success.
Now, let’s take the chef hats off and get back to strength and conditioning . . .
Why is the aging athlete different?
Most people would say that the physical needs of the weekend warrior or keen amateur who is just past their prime is different than a teenage or 20-year old athlete training to excel in their sport. But in reality, the differences aren’t as stark as most people make them out to be.
Anyone who trains seriously is looking for the same things as competitive athletes. They want to look, feel and move better and generally be stronger or more “fit.” Both still need to be able to move their bodies through full, pain-free ranges of motion. Both need to develop some level of conditioning, strength and power, even if the adult just needs to lift and carry their children or play/coach sports with their kids. Everyone benefits from possessing an acceptable level of mobility, endurance or work capacity, strength, power and speed for the activities they want to pursue. Nothing is sadder than the Little League coach who gets winded or throws out his or her back demonstrating a simple drill.
The primary difference between programming for an adult versus a young athlete is in the limitations that the older athlete has both physically and in terms of time. A plan can’t be realistic or achievable if it doesn’t account for the boundaries and deficits that are barriers to success. If it doesn’t allow for simple, logical adjustments or progressions any benefit it provides is bound to be short-term.
There are a few limitations that are almost always present when designing a training plan for an adult.
Limitation 1: Time . . . Ain’t on Your Side
Time is always a challenge. I don’t need to tell you that, as you’re probably reading this article on your phone in the few free moments you can steal from your day.
Elite level performance requires time and effort that the average person can’t spare, so using programs built towards that end are counterproductive. If you are a dedicated amateur athlete, then your training may already reflect that level of involvement, but for everyone else it’s really about finding that amount of exercise that will move the needle in the direction of better health and performance without dedicating hours in the gym.
For adults, it’s about finding what the medical world calls the Minimal Effective Dose; the minimum amount of a substance (or in this case exercise) that will yield a positive physiologic response. If your back hurts, taking two Tylenol might decrease your pain. Take five Tylenol, you’re pain is probably gone. Take ten Tylenol, and your liver is taking a beating. If you can manage to find that lower limit of exercise and strive to hit at least that amount, then you can always do more work to increase your benefits when time or circumstances allow. Jobs, families and other responsibilities all generally take priority over health, so weaving exercise into the picture can be a tall order. Making it to the gym four times a week is great, and three times a week is probably ideal, but two times a week is probably the reality for most of us.
Twice a week doesn’t seem like enough stimulus to make a dent, but for the in-season training of our NFL athletes, we would train two days a week with very low volume but high intensity work. We still saw progressive increases in strength and power over the course of a grueling football season because our goal was to find that minimal amount of stress to provide a positive benefit. When millions of dollars are on the line for each game, you can’t afford to push too hard and then deal with the aftermath.
Just because you don’t have the highly-tuned body of a professional athlete doesn’t mean you can’t also reap those benefits, it just takes planning.
Limitation 2: Your Body
Even for the most conscientious lifter, our modern world is not conducive to good posture, full, pain-free mobility or optimal performance. Despite the marketing promises of massively accelerated physical transformations or “hacks” to get you feeling, moving or looking better in half the time, your physiology is in reality a tough nut to crack. In an interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast, former USA Junior National Coach Christopher Sommer pointed out that it takes roughly 200 days for connective tissue (think tendons, ligaments, etc) to remodel itself from chronic stress. Now that stress can be “good” stress from exercise and stretching or “bad” stress from hours spent slouched and hunched over a computer or on the couch.
Your body will respond and adapt to chronic, repetitive stress and balancing that “good” stress with the “bad” stress is the real challenge. Too much or too frequent stress doesn’t give the body’s systems and tissues time to repair and recover. Whether it’s too many phone calls and projects at work, or too many curls and bench presses at the gym, your body slowly becomes compromised and injuries or breakdowns occur. Hence the inordinate amount of patients with tendonitis injuries that end up in physical therapy from hours spent typing at their laptops or when they rapidly increase their running, jumping, lifting or sports activities for a New Year’s weight loss plan or an upcoming half-marathon.
As we will discuss in Part 2, improving the quality and quantity of movement is the first priority in long-term planning. There are a lot of exercises and movements in your routine currently that you probably have no business doing whether it’s because of poor mobility, significant postural deficits or inadequate stability and strength.
Limitation 3: Risk vs. Reward or Cost/Benefit
To the point of doing things that the body isn’t ready for, our current environment of finding the fastest way to a goal or “hacking” a process to maximize benefit while minimizing time and effort is likely causing more harm than good. We’ve lost the long-view of health and fitness over decades, not just weeks or months.
The form that most often takes is joining a Crossfit box or some similar high-intensity training program. It’s trying to pack as much effort and exertion into the shortest amount of time to “maximize” results. As strength coach Mike Boyle says, it’s taking the “nuclear approach.”
For your younger self, even a bad program or random training probably produced good results because genetics and the resiliency of a growing and developing body can pick up the slack. Unfortunately, as you get older your body gets a little more stubborn and little more prone to injury, as your recovery ability begins to slow. Rushing for results and overloading the body too much or too fast outweighs the potential benefit. The potential benefit may be to lose 10lbs in half the time, but the potential cost may be a torn rotator cuff or herniated disc in your back. The cost, both physically and financially, certainly doesn’t outweigh the risk in that scenario.
Even with our work with elite level athletes whose job it was to lift weights, eat right and perform on the field there were limits to how much work they could handle. Back to the Minimal Effective Dose, just like with medicine, more is not always better, and although the minimal dose will vary from person to person, finding that lower limit and slowly and progressively advancing from there is almost always going to yield better long-term results than trying to “hack” your path to being bigger, faster, and stronger.
Limitation 4: Lack of Clear Goal-Setting
The other limitation in program design is that most adults don’t have a thought-out plan or strategy, or realistic timeline to get to their desired goals. They may pick and choose an online program to bring up a lagging body part, or train for a race or maybe cut down for the impending summer beach vacation or high school reunion. They take a bunch of random recipes and hope it turns into a cohesive meal, without understanding where to start or how to get from point A to point B.
An even bigger problem is not really knowing exactly what their goals are, or whether their training is actually facilitating or hindering their progress.
Progression is something that requires time and commitment, and an appreciation that everything exists on a continuum. Endurance and speed exist on either end of the training spectrum, with different training approaches and different rates of development. Working on one is going to sacrifice the development of the other and trying to improve both at the same time means that neither will make much of an improvement.
Understanding what physical quality will enhance the development of another and the time it takes to see significant change are the only ways to ensure that a goal is realistic and achievable. Shifts in programming should be subtle and should always maintain some thread of all the physical qualities, just adjusted to the goal at that time. Systematic goal setting goes hand in hand with systematic program design.
The Solution Starts with Principles
Hopefully we’ve shown you why it can be so difficult to design strength programs for adults. With all of the challenges preventing consistent, successful training programs, we believe it is absolutely critical to educate individuals on the principles for designing their own programs.
There’s no cookie cutter approach.
It requires some experimentation to find what works best for the individual. Starting simply and from a foundation of science and logic is key.
In life, as in athletics, if you always start with building a foundation first and then progressing from simple to complex, then you will be right most of the time. With just a handful of guiding principles we can strip down The System into the core components that can provide a sensible approach to life-long strength programming.
Continue to Part 2 . . .
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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