Article originally published on Breaking Muscle
Buy my template, and you’ll not only get stronger, but it’s all you’ll ever need." Have you ever heard a popular coach or trainer say this?
Templates are for sale, usually as an ebook or a PDF downloadable file with illustrated instructions. The pitch includes that it’s easy to understand, to do, and promotes consistency. It’s often a twelve, sixteen, or twenty-four-week program that you can repeatedly do without much change.
And that’s the big selling point—that it's simple, therefore you can do it over and over. The coach will make supporting arguments such as if you focus on the basics, that they consider necessary in a training program, anyone can keep progressing indefinitely. You only need to have enough discipline and pious obedience to the doctrine.
Why Training Programs?
There’s nothing wrong with a training template. Some are very well designed and helpful to a vast majority. This is because people fit into one of just a handful of physiological categories from a training standpoint, and the need for individual variation is much less than most think.
But when the creators of these programs insist that their twelve-week program is all anyone ever needs to increase strength, and some of them do claim this, things get weird. Claiming this is misleading, and it can stunt the growth and long-term development of young, easily influenced lifters. It also hinders their mental insight into the training process.
There’s the unspoken problem with training programs being written by coaches who only have experience lifting on drugs and coaching athletes who have consistently used them. I’m no idealist thinking that a coach like this doesn’t have good ideas to bring to drug-free lifters. You can gain insight from watching and working with the fringes of any sport or practice.
But a training program needs to be considered from the perspective of the coach. If the coach isn’t upfront and claims, a workout plan can be repeated for the natural lifter with little change or variation over time, particularly with training volumes, it creates confusion.
To understand why a template can’t be repeated endlessly, we need to learn about changes that come with a developing lifter with advancing chronological and cumulative training ages. We’ll start with sequential.
Changes As We Age
Physiology changes with physical age. This means that the type of training you do will have to be modified each year. There’s another candle on your birthday cake. How much of each component of training and how much work you can do will need to be adjusted?
But the degree of change depends on when you started training and how consistent it has been. A forty-year-old lifter who’s been at it since adolescence will need a higher level of work to sustain strength than someone the same age who started in their mid-thirties.
The effectiveness in which we buffer stress as we age changes regardless of the workload to which we’ve adapted. You can see this with how often a younger person can lift weights close to their max compared to someone older.
Someone in their early twenties can not only max out and do more volume above 90% of their one-rep max than someone in their forties, but they can also recover better and benefit from it more. The capability to do this diminishes with age. The training you do should not only reflect how old you are when you start training and the volumes you’ve built up to, but also how old you are now.
Changes In Content the Longer You Train
Training programs can have a reasonable degree of creative input from the individual writing it. Still, there are unnegotiable standards that every training system and the plan has to meet to be effective.
Variation is one of these foundational aspects. Some put far too much emphasis on change and think of it inaccurately. But the difference in volume over months, training cycles, and years of training are crucial.
Varying exercises and modes of training for inexperienced athletes too frequently can be somewhat detrimental to progress. But training volumes and even exercises do need to eventually be switched, modified, and rotated through to ensure development as the athlete matures.
Total training volumes also often need to increase over time. The longer you’ve been training, the more work you need to get stronger and build more muscle. As training age (how long you’ve been consistently training) increases, so must the total volume of work you do.
Total volumes require us to look at training from a macro view, which accumulates the overall volumes that need to increase with each block of training.
Increase Over Similar Phases
When looking at phases of training, we need to consider them over several months. You can think of a phase of training as the time dedicated to emphasizing the development of physical quality.
Adequately designed training will include periods of hypertrophy cycles with high volume intended to build muscle, and work capacity followed by strength cycles with lower volumes. However, heavier weights followed by a peaking cycle consist of even lower volumes but lots of practice lifting near maximal loads.
Volumes and intensity need to fluctuate during each of these cycles. But, the more experienced the lifter becomes, the more the average volume he or she will need to add to these hypertrophy and strength cycles to retain strength and push farther.
Typically every year, the lifter would have to do more volume in each of the phases of training to keep seeing improvement. This means that if you were to keep detailed records of your practice, the hypertrophy and strength cycles you planned for this year would have more total volume in main lifts than the respective training cycles from two years ago.
Even as your maxes increase and with it the daily weight you use in training, the total volume of work will need to increase over time because you will become more proficient and better at absorbing the stress from this work.
Training plans must account for this, and any template that does not clearly define how volume should increase is incomplete and eventually useless. Don't use it as a long-term training guide.
