Flexible Programming


Written by: Kevin Cann


I have made a drastic change to the way I write my programs.  Ever since I started coaching this sport, I have tracked a lot of data. I tracked tonnage, number of lifts, average intensity, percent of lifts performed as competition, and ACWR (acute chronic work ratio).


Over the last several months I have kind of thrown out this data and focused on coaching.  I still used these Excel spreadsheets to write and deliver the program, but in the gym, I made calls on a day to day basis.


When I made these calls, I was not looking at the sheets and had no idea how these calls would affect any of this stuff.  I expected results to be better, but how much better they were was amazing to me.


This led me to making drastic changes with the way the program is delivered.  If you go back and read my articles and listen to my “flows of consciousness” on the podcast, you could see this coming.


I have discussed how 1RM was a constantly changing number on a day to day basis, how tonnage and volumes are poorly understood, how we monitor fatigue is inaccurate, how we are dynamic systems to learn motor control, and mechanical stress is just a small piece of everything.


I have discussed self-organizing technique.  I use a constraints-led approach where I alter the task to help guide the lifter to self-organize into more efficient technique.  We do this while monitoring estimated 1RM to be sure our changes aren’t leading us down a wrong path.


This has worked very well for my lifters.  It is not like humans are only dynamic systems when we talk about motor control. The human is a dynamic system in its entirety.  We need a dynamic program to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of that person in front of us.


Learning a lot about chaos theory has helped me understand the complexity of this math.  No matter how much data I collect and use for my decision making, I will always miss the mark at some point.  The Excel spreadsheet will not be more accurate at decision making then I will be.


The reason for this is even if we collect data about mood and perceived effort, the data is not sensitive enough for it to work in an A.I. type program.  The coach with his or her knowledge base and experience is much more able to make the best decisions for the lifter.


I currently am writing the programs with exercise, sets, reps, and my suggested top weights.  None of these are set in stone.  I want to find a way to make the sets and reps more flexible, but there has to be rules.


The lifters have all of the power from here.  The suggested top weights are based off of previous performances.  If the weights feel heavy, they will adjust.  If the top sets are not heavy enough, they will adjust.


They are to do 1-2 hard sets each day as long as everything feels good.  These hard sets are done between RPE 8.5-9.5.  If they can complete all sets there and feel they should, they will. If they want to take less sets or more sets, they can.


This may sound like I am not doing much anymore in terms of coaching and “programming.”  I had a good talk with Dave about this and he made a very mature observation.  He said that the program is probably the least important part of getting stronger. It is about trust in the process and working your ass off.


I don’t disagree with Dave’s statement at all.  The program is probably the least important piece of getting stronger because it is rigid and not changing with the athlete.  Some of the other lifters were concerned that there wasn’t much structure to the program anymore.


They were used to coming in and just doing what was on the sheet until I told them to do something different.  There is still structure to the programs.  In fact, the structure is more complex.


Rules still govern the structure.  There are hard sets where intensity is high, multiple sets for volume, variations to help guide technical efficiency, and most programs are 4 days per week.  These rules are just not set in stone anymore.


We know that none of those above variables are the same for everyone.  At times we pretend we know they are.  Things like “High frequency is superior”, “That program is too low volume to work”, “You can’t lift heavy on a daily basis”, “Technique does or doesn’t matter.”  I could go on forever.


This takes us back to Dave’s statement about the program not being the most important thing.  All of these different programs work for different people.  In fact, many lifters jump from program to program and see success for a time period on each one.


Many will yell about the research out there.  Here is the thing about the research.  The study subjects are recruited, and they perform a new program for a short period of time.  Is it the periodized program leading to those results or the novelty of a new program?


The perception of the lifter is what matters most.  Lifters seek out coaches and programs because they believe that they will work.  This is what I believe drives that progress with a newer program.


This newer program meets the lifter where they are at, at that given time.  Over time the lifter changes and adapts.  The program stops working and they look for something different.


My goal is to create a program that identifies these changing needs and the program is flexible enough to change based off of them.  The lifters will self-organize into volumes, intensities, and frequencies that are best for them at a given moment in time.


This will require a lot of communication between myself and the lifters.  We are still going to track data, but it is going to be much simpler. They will use a mood score entering the gym, RPEs for lifts, and a session score at the end.


This mixed with communication will get processed by my intuition to make the best decisions to help guide each lifter to what works best for them at that given time.  The more I learn and the more experience I get, the better this decision making will become.


I am done looking for answers in an Excel spreadsheet.  I am going to train my coaching abilities.  The mind is a hypothesis testing machine.  I am actually getting rid of the spreadsheets all together.


Large amounts of data like that can create a confirmation bias that I do not want to alter my decisions. Also, the colors like green, yellow, and red will create a change in my decisions whether it is conscious or subconscious.


We will measure performance to make sure our decisions are leading us in the right direction.  I think the flexibility is important in the programming because this sport is way more psychological than people think.


The math suggests that strength gains are infinite.  I don’t think the math is wrong.  I think a lifter’s perceptions will limit the weight on the bar at some point.  Elite athletes usually have this irrational confidence in themselves.  It definitely distinguishes them from others.


There are acute fatigue factors that build up in a training session.  However, how long does it take for the person to recover from them?  It certainly doesn’t take that long.  Your CNS is not fried like you think.


If we take a hard triple on the squat, it probably takes 9 seconds.  This is 2 plays in the NFL.  Context is everything here.  We recover much quicker from this than many think.  From a physical standpoint.  Perhaps our perceptions are what holds us back in this situation?


Any lingering drops in performance, in my theory, comes from something psychological.  The pain that we experience from training is the same thing. It is not due to tissue damage. It is more psychological in nature.


This doesn’t mean it is in your head.  The pain is where you are feeling it.  Sometimes we train through it and sometimes it is better not to piss it off.  We alter positions for a few days and go from there.  It matters, but it isn’t structural.


This explains the high rates of individuality seen with this.  I also feel this can be trained to improve.  However, having a flexible program that meets the needs of the lifter addresses these individual differences.  It also addresses the changing individual.


If these internal factors are more important on a macroscopic scale how do we measure them? As of right now I believe the answer is we can’t measure them in a sensitive enough way to get the information we desire.  We need to trust our education and experience to make these decisions.


I believe there is a lot of strength to be had out of self-efficacy.  I will expand on these topics at a later time as this article is getting longer and longer.  I am open to questions and discussions on this stuff as well.  Keep that in mind.

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