1. Training Blocks
One of the biggest challenges strength and conditioning professionals face is how to organize their training blocks. These “blocks” are often referred to as Macro cycles, Meso cycles, and Micro cycles, but if you are like me, when you see or hear those terms you have to pull out the NSCA text-book to get a quick refresher of what exactly these terms represent again. For the sake of simplicity, I refer to them as the Annual Block, the Specific Block, the Weekly Block, and the Daily Block.
Consists of all 52 weeks of your annual plan and therefore includes all blocks of a periodized training program.
Specific block of training that is designed to accomplish a particular goal such as volume accumulation, strength, power, etc. 4-8+ Specific Blocks make up the Annual Block.
Describes the 7 day layout of training. 3-6 Weekly Blocks make up a Specific Block.
One day of training. 3-5 Daily Blocks make up a Weekly Block of Training.
From here on out in this post I will refer to the training cycles as the blocks listed and described above.
2. Designing Your Block Plan
By looking at the competitive calendar of the sport you are working with you can layout your annual training block and begin breaking down the training year into more specific blocks. For example, collegiate baseball is a sport in which there are 2 large training windows where we can really dedicate time to weight room training. These windows occur (1) after the conclusion of fall ball to the start of pre-season and (2) after the season to the start of fall ball. These training windows are usually 8-12 weeks in length and allow a strength coach to program with strength and speed gains as the number one priority of the team. Quality training windows for football occur between (1) the conclusion of the regular season and start of spring ball and (2) a few weeks after spring ball until a week or two before fall camp. The quality training windows for basketball occur once the season is over until the beginning of pre-season. Basketball has one of the largest open training windows of any sport since it does not have an alternative season of training (i.e. fall ball for baseball, spring ball for football) like most other sports. When looking for these training windows look for periods of time ranging from 8-12+ weeks where there are no competitive matches, minimal time away from campus, and minimal sport specific training taking place.
SAMPLE BASEBALL ANNUAL TRAINING PLAN
SAMPLE BASKETBALL ANNUAL TRAINING PLAN
Before I get too much further, I want to make it clear that I design specific training blocks for the entire year, but most strength and speed gains are made when we have a window of 8-12 weeks where the sport specific demands are low and weight room priority is high. During the competitive season you cannot place high weight room demands on top of high practice/game demands and expect to be successful. The only case where this can happen is with athlete’s who are red-shirting or not actively competing in the current competitive season. These athlete’s can afford to have sub-par sport specific performances (assuming the sport coach has okayed it) in order to gain muscular size and strength. As a strength coach you must keep in mind you are only a piece of the puzzle and the top priority of the team and athlete is athletic success, not weight lifting success. Weight lifting success can help aid in athletic success, but if done improperly it can also severely hinder an athlete’s performance on game day.
3. Championship Training Cycle: The Background
Now that you have a brief background on training blocks and how they pertain to the annual plan and competitive sport season I want to share a 12 week training block I have created and used with numerous teams and have had tremendous gains in strength, speed, and lean mass with both male and female athletes. This 12 week training plan can be directly implemented with the Brick Training Method template to create a well-rounded training program that has been proven to create gains in virtually every category of measurable strength. I refer to this 12 week plan as the “Championship Cycle”. This is the training cycle in which we see PR’s happen regularly and our record board has seen changes after every one of these training cycles. I usually implement this cycle or a variation of this cycle any time we have a minimum of 8 training weeks dedicated primarily to the weight room.
This program has been evolving over the last year and a half and continues to progress daily. The thought for this program came about after I was looking for a way to implement Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 into my own teams training plans. I used a wide array 5/3/1 combinations with a wide array of teams, all of which worked rather well, but noticed there were a few holes in 5/3/1 programming for athletes. The first thing I noticed when implementing a modified 5/3/1 program was that the total (sub) max effort volume was so low that most athlete’s found it to be very easy and struggled to generate a stimulus response that would lead to strength gains. The second thing I noticed was that if the athlete did not have a strong training history they really struggled when we got into the lower repetition ranges. Lastly, there was a large variance in how many reps an athlete would get in a final rep out set. Some athlete’s would struggle to get 1 or 2 while others would be cranking out 5-8 reps no problem. Athlete’s, especially those who are new to a structured strength training program, gain strength at all different rates and trying to alter numbers based on ever-changing strength levels can be very difficult. Although we were making gains, they lacked consistency so I went to the drawing board trying to figure out what I could do to maximize the modified 5/3/1 training cycle.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Layout
After trying a few different things with minimal success I had an “Ahaa!” moment. I had one team in particular who had been very successful with the modified 5/3/1 training block and there was one thing I had done different with this than I did with any other team. This team had trained pretty hard at a pretty high volume for a full 6-8 weeks prior to the implementation of the modified 5/3/1 training cycle. By the time we got to the modified 5/3/1 training block this team was PR-ing pretty much every workout.
