Back to Rob's Articles

Building the Pragmatic Workout
Program Part III


By University of Pennsylvania’s Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Rob Wagner

This article was taken from Eclipse's magazine, BodyTalk. Click here if you would like a free copy.

Welcome back to the Pragmatic Workout Program. This is part three in the series. In part one you were introduced to a goal setting program that would help guide you through this planning process much like we would use a map to guide the way on a trip. The goal-setting program will also serve to keep the workout in perspective and aid in maintaining your motivation to continue on with the program. In part two we looked at various types of resistance training programs or vehicles that we could use in our travel towards reaching our workout goals. I suggested using a strength-training program because it was better at providing immediate feedback on how you are progressing with the workout. The other benefit that comes with this training is that you will receive some of the same benefits produced by hypertrophy and endurance training methods. Remember the idea of this series is to teach you how to develop an effective weight-training program that can be used by anyone. The WI practicality comes in its flexibility in planning which will be introduced in this article. Simply apply the philosophies discussed that fit within your goal schemes and it will be workable for you. This article will continue with our travel metaphor and will cover two initial areas in the development of the PWP. As in part two, keeps your goal-setting plan with you to guide you through the decision making processes you will encounter in this stage of the program's development. If you have not read part one or two I encourage it before starting here. I will introduce you to the initial planning stages of the PWP, and they will establish the frequency and time line of training.

When discussing the planning of athletic training programs it is hard to avoid discussing periodization. Periodization is the idea that training can be broken down into parts or training periods, hence the phrase periodization. Each one of these periods would be used to develop specific aspects of the athlete's development or preparation for their sport. This same approach will be used in the PWP. As you develop your program there will be certain goals that will be addressed in certain periods of the workout plan. To give you a better picture of the periodization approach I will outline some of its basic principles. When you plan a trip you have a certain time frame in which to fit your vacation. Certain parts of the trip are allocated to travel and others to recreation or shopping. Planning a program is similar; there are certain time frames in which you plan to see results or to achieve your goals. The largest portion or overall view of this periodization plan is called the macrocycle. This can be seen as your total vacation time. The macrocycle can be long in terms of calendar length, lasting as short as a year and extending upwards to multiple years. The macrocycle for an athlete will have a specific training goal attached to it. It may be to make a better football player or track athlete, and it will contain all the training approaches that will lead to this outcome. These training approaches are represented by the second largest planning segment in the periodization plan, the mesocycle. The mesocycle would be similar to the time you spend in your vacation doing specific activities mentioned earlier, traveling, shopping and recreating. The mesocycle in the PWP will represent training periods that will focus on certain aspects of your strength training. These periods can last from several weeks to several months. The next smaller planning period is the microcylce. These would be similar to what is done on each day of the vacation. If you are doing some recreational activities for a couple days, you may divide it between snorkeling on one day and then hiking on the next. The microcycles can last from a few days to a week and a half (5 MN 10 days). The final most basic unit of this planning process is the training session. In the vacation scenario this would be how you would break up your day. Maybe you spend three hours hiking; one hour eating and so on. The microcycle is made up of the recurring pattern of training sessions much like our vacation day would be made up of the activities we did over the hours. For example lets say you will lift certain groups or types of exercises in training session 1, another set of exercises in training session 2, and again another in session 3. The next training session would have you start by repeating this same pattern. That initial pattern of training sessions would be your microcycle. You can see that each period is basically an accumulation of the smaller periods beneath it. What this will allow you to do is plan more effectively by working from the smaller to the larger period especially once you have the direction of the larger periods' goals. Future PWP articles will focus on planning the training session, the microcycle and the mesocycle.

I have not mentioned anything about training sessions and training days being the same thing. The truth is the number of days you can lift or plan to lift may not be the same as the number of training sessions you have. Try not to think of your training as being contained in the typical seven-day week. By working within the confines of the seven-day week you limit the options available in the PWP. You can set your training week up for as many days as you see fit going up to ten to twelve days. If training is extended into the 14-day window the stimulus may not have a positive effect since there could be too much time between specific sessions, which could result in detraining. You could have a 9-day training week approach or even a four-day approach. It will depend on the flexibility in your work schedule and family life. The first thing Before my fingers go to the keyboard in designing a workout program, I ask individuals, Iowa many days per week can you lift?" One point of caution is to be realistic about this. When you find yourself conflicted between family responsibilities, work, life and then training, you will find that this type of juggling is better suited for circus performers. The first thing to do is find days in your schedule with limited conflicts. When selecting the days you will be training in the PWP, plan for one day of rest from lifting activities (48 hours) between training sessions. The one exception is when training sessions involve distinctly different exercises on consecutive days. The training day guidelines for the PWP are to observe the recovery day and to limit the microcycles to 12 days.

