Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Which System Is Right For You? - John Petruzzi (2015)

A related article by John Petruzzi is here:

I always tell people that programs are like prescription medications given to an individual. Would you go into someone's house and start taking their prescribed heart medication just because you "think" you have the same symptoms and issues? I would hope not! 

The title of this article is simple and to the point. Programs are developed and built around a system. A program is a type of periodization an individual created, either for himself or for someone else specifically. One of the most dominating forces in powerlifting right now is Dan Green, who has an extremely high work capacity. The amount of work and volume that he does is incredible. One of the main reasons he continues to break records and PR's is because he is constantly increasing his work capacity (what I like to call ceiling of strength). This factor allows him to become stronger and more powerful. Do you think you could take his exact workout for one month, apply your own numbers, and be as successful? Could you handle all the volume and work that he is completing each day and week?

In this article we are going to look at a very brief overview of some "programs" and what basic system they are derived from, drawing correlations between them all so that you can see what system might be right for you.

Let's start with a basic definition of periodization. Periodization is the organization of training over a PERIOD of time, in most cases, annually. For most systems, periodization is shifting from higher volume (exercises, sets or reps) low intensity (percentage of weight used based off one rep max), to lower volume and higher intensity as the meet gets closer.  The most popular forms of periodization are Undulating/Block, Linear, and Conjugate.

Linear is exactly that . . . very straight line and progressive in that you use one specific exercise in most cases, starting light and progressively getting heavier leading to an event.

My own simple definition of Conjugate is the rotation of maximal effort lifts but allowing your body to stay at or above 90 percent plus of that given rotational exercise during cycles.

Now that we have a very basic understanding and definitions of these periodization systems we can look at some programs that fall under each system.

Keep in mind that the most basic principle is that all programs are linear in the sense that the goal is to see consistent progress going up over a period of time. Undulating, Linear, and Block are similar to each other with slight organizational changes because the change of volume and intensity is linear, gearing the lifter to peak towards something. For my purposes the difference between them is that Undulating and Block are more similar because there are blocks or phases of rotating volume and intensity increased over each phase (mesocycle). Linear, for our definition, is just a very specific exercise that starts very low and increases the intensity over time. There is no rotation of volume and intensity; it is a gradual progressive overload of the lift.

Let's start with Conjugate.

Cunjugate - Popularized by Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell, this involves rotation of max effort lifts that are similar, but not exactly like, the classic lift. For example, max out on a Safety Bar Squat for two weeks, then switch to a low box Manta Ray squat for two weeks, etc. This avoids staleness and works on weak points, known or unknown. In the Westside methods there are mesocycles and blocks of varying intensities and load when close to a meet. In general, the rotation of max lifts in microcycles are the main rotation along with varying accommodating resistances (using bands and chains). The idea is to stay above 90% on each maximal lift. I have various Westside spinoffs and programs t hat keep a lift er with a specific bar and specific bar weight but add more chain or band tension or both over time. This would be a program change, not a system change. For most it is the basic rotation of max effort lifts every week or two.

Linear - Programs that I would consider to be very linear in fashion would be Coan/Phillipi, most recently the Lilliebridge method, and Bill Starr's 5x5. A lot of the old school programs are linear. Usually the program would be anywhere from 8-12 weeks and start with an 8-10 rep range and taper down to a 2-3 rep range going into the meet. These are most commonly known as a "peaking cycle". I would throw Smolov and Smolov Jr. into this category because I look at these programs as plateau breakers for most and something to peak you towards the end of the 8-12 week program to hit a PR. There are no big breaks or phases.

Block/Undulating - Programs would consist of Paul Carter's Base Building, Josh Bryant programs, Cube method, 5/3/1, Mike Israetel's Trinity Powerlifting, JuggerCube, and there are others. These programs have one basic principle: phases or blocks. The first phase is higher volume focusing on muscle hypertrophy and also work capacity and conditioning. Second phase is a strength phase, something built around the 70-85% range of so with reps of 3-5. The third phase is a peak or taper to tie everything together. This consists of higher intensity but much lower volume to keep the training stimulus high but the recovery easier. I would consider Sheiko to be in this group. While each "program" has a very linear volume/intensity lead-up there are different programs you would do throughout the year leading to a meet.

