11 ESSENTIAL RULES TO ATHLETIC PROGRAM DESIGN:

I would like to begin this piece by first noting what the actual definition of a good athlete is, since I think it has been drastically cheapened and misunderstood, and so you will have a clearer understanding of the term.  Traditionally a good athlete can be defined as someone who is just in great shape.  This notion is simply wrong.  A good athlete is someone who possesses a specific skill set, or the ability to perform a series of skills at a high level to boost sports performance.  Just because you are in great shape or your sport requires you to be in great condition does not mean you are a good athlete.  Conditioning is part of athleticism as you will soon see, but it is just one piece of the puzzle and there are many others to make the puzzle complete.  The more of each of these skills that a specific individual possesses or that a sport requires, the more athletic both are.  It’s that simple.  Below I will provide you with a list of these specific skills that help compose athleticism and then outline how to design a program for any type of athlete who wants to become more athletic, so that they have a far greater chance of excelling in their sport.  When I think of athleticism it helps me to envision a brainstorming diagram that we used in grade school, with the word Athleticism in the middle as the central part.  And then branching off of the diagram you have all of the specific skills that help form athleticism, such as speed, power, strength, etc.  Here is an example of what I mean below:

Athletic Skills:
Power
Strength
Speed
Agility and Quickness
Conditioning
Flexibility and Mobility
Balance and Control
Reaction Time
Recovery Capacity
Psychological Factors

Now that you have a basic understanding of what athleticism means and how it’s really formed, it’s now time to get down to brass tacks and address the article’s title.  I will show you how to construct an absolutely fail proof program that will enhance any athlete’s performance in training, on the field, and on the court to their highest degree possible.  There are 11 rules you need to know and apply with your programming to make this happen.

Rule #1-Train Movements not Muscles– The truth is that athletes need to move in all directions using multiple muscle groups simultaneously with larger movements.  Sure we do some isolation type exercises and use machines, but a vast majority of the program consists on developing total movements so that the individual performs better in their respective sport.  The larger movements are specific and prepares the athlete for what they will encounter in competition.

Rule #2-Perform Lower, Upper and Fully Body Workouts-So you now already know the classic body part split is out as a primary training split from Rule #1.  Quick reasons why these are less effective for athletes is because body part splits are not specific to sport, they do not develop the neuromuscular system as well as classic compound movements (e.i. squats, deads, bench, chins, military, rows, etc.) and they are far less efficient.   This will have impact on hormones and the rest of our physiology that regulates size, strength, etc.  There are over 600 muscles in the human body.  Selecting one exercise to target one area would take a while to feature the entire kinetic chain or body.  Full Body workouts on the other hand, are great if you are coming off of a layoff or injury, or you are a raw beginner. They work!  The eventual and inevitable downfall though is that there is not enough time allowed to recover from these full body workouts if performed correctly.  According to the Westside Book of Methods, which features the strongest men in the world, their research and real world experience indicates that larger muscle groups take 72 hours for general recovery and smaller ones require 24 hours before they are fully restored.  If you have tried fully body splits before then you know. Couple compromised recovery with the rest of the athletic training we do and you’ll see why overtraining and its related symptoms are guaranteed sooner rather than later.  I think alternating upper and lower body splits are a little better for this reason.  We can recover better.  Unfortunately, their downfall is that they do not provide the neuromuscular system and all of its working components adequate stimulation and our skill set declines.  So by natural default, a  lower, upper, then full body sequence is the best thing for an ATHLETE.   More specifically, a team sport athlete who requires more athleticism.  Moreover, 3 days is the coincidental frequency to get in all the work we need without compromising results.  It reflects the High Low Model made famous by the track and field culture, and now resurrected by conditioning expert and author Joel Jamieson: http://www.8weeksout.com/.
3 days of training per week provides an optimal recovery to training ratio (3 on-4 off), and in the real world of training it’s what athletes can tolerate according to my data collection over the past several years.   Moreover, Athletes need 2-3 days to allow their Central Nervous System sufficient time to recover.   Athletes train 6 days per week with a complete day of restoration, so they are still doing something on their off days, not just killing themselves in the gym.  Recovery is where our body actually develops so it’s a vital component to any training system.

Rule #3-Rest 1-2 days between workouts –  I just covered this, see rules 1-2.

Rule #4-Rest 3 days between Upper and Lower Body Workouts– You will notice that the full body workout at the end of the week does not allow the upper body region the appropriate period of recovery to be ready in 2 days, according to what I just shared with you.  To offset this lack of recovery time we “buffer” the intensity and volume in the full body workout to still enable a solid training effect.  There are other reasons for this buffering as well.  Notorious Bodybuilding Coach/Author Stuart Mcrobert discusses this in his book “Brawn” which I would recommend to anyone in the iron game.  The fact is that our legs tend to adapt and respond better to higher repetitions and volume versus our core and upper body.  I suppose the mechanism here is because our legs are our foundation and with the number of foot contacts completed by athletes daily, we would require a greater workload for them to have reason to adapt and develop more.  Nevertheless, this concept of higher reps and total training volume fits perfectly into an athletic system and it still allows the athlete to compete a high level on reduced rest from the previous workout.  This way we train through the entire load and rep spectrum and leave no stone uncovered.