At this point I realized I needed to implement a program that was more demanding from a volume standpoint early on in the training window before I asked the athlete’s to really load up the bar. I know this may seem like basic linear periodization, but when training athlete’s you often become a victim of time and can easily get in a rush to get them bigger and stronger. I have seen many coaches and athlete’s become a victim of time constraint and try to cram a heavy strength/power cycle into a 4-6 week time frame without doing significant volume work beforehand. If the athlete does not have a history of heavy training or has become even the slightest bit de-trained this WILL NOT work. These abrupt heavy cycles will lead to injury of at least 1-2 athletes every time. How do I know this? Because unfortunately I have made this mistake. Want to wreck someones back? Throw in a heavy deadlift/power clean cycle without spending at least 4-6 weeks prior to that cycle establishing the proper technique as well as improving the strength of the posterior chain. Strength is something that happens over time, not over night. One or two weeks of volume work will not prepare an athlete to handle loads repeatedly in the 85%+ 1rm category.
An untrained athlete is no different from that guy at the gym who is trying to max out on every lift his first time at the gym. We laugh at him and his horrible technique, but many strength “Professionals” are guilty of putting their athlete’s in the exact same situation. How many Coaches bring athletes in and test their max’s on their first day in the weight room? Unfortunately far too many. Just because a guy or gal is athletic, that does not mean they know how to properly execute a highly technical max effort exercise. If you really want to screw some athletes up, have a group of new athlete’s max out on the big 3 (Squat, Bench, Deadlift/Power Clean) right when they arrive on campus. Not only will you see about 25 different techniques for each lift, you better hope no one has any history of injuries such as a disc/vertebral issues, or shoulder/hip/knee abnormalities. Assuming an athlete has a clean health history and a quality strength training background does what “assuming” does best…you know the saying.
Does this look like an “Athletic” Press?
4. Championship Training Cycle: The Goal
The goal of the Championship Training Cycle is to safely add strength and size to an athlete so that it can be maintained over time, while keeping the incidence of injury to an absolute minimum. This is accomplished by allowing strength levels to develop at a safe pace and allowing the athlete’s body to naturally adapt and progress to the provided stimulus.
5. Championship Training Cycle: Brief Overview
The Championship Training Cycle is a 12 week training cycle made up of 3 Specific Training Blocks that naturally progress athletes across the linear periodization strength continuum from high volume-low intensity to a low volume-high intensity environment. This program uses a vast array of rep and set protocols, that when used in conjunction with the Brick Training Method template, will ensure a fresh stimulus is applied regularly,while allowing the athlete time for proper adaptation, stabilization, and actualization of their strength levels.
The layout of the Championship Training Cycle represents the rep/set/intensity schemes utilized only in the Brick 1 or Max Effort exercises. These are the training exercises that we consider our foundation movements such as the squat, bench, and deadlift. For this particular program I have designed the 12 week training program around training these “Big 3” movements. You could substitute an Olympic lift in place of the Deadlift, but you would want to adjust the reps and volume to reflect the demands of Olympic lifting (keeping sets under 5 reps/ Prilepin’s Chart). The movements following the max effort exercise are either dynamic or repetition based exercises, thus having a different volume, intensity, and set protocol depending on the movement as originally noted in The Brick Training Method post. (https://zbrulet.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/the-brick-training-method-2/)
The exercises for the 12 week championship cycle rotate between a squat variation, bench variation, and deadlift variation. The progression of exercises for the max effort exercise is key to proper technique development and advancement of strength. For this 12 week training block I have chosen the following max effort training exercises:
I chose these particular exercises because I feel they naturally progress from one to the other and allow the athlete to develop proper technique and strength before moving to a more complex movement. I believe giving the athlete a chance to try multiple deadlift stances before entering the final heavy max effort training block allows them to figure out which stance fits their limb and lever length best, while requiring them to train in their deficient stance for a minimum of 3 weeks. This layout and exercise selection could easily be manipulated to your own program or athlete’s needs.
Specific Block I: VOLUME ACCUMULATION
Block I is characterized by a higher volume, lower intensity layout. This allows athlete’s to establish adequate strength levels with lighter weights, learn technique, all while establishing the ability to handle a rather demanding training session. The layout follows the traditional training method of repeated sub-max effort attempts, pieced together in a progressive 3 week training block.
