Improvements in physical capacity follow a predictable path. Early on, it's easy to add pounds to your squat or take seconds off your 400m run but as you continue to improve your abilities, the rate of progress slows down.
Novices can show progress even on programs that aren't very well designed, and in some cases, are not even designed for the actual outcome. For example, performing 100 pushups per day (typically a muscular endurance program) will increase the bench press of a novice strength trainer but won't budge the lift of an advanced athlete.
So as the achievement level of the athlete increases, one of the real indicators of success is maximizing time spent in key performance zones. Key performance zones are ranges of effort that provide a strong stimulus for adaptation within the athlete. I believe that is those athletes who can spend the most time within their key performance zones without overreaching that will see the best gains in their performance***. These zones are characterized by percentages of maximum effort, whether it be in seconds, load lifted, power output, or heart rate. Maximizing time in these zones can manifest itself in many ways in programming, exercise selection, and set/rep/intensity combos but for now I just want to address this idea in and of itself.
- ***keep in mind that the key performance zone does not have to be close to maximum effort all the time and in many cases, may shift considerably depending on the type of adaptation that is desired... so I'm NOT saying train at (or near) 100% capability as much as possible - just that you want to target specific adaptations that are key to your performance as accurately as possible.
Programs are designed with specific outcomes in mind. Whether that outcome is an increase in strength or hypertrophy or aerobic power, there are guidelines put in place to specifically create progress toward the targeted abilities.
For strength training, sets, reps, and zones of loading (usually as %1rm) are common guidelines that when utilized together, promote a certain physiological response. The specifics of the guidelines become more important for advanced athletes than for novice ones. Take for example a 5x5 protocol for the deadlift:
A beginning lifter unsure of their actual 1RM will often use a ramp approach whereby the load is increased each set. They will start with a weight that is quite easy and progress to a fairly challenging load on the last set. This may lead to a range of loading over the 5 sets of 50-75% 1RM.
A large range of weights lifted isn't a bad thing for a beginner - just by practicing the deadlift with submaximal loads improvement will occur, and the range of loads or actual loads themselves aren't really that important. The lighter sets also afford the coach and athlete to identify issues and correct them without the added pressure of a close to 5rm weight.
For a more advanced individual, better gains will typically be seen when the load is much more homogenous across the full 5 sets, and when it is at or above about 75-80%1RM. Our beginner lifter may have hit one set above that threshold, which is something our advanced lifter cannot afford to do if they wish to improve.
The weight can be held steady across all sets or may be ramped, but in the latter case the range of the ramp should be relatively small in order to stay within the key performance zone. If the athlete starts low and only hits one or two sets above 75%1RM, then they are potentially shortchanging the gains that they could be getting. The best approach is to extend the warm-up period so that challenging weights can be handled right from the first work set. In the case of a ramped set the athlete may choose something like the following - 1x5 @ 75%, 77.5%, 77.5%, 80%, 80%, which in the next session can be moved up to 1x5 @ 77.5, 80, 80, 82.5, 82.5 or something similar.
It helps to remind oneself of what the goal is when undertaking a certain training plan - for the above example, the goal is to create maximum strength. For that to be achieved, we must try to maximize time spent within the 75% and above performance zone.
Likewise for sprinting speed. When training pure speed, it is vital that the body be moving within a pretty narrow window in comparison to best performance, with the cutoff occurring when the athlete drops to 10% slower than their best time. Sometimes the window is even smaller. Efforts that fall short of 90% of best performance then are likely not making you faster, and may in fact be making you slower.
This idea applies to all manner of physical training and is something to keep in mind when coaching athletes or training yourself. Training time is limited so you want to ensure that you are getting your best use of it by challenging the body appropriately.
In future blogs, I'll be discussing methods to achieve more time in key performance zones in strength training and conditioning by utilizing different methods of training and knowing when to cut off the session.
Until then, keep fit and have fun.