The world of strength and conditioning is often characterized by extremes. Some curse the bench press as a worthless non functional movement, while others swear there is no better way to build upper body strength. Some say the olympic lifts shouldn’t be done with athletes because, as coaches, they don’t have enough time with them to properly teach the movements. Their counterparts claim that they aren’t competent coaches if they can’t teach the movements in a shorter period of time. The list of polarizing arguments is endless, and the answer almost always falls somewhere in the middle.
The issue with the middle ground is that it doesn’t sell. People want short and definitive answers that will lead them towards their goals. They want to know what works and what doesn’t, what is good and what is bad. Almost every time the answer isn’t so black and white. My old mentor used to answer most of the questions I had with two simple words. “It depends”. At first this used to drive me crazy. I used to think that those two words were just a way to side-step the many questions I would fire at him on a daily basis. However, I soon began to realize that there are so many factors that come into play when training the human body. The body is a complex biological system, and as a result the training decisions that are made in an attempt to target the desired physiological changes are not always simple. That’s not to say they should be made unnecessarily complicated, but they shouldn’t be thoughtless either.
Training factors are often influenced by the situation they present themselves in. Should a trainee implement a program that has them squat every day up to a max attempt? It depends. For the beginner this would be incredibly foolish, as they haven’t yet mastered the movement pattern of the squat, and would subject their body to large amounts of reps in a fatigued state with sub par technique. Even more advanced athletes may know their bodies well enough to realize that their joints wouldn’t handle this much intensity on a daily basis, although some are able to do this for years with great success. Like I said, it depends.
When looking to implement new methods into a training program for yourself or your athletes, think about all of the situation factors that come into play. A sampling of the many factors includes time, past injuries, training history, and mentality. Let’s use the example of determining loading parameters for the back squat to explore each of these factors.
- Time- Time typically refers to the amount of time an athlete has to train. Let's say you have a lifter in college who also works a part time job and has commitments to their family each week. They want to get stronger, but don’t have much time to commit. How should they program their squatting? It depends. If their basic goal is general strength, then I would program the squat as a main movement and give it emphasis in the program. The time restrictions may mean this athlete does multiple sets at a set percentage, rather than working at lower percentages. Working up to a heavy set of five, then doing 2 more sets at the same weight is quite the bang for your buck when it comes to building strength with limited time.
- Injury History- Injury history plays a huge role when determining loading for an exercise. An athlete with a history of lower back injuries may not want to max out their squat very often. Instead, they may want to accumulate more quality reps in the 60-80% range. They can also use squat variations such as pause squats or tempo squats to reinforce proper positioning as well as reach an appropriate amount of stress with a lower amount of weight. The use of accommodated resistance with this athlete may also be very beneficial because the load increases during the point of the movement where the athlete’s back is in a less vulnerable position.
- Training History- How long a trainee has been lifting, as well as what type of training they have been doing will also determine what method of loading is used. For example, a marathon runner with no history of squatting will not use the same loading techniques as a powerlifter who is attempting to set a world record in the squat. Taking into account the athlete’s skill with the movements they are training and their current physiological state is a big portion of how you should approach their training.
- Mentality- A lot of people overlook the mental aspect when programming. Say you have an athlete that needs to get their squat up. An athlete with a high mental drive may be able to suck it up and handle a brutal program that gets them where they need to be quicker. An athlete who lacks the work ethic of the previous example may need a longer approach that distributes the volume and intensity more evenly. However, on the flip side you may want to be careful not to let the athlete with the never stop fighting mentality to drive themselves into the ground. Give them too little and they will feel like you don’t push them hard enough, but give them too much and they will drive themselves to the point of injury or cause a decrease in performance. Once again, it depends.
I hope the example of the squat helped reinforce how there typically is no right or wrong when it comes to training. A multitude of factors come into play when making training decisions, and it all comes down to those two simple words again. Always being aware of who your athletes are, how they train, and their commitment level is imperative to their success, there is no black and white answer. Remember, “It Depends”.