Why don't all programmes look alike?
We know how to get stronger. We know how to get leaner. We are fairly sure how you get quicker. If we know all this then how come there isn't one programme for each that works for everyone?
Wanna get strong? Just squat more bro'
Sit down snowflake.
Your mum likely told you as a kid how special and unique you are. How you can do anything you want to if you just be yourself. I'm sure you're mum is lovely, mine is. She's probably told you a few porkers along the way though. While I do follow certain principles of individual differences for athletes - athletes who have unique training schedules and competition seasons - for many people there are simple* systems that can apply across the board.
Yes, everyone has little quirks; different levels of fitness and strength, and varying injury histories. Everyone is also a human, I hope. Humans have a certain physiology and structure that when we apply stress to different systems, the systems adapt or we die**.
We apply an overload of intensity > we get STRONGER
We apply an overload of volume and increase calories > we get BIGGER.
We reduce the calorific consumption relative to the output > we get LEANER.
We increase the metabolic demands of exercise > we get FITTER.
We have to remember that it's our current situation (our individual circumstances), that dictates what that stress is, how we apply it and how quickly it increases. The actual system is set. The minutia within the system are the things that change, the principles ruling the system are set fairly solidly in stone.
Ok fine, you're special...
Once in a while you get someone who is unique. That rare person who can walk into the gym for the first time and destroy a workout or lift a weight that only advanced athletes can usually do. Think Usain Bolt or Anthony Joshua. Do you really think YOU are on that level? Have those genetics? Have that drive?
You are unique, your personality is unique and to some degree your physiology is different to most peoples too BUT not so different and special that the rules of physics and biology don't apply to you.
Training programmes can be simple or complex but always follows scientific rules
So what changes do YOU need to make?
The things that can change for you are; working around injuries, working to your time constraints, figuring out a start point and being realistic about where you are, not where you want to be. The whole point of the programme is to get you there.
Working around broken bits (exercise selection)
You don't often make it to adulthood (or even late teens) without some sort of injury. Serious or not, we do have to programme around a mobility/flexibility/pain problem in order not to break you further. This is where having an expert who understands injury and anatomy comes in handy. Without them, follow these simple* rules:
- discomfort is ok, pain is a sign to stop/change something
- if it doesn't look like it should, it's not doing what it should
- if you can't use the 'right' weight, it's not the right weight
- you aren't trying to break records, set PB's or kill yourself in every work out. Training is for life. Be patient.
"How much time you got?"
Everyone has 24 hours in a day. That's easy to say for the single guy with no kids who works from home. Most people realistically only have 4-5 hours per week to dedicate to being in the gym. Notice I say 'being in the gym' not 'to train'. You can probably get a 30min stretching session in at 9.30pm in front of the TV 3 times a week. That adds up to 78 hours of stretching over a year. Have you got 78 hours to stretch? YES. The answer is YES.
Anytime you spend trying to get better physically is time spent training. Intention is the key, not where you are. The person with 3 hours a week in the gym to get stronger will need a different programme to the guy who can train twice a day, 4 days a week and wants to compete as a powerlifter. However, the things they do may look very similar at first glance.
For example, both guys may squat once per week, perform pull ups once per week and both perform hamstring exercises. Both guys may be following a 5x5 set and rep scheme that gradually becomes 4x4 and 3x3 as the loads increase. Both guys may make great progress as their respective lifestyles are suited to their respective volumes of training.
Of course, the guys are going to make different levels of progress. Outcomes in health and strength and fitness are proportional to effort and time put in. That said, you only adapt to what you can recover from. If the first guy tries to follow the second guys programme, he'll fail, get sick or injured or just lose his wife and job from being at the gym all the time! You can't expect twice a day training gains from training 3 days per week. If it worked like that we would all be jacked. What you can expect is that a programme suited to your situation, that follows the same principles as every other programme aiming for the same outcomes, will get you to where you want to be in time. All in good time...
Same time, different animal:
In the example of fitness things become even more similar. Take Betty, a 65 year old who wants to get fitter to play with her grandchildren. She may cycle once per week, swim once per week and weight train once per week. She's retired so she has time for long country walks. Her weight training involves deadlifts variations, step ups and some upper body pulling.
Now meet 33 year old Sarah. Sarah wants to be fitter and healthier than she is currently so she can get pregnant and be confident throughout the turmoil of body changes. She used to do sprint distance triathlons but hasn't competed in a few years. Sarah has a dog so goes walking daily. She cycles once per week, swims once per week and weight trains twice per week. Her weight training programme involves deadlift variations, step ups and some upper body pushing and pulling. Sound familiar?
A snapshot from a week each:
Betty's cycling is 5 x 3 min efforts at 7/10 RPE with 2min recovery.
Sarah's cycling is 15-20 x 20s max efforts with 40s recovery.
Betty's swim is 30-35mins of swimming laps of her local pool at around 6/10 effort.
Sarah's swim is 8-10 open water intervals of 100m as fast as possible vs 100m low effort.
Betty performs 3x8 block pulls with a trap bar, 3x8 dumbbell front step ups each leg, 3x8 cable rows and some plank variations.
Sarah performs 4x6 conventional deadlifts, 3x6 dumbbell side step ups each leg, 3x8 single arm ring rows superset with 3x8 incline dumbbell press and some back extensions.
Both ladies swim, cycle and weight train. Both deadlift; Betty uses less range and a safer loading pattern for an older spine; Sarah is more experienced and needs more posterior chain strength so uses a straight bar. Both perform some unilateral leg strength work. Both perform some upper body strength work except that Betty used to have frozen shoulder so cannot press pain free due to lingering impingement, therefore she doesn't press. They follow the same scientific principles of overload and progression. Science dictates the intensity they work at to create change and their bodies dictate how that intensity feels and how they recover from it.
Principles create systems.
Individual differences create detail orientated programmes. Those governing principles have been heavily researched, tried and tested. No matter how special you are, getting stronger, leaner, fitter and faster all have established processes behind them. The differences come in making each system applicable and achievable for each individual and thats where good coaching has its value. I hope you can see why two people could be trying to achieve similar goals and are essentially doing the same programme BUT it could look like a totally different programme.
*Remember I said simple I did not say EASY.
**Ok we don't always die but we do get too tired, over-stressed and end up ill or injured.