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Time for a new program

A few modifications might be all you need

You’ve just finished your last six week training cycle; results were fantastic, but the gain train has slowed to a halt. What’s next? Go online and find another fancy training routine? Just switch things up a little?

"Many try to work around this by hopping on to the next hyped program once their progress has stalled."

In order to make a proper decision about what program to pick, it is important to acknowledge that - expensive words coming up - the human body adapts only to that which is imposed upon it, and that over time its response to a certain stimulus will diminish. In other words: you only get better at what you practice, but endlessly doing the same stuff will eventually cease to work. Many try to work around this by hopping on to the next hyped program once their progress has stalled. If last training cycle included lots of barbell squats, now they do single leg training instead. Or maybe they opt for pushing the sled and flipping some tires. While this does solve the novelty problem, it is unlikely to yield long term results. Allow me to elaborate.

Let's assume that you're this person who has just swapped his squats for single leg work. What will happen to those precious squatting gains? If you're lucky, you’re relatively untrained to the extent that ‘anything will do’, and you might experience carryover of strength from one program into the next. Or maybe the new program accidentally hits the spot of your weak point. However, the more experienced you become, the more you specifically need to train a skill (like heavy squatting, or single leg training) in order to maintain it, while transfer of gains from one skill to the other becomes progressively weaker. Randomly picking something new might in that case even cause you to lose that which you just spent so much time building up.

So when you’ve outstretched your current squatting progress, what to do next? Push a sled? Flip tires? Keep squatting? Well, if improving your squat is important, then in a following cycle you would want to introduce variation (or further address weak points), but ideally not stray too far from the original movement and level of intensity. Because when going from squatting to pushing a sled or flipping tires, you will probably be sore in the same muscles, but the demands on the body will be so different that it’s highly questionable whether you are still training for the same goal. This usually is a sure way to become a mediocre jack of all trades, but a master of none. If you’re just looking to move for health and enjoy the ride, power to you, but if you’re looking to push your boundaries, you’re going to need structure going from one program into the next.

"Whenever I make a sequence of programs, I very rarely completely overhaul the system."

How I handle this with my clients and myself, is that I like to think of any subsequent program as a challenge to induce what I call ‘specific variation’. Changes just small enough to provide a novel stimulus, yet not so different that it becomes a completely different animal. Whenever I make a sequence of programs, I therefore very rarely completely overhaul the system. I may include some slightly different rep and set parameters, or slightly alter exercise technique. I might switch the grip positioning or foot stance. Or go for a different type of barbell.

Let’s take the squatting cycle I mentioned earlier as an example, and say the program asked for for doing 5 sets of 5 reps twice a week. Going slightly up or down a few repetitions per set might be all the novelty you need. Or maybe you always feel weak in the bottom position, so the next cycle you do your squats with a bottom pause instead. If you get creative, there are tons of options to rather simply tweak your training in a way that ensures a novel stimulus, while staying close to your intended training effect.

Good luck!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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