Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How Can You Tell if a Training Program is Good? - William A. Sands

How Can You Tell if a Training Program is Good?
by William A. Sands (1996)

What standards should you use in choosing a weight-training program? There are numerous programs out there with endless variations of each, and when you read about them in the magazines or hear other trainers discuss their experiences, it’s tough to evaluate the information. To help you determine which programs are worth trying, I’d like to suggest certain criteria, or standards, a training method should meet.

Criterion One:
Has the program undergone experimental testing? This may refer to controlled laboratory or field studies or simply the presentation of data in the form of results about the effects of the program. It’s not enough to say that something was “scientifically tested”. Unfortunately, this phrase has been abused and become a garbage-can term that is merely descriptive and without much substance.

Most people are unable to interpret the results of experimental studies as they’re written in scientific journals because of the jargon and turf-related abbreviations. That’s too bad because in my experience when scientists take the time to carefully translate the jargon, anyone can understand the punchline. Most experiments are designed to answer a very simple question; for example, if you do that, will you get better results than someone who does something else or someone who does nothing? Any intelligent person can understand that.

Experiments are the only objective method I’m aware of for comparing programs. The rigors of the scientific method and careful attention to context can give us an excellent idea of a program’s effectiveness. I read with interest the extreme hostility that certain authors and so-called experts vent toward anyone who may not see their special system as gospel. A more productive use for that hostility would be to redirect it toward supporting unbiased laboratory and field studies comparing various programs. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time and potential. Without controlled studies there is nothing to argue about.

Criterion Two:
Does the program indicate context? Specifically, does the author tell you how to apply it with regard to the following variables –

(a) Age. Does the author specify the target audience? Is the program for adults, masters, adolescents, preadolescents or someone else? Although authors may assume that only adults will use the program, how many times have you seen teens trying out the champions’ programs?

(b) Training Level. The same goes for training experience. Is the program for experienced trainers, intermediates or novices?

(c) Contraindications. These are often exercise specific. Are there exercises that could be harmful to someone with a fragile back or knee? Are there exercises that might replace those that could aggravate a previous injury? Are there strength levels necessary before one should undertake the program?

(d) Effective Duration. No program continues to be effective for all people under all circumstances indefinitely. Does the author indicate how long you can use this one before you need to modify your training or change it altogether? Understand that this doesn’t represent a weakness in the program, just a completeness. If the authors don’t know how long their programs will continue to be effective, they should alert readers to be on the lookout. It’s not enough to say that different people will get different results.

Criterion Three:
Periodization. Periodization is a much discussed but poorly understood concept. When you’re reading about training or conditioning programs, beware of buzzwords like “periodization,” “Eastern European,” “Russian,” “plyometrics,” “intervals,” “circuit training,” “negatives,” “pyramiding” and “stacking.” Specifically, a periodized program should provide the following information:

(a) Goals. The goals, or stages, of the program should be clearly indicated. Not everyone has the same goals to the same degree, and different periodization approaches will result in different effects. Although you could probably state that you want to get stronger or bigger or whatever, these are hardly specific enough to lead you to an effective training program. Unless you set intermediated goals – that is, unless you list exactly what you want from a program – you may slip into the “let’s just work out and see” approach that leads to few if any gains. In evaluating a training program, then, the questions become: Are the intermediate goals stated, and are they measurable?

(b) Monitoring. a program should have a provision for periodically taking specific measurements to determine if it is working. A properly periodized program has one or more monitoring variables that can indicate progress. It’s a shame to spend many weeks or months on a training system and get little or no benefit from it, particularly when some early measurements would have helped you see that your training was going nowhere. Handy signposts include one-rep maximums, girth measurements and body composition testing.

All training should occur within the prime window of adaptability, the point where the training loads are optimal to meet your goals. It’s a Goldilocks problem. You don’t want to train too much, and you don’t want to train too little. The muscle magazines, books and websites often devote considerable space to the need for athletes to avoid “overtraining,” to the point that we’ve lost sight of what the term means. Even so, you must monitor your training to avoid both overtraining and undertraining or detect them early enough to prevent serious problems.

(c) Model. A properly periodized program is based on a theoretical model that has been tested and shown to be effective. There are currently several established training models of volume, intensity, density, frequency, duration, progression and transition, among other factors. Some are more appropriate for elite performers, while others are more suitable for intermediates or beginners. Some periodized programs include a combination of components from different models. The periodized program you choose should be based on a model that was used successfully for athletes who had needs similar to your own.

(d) Training Load. Does the program give specific instructions on how to change the training load as you progress? A guideline to increase the weight when you can do 10 reps is too general. You want to know how to modify the generic program to meet your specific situation. Experience with the generic program will give you and/or your coach the ability to predict with greater consistency what changes will give the best results.

(e) Recovery. Are rest periods planned and implemented? This is perhaps the single most important part of a periodized program, yet it’s often just given lip service by programs that claim to be periodized but lack important features. Rest periods should be planned on a daily, weekly and monthly basis across several phases in a training year. The change in athletes’ attitudes about how hard they must work when they know they’re going to have scheduled rest periods simply amazes me. Intensity of both attitude and training load appear to be enhanced dramatically when trainees know they don’t have to maintain them forever.

Criterion Four.
The author should have a legitimate background and reputation, and this is not limited to the theoretical study of training alone. But you should consider it in light of what the author said, not necessarily who agrees or disagrees with him or her. Someone once said that the effectiveness of a coach may not be related to what the coach knows but rather by which athletes the coach can attract, and that goes for a training program as well. Be aware, however, that talented or genetically superior athletes can make poor programs look great because those people would probably succeed under almost any program.

Try to evaluate the author’s ideas on their own merits, without regard for reputation, testimonials or anecdotes. Experience is an important teacher, but it can be wrong. Many of the arguments about training I’ve read are based on personal preference or what I would call logical constructions, rather than experimentally derived facts. Logical constructions are an important first step, but they are not fact. Fortunately, exercise scientists can use experimental approaches to confirm or negate these constructions. It’s too bad that more of these so-called experts don’t attempt to test their constructions.

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