Programming is tough. There are a lot of things you could do each day: run, ruck, swim, lift weights, water confidence, calisthenics, metcons…..the list goes on. Obviously, you need to do many of those things, because they are what you’ll be screened for in selection. But, how much, how hard, how often, and how to combine them isn’t easy to figure out.
To compound the problem, more isn’t necessarily better. You need to stress your body enough to create fitness, but not so much that you end up injuring yourself or burning out.
In a recent article, we discussed some of the underlying principles of adaptation and managing stress. While those concepts are very helpful, today we are going to talk about the programming model we use when designing training programs. Combined with the concepts covered in this article, you’ll have what you need to create robust training programs.
Before we get to that, we have to talk about some physiology so that you understand the why before the what. This will give you the requisite knowledge to make independent decisions based on your situation without just copying and pasting what you find here or elsewhere.
Two types of adaptation
Structural adaptations are physical adaptations such as mitochondrial density, actin / myosin density, heart adaptations, capillarization, changes in neurons in the brain, etc. These changes take a long time to develop, but also take a long time to degrade and thus are the building blocks of higher levels of fitness.
The great thing about foundational capabilities is that they can be developed simultaneously, which is a more efficient process and leads to a more effective response to training loads over time.
Functional adaptations are the coordination of different structural adaptations to produce a specific physiological capability. Control of the stress response, breathing, and tactical considerations for getting through a specific workout – think pacing, control of attention, and cueing – and coordinating these in a specific manner is an example of a functional adaptation.
If you ever do a workout, repeat it a few days later, and continue to improve, it’s because of these kinds of adaptations. They are the ‘how’ you perform, not the ‘what’ you use to perform.
Basically, if structural adaptations are the car, functional adaptations are the driver.
Many trainees who come to us have hit a wall with their training by spending far too long chasing functional adaptations, and not enough time building structural adaptations. Typically, they are doing ‘beatdown’ type workouts (think circuit training, exercise racing, HIIT, or high-volume calisthenics) far too often, and go way too hard when doing their endurance training. It’s not that these workouts can’t be part of an intelligent plan (they can) or don’t develop structural abilities (they do). The problem is that when done too frequently without an emphasis on other workouts that target underlying structural capabilities, your performance stops improving.
Your training focus should be on building structural adaptations first, because these are the drivers of trainability, or a more effective adaptation response. You’ll always be building some functional qualities concurrently because no system works independently of the other systems (your energy system is active during strength training), but functional adaptations are always dependent on the structural adaptations they exploit.
If you want to raise your ceiling of performance, you have to invest in building foundational adaptations instead of constantly exploiting what you already have. You have to build a higher-performance car instead of driving the hell out of the Honda Civic you’ve already got.
A good example of the power of structural adaptations are high-level Crossfit Games athletes. What makes them so capable of performing the scattergun kind of events that they compete in (e.g. max pullups, followed by a 5K run, followed by max squats), is the fact that they all have high relative strength, a powerful aerobic engine, move well under load and fatigue, and can do a lot of work in a short period of time. This allows them to excel in nearly any physical task put in front of them, assuming they have the necessary skills to execute it.
However, no high level Crossfit athlete built those capabilities via testing-based Crossfit workouts. Competitions are where these abilities are displayed, but not where they are developed. Nearly all of these athletes come from backgrounds of more formalized training (e.g. gymnastics or traditional Olympic lifting) and from there use a model similar to what we described in this chapter for a majority of their training. They treat Crossfit style workouts as sport-specific skill practice.
A Closer Look At Structural Adaptations
So, what are they? The following is a list of structural adaptations (with their biological definitions), and how to develop them.
Strength and Coordination
- What it is: Coordination of CNS and muscular system
- How to develop it: Power and speed training; strength training; specific strength exercises
- What it is: A combination of adaptations in the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and local tissues (capillarization, mitochondrial density, etc).
- How to develop it: aerobic work; cardiovascular intensive work; local muscular work, respiratory training
Psychological (tactical / technical skill)
- What it is: A combination of skilled control of systems throughout the brain
- How to develop it: develop awareness of current abilities, tendencies and traits; build skills concurrently with physical training program using skill building framework
Endocrine (the hormonal system)
- What it is: A combination of ANS, CNS, and digestive systems
- How to develop it: strength training; nutrition protocols; allostatic load management; psychological training
As you can see, each of these primary structural adaptation methods tends to have an effect on the coordination of many systems throughout the body. Nothing happens in isolation, and training methods often have effects across multiple systems in the body.
(Looking at the specific details of each system can be beneficial, but beyond the scope of this book. We are assuming that anyone using the framework outlined in this book is young, healthy, and has a solid physical foundation before utilizing these methods.)
Cost of Adaptation
Developing any adaptation has a cost. The good news about foundational qualities is: they reduce this cost. They trade off each other, and coordinate their efforts. For example, a strong athlete with a large aerobic base who moves well and manages stress, fatigue, and pain effectively can do much more work while accruing less physiological damage. Not only that, but it allows the trainee to utilize the desired systems during each training phase (e.g. they can focus on the adaptations they want).
On the other hand, think of a super-heavyweight powerlifter with a poorly developed aerobic system. He is severely limited in the amount of aerobic work he can do until that system comes up to par with other systems. Not only that, but his systemic volume – even in other training sessions – will be limited because all recovery is aerobic in nature.