The volume accumulation training block looks as follows: (Warmup sets are not shown, but I usually allow 3-5 minutes for athletes to feel out the exercise and weight prior to the % based work sets.)
When Implemented in the Brick Training System the Volume Accumulation Training Program would look as follows:(click on image for clearer picture)
Specific Block II: VOLUME TO STRENGTH
As the 12 week program progresses into the second training block there are a few notable changes that will take place. The exercises switch to new movements and the total volume begins to stabilize as the intensity begins to steadily increase. The athlete should be able to complete all the working sets without significant struggle, which is why we allow the athlete to rep out (up to 6 reps) the last set of each max effort exercise. This gives the athlete a chance to push themselves and see how their strength levels are progressing. The goal is to try to match the reps you did the week before during the rep out set. This may or may not happen, but it gives the athlete a number to aim for on the final rep out set. I will encourage athletes to leave 1 in the tank (if possible) and ask spotters to be on high alert. I do this for the simple reasoning that the likelihood of injury sky rockets when sets are taken to failure. Technique often breaks down during near failure attempts and the mechanics of the exercise can change abruptly, leading to injury in some cases.
The volume to strength training block looks as follows:
When Implemented in the Brick Training System the Volume to Strength Training Program would look as follows:(click on image for clearer picture)
Specific Block III: STRENGTH TO POWER
As we progress into the third training block, we now begin to reduce the volume and increase the intensity each training week. This 4 week training cycle progresses +5% intensity each week, while maintaining a standard volume measurement across the training block. We maintain a consistent percent intensity for the first 3 sets of each max effort exercise, which allows athletes to consistently handle weights they have handled before. Within a week or two these first couple sets prove to be rather easy and now we will see athlete’s climb into the “Stabilize/Actualize” phase of the Stimulus, Adaptation, Stabilize, Actualize strength acquisition continuum. The weights used in these first couple sets are often weights they could not handle 6-8 weeks prior.
In this training block we will again allow the athlete to hit a structured rep out set on their last work set with a weight that is slightly heavier than their previous work set. I let the athlete judge what weight they want to use based on how they are feeling, up to a 5% jump. I encourage them to leave 1 rep in the tank if possible so we can hopefully out do that performance in the following weeks.
The Strength to Power Training Block looks as follows:
When Implemented in the Brick Training System the Strength to Power Training Program would look as follows:(click on image for clearer picture)
Weeks 11 and 12: Deload and Test Week
The final two weeks of the 12 week Championship Training Block are dedicated to one week of recovery and one final test/performance week. One may notice that there are not any deloads scheduled in the championship training cycle until week 11. I will not deload the max effort exercise until week 11, but I will deload the accessory work as needed (typically every 3-4 weeks). With the max effort volume slowly decreasing and the intensity slowly progressing, athlete’s have told to tell me the overall workout feels easier as we cut the reps and volume of the max effort work. I have not had any athlete show signs of over training or staleness thus far in this training program, but if it becomes apparent that the group is beat down I will adapt the program accordingly. Keep in mind this 12 week training block typically occurs at a time when there are minimal sport demands and recovery can be heavily emphasized. Also, with a 3 day a week training program you allow a full 48 hours recovery between training sessions and by rotating max effort exercises each training session you only require 1 max effort session from one major movement once a week. By following these methods symptoms of staleness and over training are kept to a minimum.
As I stated in the Brick Method post, I am leery of heavy testing following a deload week based on the principle that a week of easier workouts and increased down time can take some athlete’s out of their “groove”. I have had mixed results with testing after a deload week compared to just letting athletes continue to build and test them in week 11, then implement a deload the final week (12). I do not favor one over the other, but I am still conducting my own “Practical Research” and hope to conclude which method provides better results in the near future.
Even if you don’t try the 12 week Championship Training Cycle, I hope that you took a couple things away from this article. The main one being: Strength is built over time. Do not rush athlete’s to get strong and learn the difference between fighting for reps and getting down right destroyed. A struggle for a rep is fine, but repeated struggles and failure will not provide the right stimulus for strength gain. Training like this will likely do more harm than good.
I have attached PDF files for all of the charts shown above (see link below this). As always, I appreciate any and all feedback and am always willing to answer questions and discuss anything strength and conditioning. My e-mail is email@example.com. I encourage you to shoot me an e-mail with any questions, thoughts, or feedback you may have.