Change in Qualification of the Lifter
Although the total minimum volume that a lifter will need to use in training will gradually increase over time, the qualifications of the weightlifter influence the degree of change. These qualifications are based on body weight, gender, and ability.
While, in theory, each lifter will be able to and require higher average volumes as years of consistent, hard training, the degree to which this increases can vary from groups in each qualification level.
The average volume a lifter will need, in theory, has to increase over the years of training. But as a lifter advances to a higher qualification, volumes may decrease in certain phases of training as compared to someone with similar experience but who is smaller and weaker.
The clearest example would be of a young male powerlifter who continually gains body weight over years of competition. Let’s say this young man started competing in powerlifting in his early twenties and weighed under 200 pounds.
He began as a strong kid who quickly squatted over four hundred pounds. As he advanced in age and experience, he began gaining body weight and moving up several weight classes. His strength and ability skyrocketed, and during this intermediate period, as he improved, he started to calculate the increase in his volumes even as he handled heavier weights.
Fast forward ten years, and he became an elite level powerlifter. He now weighed well over 300 pounds and could squat over 900 pounds. He began to gradually reduce the volumes he used in certain training phases simply because he was unable to recover. Yes, he had built a very high specific work capacity, but the weights he now had to use in daily training were just too high to complete the same measure of volume.
Eighty-five percent of 400 pounds does not break the body down the same as 85% of 900 pounds, no matter how you slice it. Eventually, the absolute weight that you are dealing with becomes the most significant determining factor.
This is especially true in a peaking phase for competition when you are training with 90% or more of a very high 1RM. At this level, with these kinds of weights, volumes will need to be decreased so that you can recover and benefit from practicing near maximal loads. The training plan needs to take this into account.
I’m using an extreme example, but it doesn’t discredit the point. With consistency in training, lifters can reach a point where they need to adjust and even reduce the volume in similar training phases merely because they can’t recover and grow stronger from the stress of such heavyweights. Training plans have to stay dynamic and account for these changes.
Why Are Templates Like These So Popular?
Most consumers make purchases based on emotion, impulse, or a connection they feel they have with the company or the individual that created the product. It’s also prevalent for those in the fitness community to get very attached and loyal to a particular coach, trainer, or training method.
Many people stick with a personal trainer, even with doubts about their education and ability, because they feel like they have a connection. Similarly, people stick with methods and systems of training because it was the first thing that worked for them. These systems and programs are popular, and luck plays a big part in who’s programs and services we see first.
Consumers form connections with the coaches who create these programs by listening to them speak and following them on social media. They feel like they know them, however silly that may be, and as a strength and fitness personality becomes more prevalent, the more their products sell.
With this popularity, they connect and attract other circles of high-influence coaches and form a community. This community then insulates and supports each other. And really, why wouldn’t they? Being connected in this way is beneficial both financially and socially.
But the shadowy part about this community is when one of the power members begin selling a template with the type of false claims I’ve described. Maybe it’s hubris, or perhaps they haven’t the wisdom and education yet to know they’re doing a disservice. If they stand behind their creation, their friends will go on the offensive to anyone challenging the long-term efficacy of the product.
This will typically digress into a battle of status rather than an objective discourse of the material in question. The community of authorities will say something like: "Who are these upstarts in the crowd that would dare challenge us? Who do they think they are?"
And so the problem never gets resolved, and consumers can’t sift through what’s helpful for their long-term success and what’s not.
Fitness pros will also argue that the templates they design are for the average person who doesn’t compete and doesn’t need to focus on setting new maxes in barbell lifts.
What does it mean to be an average person? The demographic needs to be better defined if the coach is selling a product for general use.
If the program includes barbell lifts and a person dedicated themselves to this strength training program, the application should increase strength. And to track this, the lifter will eventually have to set a max. To do this, once again, you need training volumes to change as you approach the phase where you aim to do this. Maybe not at first, but eventually, as the individual gets more experienced. And this is true for any average person.
For Beginners Only
I’ve also heard coaches say their training programs are for beginners only. They insist their template can remain unchanged and never updated because it is a resource for the steady influx of beginners to strength training.
That’s fine if that was their honest intention. But I’ve listened carefully to their message and their pitch, and it seems they never inform their audience how they will need to adjust their volume and intensity as they become more experienced or that this is even necessary.
If they were upfront, they’d explain to their customers that they’re programs are great for newcomers but lack the progression to develop lifters passed the beginner’s stage. Keeping quiet about this is just as dishonest and confusing as selling the program as something to repeat forever.
Take a look at the training template you’re about to start. See if it will help you right now and if it will use it. But remember that right now is not forever.