If we push his aerobic training volume too high (which would be quite easy), it would severely interfere with his ability to recover even from max effort squat sessions that he would be used to. Also, when the aerobic system is taxed, perceived fatigue, pain, and stress will increase, leading to the brain needing more resources to cope.
These examples are fairly simple, but oftentimes the cost of adaptation compounds dramatically when foundational qualities and coordination of them is not trained sufficiently before training intensity is increased.
This is why our programming starts with a focus on building foundational qualities and the coordination between them – it reduces the cost of adaptation and raises the ceiling of future performance.
Balancing Competing Demands
There is a reason why competitive powerlifters are not also great endurance athletes. As you reach the higher end of human potential, you have to become more and more specialized. Often, all other physiological qualities will fall to the minimum necessary to maximize other abilities. If you looked at the physiological profile of a world class powerlifter, it will look very different than that of a SOF operator.
Some traits are mutually beneficial to a certain degree. For example, an extremely powerful person (think long jumper, javelin thrower, weightlifter) also tends to have very high maximal strength relative to a normal individual, a high-level endurance athlete, or even an average special operator. Many people with diverse athletic backgrounds can pick up new sports quite quickly because of the carryover of previously-developed adaptations.
Concurrent Emphasis Method
Now that we have the physiology lesson out of the way, let’s discuss training methodology.
When writing training programs we always use a concurrent emphasis training model. Concurrent means “done at the same time.” When using this model, all physiological qualities are targeted simultaneously, with an emphasis on one or two specific qualities for three to six weeks. As the famous track coach Charlie Francis described it: “Everything is done, only the volume varies.”
During each 3-6 week block, a much greater load (volume) is assigned to one or two physiological capacities to emphasize their development. Other capacities are not neglected, but only a maintenance load is used. Further on in this article you’ll find links to articles discussing methods for all the major components of your training program.
Overall, around 50-75% of your training volume should be spent training the emphasized capacities, while the remaining time should be spent on maintenance of everything else.
Before programming a new training block, you’ll need to reassess what your current limiting factor(s) are and potentially adjust the emphasis. Your target physiological capacity may change from block to block. Or, if a particular physiological capacity hasn’t been well developed, or has been neglected for a while, you may focus multiple blocks on that one capacity.
For example, if you haven’t been running or rucking and need to develop aerobic capacity in both, it will take multiple blocks (at least) to bring these up to par. You shouldn’t neglect every other capacity (strength, movement, work capacity) during these phases, but do the minimum work in each area as you focus on your aerobic capacity development.
Below is an example of the emphasis over a series of training blocks for a fairly well-balanced (e.g. no glaring limiting factors) individual:
|Block 1||Aerobic capacity|
|Block 2||Extensive strength|
|Block 3||Max strength, aerobic power|
|Block 4||Deload / Test|
This is not a recipe. Do not blindly copy and paste this series of training blocks or you could easily miss the target of your individual needs and compromise your chances of success in selection. Use what you learned from assessing your lifestyle and physical standards to identify limiting factors.
Seeing the Big Picture: Principles to keep in mind
The following principles should be considered and implemented as you go through the process of developing your training program.
1 – Movement capacity and fidelity should be addressed first
As we discussed in our book and on our site, movement capacity and fidelity have to be developed before you layer on volume or intensity. If you skip this stage, you won’t have the requisite competency to handle the large variety of tasks and not break down with the volume you’ll face during selection.
Once movement capacity and fidelity are good enough, keep enough movement work in your program to maintain those qualities as you shift your emphasis to other capacities such as aerobic capacity and strength capacity. Examples of how to do this are outlined in Chapter 15.
2 – Build capacity first; add intensity over time
Extensive, or capacity-focused methods should be used before using intensive or power-focused methods. If you focus on intensity before building a foundation of volume, you won’t have the requisite structural adaptations to improve your outputs week after week, month after month. Remember: Develop it before you display it.
3 – The closer to selection you are; the more you’ll focus on functional adaptations
The closer you are to selection the more specificity you’ll add to your training programs. This will come in the form of open-ended workouts, intensive strength, and work capacity methods, and power-oriented energy system training.
Below are guidelines to help you decide when you can transition your focus to functional adaptations:
- Energy System: You should be able to handle the longest swim/ruck/run distances easily, and at the required pace (covered here).
- Strength: You need to be close to the standards in every movement category (covered here). Everyone has strengths and weaknesses – our preference is to focus on weaknesses because a limiting factor is usually more important than being better than necessary at barbelling. You don’t need to be amazing at anything, but you can’t have huge weaknesses or they will be exploited.
- Work Capacity: You should easily be able to pass your PT test when tired or if done back to back. Additionally, you should be able to do 200+ pushups, 100 situps, and 20-30 minutes of weighted carries without any residual soreness or fatigue (covered here).
- Mental skills: You should be comfortable with ambiguity and managing yourself through the ups and downs of the training process. You should possess a deep understanding of what situations make you uncomfortable, how you respond, and how to effectively navigate them. This is covered in-depth in these articles.
You should now have a robust understanding of the underlying principles that govern effective programming.
You’ll still run into problems – doing too much or too little of something. That’s part of the process. There is no magical program – any coach who tells you otherwise is lying to you. The best coaches have principles that they follow and adjust based on the person in front of them and how they respond. You’ll have to do the same.
If you give yourself enough time to prepare, build the right mental skills and attitudes, you’ll overcome challenges as they occur and come out the other side prepared as you can be for your selection course.