Now the million dollar question (and what will continuously be debated), is:

What system and programs are best?
What should I choose?

It's not that simple. I have tried each system and done conjugate, linear, and block/undulating. They all worked. Early on in my lifting life I was doing conjugate training and Westside. I went from an 1175 total at 172 to a 1625 at 198. I then started to see greater and longer plateaus and switched to Jim Wendler's 5/3/1, which is a more undulating, rotating volume and intensity program involving mesocycles. I went from 1625 at 198 to an 1800 at 215. Now I am using Paul Carter's Base Building template. I have yet to compete while using this system and program; however, it has raised my work capacity a great deal and I feel much stronger and bigger than I ever have before at the same weight. This July I am looking to total well over 1900 at 198. Right now my numbers are close to that with no preparation or peaking cycles. 

I would suggest a little trial and error, along with research. Hopefully this article has given you a brief understanding of the basic system principles and you can further choose a system you think will work for you.

One thing that does not get touched on much is adaptation and progression of the lifter. What I mean by that is it's human physiology to respond, adapt, and change to stress and stimuli. Again using a medication analogy, in most cases when someone is on the same medication, same dose for a year or long a lot of times that medication stops having the same effect it once did. Our body builds a tolerance to it so either the medication dosage has to increase or the doctor switches the patient to a different medication altogether. You have to look at your lifting career in a similar perspective.

What worked last year may not work this year and you will have to switch things up and adapt. That DOES NOT MEAN what you did or are doing DOES NOT WORK completely. It just means your body is used to it, you have adapted and you have progressed. Congrats! You are now a better athlete and a more conditioned athlete in most cases.

The SECRET that every great lifter will tell you is this: with adjustments to their program and what made the difference for them outside of a technical issue is VOLUME AND INCREASED WORK CAPACITY. I see it in every single program over the course of a year. You have to keep upping the ante when it comes to work capacity. I always tell people their work capacity is their ceiling for strength.

You will only get stronger over time if you are increasing your work capacity and what you can handle, not only a workload but also work volume. How much volume is too much? My simple answer is if you have to ask it's not enough!

I heard that from a coach a long time ago. "Hey, coach, is that enough or do you want me to do more? What do you think the coach is going to say? This is where the amazing world of sport psychology comes into play and why the greatest in the world are the greatest in the world. They are there mentally every single day pushing themselves to the limit, holding themselves to a higher standard than anyone else can think of. The one thing I suggest for anyone and everyone if you're looking at your system and program are these three simple words:


Raise your standard that you hold yourself to, raise the standard of how you train, and raise the standard of how you eat. When you do all those things, success and having great things happen is easy. What I have found it that when I'm raising those standards, my goals get met but also my life in general is happier and the joy of lifting is much greater.  

Some Keys to Keep in Mind With Programming

1) Where am I in my training? How far out is the next meet or competition? If you are six months from a meet, doing an 8-week peaking cycle probably isn't going to do much good. 

2) What is my life like outside of powerlifting? How many days to I have to train and optimally be there? Does a 6-day-a-week high frequency program work or does a 3-4 day-per-week program work best for my schedule? 

3) If you have been competing for a  couple of years, drilling sport specific movement is key! Also, a fast rotation of volume/intensity will work very well. The variety and change is very good for beginning lifters. 

4) If you have been competing for 3-5 years I would say that you will start to notice that changes in volume/intensity are hindering your progress. You will need longer periods within certain rep ranges. Again, WORK CAPACITY IS CRUCIAL! 

5) If you've been competing for 6-7 years or more, you should have a good understanding of all the basic principles and you know what you need to be doing. Most importantly, keep looking at the volume and keep pushing the volume envelope. Work capacity is everything at this point, giving you the potential to become stronger. More linear based programming going into meets will work better. I, for example, am doing a block phase based program to build my volume and work capacity, When I start to get closer to a meet I will start to get more dialed in with the sport specific movements and start a gradual linear buildup towards the meet.

6) Increasing work capacity can be done in a few ways. You can increase the number of exercises, increase the number of sets and reps, or both. What I like to do, and find more challenging, is to decrease the time it takes to complete my sets and reps. If it takes 30 minutes to get through a 5x5 workout, set a timer and work towards finishing it in less time. With shorter rest  breaks and greater fatigue, form can become sloppy and this must be monitored.    

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