Rule #5-Rest 7-10 days between Max Effort Upper or Lower Body Lifts -Westside Barbell notes in their book “The Book of Methods” that “Defensive Inhibition” of our body’s Central Nervous System occurs if we train a movement or muscle group more than 2x per week, or for 3 weeks straight.  This means that our body will shut itself down till it’s ready to resume training at the same level of effort again.  Another reason for this rule is due to the spinal erectors and their poor recovery rates compared to other muscle groups.  The erectors require 7-10 days to fully heal and there are several of them that encompass the entire back.  That’s a lot of ground for our cardiovascular system to cover and repair and it takes some time.  This is also one of the primary reasons why I truly believe people injure their backs while squatting and dead lifting: athletes get too motivated, they are ignorant, and they do too much for what our physiology dictates.

Rule #6-Rest 4 days between Lower Body Workout and Long Acceleration Work–  Defensive inhibition also occurs if we train a part of the the body extremely hard more than 2x per week.  One day of each of both lower body strength training and longer acceleration work, with both of them spaced out at separate ends of the week works fantastic, and is ideal for an athlete and their performance.

Rule #7-Rest 1-2 days between Short Acceleration Work days (spd-agility-spd)-The distances are short although the effort is high and as you can see in the brackets above, we rotate the type of short acceleration work we perform so that we do not create as much pattern overload with each subsequent session.  For years now this format has worked phenomenally well for both results and for injury prevention.

Rule #8- Rest 3-4 days between Short and Long Acceleration Work -Exception is Agility and the 40 yard dash.  We train spd-20 yard dash, agility, and then spd-40 yard dash each week.  The same reasons mentioned in rule #7 would apply here.  Different directional training focus and not as much repetitive stress, thus less recovery required.

Rule #9-Rest 7 days between Long and Long Acceleration Work– I must credit Joe DeFranco for his observation and discovery that the CNS requires 7-10 days before the body shuts down with high effort speed work.  For the geeks like me out there: the muscle spindles that contract our muscles will reduce activity, our fast twitch muscle fibers fatigue easy by nature, High Threshold Motor Units will be restricted, the movement centers of our brain (brain stem, etc.) will not be fully fresh,, and the neuromuscular junctions or gaps between the nerve’s end and the muscles surface where a signal is sent for contraction also becomes impaired to an extent.  All of these issues and more will create less speed in the athlete.  It’s imperative that athletes only test speed once per week at medium to long sprint distances (40-100 yards) if they want a superior result.  This frequency issue is one of the biggest ones in speed culture today.  I think it really is one of those things that you have to go through to appreciate, like with so many things in life.  My research would support Joe’s, and I was unable to find a study for this yet.

Rule #10-Rest 3-4 days between Long and Short Acceleration Work– This is just simple math.  We know we need 7 days before we can train long after training long, so if we rest half that time we could perform half the work.

Rule #11-Condition 2x per week at a high intensity and 1 x per week and a low intensity  -Paraphrasing world renown strength and conditioning coach Michael Boyle: It is significantly easier to make an explosive athlete better conditioned, than it is to make a well conditioned athlete explosive.  Truer words have never been spoken, and this guy has conditioned more athletes than you or I ever will.  The current model in athletic training is completely antagonistic to this concept of conditioning, unfortunately.  Just remember that conditioning is the one skill you lose the fastest, but also regain the fastest!  The specific adaptations or mutations that occur in our muscles energy systems and the cardiovascular system occur much quicker than changes that are made in other systems of the human body that promote power, speed, etc.  Surprisingly,  my advanced and professional athletes will not do ANY specific conditioning work until their sports pre-season.  None.  Please read that.  Many would wonder how we improve, but it’s for the reasons above and there are plenty of stimuli in the rest of the training we complete to improve conditioning without training it directly.  Especially if the athlete is very fast and strong.  There is a metabolic cost of energy to performing at a high level.  The suggested frequencies are more than enough, and will even help your athletes score better on the conditioning tests their coaches and institutions conduct when they arrive back to campus.
Well I hope this article was insightful into properly structuring an athlete’s program for success.  And if you were not sure, you also now know the formal definition of a good athlete. We have more than cheapened the term and applied it to literally anyone who competes in sport.  Follow this general layout I’ve provided and you will pleased at the progress your athletes make.

Scientific References:
#1-Simmons, Louie. The Westiside Book of Methods. Finland: 2007. Action Printing
#2-Hatfield, Fred.  Fitness: The Complete Guide.
#3-Boyle, Mike. Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities.
#4-Bompa, Tudor. Periodization Training For Sports.  2005. Human Kinetics

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