Training frequency will be the number of training sessions that occur within a given period. It could be the micro, meso or macro cycle. In the PWP I feel its best to look at the smaller unit of the frequency in the microcycle. The number of training sessions you can have in this period will depend on several things. First is time availability. Do you have an hour, or only 15 minutes to train? I consider training sessions as opportunities to train so you need to look at the time you have available and make the most of it. If you are confronted with the latter time situation you can still train. The workout may be limited to one or two exercises but some training is better than no training. If there is a second 15 min or 20 min block later in the day that is even better. This brings to light the idea of training more than once in a day. This was something I came across in the late eighties while in graduate school. In Leo Costa Bulgarian Burst bodybuilding system, Costa explained how the Bulgarian weightlifters (one of the top programs in the world at that point in time) were training up to five times per day. One guideline that he presented in his program included that the training sessions last no longer than 45 minutes in duration. This time frame was based on research that showed testosterone levels in males would peak in that time frame. After that period those levels would start to drop off precipitously. I am not suggesting that you train five times per day. For the weightlifters that was their job. I am certain for most of you lifting weights is not your current occupation.

Considering this and looking at a variety of sports training programs from powerlifting to track and field the PWP guidelines will limit the number of training sessions per day to two. The PWP also follows Costa idea of keeping the workouts to a 45- 60 minute time frame, but not for the same hormone level reasons. For one, the testosterone level research has little application to females and other special populations like adolescents and the elderly. It is primarily a younger male thing. The primary reason for staying with this time frame in the PWP is related to your intensity to complete the workout. Regardless of your training, it is difficult to maintain high intensity for much longer than an hour if you are really getting after it in the workout. It also forces you to plan more effectively since you will have a defined period of time to train. This can be helpful in motivating you to do the workout with the challenge of getting through it in time. It also makes the workout look more physically manageable overall.

Now that you have been introduced to the concept of periodization and the training session we can discuss how these will affect frequency and the timeline of the program in the PWP. Typically the PWP should have at least three training sessions per week and no more than eight. Variations within these guidelines will depend on your training experience. The more experience, the more sessions. Beginners should start with three sessions per week. The larger the number of workouts usually means that the training sessions will be briefer staying well under the 60 min window. The training sessions may be distributed once per day or in a two per day fashion. If you do plan to train the split session approach there are some guidelines you need to follow. Allow at least three hours between sessions. This will allow your body to cool down from the first workout and return to more of a resting state. It will also allow you to take advantage of any post workout nutritional strategies and not have them overlap with the next workout (having to train with a stomach full of food). The longer the time you can allow between these sessions the better. An example of the bodies return to normal is in the length of the muscles after a workout. Without stretching, muscles can take as long as six hours to return to their normal resting lengths. Take advantage of the time between workouts if you are able.

Another aspect of the PWP split training sessions, is that you can train the same body parts or movements on the same day. This will allow greater recovery to the area trained and may increase the level of intensity you can apply to the exercise area. If you plan five training sessions they can be carried out in split session approach and can be done in a seven day microcycle or these could be done in single daily training sessions and could be distributed across a 10 day microcycle. These examples are illustrated below (see chart 1).

You should have an idea of how the days, training sessions and microcycles can be organized in the PWP. This brings me to the final point about the time line used in the PWP program. I find that most folks adapt to strength training programs in about 3 MN 5 weeks (21-35 days). Adaptation in this case can be seen in a your becoming comfortable with the structure of the workouts (not feeling as fatigued post workout), a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after the workouts, and getting stronger from one training week to the next. I recommend that workout plans (mesocycles) last, in total, between 21 days to 42 days. The goals of this mesocycle should be consistent over this time frame. For example the first 42 days may be focused on developing speed strength (power). The next 35 days would then be focused on absolute strength. These time frames will ensure that the program will have a training effect. As with the training session beginners should look at longer timelines while the more experienced lifter can use shorter ones. Using these time lines for the PWP will also allow you to evaluate your progress and allow you to make adjustments to your training as you go along.

In this article you were introduced to the concept of periodization. Its role will be defined more as the series develops. You were also provided with the guidelines on the frequency of training and the time line of the program. The WI flexible training session approach allows the creation of a variety of workout options for you. It will allow you to train on an eight or nine day week. You can also train multiple times on multiple days giving you more time options during the week and allowing the PWP to conform to your schedule instead of you conforming to it. So as we continue our trip on the development of the PWP keep in mind how training frequency and the length of the program will be managed in your program. The PWP will allow you to fit the workout plan into your daily schedule instead of you having change your daily schedule in order to get a training session scheduled.

For further reading on this topic:

Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (2000). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Costa, L. (1989). Serious growth: How to master the science of the bulgarian power burst training. Optimum Training Systems.

Kurz, T. (2001). Science of sport training: How to control training for peak performance. Island Pond, VT: Stadion.

Siff, M.C. (2000). Supertraining. Denver CO: Supertraining Institute.

Back to Rob's Articles